Claim: Without god you have no morality

homer-angel-deveilIn response to various stories that criticise belief I’ve seen the moral argument pop up. For example, David Quinn writes in the Irish Independent a response to Stephen Fry’s observation that the God of the bible is quite immoral..

But matter cannot produce a moral law. It cannot produce ‘justice’. If matter and its emanations are all there is, than morality and justice are human inventions and nothing more. We invented them, like we ‘invented’ belief in God.

… and over at WND Laura Hollis writes an article in which she makes similar assertions in more detail.

Both are examples that I picked up from stories that have been posted in the past 24 hours, and so are not unique nor rare in any way, but rather are parroting a rather common argument. So let’s take a look at the latter in a bit more detail and see if there is any substance to the claim.

Ms Hollis starts out by discussing vaccines and uses this as a metaphor to establish the claim that the reason we have a moral and just society is due to the “herd immunity” that religion brings. Basically the argument is that because the vast majority are religious, and hence moral, then those that do not believe leverage that.

This is rather easy to test. If true, then the more religious a nation is, the more just and moral the society will be, and the less religious it is, the less moral and just it will be.

Oops, that is clearly not true at all, because as we look around the planet we observe the complete opposite, nation that are highly religious also tend to be rather corrupt, oppressive and lack a clear demonstration of this “god given morality”, and the most non-religious, for example Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Belgium and New Zealand, tend to have cultures that are socially well balanced, fair, just and peaceful, and also the lowest crime rates, so clearly at even the most basic level this assertion fails.

Bet let’s go into the details a bit, because perhaps we missed something.

She writes …

this raises the question of who decides what “moral” is. Atheists want us to believe that human reason and intellect can define morality for us. This conveniently ignores the 100 million killed and untold suffering inflicted by totalitarian regimes that were expressly atheistic – just in the 20th century. 

Yes, she is indeed playing the Hitler / Stalin card. This well-worn argument has been robustly debunked numerous times and yet up it pops again and again. What happened, was not due to the lack of a religious belief. It may indeed be true that for Stalin non-belief was a policy, but it was clearly not a causal one, and as for Hitler, no, non-belief was never on his agenda. What is rather abundantly clear to most is that what drove it all was was an irrational fanatical political belief rather than the lack of any specific religious belief. We might indeed name names such as Hitler or Stalin, but we should not forget that they did not act alone, millions of others participated, and so what is also clear is that most who actively participated embraced some variation of religious belief, and yet this did not grant them immunity to buying into the fanatical political belief.

She goes on to claim …

It is extremely easy to advance a rational and reasoned argument why any number of people should be destroyed – we see this taking place daily across the globe. What prevents such ideas from becoming public policy in the U.S.? Not reason, but a conflicting worldview that draws heavily from Judeo-Christianity.

Nope sorry, but that claim is complete fiction, there is not one single example of a “reasoned argument” being deployed to argue for people being destroyed, and yet she claims this happens on a daily basis. Can I but point out that often the root cause of genocide is tribalism, and even the bible itself has the Judeo-Christian god explicitly directing his tribe to embark on a campaign of genocide. Reasoned arguments play no part, the psychology is instead driven by fanatical and completely irrational  beliefs.

What then follows within the rest of her article is the usual religious stuff. That can all be summed up as a claim that they hold the high moral ground and everybody else is simply leveraging that.

Lets test this

Here is an interesting question to ponder over.

  • Can you find just one verse in the bible that explicitly identifies slavery as a bad idea?

We know it is a bad idea, and yet from cover to cover the bible is a pro-slavery text and that includes the new testament (Slaves obey your masters). You can read about slavery in the bible here. If indeed we know that slavery is wrong, and there is nothing in the bible that opposes it, then how exactly did this Judeo-Christian tradition enable that to happen?

Beyond slavery, there are many other Judeo-Christian modes of thinking that we have abandoned because we have worked out that they were not in any way moral or ethical at all. Racism, homophobia, misogyney, violence, etc…


So what happens when we compare the lives of believers with the lives of those that do not believe?

If her assertion was actually correct, then those that are religious should, when measured, live lives that are on average morally superior and far more ethical, but what we discover when we review such studies is the complete opposite.

A couple of weeks ago Phil Zucherman wrote in the LA Times about a study that did exactly this …

Far from being dysfunctional, nihilistic and rudderless without the security and rectitude of religion, secular households provide a sound and solid foundation for children, according to Vern Bengston, a USC professor of gerontology and sociology.

For nearly 40 years, Bengston has overseen the Longitudinal Study of Generations, which has become the largest study of religion and family life conducted across several generational cohorts in the United States. When Bengston noticed the growth of nonreligious Americans becoming increasingly pronounced, he decided in 2013 to add secular families to his study in an attempt to understand how family life and intergenerational influences play out among the religionless.

He was surprised by what he found: High levels of family solidarity and emotional closeness between parents and nonreligious youth, and strong ethical standards and moral values that had been clearly articulated as they were imparted to the next generation. 

“Many nonreligious parents were more coherent and passionate about their ethical principles than some of the ‘religious’ parents in our study,” Bengston told me. “The vast majority appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose.”


The facts are rather clear, if you do truly strive to be a decent moral human being and desire to live a good life, then you will be far better off abandoning ancient texts that contain some rather repugnant ideas, and instead embrace reason and logic as the best possible means to identify the ideal way to express your empathy for others.

Here are three quotes I extracted for the LA article that really nails all this …

“For secular people, morality is predicated on one simple principle: empathetic reciprocity, widely known as the Golden Rule. Treating other people as you would like to be treated. It is an ancient, universal ethical imperative. And it requires no supernatural beliefs.” – Phil Zucherman

The results of such secular child-rearing are encouraging. Studies have found that secular teenagers are far less likely to care what the “cool kids” think, or express a need to fit in with them, than their religious peers. When these teens mature into “godless” adults, they exhibit less racism than their religious counterparts, according to a 2010 Duke University study. Many psychological studies show that secular grownups tend to be less vengeful, less nationalistic, less militaristic, less authoritarian and more tolerant, on average, than religious adults.” – Phil Zucherman

One telling fact from the criminology field: Atheists were almost absent from our prison population as of the late 1990s, comprising less than half of 1% of those behind bars, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics. This echoes what the criminology field has documented for more than a century — the unaffiliated and the nonreligious engage in far fewer crimes.” – Phil Zucherman

1 thought on “Claim: Without god you have no morality”

  1. Excellent essay, this, and it leads one to suggest that the anti-theist line should lead with the moral argument: Relegion induces immorality, criminality, and anti-social behaviour. Interesting.


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