Do we need religion for morality? A new look at an old debate

The relation between religion and morality is one of the most heated topics of debate between believers and atheists.

Having “fought” in this arena for years on both sides, I’ve become way too familiar and extremely tired with the way these discussions go.

To sketch the main positions that people take, they are roughly the following:

  • Yes, you need religion for morality, because without an objective moral standard, there is no way to tell what is right and wrong. Without an objective moral standard, there is nothing stopping you from going out and doing whatever you want, just look at what the atheist regimes of the 20th century did. (what a hardcore believer would say)
  • No, religion is the main cause of warfare and bigotry, we need to get rid of religion in order to achieve peace. (what a hardcore atheist would say)
  • No, you don’t need religion for morality, people can behave in good and bad ways with or without religion. Religion was useful when we didn’t know much, but we are more enlightened now and we don’t need religion to tell us what to do. We have great works of art and literature to inspire us instead, and our morality has evolved since. (what Steven Pinker would say)
  • Yes, you can be moral without religion, but the secular morality of our time is based on values established previously by Christianity, and it isn’t clear that they can persist without it. (what Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray, Roger Scruton would say).

I’ve always been unsatisfied with these positions, no matter how closely my own views aligned with some of them. They seem to assume or accept that the causal link between religion and behavior is a direct one: that people simply “follow the text”, in the same way a computer executes a program.

I may be unfair to some of the proponents of these ideas — not everyone insists on such “scriptural determinism”. Hardcore atheists and religious fundamentalists certainly do, while the moderates are more vague. But I haven’t seen anyone insist on the social element of religion, which is the key to understanding the relation between religion and morality.

In my experience, growing up in a country where Traditional Christianity is the norm, people first learn which behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t from their parents and their peers. Not from their holy book and not from their priest. It is through society that people grow up into moral beings, with articulated religious instruction coming much later.

Does this make the religious texts irrelevant? No, because religions still frame the ranges of acceptable behaviors. But the limits themselves aren’t taught explicitly. Instead, they are absorbed organically from the social environment. And while in Protestant Christianity, people are directed to study the holy texts directly, in Traditional Christianity (Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy) religious ideas are learned through the Liturgy, adding one more social layer between the text and the individual.

When a hardcore religious fundamentalist or a hardcore atheist assumes that that the text directly drives human behavior, they completely ignore the fact that moral behavior is first of all social behavior. Someone won’t simply go out on a rampage, or become a saint, simply because of gaining factual information.

Just try to remember when you wanted to do something, but found it socially awkward, so you decided not to do it. Does it really make sense to expect that our intellect can simply get us to behave in certain ways simply because of what we read in a text?

I am very skeptical of that. But at the same time, I do believe religion has an impact on morality. In particular, I believe that the “old and proven” Christianity is important. How do I deal with this apparent contradiction?

It isn’t that people simply read something in a book, and decide “oh, this is how I should behave”. Rather, religion promotes certain social norms which then have moral behaviors as a secondary effect. It takes generations to instill these norms, it isn’t something that just happens over night.

Consider marriage. Religion encourages marriage. Pair bonding itself then brings many other benefits: it produces stable societies, it calms down males because they don’t need to out-compete each other to gain access to a mate, it is beneficial to the upbringing of children. Secular societies have begun to see a steep rise in various social ills, which stem directly from the weakening of this institution, after many in previous generations decided that it’s now obsolete. What a miscalculation!

Or consider murder or theft. Nobody wants to be murdered or robbed, but in many disorganized societies, the weak don’t have a say about it. In a stable society however, such as one that exists where there is a strong feeling of cohesion, people can organize and create institutions to prevent murder or theft. Antisocial behaviors are generally looked down upon by the same people who you depend on for your continued existence, who you get to know if you regularly attend the Liturgy.

In short, my view is that religion doesn’t directly tell you what to do, but rather that it creates a social environment in which people can effortlessly learn which behaviors are favored, and which are discouraged. And it just happens that the favored behaviors often have subsequent benefits, which aren’t evident or explicitly stated.

Obviously, irreligious individuals can behave just as well as religious individuals, but they will find it much harder to pass the values that made them succeed to their children, given the information hurricane we live in, with social media and our fast entertainment culture.

Can we ever replace religion with something else? Do we even need religion?

My intuition, from observing what’s been happening on social media in recent years, is that people can’t remain religion-free for long. As soon as the established religion is out of the picture, many will simply pick up something else as sacred, and just run with that.

On to the actual question, about good alternatives to traditional religion, I haven’t found the proposed alternatives very convincing.

Let’s consider literature. It’s certainly true that great works of literature can inspire individual moral virtue. But ask yourself the following question: how many people you know regularly read the “Great Books”?

Do the “Great Books” include a mechanism of self-perpetuation? Is there a way to get a society immersed in at least one of the “Great Books” in such a way that its metaphors and values pervade it at every step, get picked up by children effortlessly, and get transmitted to even those who didn’t read it?

I don’t debate the moral quality of such Great Books, just their ability to step up and shape a society. What religions have, and other moral vehicles don’t, is repetition and self-perpetuation. It isn’t enough to simply do something once — read the book, put it down, and you’re good to go. You can’t maintain a civilization simply on the back of 1% of the population who reads Dostoyevsky, while everyone else is busy doing their own thing.

Religions recommend frequent adherence to the socially performed rituals. It’s a full-body experience which activates ancestral neuronal circuits you never knew you had. Simply reading a book in the privacy of your own home is great, but it can’t do what attending a Liturgy does, and it certainly can’t do it on a large enough scale.

Why is the Bible different? And isn’t it an obsolete book anyway? I agree it’s a difficult read, with its frequent references to contexts people are no longer viscerally familiar with. I’ve heard people argue that the Bible isn’t difficult to read, it’s just that we were never taught the ability to grasp the symbolic language (hence Young Earth Creationism and New Atheism). I have to admit, I personally haven’t picked it up in years. But as it should be evident from my short essay, this isn’t necessarily a problem.

That is why I like Traditional Christianity, which actually offers more than just the text and ecstatic sermons. When people attend the Liturgy, they get to attend a solemn ceremony which has worked for people for more than a thousand years, where the lessons of the Ancients get translated into contemporary language. Even contemplating that is awe-inspiring, for me. I understand that isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s good enough for many.

In my view of the world, there is room for everyone. Both religious and non-religious people have a place in society, and both their voices are important. But the proven way should still be the default option, with people trying new stuff by themselves before trying to revolutionize society.