Does Morality Depend on Religion?




Statistics on Religious Belief


According to public opinion polls, the vast majority of Americans (in excess of 90%) report that they believe in God, although significantly fewer say they are “certain” that God exists.  The percentage is much lower in some parts of the world (it is about 45% in Germany, for example), but it is fair to say that a majority of people in the world believe in a God of some kind.



Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents*



(Sizes shown are approximate estimates, and are here mainly for the purpose of ordering the groups, not providing a definitive number. This list is sociological/statistical in perspective.)


1.    Christianity: 2 billion

2.    Islam: 1.3 billion

3.    Hinduism: 900 million

4.    Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist: 850 million

5.    Buddhism: 360 million

6.    Chinese traditional religion: 225 million

7.    primal-indigenous: 150 million

8.    African Traditional & Diasporic: 95 million

9.    Sikhism: 23 million

10.                       Juche: 19 million

11.                       Spiritism: 14 million

12.                       Judaism: 14 million

13.                       Baha'i: 6 million




Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, as well as many “minor” religions believe in a personal God who created the universe.  (“Personal” means “personlike”…God is said to have a mind, to take deliberate actions, and have other properties common to persons).  Over 50% of the people on planet earth subscribe to one of these religions.  A personal God, while not necessarily omnipotent and omniscient, would certainly have to be very powerful and knowledgeable to be up to the task of creating the universe.  Typically, a personal God is believed to be morally good as well.  Of course, not all adherents of these major religions conceives of God in exactly the same way…a certain amount of variety is to be expected.


Hindus and Buddhists (which together comprise about 20% of humanity) typically do not believe in a personal God.  According to Hinduism, God is something called “Brahman”, which is difficult to describe or comprehend.  Brahman is fundamental to the nature of reality….a universal soul, or force that pervades everything and of which each persons’ soul is related (all souls are eventually reunited in Brahman, after many reincarnations).



Pascal’s Wager



Blaise Pascal, a 17th century mathematician, argued as follows:


1.  Either I can believe in God (and act accordingly) or I can choose not to.


2.  If I believe in God, and God exists, then my reward will be infinite (heaven).


3.  If I believe in God, and God does not exist, then there will be a small cost (waste of time going to church, etc.).


4.  On the other hand, if I don’t believe in God, but God exists, then my punishment will be infinite (hell).


5.  And if I don’t believe in God, and God doesn’t exist, then there will only be a small benefit (not wasting my time going to church, etc.).


6.  Therefore, I am infinitely better off if I believe in God.  I would be a fool not to believe.






God exists

God does not exist

I believe

Go To Heaven


small cost

- x (finite)

I do not believe

Burn In Hell!


small benefit

+ y (finite)



Utility of believing =                      ( - x) / 2   =      


Utility of not believing =               (- + y) / 2 =       -




Questions for discussion


What reason do we have for believing that God would send us to heaven or hell depending on whether we believe in God or not?  How do we know that God wouldn’t do exactly the opposite, or not send us anywhere?


Does the argument give us an epistemic reason to believe in God?  (I.e. does it give us reason to believe that God actually exists?)


Pascal’s Wager purports to provide a pragmatic reason for believing in God.  Does it?



Stephen Layman, “Ethics and the Kingdom of God”


According to the Secular View of morality:


          · There is no intelligent creator concerned with human affairs

· There is no afterlife

· The existence of morality depends on the existence of life with complex nervous systems


Layman argues that if God exists, then there is an afterlife:


The Argument from Satisfaction

1.  Earthly existence is unsatisfying for human beings.

2.  God (an all-good and all-powerful being) exists.

3.  God would not “leave our deepest longings unfulfilled.”

4.  Therefore, God will (probably) satisfy our longings after death.


The Argument from Justice

1.  It often happens that good people are miserable while the wicked prosper.

2.  God (an all-good and all-powerful being) exists.

3.  God would not leave “injustices forever unrectified”.

4.  Therefore, God will (probably) correct the injustices after death.


If there is an afterlife created by God for these purposes, then there are “transcendent goods”, in addition to the earthly goods that we are all familiar with.  The secular view denies that there are transcendent goods.


Just as Pascal’s Wager purports to be a pragmatic justification for belief in God, Layman notes that the secularist has a pragmatic justification for being moral:


One secular defense of the virtues amount to showing that society cannot function well unless individuals have moral virtue.  If we ask, “Why should we as individuals care about society?”, the answer will presumably be along the following lines: “Individuals cannot flourish apart from a well functioning society, so morality pays for the individual.”



A Pragmatic Justification for Following Moral Rules


1.  Moral rules, when enforced, protect people from each other and foster cooperation, making social goods possible.


2.  Members of society who are in good-standing benefit from the enforcement of moral rules.


3.  Therefore, each of us has an interest in being a member of society in good-standing (a member of society who is not ostracized or in jail, etc.)


4.  In order to be a member of society in good-standing, we must obey moral rules.


5.  Therefore, each of us has an interest in obeying moral rules.



This defense of morality Reese’s two questions we must now consider.  First, is it misguided to defend morality by an appeal to self interest?…Second, does morality really pay for the individual?  More particularly, does morality always pay in terms of earthly goods? –p.29


Layman’s answers:  Yes and No.  Yes, it is misguided to defend morality by an appeal to self-interest. 


Moral reasons are not the same as self-interested reasons.  Morality often requires self-sacrifice, which is incompatible with self-interest.  Also, if one does the right thing out of self-interest, then one is not doing it for a moral reason, and the action is not praise-worthy.


No, morality does not always pay in terms of earthly goods. 


People can often get away with--and even prosper from—wickedness.  If you live in a society that enforces moral rules, then it pays to be moral most of the time, but not always.  Thus, premise 4 of the argument above is false; it is too strong a generalization.  Moreover, if you don’t live in a society that enforces moral rules (if you live in a corrupt society or in no society at all), then it will seldom pay to be moral.


Layman concludes that “the institution of morality cannot be justified from a secular point of view.”


“We have seen that the institution of morality stands unjustified if participation in it does not pay (in the long run) for individuals.”


On the theistic view, morality does pay in the long run (God sees to that).


Layman seems to be giving an argument along the following lines…



The Argument from Enforcement

1.  If God does not exist, then moral rules are not (consistently) enforced.

2.  If moral rules are not enforced, then we have no reason to follow them.

3.  If we have no reason to follow moral rules, then they are not justified.

4.  Therefore, moral rules are justified only if God exists.




            Let’s examine premises 2 and 3.  There is some plausibility to the claim that we have no self-interested reason to follow moral rules that aren’t enforced, since doing so is often altruistic.  Consider the “Golden Rule” in its common formulation:  that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  If the Golden Rule isn’t being enforced, then it would better serve our interests to use others to maximize our own advantages, rather than treating them as we would have them treat us.  Of course, if we treat others badly, they are likely to treat us badly in return.  But this is just another way of saying that the Golden Rule is likely to be enforced most of the time.  In those instances where the Golden Rule really won’t be enforced, we lack a self-interested reason to follow it. 

But even if we lack self-interested reasons to follow moral rules, we may still have moral reasons for following them.  Lying to others may serve my selfish interests, but lying harms people and violates their trust, so I have moral reasons not to lie.  So, if “reason” means “any kind of reason, including moral reason”, then premise 2 is false. On the other hand, if “reason” means “self-interested reason”, then premise 3 is false, or at least question-begging:  Why think that the justification of moral rules depends on our having self-interested reasons for following them?  Either way, the argument appears to be unsound.


The fact that most people, most of the time, are better off living under a set of moral rules helps to explain why societies have moral rules.  But this does not mean that it is in each individual’s self-interest to follow moral rules all of the time.  When asked, “Why should I be moral?” the secularist can concede that there is not always an answer to the question that can be expressed in terms of self-interest.  Often, the answer will have more to do with the interests of others.


Oddly, Layman seems not to recognize this.  Suppose Hank is in a very bad mood and he is considering whether to go on a shooting spree.  If he does so, then he will cause great harm to other people and there will be no compensating benefits.  Isn’t this enough to make his action immoral?  Why does it matter whether Hank will ultimately have to pay for his crime?  Intuitively, it is morally wrong to go on a shooting spree, even if you get away with it.  But not according to Layman:  the institution of morality stands unjustified if participation in it does not pay (in the long run) for individuals.”  In other words:  if, in the long run, Hank is no better off for refraining from murder, then he has no moral reason not to murder.

          We have already discussed one moral theory compatible with secularism—Utilitarianism—according to which Hank’s killing spree would be wrong whether or not he is punished for it.  (It is wrong because it deprives others of happiness without creating any compensating benefits).  Isn’t it a good feature of the theory that it has this result?



The Hopeless Universe Argument


1.  Due to the irreversible process of entropy, the universe will eventually decay to the point where all life will cease to exist.*


2.  Unless there is a God, the end of life in the universe will be the end of all things that have value.


3.  If the future is devoid of value, then nothing that we do really matters.


4.  If nothing that we do really matters, then there is no right and wrong.


5.  Therefore, unless there is a God, then there is no right and wrong.



Divine Command Theory

According to Divine Command theory, an action is right if and only if it is in accordance with God’s commands.  Since we have free will, we can choose whether to obey God’s commands or not.  However, if we don’t, we will be held accountable by God.

          The two issues of what God’s commands are and how we are to know God’s commands can be separated from the Divine Command theory itself.  It is commonly held that the Ten Commandments are among God’s commands and that God’s commands are revealed by the Bible.


A Dilemma for Divine Command Theory

(as inspired by Plato and expressed by James Rachels, in “The Elements of Moral Philosophy”)


1.  Suppose God commands us to do what is right.  Then either (a) the right actions are right because he commands them or (b) he commands them because they are right.


2.  If we take option (a), then God’s commands are, from a moral point of view, arbitrary; moreover, the doctrine of the goodness of God is rendered meaningless.


3.  If we take option (b), then we will have acknowledged a standard of right and wrong that is independent of God’s will.  We will have, in effect, given up the theological conception of right and wrong.


4.  Therefore, we must either regard God’s commands as arbitrary, and give up the doctrine of the goodness of God, or admit that there is a standard of right and wrong that is independent of his will, and give up the theological conception of right and wrong.


5.  From a religious point of view, it is unacceptable to regard God’s commands as arbitrary or to give up the doctrine of the goodness of God.


6.  Therefore, even from a religious point of view, a standard of right and wrong that is independent of God’s will must be adopted.


          Let’s take a careful look at premise 2.  Here is what Rachels says in support of it:

“If he did endorse lying, God would not be commanding us to do wrong, because his command would make it right...Remember that on this view, honesty was not right before God commanded it.  Therefore, he could have had no more reason to command it than its opposite; and so, from a moral point of view, his command is arbitrary.”


“[I]f we accept the idea that good and bad are defined by reference to God’s will, this notion [of God’s goodness] is deprived of any meaning.  What could it mean to say that God’s commands are good?  If “X is good” means “X is commanded by God” then “God’s commands are good” would mean only “God’s commands are commanded by God,” an empty truism.”  (p. 51 of Elements of Moral Philosophy)



Notes Created August 16, 2005

Last updated August 16, 2005


These notes are provided as a supplement to the lectures and other course materials.  They are not self-contained, and are not a substitute for assigned readings.