Glory to God for All Things

Godless Morality

Is it possible to be moral without believing in God?

I would venture to say that moral is pretty much all there is without God. To be moral requires that we have some understanding of the rules governing our behavior and a willingness to live by those rules. I have pondered many times why someone has rules if they don’t believe in God (though a culture without rules would be decidedly against anyone’s self-interest). I was intrigued last night by a small news story in which a study at Yale’s “Baby Lab,” demonstrated that even young infants have some sense of right and wrong. I do not find this in the least surprising though some might conclude (yet again) that we have a “God gene” and are biologically wired to be religious.

I am convinced that we are indeed “wired” to be religious, both by nature and nurture. I am also convinced that such religion has nothing to do with God.

To say what I’ve said above is troubling for some. How can a priest be opposed to morality? Why would a priest say religion has nothing to do with God. Is he using the words and giving them special meanings?

I am indeed giving very specific meanings to the words “morality” and “religion” – though offering these re-definitions is not my private idea. It has become something of a commonplace in contemporary Orthodox writing.

Morality refers to adherence to external norms and criteria – with the emphasis on the word external. There is no need for a God in order to be moral. Perhaps the most moral government on earth is that of China (a self-professed atheist regime). Some would even describe the government as “prudish.” Pornography and many other forms of immoral behavior are severely limited and punished in China, in a manner the West would never countenance.

Nothing is needed for morality other than rules. Those rules can be culturally imposed or privately imposed. It can generally be said that all people are moral: all of us have rules and expectations for our behavior and for others around us. It is frequently the case that these rules are attributed to God and to various divine sanctions. Morality is inherently religious.

Religion need have nothing to do with God (and rarely does). In contemporary Orthodox writing, the word “religion” is often used to describe a set of behaviors that are common across most religious traditions (and even non-religious). Those behaviors include the internalization of externals (rules and a sense of their necessity). Religion, in this sense, was described by Fr. Alexander Schmemann as concerned with “helping.” It is a means of coping with the world and its problems through behaviors, customs, mores and the like. Religion, defined in such a manner, requires comparison, control, measurement and standards. But it does not require God. For such a set of life-practices to gain optimal force, invoking the idea of God is important. No rule has as much force as one initiated by God.

The conflict between Christ and the Pharisees (a highly religious sect) frequently revolved around the conflict with religion and morality. Christ notes their concern for outward things (cleansing vessels, ritually correct clothing, etc.) and their neglect of inward things (mercy, judgment, faith). The religious use of rules were very effective in condemning God to death.

Orthodox Christianity has no immunity in this matter. Its own traditions involving ritual, fasts, and other externals are easily misused. In my experience they are no more prone to abuse than the religious impulse that exists everywhere. There are those who condemn certain outward religious expressions as a matter of course, as though the problem were with externals themselves. But the problem is a human matter – a disease of the inner life.

The disease of religion (and morality) is found in the absence of God. Religious systems, arranged for controlling human behavior and managing our neurotic desire to manipulate the universe, find the concept of God to be extremely useful. Nothing grants ultimacy to any scheme as well as the divine Ultimate. But such religion does not require a real God – indeed a real God brings about the destruction of such neurotic systems.

This is the great struggle of true Christianity. It is not a struggle against ignorance or unbelief. The greatest struggle of the faith is with the perversion of faith – the neurotic grasp for godlike power with its inherent enmity toward the true God.

Christ draws a focus on this struggle in his teachings that urge us to lose. “Whoever would lose his life will save it,” we are told. It is the strangely counter-intuitive character of true faith that the desire for religion must be lost. We cannot know God through our excellence and our moral achievement. The nature of grace finds its abundance in the empty heart.

The virtues of humility and love require the loss of self and the yielding of room to the other. In such a life, there is no room for religion. A saving relationship with God is not marked by correct behavior and adherence to norms – it is marked by the indwelling presence of God and a change in the very core of a man’s being. We are not taught to act like God, but to be changed into His image.

The external traditions of faith are not inimical to this inner change – indeed they have been given to us as instruments in the life of change. But every heart will be tried in its attempts to take up the externals. For the one who seeks to justify himself, the externals (whatever their shape) will become the instruments of idolatry. For the one who seeks to lose himself and find God, every external will yield its treasure and become a point of revelation.

May God deliver us from moral men and grant us to be changed.

 

51 Responses to “Godless Morality”

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  1. Darlene says:

    Father Stephen: Oddly enough, it is within Evangelicalism that the word religion is used in a derogatory manner. Think of the video that came out on YouTube earlier this year titled, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” On the contrary, I’ve heard the word used within Orthodoxy in a rather optimistic manner. In fact, various Orthodox bloggers took issue with that video and its dissing of religion. I don’t think it profits us Orthodox to disparage the word religion. That is just falling prey to the popular Evangelical culture in particular and secularism in general.

  2. Arnold Karr says:

    Interesting. I agree that faith in the divine is unnecessary for morality, though faith that one’s fellows share one’s own values and will abide by them makes it easier to practice what one preaches. So faith of a sort may be behind all morality.
    The most troubling example of the relation between faith and morality is the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah. Abraham’s faith led him to attempt the ritual slaughter of his young son, an act which almost any self-identified descendent (spiritual or biological) of his would call immoral before or after that instance.
    If I can be moral without faith in the divine and an intense faith can actually drive me to murderous immorality, of which ought I be more wary?

  3. Michael Bauman says:

    Was God offering His own son up to an even more odious death that what Isaac faced also immoral?

    Kinda proves the point about the literal, linear, ‘real’ interpretation of scripture vs. the Christologic interpretation. Once Christ’s Incarnation and Sacrifice as the lamb of God has been revealed, the story of Abraham and Isaac becomes crystal clear. IMO it also delineates the moral from the kenotic.

    Morality and so called relgion suffer not from excess, but from the attempt to restrict both the mercy of God and the size of the human heart.

  4. Michael Bauman says:

    Darlene, I’m with you on this too. There is false relgion, but also authentic relgion but to be fair, it only takes us so far. Most of us need it however because we are the maimed the halt and the lame.

    I don’t believe a person who needs no crutch should look down on those who do need it. God commands us to worship and use certain forms. The problem lies in making the forms idols instead of allowing them to be icons. Only an iconoclast abandons the forms altogether thinking he gets closer to God by doing so.

  5. dinoship says:

    This reminded me of the saying:
    We cannot abandon the “scafolding” that is needed to build our house, in the knowledge that is not the house. But, we cannot foolishly think it is part of the house either…It is nothing but temporary scaffolding.

  6. Andreas says:

    Hi,
    I think an essential part of the puzzle if missing, although I find the post in its entirety to be brilliant. The missing part is that though we are not to taught to act like God but to be transformed into his image…being transformed into his image looks an awful lot like acting like God. Acting comes after becoming but it must come, otherwise I would question the becoming.

    Thanks,
    Andreas

  7. hilary says:

    I, too, watched the story about the “Baby Lab” and what occurred to me came from the presented idea that babies can tell who is “like” them and who is their “other.” The conclusion was that babies are “little bigots” (said lightheartedly twice in the story, but my brain got stuck on that) who will usually prefer those who are like them and will usually actively choose against those who are unlike them. I’m no scientist but the problem/solution seemed pretty simple to me, in the end: as long as we know all people on earth are much more similar than they are different, maybe any of our “natural” bias (the little bigots within — wow that sounds odd) can be smoothed over enough to stop being such immature, merely moral actors. Because knee-jerk moralism annoys me no end. And it made sense to see a 3-month-old doing what adults routinely do, simply decide what’s right/wrong by the first appearance of things and stubbornly stick with that judgment.

    (For those who watched the “Baby Lab” program, what if the stuffed animal who was forcing the box closed was saving them from a pit viper? I had no idea. The baby had no idea. And there we are.)

    I love that you keep writing about morality, Fr. Stephen. Thank you.

  8. George Engelhard says:

    As I am I am converted by Christ’s presence in me more and more to His likeness, I find that act of kindness that I do are not so much conscious act of my will but automatic reactions to the situation before me.

  9. PJ says:

    Father,

    You write, “We are not taught to act like God, but to be changed into His image.”

    But St. Paul says, “Be ye imitators of God.”

    How do we change but through action, imitation, aided of course by the Spirit of God?

  10. fatherstephen says:

    Darlene,
    Fr. Alexander Schmemann used the word in the manner I do here as early as the 1970′s. Fr. John Romanides, a very significant figure in Orthodox thought in the 20th century, actually wrote on the “disease” of religion. I’m simply using the term in the manner they do. I would be hard put to find a more useful word. What the evangelicals mean by “I hate religion” is that they “hate” Church, which is nothing new since evangelicals have an extremely defective, if not completely absent, doctrine of the Church.

    Oddly, my use of the word might very well help some evangelicals enter a conversation with what I actually mean (and what Orthodoxy means by this). We can’t let our vocabulary be set by whatever evangelicals do this week on Youtube.

    Within the “Recovery” movement, those who are recovering from various addictions – a very large and influential part of our culture, the word “religion” has long been used in a negative manner, with the word “spiritual” used as a substitute. They are accurate, in that what they mean by “religion” will not only not help you stay sober – it might help you stay drunk. While what they mean by “spiritual” is indeed useful.

    In conversations such as with the Evangelicals, I find it most useful to take what they say and find at least some manner in which to agree with it, and then move the conversation further. Much like St. Paul in Athens. Thus I would positively engage (rather than argue) with “Why I hate religion.” It’s easy to have an argument. It’s much harder to bring someone to the faith or a deeper understanding of it.

    We have too many Orthodox on the internet who are having arguments. We do not need to defend the word religion. There is no Orthodox investment in the word, particularly when it has been used in a negative manner now for nearly 70 years.

    I would suggest that many Orthodox writers on the web are too unread in wider Orthodox thought. They have opinions but not enough understanding. Forgive the arrogance of such a statement. However, there are too many who claim to write for Orthodoxy who have only skimmed Orthodox writings, and often “bad” Orthodox writing. They have not studied, in depth, the “canon” of 20th century Orthodox work, as well as the history of the theological conversation that gave rise to it. In so doing, they create more confusion than anything.

    I am far from the best out there, but I’ve done my homework over the decades. The deeply sad state of much “Orthodox” work on the web is a primary reason I started writing. I’ve probably said more than I should. Forgive me.

    Having said all that, the article is not really about a need to redefine the word “religion.” It uses the word in the manner of Schmemann, Yannaras, Romanides, et al. But it’s quite possible that I would turn around in a week and use the word in a different manner. It’s just the nature of language. Words are rather fluid. Thus in our engagement with Evangelicals, it’s not the word we need to engage – but what they mean by the word. That is true conversation. To focus on the word itself is to miss the opportunity for conversation. Just as in this post – what about the meaning of what I have written – rather than my use of the word “religion”?

  11. fatherstephen says:

    But if you read more carefully what I’ve written, morality is pretty much a non-question for Christians. It is synonymous with almost any instinctual activity. The story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, is not a “moral” story. It’s the story of the struggle towards knowledge of God. Messy, dangerous, even crazy at times. In the long run I would fear the unrelenting banality of the moral life. In such a life – it’s like living and never loving. Empty, empty, empty.

  12. fatherstephen says:

    PJ,
    “Be ye imitators of God,” is not the same thing as, “Try to be moral.” I think it is better understood in the light of Philippians 2:5-11.

  13. Michael Bauman says:

    One of the things that got Nietzche about Christianity or more specifically his father’s Christianity was its empty banal morality which at the same time (to him) celebrated weakness. He has a point, how do we embrace the Cross at all if morality is the gauge?

  14. George Engelhard says:

    By being crucified with Christ and resurrected with Him that the life that you live is Christ’s life lived in you.

  15. PJ says:

    It just seems to me that change requires action (albeit in concert with the grace of the Spirit). Some actions are godly while others are ungoldy. When I say that something is “moral,” I simply mean that it is godly; when I say that something is “immoral,” I simply mean that it is ungodly.

  16. Arnold Karr says:

    I have no idea what morality for God would be, so I can’t answer the question about comparing the sacrifice of Christ with the attempted sacrifice of Isaac. I can deal with the Moriah story as a struggle for faith, but it doesn’t tell me much about the relationship between two persons of the Trinity, as they presumably knew exactly what they were doing and why. Of course, the humanity of one person seemed a bit confused, by many accounts, but that’s getting into linear thinking again. Maybe I should watch Slaughterouse 5 a few more times until I get it. (Being facetious: I’m sure I’ll never get it)

  17. PJ says:

    “Fr. Alexander Schmemann used the word in the manner I do here as early as the 1970′s.”

    Maybe that’s part of the problem. This notion that “religion” is bad and hollow (and “phony”) strikes me as something very … 1960s, 1970s. Very Boomerish. I look around my generation and I see people who would profit from simply attending church once a week, however half-heartedly. Given the thorough depravity of my generation, I have trouble rejecting “bourgeois religion” in toto, even with its myriad hypocrisies. It’s not ideal, but it’s not entirely useless and contemptible.

    Then again, I could be missing the heart of what you’re saying…It wouldn’t be the first time. ;-)

  18. hilary says:

    I’m not sure the godly/ungodly dichotomy is true at all. Some actions look “bad” or “good” but are actually the other. Or neither. But then I still think all things are good, because they’re created, so it’s man who perverts or corrupts anything. And all can be redeemed.

  19. fatherstephen says:

    PJ,
    Gosh – that’s the importance of reading all these things in context. Fr. Schmemann, a Russian by way of Paris, was quite “out-of-touch” with anything trendy and 60′s – like. Romanides was a Greek as is Yannaras. These are not examples of trendy decades-molded theologians. Instead, a good history of the term religion is useful. What does Kant mean by it in his “Religion amongst its cultured despisers.” It’s just morality.

    All of these Orthodox writers (and I could add many more) use the term, when it is used in a negative sense, to mean (more or less) “religion understood as morality and rituals meant to comfort and support the same.”

    I didn’t use the word “Bourgeoise,” though I could have. Only if the Church exists in order to underwrite the banal project of the State is such morality at all useful. I fully recognize that congregations are filled with this (remember, I’ve been doing this for over 30 years). The task of a priest (and any Christian) isn’t necessarily to excoriate this kind of “religion,” but certainly to challenge it, and help people move deeper into true faith and saving relationship.

    God uses everything – even our feeble attempts at “religion.” Because He is a good God and loves mankind. But, when given the opportunity, He does so in order to knock you off your horse and leave you blind while you were on your way to Damascus in pursuit of religion.

  20. PJ says:

    Arnold,

    It’s not a mathematical or scientific proof, to be “got.” It’s what St. Ephrem calls a “raza,” a mystery-symbol. A type. It reveals the providence and beneficence of the Father, who provides His own Son, giving Him over to death so that we might live. Christ is the ram caught in the thicket of thorns. He is killed upon the wooden altar, which prefigures the cross.

  21. PJ says:

    Father,

    “The task of a priest (and any Christian) isn’t necessarily to excoriate this kind of “religion,” but certainly to challenge it, and help people move deeper into true faith and saving relationship.”

    This I agree with.

  22. dinoship says:

    Father,
    I wholeheartedly agree and very often have this very same complaint regarding people’s secularised notions concerning Christianity. The “religionization” of Christianity creates a watered-down caricature of a Faith that inspires Martyrs.

  23. Arnold Karr says:

    All this reminds me of Kierkegaard’s statement that the Knight of Faith seems anything but religious or spiritual to the world at large. I also remember Paul told the Athenians they were “very religious” (KJV – “superstitious”) I don’t know if he meant it as a compliment.

  24. PJ says:

    Methinks Paul’s words had manifold meaning.

  25. mewood says:

    Thank you for your post. I seem to understand what you mean but then I’m over seventy and over theyears have seen many in churches bustling about doing good to others. (There is a joke that you can tell the others by their hunted expressions. )
    Most clergy are regularly trying to get your point across, in Anglican congregations at least, and now after many years I’m beginning to get a hold of it!

  26. John Shores says:

    Nothing is needed for morality other than rules…Morality is inherently religious.

    Oh! No. Please don’t take that position. I tell you the truth that I have found more honest, moral people in the atheist world than I ever knew in church. It has nothing to do with rules. It has everything to do with wanting to be a decent human being. That begins with not lying to impress others, a prerequisite in just about every church I have attended.

  27. James the Thickheaded says:

    As you write, philosophy teaches morality doesn’t require religion, but religion does tend to incorporate morality. Faith is something deeper and involves more complexity than rules allow but isn’t a squishy “everything’s okay” either.

    Wonder that it doesn’t begin with a sense of freedom, but freedom that sits on the knife edge as it does in Genesis.. right at the beginning. Like to ascribe this to Christianity, but my typically blotto memory recalls some Ancient wisdom – possibly Laos Tsu – saying in effect that “The man of virtue knows when it is not virtuous to continue to act in accord with virtue.” In part, I think this packs the difficulty of expression tighter… though misses much as well. What it does do is illuminate that if we have a love for Christ, we need to work harder to find the light of Christ in all of this somewhere in the heart… rather than in rules, customs, rituals, etc. And yet these do feed our love just as on coming home a smile from our beloved warms the heart. Small things… but easy to confuse. And we do.

  28. PJ says:

    “The man of virtue knows when it is not virtuous to continue to act in accord with virtue.”

    It seems difficult for a Christian to affirm this statement, so long as “virtue” is properly understood as Christlikeness.

  29. James the Thickheaded says:

    PJ: You’re on the right track: there’s an intended “Confucian” equivocation in the use of the term in the 1st and 2nd uses which are consistent “true virtue” versus the 3rd use of the word as “nominal virtue”. Pharisaic definition of virtue was inflexible which seems consistent with virtue as defined by ritual purity.

  30. drewster2000 says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    By rough count, the average number of comments per post are climbing toward 50 (if that number isn’t already outdated). What about the idea of numbering the comments? That way I can bookmark where I end one day and more quickly be able to take it up the next morning.

    Just a thought, drewster

  31. John Shores says:

    Hi Drewster – If you refresh the page and go to the top and click on your “Most Recent Comment” you will see that the URL ends in “/2012/11/19/godless-morality/#comment-66785″. You can copy that URL and save it in a Text file then paste it back into your browser to start where you left off.

  32. drewster2000 says:

    Thanks John,

    That is a neat trick, but you and I are techno-geeks and I was speaking with my “public” voice, for the benefit of those who can’t or won’t go for something like that. (grin)

    Having said that, I will start keeping a text file. Thanks again.

  33. drewster2000 says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I love this topic but I recognize that it’s difficult to put into words. Because of that I’m going to try to use a word picture to rephrase what you said – drawing partly from James TTH and Dinoship:

    The word religion, as you’re using it here, is like a house. It is built, changed, etc. according to the desires of the Owner. We help Him build it. Much could be said about this analogy but I would soon lose my audience and my point.

    The important point is that religion (as used here) is the structure, the furnishings, the add-ons, the content. They aren’t permanent. The people give the house life and make it a home. They alone are permanent.

    And of course God is their source and meant to be the center of their life. He may (will) remodel, change furniture, tear down and rebuild, etc. This is to be expected. But too easily we cling to our favorite album, the chair we got from Aunt Mabel, the kitchen that so many good things happened in. But these are not what counts.

    The OT gave us the commandments. Plenty of structure. But structure alone is dead and not enough. We need the life of Christ that makes all things new – and in fact will change the structure that we’ve built over our lifetimes.

    We need religion (structure). Religion isn’t bad and is in fact necessary, but anything put ahead of Christ becomes an idol and becomes dead to us. Thus the danger of religion for Christians – and many other religious groups.

  34. drewster2000 says:

    [test comment]

  35. drewster2000 says:

    Like dinoship in the past, I’m trying to get one of my comments past the spam filter. Please be patient:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I love this topic but I recognize that it’s difficult to put into words. Because of that I’m going to try to use a word picture to rephrase what you said – drawing partly from James TTH and Dinoship:

    The word religion, as you’re using it here, is like a house. It is built, changed, etc. according to the desires of the Owner. We help Him build it. Much could be said about this analogy but I would soon lose my audience and my point.

  36. drewster2000 says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I love this topic but I recognize that it’s difficult to put into words. Because of that I’m going to try to use a word picture to rephrase what you said – drawing partly from James TTH and Dinoship:

  37. drewster2000 says:

    The word religion, as you’re using it here, is like a house. It is built, changed, etc. according to the desires of the Owner. We help Him build it. Much could be said about this analogy but I would soon lose my audience and my point.

  38. drewster2000 says:

    The word religion, as you’re using it here, is like a house. It is built, changed, etc. according to the desires of the Owner. We help Him build it.

  39. drewster2000 says:

    The important point is that religion (as used here) is the structure, the furnishings, the add-ons, the content. They aren’t permanent. The people give the house life and make it a home. They alone are permanent.

  40. drewster2000 says:

    And of course God is their source and meant to be the center of their life. He may (will) remodel, change furniture, tear down and rebuild, etc. This is to be expected. But too easily we cling to our favorite album, the chair we got from Aunt Mabel, the kitchen that so many good things happened in. But these are not what counts.

  41. drewster2000 says:

    The OT gave us the commandments. Plenty of structure. But structure alone is dead and not enough. We need the life of Christ that makes all things new – and in fact will change the structure that we’ve built over our lifetimes.

  42. drewster2000 says:

    We need religion (structure). Religion isn’t bad and is in fact necessary, but anything put ahead of Christ becomes an idol and becomes dead to us. Thus the danger of religion for Christians – and many other religious groups.

  43. drewster2000 says:

    By the way Fr. Stephen, I like the picture you chose for this post. What was your thought behind it? If you have time to address this.

  44. What is there to say to the people who propose a better society without God? They obviously can have morality. They also have scientific progress on their side, knowledge and a supposed measure for everything (even for feelings, sensations, perceptions, etc.). And, concerning “the soul” and its needs (which they won’t accept as existing), they have a set of… personal objectives (I was about to call them beliefs or creeds). They won’t agree that their lives would not be beautiful in such a world. Their only problem is with narrow-minded believers, who stand in the path of progress (I strongly disagree with this – I myself enjoy studying, learning, improving but still believe in God; Leonhard Euler, the great mathematician, was, supposedly, a devout Christian; his findings are of colossal importance to several branches of science; its beyond my understanding how they can seriously promote an idea like this).

    And my country’s past supports such a view… There was a certain prosperity, and it was not linked by people to any idea of God, but to the leadership of the communists, of man and matter. And in the present, things are growing worse, economically, in a time of freedom (including the freedom to believe), all the more reason for people to become nostalgic about the material stability communism offered (and I cannot disagree that communism hasn’t had it’s great feats – as was mentioned in this article: the atheist regime in China puts the Christian state to shame regarding morality…).

    Atheists do not consider that the failure of the communist-atheist utopia is relevant. (They don’t even consider communism to have been purely atheist.)

    My response to them was (but I was incapable of helping them understand this position) that we already live in an atheist/secular world, and the results are clear.

    PS: I think its just horrifying that the truth about marxism/communism is not yet known or accepted… From what I know, it was atheist, at least at a certain stage. I’m not an historian, but is this not true? Some atheists also blamed marxism on the Church and said that it also strongly resembled a religion (and by saying this, they weren’t just criticizing the wrongdoings of Church-leaders, but faith in God in general). This relativism is tormenting. I don’t know what or where to read to find the truth. It just seems like science is only what they want it to be. If I read facts from the wrong source, it is not the truth, it is not science. It becomes theistic propaganda.

    Thanks in advance, for understanding me… I have a lot of questions from my past encounters with atheists, and I don’t even know where to search. I do not trust their “scientific” facts… And, of course, if I read any materials my fellow Orthodox Christians offer me, they will be deemed theistic propaganda.

    May God help us be wiser.

  45. Sorry for the long posts…

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