Is religion necessary for ethical behaviour?

Many religious people believe that our ethical principles are adopted from religion and that even atheists derive whatever ethical principles they have from one religion or another.

This page shows that this claim is absurd.

However, I also discuss the question of whether some people who have escaped the delusion of religion might behave unethically because they have also escaped the fear of damnation and they may not recognise the very strong reasons to behave ethically.

Written 2015/11/07, last edited 2022/01/10
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©

It can easily be shown that humanity does not derive ethical standards from religion.
  1. Many of the examples of behaviour that we see in holy books such as the Bible are rejected by modern people as unethical. For example, the idea that it would be justified for a whole society to be exterminated because they were bad influences is quite abhorrent to modern people, yet this is what Moses, one of the most 'holy' of the prophets of the Old Testament, ordered the captains of Israel to do. (Numbers, 31:15-18. Moses did exclude the virgin girls who he said could be saved for the use of those doing the extermination.)

  2. The laws set down in holy books such as the Bible are not justifiable under any reasonable system of ethical behaviour. The fact that we do not, for example, kill an animal because it has been approached by a woman intending to have sexual relations with it, as is set down in Leviticus 20:16, shows that our ethical standards come from elsewhere than the Bible.
We do not believe it justified to kill anyone who tries to convert us to another religion (as commanded in Deuteronomy 13:6-10) because we have ethical standards that are based on reasoning and modern ethical philosophy, not on writings in old books.

Obviously even the great majority of those who follow Christianity (and Judaism and Islam for that matter) pick and choose which commandments written in the Old Testament (sacred to all three religions) they accept as justifiable and reasonable. They use ethical standards acquired elsewhere than in holy writings to decide right and wrong, and to select those rules and actions in the 'holy books' to take notice of and which to put aside.

Traditional Islam holds that Mohamed was the ideal example for Muslim behaviour, yet no decent modern Muslim would say that having sex with a nine-year-old girl was an ethical thing to do.

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Freedom of religion

Since Israel Folau's expressed opinion of who would go to hell, and his consequent dismissal from the Australian Wallabies Rugby team there has been concern expressed about constraints being placed on freedom of religion.

In regard to Mr Folau I will confine myself to writing only that he was dismissed due to breaking his contract conditions, not due to his religious beliefs.

In regard to the 'freedom of religion' complaints, I will make the point that I find twenty-first Christians complaining about limitations on their freedoms a bit rich considering that over the centuries during which Christianity was running Europe they provided no freedom of religion; people either toed-the-line or burned. See Christian intolerance on this site for many examples, and Giordano Bruno in Wikipedia too.

It is plain that the dominance of Christianity didn't lead to ethical behaviour then.

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Unethical religious people

Australia's Prime Ministers Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison, especially the latter, are openly religious people.

The burning of fossil fuels, especially coal, is a huge environmental disaster, being one of the main causes of climate change and ocean acidification; its air pollution kills millions of people each year;

Both Abbott and Morrison dishonestly and stridently opposed action to reduce Australia's emissions. I have argued on another page that those in a position of power who knowingly lie to slow the transition to renewable energy should be included among the worst criminals in the history of mankind.

The religion of Prime Ministers Abbott and Morrison certainly did not make them ethical people.

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Why should someone who has escaped the religious delusion behave ethically?

A religious person might behave ethically because he or she believes that to behave unethically would lead to eternal damnation.


Religion no guarantee of ethical behaviour

As discussed above being religious is no guarantee that a person will be any better than an atheist. In fact I suggest that on the whole atheists are more ethical than the religious.
What happens when that person realises that religion is nothing but a delusion? He might think that there is no longer any reason to behave well? He might think that he can lie and cheat with impunity? I suspect that many of those who do give up religion do feel free to behave dishonestly and selfishly.

Religion does give an incentive to behave well. What can replace the religious incentive for ethical behaviour?

I suggest that ethical behaviour brings its own rewards. Behaving badly gives a person a bad reputation and having lost one's good reputation is a great disadvantage in life. Getting back a good reputation once it has been lost is much harder than holding onto the good reputation by behaving well. I also suggest that one cannot have self respect if one behaves unethically, and there is little more important than self respect.

Having said all this, I do wonder whether much of the unethical behaviour that we are seeing in the early twenty-first century is due to the loss of the fear of Devine punishment.

Many people are indoctrinated in religion by their parents and religious institutions, far fewer are educated in ethics. Education in ethics should be a standard part of any child's education.

Related pages...

External sites

Religion does not determine your morality; 2018/07/25; Jim Davies for The Conversation. If I attempt to summarise Davies' argument, it is this: religious people come to their own conclusions about what is right and wrong, then they hold that their conclusions match what God wants.

On this site

Christian virtues and values
The Bible
Religion, Superstition and Pseudoscience
Islam's problems
Is God real?
Self respect
Why the concept of an immortal soul is absurd and the existence of an immortal soul impossible

A list of my pages concerning ethics