Author Alan Shlemon
Published on 12/04/2017

Do You Need Religion to Have Morals?

Alan responds to an atheist’s challenge: “You don’t need religion to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong then you lack empathy, not religion.”


Here’s a challenge I’ve been asked to respond to. People say, “You don’t need religions to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong, then you lack empathy, not religion.” Now to be fair, there is some truth to what this person is saying, right? I mean, someone without any religious convictions can certainly have morals, right? They can have a set of rights and wrongs that they live by, they can abstain from lying, they can feed the poor, they can do good or evil, right? I’ll give them that. But there is at least two problems with this claim.

The first is this: It’s simply the fact that this challenge is a straw man, meaning it misrepresents at least the Christian claim. Christians, for example, are not claiming that non-religious people don’t or can’t have morals. The real question is, how does a person who doesn’t believe in God provide a foundation for objective morality? This, of course, leads me to the second problem with this claim. That is, if morals are just a human invention created by each individual or even by each society, then it’s impossible that morals are objective, and by objective morals I mean something is right or wrong independent of whether anyone believes that or not.

For example, slavery is objectively wrong. That means owning slaves is wrong even when society believed it was right and passed laws to protect the right to own slaves. Now, for believers in God, the wrongness of slavery is grounded in God’s unchanging standard, but if there’s no God, how is it possible that slavery is objectively wrong? All you can say is, “I think slavery is wrong, or society says slavery is wrong.” But if you change your mind or society changes their mind, then slavery can become a moral good. That means morals ultimately are relative, or we call that moral relativism. Slavery then isn’t inherently wrong, it’s only wrong when society says it’s wrong.

So going back to the original challenge where they say, “You don’t need a religion to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong then you lack empathy, not religion.” Well, if by morals they mean moral relativism, then I agree with them. You don’t eat religion for moral relativism. But then their view says that nothing is inherently wrong, it’s just wrong because society says so at the time, and that hardly demonstrates empathy.