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 possible

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 a 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?--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)

No, it is not possible

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)