I came across this tweet on my social media feed this morning. It claims that religion isn’t necessary for people to be morally good:
Since reading this, I’ve had some thoughts about it. These are a little off-the-cuff, so forgive me if I ramble a bit.
First off, I don’t disagree with the claim being made here.
I think it’s definitely true that people can be “irreligious” and still have a moral code. They can do good things — help their neighbors, volunteer at the homeless shelter, vote for more just policies, etc. You don’t have to go to church or mosque or temple or whatever to be a nice, upstanding citizen.
Where I disagree has to do with something a bit deeper than this surface-level claim, though. While you don’t need religion to be moral, I would argue that you do need God.
I believe we as human beings are inherently morally-driven beings because we’re made in the image of a God who is the source and standard of moral goodness. In other words, whether you’re religious or not, there is still a set of ontological (concretely true) moral principles embedded in the warp and woof of our existence.
Obviously this belief is hotly debated. Many secular thinkers argue that our morality is merely a byproduct of evolutionary sociobiology (i.e., “We think these behaviors are good only because they’ve contributed to our species’ survival, so we’ve just evolved to think they’re good”). But others (and not just religious folks, but secular thinkers as well) have pointed out that there are serious problems with a purely naturalistic theory of morality’s origins.
Plus, I would argue, it’s a false dichotomy to say morality must be either an element of our evolution or the objectively-imposed standard of a transcendent Creator. Just as a computer program runs based on the code inputted by its designer, we can view evolution as the process coded to play out by God. Besides, as many Christian philosophers have rightly pointed out, our very concept of “good” implies the existence of an ultimate standard of goodness — which would be God.
So back to our tweet under discussion: If morality ultimately comes from God, then it becomes a bit of a non-starter to say you don’t need religion to be moral. Religion itself, properly defined, is simply an ordered system of belief or worship — a pattern of responding to God.
And sure, you don’t have to respond to God to benefit from what he’s put into the world for all humans to partake of, any more than I have to understand where exactly all of my food is sourced from before I can cook a steak. But it sure helps if I learn from those who’ve been cooking steak for a lot longer than I have. And that’s part of the point of religion.
Sure, there are so many, many cases of religion going badly (I’ve had my fair share of negative experiences myself). And you can encounter immoral people in church just as you can encounter moral people outside because (surprise!) we’re all human beings, capable of great good or horrible fallenness.
But true religion — religion that works — is religion that is framed around worshiping a God who is good and embodies grace and magnanimity, and around providing order and structure for people to grow in reflecting that moral goodness. Consider it a workshop for developing your human morality.
I get where tweets like the one above are coming from. Many people — especially here in my American context — are reeling from many a terrible experience of religion (typically of a fundamentalist Christian variety here) that was all based on trying to force people to behave according to specific sets of rules. It was all about producing conformity rather than promoting relationship with God and others. We’ve suffered generations of “hellfire and brimstone” preaching with no actual theological depth or virtue rooted in the real grace of Jesus Christ. So yeah, I’ll join the chorus that’s railing against that kind of religion.
But plunging headlong into naturalistic secularism isn’t going to be a fun direction for our culture for very long. Nihilism isn’t exactly sustainable.
And besides, it’s worth considering just how much of our Western culture’s general ideas of morality — especially concepts like human dignity and rights, justice, and the importance of compassion for the poor and marginalized — have all stemmed from Christianity (see the important book Dominion by historian Tom Holland, which unpacks this thesis in great detail). Not to mention things like science, hospitals, orphanages, and universities — all the products of organized religion.
So rather than chuck religion altogether, look for the real deal. Even if it takes some time and effort to get where people are actually doing it the right way.
It’s not just about having a reason to act morally. It’s about how we were designed to respond to transcendent Truth beyond ourselves, and to do so in community with others.
Those are just my thoughts for the day. See you down the path.