The Moral Disease

The Myth of Sisyphus. Linocut. 2012Despite what most people think, the modern age is perhaps the most moral of all periods of history. There are competing moralities which creates a sort of moral confusion – but we certainly have no lack of morality. But, as described in this article, morality itself is part of the problem. 

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 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.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


13 responses to “The Moral Disease”

  1. […] Meta-ethics and theology. […]

  2. […] Meta-ethics and theology. […]

  3. Allen Long Avatar

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

    What a powerful truth. Thank you, again, Fr. Stephen!

  4. RVW Avatar


    Have you read Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue”? It seems to be on a similar trajectory to what you’ve written here.


  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    I read After Virtue in the late 80’s. It was certainly an important book for me – one of a number that have had an impact on my thoughts over the years.

  6. Dn Stephen Hayes Avatar

    A little over 50 years ago an Anglican priest read a paper on “Religion versus God” at a student conference, which seemed to embody much of what you have written here. He introduced it with three propositions:

    1. That religion is in itself a highly dangerous thing.
    2. That the faith of the Bible and of the Church are not religions.
    3. That insofar as religion enters into the faith and life of the Church it is hostile to its true nature and must be eradicated.

    Unless I have misunderstood something, I think the same three points could summarise what you have said in this post.

  7. David Avatar

    I gravitate to your posts on morality and have commented on one or maybe two in the past. Your clarity on the points is very helpful. Morality, as the word implies, derives from social/cultural mores. I often find myself in conversations where morality is revered as if it’s equal to holiness. It seems more likely that morality is the adversary of holiness. Please tell me if ethos and morality are on the same plane. I tend to think of ethos not as an equal to moral, but, something that is from within not external like mores.

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ethos/ethnic(?) vs mores/morality.

    Morality is a problem when it replaces the inward movement of love. When the actions are more important than what motivates the actions and become a thing in and of themselves where they tend to become idolatrous in nature. Virtue in another thing altogether.

    A similar thing can be said of ethos I think as that too can become a culturally conditioned way of thinking and acting that has no inward substance and leads no where; in fact stifling creative and loving responses, a replacement for the Spirit.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    As I’m using the terms, ethos is a larger, more integrated setting for our lives – less conscious. It is something of the social context in which we live and think and act. Morality is the attempt to adhere to certain external standards, rules, etc. I don’t think they’re on the same plane.

  10. marybenton Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I love this article but keep finding myself caught in its paradox.

    The “externals” of religion (sacraments, prayer, fasting) are given to us as instruments to bring us to the change we need. Yet “every heart will be tried in its attempts to take up the externals” to the point that we may fall into idolatry. Indeed, the only way is to seek to lose ourselves.

    As I consider the well-worn phrase of many who have left the Church, “I’m spiritual but not religious”, it leaves me questioning whether one can be so changed WITHOUT these externals. (I have no desire to try, preferring to find proper relation to them as they teach me to lose myself.)

    Are you suggesting that the externals are not necessary? (I can’t quite imagine that you are, yet one might conclude from the article that they are helpful but risky things that one should approach with caution, if at all.)

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Even the best externals have associated problems – because the heart has its own problems. But we are incarnate beings, and there will always be externals – they are necessary. We are always at the mercy of God and in need of God. No external taken apart from Him will be of value – while with Him things find their right place.

    As noted about morality, there is no need to believe in God to be moral.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr. Stephen does it not depend on the reason? Human beings are capable of making an idol out of just about anything. We are also capable of using any righteous thing in iconic fashion. If we value the externals only for themselves, how they make us look, feel, etc.: we have our reward.

    If not, then they can be an avenue of God’s ineffable, unwarranted grace.

    Unfortunately, fallen human beings do most things out of mixed motives. Confusion abounds.

  13. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    This talk of externals makes me think of Fr. Alexander Schmemman’s amazing little book “For the Life of the World”. The first chapter makes his key point that everything –i.e. ALL EXTERNALS– were given to our parents as gifts of natural and continual communion. When Adam and Eve took the one thing NOT GIVEN, they corrupted their nature with NON COMMUNION. Assuming God’s responsibility to redefine the place of “things” resulted in the corruption of all things.

    Seeing all things in their natural place, as gifts of love from God’s heart, requires a pure heart. This is epitomized in the Eucharist which is a right and fitting exchange of gifts made pure by grace of the Holy Spirit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. Carlos, thanks for your reply. Even if the prayers are first person singular, they are for all of us to…

  2. Janine, Yes! I’ve read about the ancient corporate sense and its interpretive power in scripture, but I’m hesitant to apply…

  3. Kenneth, thanks for that reminder about John the Baptist. Carlos, I kind of think that we are confusing ancient forms…

  4. Janine, Thank you for replying! I understand what you’re saying about unworthiness and I totally agree, it is absolutely by…

  5. Father Stephen, Thank you for zeroing in on the shame and recommending your book. I look forward to reading it!

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast