Non Religious Morality

Reverend Francis RitchieMiscellany


While driving yesterday morning I was listening to Leighton Smith on Newstalk ZB, a station I do some work on from time to time. As someone who loves talk-back radio I thoroughly enjoy listening to Leighton even when I disagree with him as he is a master of the format. As I tuned in yesterday there was a discussion happening about religion and morality along with a discussion about Catholic beliefs around burials for the dead. The morality discussion was happening in the midst of the perception that with the decline of religion there has been a decline of morality. I’m not sure how the conversation started. At one point Leighton was asking people of religion to call up and make a case for why they believe that religion and morality could not be separated.

There is a common argument that one has to hold to a religious (as that word is popularly understood) worldview in order to have morals. Some people with a religious framework such as Christianity believe it and I’ve seen many people who don’t hold to any religion accuse those of faith of it. Poor stereotypes from the religious side argue that there is no reason to be ‘good’ if there is no God and that people who do not believe in God will be given to hedonism and descend into chaos. Poor stereotypes from the atheist side paint a picture that the only reason ‘religious’ people try to be good is because their religion ‘tells’ them to or they fear the consequences of not doing so.

In a Christian worldview it is incorrect to believe that one has to hold to a traditionally religious framework to be a moral person.

The terms ‘moral’ and ‘morality’ are fuzzy in their usage. For some it seems to mean nothing more than being a good person, with ‘good’ then needing to be defined. For some it’s a personal standard of right and wrong, and it can also be seen as a communal/cultural set of principles to determine right and wrong. I believe it’s worth seeing it as a body of principles, individual or communal, that enables us to weigh our decisions, thoughts, and actions between that which is good and that which is bad.

Understanding morality in this way makes it easy to see why people think traditionally religious frameworks are needed for people to be ‘moral.’ Traditional religions are usually communal, thus those within the community generally adhere to a codified set of principles to live by and those principles are most often attached to an overarching understanding of the world and life that give those principles meaning. Communal morality can be most easily lived out when such things are in place – agreed principles connected to a bigger understanding of life. Naturally in a more individualistic society the ability to have this becomes extremely difficult and therefore life becomes more chaotic. Nietzsche predicted it when he talked of the death of God in the minds of humankind.

Whilst it might be more difficult outside of a traditionally religious framework to develop a communal morality, this does not mean that people and communities cannot be moral. I’m not an atheist, so I can’t give a perspective through that lens though I know a case could be built for a communal morality that has evolutionary explanations around the pursuit of the common good that with survival (both individual and communal) as its foundation (and as a theist who has no problem with evolution, this sits within my own explanation of human development and I do not see it as excluding God). That aside allow me to explain, through the way I understand the world, why I believe one can be non religious yet still have a strong morality.

The way of Jesus is grounded in the idea that God created and that within God’s creation humanity carries the image and likeness of the creator. Of course, we hold to the view that things have been distorted, marred, and broken, but that does not deny that all people, in some way, still carry that image and likeness whether they believe in God or not. With this in mind it is my belief that morality, rather than being a written list of dos and don’ts as it is often characterised by those both from within and outside of a religious framework, is an extension of the character of God. Looking at the purpose of law in scripture and then the life of Christ through this lens is illuminating. I say that knowing there is a complex and difficult discussion to be had around what is in scripture in regard to law etc and what it all says about God – but that discussion necessitates a lot more time and space.

Because we are all created in the image and likeness of God, we are all moral people capable of doing that which is beneficial for ourselves, those around us, and the planet. When these things are engaged our humanity, in some way, reflects the character of God that is woven into all of us. But because the context that we find ourselves in is also broken and distorted, we are all (both the religious and the non-religious) also capable of doing that which is destructive to ourselves, others, and the planet.

The question for me isn’t about whether people can or cannot be moral beings with or without religion. That question is nonsensical for me as I believe we are all, by the very nature of our humanity, moral beings whether we agree about the big stories of life or not. We all have the potential for both good and evil. The question for me is about what’s shaping our nature that ultimately determines how our morality is lived out. I believe the more a society individualises, the more chaotic things get as people pursue their own individual moral framework that is often in conflict or at the expense of others.

I desire for my being to be shaped by what I believe to be the source of all that is good and life-giving, God. I want the same for others. It is in union with that source and my harmonisation with God’s intention for all things that my morality is hopefully shaped. The Church (even in view of all that can be criticised about it) with its traditions, reason, experience and scripture provide a framework and community in which that can take place. It’s my pursuit to illuminate that deep source of our humanity for others and to give them ways to engage the beauty, truth, and goodness that is present in their lives even when it’s hard to see it and even when we don’t agree on some of the bigger understandings of life. That said, because I believe that all people are moral, the principles and overarching story needed to determine communal morality can be agreed upon and pursued by people of all worldviews (the UN Declaration on Human Rights is an attempt at that) but in a society that worships the status of the individual that task becomes increasingly difficult. The question is always, what is the source? I believe the source we were designed for and therefore most flourish in, is God and therefore our unity with the Divine.

As an end note related to what I do in life, when I encounter other people, religious or not, I see a moral being. Every human carries the seeds of both goodness and destruction. It is my intrinsic belief that the Spirit of God is ever present in all people. Because of that, I don’t desire to determine what’s good or bad about every person I encounter and whether or not they measure up to some rule of what makes someone worthy or not. Rather, my overarching desire is to see those nuggets of goodness even when life feels really low, and to catch a glimpse of the Spirit in their life – to illuminate it, highlight it, celebrate it, and participate in it, all in ways that are understandable, meaningful and connected for those involved. That requires something richer than knowledge of a written code of conduct and it also requires that we see people in a way that is deeper than an arbitrary measure of good and bad.