Skip to main content

What Is the Relationship Between Religion and Morality?

Dr. Thomas Swan has a PhD in psychology from the University of Otago. He specializes in the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion.

All major religions claim that we are immoral creatures without the instruction of gods.

All major religions claim that we are immoral creatures without the instruction of gods.

The Ubiquity of Religious Morals

Many people regard morality as evidence for supernatural intervention in human development. In every major religion, a divine influence is proposed as inspiration for historical texts that have shaped our moral values. Whether it is the Ten Commandments, the Five Pillars of Islam, the Eight Fold Path, or the Hindu Purusarthas, each decree supposedly guarantees a pleasant afterlife because each is endorsed by one or more deities.

Followers of these faiths are either unwilling or unable to theorize how right and wrong could have arisen without divine prescription. Yet, it is of paramount importance that we understand the origins of our moral leanings. The justice system is derived from our conclusions about morality, and the actions of those who deviate from moral norms can only be understood once the root of our acceptable behavior is delineated. The attribution of our good nature to supernatural beings has prevented this understanding.

This article will examine the reasons why morality is embedded within religious thought and practice, and why the evolution of morality is incomplete without our cognitive predilection for gods. We begin with the main reasons for the close relationship between religion and morality.

1. Conceptual Similarity Between Morals and Deities

The gods that determine our fate beyond death are often perceived to be mystical, benevolent (just), intangible, absolute, and eternal entities with a penchant for influencing the will of humankind. At the dawn of civilization, morality must have appeared in a similar light: a formless, mystical, and intuitive way to live in peace.

To imagine this ancient scene, think about how you perceived morals as a child. For a child, there is no research or philosophy to draw on. The only way to learn morals is through instruction, which may lead to reverence for these mysterious and beneficial laws. These features of morality may therefore cause people to attribute it to gods that share the same qualities and elicit the same reverence.

Their conceptual similarity even appears to cause associations between morality and other forms of direct infusion, whether terrestrial (e.g., historical figures), alien, or supernatural (e.g., karmic forces), such is the pervasiveness of religious thought when our minds attempt to comprehend the unknown.

Gods and morality share a place in the unknown.

Gods and morality share a place in the unknown.

2. Religious Morality Improves Social Cohesion

Evolutionary psychology tells us that the more a group shares and follows a common moral code, the more they will cooperate with each other. This cooperation brings success in conflicts with competitors, meaning that moral dispositions have become naturally selected facets of the human condition.

However, everyone cheats from time to time, and often the only thing that can prevent that is supervision by our peers. If someone believes that a god, spirit, or dead ancestor is watching, they will act as if under permanent surveillance. This appears to enhance moral behavior, giving religious groups an advantage over nonreligious rivals.

This advantage has left an enduring footprint on the human brain: a superstitious trigger for moral behavior, which works for atheists and theists alike. For example, an experiment by Shariff and Norenzayan found that when people were unconsciously primed about concepts related to gods, spirits, and prophets, they were more likely to be generous in an economic game. Another experiment by Jesse Bering showed that participants were less likely to cheat when told that a ghost was in the room with them.

Thus, humans appear to have evolved to become more susceptible to belief in judgmental deities and spirits because of the moral behavior it encourages. This means that religious belief is inextricably linked with our sense of morality on an unconscious level. Religious belief intensifies our willingness to display moral behavior, and the need to follow a moral code reduces the scrutiny that we apply to supernatural propositions.

Jesse Bering Explains His Research

3. Religious Morality Grants Us Dominion Over Life

Our evolutionary struggle for superiority over the beasts of the Earth may have left us with a disposition for identifying and exaggerating traits that separate us from those beasts. For example, morality and love are seen as that which makes us special and distinct from an inferior animal kingdom. Religion finds itself in similar territory when claiming that we have a unique purpose, a soul, and an afterlife that is off-limits to non-humans. To justify these claims, morality and love are coopted by religion and said to be divinely prescribed to us alone.

In many religious traditions, morality is portrayed as a gift from the gods: a piece of their ultimate perfection that can be assimilated by us, making us special, superior, and closer to our archetypal image of perfection, and less like the inferior animals beneath us. Morality and love are deemed to be sent from the gods because we want these human traits to be perfect. It is a form of apotheosis (i.e., attributing the most perfect aspects of ourselves to something that is perfect in origin).

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

This apotheosis may seem egotistical, and that is the point: it satisfies our evolved desire for superiority over the species that compete with us for survival. Furthermore, it is a position that supposedly fits with the evidence. Animals will often kill indiscriminately for food, kill their own young, and leave their weaker offspring to die.

However, animals are not completely bereft of moral behavior. Primates, lions, and other pack animals cooperate in groups, look after their own, and appear to feel pain and anguish at the loss of family or allies. Regardless, the fact that our morality surpasses that of other species makes it easy to assume that it has supernatural origins.

Religion uses morality to justify the claim that animals are excluded from divine rewards.

Religion uses morality to justify the claim that animals are excluded from divine rewards.

4. Religious Morality Increases Prestige

To be thought of as a good person is to have an advantage in matters of trade, friendship, and romance. It matters not where you believe your morality comes from; only that people recognize and approve of your moral code. Wearing the markers of a particular religion or performing public rituals (e.g., prayer) makes it easy for people to recognize you as a person who follows a particular moral code.

Of course, many people identify with religions to "free-ride," enjoying the advantages of appearing moral without demonstrating it. Thus, this link between morality and religion does not make people more moral, but it does make them more religious (on the surface), and it explains why it has benefited religions in terms of cultural selection to tie their faiths to morality.

If I saw a farmer or a businessman not belonging to any church at all, I wouldn't trust him with fifty cents. Why pay me, if he doesn't believe in anything?

— Max Weber

Religious displays show that the individual adheres to the morals of that religion.

Religious displays show that the individual adheres to the morals of that religion.

5. Religious Morality Generates Power

Throughout history, people who have claimed to know about divine rules and punishments have been recognized as wise prophets deserving of attention and respect. However, those who have espoused rules without any supernatural backing received less attention because the consequences of not following them were less severe.

The clergy have therefore received much respect and power for their supposed knowledge of divine justice, encouraging them to exaggerate the connection between their particular faiths and morality. Other power-seekers such as monarchs have reinforced this connection by seeking the blessings of clergy for their own "divine" rule over their subjects.

The coronation of monarchs often requires the divine blessings of clergymen.

The coronation of monarchs often requires the divine blessings of clergymen.

6. Religious Morality Establishes Control

The belief in a supernatural being that passes judgment and wrath upon immoral humans is undoubtedly a factor in people unreservedly complying with the moral code that is supposedly endorsed by that being.

Fear of damnation is an effective cudgel, whereas other proposed origins for morality leave room for questions. Thus, there has always been a desire to promote divine morality because it allows for a greater level of control over the populace and a greater chance of success in intergroup conflicts.

Hell can convince people to follow the rules.

Hell can convince people to follow the rules.

What Came First, Religion or Morality?

Organized religion requires a civilization in order to exist, so it could not have been the architect of moral behavior. Humans and their ancestors lived in groups for hundreds of thousands of years prior to the religions that allegedly possess a divine moral code.

Is one to conclude that before religion we were cooperating within tribes, yet still killing each other without reservation? Even primates, elephants, and other pack animals have managed to avoid such barbarism without a couple of engraved stone tablets. Religion may have provided the first written account of a moral code, but it cannot be the origin of morality.

Another reason why religiously-decreed morality isn't divine or original is the evidence that it is flawed. For example, the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments prohibit adultery, a potentially innocuous act, yet rape doesn't receive a mention. Only in recent centuries has rape become a crime without conditions. However, the rape of another man’s wife (adultery) was always seen as wrong because of men's fear of cuckoldry and their treatment of women as property.

One can only conclude that the Commandments were a mundane product of an ancient human society that had not advanced enough for rape (nor slavery, for that matter) to be part of their moral code.

The Future of Religious Morality

There are many reasons why the relationship between religion and morality is a close one. Like an appendix, religious morality once served a purpose, and it even left a lasting footprint on our psychological makeup. Nowadays, however, its prosocial advantages are required less, and our lack of understanding regarding how and why our moral code exists is causing society to stagnate.

Despite religious opposition to Darwin's theory, it is evolutionary psychology that is unlocking the origins of both religion and morality. Consider a religious man who sacrifices his life to serve the divine because he believes he will live forever in paradise. Although this leads to his death, the act is still driven by a desire for (eternal) life: a survival instinct. Our biological foundation is inescapable, even when exploring the religious mind.

Theists are all too aware of the antiquated morals that appear in their holy books. To many, it hints at a 2000 year-old human moral code rather than a set of infallible divine principles; a realization that is leading to increasingly desperate interpretations of sacred texts to downplay the bigoted and monstrous principles of dead or dying cultures.

Further Reading

  • Religion and Morality
    McKay, R, & Whitehouse, H. (2015). Psychological Bulletin 141(2), 447-473. --- This peer-reviewed paper takes a deeper dive into the relationship between religion and morality by drawing on findings from cognitive psychology and anthropology.

© 2013 Thomas Swan


Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on July 06, 2020:

I would argue that the main reason the West is not stoning and hanging people in public is because our society is no longer completely dominated by Christianity. The last time Christianity dominated our culture (to the extent that Islam dominates the Middle East now) was in the 1500s, and the West's level of barbarism then was perhaps worse than Islam today. The Renaissance and Enlightenment began an erosion of that influence, and with it the end of Christian barbarism. So, right now, the West is on a better moral footing, but let's not be hypocritical when criticizing Islam, because that is our past.

Neil Walker on July 04, 2020:

Thanks for this article which is widely debated. I would however like to raise a particular point which is that different societies also see morality differently.

A good example is that in the Sharia/Islamic law environment Public execution (beheadings, hangings, thrown from high buildings and stonings) is the norm and accepted while in the West or democratic world it is deemed as barbaric and outdated.

In your view Who is right and who is wrong or which society has the better morals?????????????????????

Terry lynn on July 09, 2018:

This article has been helpful for my research. Thank you

bullshugga on February 14, 2017:

Morality is legislated by law, by society and by media. Parents admonish kids about appropriate behavior. If not, they become monsters. Criminal law changes over time as society changes and adopts ideas. So, while feminism has produced essentially marriage fraud among women, as in supporting the idea that they can sabotage their relationships intentionally to get out with all the goodies, money and kids. The rich can afford to pay lawyers to go to trial, the poor cannot. That's why the poor are in jail for a few joints and the rich are selling pounds of marijuana and perhaps even using the US Military and war as a cover to get heroin from Afghanistan. The talk on this subject is absurd. Morality arguments are for academics who think they are smarter than everyone else, but then once and a while are reminded how the rich got rich and run the world. And don't forget, when the academics want socialism, they have to ask permission from the rich 1% who say, sure, we'll still run things...

CYNTHIE MTSUNGIE on April 27, 2016:

I support the view that morality and religion are inseparable .for humanity strives for moral perfect but it can not do so unless helped by the divinity . being moral need help ,u can not be moral at your own . phillipians 3

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 09, 2015:

Thanks Hannah. I think deciding what we believe may be half the problem; meaning there's a little too much believing, and not enough skepticism. I think it's quite easy to go from a mere belief to the black and white of right and wrong. We'd probably do better as a society if we questioned the source of our beliefs, asked if we're motivated in some way to hold them, and used that as a source of skepticism. This can extend to judging others, as I think this sometimes stems from a motivation to enhance one's reputation while damaging someone else's. The basic morals are like scientific facts in a way: so well supported that questioning them would require an incredible amount of evidence. Understanding their formation and development in evolution wouldn't hurt though. I think anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and neuroscience could do a lot to help us refine our moral code.

Hannah David Cini from Nottingham on March 08, 2015:

An interesting article. I agree that there are a lot of people who sadly use morality and religion for negative motives but I hope that there are exceptions. In the end everyone has to decide what they believe and I don't think it can help but affect what they decide is right and wrong. Hopefully part of that conclusion will include realising that they can't decide for other people and not judge or be haughty. Without agreement on basic morals however (don't murder, steal etc) we would have anarchy.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on January 04, 2013:

Thanks skeltop, I suppose the best example of why the law is nothing more than a written version of the local moral code would be how laws differ across cultures. Do some people think the law is more than this though? It's an interesting point for you to pick up on, I only added it towards the end because I wanted an example of how this kind of discussion has practical application.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on January 04, 2013:

Thanks for the comment someonewhoknows. I agree, it's important to preach tolerance for all beliefs, including religious ones. However, those believers who preach a single path to righteousness are typically intolerant of other beliefs and cultures. It is a stretch to ask me or anyone else to tolerate their beliefs when they do not reciprocate. These intolerant people are typically religious believers. Nevertheless, I do still tolerate their beliefs because I would become like them if I didn't. However, I make an effort to voice my disagreement with religious morality as often as I can, even if I tolerate it in others.

skeltop on January 03, 2013:

Countering the oft repeated statement that "you cannot legislate morality," I am pleased to see the brief acknowledgement at the beginning of your article that, indeed, the law is nothing but a legislation of morality. This is so, as you suggest, whether or not religiosity is the basis for our mores.

SALVAONEGIANNAOLCOM from south and west of canada,north of ohio on January 03, 2013:

Religious morality may or may not be the same as secular Social morality due to the differences between differing Religious and non religious groups perception of morality. Meaning that many religions have there own peculiar positions on morality because of their respective religious leaders and the origins of their particular religion and those who see themselves as moral even to the extent of being seen as immoral by either religious and other non religious social groups which includes other races and nationalities as well as those groups seen as social as well as religious outcasts such as gays as well homophobes . Because there are those of us who feel that just because we see other cultural and religious practices as obscene and immoral we also feel that they also have the right to their beliefs as we have a right to our beliefs as long as we don't try to force those beliefs on others. Problems occur because close interaction between these groups exists and that can cause friction on all sides due to a lack of tolerance by some individuals who simply can't stand someone with different beliefs influencing their children or their social structure within their chosen belief system.

We all have God given right to life, liberty and happiness as long as they don't depend on the destruction of the rights any one else has to their's. Why do you suppose we in the United States had so much friction between different cultural groups immigrating here from so many different cultural groups worldwide religious as well as secular?

They each came here and more or less lived together in small communities at first because of the cultural differences they all had as well as the cultural they all shared already with each other from birth.

This includes religious culture as well.

Related Articles