Can we raise moral children without religion?

by Richard Packham
Religionists often insist, as almost the last argument in favor of religion, that - whether religion is "true" or not - it is absolutely essential as a moral basis for our society and as something that children need in order to grow up as decent adults. In my autobiographical material, however, I point out that my wife and I have raised two sons, now adults, as atheists, and without any religious training whatsoever. They are fine, honest, kind, and loving men. Many people who have decided that perhaps they no longer actually believe the theological claims of religion, write to me and ask how that was possible for us. They hesitate to abandon religion completely, out of fear that they will have no way to teach their children to distinguish between right and wrong. This article is based on my reply to such an inquiry.

    One of the things fundamentally wrong with any moral system based on religious belief, in my opinion, is that it prevents you from developing a truly workable morality or ethic of your own, and prevents you from being able to adapt to unusual challenging moral questions.

    For the believer, what is right and wrong is very simple: whatever God says is right is right, and whatever God says is wrong is wrong. And the scriptures or the prophets can tell you what God says. So, the believer does not steal simply because it is a sin; he does not lie because it is a sin; he does not work on the Sabbath because it is a sin; he does not eat pork because it is a sin, etc. There is no examining why some of these things are bad or wrong, they just are, because someone in authority says so. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in treating all wrongs as equal: it is a sin to drink a glass of wine; it is also a sin to kill someone. This results from the fact that such morality simply means: Obey. The believer has no need to ask for reasons; in fact, the believer is usually discouraged from asking such questions, because that would sound as though the believer is questioning divine authority. (Of course I realize that thoughtful believers do understand that killing someone is much worse than drinking a glass of wine, but it is not necessary to understand that, in this kind of authority-based morality.)

    Another problem with any morality based solely on a set of authoritative rules is that no such code of rules can be so complete that it covers every possible eventuality. Claims for the Ten Commandments, or even for the Bible as a whole, which offer them as a "complete guide" are obviously overblown. Simply consider that Christians cannot even agree among themselves on many moral questions, even though they appeal to the same Bible. And this is only natural. Look at any of the civil or penal codes in secular law, the purpose of which is to define precisely what is legal in the secular world and what is not (overlapping frequently with the subject matter of religious codes). These secular codes of "right and wrong" often fill several volumes, and are drafted by people trained to draft such legislation so that it covers all possible foreseeable contingencies, and in the most precise and unambiguous language possible (unlike most religious codes). And even so, disputes arise as to the application of such statutes to particular fact situations, or the interpretation of such carefully worded laws, so that a judge or jury must be called in to settle the dispute.

    Bible apologists will of course argue that the Bible is intended only to teach correct "principles," and that by the influence of the Holy Spirit one can apply those general Bible principles to any real-life situation. But nowhere is one instructed as to how to do this reliably, and the result is worse than no moral guidance at all, since usually one can interpret an impulse or an urge to do what one wanted to do all along as a genuine inspiration from God. The result is ironically what many Christian moralists condemn in non-Christians: so-called "situational ethics."

    It has become popular to use as a moral guide the question "What Would Jesus Do?", usually abbreviated in posters, lapel pins, rings, and costume jewelry as "WWJD?" The problem with this simplistic approach is that it assumes that one can know, or at least imagine correctly, what Jesus would do in any situation. That would, of course, depend entirely on our individual image of Jesus. For instance, I am sure that many Christians would enthusiastically answer "Yes!" to the question, "Would Jesus try to kill these evil abortionist doctors who are murdering helpless unborn fetuses?" and think that Jesus' cleansing of the temple was a good example. And is Jesus really a perfect moral guide - even assuming that we can know what he did and would do? Remember that Jesus had no qualms about breaking up families (Matt 10:35), preached that he had come to bring not peace, but the sword (Matt 10:34), showed ethnic prejudice (Matt 15:22-26, Mark 7:25-27).

    Rather than WWJD?, one might do just as well to follow the advice which Jiminy Cricket sings in the animated film Pinocchio: "When you are discouraged, and you don't know right from wrong, give a little whistle, ... and always let your conscience be your guide!"

    Generally, the Bible has many shortcomings as a moral guide. See a listing of objectional Bible morality at Bible Notes: Morality in the Bible.

    Still another problem with religion-based morality is that (in Christianity and Mormonism, at least) one is expected to try to be perfect and never do anything sinful (or morally or ethically wrong). This goal is humanly impossible, but the religions do not admit its impossibility. Christianity solves the problem by convincing the Christian to accept his gross sinfulness, and then telling him that Jesus' atonement forgives him. Thus, the Christian doesn't really have to worry about sinning; he'll be saved anyway by the blood of Jesus. It's worse for Mormons: they have to worry every moment about whether their sins will consign them to a lower heavenly glory. The practical result is, all too often, that the Christian and the Mormon simply stop being concerned about trying to be "good" - the Christian because he's saved anyway, and the Mormon because he's damned anyway. In either case, there is the risk of psychological damage (depression) in addition to the lack of real moral guidance.

    I think that children can be taught right and wrong without any reference to religion, and with very little reference to authoritarian rules. But it must be a continual effort by parents, and must begin with the parents' being models (however imperfect) of ethical behavior. Life every day presents us with many situations that have an ethical component, and in our family we always made it a point to discuss them with the children. Whenever we would forbid the children from doing something, we always tried to make them understand why. Whether they agreed or not, of course, they had to comply. But it was never simply "because I say so!" That would have been fundamentally the religious approach, and that does not make children think about why some act is good or bad.

    Truly moral behavior is reasoned behavior. Whatever the beneficent result of an act may be, the act itself cannot be considered truly moral if the motive or the intention is not fundamentally moral. If I give a beggar a dollar for the sole reason that God has promised to reward me personally a thousandfold for such acts, my gift to the beggar was not, in my view, a moral act, but a completely selfish one.

    Encouraging children to ask why something is good or bad leads them to understand the Golden Rule (which appears in almost all religions and ethical codes) and to understand that one must think about the consequences of their acts. Teach them also to recognize (and avoid) what are nothing more than rationalizations for justifying unethical acts, both in others and in themselves.

    All of us must also be willing to admit that to many difficult ethical questions there is no clear answer, and that it is wrong in those cases to insist that there is a clear answer.

    And lastly, I think children (all of us, actually) need to be taught that we are responsible for our own morality. This means two things: 1) we are responsible; and 2) we are not responsible for someone else's morality. (An exception to the latter statement is probably that parents are responsible for developing their children's morality).

    Because parents have to take an active interest in developing their children's sense of morality, it's important that parents get guidance from non-religion-based thinkers and writers on ethics and morality. There are many excellent books on ethics available. They don't try to tell you what is right; they only try to help you learn to decide rationally for yourself what is right.

    In fact, it was my first readings in textbooks on ethics that contributed to my beginning doubts about religion. I had been raised with a religion-based code of morality, and until I was well into adulthood I assumed that it would serve all my moral and ethical needs. One only has to read a few chapters of a good introduction to ethics to realize that such religion-based systems do not even begin to help with ethical and moral answers, because they do not even recognize the complex moral problems.

    In the wake of the 2000 school shooting, Newsweek Magazine, whose cover story in its March 13 issue was "Murder In The First Grade," did a feature story inside called "How Kids Learn Right From Wrong" (pp 33-34). It was an excellent survey of the latest research and findings from child psychologists and educators, and traced the development of the moral sense in the child, and what promotes it and what destroys it. It was fascinating. For example, they have determined that the very young child is by nature empathetic, and feels the emotions of another child who is hurt or sad. It seems to be instinctive. The child then develops under the influence of the kind of environment it has, whether filled with conflict or with love. It learns by imitating what it sees.

    And there was not a single word about religion! (And this in a magazine which had about four cover stories in the same year on Jesus, Biblical Prophecy, the Pope's Holy Land visit, etc.!)

Update January 2013: The Smithsonian Magazine cover story for its January 2013 issue is "Are Babies Born Good?" And again, no mention of religion or God.

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If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.>/I> - Albert Einstein