Morality without religion?

Sorry if this post is a repeat of others, but I just joined the group and have a question which has been bothering me for many years.

Is it possible to teach morality without any reference to religion?

The reason I ask is that I feel that part of the reason that the religious right has become so important in politics is that many people feel that there is no good teaching of morality in schools. (Hence the original label the “Moral Majority” that started much of the religious right movement.)

But the separation of church and state in the US has angered this group. Every time they try to teach morality (aka family values, etc.) they are shot down for trying to teach religion.

But I do feel that something is missing in American education. I agree that the concept of “morality” isn’t covered well for students.

Way back in the forties and fifties students would have classes in “Civics” which did include proper behavior in society. (Or I think it did.)

But today those kind of classes are gone. And I think it has left a void in our society.

That’s why I have always felt that the non-religious right (which can include religious people) should add some sort of agenda to restore the teaching of morality, but without any religious aspect to it.

But that’s where I have my problem.

Too much of what is considered “morality” comes from the Bible or other religious institutions.

Hence the question, “Is it possible to teach morality without any reference to religion?”

Hi! Welcome Aboard!

The short answer to your question is: yes.

I think we can come up with better answers to questions of morality than “Because God says so.”

As Christpher Hitchens points out, people were not murdering, stealing, lying, etc., willy nilly, before the 10 commandments were created.

The golden rule was around long before Christ.

There are logical reasons why people shouldn’t murder, rape, etc.


Not to mention that in order to live in a society, rules are necessary. And from rules to ‘morality’…

I think perhaps you have the wrong idea about how and why the religious right became important in politics. It has more to do with certain individuals in that group a couple of decades ago and where they saw the opportunity to gain political power (through the politics of abortion, mostly) and to achieve a political agenda that served their own self interests as influential evangelicals.

lots of meaningful discussions about morality can be made outside of religion, perhaps the most important. leaving superstitious nonsense at the door can open a lot of doors.

that being said its certainly true that people are often-times moral or have moral feelings about certain subjects because of biology, chimps, infants, monkeys all show signs of having some kind of sense of right/wrong over the world, to the point that some monkeys will starve themselves if it means shocking another monkey.

Unless monkeys and chimps are also religious and show it through things like rain-dance… :banana-dance:

This question is a bit loaded, me thinks, being that it supposes there exists such a thing as “the morality.” Surely there are different types of moralities, and by morality I mean systems, formulas, or rules external to a mind to which a person can refer to make decisions about how to act. For example, faced with a situation where one’s wife has cheated. How should one act? Some ‘formulas’ say one should take her to town to get stoned by the community, others might say get a divorce, others to forgive, etc.

But if one were to teach of the different types of formulas on earth one would invariably have to cover ‘formulas’ that incorporate god or a religion in them. Of course, one would also have to cover ‘formulas’ that don’t. So, do you have to teach religion in order to teach morality? The answer: yes, if the morality one wishes to teach incorporates religious notions. No, if the morality one wishes to teach doesn’t.

Being immoral is not a state when a person has a real quality to them, like being black, or white. Being immoral just means that one has acted in a way which is not in line with some ‘formula’. Being that the formulas are numerous, any act is bound to be immoral at least to one.

But I think this thread is really about the merits of a system not based in religious notions. But then what does it mean for a ‘formula’ not to be good? What’s a bad formula, and what reasons are there for thinking it’s bad?

The problem with answering this is that this itself is a moral question, and to answer it one would have to take a moral position–one would have to refer to a formula to check whether another formula is good. One would probably answer by saying that a formula has bad ends; that it’s commandments value honor and not heaven(for example), or heaven and not honor. Off course, some might come along and say that the formulas are logically inconsistent, to which the proponent of that view might answer, “What matters consistency?” or, “Whose to say that a good formula is consistent?”

Thank you all for this discussion. It is exactly what I have been struggling with.

The simple answer of “Yes. It is possible to have morality without religion.” is what I believe in.

The problem is that as soon as anyone tries to teach morality in the public schools, there are those who say that teaching morality is, by definition, a religious thing. And the separation of church and state precludes teaching religion in school.

xzc answer of “formulas” shows that problem.

First, we have the formula that says a woman who has sex outside her marriage is wrong. (We won’t get into what the husband is allowed to do.) Now I agree that it is possible to view that action without any religious values. A woman who agrees to marriage has agreed in signing the marriage contract that she will not engage in sex outside the marriage. So her act of adultery is not right in so far as she has broken a contract. That is an easy thing to teach in school without getting into religion. (As long as there are laws that prohibit adultery.)

xzc is also right that there are many different formulas for the punishment of that behavior. The village that believes in stoning the woman to death (or an honor killing) is doing a moral thing as long as that is the law of their land. I don’t want to live in that country, but if that’s the law, I can’t argue that the villagers are breaking it.

However, I can argue that the law that proscribes that punishment for adultery is in itself against other laws of the country. I assume that there is also a law that saws people can not kill others. That only the state has the right to kill people as a punishment for a crime. So the morality of the villagers is not that they have labeled the woman’s action as wrong. It is that they have followed one law of the country that contradicts another.

In the US we would send this case to the Supreme Court to figure out the contradiction.

But remember, I’ve posted this topic not to frame laws, but to figure out a way to teach “morality” or civics or good citizenship or whatever you want to call it.

How do I create a class that teaches what is right and wrong without getting into religion? Do I teach only what laws are currently on the books? Do I look at the fact that important moral judgements that were illegal 50 years ago (marriage between blacks and whites) are considered totally moral today?

And if I do look at why certain laws have been modified or eliminated in the past century, should I explain that there has been a change in moral standards?

Ahhh, perhaps that’s another important question. How can society have a change in moral standards without looking at a change in religion. I mean if owning a person was legal last week, what changed in our morality to make it illegal today?

Again, I am far less knowledgeable about philosophy than most of the group. So please excuse my poorly phrased arguments.

to change gears slightly, i’ve often asked the question “if heaven is always in the same place, why do we keep changing the directions we give people?” this is appealing to the idea that laws lead to morals. laws change, but do morals?

IANAL: filing a lawsuit against a person in a coma may be perfectly legal… but it is definitely not ethical.

up until college, i didn’t know that religion was something that could start wars or even something that people thought was important. even growing up in a catholic family, i just assumed that church/religion was something people did for socializing. when my mother would tell me that something was wrong, there was never “or ____ will smite you!” in the lecture. the way i was raised, it was basically with “the golden rule”, some good sense, and judgement.

Yes it is possible. Moralities change over time and place. We have invented them, so obviously, we can change them to suit our needs. I eschew religious morality personally, but there are elements of religious moralities that can be culled and retained, after that religion should be jetttisoned.

btw nice username.

I believe my answer to your question is: No, it is not possible to teach morality without any reference to religion.
I say this because, as I see it, the justification of (a certain) morality is that of a religious character: Religion in the sense of believing that something is right (true) or wrong (false) without logical argumentation. This could concern the existence of God, or why one should not murder another human being. The argumentation will always end with the likes of: “because I think it is wrong to …”.

It has been suggested that the justification/purpose of morality (in general) is so that humans can live together in a society. I think this is wrong. I think that laws make it possible for us to live in a society. Morals are our personal guidelines, on how to behave within the rules of society.
As a passing remark to this, there are certainly laws of my society, which I look upon as immoral, but which my representatives/leaders implemented because they thought them necessary, and/or because they were morally “correct” according to them.

This brings me to your recast of your question:
“How do I create a class that teaches what is right and wrong without getting into religion?”
If you mean right and wrong according to law (so that we can live together), then you simply teach the law of your country. But I think you know this, and want to teach more than what law can contain:
“But remember, I’ve posted this topic not to frame laws, but to figure out a way to teach “morality” or civics or good citizenship or whatever you want to call it.”
In this case, I think you have got the problem that the values you want to teach are your personal values, and not values general to your society. You have the opportunity to teach the class about different moralities, but then you can only hope that the pupils will adopt yours.
I think my point is, that you could teach pupils how you think they should act, but that would be indoctrination (and according to my morality, that is bad :wink: )

  • Søren Axel, another a newbie on ILP

Is argumentation a word?? Anyways the argument will always end with it being: society will not progress and flourish if these rules of ethics are not followed not : It’s wrong because God says so

The purpose of morals exist so that humans can group together in a society without the society collapsing due to the whims of individual members so rules are applied to restrict the actions of the members the foundation of those rules are morals

That happens sometimes, Capital Punishment ← Epic

I think expressing his opinion on morality is fine, if someone preaches that murdering someone is the best thing you can do for society then let them go ahead but there should also be someone who says that it would suck if you were killed, don’t kill anyone else. The golden rule is kinda the foundation for all morals

Gratz on your first post

Hello Soren. Nice first post, and welcome to the boards.

I’m not quite sure I understand your argument for all species of morality being religious. Are you saying that morality is in it’s nature like religion, in that the justification for moral systems is like the justification for religious ideas, i.e., it is lacking? But this would not mean that morality is religious, so much as it shares some quality with religion. Morality and religion then can be said to both belong to some third yet unnamed category.

As a side note, not all moral systems are in need of a base-line composed of subject independent moral facts. Some moral systems take into account that this base line doesn’t exist.

But I’m wondering, how are we to judge, and in so doing dismiss other moral systems that are in conflict with our own? Can it be done in non-moral terms? If we are to avoid begging the question, the criticism must be, but can such a criticism hold up? I started a thread about it here: viewtopic.php?f=25&t=166543&p=2040322#p2040322

We should really teach all the school kids Kantian Ethics. It’s definately not religious. But I don’t think religious people would be apt to object to his ideas. Now, I don’t think Kant is perfectly correct, but he is certianly a philosopher nearly everyone lists in the Cannon. Plus if our youth start saying phrases like “Catagorical Imperative,” rather than “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” we’ll appear smarter to the world.

Humanity is the source of morality, not religion. Religion is a human invention, and any morality it contains derives from us.

First of all, thank you for the welcome and the reactions :smiley:

I am not sure if argumentation is a word. My dictionary claims it, but dictionaries have been known to be wrong in the past. Anyway, when pointed out, I can see why you would question the choice of that word, but fortunately, you understood it…
About the argument. I didn’t mean that people would argue “It’s wrong because God says so”. I meant that the argument, why one set of morals/ethics is better than the other, would end with being the same type af argument why one religion is better than the other: “It’s wrong because I think/feel/believe so…”. Much like xzc wrote, that morals and religion both belong to some third, un-named category. And, as xzc points out, that doesn’t necessarily make morals religous, but I think that if you teach morals and a student asks “Why do people think that?”, then you would it some cases have to say “Because their religion tells them so”, and hence my answer “No” to the question “Is it not possible to teach morality without any reference to religion?”.
Your suggestion of an argument “society will not progress and flourish if these rules of ethics are not followed” I don’t necessarily disagree with, but I think it is an argument for having a moral, not a certain moral.
I hope that I’ve shed some light on my views…

I think you might be right on the moral, but then what I was talking about was ethics? In that case, I think that Vectorbabe wants to teach more than just the basic moral of the society - maybe it is ethics he want’s to teach?

I think that is what I ment… You can teach morals/ethics, but you cannot be sure that anyone will choose your set of morals/ethics: You can’t control if people choose to agree with the one saying “you do society a favour by murdering that dude overthere” or with you. And if you try to control it, it’s indoctrinating…

That is why I also think that xzc asked the right question: “How are we to judge, and in so doing dismiss other moral systems that are in conflict with our own?”. At first, I would have said that we can’t, but after reading the first few posts, I must admit that there is some good suggestions…

The golden rule “Do nothing to others, you won’t have done to yourself”? If this is the one you mean, I must say I dissagree. I think there does exist moral systems which are not build in this foundation.

About the Kantian Ethics, I don’t know enough about them to make a qualified comment, but I can’t imagine it to be a bad idea teaching more people about Kant :slight_smile:

A good point… And maybe confirming that the argument in favour of a certain moral also derives from us?