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Left In Lowell » Blog Archive » I Am Moral - Without Religion

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October 22, 2006

I Am Moral - Without Religion

by at 10:26 pm.

Tim Little in the comments of BMG pointed out this gem op-ed by Sam Harris at Boston.com, titled “Bad reasons to be good.” Of course, it will thoroughly offend some of you, but read on if you think you can take it (bold mine):

It is, of course, taboo to criticize a person’s religious beliefs. The problem, however, is that much of what people believe in the name of religion is intrinsically divisive, unreasonable, and incompatible with genuine morality. The truth is that the only rational basis for morality is a concern for the happiness and suffering of other conscious beings. This emphasis on the happiness and suffering of others explains why we don’t have moral obligations toward rocks. It also explains why (generally speaking) people deserve greater moral concern than animals, and why certain animals concern us more than others. If we show more sensitivity to the experience of chimpanzees than to the experience of crickets, we do so because there is a relationship between the size and complexity of a creature’s brain and its experience of the world.

Unfortunately, religion tends to separate questions of morality from the living reality of human and animal suffering. Consequently, religious people often devote immense energy to so-called “moral” questions — such as gay marriage — where no real suffering is at issue, and they will inflict terrible suffering in the service of their religious beliefs.

But the worst problem with religious morality is that it often causes good people to act immorally, even while they attempt to alleviate the suffering of others. In Africa, for instance, certain Christians preach against condom use in villages where AIDS is epidemic, and where the only information about condoms comes from the ministry.

The fact is, I frequently find myself acting more compassionate than some of my Christian counterparts. But I don’t gain my compassion from some flawed external source. I get it from a common ground of - as Harris puts it - the reality of human and animal suffering.

A true modern Christian would be anti-war, against the death penalty, and for large social programs, governmental or otherwise, to help the poor. Abortion is a weird one, as it’s not something that was really mentioned in the Bible, insofar as the concept didn’t exist as it does today. And yet Christians everywhere have apparently determined God’s feelings on that one as well, no matter what science says. And for centuries, adherents of the so-called compassionate monotheistic religions are responsible for much of the suffering through the centuries, whether that be leading men into brutal war against another religious group or persecuting homosexuals, women, or Jews.

I do understand that some people prefer a rigid set of rules and a structure to live by, and that they find this in religion. It is comforting for some people to have that external framework from which to relate to the world. This hierarchical authoritarian trait is exibited in a significant set of the human race, and not just the blind “far right” worshippers of George W. Bush. But knowledge is power…comprehending the basis for your own behavior is strangely freeing, and it doesn’t require you to reject your mindset; only expand and examine it, to reject it when it’s commonly destructive and embrace its strength when it’s productive.

Fact is, unless your brain is seriously malformed, humans of all personalities already have the tools within themselves to determine the scope of fairness in our laws, foreign and domestic priorities, and interpersonal relationships. We share ourselves through story and art and simple conversation; we know how to hurt feelings and we know how to heal wounds. We are an advanced society that has the capability to discuss morals on terms larger than any one religion, and to have certain universal concepts to guide our hand. Religion has long claimed to be the only realm of morality, but a deeper look shows that it has more often been wielded as a weapon against a person’s inner natural morality, which is to alleviate or prevent suffering in our fellow humans.

I am a moral creature, I know when I’ve committed right and I know when I’ve done something wrong. I don’t need books assumed to be inspired by any god or gods to tell me what my heart already knows.

29 Responses to “I Am Moral - Without Religion”

  1. Josh Says:

    Wow, a critique of religion that uses several Christian examples, but manages to totally leave out any mention of Islam… how PC of you.

    “A true modern Christian would be anti-war, against the death penalty, and for large social programs, governmental or otherwise, to help the poor.”

    Yes, they would be anti-war and anti-death penalty, but they would be absolutely against large government social programs. What is virtue if not the free choice of what is good? A good Christian would be against coercive use of the state to help others. They would believe that we all have a responsibility to help out the less fortunate, but they would not force that belief upon everyone.

  2. Peter Porcupine Says:

    Actually, Left, it was ancient Arab docotrs who invented the IUD, by noticing that camels who had stones placed in their uterus during long caravans when a calf would be a liability failed to concieve. They tried this with humans as well and invented birth control.

  3. mike Says:

    Honest question here… As an atheist, why be concerned with morality, happiness, or suffering at all? Natural selection seems rather indifferent to such things, why wouldn’t its adherents be also? As far as evolution is concerned, there’s no such thing as a moral creature; the phrase is meaningless. As far as human suffering goes, both the Bolsheviks, and the Nazis introduced the world to a great deal of it. Both the communists and the Nazis were humanistic, godless, socialist regimes. In fact nothing in recorded history has killed as many people as socialism (see:Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, China…). How does that fit into your paradigm?

  4. Kathy Says:


    Hitler WAS NOT a socialist. He was a fascist. National Socialism is a misnomer, as both Hitler and Mussolini were corporatists. Socialism is an socio-economic system that re-distributes property and wealth, and implies state or collective ownership of the means of production. Nothing of the sort happened in Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany.

  5. matt Says:

    Oh Mike.. it may be an honest question, but you’re very ill-informed.

    Hitler was not only not a socialist, he was very much a Christian (see http://www.nobeliefs.com/Hitler1.htm if you want some examples).

    There are no “adherents” to natural selection anymore than there are adherents to gravity. It’s a scientific explanation of how things work, not a belief system. There is also the field of evolutionary psychology which argues that indeed “morality” has been selected for by similar mechanisms.

    “Why be concerned with morality?” How could anyone even ask such a question? Because it’s the right thing to do. It’s scary that you don’t know that.

  6. Tim Little Says:

    I’m not expert in evolutionary psychology, but it seems pretty self-evident to me that species who are able to leave peacebly with themselves and their environment — the basis for morality and happiness — are far more likely to survive and pass on their genes to future generations that than those who are not. But Matt has it right: any dicussion of natural selection in the context of athiesm is mixing apples and oranges.

    Interestingly, Buddhism (in which Sam Harris himself trained for many years) is one *athiestic* tradition in which morality and happiness are of paramount importance. (And, in fact, the Buddha taught that they are inseparable.) I think our view on the morality tends to be severely limited by our focus on the Judeo-Christian traditions.

    Finally, not only did Mussolini — the father of fascism — have the backing of the Italian clergy, I believe Franco also had the support of the Catholic church in Spain.

    As for Communism, under Mao, Pol Pot and others, it became a de facto *secular* religion. (And, yes, such a thing is possible.) Just take a look at the current political situation in North Korea if you disagree.

    I strongly recommend reading Harris’s “The End of Faith” (I’m currently working on Mr. Lynne’s copy.) While at times he’s a bit over-the-top even for me, it provides much deeper context for his op-ed piece.

  7. Tim Little Says:

    Correction to the previous post:

    “… focus on the Judeo-Christian traditions.”

    should be:

    “… focus on the Abrahamic traditions.”

  8. Josh Says:

    Nazisim = socialist.

    “What [Lugwig von] Mises identified was that private ownership of the means of production existed in name only under the Nazis and that the actual substance of ownership of the means of production resided in the German government. For it was the German government and not the nominal private owners that exercised all of the substantive powers of ownership: it, not the nominal private owners, decided what was to be produced, in what quantity, by what methods, and to whom it was to be distributed, as well as what prices would be charged and what wages would be paid, and what dividends or other income the nominal private owners would be permitted to receive. The position of the alleged private owners, Mises showed, was reduced essentially to that of government pensioners.”

    It’s a long lecture, but well worth your time.

  9. Lynne Says:

    Mike, secular humanism is very much concerned with right and wrong, and human suffering.

    Look, morals of any sort are a function of a higher-thinking animal…even religion, to some extent, has evolved with us as we went from animals mired in the “now of wolf-thought” to thinking beings with the ability to measure past and present and future consequences. The futher our society has evolved, the further that thinking ability seems to go. Universally, we started out with polytheism, moved to monotheism…secular humanism is an extension of that ability to use logic and reason to move away from animal instincts and towards an ever-better, more humane, more fair, society with less and less suffering. I believe, actually, it’s further along than monotheism, as it requires humans to reason out their morals rather than use dogmatic structural edicts that are often outmoded (for instance, on the subject of gay marriage, rigid religion seems not able to evolve understanding the humanistic treatment of gays as a good, moral evolution of a humane society).

    My own experience is primarily with Christianity. It’s not about being PC. It’s about talking about what I know. But the same ideas can be applied elsewhere. I hate it when people bring irrelevant accusations into a conversation…a waste of time, really.

    So Josh, all socialists are like Hitler, I have to assume you conclude? Else why bring it up? If you believe that all socialism leads to facism, please just say so, instead of pretending to slyly imply it. And then go talk to Sweden, and tell them they’re facist for their fairly socialist society. Tell them they should give up their universal health care, low infant mortality rate, high upward mobility, strong education system, and so on.

  10. Kathy Says:


    Ludwig von Mises was a free market economist who wrongly asserted that Nazism was a form of socialism. Nice of you to pull that old disproven canard from the grave. Companies like Volkswagen, BMW, Opel, IG Farben, and Krupp operated without constraints and benefitted from the vast pool of slave labor available to them. They were war profiteers in the true sense of the word. During the war, the German government certainly had a say in munitions manufacturing and other war-related production. The US government did as well. There is nothing socialist about unfettered capitalism, and contrary to Mises’ views, many German companies and the American companies that traded with them, amassed huge profits during that time.

  11. Kathy Says:

    Yes, Lynne, all socialists are like Hitler to those who cannot grasp the basic definition of socialism, and refer to right-wing websites and economic theory to bolster their views.

  12. Lynne Says:

    Oh, and I will second Matt - “There are no ‘adherents’ to natural selection anymore than there are adherents to gravity.” Exactly right. Let’s just say that in 20 years, we discover there’s a more complicated or a different mechanism at work than natural selection, and evidence piles up, the conversation itself will evolve. At first, yes, there will be resistance to changing the current thinking and lots of skepticism, there always is, but if the evidence is there, logic and science will triumph any dogmatic thought, because that’s what science does.

    In the case of science and logic, there’s no such thing as faith. It’s an extension of human thought evolution that goes beyond that last evolution, monotheism.

  13. Tim Little Says:

    Well said, Kathy!

  14. Josh Says:

    Umm… someone said that Hitler was not a socialist. I was simply refuting that point.

    I’m not saying that all socialist were like Hitler, but you guys glorify socialism while failing to mention socialist regimes like the Stalinist Russia, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Catro’s Cuba.. I could go on for days. The Nordic countries are actually the exception to the rule. Throughout history the rule has been mass murder and starvation. Sorry to ruin your utopian wet dream.

    Kathy, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but they didn’t operate without constraints. Germany has massive wage and price controls at the time to stop their out of control inflation. That led to rationing of resources and materials. The companies in question had no other choice than to work for the Nazi war machine. Outright nationalization of business is uncessary if you have the SS police to terrorize anyone who steps out of line. And the fact that you even mention slave labor goes against your own argument. A free market implicitly implies free labor. In Germany, the government controlled the labor supply (socialism!) and directed people where to work. Do you even get the point of my argument? The businesses were de jure free, but de facto under government control. I don’t know how I can make that anymore clear to you.

    War has absolutely nothing to do with unfettered capitalism. War is a product of state control that disrupts trade and is bad for business. War is only related to capitalism for those who probably never read a history book and use the term “right-wing” to try to discredit opposing arguments.

  15. Tim Little Says:

    Lynne, a couple of things:

    One, I think it’s probably more accurate to say that animism — i.e., belief in nature spirits — predated any sort of polytheism. Animism is the prototypical expression of the spiritual (if not necessarily religious) instinct common to all human societies. Various forms of animism can still be found in every corner of the globe today.

    One caveat I’d like to raise about “secular humanism” — and one trap that Sam Harris falls into, I believe — is an over-dependence on “logic and reason to move… towards ever-better, more humane, more fair, society with less and less suffering.”

    A “Buddhist” perspective, for example, certainly recognizes the importance of logic and reason in reaching understanding. But it also recognizes that reason and logic by itself is unbalanced and incomplete.

    The essence of “Buddhist epistemology” — which sounds very similar to what you claim of secular humanism — is conveyed in the Kalama Sutta:

    Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing ;
    nor upon rumor ;
    nor upon what is in a scripture ;
    nor upon tradition
    nor upon surmise;
    nor upon an axiom;
    nor upon specious reasoning;
    nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over;
    nor upon another’s seeming ability;
    nor upon the consideration, “The monk is our teacher.”
    Kalamas, when you yourselves know: “These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,” enter on and abide in them.’

    Of course the point is not to depend upon the Buddha’s say-so, but to investigate these claims for oneself. Buddhism teaches that there are certain practices, such as meditation, that enable one to cultivate this process of investigation.

    Finally, even reason and logic depends on a certain leap of “faith.”

  16. Tim Little Says:

    Religion is the politicization of spirituality.

  17. Tim Little Says:

    Speaking of both Buddhism and socialism, the following article presents an interesting nexus of the two: http://www.bpf.org/tsangha/skbexerpt.html

  18. sqwakabilly Says:


    Where does your idea of what is right and what is wrong come from? What makes something “wrong”?

  19. Lynne Says:

    Tim: “Various forms of animism can still be found in every corner of the globe today.”

    Yes, and so does polytheism. What I’m saying is that the evolution of thought in societies seems generally to go from one, to the next, to the next. Doesn’t mean every society is on the same place on that line, especially isolated ones.

    I guess when I talk about logic and reason, I also include that segment of human thought included in the arts, even self-reflection and meditation of a non-dogmatic sort. Being able to express thoughts and feelings, whether through fiction, art, or a philosophical dissertation is inherently evolved thinking. It takes no leap of faith for me to embody a sorrowful experience into a piece of poetry that I write; and it takes no real leap of faith to believe in evolution, either, nor in logic. The leap of faith that it takes to believe in a higher being, who sees all and lives up in the sky somewhere, is quite a different thing from dealing with the earthy mind-body problem that is to some extent not explainable, but it is something that can be experienced. You know, “I think, therefore I am.”

    The very inherant nature of this form of Buddhism you speak of (there are, after all, other, more dogmatic forms) is in and of itself an expression of the furthering of the evolution of thought, more like secular humanism than anything else. Therefore, I don’t include it in the monotheism category, though parts of Buddhism sometimes do reach into that realm of “eternal life” and other subjects for which there can only be a leap of faith and no proof. I’d say that Buddhism, where it doesn’t adhere to dogma, is also an evolved form of thinking to be respected for its search for a less externally-imposed moral structure based on dogma and belief.

  20. Tim Little Says:


    Sorry I was unclear. I basically agree with your timeline, but the point I was trying to make was that polytheistic belief systems were a natural evolution of earlier animistic belief systems. I felt like you left that beginning part out.

    You can see the “transition” to a certain extent in indigenous Aboriginal, African, and Native American belief systems, where gods and goddesses are more closely tied to nature spirits, then, say the gods and goddesses of Olympus or Asgard.

    As for “faith,” I think that there are varying degrees. I mean, we take an awful lot for granted — even something as simple as believing that the sun will come up tomorrow, or even the fact that “I” exist. (Descartes’s fundamental mistake, IMHO.)

    And faith in a higher being also depends, in large part, to what one means. Whether the “higher being” is intepreted more literally — such as God the Father — or more metaphorically, as in the Holy Spirit. Frankly, I am more sympathetic to the latter view than the former.

    And, yes, it’s impossible to paint Buddhism — or Buddhisms — with a broad brush. Buddhism is susceptible to “fundamentalist” tendencies — especially in societies where the sangha (the religious community) and the government are closely connected (Sri Lanka, Thailand, etc.). There are also more “salvific” branches of Bhuddism — such as Nichiren — but there is no tradition that advocates “eternal life” in a literal, Abrahamic sense. However, following any branch of the Buddhist path does require faith in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Otherwise, why practice?

  21. Mr Lynne Says:

    The Hitler/Stalin argument often comes up when people bring up non-religiouis origins of morality. The truth is that the secular facist governments that rely on dogma are just as vulnerable to the pitfalls that religious moralities that rely on dogma. As far as “where do athiests get their morality?”… we all have ethical instincts and intuitions.

    Check out the following:


  22. Tim Little Says:

    Indeed, Chris. Dogma is dogma, religious or secular.

    Which reminds me:

    There in the garden, a young monk speaks: “Master, I’ve been thinking about getting a dogma, and I seek your advice. Any thoughts on the matter?”

    The Old Monk collects her thoughts, and calmly replies: “Well my son, everyone has a pet belief, so why should you be any different? Yes, we human beings have had dogmas since the dawn of recorded history. This is understandable. You cannot imagine how comforting it is to curl up with a warm fuzzy dogma on a dark night of the soul. Or to take him to the park on a fine sunny Sunday in January and watch him sniff and chase other dogmas, and bark at strangers.

    Some folks keep dogmas for protection. It’s reassuring to have a guard dogma to scare away frightening thoughts - and it’s great to have a loyal companion to fetch you an explanation when you get home from a hard day at work.

    And dogmas come in all varieties. Some humans like big dumb dogmas, and others prefer squeaky little irritating ones. And with compassion, someone has to stand for the underdogma. Dogma is truly wo/man’s best friend.

    Now, some may ask, why not let sleeping dogmas lie? But who really wants to be lied to? And what about menacing dogmas that bite? Or dogmas that run wild and get in everyone’s garbage? I know, I know…you’re probably thinking, “It isn’t my dogma making all the mess, it’s my neighbor’s dogma.”

    And indeed you can look out any night and see a pack of aggressive dogmas running down the street chasing a doubt. And what should you do when you are walking down the road and a threatening dogma appears in your path? Stay calm and let the unfamiliar dogma know who’s boss. Say, “Bad dogma, roll over!”

    It is a fact of life that dogmas have sharp teeth, and when backed into a corner, they can bite. As a dogma owner it is your responsibility to see that your dogma does not bite. And - if it does, well, sometimes a vicious dogma has to be put down.

    Another fact of life is that dogmas inevitably get old and sick. Perhaps you’ve spent years lovingly taking care of a tired old dogma - and still the time comes to put that old dogma to sleep.

    It is sad when you must give up a loyal dogma like that - so I say enjoy your dogma while it is alive and playful. You know how uncanny it is that dogma owners come to resemble their dogmas. So, my son, you may have a dogma. But just make sure your dogma doesn’t mess on your neighbor’s lawn.

    And know that on non-judgment day, all our dogmas will run free, and surely they will bother no one.

    P.S. Always be careful not to run over your dogma with your karma.
    adapted from Swami Beyondananda 1996 (off the cuff from Bruce O’Hara)
    JohnAbbe reading this: http://ourpla.net/OnSelectingADogma.mp3

  23. Lynne Says:

    sqwakabilly: it can be summed up in the adage of an old, old religion, ironically: “An it harm none, do as ye will.”

    Now, the details of such a statement vary depending. You can argue back and forth that not allowing abortion causes more harm to society, or that allowing it does. But most of the arguments around abortion (on the anti-choice side) tend to revolve around a belief in a religion, and it merely serves to muddy the water about that issue, not clarify the debate. This is why I’d like to see a reduction of religion as part of the public discourse, to see it taken out of civic life as a political force. I would like to see, someday, a person be able to run for national office without having to pander to religious sensabilties every time they end a speech by saying “God bless America.” A self-described atheist cannot win political office. There’s something inherantly intolerant and very anti-intellectual about that.

  24. Josh Says:

    “Battle of the New Atheism” just came online at Wired. It’s pretty long and I haven’t read the whole thing, but it seemed relevant.

    What are your thoughts?

  25. Tim Little Says:


    Very interesting article; thanks for the link. As I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m in the middle of “The End of Faith” and heard Sam Harris speak about a year ago out at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. I’m familiar with the other two by reputation only.

    I can get into more detail later when I have some time, but quickly: I’ve found Harris to be a bit of an alarmist and overly belligerent; it seems Dawkins is doubly so! Harris and Dawkins both seem to be just as dogmatic (or “prophetic,” as the author puts it) as the religionists they rail against.

    Dennett, on the other hand, seems to have a much more “humane” approach to the whole matter, and I found myself agreeing with much of what he has to say (as does the author, it seems). His books had caught my eye before; I’m going to have to give them a longer look.

  26. Wes F. in North Adams Says:

    I read Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea for my dissertation (believe it or not, it actually illuminated my thinking in my music theory dissertation) and found it to be provocative but not belligerent.


  27. pete the pirate Says:

    hitler was bad
    hitler was wrong
    saddam is bad
    the guy in iran is bad
    the guy in korea is bad
    the guy in washington is bad
    right/wrong good/bad are easy to define without giving religious/politcal excuses for such.
    george costanza was stupid.
    josey wales was bad, but good.
    TO is an idiot.
    “i’m gonna kill you cuz you’re a shiitte and i’m a shiia, but we’re both muslims” is stupid.
    irish catholic and protestants killing because of religion is stupid.
    kill a jew for being a jew is stupid.
    is religion a good thing?
    i know i’ll get hammered on this, but you can shove religion, it stopped working for me a long time ago. and i don’t mean on a personal basis. i mean i don’t see it saving the world, more its destroying it.

  28. Mr. Lynne Says:

    I can’t speak to Dawkins, but if Harris has any dogma, it is the dogma that ideas should stand up to evidence and reasonable inquiry and religious ideas shouldn’t get the exemption that they now enjoy.

  29. Daniel Says:

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article I Am Moral - Without Religion, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

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