Modern Morals: Are Morality And Religion Connected?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated March 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many people consider commitment to a religion to be a prerequisite for morality, arguing that the average person is not likely to behave morally without a religious or spiritual connection. For many others, religion and morality are separate concepts: Morals can develop regardless of whether a person engages in the value frameworks of a certain religion. While this article will not settle the debate, it will offer some insight into how morals and religion may be intertwined. 

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The foundations of morality and religion

Covering the entire shared history of religion and morals would likely require hundreds of pages of writing. This article will focus on two broad historical religious structures as examples of how morals and religion may intersect: the religion of the ancient Greeks, and the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, which are the respective sacred texts of modern Jews and Christians. 

The ancient Greek religion

Human beings have dissected and debated the connection between morals and religion for centuries. In Western society, the debate initially rose to prominence among ancient Greek philosophers. In Plato’s “Euthyphro,” written around 400 B.C.E., Socrates questions whether goodness is loved by the gods because it is good or whether goodness is good because it is loved by the gods. Socrates was one of the first philosophers to directly question the link between morality and religion.

Like most ancient Greeks, Socrates practiced a form of religion that might seem unfamiliar to most today. The religion was polytheistic, meaning it worshiped multiple gods. The sole requirements for a Grecian to become a member of the religion were to believe the gods existed and to perform rituals, including sacrifices. Nearly everyone in ancient Greece followed this religion; it was so ubiquitous and embedded in the culture that the Greeks did not have a specific name for it. (The closest historians have found for a name is eusebeia, meaning "piety.")

The ancient Greek religion lasted over one thousand years, likely emerging in its developed form in the eighth or ninth century B.C.E. and lasting until around 400 or 500 C.E. When considering morality, there seem to be significant differences between the Greeks and other emerging religions of the time.

The Greek religion had no priests, no holy texts or scriptures, and no method to disseminate religious norms. There were, however, plenty of gods. Greeks learned about the gods through oral tradition — the telling of myths that describe the gods, many stories of which survive today — and by watching older generations perform rituals. The Greeks had a quid pro quo relationship with the gods. If sacrifices and rituals were satisfactory, the gods would reward them and punish them otherwise. The Greeks’ relationship with the gods determined and formed their religious value system.

The Greeks didn't have moral commandments handed down by the gods, but they did have rituals aligned with self-betterment and purification. Besides this, the moral imperatives of the Greek religion bear little resemblance to modern Judeo-Christian moral frameworks. 

The Hebrew bible and the new testament

Unlike in the ancient Greek religion, the Hebrew Bible connects morals and religion through God's commands. The Book of Genesis, which is the first book in the Bible, contains a description of the creation of humanity and tells the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In that story, God instructs Adam and Eve to eat from any tree in the garden except for one. Nevertheless, Adam and Eve eat fruit from that forbidden tree and are cast out of the Garden of Eden by God.

The Hebrew Bible later introduces Moses. In the story, Moses travels to the top of Mount Sinai, where God gives him the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are 10 basic rules that govern human relationships, as well as the worship of God. Here, one can see another example of the dictation of moral acts. The Hebrew Bible continues by adding specific ritual purification, sacrifice, and land use guidelines, some of which remain today as religious traditions. Often, a particular religious tradition serves both practical and spiritual purposes.

In addition to specific decrees about actions one must perform in day-to-day life, the Hebrew Bible also introduces the concept of Wisdom as a personified character. For example, in Proverbs 8, Wisdom raises her voice to humanity, speaking of her detestation of wickedness in detail. The Hebrew Bible, therefore, instructs its readers in early concepts of moral philosophy, helping them to define "good" and "evil" and introducing early religious morals. Religious traditions coexist with these morals, helping to shape behavior. 

Christians commonly refer to the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament. The writings that Christians call the New Testament describe the life of Jesus Christ. In the New Testament, Jesus significantly updates the guiding moral structures of the Hebrew Bible. For example, Jesus describes taking the Ten Commandments into one's heart: For instance, a person should not only not murder but also avoid anger. Jesus also preached compassion, kindness, and self-sacrifice, setting the foundations for the moral framework of modern Christianity.

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Modern views of religion and morals

A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center found that 44% of Americans believe God is necessary to be moral and have good values. This is on par with the worldwide average of 45% but significantly higher than the 22% reported by Western Europeans. In some areas, like the Philippines and Indonesia, up to 96% of people believe God is necessary to be moral.

The debate surrounding the necessity of religion to live a moral life is ongoing worldwide. Further complicating the matter is the lack of scientific consensus on how morality develops or why humans developed morals in ancient history. There are several theories to describe the development and utility of moral codes, but there are no definitive answers.

One popular theory asserts that humans developed morals to ensure cooperation between early humans. According to this theory, humans evolved to be compelled to empathize with fellow humans and demonstrate prosocial behavior to accomplish more together than they could alone. Violent and nonviolent behavior may also be regulated by this system. 

Modern science has begun to establish the neurological foundations of morality. Two areas of the brain, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the right temporoparietal junction, have been linked to moral reasoning, empathy, and good value judgments. Scientists noted that individuals with damage to those areas of the brain may have a harder time making morally driven decisions and are more likely to make decisions without considering social emotions like compassion, shame, and guilt. 

Does religion make a person more moral?

Some evidence suggests that religion increases morality; several studies have indicated that religious beliefs promote prosociality. However, while there is evidence that prosocial behaviors are increased when a person is religious, no evidence suggests that prosocial morals cannot develop without religion. The basis for many religious practices may also be considered outdated or make little sense in modern contexts.

There are also concerns with inconsistent definitions different groups hold regarding morality. A recent study found that religious individuals tend to endorse moral values that increase group cohesion, while atheists are more likely to determine the morality of an action based on its consequences. The study also found that atheists and theists align on moral values related to freedom, rationality, and protecting the vulnerable. 

The researchers hypothesized that distinctions between religious and nonreligious individuals might exist because religious people engage in belief-based behaviors that would be costly if the beliefs were untrue, such as attending church. Regardless of the difference, the above study and others have provided evidence that religious and nonreligious individuals can have intact moral compasses

While both groups may have a moral compass and are roughly equal in terms of proportional morality, their moral compasses are often calibrated differently. It isn't the absence of morals that separates the religions from the nonreligious but rather the interpretation of those morals that creates the difference. Some observers criticize religious morals, but most moral values likely overlap between the two groups.

There is strong evidence that the nonreligious can be just as moral as the religious. The religious frameworks religions provide may offer helpful guidance, but a religious belief cannot produce a moral action without good values already in place, and secular value frameworks can be just as effective as religious ones.

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How to get help understanding your morals

Religions can vary considerably in their beliefs and what they consider moral behavior, and you may find a religious group that is right for you. However, if you need a helping hand in understanding or developing your own moral code, you don't need to turn to religion if you don't want to. If you'd prefer a secular approach, you may consider online therapy with a service provider like BetterHelp

A therapist can help you process your moral code and better understand yourself. They can also help with the side effects, like anxiety, that sometimes accompany existential growth. Therapists who practice online typically use the same evidence-based tools as in-person therapists, like cognitive behavioral therapy. By attending therapy online, you can avoid some of the barriers to traditional therapy, like traveling to an office or being restricted only to nearby therapists. Online therapy may also be more affordable than in-person therapy because it eliminates certain expenses that come with in-person therapy, such as the cost of transportation.

Although online therapy is administered remotely, evidence indicates it can be just as effective as in-person therapy. Studies have found that online cognitive behavioral therapy can improve the symptoms of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and trauma.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Takeaway

Religion and morals have a long, intertwined relationship stretching back thousands of years through history. Much of the world believes that religion is necessary to have good morals, but scientific evidence suggests this may not be the case. Recent research indicates that religious and nonreligious individuals have moral compasses that are calibrated slightly differently, but there can be areas where the morals of both groups overlap. No matter your religious beliefs, your morality will likely be determined by individual, community, and cultural factors, not by the presence or absence of faith. For external support in determining and living by your own morals, reach out to a licensed mental health professional via an effective online service platform like BetterHelp.
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