Can you be moral without religious convictions and beliefs?

by Vic Shayne
The Self is a Belief: The idea that causes suffering

Sam Harris covered this topic of what it takes to be moral in great detail in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Of Harris’ book, Harvard Psychology professor Steven Pinker, PhD, said, “Harris makes a powerful case for a morality that is based on human flourishing and thoroughly enmeshed with science and rationality. It is a tremendously appealing vision, and one that no thinking person can afford to ignore.”

Between suffering and well-being
Essentially, unless a person is mentally challenged or is afflicted with some sort of mental or emotional pathology, people tend agree that there is something that may be categorized as the worst possible suffering and pain. And they agree that there is something that would qualify as the greatest sense of well-being and happiness. These are the two ends of a spectrum.

We can place morality on the end of the spectrum having to do with well-being and happiness, and recognizing that this state feels the best to most people. In addition, this end of the spectrum is where nearly everyone would like to be and would wish for others to be. It’s why we sign emails, letters, and cards with the words love, best wishes, warm regards, and so on. It’s a natural thing to do.

Thus, we equate causing harm and pain with the low end of the spectrum, and we equate causing happiness and sharing love with the upper end of the spectrum. No sane, rational, right-minded person would argue with the fact that it feels the best to be happy and get along with others. And, of course, the inverse is true — we feel stressed, miserable, agitated, sick, and bothered when we are at odds with other people and our environment.

Instinctively knowing
To be moral means to instinctively know where suffering and happiness lies on the spectrum and to know what it means to cause others happiness or suffering in some way. It does not take any belief or investment in ideology to know this; it just takes being an aware human being.

Why are people immoral?
Immoral acts arise out of fear and self-centered mindsets. And this comes from the egoic mind, which is a mind that has been conditioned to believe that there is a separation between people, nature, things, the planet, animals, and so on. While there are different bodies, we are all made of the same stuff, which is consciousness. But if we do not realize this at the very depths of who we are, then we are apt to try to get ahead, cheat, lie, steal, be abusive, manipulate others, and so on. We call this immoral behavior because we collectively know better.

Fear of God’s wrath does not equate with being moral
Having a fear of punishment or the wrath of a god is not a true impetus to be moral. Acting out of fear is not equated to having a proclivity toward doing good in this world. We do not need a priest, rabbi, imam, minister, or vicar to tell us why or how we should behave that would best benefit everyone else.

Is morality universal?
People across the world really do not have different morals if we define morality according to the above criteria. This isn’t a matter of opinion, it is actually scientifically established, which is why I referred to Sam Harris’ book.

While there are variations in people’s behavior, at the core they would agree to the spectrum of suffering and well-being. Morality is not limited to socially acceptable forms of behavior; these are just excuses for behaving badly. Morality is something much deeper and greater than social agreements. For example, a particular society may deem it to be acceptable to abuse women, but if the same abuse were applied to men, then the men would complain and find the same treatment abhorrent. This shows that morality must stand the test of whether all persons in a society would agree to behaviors if and when they would be applied to everyone equally.

It may be a common belief that morals in different cultures and different eras have changed, but they really have not. What has changed is what has been deemed acceptable behavior in various societies and throughout history. But, to reiterate an important point, when rules, laws, and behaviors are truly applied equally across the board, then there is an agreement of what should be moral.

To drive home this point we can look at yet another example. In the American South it was said that slavery was once moral. But this was an excuse used by slaveowners. If they were to become slaves then they would find slavery unjust, harmful, terrible, abusive, inhumane, and so forth.

In essence, then, most normal people know the difference between right and wrong merely because they are sentient, sympathetic beings who are aware of what people, animals, the planet, and objects need. Of course it often takes a lot for some people to understand that what they deem moral may not really stand the test of equal application to all parties involved in a society.



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Vic Shayne

Vic Shayne

…writer for 40+ years, mind/body practitioner, self-enquiry meditation, NY Times best selling author (, consultant, researcher.