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Religion and Morality, Can We Be Moral Without Believing in Supernatural?


While imperative, morality is a subjective matter that involves judgment about right and wrong. Like the concept of rationality, morality entails behaving in a certain way that is consistent with a specific objective that may be personal gratification or primarily religious conviction. Historically, religion has served as a source of morality. A religious morality system is designed to guide and control the conducts of the believers. The problem with religious morality scheme, however, is that it is derived from a supernatural deity and believed to be irrefutable, timeless, and no one can challenge its preeminence. Ergo, those who do not believe in supernatural power, like secular/atheists, will be ostracized by religion and labeled as depraved. As I argue below, such stereotyping is as unsubstantiated as claiming that students who attend religious colleges cheat less than those who attend secular universities.


Is immorality really an outgrowth of secularism/atheism? There are 7 billion people living in the world today, almost 14 percent of them do not believe in supernatural. Are they any less moral than religious people? The primary motive why religious enthusiasts try to link secularity /atheism to immorality and even social anarchy is to create fear or to prey on the gullibility of regular folks.  Frankly, the accusation that irreligiosity is the source of immorality in the society is nothing but wishful thinking for three reasons.


First, empirical evidence shows that social ills such as homicides and other crimes are more prevalent in poor but highly religious countries, in particular, African and South American countries and prominent Muslim countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Iraq-- albeit a great number of crimes in such countries remain unreported. Moreover, researchers offer evidence showing the link between the level of religiosity and instances of crimes, not to mention the widespread violation of human rights, in many societies governed by religious rulers. Iran and Saudi Arabia are two prominent examples of this contention. Even though these two countries are run by theocratic government, they both have oppressive regimes that undermine even the most basic of human rights of especially certain minorities and punish severely those with opposing or critical views. Statistical data show a strong correlation between senseless crime rates and certain religious beliefs. The vicious attack on a school bus by the Taliban in Pakistan and the shooting of Malala Yousafzai , a 14-year-old girl whose only crime was encouraging girls to go to school, is a well-known instance of innumerable atrocities committed in the name of the religion of Islam. Likewise, there is the story of a young 23-year-old woman in Somalia who said she was raped and, consequently, was stoned to death by a group of ferociously angry men in front of a crowd of approximately 1,000 spectators. Such abhorrent scenes can only be seen in countries that are ruled by religious zealots.


While countless brutal acts are committed in the name of religion every day, not even a single individual is killed or even harmed in the name of atheism. This is not to claim that nonbelievers do not carry out act of violence. They do but they do not claim that they commit crimes in the name of atheism. But, religious extremists adamantly claim that they kill people for the sake of their religion. Even more recent Surveys confirm a positive correlation between religiosity and social ills such as, intransigence, totalitarianism, bigotry, and prejudice especially against certain minorities. (See Michael Shermer’s book, the Science of Good and Evil) These are facts religious apologists cannot invalidate, and hence should not ignore.


Second, a positive correlation between secularism, happiness, safety, and an elevated living standard has been established by various researches. Some of the safest, happiest, and highly developed nations on earth are also the least religious; among them are Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.


And, third, religious morality is derived from medieval texts and tribal traditions which are mostly uncompassionate and incompatible with or inapplicable to the modern societies, while secular worldview is a modern phenomenon based on inclusive and progressive sociopolitical system. Perhaps, that is the reason why so many atrocities are being committed under that name of religion is because they are justified based on what is in the Scriptures. Bible and Koran, for instance, tell stories of malevolence acts as punishments for nonbelievers and disobedient, slavery, murder, genocide, floods, famines, pestilence , earthquake and so on. These are God’s punishments for the rebellious people who disobey God’s rules. No one, of course, can deny that religion can often motivate people to be ethical and do good deeds but that doesn’t mean that religion is the only source of morality, and that without it society will tear apart. As a matter of fact, the golden rule of morality “Do not do unto others what you do not want others to do unto to you” dates back to the pre-religion era. We do not wish to live in a society ridden by immorality. That will be anarchic. But, the question to ponder is what kind of moral standards should be imposed on the society and to what extent? Whose morality counts? No doubt, with popularity of secularism and pluralism, it becomes necessary to search for a modern inclusive morality system; some universal sense of right and wrong that fits 21st century standards. For centuries, religious people have successfully legitimized their morality system by connecting it to a divine supernatural source. However, the pivotal issue is, can a person be moral without believing in a supernatural, God.  In other words, from what source(s) should nonbelievers get their morality? I believe that a secular morality system should be based on a progressive legal as well as political system. What does such a system look like? What should be the source of motivation in such a society in addition to religion? Are the worldly causes as enticing as religious causes? These are the inevitable questions that modern atheists/seculars should probe.  


Further, secularity requires separation of religion and politics, an all-encompassing sociopolitical system in which everyone's view is respected not just a few elites’ opinions. Morality free from religion will not endorse the indoctrination of the children under the name of religion, as it is rampant in many Islamic countries. For this reason, a secular education system is also paramount to secularism. Education in modern days is the channel through which science and reasonability must be promoted not superstitions. For this to happen, the education system should be free from undue religious infiltration. Invasion of education system by religion holds back the advancement of atheism/secularism. Due to its intrusive nature, religion tends to control every aspect of people’s life and brainwash the naïve followers. The independent progressive thinkers should have no sympathy for those who brainwash naïve believers and especially the kids into believing in weird things and committing often wicked acts under the name of religion. However, those who are brainwashed merit compassion.


Problem with brainwashing of especially children is its intergenerational effects that society has to deal with for a long term. For example, imperative for the adherents under Islam, Shia branch, is taghlid, a religious tradition mandating Muslims to strictly follow the decrees of a religious cleric who has been designated as Ayatollah, in almost every important aspects of life from personal to family, and even to bedroom matters. Such requirement will no doubt weaken the ability of believers to think critically and will frame them into a particular mode of thinking that is basically self-centered and closed-minded. Affected by fear of punishments, such believers cannot see the real world unless they free themselves from this trepidation and are courageous enough to challenge the religious dictums and be able to acknowledge its follies. We look forward to a day when religion becomes an educated personal choice withdrawn from politics and public life and whatever forces prevent society from achieving this objective should be considered immoral.


varjavand @varjavand

Reza Varjavand (Ph.D., University of Oklahoma) is associate professor of economics and finance at the Graham School of management, Saint Xavier University, of Chicago.


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Mr. Fozolie

You don't need religion to be either moral or ethical.


akaDarya With life as short as a half-taken breath, don't plant anything but love. - Rumi

I have two things to say to you . Mr Varjavand, to save your sweet time in bashing people's beliefs ! And, as long as each and every single of us regardless of our race , skin color, nationality and religion accept these, then we have nothing to argue about.

The two things that actually all the school of thoughts and all the existing religions on the planet earth, Abrahamic and non Abrahamic, are having in common .

Please note the key word " common" ... cause an atheist can,too, share some "common sense" with the non atheist ones in accepting these two points .

what are those two things :

1 ) Treat people the way you want to be treated

2 ) You reap what you sow

Now to above two items add lots of love and peace and take away all the hate and wars, then, you are going to get what is known as " MORALITY " !


varjavand Reza Varjavand (Ph.D., University of Oklahoma) is associate professor of economics and finance at the Graham School of management, Saint Xavier University, of Chicago.

I don’t know what statement or sentence in my article led u to believe that I was basing others’ people beliefs. And, why religious fanatics believe that it is their inalienable right to insult anyone if they don’t like what they say, but cannot tolerate any healthy criticism by others?

Understandably, the dislike many of us have for organized religion is due to what is happening under the name of religion in many countries including our own.
I still believe we have to be forward looking and search for alternative/non-religious foundation for morality of morality that is compatible with modern secular time



What strikes me the hardest is where comes your basis of this logical sense. What is your reference point, even better your leader in your moral compass? You talked about Iraq and Afghanistan, both luted by US and the rest of western gangsters. Open your eyes sir, life is so short, you will remember what you are reading at least once more. We born with an inner moral compass, but where it came from? Really all the universe has happened by accident including Iranian elites abroad? First things first: removing God almighty from moral equation make it nonsense. Are you telling people that there is no day of judgment, or ultimate justice , but let 1% rule over your livelihood. Wealthiest are immune from your system of reference, sir. Justice cannot be served without all knowing omnipotent God who is omnipresent.


Visfor Voy Voy! Is an Iranian expression of great frustration. A play on the film and comic book adaptation "V is for Vendetta". Get it? Object to Iran, and put energy into Pragmatic (not reckless, dangerous or foolhardy) Opposition to it.

The answer to your question can be found in this premise:

If a caveman, devoid of any organized religion or God telling him to, gets pissed off when another caveman takes his freshly killed Mammoth Filet Mignon, or freshly picked berries ( incase he was a vegan caveman) without reason, then there is your proof of morality without God.

If he does not get pissed off and smash in his fellow caveman's skull with one of those big clubs, then clearly there is proof of God and religion and morality.