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.



  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.