Religious Morality is not Monolithic:
Moral values can differ not only from religion to religion, but also between traditions and groups within a religion. There are, however, common themes in religious moral systems which can be identified and criticized. The values outlined here aren’t part of every religious moral system, and may be part of some non-religious moral systems. They are, however, flaws in most religious systems of morality and thus a basis for rejecting the idea that religion is necessary for moral values.
Obedience to Authority:
Almost every theistic, religious system of morality is founded upon the premise that a god has created morality and has issued moral commands to humanity. Thus the nature of this moral system is ultimately obedience to this god, regardless of what the commands are. Neither disobedience nor questioning are permitted. Real morality, however, cannot be mere obedience: for a person to be morally responsible, they must be able to reason out their choices and decide for themselves.
Threats of Eternal Punishment:
Theistic and religious moral systems typically include prominent threats of punishment for disobedience, and even sometimes eternal punishment for the worst disobedience or disbelief. A truly moral choice, however, cannot be dependent upon a desire to avoid punishment. Moreover, eternal punishment for temporal crimes, however awful, is itself immoral because it is so disproportionate. The death penalty for stealing an apple would be less unjust.
Promises of Eternal Rewards:
Alongside threats of punishment are also typically promises of reward: people who obey the rules will be rewarded in various ways, and in the end one may also achieve an eternal reward. A truly moral choice, however, cannot be made on the basis of seeking rewards and certainly cannot be made in hopes of attaining an eternally blissful afterlife. If a person does things merely for a reward, their choice is based upon selfishness, not moral values.
Origins in Ancient, Pre-Modern Cultures:
Few theistic, religious moral codes are of even vaguely recent vintage. Most come to us from ancient cultures that were very different from us: they practiced slavery, did not recognize women’s equality, and did not have to address things like genetic manipulation. Ancient moral codes are not worthless, but they support things we find abhorrent today and are of no help with many modern issues. Twisting them with ad hoc rationalizations to make them fit modern society is of no real help.
Dependence on Religious Scriptures:
Theistic and religious moral systems are often expressed in religious scriptures. Because of the importance of these scriptures, it’s almost impossible to go beyond them. Claims that something is morally licit or required must be based on the scriptures; ditto for claims of the opposite. Often this involves clever, ad hoc interpretations which wouldn’t be needed if people were willing to make and take responsibility for their own choices.
Focus on an Afterlife, Not This Life:
Even if there are no promises of eternal reward or punishment, theistic and religious moral systems typically emphasize acting in order to improve your status in an existence after your physical death — even though the reality of such a existence is highly debatable. It’s immoral to sacrifice the needs of yourself and others in hopes of making things better for yourself in an afterlife which may not even exist anyway.
Absence of Intellectual Values:
We cannot make responsible, moral choices without having reasoned through our choices and the consequences of what we do. This means that a truly moral system must emphasize the importance of the intellect and reason as much as love and compassion. Few theistic, religious moral systems do this, however. The absence of intellectual values that would encourage reasoning about our choices is consistent with the countervailing emphasis on obedience to authority.
A significant number of theistic and religious moral systems are absolutist, which is to say that they refuse to recognize the importance of context and consequences when evaluating the morality of certain choices. Thus an act like lying might be judged immoral regardless of who is hurt by telling the truth and regardless of why lying might be a better option. There are sound arguments on behalf of taking a hard line against some acts, but ignoring context is never a good idea.
Religious Morality is not Superior to Godless Morality:
It’s common for religious theists to claim that their religious morality is far superior to secular, atheistic, and godless morality. Of course everyone prefers their own religious morality and the commands of their own god, but when push comes to shove the general attitude is that any religious morality based upon the commands of any god is vastly preferable to a secular morality that doesn’t take any gods into account. Godless atheists are treated as the scourge of the earth and their “morality,” if it is even recognized as such, is treated as the cause of all of society’s ills.
The truth is, there is no perfect moral system which doesn’t have any flaws — godless, secular, and atheistic moral systems included. In fact, such systems can suffer from some of the same flaws described above at times. The point of this review isn’t to suggest that godless morals are perfect, but to point out the simple fact that religious moral systems also aren’t perfect. It is therefore unreasonable to claim either that more religious morality will improve society or that godless morality is causing society’s problems.
As a matter of fact, it can be argued that many of the problems we face can be traced to an over-reliance on religious moral systems which seriously suffer from the above flaws. Obedience to authority and dependence on ancient texts are a poor starting point for dealing with complicated modern issues such as genetic engineering and stem cell research. Far from there being too much godless morality in America, we could probably benefit from a bit more secular reasoning about the moral issues facing us and a bit less worrying about what gods or scriptures have to say.