Episode 17: Do You Have To Be Religious Or Spiritual To Be Moral?
June 13, 2011

Living the Questions Podcast, Episode 17 (Do You Have To Be Religious Or Spiritual To Be Moral?)

Do you have to be religious or spiritual to be moral?

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Billy Graham’s response to S.K who asks how her (his?) atheist friend could be moral without God.

Time Magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger’s “What Makes Us Moral?”


Peter Singer, atheist philosopher and Princeton University professor, on “Why We Should Be Moral.”

The Veritas Forum’s “Moral Mammals—Why Do We Matter?—Does Theism or Atheism Provide the Best Foundation for Human Worth and Morality?” at MIT in 2009.  With Peter Singer, atheist philosopher, and Dr. John Hare, Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale.


Shane Claiborne is one of the founding members of The Simple Way.

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Episode Cover Art:

American pastoral by andrewatla on stock.xchng.

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  1. terry
    Jun 19, 2011

    I love that you said it was a “tip of the iceberg” discussion, lol. I agree with your conclusions that people have a desire to do what’s “good” or what’s “moral,” irrespective of religion. You might hate me for asking, but who decides what’s good, or what’s moral? Is it each individual country, or state, or local region? Is it truly just being altruistic, or helping others, or the golden rule? How do we categorize what Jack Kevorkian did? I know that’s just one example.

    • Elissa
      Jun 20, 2011

      Yes, “tip-of-the-iceberg” it certainly is! And while this podcast wasn’t about what IS moral, I’ll try to answer your questions as best I can.

      I’m not sure anyone can prove that there’s ONE moral law, written on the hearts of all mankind (meaning an OBJECTIVE, works-in-all-cases morality). If so, all cultures would agree on right and wrong. So, for instance, the Romans thought it was perfectly acceptable to enjoy a leisurely, bloodthirsty show in the amphitheater. Mayans practiced child sacrifice. Today, there is disagreement on abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, among other things—even smack dab in the midst of people who all call themselves Christian. We’ll never agree on everything.

      So, perhaps, morality is somewhat subjective…and NOT binary (either right or wrong). The definition of subjective is that it begins in (or emanates from) a person’s mind, not the exterior world. That’s what makes it subjective. We’re all different. We’ve all led vastly different lives; therefore we may see gray issues differently, although if you notice in the previous paragraph, we’d agree TODAY, I think, that the amphitheater experience was wrong. Child sacrifice was wrong.

      So, perhaps, if we take God out of the equation just for a minute (because this podcast was to show that believers and non-believers can be moral), then we might notice the things we agree on TODAY. I say today, because I think morality standards change (like racial prejudices being preached from the pulpits not too long ago, women being treated second- or third-rate, etc.). We might agree on being kind, doing to others what we would have them do to us, giving of our time or money, helping the less fortunate. We might agree that killing someone is wrong, except in self-defense. Quakers would never believe in killing, for any reason. We might disagree on capital punishment. Maybe not.

      Obviously, each community sets up laws for THAT community, because we’d have problems if we didn’t. And I think you know and I know, that those laws are insufficient and unfair at times (what makes us feel this way?…because not all people would agree with us…). I’m not sure if anyone would claim that America’s laws constitute THE MORAL LAW. In and of itself it’s insufficient.

      I’m not sure we can say God wrote it on our hearts, because then we’d agree on everything…and if you THEN say we don’t because of sin, then you run into the problem of God not making himself very clear.

      I would suggest that, although many people use the Bible as the end-all moral code, it, too, has major contradictory commandments and laws, enough that, again, there are myriads of denominations…and the question still exists: who’s reading it correctly?

      As to Kevorkian, there are a great number of people who agree with him (putting terminal individuals out of misery), so again, we are up against subjectivity.

      Did I clear anything up? LOL.

      BOOKS have been written on this subject, so I can in no way answer this fully. Feel free to ask away, though!

  2. terry
    Jun 21, 2011

    You did, and I think it confirms my thoughts. One of the hard parts (as if we can even identify them all in a blog comment/post) is that if we can’t say that we use the Bible to define the moral code because it seems contradictory commandments, the same might apply to the Koran, the Mahabharata, the Torah, or Buddhist teachings; in many cases, similarly, there are contradictions in the text, and it really depends on interpretation, right? Treatment of women across so many countries still today is ridiculously abusive. (I know it’s fiction, but please tell me you’ve read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Hosseini)

    I’m going to get a little crazy. You are right, people do use religion as an excuse to judge, to condemn, to vilify. Let’s say we were to craft a country without using a religious text as a moral guideline. Let’s say we use the ideas of kindness, golden rule, sharing, helping the less fortunate. Like you pointed out, we’d need to come to an agreement on things like abortion, the death penalty, if that’s possible. Then, consider the economy…could that be a capitalistic society? If so, consider the implications of the greed that exists in big business which leads to so much corruption. If not, then consider the implications of control by the state over what might be considered basic human rights – like healthcare, working hours, business practices, for example. My point (do I have one, lol) is this: could it be possible we can’t create a utopian country? Because we are, at heart, not people that are truly good at heart, but as an overall people, bad at heart?

    I know, I know, I’m getting wacky in a few short sentences without really expounding on what it would take to build a country with morality without using religious texts. I would venture to guess there are libraries on this subject, which I am not an expert on, by any means. Just thinking out loud.

  3. Elissa
    Jun 22, 2011

    Yes, I’ve read A Thousand Splendid Suns.

    You introduced a lot of new topics in your second paragraph, which I’ll try to answer one by one. First, we HAVE created a society (America) without a religious text. Contrary to popular belief, the early founders of our country were not all Christians; many of them were Deists (who did not believe in the virgin birth or Jesus’s resurrection). They believed in human reason to solve problems. True, they believed in a God, but not in your type of God (forgive me if I’m ascribing a belief to you if it doesn’t fit). They believed in a God who created, then disappeared with no further intervention, meaning the world simply ran on natural laws, NOT maintained by a personal God who might intervene. And I think we might agree that many of the laws we go by today have nothing to do with any religious text.

    Secondly, you referred to a state that polices human rights such as healthcare, working hours, schooling, etc. Might you be referring to the European model of heavy taxation, to provide equal care for all? That’s a simplified way of looking at it, but it works.

    No, there are too many of us, with disparate opinions, to create a utopian society. That’s my humble opinion, and maybe a little of my cynicism shining through.

    And again, I’m going to make an assumption on your beliefs again (forgive me if I’ve done so incorrectly), IF we are made in God’s image…IF we have free will, meaning we have the capability of doing good OR evil, THEN I don’t think we can say we’re all bad at heart. This is where I say I disagree with original sin…:) I touch on this whole topic in my podcast (Episode 3: Are People Inherently Good or Bad?…http://www.elissaelliott.com/episode-3-are-people-inherently-good-or-bad/).

    So. What am I saying? I’m not devaluing religious texts and saying, “Let’s not use them.” I’m saying that you don’t need them to be moral.

    To throw a wrench in the argument, there are some countries who have SOUGHT to be godless (I’m thinking China and the former Soviet Union here), and in addition to SO MANY OTHER FACTORS, we can see where this has taken them…

  4. […] out already, I don’t believe that truth stems from God and only God.  [See my podcast Episode 17: Do You Have To Be Religious or Spiritual To Be Moral?]  In fact I’m not sure God exists (at least in the way we’ve all created him to be). […]

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