Ethics can exist in a world without religion

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

August 30, 2021

ETHICS DEFINED

According to the Oxford dictionary (2021) ethics refer to the moral values that control an individual’s behaviour. It is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with morality and its principles.

Religion is the belief in the existence of the supernatural, deities or gods and the activities that are associated with the worship of these deities and/or the teachings of a spiritual leader. It can also identified by the grouping of people with shared dogma and beliefs in the metaphysical. (Oxford dictionary)

Secularism refers to the belief that religion must not be involved in the organization of society or education. It emphasizes on the separation of religious institutions and the state. (Oxford dictionary)

Humanism is a progressive philosophy that states that without religion or other supernatural beliefs, humans are able to lead ethical and well-meaning lives that aim for the greater good. (American Humanist Association)

INTRODUCTION TO ETHICS

John Lennon once said in a song, “Imagine there’s no religion it’s easy if you try.” Imagine a world without holy wars, religious extremists, the sharia law and many other atrocities committed in the name of religion.

Now then picture a world without segregation, where men and women are treated equally and given equal opportunities. A world where people’s goodness stems from within and not a desire for heavenly reward or fear of eternal damnation after death. Most importantly a world where people take responsibility for their actions without blaming unknown entities.

Imagine a world where we follow the scientific method especially when it comes to matters of health or understanding the universe. A world where ethics and morals supersede ego, religion and all other non-rational train of thought.

THE CRUX OF THE MATTER

Ethics and morality are not inherently religious they are instead independent of religion, a person can be good or bad regardless of whether they believe in a god or not. The purpose of religion was as a means to find purpose in life, to quell our existential dread and also provide answers to the questions about the universe.

Nowadays religious beliefs are indoctrinated into children at a young age. If a child was to be raised in a Christian household he or she is more likely to become a Christian and the same goes for children raised in Muslim, Jewish or Hindu households.

If humans are nothing more than the product of natural forces operating in an indifferent universe then where do our morals come from? Religious people are quick to assert that divine forces are at play. If so then where does evil come from? The same people will either hold the devil or the idea of free will as the culprit.

Nevertheless invoking unknown entities isn’t a solution and we thus have what is coined the Problem of Evil. Epicurus once said, “Is it that God wants to prevent evil, but is not able to? If so he is not omnipotent. If he is able to but does not want to, then he is malevolent. If he is both able and wants to, then why is there evil? If he is neither able nor wants to, then why call him God?”

The Greek philosopher Plato came up with Euthyphro’s Dilemma which says that God either embraces moral values as naturally occurring because they are good or that these values are good because he created them. Michael Shermer (2005) in The Science of Good and Evil, states that moral principles in human cultures are as a result of the laws of nature, cultural forces and contingencies of history.

Shermer further says that our Paleolithic ancestors created these moral views over thousands of years ago, we simply inherited and fine-tuned them to suit our own cultures. Moral sentiments transcend us and are a product of an impersonal force known as evolution.

Human beings evolved as a social species. Even before religion was invented our ancestors could coexist very well. They stayed in groups and looked out for one another which meant that the group survived to pass on its genes to the next generation. Philip Kitcher (2014) in Life after Faith, states that humans evolved from hominids that had some of the traits required for a full ethical life. Several primates also have neurotransmitters which are genetically encoded and incline them to take pleasure in the company of other primates similar to them.

Furthermore the concepts of sharing water have been found present in troops of chimpanzees. This is highly significant because the idea of sharing touches on both ethical and moral issues. This then shows that even in chimpanzees where the concept of religion is more alien than deities, ethics and morals are still a fundamental part of existence.

Human ethics have no religion, people were coexisting long before religion was created. The exact time in which humans initially became religious is still unknown but research in archaeology has shown compelling evidence for religious behaviour from around the Middle Paleolithic era which is about 45 to 200 thousand years ago. Over the years we have invented more than 10 000 religions that constantly preach peace and unity but it is never achieved. Instead, we always hear of holy wars, children in churches being molested by priests or people being assaulted for their religious beliefs or lack thereof. As an example, there are about 13 Islamic countries in which atheism is punishable by death.

A lot of the religious morality especially in mainstream Abrahamic religions stems from the want for eternal reward after death in the form of going to heaven however ethics transcends the need for an eternal reward after death. Robert Green said, “Morality is not distinctively Christian or Mohammedan, it is human and does not belong to any -ism nor does it depend on the supernatural, book or creed.

Morality is itself a foundation.” In Zimbabwe we have the culture of Ubuntu or Hunhu that was a traditional form of humanism that predates Christianity in Southern African countries.

RELIGION THROUGH THE TIMES

Many Protestants were killed for their beliefs during the Reformation and the disruption led to wars and more persecutions all in the name of religion. The colonization of Africa by the Europe in the 1800s was aided by the Christian missionaries. Walter Rodney (1972) in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, states that these missionaries were the agents of colonialism and that they were also part of the colonizing force as were the white settlers. Religion was used to exploit Africans and keep them docile while the colonizers did as they pleased. Christianity was also forcefully indoctrinated to slaves in plantations in the United States. Islam was also spread rapidly and violently through conquest and wars by forcing it onto the people they conquered.

Nowadays more and more people especially youths are losing their faiths. There are even theists who are unaffiliated with religion and people who label themselves as spiritual but not religious. In a survey done by Harvard University it showed that more of their freshman identified as agnostic or atheist than as Roman Catholic or Protestant. The statistics were as follows, 21% as Agnostic, 17% as Atheist, 17% as Catholic, 17% as Protestant, 10% as Jewish, 3% as Hindu, 3% as Muslim and 12% for other. Millennials are without a doubt leaving their religions.

Albert Williams (2014) in Why Our Children Will Be Atheists states that in the next century to come religion will become obsolete. It will be then replaced by a new model of human understanding. He further gives two more possible outcomes, firstly religion will either adapt to a more modern world or that religious dogma will replace our current understanding and thus turn the world backwards. Religion can be used to spread hate, fear and ignorance among people. As of yet we are living through a pandemic and now more than ever we need to follow the scientists, doctors and nurses who are on the frontlines doing their best to help curb the spread of the virus. These people have dedicated their lives into research and are facing opposition based on pseudoscience perpetuated by religion.

On the other hand religion has done some good and whether we like it or not it will forever be carved in the history of mankind. Whenever there has been a gap in human knowledge we have used religion to fill in the gaps with the metaphysical. A number of religious entities also feed the needy and give shelter to the homeless. Nevertheless such acts of charity and philanthropy are done by nonreligious individuals and humanist organizations even more so than religious entities.

Religion has also contributed to a lot of us being where we are today, encouraging cooperation, enhancing human interaction, building civilizations and trust among strangers in congregations. However on the downturn it also builds walls of separation between competing factions which leads to a lot of hate. Religious people claim that they have more meaningful lives and moral values than the nonreligious. Their belief works like a placebo and when people genuinely believe that their lives have some divine purpose, they may be happier.

Ivan Karamazov believes that in the absence of God everything is permitted, this leads to the belief that without religion the world would fall into chaos. There may be people who share Ivan’s belief and it is no lie that if some people were to realize that there is no divine judgment after they die, they may be inclined to do as they please. However, such people especially psychopaths still exist whether people believe in gods or not. Furthermore, conflict is natural, normal and neutral, so whether people are religious or not it will always exist and it is also human nature just as ethics.

A common question asked by the religious is how the nonreligious find purpose in life. Since most religious teachings say that the purpose of life is to gain acceptance and mercy from a deity. Without this belief or faith, they argue that nonbelievers will fall into despair, lose all hope and maybe even take their own lives. There’s a misconception that to the nonbeliever, life having no inherent meaning will lead him or her down a nihilistic path but that is not always the case as the nonbeliever is free to create whatever subjective meaning to their life they deem fit.

Death being uncertain and final gives our short existence here on earth much more meaning. Life hence becomes a gift because at the end of the day we are all we’ve got and if that doesn’t inspire us to treat each other with love and compassion I don’t know what can. Albert Williams (2014) states that the absence of a god doesn’t automatically mean that life has no purpose, or that our existence is meaningless. As a matter of fact, there is far more purpose in life than the limited, unproven and outdated explanations promised by religion.

It goes without saying that religion is slowly but surely becoming obsolete and at some point may eventually be replaced by a new way of thinking. Lastly a quote from Marcus Aurelius from Meditations says, “You should live a good life, if gods do exist and they are fair they will not care how righteous you have been and will instead welcome you based on the values you lived by. If gods exist and they are unfair then you shouldn't want to worship them. If gods don't exist, then you will be gone but will have lived a decent life that will live on in the memories of your remaining loved ones.” As such religious or not, a world governed by ethics and morality is achievable.

FURTHER READING

• Philip Kitcher (2014), Life after Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism, Yale University Press

• Albert Williams (2014), Why Our Children Will Be Atheists, first edition,

• Walter Rodney (1972), How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Black Classic Press

• Michael Shermer (2005), The Science of Good and Evil, Times Books

• Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

• Oxford dictionary, online available at https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com

• American Humanist Association, online available at https://americanhumanist.org/

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