Religious vs. secular morality

Nobody is capable of proving the benefits (or side effects) of organized religion.

Most people, religious or not, accept that a difference in opinion between the devout and secular will forever more probe unanswerable questions about human existence. But is it unreasonable to place the source of human morality outside the realm of these unbounded questions? That the ethics of atheists can be just as moral as those of churchgoers?

This is exactly the proposal behind newly published research. The study comes from Harvard University’s Dr. Marc Hauser along with Dr. Ilkka Pyysi√§inen from the University of Helsinki in Finland. Their research, which was recently published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, claims that “individuals show no difference in the pattern of their moral judgments for unfamiliar moral scenarios,” regardless of their religious backgrounds.

The researchers found that while nearly all religions provide moral codes that can succeed in organizing society, people with no religious background still display strong intuitive judgments of right and
wrong in line with the pious.

This is fairly logical research: If someone does not prescribe to the traditions and teachings of an organized church, there is no reason why good morals should not be intuitive in their social behavior. If this research was not true, then any person not exposed to a religious upbringing would be unable to distinguish between right and wrong, civilized and uncivilized. The threshold of what makes a person good and bad would be mutually exclusive to the religiously involved.

This, we know, is not the case in society.
The team analyzed multiple psychological experiments in order to test individuals’ moral inclinations. One study explained in the essay was a Web-based survey of thousands of male and female subjects with broad political views, levels of intelligence, ages and vastly different amounts of religious experience. Subjects were asked to read and judge “the moral permissibility of an action on a seven point scale (where 1=forbidden, 4=permissible, 7=obligatory).” As Hauser and Pyysi√§inen convey in their essay, the research repeatedly shows that the “pattern of moral judgments” of subjects with religious backgrounds does not widely
differ from those of atheists.

What’s even more compelling about the research presented in cases like this one is that a subject’s religious involvement is not the only factor considered. Children in elementary school produced similar results as doctoral students, as did
liberals and conservatives, young and old.

The reason for such an even plateau in moral belief, according to the authors’ research, is a psychological one. These studies conducted to test the relationship between religion and morality suggest that there is a “(unconsciously operative) knowledge that mature members of a community bring to bear on moral problems, and the mechanism by which all children
come to acquire such moral competence.”
At the root of such psychology is the principle of respect for the welfare of others. As Hauser and Pyysi√§inen suggest, this moral capacity is a kind of “universal grammar,” certain values that are mutual among all humans. Yes, the specifics of our morals will differ between cultures and settings, but the fundamental notion that harmful actions are immoral can account for much of what we all know about our human morality.

And while this research propels the notion of innate human morality, the authors’ do not neglect any benefits of organized religion that the research did find.

In an article recently published in the British newspaper The Telegraph, Dr. Hauser is quoted as saying, “Although it appears as if co-operation is made possible by mental mechanisms that are not specific to religion, religion can play a role in facilitating and stabilizing co-operation between groups.”

Hauser reminds us that these studies and the research they provide are not in the spirit of atheism, nor are they interested in tearing down the value of organized religion.

Religion can help unify groups of society around defined moral goals. It can promote goodwill beyond the components of our intuition, and be a catalyst for community involvement and charitable service.

What this research accomplishes is to disprove the notion that the correlation between religion and morality is a dependent one. To believe in religion as the sole path to a moral life is unwarranted. To promote intolerance of the secular life is unjustified and counterintuitive to acceptance and tolerance.

Hauser says further in The Telegraph article that he believes, for some people, “criticism targeted at religion is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence.” Surely, many religiously devout would undoubtedly agree with Hauser’s thoughts.

Still, the religious life should not be seen as the only means to a moral one. Different religions practice different beliefs, but they’re united in their moral teachings. Just the same is the religious world and secular world. After all, strong morals could be the only thing keeping us all together.