Does Ethics Need a Foundation in God?


I recently attended a debate on this subject, and have been mulling over it ever since.

Why can those who reject religious doctrines, and therefore acknowledge moral relativism (to reject pre-established systems of absolute morality, i.e. religion, is to assume either that one’s own self defined morality is absolute - a rather arrogant and easily delusional assumption - or to acknowledge that there is more than a single answer to every moral question), not hold themselves to decent moral standards?

In fact, I would argue that to practice modern Christianity is to, on some level, acknowledge moral relativism. Modern Christians have a historically unique interpretation of the Bible. Many things once considered biblically ethical to do are no longer considered ethical at all, e.g. slavery, or stoning to death. The fact that there can be interpretations of the Bible at all is a testament to the fact that we as humans can be wrong about morality (it’s happened many times). The fact that morality, even from the Christian perspective, can change, proves that it is not absolute (if morality were absolute, Christianity would be completely unchanged in the past two millennia). This doesn’t mean you can’t be sure about your own morals, only that we all agree: morality is obviously subject to revision.

To be an “ethical” or “moral” person, I think, is to be both rational and compassionate. Without compassion, rationality easily becomes selfish malice. Without reason, even those with the best of intentions can fail to act in a morally responsible way. We see this when parents of sick children pray for healing rather than call an ambulance, and thus sentence their children to death. To be rational and compassionate is to want the best for all while still being pragmatic and open to critical thinking, a foundation from which we can draw many moral lessons such as “treat others the way you would like to be treated” and construe every significant ethical point that we consider absolute in our society, e.g. murder, rape, thievery are wrong.

But where do rationality and compassion come from, if not from God? One of the big arguments in this debate was that without an arbitrary moral authority, morals have no weight beyond the individual and thus cannot be meaningful. If morals are relative, nothing can be considered truly right or wrong and murder can be righteously justified as easily as love.

However I believe reason and compassion have a completely natural and very human foundation. Reason, of course, I think we can agree is an innate property of humans. This has long been cited as the difference between man and animal. Our ability to reason is why we are the dominant species on this planet.

Compassion is less apparent but still makes sense evolutionarily. It absolutely makes sense to have compassion towards other members of one’s species, and thus collaborate constructively towards the survival of that species. Pirañas, for example, are vicious and bloodthirsty when they feed, but they don’t eat each other.

Now, one can hardly call a Piraña a moral agent, but animals demonstrate a higher level of pseudo-compassion as well: for instance take a look at this 1964 study on Rhesus monkeys:

Given a chain to pull that would both dispense food and deliver a painful electric shock to the monkey in the adjacent cell, the study found that a majority of monkeys would starve themselves for days at a time so as not to hurt each other (a higher incidence of this when the monkeys had previously interacted personally).

Now, of course, neither humans nor any other species are necessarily compassionate. That is why there are wars and crimes, and that is not my argument. My point is that to say that an atheist cannot be moral is to say that there is no foundation for reason and compassion outside of religion, which is simply not true.

And to argue that religion is the determining factor in morality is simply not true either. There are plenty of faithful people who demonstrate an utter disregard for moral “truths”, and furthermore many who murder, rape and pillage * because * of their faith. In fact, I would argue that a person’s faith and how ethical they are have no correlation at all.


Pirañas, for example, are vicious and bloodthirsty when they feed, but they don’t eat each other.
Not remotely true. I have kept aquariums all my life. I have had pirahna and they are certainly cannibalistic.

6.Cannibal piranha

Piranha is a cannibal animal. Under certain circumstances like the frenzied state or even under fed state. The Piranha will eat other Piranhas in order to get some meat to survive.
Facts about piranha jaws 10 Interesting Piranha Facts

Kinda blows that analogy out of the water, doesn’t it.
I see this argument every week on here. Sure, anyone has the capacity to be moral people, but I’ve seen more moral religious people, than non religious. I think there is a case to be made that morality and religion are connected.


That’s not really surprising given that most people in the world are religious.

People who have no religion know right from wrong just as well as regular worshippers, according to the study.

The team behind the research found that most religions were similar and had a moral code which helped to organise society.

But people who did not have a religious background still appeared to have intuitive judgments of right and wrong in common with believers, according to the findings, published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Atheists ‘just as ethical as churchgoers’ - Telegraph


[quote=“Trekky0623, post:3, topic:39403”]
That’s not really surprising given that most people in the world are religious.

Atheists ‘just as ethical as churchgoers’ - Telegraph
[/quote]I just conceded that point. That said, 60 centuries of religion leading the way, may have some bearing on that. After all, even the non religious are aware of religion’s morals. Where morality came from is irrelevant. When it came about, is also meaningless. If atheists or the religious have morality defined, why do we live in such an immoral world? Many religious people are immoral, and many atheists have impressive moral fibre. Man, many, do not.
And what people KNOW, and what they DO, are often different. Religious people are held to standards, by GOD, the Bible, and their brothers and sisters, where atheists have no such support.


I personally think that religion may help to develop some of the more complex morals, like freedom and property, but the studies of animals who display basic morals, who cannot possibly have any concept of religion, I think shows that the more basic morals can be learned through simple interaction in a society.


[quote=“Trekky0623, post:5, topic:39403”]
I personally think that religion may help to develop some of the more complex morals, like freedom and property, but the studies of animals who display basic morals, who cannot possibly have any concept of religion, I think shows that the more basic morals can be learned through simple interaction in a society.
[/quote]Morals can be learned. Yes, they can. But, for that to happen, SOCIETY must support morality, not attack it. Our country, and the world, attacks the moral, and excuses the immoral. Penalties for criminal behavior are way too lenient. This guy that held the three women for ten years to get his “Jollies” should face execution. He enslaved, raped and abused these women, and all he will face is a couple of decades of prison. They are damaged, for life. We spank the hands of criminals, and steal freedoms from law abiding citizens. We execute unborn children as a matter of convenience, and many religious, “moral” people support the slaughter. We refuse to call terrorism, what it is, and call Christians and true conservatives, fringers and extremists. We cheer our children on to mediocrity, and punish athletes, and others, for having faith. Our media lies about this administration, which are liars themselves, and threatens and castigates people for telling the truth. We call evil good and good evil. All Bible prophecies.


What “morals” are you talking about with animals? Male crocs eating baby crocs? Chimps cannibalizing other chimps that invade their territory?

I’m confused with this concept of animals having morals.


They share. Save one another. Have saved humans etc.

That being said… The animal world and nature would be a truly frightening place. It’s about as unforgiving as it gets.



The citation above referring to rhesus monkeys that would rather starve than hurt their companions. These sort of basic morals are prevalent in primates and dolphins. That’s not to say they have a good code of ethics, given that they’ll rape anything that moves.


And yet if they always ate each other, they would not survive as a species. Even if my analogy is broken, my point still stands. I see you chose to ignore the Masserman study that was more at the heart of my argument.

We live in an immoral world because neither atheists nor religions have morality defined, read my post…

Religious people are held to standards? Not in this lifetime. What standards are those? When was the last time God came down and punished a violent zealot acting in his name? In what sense does the Bible hold anyone accountable? It makes a lot of threats about the afterlife, however people are served justice by society, and a community of atheists can be just as “supporting” as any religious community.

I want to emphasize the word “may”. Complex morality is attained by deep thinking, which has to be performed personally. One who is handed a dogma about complex morals and accepts it as faith has no more developed those morals than an atheist who lacks them altogether.

God forbid anyone believe something different than you.



I thought you didn’t believe in God.


For Heaven’s sake…!

It’s just a phrase…


They are saying they might seek the death penalty


[quote=“UNTRugby, post:14, topic:39403”]
They are saying they might seek the death penalty
[/quote]Yeah, I heard that, but I do not trust 'em any farther than I can throw 'em.


Good talk.