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In Theory: Is morality tied to belief in God?

April 11, 2014

A recent poll conducted Pew Research Center revealed that many people worldwide, particularly those who live in poorer countries, are of the opinion that one must believe in God to be a moral person.

According to the Pew report that was issued in late March, more people in North America and Europe agree that one can be an upright person whether or not they are religious.

Q: What is your take on the various views across the globe linking morality to a belief in God?

What is "moral"? It can mean any, all, or some combination of: following the law, adhering to socially-agreed-upon interpersonal behaviors (including sexual mores and family values), living by a strict set of organizational rules (military honor, for instance), acting within situational ethical parameters, following the dictates of conscience, doing good deeds for others and acting for justice, or aligning yourself with the purposes and vision of God, so far as you and your people can understand them.

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If that last item is part of your definition of "moral," then yes, clearly you need to believe in God. If not, then no, you don't, and can be moral in every other respect. Likewise, religious people might see all of the above as the will and guidance of God, and feel themselves empowered by God to strive for them; while nonreligious people see these ethics as valuable and achievable in their own right.

While some may think of religious belief as monolithically rigid, I think the opposite: Because it has to do with an infinite and unnamable "God," religion can and must be dynamic, malleable and changeable, able to be true in many and even opposing facets, for different people and in different times.

So, long before the development of civic law, religions began mostly as a moral code, the only set of rules around which protected health and limited harm, enabling the beginnings of civilization and common life. But now that secular law has performed these functions for centuries, it's much more possible to be moral without being religious.

It's also possible, these days, to be casually religious for other than moral reasons — for one's own spiritual benefit, for instance. The trick is all those founding values and ethics are still in there, and you can't be serious about your religion without being held to some moral accountability.

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