Humanist Association of London and Area

Humanist Association of London and Area

For Goodness Sake

by Goldwin J. Emerson

When people talk about morals or ethics, they are often referring to ideas related to goodness; that is, good thoughts, good behaviour, caring about others, concern for the environment or, in the case of religious believers, obedience to the will of God. Theists and atheists differ in their approach to morals and ethics, and sometimes secular humanists have to deal with the question of whether or not an atheist can be moral. The simple answer is, "Yes, atheists can be moral" -- and they can be immoral, just as religious believers can be moral or immoral. It is often taken for granted, in our society, that the more religious a person is, the more moral that person will be. Consequently, the question of whether or not a theist--that is, a believer in God -- can be moral is rarely asked, although perhaps it should be.

Although religious people are looked upon, especially in North America, as being more moral than those who are non-believers, religious adherents must deal with some disadvantages. They need to be concerned, not only with doing good things for their fellow human beings, but also with the desire to please God and to follow his laws and his ideas of morality. Herein lies a problem.

Imagine a room full of theists who are asked to respond to a number of questions related to moral issues, and imagine another room full of secular humanists who are asked to respond to the same questions. These questions are about issues such as birth control, divorce, overpopulation, preservation of the environment, euthanasia, homosexuality, the justification for war, equality of women and men, respect for racial diversity, free choice concerning abortion, the importance of democracy, and many other current moral issues. Humanists are much more likely to agree on these issues than are the theists. This, despite the fact that most theists believe that we need religion and God in order to keep our ideas about morality from going off in all directions. There are over 4000 different religious denominations in the world, accommodating a great deal of diversity of thought -- or thoughtlessness -- about moral issues, each religion claiming to know how God thinks on these matters. If God exists at all, it is obviously difficult to know, with any degree of certainty, whether or not he cares, and if so, what he thinks.

A second problem for theists is that they receive their moral systems from others, such as writers of their sacred texts, their clergy, and their fellow congregants. It is their moral responsibility to align their thoughts on morality according to the framework of their religion rather than the well-being of the larger society. It is more difficult for theists to judge actions according to visible and practical results than for secular humanists, who bring their own judgements to bear upon the issues. The humanist Bertrand Russell was imprisoned for his anti-war protests because he acted on his own belief that ending the war was the best thing for society at large. The theist, on the other hand, may have to be content to follow principles of obedience to church doctrine and practices. While some religions may encourage individual thought on moral issues, they seem to be more the exception than the norm.

The humanist who seeks moral goodness is more open to the use of observation of practical results which can be measured and observed within society. Science, and in particular social science, can be a useful tool in assessing whether or not hungry people are being fed or have proper housing and adequate health care. These disciplines can be informative about crime rates and their possible correlation with ethnicity or poverty. They can help to assess drug problems or spousal abuse. In other words, science can help people to see the causes as well as the solutions to moral problems in order to work toward a healthy society. While these disciplines are accessible to both theists and atheists, many religions look upon them unfavourably. When theists take religious dogma too seriously, they are in danger of becoming authoritarian and rule-bound in matters related to morality.

In the past fifty years, there have been numerous scientific studies indicating that religion, when accepted too rigidly, actually becomes detrimental to one's ability to understand and adopt sound moral principles. When taken too literally, religion can lock a believer into rigid and narrow thinking which ensures that moral development will be halted at a rudimentary level. What follows are overviews of several pieces of research dealing with the relationship of religious orthodoxy to moral thought.

The first is the research of Lawrence Kohlberg at Harvard University in the early 1960s. Kohlberg observed the mental development of children to discern the stages they normally progress through in their moral growth and to create teaching curricula to help children increase their capacity for healthy moral development. Kohlberg encouraged children to consider different moral dilemmas and to make suggestions as to how these moral quandaries could best be resolved. He particularly urged his young students to carefully consider the consequences of the solutions which they came up with in solving moral questions dealing with stealing, fighting, lying, teasing, cruelty, kindness, sharing, honesty, loyalty to friends, and other moral issues common to children. Unlike traditional instruction, he did not set out rules about which actions were moral or immoral. He used questioning and discussion rather than telling and directing his students. Kohlberg gives credit for many of his ideas to Jean Piaget and noted educator and humanist, John Dewey.

One part of his research that is of interest here is that high family religiosity of students had no positive effects on their moral development as compared with children from families with low religiosity. In fact, there were indications that a high degree of religiosity had detrimental effects on children's achievement of higher stages of development. The two highest stages of moral growth in Kohlberg's system had to do with concepts of the social good and principled morality. More complete information about Kohlberg's work may be found in "Stages of Moral Development as a Basis for Moral Education" in Moral Education, New York, Newman, 1971.

A second piece of research relevant to morality and its correlation with theistic and atheistic thinking was done by this writer and published in Canadian Journal of Education/Revue Canadienne de l’Education, Vol.2, No.2, 1977. This study, "Factors Related to Enlarged Perspectives among the Students of an Ontario Teachers' College" by Goldwin James Emerson was published by The Canadian Education Society, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto. The main purpose of the study was to test whether or not there was a positive correlation between higher levels of education among Teachers' College students and enlarged perspectives (broad-mindedness) of the students. One hundred seventy-eight students at the University of Western Ontario were included in the study, some of whom had no university education, some with a partially completed degree, and some with a completed university degree. Enlarged perspectives were identified through responses to a questionnaire indicating a preference for the following:

  • (a) internationalism over nationalism in political point of view
  • (b) secularism over traditionalism in general social philosophy
  • (c) science over common sense as acceptable evidence
  • (d) reform over punishment in penological theory
  • (e) direct action and law over violence as agents of policy
  • (f)permissiveness over rigidity in child rearing
  • (g) democracy over patriarchy in spousal relationship
  • (h) creativity over anaesthesia in patterns of recreation

These criteria for enlarged perspectives are from Tumin et al., "Prejudice and Discrimination," American Sociological Review, 1958. As expected, the students who had higher levels of education also tended to rate higher on enlarged perspectives -- that is, on broad-mindedness.

Of special relevance to the subject of religiosity and morals is the second hypothesis of the research which reads as follows:

Since enlarged perspectives make it increasingly difficult to accept traditional and dogmatic answers to the great mysteries of the universe and our own existence, there will be a positive relationship between the rejection of traditional orthodox religions and enlarged perspectives. It is further expected that students identifying with a religious position of moderate orthodoxy will have broader perspectives than students who identify with a position of relatively higher orthodoxy.

This second hypothesis was confirmed, and the results can be summarized by the following quote from the study: "It is interesting to note that non-religious students without a university education achieved a mean score on enlarged perspectives equal to university graduates with the highest religiosity. It must be assumed there is a negative association between religiosity and enlarged perspectives. Since many religious advocates claim that religion frees the individual and broadens his concern, this is a finding to which those concerned with religion and its role in the school and society should give further attention."

A third and much more extensive study on morality (and goodness) was reported by Robert Buckman, president of The Humanist Association of Canada, in his book Can We Be Good Without God? (Penguin Books, Toronto, 2000). Dr. Buckman is very clear that goodness does not depend upon a belief in God. He explains how the motivation for many people to believe in God is a physical and neurological phenomenon. In Buckman’s terms our brains appear to be “hard-wired” and this, he claims, is "the Neurology of Theology." There are so many fascinating ideas presented in Can We be Good Without God? that I am reluctant to quote just one or two here, but the following does deal with the relationship between religiosity and morality. Buckman states one of the important principles of humanist thought:

Individuals who are aware of the consequences of their actions on other individuals, on the community and on the species are likely to behave in a more reasonable and more ethical way.” Dr. Buckman continues: “Striving for the greater good and worth of the human species is not an exclusive property of theism. It is a human activity that can exist just as well without a belief in a deity as it can with it. Non-theists can be--and often are--ethical and moral people.” (page 212)

A fourth and very recent piece of research on the relationship between morals and religion has been done by Gregory Paul and is reported in The Journal of Religion and Society (Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska, October of 2005). What may be surprising to readers is that this research shows a negative relationship between religiosity and moral goodness although this research comes out of a Jesuit-run University. Gregory Paul, a palaeontologist, studied the moral and ethical problems of eighteen modern democratic countries. He then rated each of the countries according to its religiosity and the frequency of specific moral problems in that country. Religiosity was measured by frequency of prayer, absolute belief in God, attendance at religious services and literal acceptance of the bible. Moral values  were measured in terms of homicide rates, child mortality, venereal disease, teen pregnancy and abortion rates. Paul used reliable sources for his data, including the International Social Survey Program, the United Nations Development Program and the World Health Organization. Dr. Paul found that United States, the most religious of the eighteen countries surveyed, had the highest incidence of homicide, child mortality, venereal disease, abortion and teen pregnancy. Portugal, rated high on religiosity, also rated above the norm of the more secular countries for frequency of homicides.

In the same study, Japan, Scandinavia and France, scoring the lowest in religiosity, were also the "least dysfunctional" in terms of the moral problems surveyed in the study. It is also of interest that nearly 60% of American respondents said religion was very important to them -- compared to 30% in Canada, 11% in France and 21% in Germany. As a palaeontologist, Gregory Paul's interest in the relationship between morality and religiosity was prompted in part by the constant attacks by evangelicals on the scientific theory of evolution.

These and many other studies on the relationship between religion and morality show that the usual perception that religion makes people good is not as well-founded as has normally been thought. The words of the biologist, Steven Weinberg, come to mind: "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil -- that takes religion."

As humanists it is important that we continue to regard the moral claims of theistic thinking with scepticism. We can be proud of our own moral principles and their adequacy to deal with ethical challenges both within the humanist movement and in our personal lives.

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