It keeps on coming up in the wide variety of web discussion forums I read, as well as in face-to-face conversations: what is the relationship of religion and morality? For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll stick to Christian religion, since that is most often the context, it’s the context I know best and the discussion will get too unwieldy if I try to take on all religions. By ‘atheism’ I mean disbelief in any deity who acts as a supernatural guarantor of morality – that could include deism, I guess, and even some other sorts of gods. Often the pointy end of the argument is the existence of an afterlife where wrongs are righted and balance is restored – good that fails to be rewarded in this life and evil that fails to be punished is redressed there.
Christians tend to claim that, in the absence of God as a divine source and guarantor of morality, life is meaningless, good and evil are meaningless, and we may as well be absolute nihilists and hedonists who abuse others for our own pleasure. Let’s leave aside the slight suspicion that this simply reflects what they would really like to do, but the fear of God keeps them from, and realise that most of their arguments seem to come from the ‘fear of punishment/hope of reward’ level of moral reasoning. To be fair, though, some come from other levels, but it seems to be from the conviction that a moral code cannot be truly universal without a superhuman source.
They also tend to claim that all morality in the world has its source in Judeo-Christian influences in law and society – that when atheists act morally it’s through social pressure or a social code, but that it was Christianity that created that kind of society in the first place. That argument might be sustainable in Western countries such as the US that grew out of a Christian tradition, but it’s pretty hard to sustain with a broader view of the world and countries like China and India that are not at all founded in that tradition.
Anyway, as I have probably mentioned before, I find Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning to be an invaluable tool for thinking about these kind of questions. I thought it might be worthwhile to spend a little time looking at Kohlberg’s stages (or, as I tend to think of them, categories, since I’m less convinced by the notion of linear, unidirectional progress through them in a particular order) in the light of theism and atheism.
Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
1. Obedience and punishment orientation (How can I avoid punishment?)
2. Self-interest orientation (What’s in it for me?)
This is pretty easy to explain from a theist orientation: God, the judgement and afterlife punish the wicked and reward the virtuous, so ‘you’d better be good for goodness sake’. From an atheist perspective, it becomes about the here-and-now consequences, both positive and negative, of our actions: doing bad things can lead to arrest or fines from the authorities, divorce from our partners, ostracism from our friends and so on. Doing good things can lead to opportunities, positive rewards, esteem and so on. The punishments and rewards are on a different scale, but they’re definitely there.
Level 2 (Conventional)
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity (Social norms) (The good boy/good girl attitude)
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation (Law and order morality)
From a theistic perspective, Stage 3, interpersonal conformity, is redefined somewhat. It’s not society’s approval (‘good boy, good girl’) that is being sought, but God’s. What is praiseworthy is largely defined by the Bible, and may even be in conflict with what the rest of society thinks (society is usually seen as corrupt anyway). Stage 4 is where many Christians, particularly those of a more fundamentalist1 stripe, tend to focus. The Ten Commandments is one very clear set of rules by which to live life, and of course the Bible also has other rules, or rules can be created based on it.
A rule-keeping morality is characterised by statements about whether particular conduct is within the rules, and also with obsessive consideration of the letter and spirit of the law. I grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist household, so the Fourth Commandment, the one about keeping the Sabbath holy, was emphasised. In that place and time it was not appropriate to go swimming on the Sabbath (doing one’s own pleasure), but if you went on a nature walk along the beach it was OK to take off your shoes and paddle in the water… And so on.
For an atheist, Stage 3 is about approval from the rest of society – or from a subgroup. Outlaw bikers might like to think they are the ultimate rebels and need no-one’s approval (sometimes actively seeking the disapproval of mainstream society), yet of course they do seek the approval of others within their own subculture. Everyone likes to be liked, and seen as a ‘good bloke’ or ‘good woman’, and seeking this kind of approval tends to reinforce moral behaviour, with the “what will people think?” level of reasoning. Stage 4 tends to get transferred to other kinds of laws, particularly the laws of the land. This is the level of moral reasoning of the people who get very offended if someone exceeds the speed limit – not at all because of the threat of danger to that person or others, but specifically because the person is breaking the law. The same applies to all other laws: moral behaviour is defined by legal behaviour. The notion that a law can be immoral might be accepted in theory, but the response will usually be ‘but it’s the law!’
Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles (Principled conscience)
Maybe some of you can correct me, but I’m not sure Stage 5 is understandable at all from a theistic perspective. A social contract takes the form “I won’t steal from you and you won’t steal from me: and if we both abide by the contract then both of us will be able to keep our stuff safe”. I guess a theist might argue that God’s laws encode the same kinds of principles as a social contract: the Ten Commandments do a decent job of encoding most of the common social contract principles. But that’s not quite the same level of moral reasoning, since the reason for keeping the Ten Commandments is not the social contract, it’s ‘because God said so’. (Which boils down to either Stage 4 law-keeping or Stage 1 punishment avoidance.)
For an atheist, Stage 5 is kind of the default (for someone who has developed in their moral reasoning beyond the earlier stages): we do things and avoid doing things largely on the basis of the Golden Rule (even if we don’t ascribe that to Jesus) – “would I want it to be done to me?” It resides in empathy and an ability to imagine consequences: at Stage 5 a person avoids drinking and driving, for example, not because it’s illegal, but because they can imagine what it would feel like to kill someone in an accident that was their fault.
Stage 6 is probably in many ways the defining point of difference. Theists say “how can moral principles be universal without a divine guarantee?” Any scheme that is human is on a human scale – and, of course, one of the hidden assumptions in this discussion is that Christian doctrine says all humans are Fallen, sinful, corrupt. Anything that arises wholly from human sources, therefore, is flawed by definition. Without God to offer a ‘God’s eye view’ of morality from a position above and beyond the human, all sets of moral principles are ‘merely’ social constructions – and social constructions founded in sinful human self-love and selfishness. Without a divine guarantee, they claim, moral principles are meaningless – fleeting and foundationless.
Atheists, on the other hand, believe that humanity is all we have available when it comes to developing moral principles. Humanists (there’s a large overlap) tend to believe that humans are inherently good, inherently likely to seek to do right and to enhance others’ lives and experiences. Humanists would see humans as almost inevitably generating moral codes based on social contracts and avoidance of harm, and then generalising those beyond the local context and the ‘in-group’. And for atheists, all we’ve got is all we’ve got. If humanity does not create a morality, then there will be no morality. Since there clearly exist moral codes in the world, they must have arisen through human processes. Our moral reasoning becomes a matter of applying these principles, and seeking to sieve out our own self-interest from our considerations so as to do the moral thing. Someone at Stage 4 will really struggle with the ‘steal medicine to save dying person’ dilemma, since it involves law-breaking, but someone at Stage 6 will recognise that values, while universal, are also relative, and saving a life outweighs protecting private property. And so on.
My goal in this whole post is not to support one or the other perspective, it’s to try to help people from each perspective see how it looks from the ‘other side’. A big problem in the debates I’ve been reading is blanket statements about what theists and atheists ‘can’t possibly do’ within their own moral reasoning, or about ‘in the absence of God there can be no universal moral principles’ and so on.
I guess my point is really that Kohlberg’s useful scheme – and the very real and easily observed categories of moral reasoning that it describes – doesn’t actually distinguish well between theistic and atheistic moral reasoning. Each level and stage (with the possible exception of 5) can be understood from within either perspective. Irrespective of whether we think people with a different perspective from us do tend to use all available levels of moral reasoning, it seems fairly clear that they can – that the opportunity exists. That neither theism nor atheism rules out large swathes of the ability to think and act in moral ways.
- I’m using the term descriptively, not pejoratively