Are religion and morality the same thing, or are religion and morality separate and distinct ideas that can survive alone?

Can we have morality without religion?

Is it possible to find meaning in religion without morality?

What happens when morality is cleaved from religion?

Is it possible to be immoral, yet religious? Can we be moral but atheistic?

Does morality vary from city to city and nation to nation or are there common moral strains natural to the human experience?

Does morality ever compromise?

Which has more significance in the minds of the everyday human across the world: Religion or Morality — and can one survive in the world without either morality or religion?

34 Comments

  1. People can be moral, but not be religious. Religious people can be immoral. In the Bible’s accounts of Jesus, the most religious people were the ones who “didn’t get it.”
    Morality is a human trait and maybe an instinct because it is so universal.
    If we look at human history and law, we see that there are common elements — don’t kill, steal, cheat — that exist in every society despite differences in cultures, histories, and backgrounds.
    But morality can also vary somewhat from place to place. My aunt and uncle live near the border of a dry county in Kentucky that prohibits alcohol sales. Right by the border, there are many “Last Chance” liquor stores with drive-thru windows which would be unthinkable in other places.
    That notion of location-based morality is reflected in the notion of community standards in U.S. law that look at local communities in making determinations about certain speech.
    Also, look at Amsterdam and other places in Europe where social morality is less restrictive toward certain social activities. Some would argue that the same view point is sometimes found in certain places in America’s urban core where people are more likely to overlook certain things that wouldn’t go unpunished in more rural parts of the country.
    In contrast to the West’s social freedoms, some places in the Middle East have morality police charged with keeping people filled with virtue and morals.

  2. Thanks for the fascinating view of morality and religion from a legalistic view, Chris. It does confirm that we create communities based on shared expectations of behavioral sets: If you don’t like our liquor laws, move!
    That sort of morality of values does kind of suggest a “Love it Or Leave It” mentality that threatens to quiet protest and place curbs on appropriate dissention.
    Your association of morality with virtue is also interesting. Aren’t they the same thing? Or is virtue the next step above common morality?

  3. Hi David,
    Morality is the “code of conduct” and virtue is morality put into action.
    It is interesting that there is a “Love It Or Leave It” mentality. But, it’s interesting that our country was founded by people leaving their old countries because they weren’t able to live the way that they wished to live.

  4. Hi Chris!
    If virtue is morality in action — doesn’t that suggest morality isn’t a living thing, that it is static and unmoving unless explored? I thought the idea of morality is that is was always active, always guarding us against our lesser interests and blanketing our lives in red admonitions?
    I certainly agree there is a historical disconnect between the now and the then when it comes to how to love your home country. Too often silence is preferred over dissent and that makes for a royal handedness in dealing with the citizen cavalry that built this nation up from nothing but an idea.

  5. Hi David,
    I think the default morality — don’t steal, lie, cheat, kill — that guides people is something that is always inside humans, but like learning and other pursuits beyond mere existence, the finer points of morality must be stimulated and taught so that nuances may be shared within the society. That’s why morality can vary from place to place as people learn and mold their moral compass to conform with that of their particular society.

  6. Thanks!
    I just read something about the loss-prevention industry that makes me think that morality is very elastic. Of course, hearing people who sell security telling you that 10% of customers always steal and the other 80% are just waiting for the time nobody is watching just might be trying to drum up new business. If that was the case, stores would go out of business as customers cleared out the shelves without paying.
    The problem with an unchanging, solid morality is that sometimes the things that seemed immoral in the past aren’t necessarily so today. That isn’t to say that there are some notions of morality that remain constant and unchanging throughout the ages.

  7. Chris –
    I think that’s sort of the problem — morality stretches based on circumstance and not conviction — and that’s where we get into generational trouble where the virtue of the previous generation always outshines the morality of the upcoming generation.
    We are then led down an ever-declining standard of what is and is not acceptable behavior in a culture.
    The most glaring evidence of that moral decay can be found on the radio and on television as music takes us farther and farther away from a base moral core.

  8. I think religion and morality are separate. Morality without religion: yes. Immoral, yet religious: it happens, particularly when people stray from religious principles or pick and choose what they’ll adhere to. Moral, but atheistic: of course. Perhaps the atheist will be more rational in decisions of morality. I think morality varies from place to place, but certain tenets are fundamental for most people. I think religion has more significance than morality for most people, but I’m not sure that’s best.

  9. I was thinking about that this morning. Music that made the older generation cringe during the 1960s seems ultra-tame compared to the “uncut” musical selections that are available today.
    But, I was also thinking about the old quote about the younger generation and their lack of moral values that is attributed to the ancients. It seems the same thing is said generation after generation.
    I suspect morality swings to its proper place like a pendulum. Sometimes it goes too far one way, then corrects the other before it rests at its proper location.
    There are always reasons and benefits to decrying the lack of moral values shown by this or that group, so it is always good to be careful about dire predictions of society’s imminent demise. In some ways, our morality now is a lot better than it was during earlier periods in history.

  10. Chris!
    Right! Elvis was hated by the older generation and celebrated by the kids. The older generated hated the Beatles and their Mop Tops while the kids were, and still are, insatiable.
    I also wonder if we’re any better for those challenges to the normalcy of community morality.
    Are we more moral for swinging hips, bulging pants, overflowing bras and gangsta Rap celebrating killing and hos — or are we lessened overall in moral degrees and made more insensitive via overexposure to hatred and discrimination and an open and crude new “sexuality” pretending to be sensuality?

  11. I sure hope we start meandering back up the hill of morality when it comes to common circumstance.
    Where else do we have to go in music videos now? Real time sex? Real snuffing? Live bloodletting?
    Soon there will be no distinction without a difference when it comes to popular music and pornography and prison time.

  12. fred —
    The yearly report on Vatican City crime is an effort to get co-nation policing of the small city-state. Here’s what the article you reference states:

    Picardi did say that most criminal cases were matters of pickpocketing or purse-snatching. The rest amounted to other petty crimes like fraud and forgery — committed not by kleptomaniacal nuns but by a handful of black sheep among the 18 million pilgrims and tourists who visit St. Peter’s Cathedral, St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican Museums every year. About 90 percent of these crimes go unpunished, which is not a measure of Christian mercy but a sign of the perpetrators’ favorite method of escape. They can break for the border — a few meters away — to Italy.

    The last serious crime was a murder in 1998.

    The last time a serious crime was committed in the Vatican was in 1998 when a disgruntled Swiss Guard shot dead his commander and his commander’s wife before killing himself.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/2639777.stm
    Cannibalism isn’t a part of any modern society so it doesn’t really reveal anything about morality or religion in response to today’s post.

  13. Do you feel there is an established religious condemnation of atheistic, but moral, people because they do not accept religion as the compass for the morality?
    Yes. Atheists get a bum rap. It’s as if the lack of belief in a supreme being is equated with lack of morality. Why is it so hard for religious people to accept that a person can behave morally for the sake of it, without the carrot of an ultimate reward or the threat of damnation?

    1. I appreciate your comment. I just wrote a piece on my blog about morality and religion (http://absolutepalaver.wordpress.com/). I am an atheist (raised that way), and I am very tired of people equating religion with morality. My own observation about morality is that usually the more religious a person the more immoral they are. The more morally weak a person, the more they cling to belief in a god. Unfortunately, they often use that belief to condemn others while behaving in a depraved way themselves. If religion equated morality then all religious people would be good, and we wouldn’t have priests engaging in sexual abuse and islamics acting as human bombs.

  14. My over simplified understanding says, the inception of religion was to hold the ‘moral traits’ of a society together, with the lure of reward or punishment. It is believed that if there is a set of rewards or punishments in front of people in the name/form of religion – the mass will generally follow rules, they will stay sober.
    In my language, ‘Dharma’ is the word for ‘religion’ which means ‘to hold together’.
    Morality as I understand is similar to human ethics/conscience without any catch of reward or punishment.
    I had a moral upbringing, where I learnt – “don’t cheat/steal/cause any harm…etc. because that is not good.”
    Whereas, my friends learnt “don’t cheat/steal/ etc…or else god will punish you”.
    I know some people who were deeply religious at least apparently, cheated on their wives and vice versa.
    Whether a person will compromise his morality or not that is solely upon him.

  15. Hi Katha!
    You make many terrific points to provide an international and historic view on religion and its reason for being.
    Morality has been around forever. Religion, to me anyway, seems to be a more modern invention to explain away human fears and to try to comfort troubled minds.
    If the main reason for religion isn’t to comfort, then I wonder why else it exists?

  16. David, I think the concept of ‘organized religion’ has more modern touch in it.
    If we go back to the prehistoric age, we would see people started worshipping Nature (the Sun, the Moon, lightning, thunder etc.). Primarily it stemmed from fear which gave birth to the concept of a super power – which gradually transformed in to a savior or a punisher.
    Any organized religion provides a sense of belonging which is very comforting to many people because they find it easy to identify with. Religion comforts/tempts, but with a streak of punishment which is not obvious, apparently.

  17. Hi Katha —
    I think the idea of religion is quite wonderful to those who find comfort in the idea of community and belonging but when religion turns to punishment and politics, I find it less enticing than a neutral morality determined by the greater undiscovered universe.

  18. You are right, the concept of ‘religion’ has hidden power in it – a little misuse of the concept can turn into a frenzy.
    In fact, it is easy – anytime, in any corner in the world you can gather a group in the name of religion than you can in the name of morality without any incentive in it.
    It is the ‘hidden agenda’ that changes everything.