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Debate: Is it possible for man to live a moral life without religion?

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The inspiration for this debate topic comes from several sources, and is not meant to be an attack on religion. The main inspiration was contemplation about the novel The Lord of the Flies. Is it the basic nature of man to devolve into savagery without moral guidance, or, given enough time, would man develop a moral framework to live by because of the inherent benefits to society? If so, could this happen without religion to frame the moral values against?

The related question is that if one assumes that religion is required for man to live a moral life, then what are the essential characteristics that religion must have in order for its adherents to live a moral life. Catholics, Jews, Protestants and Muslims follow different tenets of faith, but it would be wrong to call someone immoral simply because they are devout in one faith and not another. That implies that there's a common baseline of morality to certain faiths, and that a person who follows those aspects of that faith would be leading a moral life.

The purpose of this debate is not to come up with simplistic yes/no or right/wrong answers, but to use a thoughtful question to allow members of the CP community to express their views on the subject so that others can develop new insights from reading them.

Yes, it is possibleEdit

I don't want to write volumes here so I am going to refer people to a good book on this topic that I read recently. It is "Primates and Philosophers" by Frans de Waal. De Waal is a primatologist. The premise of the book is that the great apes exhibit behaviors that are the basis of moral action. So morality appears to have an evolutionary basis. De Waal also points to cross cultural studies of moral decision making that suggest that some moral thinking is basically hardwired and not dependent on cultural belief systems (including religious beliefs). It's pretty fascinating stuff.

The common belief seems to be that the theory of evolution and the phrase "survival of the fittest" means that brute force and violence are the route to evolutionary success. In fact, all sorts of physical and behavioral adaptations can be successful. In the great apes, social behaviors that promote cooperation, empathy and sharing have proven to be successful strategies for survival. MikeAndrews 09:52, 19 January 2009 (EST)

I believe it's absolutely possible. Whether one believes that we carry a divine spark or not, the reality is that we are all born as atheists in the sense that we have no knowledge of who or what to worship until we are taught by others. There is no reason to believe that a child could not be raised in a society where there no exposure to religion, but a thorough grounding in ethical values instead, and have that child grow up to lead a fulfilling and productive life. Cooperative society works better than every-man-for-himself anarchy, and that social factor along with the rule of civil & criminal law would be enough incentive to do the right thing or face material consequences. --DinsdaleP 19:54, 19 February 2009 (EST)

Yes, I daily witness others that seem to live a proper life. Most consider a person moral if they are a law-abiding citizen. I can split hairs on morals. Can you live a moral life without knowing morals? In the Roman Catholic Act of Contrition it says "in what I have done and what I have failed to do." You can be a good person but fail to reach Heaven because your good human nature is not enough. Having morals is not enough, you need God in your life.--jpatt 20:59, 19 February 2009 (EST)

I'm not sure that a law-abiding life and a moral life are the same thing. If I want to kill, steal, and otherwise do horrid things, and I only refrain because I'm afraid of getting caught and punished, am I, in fact, a moral person? --Benp 21:14, 19 February 2009 (EST)
That's the irony of it. You didn't commit a crime (law-abiding) but want to or fear the consequences (not moral). You are still perceived as being good when in fact you are not. Or the person that wants to do crime thinks they are moral for not committing the crime, they are still not. Can you be good without religion? Yes --jpatt 21:47, 19 February 2009 (EST)
I think it's possible to be good without being religious, Jpatt. I was raised a Roman Catholic, and was taught (in my case at least) that because of original sin and man's inherently flawed nature, I was born into a less-than-moral state and had to use my life to follow God's guidance back into morality and grace. Could it also be true, though, that living a moral life for its own sake reaps its own rewards in this life?
I've just been laid off from my job, for example, and have to spend the next 30 days training my colleagues to take over my functions to get my severance package. It could be tempting to make the least possible effort at training so that when I'm gone, the company will acutely feel the loss. That's not the moral thing to do, though, and I'm giving the transition my best effort. What's relevant is that I'm not doing it because a poor effort would cost me my severance, I'm doing it because I like my colleagues and don't want their performance to suffer because I didn't help equip them to succeed. You can be just as missed by leaving on a high note of professionalism as you can by leaving with a petty "since you don't need me, you figure it out" bailout. The former helps you more in life, though, because it's a small world and people have long memories. You can find that in life it's better to do the moral thing for the long term happiness and benefits it brings to you, and not just to avoid negative consequences. Making the moral choice in how I leave this job has nothing to do with religion, but it's a moral choice all the same. --DinsdaleP 23:10, 19 February 2009 (EST)
I agree 100%, I forgot my 'yes' at the end of my last statement. Sorry to hear about the job, certainly not good news. I'll be praying for you this week, new employment at the same pay scale. --jpatt 23:36, 19 February 2009 (EST)
Thanks for the kind thoughts - being cut in a weak economy isn't fun, but this happened once before to me in the 1990's and the job I landed in turned out to be better than the one I was laid off from. My hope isn't so much for a job with the same pay, but one that doesn't cost me time with my family. I have some special-needs kids, and I'd take a pay cut to be able to telecommute or work on flex-time as I do now to be there when they need me. The companies that offer this will be rewarded by incredibly loyal employees. --DinsdaleP 23:47, 19 February 2009 (EST)

Doesn't anybody read Kant anymore? Helloooo, categorical imperative? Kant doesn't mention religion at all in his works, and he's 99% right in his moral philosophy that says, basically, do not do anything that, if universally applied, would eventually contradict itself. Murder without reason, for example, fails this rule. Ckral

Yes. In Dante's "Inferno", the very first level of Hell is Limbo, realm of the virtuous pagans. They are not punished there, but then, they lack paradise. Dante’s work is not an authoritative source, but his ideas are reasonable and I agree with them. In Biblical times, surely in the all the lands without Christianity there were some virtuous people, and if there were even just one, God would not consign him to eternal torment in Hell.-David

Yes. I do. In short, my morals rely on respect. The argument that we need religion for morals is because of a fear of a higher power punishing us for breaking laws of morality. Morality is a social construct depending on environment, not always a spiritual one. -Nonobu

Religion, like all other such institutions (many of which are more relevant by now) is not responsible for morality. A cursory examination of the history of all religion, and an emphasis on the "big three" in particular make that observation an easy one to make. -JBall

Definitely. Saying that men can't be moral without religion would be like saying men can't be moral with religion as they are only moral out of a fear of divine retribution or reward. Either statement is absurd. While religion can definitely act as a source of inspiration, a system of morality and a system to reinforce adherence to morality, it's not a requirement. There are enough examples of non-religious moral people, non-religious immoral people, religious moral people and religious immoral people to prove that religion isn't the sole factor, but rather one of potentially many AdamV 02:01, 7 December 2010 (EST)

No, it is not possibleEdit

I'm going to play Devil's Advocate here. While I believe it is possible for an individual man not to profess a religion and still live according to a code of morals, I do not believe that it is possible for Man, collectively, to do so. Simply put: I believe that the development of concepts of morality and justice are so inextricably linked to religion as to be inseparable.

The moral man who does not profess faith in God is nonetheless informed by religious concepts of morality; thus, he is NOT living a moral life without religion. He is simply living a moral life in which religion is not the central fact. --Benp 20:05, 19 February 2009 (EST)

Those are interesting thoughts, but let me put an alternate premise forward. Most religions tend to have common values, like prohibitions against murder, stealing, deceit, etc. Given how wildly different some faiths can be, monotheism vs. pantheism for one example, isn't it more likely that man is inclined to develop moral codes that grow in sophistication along with their societies, and that these common, human-centric values are superimposed on different faiths rather than different faiths coincidentally arriving at the same moral codes? --DinsdaleP 20:32, 19 February 2009 (EST)
I would suggest that such a hypothesis is at least partially testable, thus:
1. Is there historical evidence of a civilization where concepts of morality and justice developed in the absence of religion, or before religion?
2. Is there evidence that a civilization can maintain concepts of justice and morality in the long term in the absence of religion?
To the best of my knowledge, no such evidence exists. Moreover, in the absence of God, I would want to know why those moral codes seem to be relatively universal. I think that you have to really strain credulity to claim that they're all due to biological imperatives. --Benp 21:12, 19 February 2009 (EST)
Hmm, lets see.. sweden, largest percentage of freethinkers. Lowest crime rate. Least murder percentage (just # of murders is retarded, that chunk of concrete out in the pacific claiming to be a 1-person country has the least murders... with only one person). Rated one of the best places to live. Gosh, I wonder if that has anything t do with morality?
You hinted that Sweden is "one of the best places to live", based on a large percentage of "freethinkers". Did a "freethinker" do this:[1]? Did that act have anything to do with morality? Karajou 15:00, 28 March 2012 (EDT)

There was a billboard in NYC subway station from an atheist group:
“A Million New Yorkers Are Good Without God. Are You?”
1. What is good/morality?
2. Who gets to decide what is good/moral and what is not?
3. Why should I care? If I decided killing someone is good, should I go ahead?(Kmcheng 12:07, 30 March 2010 (EDT))

Drawing upon the Old Testament, the Apostle Paul summed up the deleterious condition of man in Romans 1:

As it is written: There is none righteous, no not one;
There is none that understands, there is none that seeks after God."
They are all gone out of the way, they have together become unprofitable, there is none that does good, no, not one."
Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they have used deceit, the poison of asps is under their lips;
whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness;
their feet are swift to shed blood;
destruction and misery are in their way,
and the way of peace they did not know.
There is no fear of God before their eyes.
But we know that whatever things the Law says, it says to those who are under the Law; so that every mouth may be stopped and all the world may be under judgment before God,
because by the works of the Law none of all flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law is the knowledge of sin.
But now a righteousness of God has been revealed apart from Law, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets;
even the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ, toward all and upon all those who believe. For there is no difference,
for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. (Letter to the Romans, 3:10-23)

A holy God will not allow sin in His presence, (Hab. 1:13; Ps. 5:4; 94:20; Rv. 21:27) and on that basis alone those who want to live a "moral life" without God are excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven; they have about 70 years to do so, then comes the judgement. So the question should be: do you want Jesus Christ as your savior, or do you want Him as your judge? Karajou 14:17, 30 March 2010 (EDT)

A Former Atheist's OpinionEdit

I was an atheist for a long time. However, as a practicing physician, I have seen too much to claim that I am an atheist any longer. When I found God, my whole body felt electric with the holy spirit. My entire morality changed--I had morality before, but the values I had then were not grounded in anything but impersonal logic. The morality I found through the holy spirit moved me to become a better person, a better husband, and a better father. It is impossible to claim that God does not exist--it requires blinding oneself to so much evidence. Knowing God is the only way to higher truth.

A Former Christian's OpinionEdit

I was Christian for a long time. However, when examining the bible closely, and comparing it with evidence, I have seen too much to claim that I am a Christian any longer. When I realized the truth, I was freed from my shackles of belief. My entire morality changed -- I had morality before, but the values I had then were not grounded in anything except a magykal man in the sky ready to smite me if i disobeyed. the morality I found through logic moved me to become a better person, a better husband, and a better father. It is possible to claim that God does exist, as human knowledge does not encompass all, not even close. But, with the scope of what we can personally verify, the arguments and claims set forth by Christians have been largely proven false