Philosophy of Religion

Chapter  9: Religion, Morality and Ethics

Section 5 Morality as Secular and Utilitarian

People often think and many claim that morality is dependent on religion.  Some claim religious morality is superior to secular morality.  Some refer to the nearly universal association of morality with religion on planet Earth as evidence in support of their claims.  This is backwards!!

Religion is dependent upon and follows from morality and not the other way around.

Research is showing that morality is linked with and dependent upon both physical structures and functioning of the brain and on cultural inheritances.

MORALITY results form both GENES and MEMES !!!

Neuroscience is finding the brain structures and functioning that make for the "ethical brain".  How is this so?  Humans are social animals and as Aristotle put it zoon politikon.  As such they have evolved in part due to a capacity to relate to others and have empathy and sympathy for others that serves as the base for acceptance of basic rules of conduct needed to live with others in relative peace sufficient to support social or group life and then the advantages of social life.  Evolutionary Psychology is finding/hypothesizing the evolution of moral notions as an expression of the hardwiring. The brain appears to have structures evolved and passed on through our genetic makeup  (GENES) that provide for EMPATHY and SYMPATHY and CONCERN for OTHERS.  These each in some way enhanced survival ability for the social species of homo sapiens.  Morality is a result of and expression of those operations.  Particular moral expressions or rules are enunciated and passed on as cultural inheritances and thus MEMES.

The primatologist, Frans de Waal, was on of many who have argued that the roots of human morality lie in social animals such as the primates, including apes and monkeys. The feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity are necessary for the behaviors needed to make any mammalian group exist as individuals living in the midst of others.  This set of feelings and expectations of reciprocity may be taken as the basis for human morality. Neuroscientists are locating that sense in mirror neurons in the brain.

“Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are. Once thought of as purely spiritual matters, honesty, guilt, and the weighing of ethical dilemmas are traceable to specific areas of the brain. It should not surprise us, therefore, to find animal parallels. The human brain is a product of evolution. Despite its larger volume and greater complexity, it is fundamentally similar to the central nervous system of other mammals.”---Frans de Waal’s Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996)

Everywhere humans are found and where evidence exists of human culture there is evidence of a sense of morality.  While the particular moral rules may not be the same there is significant similarities and a commonalities in purposes served by moral codes.  Morality is needed for human community and humans demonstrate this world wide.  There is evidence that all societies have morality.  Is this because they could not exist without some sense of how we are to behave? Human beings are social beings -they have language which is a social creation. Humans could not live in groups without some sort of sense of how to behave in ways that enhances the survival of the group- hence sympathy and empathy are needed and they are part of the basis for morality: a moral sense.

There is now the study of Evolutionary Ethics and part of that is James Rachels’ Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (1990) and Frans de Waal’s Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996). Both claim that coming to grips with our moral sense involves looking not toward heaven but rather toward our fellow members of the animal kingdom, particularly the three great apes."--Tim Madigan

“The moral nature of man has reached its present standard, partly through the advancement of his reasoning powers and consequently of a just public opinion, but especially from his sympathies having been rendered more tender and widely diffused through the effects of habit, example, instruction, and reflection. It is not improbable that after long practice virtuous tendencies may be inherited. With the more civilised races, the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity has had a potent influence on the advance of morality. Ultimately man does not accept the praise or blame of his fellows as his sole guide, though few escape this influence, but his habitual convictions, controlled by reason, afford him the safest rule. His conscience then becomes the supreme judge and monitor. Nevertheless the first foundation or origin of the moral sense lies in the social instincts, including sympathy, and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals, through natural selection.”--Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, "Conclusion"

Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior

“Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are,” Dr. de Waal wrote in his 1996 book “Good Natured. READ Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior

In The Ethical Brain by Michael Gazzaniga (Dana Press: NY, 2005) the neuroscientist describes experimental evidence to support his claims that the left hemisphere of the brain operates to unify the various systems within the brain and serves as an interpreter to fashion stories that become the personal beliefs of each person.     Humans need beliefs and belief systems to make sense of their sensory inputs.  The human species reacts to events and the brain interprets the reaction.  Out of those interpretations there arise the beliefs by which people guide their actions.  Some of the beliefs lead to rules by which people will live.  And so there emerges a a moral sense upon practical considerations.  The left hemisphere continually functions to interpret events and to create stories to accommodate the sensory and ideational inputs.  Whenever there is information that does not fit the self image created by the interpreter or the conceptual framework or belief system previously held and operative, then the interpreter will create a belief to make sense of it in some manner or hold it in some way relation to previous information and beliefs.  The human species has a core set of reactions to challenges. Humans share similar reactions to situations.  They share the evocation of empathy and sympathy.  Humans have mirror neurons that evoke this reaction.  Other primate also have such mirror neurons.  They appear to make a social life possible. Gazzaniga holds that there exists some deep structure in the brain driving not only a certain common set of values as expressions of the evoked responses but also the need to create cultural edifices or social constructs for moral codes.  Thus religion evolves to satisfy that drive.

Religions may have begun from a instinctual reaction common to humans.  It evolved into a social support system and system of rationalizations (beliefs) that attempt to make sense of the individual responses to one another and to situations faced by all humans.

Gazziniga holds that there are neural correlates of the religious experience in the temporal lobes of the brain.  Temporal lobe epilepsy has as one of its symptoms a hyper religiosity.

Gazziniga holds for the possibility of a universal ethics for all humans based on the most basic of evocations shared by all humans.  Current research utilizing moral sense testing is producing interesting findings in support of the hypothesis of a genetic base for morality in humans.

For Gazzaniga humans want to believe, they want to believe in a natural order and they want a codification of their most basic empathetic responses towards others.  Gazzaniga wants science, as neuroscience to assist the human community to have what it appears to need and based on the best information available.

So humans are hardwired and programmed for morality and religion rides in on that as a context in which the programming results in producing a fuller expression.  This in turn is culturally transmitted and thus the human impulse is most often being routed through religious institutions and practices.

READ On scientific versus religious explanations of ethical behavior The Basis of Morality  by Tim Madigan  in Philosophy Now at  

There is consideration given to the impact of looking at morality as rooted in the evolution of the species and in the neural endowment of human brains.       READ: Is “the new neuromorality” a threat to traditional views of right and wrong? by Cathy Young in reason on line August/September 2005


Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard biologist, in Moral Minds (HarperCollins 2006) holds that humans are born with a moral grammar wired into their neural circuits by evolution. This system in the brain generates instant moral judgments.  This was needed in part because often quick decisions must be made in situations where life is threatened.  In such predicaments there is no time for accessing the conscious mind.  Most people appear to be unaware of this deep moral processing because the left hemisphere of the brain has been adept at producing interpretations of events and information and doing so rapidly thus generating what may be accepted as rationalizations for the decision or impulse and response that is produced rapidly by the brain without conscious attention even being possible.

Hauser has presented an argument with a hypothesis to be tested empirically.  That process is underway . There is considerable support for it already gathered in work with primates and in close examination of the works of and research now being conducted by moral philosophers as well as by primatologists and neuroscientists.

Marc Hauser and Peter Singer "Morality without religion" by, December, 2005

Consider the following three scenarios. For each, fill in the blank with morally “obligatory”, “permissible” or “forbidden.”
1. A runaway trolley is about to run over five people walking on the tracks. A railroad worker is standing next to a switch that can turn the trolley onto a side track, killing one person, but allowing the five to survive. Flipping the switch is ______.
2. You pass by a small child drowning in a shallow pond and you are the only one around. If you pick up the child, she will survive and your pants will be ruined. Picking up the child is _______.
3. Five people have just been rushed into a hospital in critical care, each requiring an organ to survive. There is not enough time to request organs from outside the hospital. There is, however, a healthy person in the hospital’s waiting room. If the surgeon takes this person’s organs, he will die but the five in critical care will survive. Taking the healthy person’s organs is _______.

If you judged case 1 as permissible, case 2 as obligatory, and case 3 as forbidden, then you are like the 1500 subjects around the world who responded to these dilemmas on our web-based moral sense test []. On the view that morality is God’s word, atheists should judge these cases differently from people with religious background and beliefs, and when asked to justify their responses, should bring forward different explanations. For example, since atheists lack a moral compass, they should go with pure self-interest, and walk by the drowning baby. Results show something completely different. There were no statistically significant differences between subjects with or without religious backgrounds, with approximately 90% of subjects saying that it is permissible to flip the switch on the boxcar, 97% saying that it is obligatory to rescue the baby, and 97% saying that is forbidden to remove the healthy man’s organs. . When asked to justify why some cases are permissible and others forbidden, subjects are either clueless or offer explanations that can not account for the differences in play.
Importantly, those  with a religious background are as clueless or incoherent as atheists.
These studies begin to provide empirical support for the idea that like other psychological faculties of the mind, including language and  mathematics, we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong, interacting in interesting ways with the local culture. These intuitions reflect the outcome of millions of years in which our ancestors have lived as social mammals, and are part of our common inheritance, as much as our opposable thumbs are.

Research in Neuroscience has proceeded so far as to call into discussion how humans are responsible for their actions and the degree to which all ethical thinking or morality is merely post facto rationalizations for the near automatic responses made to situations by the brain. READ: The Brain on the Stand  by Jeffrey Rosen on recent scientific work and its implications.

Morality may be rooted deep in the evolved workings of human brains with its mirror neurons and the operation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. READ: Morality and Brain Injury by Benedict Carey.  However, if you reflect a moment on the question of how people become moral (GENES for brain structures and functioning) and how they then acquire the exact moral precepts or rules (MEMES-moral codes and ethical principles)  by which they live you will probably realize that a number of factors come into play in the development of personal morality.  Indeed you will probably think that people become moral or learn about morality due to their involvement with:

  • Parents

  • Siblings

  • Friends

  • School

  • Religion

  • Media- television, films, videos, music, music videos

  • Advertising

How exactly each person develops their ideas about right and wrong is a subject being studied by psychologists.  This type of study is part of what is known as Moral Psychology.  One of the most famous of the psychologists who does such studies is Lawrence Kohlberg.  He has a theory of moral development based upon his research with people from very young ages through the adult years. 

His work confirms and expands upon an earlier theory by the American Philosopher John Dewey.

 Stages of moral development

John Dewey

Lawrence Kohlberg



I. Pre-conventional :  concern for self

1. Reward / Punishment

I. Pre-conventional concern for self

2. Reciprocity

II. Conventional: concern for self and others

3. Ideal Model -Conformity

 II. Conventional concern for self and others

4. Law and Order

III. Post Conventional: concern for others

5. Social Contract

III. Post Conventional  concern for others

6. Universal Principles



To understand each of these six stages read:

READ: Kohlberg’s Theory by Robert N. Barger  at

Kohlberg used scenarios to elicit responses from his subjects concerning their thinking about what makes an act right or wrong.  He was less concerned with their answer as to what they would do or approve of in others as he was interested in their reason for thinking as they did.  Here is a simplification of his famous Heinz Scenario:  

How would you solve the following scenario which Kohlberg used on his research subjects ?


A man named Heinz had a dying wife. The wife had an almost fatal disease.

The local druggist owned a $20,000 drug that could save her.


Heinz could not raise the money in time and he certainly did not have the cash to buy the drug.

Heinz therefore made a decision and that night he broke into the drug store and stole some of the medication.


Should Heinz have done that?

Why do you think that?

Kohlberg thought that fewer than 25% of people ever progress beyond the fourth stage and do so because of some event that presses them to develop further.

Events can force a person to move further.  The decision to have an abortion, to resist the draft or to assist your mother lying on her death bed to die quickly and with less pain and suffering are the sorts of events for which individuals must come to face just what it is that makes an action right or wrong.  It is at those times and through those events that individuals come to learn what their values are, who they are and what their moral rules will be.  Consulting with friends and religious advisors about such matters will bring much advice but leave the decision-making about the rules and the actions to the individual.

For more recent studies READ:  Learning Right From Wrong

Some humans reach a point of maturation where they reason about what they hold to be moral and immoral.  When they do so without reference to a religious basis for their values or beliefs that approach to morality is known as secular morality. Patrick Nowell Smith holds that not only are ethics based upon philosophical reasoning (secular ethics) different from and autonomous from ethics based upon religion but philosophical ethics is superior to religious ethics.

Secular ethics are a more mature and reasonable basis for morality. This is so because it is not so absolutist and considers consequences.

Religious ethics




Secular ethics




Religious ethics is so rule bound, similar to Hebrew morality, and non-reasonable, whereas, philosophical or secular ethics is oriented toward results and consequences. Reason based morality understands that moral rules are intended for rational animals and to serve a purpose. The rules are needed to resolve conflicts. The rules are for convenience. The rules govern by mutual consent. The adult understanding of the rules are as instruments with which a society achieves a purpose. Adult moral realism holds that if the rules are not achieving their purpose they are to be revised or abandoned altogether.

“Morality:  Religious and Secular” by Patrick Nowell-Smith 

Summary by Meghan Ramsay (QCC, 2004)

In his essay on religious and secular morality, Patrick Nowell-Smith argues that in comparison to secular morality, there are “infantile” aspects to religious morality.  Proponents of religious morality often believe that one who basis his ideas relating to morality on things other than some sort of higher authority (God), or one who uses a different (or incorrect) higher authority, lacks validity.  However, Nowell-Smith adamantly disagrees with the idea that morality is based upon following a set of commands given by a god.  In order to illustrate his point that religious morality is infantile, Nowell-Smith uses the study of children’s reactions to rules during a game of marbles performed by Piaget.  At the first stage, children do not abide by rules because they have no concept of what rules are.  However, eventually, they progress in their understanding of the rules of the game.  However, the children see these rules as unbreakable, unchangeable commands given from a superior person.  To the level two children, the rules must be followed simply because they are the rules and rules given by superiors are meant to be followed at all times.  For these children, the game is not the game unless every single one of the rules is followed to the letter.  It is this level two ideology that Nowell-Smith likens to religious morality.  In religious morality, people follow God’s commandments without question.  For persons who subscribe to religious morality, the rules are handed down to them from the supreme being, which makes them unbreakable and unquestionable.   

Furthermore, like children who undoubtedly see their parents as the delivery person of both punishment and praise, those who subscribe to religious morality hold God in a very similar position.  The child is constantly aiming to obey and please his or her parents, no matter how difficult it may be to discern exactly what type of behavior they desire, so as to receive the reward of praise, just as the person with religious morality is always trying to obey and please God, no matter how mysterious “his” commandments are, in order to receive favorable treatment and salvation.   

Nowell-Smith continues by using the older children in Piaget’s study as an analogy for secular morality.  The older children are now thoroughly well versed in the rules.  They grasp the concept that the rules were passed down to them, but now they are willing to question them.  Additionally, the older children in the study were willing to adapt and modify the rules to suit themselves.  While they realized that they were not the authors of the rules, they did come to see their power to ensure that the rules were conducive to their group’s desires.  Similarly, secular moralists realize that rules are a necessity in order to maintain some semblance of order.  However the secular moralist is willing and able to modify moral guidelines so as to ensure their relevance to both the individual and society.  Like the children in the study, the secular moralists have matured beyond mere acceptance of commandments and have moved into active participation in deciding what is most sensible in terms of morality. 

Nowell-Smith, Patrick.  “Morality:  Religious and Secular.”  The Rationalist Annual.  London:  Pemberton Publishing Co., 1961. 

There is a moral sense quiz by the Primate Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Harvard University that provides data in support of claims that religion is not needed for morality.  Take the quiz yourself at

Morality without Religion

On the question of whether it is possible to have morality without religion, see these works:

William K. Frankena, "Is Morality Logically Dependent on Religion?," Religion and Morality: A Collection of Essays, edited by Gene Outka and J. P. Reeder, Jr. (New York: Doubleday, 1973);

E. D. Klemke, "On the Alleged Inseparability of Religion and Morality," Religious Studies, (1975);

Kai Nielsen, Ethics Without God (Pemberton Books, 1973);

Alasdair MacIntyre and Paul Ricoeur, The Religious Significance of Atheism (New York, 1969);

George Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality," Rationality, Religious belief and Moral Commitment: New Essays in the Philosophy of Religion, edited by Robert Audi and W. Wainwright (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1986);

 Patrick Nowell-Smith, "Religion and Morality," Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 150-58;

 Robert Young, "Theism and Morality," Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. VII, No. 2 ( , 1977), pp. 341-351.

For an argument that worshipping God is incompatible with human dignity and autonomy, see

James Rachels, "God and Human Attitudes," Religious Studies, Vol. 7 (1971), pp. 325-337 and the reply by Philip Quinn, "Religious Obedience and Moral Autonomy," Religious Studies, Vol. 11(1975), pp. 265-281.

Marc Hauser and Peter Singer "Morality without religion" by, December, 2005



Mark S. Halfon, (2004, Nassau Community College) 

            That there is a difference between religion and morality is uncontroversial.  How, then, can atheism be interpreted as a moral alternative?  Although religion and morality reflect different values, they are deeply intertwined for most individuals.  In many cases, a person’s moral principles are grounded in religious commitments.  In other cases, people find the source of morality outside of religion, such as the inherent value of all human beings.  My central claim is that atheism rather than a theologically based value system offers the moral high ground.

            The principal problem with a divinely-based moral system is most obvious with respect to religious fundamentalism.  Religious fundamentalists typically claim that there is one universally true religion and only one path to salvation.  Christian, Jews, Muslims and others have taken this exclusivist position.  The underlying difficulty is there is simply no rational justification for preferring one religion to another.  All religions are based on faith, that is, a subjective feeling reflecting a personal preference.  If faith is the basis for one’s religious beliefs, then no one religion has any greater claim to truth than another.  But from the standpoint of the fundamentalist, articles of faith are magically transformed into universal truths. 

            When religious certitude is at the core of one’s world view, it is difficult to consider the possibility that one’s judgments are fallible.  As a result, religious fundamentalism provides a breeding ground for arrogance, hatred, and intolerance. The Muslim fundamentalists who attacked the United States on September 11 believed they were involved in a Jihad, and that God would reward them with eternal life.  Christian fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson spew their hatred by blaming the terror attacks on feminism and the American Civil Liberties Union.  Jewish settlers in Israel claim land in the Gaza Strip belongs to the Jewish people based solely on their biblical interpretations.  History has shown that religious differences have been at the heart of numerous disputes for centuries, and that countless thousands have been killed in the name of the Christian God, or Muslim God, or Jewish God.  

            Religious fundamentalism builds walls between people given the perception that God will reward only a select group.  According to Christian fundamentalists, for example, if Osama Bin Laden “finds Jesus,” then their God will reward Bin Laden with eternal life.  That same God will condemn Mother Theresa, Muhammad Ali, Mahatma Gandhi and other honorable men and women to eternal damnation. Is that the judgment of a loving and compassionate God?  Does a fair and just God place greater value on a few simple religious beliefs as opposed to the value of living a noble life?  If your God is compassionate and just, then the path to salvation will be open to all.  Bigotry and prejudice are moral evils, whether cloaked in racial, ethnic, or religious garb.              

            Atheists, instead, could base their moral ideals in humanism, that is, a philosophy that stresses the inherent value of all human beings.  The humanist perspective commands respect for all individuals regardless of their religious or political preferences.  Secular humanism avoids, if not condemns, the elitist tendency of religious ideologues.   There is no rational basis for asserting that one religion is better than another.  Theologians have attempted to justify their religious preferences based on an appeal to the bible.  Which bible?  Does the Old Testament, or New Testament, or Koran have any greater claim to truth?  Should biblical passages be interpreted literally or figuratively?   From a moral standpoint, atheists and humanists can avoid these complex, if not, unanswerable questions.  All human beings have moral worth regardless on whether or not there is one “true God.”  

            Additionally, atheists are more likely to act from pure motives.  That is, they are more likely to be motivated to do what’s right simply because it’s right, and not because of some ulterior motive.  There is no need to create fictions for the purpose of moral motivation.   There is no need to do what’s right because one wants to avoid punishment, whether the punishment take the form of incarceration or eternal damnation.  There is no need for honorable people to act for the sake of a reward, whether that reward is worldly or otherworldly.  Moreover, a God who will forgive any and all sins does more to promote wrongdoing than any secular philosophy.  Atheists can avoid these pitfalls since they typically embrace the principle that “Virtue is its own reward.”  

            Nonetheless, religion can and does play a meaningful role in many lives. A great number of individuals lead a morally good life precisely because of their religious commitments.  A deeply ingrained personal faith can provide one with the strength to face hardship and overcome adversity.  Hope abounds for those who believe an in an omniscient and omnipotent deity.  But God and religion are from necessary to act virtuously.  Believers and nonbelievers alike can live up to the highest moral standards.      

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© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2001. All Rights reserved.

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