The Morality Monopoly?

I’ve had a number of discussions lately (mostly online) with religious friends as well as strangers about the relationship between religion and morality. A lot of the time the discussion is somewhat philosophical with the debate centering around whether it is possible to be moral without belief in God.

The philosophical debate has primarily centered around the is-ought argument, which asks how does an atheist assert what ought to be based on what is? In other words, if the natural world is all that exists, how does one make objective moral claims? I won’t go into detail now, but I believe religious and secular people are actually on equal ground with this issue.

Sometimes the debate takes a sociological turn, with religious adherents trying to cite statistics that show that it’s impossible to truly be good without God, or at least that religious people are much more moral or charitable than their secular counterparts. That’s also a topic for another post. 🙂

The one issue I do want to address in this post is the notion that the nonreligious are not charitable. As one of my interlocutors put it:

Where are all the clinics set up to help the poor started by naturalists? How about the homes for the blind? How about hospitals and homes for children with aids? Orphanages? How many naturalists give their lives to helping the poorest of the poor have clean drinking water? What is it about naturalism that simply does not produce lives of sacrifice? Could it be that for the naturalist there is no meaning? Ah yes, that would do it.

Another individual chimed in further:

As Dan asked rhetorically in an earlier comment, where are the naturalist/atheist organizations of these kinds? As for my wife and me, we support World Vision (a world hunger relief organization) and give between 10-15% of our income yearly to various ministries that help others. Both of us also serve our local community in lots of ways. And our services are quite typical among the many devout Christians that we know, including Lezlie and her husband (and many others in their wonderful church, by the way).

I find the proud pronouncements of charity and good works fascinating coming from these folks, especially in light of Matthew 6. I also find it shocking that they seem to be completely unaware of well-known, worldwide secular charities and organizations such as Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF (for a longer list of secular charities and aid groups, click here).

I will say that the discussion really made me think about my own personal service to fellow humans (and animals) in need. My giving has always been very willy nilly. So I decided to seek out an organization that would help provide structure and consistency to my charitable giving. That’s when I happened upon The Foundation Beyond Belief, a burgeoning new non-profit organization, whose focus is to:

(1)…encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists, and (2) to provide support and encouragement for nontheistic parents.

The Foundation features ten charitable organizations per quarter in the following cause areas:

  • Health
  • Education
  • Poverty
  • Environment
  • Child Welfare
  • Human Rights
  • Animal Protection
  • Peace
  • The “Big Bang” Fund (small charity, big impact)
  • Foundation Beyond Belief

Members join the Foundation by signing up for a monthly automatic donation in the amount of their choice, then set up personal profiles to indicate how they would like their contribution distributed among the ten categories.

Regardless of your worldview or philosophy, I encourage you to find a cause that you would like to support and make some sort of structured commitment. There’s a staggering amount of need throughout the world, and there’s a lot more out there than the Salvation Army bell ringer at Christmas (no offense guys!).


3 comments on “The Morality Monopoly?

  1. JT
    May 10, 2010 at 8:34 pm #

    Well put, Lou. A great strength of yours is bringing in the scalpel to expose the real issue behind an argument or disagreement. One might also add the federal, state, and local governments to the list of non-religious charitable organizations. It is baffling to me that there is often such resistance and/or disconnect between “charity” and “entitlement.” I understand one is compulsory, while the other is supposedly philanthropic (yet how many Christians truly give “joyfully”?). If one digs too deeply into motives as an essential component of morality (i.e. you must do the right thing for the right reason in order to be moral), then you will very rarely have true morality. The human soul is such a mixture and twisting together of different motives, that one can never be sure we are truly being completely benevolent. Furthermore, if we are honest and willing to accept that motives are almost always mixed, then we are left with the fact that the end results of both philanthropic and compulsory actions are the same. To claim the moral high ground based upon religious conviction is to subvert the very claim you are making, as you aptly point out in your reference to Matthew 6. In fact, the inverse is precisely what Jesus is teaching in this passage (and most, if not all other world religions would concur): religious people should be the ones who realize that morally speaking, they suck – and they therefore need help from God, the Tao, etc. They certainly ought not to be out making morally superior claims to an atheist based upon their tithing (cf. Matthew 23:23-24). Moreover, arguments based upon some sort of majority-rule (i.e., there are more religious people being philanthropic than non-religious people) is deeply flawed. The majority have just as often (I would suggest more often) been the instigators of tremendous immorality (easy examples: the Crusades, the Holocaust, New World slavery, Darfur), which is why we need a government in the first place. I believe the discussion should center not on results, but on the source of our moral reasoning. I see this at two levels: First, we should engage one another on the source of our morality as to the question “Who gets to say what is and what is not moral?” Second, we should drill down into the perhaps even more fundamental question of “Why be moral?” Both discussions will, I think, elicit far more insight than “Who is more moral?” Your thoughts?

  2. Maria Diaz Schmitt formerly Ressler
    May 11, 2010 at 6:38 am #

    I could not agree more. While many Christians donate monies to very good organizations that help the disenfranchised in society, there are many secular organizations that work around the world to help as well. I am a great admirer of Doctors without Borders. The doctors in particular, could be working in lucrative private practices or in western hospitals with all the needed equipment and then go home every night to live in comfort. Yet they choose to go to unstable parts of the world without taking sides on political or religious ideology, to help those in need. They sometimes work with bullets flying around them at great personal risk to help the poor men, women and children of the world. Why do they do it? Because they are humanitarians who see the suffering and the need in the world.

  3. Louis
    May 11, 2010 at 10:11 am #


    Thanks for the comment. Your observation of the role of government as a secular moral agent of sorts is insightful. Through our individual votes and involvement with politics we have the opportunity to impact the social and environmental programs sponsored by our government, which is explicitly a secular organization.

    I think the answer to the question “why be moral” is more universal than people think, and we can discuss this in more detail. I think the answer fundamentally is the same as the answers to the questions “why eat when hungry?” and “why sleep when tired?” It is necessary to our individual health and the health of the society in which we all co-exist. If we don’t eat or sleep we risk tremendous deleterious effects to our health. If we don’t act morally we risk social ostracism and other penalties that are detrimental to our individual well-being. This is known as social contract theory. I’m not saying this is the be-all end-all, but rather just an explanation of morality’s origins. Morality is clearly a much more complex animal (excuse the pun) in today’s complex societies. Moreover, we may find additional motivation, inspiration, and example through various religious outlets, but I believe those outlets simply magnify what is fundamentally part of our make-up as humans as a result of evolution and culture.

    Check out this recent article in the NY Times that explored the roots of morality through the observation of babies:

    It echoes a lot of my sentiments about the origins of morality and why humans place value in acting morally and impose sanctions on those who don’t. I want to reiterate that my view doesn’t necessarily preclude religion from contributing to the common goals of morality, but I do maintain that religion is not a necessary (or sufficient) condition for morality.

    Here’s another great article that echoes my sentiments and serves as a preface to an upcoming book by Sam Harris that I think will create more dialogue on morality than anything in recent memory. Harris is attempting to create a third systematic alternative to religion-based morality and moral relativism using science as his guide:


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