In Theory: Is morality tied to belief in God?

A recent poll conducted Pew Research Center revealed that many people worldwide, particularly those who live in poorer countries, are of the opinion that one must believe in God to be a moral person.

According to the Pew report that was issued in late March, more people in North America and Europe agree that one can be an upright person whether or not they are religious.

Q: What is your take on the various views across the globe linking morality to a belief in God?

What is "moral"? It can mean any, all, or some combination of: following the law, adhering to socially-agreed-upon interpersonal behaviors (including sexual mores and family values), living by a strict set of organizational rules (military honor, for instance), acting within situational ethical parameters, following the dictates of conscience, doing good deeds for others and acting for justice, or aligning yourself with the purposes and vision of God, so far as you and your people can understand them.

If that last item is part of your definition of "moral," then yes, clearly you need to believe in God. If not, then no, you don't, and can be moral in every other respect. Likewise, religious people might see all of the above as the will and guidance of God, and feel themselves empowered by God to strive for them; while nonreligious people see these ethics as valuable and achievable in their own right.

While some may think of religious belief as monolithically rigid, I think the opposite: Because it has to do with an infinite and unnamable "God," religion can and must be dynamic, malleable and changeable, able to be true in many and even opposing facets, for different people and in different times.

So, long before the development of civic law, religions began mostly as a moral code, the only set of rules around which protected health and limited harm, enabling the beginnings of civilization and common life. But now that secular law has performed these functions for centuries, it's much more possible to be moral without being religious.

It's also possible, these days, to be casually religious for other than moral reasons — for one's own spiritual benefit, for instance. The trick is all those founding values and ethics are still in there, and you can't be serious about your religion without being held to some moral accountability.

So maybe in this era, the answer is: While you can be moral without being religious, you can't be religious to any serious degree without at least striving to be moral.

The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George's Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge

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I think that the data here is being misinterpreted. It is not a question of rich or poor. One's views of morality seem to reflect their culture's attitude on religion. No one wants to consider themselves immoral. Nations that are particularly observant of certain religions seem to think their religion dictates morality. Nations with mixed religious backgrounds or with waning interest in religion would like to believe that their morality is not connected to a religion they do not believe in.

Although, I would wager that there would be absolutely no consensus on the issue if, as a follow up question, the pollsters asked "What does it mean to be a moral person?"

David Derus

Student
Fuller Theological Seminary
Pasadena

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In the earliest days of religion, I think morality was always attached to belief in some kind of deity. And that belief lasted for a long time. Personally, I don't think a person has to be religious to be moral. We have an atheist or two who write in this space every week, but I am not about to proclaim — because I don't believe it! — that I and all my clergy colleagues are more moral than the nonbelievers. In fact, some religious folk may be bigger hypocrites than the nonreligious folk. (It seems to me that Jesus made that point more than once!)

Worldwide it may be the majority opinion that being moral has to involve being religious, but I don't agree with that opinion. Also worldwide it just could be that those in the majority opinion don't understand why a person is religious in the first place. True, the religious person believes that God has high standards, and religious belief certainly involves morality.

A person believes because he believes quite strongly that God has called him, has spoken his name in some way, and not because he wants to be a better person. True, being a better person is a goal, but it's not the primary one. The primary goal of a religious person is to do the will of God. If doing the will of God means he's a better person, fine. But first and foremost is doing the will of God, regardless of what the greater community thinks of him.

And you thought church was just for those "goody two-shoes" people. You're wrong; it's for you, too!

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge

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The most fundamental truth of all is that God exists. Right and wrong are rooted in who he is, not in what man thinks. A moral person therefore is one who acknowledges the truth about God and conforms to his law. Romans chapter 1 says "that which is known about God is evident within them [that is, all mankind]; for God made it evident to them."

We all know God is there, but the problem is that mankind in general has turned away from him, whether through atheism or idolatry: "even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks…and their foolish heart was darkened." (Romans 3:19, 21). Denying the God we know is there of the obedience and honor he deserves is immoral.

Because of the sin nature we all inherited from fallen Adam and Eve we behave immorally and none of us keeps God's law. "There is none righteous, not even one" says Paul the apostle. Even Jesus said, "No one is good except God alone."We cannot be made righteous by our own efforts, for "by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight" (Romans 3:20). Our only recourse before a holy God is to receive as a gift "the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe" (Romans 3:22).

We cannot achieve morality by our own efforts. We can only be declared moral by God because of Christ's payment for our sins on the cross, and be conformed to morality by the ongoing work of his spirit in us.

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church, Burbank

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As human beings, we were created in the image of God to manifest the glory of God. God designed us to manifest his nature, character and power. Unfortunately, all too often religion substitutes morality for God's glory and misses the whole point of our unique identity.

Of course people can be morally good when compared to other people; and they can have personal convictions and values that are good without believing in God. Scripture tells us that we all became sinners, not because we were incapable of any moral goodness, but because we fell short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)

An example of how we can act morally upright and still miss God's glory is given in 1 Corinthians 13:3, where it states: "If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing." Here, the person is described as demonstrating an extreme sacrifice in terms of moral goodness, but still fails to exhibit God's character.

God is love and 1 Corinthians 13 goes on to describe his character in detail. "Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends."

There is absolutely no way that we can manifest God's glory without the transforming power of his spirit living within us. We can do morally good things without God, but we can never regain the fullness of being created in God's image apart from accepting Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church
Pasadena

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Many studies have linked the religiosity of a country, typified by the opinion that one must believe in God to be a moral person, to its level of economic development. Poorer countries are the most religious, which this Pew study again confirms.

My take is that with development comes education, which broadens people's attitudes about belief, whether or not they are religious themselves. And knowing a lot of God believers as I do, I understand that not all religious people think that belief in God or gods is a required feature of morality.

Looking at the full Pew study, I see another familiar finding: The U.S. is more like the poor countries in connecting morals to God, and unlike the rest of the developed world. Our high level of religiosity is merely one factor distinguishing us from the other rich countries. There is also our use of capital punishment, rate of incarceration, lack of social safety net and universal healthcare, poor public transit, and level of economic inequality — a very long list.

My personal take is that I don't mind having my morals questioned simply because I am an atheist, implied insult though it is. I have a thick skin. That the U.S. is not a truly advanced society troubles me much more.

Ignoring their own narrow-mindedness for now, I would have these more-moral-than-thou believers help address all the serious problems setting us apart from our economic peer countries, which many churches are already tackling. This list, not whether we believe in God, is the proof that the U.S. is morally underdeveloped.

Roberta Medford
Atheist
Montrose

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Belief in God provides a strong moral anchor to those who try sincerely to follow what he teaches. However, I would never argue that only the religious live according to high standards of morality.

The Pew Center article doesn't provide a definition of "moral," so we're left to assume it means the same thing to all of the respondents. My very rough definition is someone who is honest, fair, faithful to friends and family and, generally, tries to do good. I know believers and nonbelievers who fit this description, just as I know people on both sides of the equation who fall short.

The regions where large majorities linked faith to morality also are places where religion plays a stronger role in everyday life. It would be interesting to know if some of those respondents view faith in God as a defining characteristic of the moral person. Might they feel that attributes such as honesty simply aren't enough to classify someone as moral if their good behavior isn't accompanied by religious conviction?

The LDS church teaches that everyone is capable of goodness and, to some degree, is guided toward it by the light of Christ. This belief is supported by the Book of Mormon as well as the Bible, where John wrote that the Savior's light, or influence, "lighteth every man that cometh into the world."

What faith provides is a constant standard, and source of strength, that can insulate believers from the temptation to compromise in those moments when secular logic, anger and other distractions threaten to overwhelm their commitment to high moral standards.

Michael White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
La Crescenta

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Having read the provided opinion, I'm glad to see that America holds a majority view that God-belief is necessary to good morals, and that we stand in opposition to communist and/or atheist countries that do not.

Nonetheless, the question wonders if godless people are capable of morality. Look, everyone has morals, it's whether those morals are truly "upright" that needs answering. Past cultures tolerated pederasty, infanticide and slavery, but was that morality "good"?

Morality must be informed by God, or people create their own self-serving, politically correct morals, plenty of which are very immoral. When people say they can be "moral" without God, they speak a half-truth. It just means they consider any moral determination of their own to be right; nothing is really immoral except perhaps what their social clique agrees upon. People often decide morals pragmatically; "Is it legal?" and "Does it make sense to me?" but they don't realize how far short they fall, nor the intense immorality of rejecting their creator.

This is Easter time. What does it mean apart from chocolate bunnies and colored eggs? It means that God thinks our chosen morals are atrocious and damnable. How many prisons do we have, and wars, and how much evil for all our moral posturing? Easter is about God providing a second chance, despite mankind's inherent immoral penchant. He stepped out of Heaven and paid for our immorality on the cross. Then he extended the offer to save us by virtue of his payment for our deserved penalty. Accepting the offer earns us heaven and puts us on a path of divine, correct, morality forever. Whoever says "No thanks, I'll live by my own morals" will simply get justice in the end, which is a deserved, everlasting condemnation for their sin; sin based on human morality without God.

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
Montrose

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As I understand the Pew Research Center's study, what they showed is not that belief in God is necessary to be moral and have good values. What they revealed is that people's beliefs in the cause and effect relationship between God and morality is dependent on a number of variables — geography, nationality, history, religion and socioeconomics.

Why do these differences exist? It is hard to say. But I will venture some educated guesses.

I think the reason that many Chinese may not see a positive relationship between the two is both religious and national. The religions in that area of the world are largely Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian, none of which espouse a belief in God. And for those who are not religious, the influence of Communism in China has minimized the importance of religion in all areas of life and behavior.

The study also shows that people who are poor tend to have a greater belief in the relationship between God and morality in a number of countries and regions. That may be because people who are in the lower socioeconomic groups have experienced firsthand the immorality of secular governments in their daily experience. That may also be the reason why many of those in poorer countries of the world, not just the poor within a country, have a greater belief in morality's dependence on God's influence.

The reason that those in the United States, in contrast to the rest of North America, see a greater positive correlation between morality and God could be both historical and national. Our country was originally founded by those who wanted freedom to practice their own religious traditions — particularly those in Protestant denominations, and religion remains very important in our country, particularly in the South.

But whatever different people think about the source of morality does not make it true. I believe that in our daily lives as people, the most important thing for the good of our community, our country and our world is that we act in ways that make life better for all — whether that behavior comes from a belief in God or not.

Rev, Dr, Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta

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