Religion and Morality

It is often claimed that morality comes from religion — that without the Ten Commandments and such things, we would not know right from wrong. On this view, atheists can be moral, but only because we “borrow” our values from the religious principles that permeate society. Even some who aren’t religious, or aren’t in any sense orthodox about their beliefs, sometimes say such things. Thus, the influential psychologist Jordan Peterson argued not long ago that Sam Harris is “fundamentally” a Christian because “he doesn’t rob banks, doesn’t kill people, doesn’t rape.”

Yet there’s a simple argument that shows morality doesn’t originate in religion: If it did, we wouldn’t find anything in religion to be morally problematic. In other words, if we learned right and wrong from the Bible, then we wouldn’t find any of the moral pronouncements there to be disturbing. The religious wouldn’t struggle with how it could be that God commanded the mass killing of infants, for example. They would simply accept that as yet another instance of God’s perfect justice and goodness.

Now, one possible objection to this argument concerns the fact that the principles one finds in the Bible, at least if taken at face value, are inconsistent with one another. God says, “thou shall not kill”, yet also sometimes commands us to kill. Might this not be the explanation why we find the command to kill disturbing? No. If we truly viewed the Bible as the source of morality, the contradictions would be disturbing only in the sense that they would raise questions regarding what really should be done. We might have a problem figuring out what constitutes an exception to “thou shall not kill”; we wouldn’t be disturbed by the fact that in some cases infants can be killed in mass numbers. Moreover, there would be no reason to consider one commandment as more problematic than its opposite. If we learned morality from the Bible, then after learning of the killing of infants, we might wonder how it could be a good thing for God to command us not to kill!

Perhaps some will say that the great majority of God’s injunctions are of one type (against killing, for example), and that the problematic ones are those that appear to go against the majority. But actually, most of what God commands is rather bad, so if we go by this logic, our reactions should be the exact opposite of what they are. We should be disturbed by the fact that God sometimes commands us to love our neighbor. How could he command such a thing, when it goes against most of what he teaches?

(The Jordan Peterson claim can be seen here, starting at about 22:10.)

Franz Kiekeben is a former lecturer in philosophy and the author of two books on atheism, The Truth about God, and Atheism: Q & A. He has also written for Skeptic magazine and published academic articles on determinism and on time travel.