Ethics exist in a world without religion

A commentary piece on the relationship between ethics and religion from the first prize winner of the bi-monthly PICH short story competition.

September 22, 2021

There are different religions in this world and one’s ability to subscribe to a specific religion is usually the unfortunate result of years of social engineering and indoctrination. In some rare exceptions, it is a magical occurrence resulting from free will and some personal individual journey. Ethics on the other hand are fluid and influenced by several social and geographical factors even though much like religion, a person’s ability to subscribe to different ethics is either a result of indoctrination or influenced by a self-introspective journey that allows them to be more aware of their identity and role in society. This article seeks to establish the difference between religion and ethics, the principles guiding each one and ultimately highlight that ethics can exist in a society without religion.


Establishing the definitions and link between religion and ethics is an essential first step towards understanding the theme. To date it has been difficult to find one definition of religion (one of the reasons why religion is not essential in maintaining an ethical society, as I will unpack later in the article) and the definitions have been classified under philosophical and sociological definitions.

The most simplistic and overall definition of religion is “[…] a relatively-bounded system of beliefs, symbols and practices that addresses the nature of existence, and in which communion with others and Otherness is lived as if it both takes in and spiritually transcends socially-grounded ontologies of time, space, embodiment and knowing.” as defined by James and Mandaville. While William and Elder define ethics as "a set of concepts and principles that guide us in determining what behaviour helps or harms sentient creatures"]

Ethics are essentially a general code of conduct that helps clarify what is good or bad as well as right and wrong. In this article I will interrogate the origins of the words religion and ethics, highlight their components, as well as establish the link between them with the main focus being proving how the world does not need religion to be ethical. If anything ethics can exist outside of religious constraints while religion cannot exist without ethical guidelines.

The origins of the words religion and ethics help us establish the position of each in our society as well as determine what transcends the other. Religion is a modern term which originated in the west and to date most languages do not have a word that means the same as religion, leading to most scholars agreeing that the term cannot be applied to non-western cultures.

This origin implies that religion is therefore a western concept and not original to most groups, cultures and races. The term ethics on the other hand originates from the Ancient Greek word ēthikós meaning in relation to one’s character from the root word êthos which means character, moral nature. Several languages across the globe have words that mean the same as ethics and the term can be used in different parts of the world to mean the same thing.


From the definitions and origins we also establish that ethics speak more to a person’s character, in how they relate to the physical world while religion speaks more to how an individual and a group of people relate to the spiritual world. The continued existence of religion is entirely dependent upon how humans relate to and treat each other, as well as how individuals value and appreciate each other, all of which is based on the ethical values of humans.

On the other hand religion has been the cause of so many disruptions and killings in the world with events such as World war 2, conflict in Sudan and South Sudan as well as other regions in the world, discrimination and segregation of others such as the LGBTIQ+ community, with all having religion or religious disputes as the common denominator. This points towards the conclusion that the world stands a better chance of flourishing and prospering without religion and using ethics as a guiding principle.

Both religion and ethics are influenced by and founded upon different components. Religion is a combination of behaviors, morals, beliefs, prophecies, texts, sanctified places, organizations as well as ethics. While ethics are entirely premised upon a society’s principles and values in relation to what is good or bad, what is right or wrong and often time’s ethics require that an individual thinks of others and how their decisions and actions will affect others. Ethics influence the study of anthropology, biology, sociology, history, economics, politics as well as theology.

Contrary to popular belief religion does not influence or create ethics as ethical principles. Ethics exist in secular parts of society such as medicine, business and politics however a religious doctrine cannot exist without ethical guidelines or a set of morals that believers are meant to follow. Based on this alone one can deduce that ethics exist beyond and above religious beliefs therefore a world without religion can still be ethical, while a world without ethics cannot be religious.

The most vital component with ethics is improving the character of an individual above all else, as people who are morally upright make for a well-integrated and functional society. Even though ethics may vary due to different cultures and/or societal standards the core of what is considered ethical behaviour is almost universal.

The same cannot be said for religion, in fact the concept on its own is very volatile, mostly because religion is not open to dialogue that challenges its existence as well its doctrines. This is unlike in ethics, where religion is mostly about the indoctrination of an person vs ethics which is about self-introspection and the conscious decision to be a better person.

While religion remains stagnant and exclusionary, ethics prioritizes all sentient beings in spite of the identities or beliefs they hold. Ethics alone allow for a more integrated society where people are seen as human first and an important part of the society. With religion the integration of other humans into the community is entirely dependent on how they identify, as well as which doctrine they subscribe to.

Where a secular person sees another human being worthy of being respected and treated right a Christian will see a Muslim, a gay person or a non-believer who needs deliverance before they can be accepted into the inner circle and treated as one of them. The fact that within Christianity as a religion there are so many divisions and the interpretation of the doctrines is very fluid, this has led to an ethical conflict within religion.

In conclusion not only can ethics exist in a world without religion, but the world will most certainly become a better place if humans were to place higher importance and priority being ethical before centering everything on religion. Religion is not a necessity, if anything a highly religious society proves to be more harmful than a non-religious ethical society.