Despite What Many Religious People Say, They Don’t Derive Morals or Values From Religion


Dexter’s beliefs have influenced him to become the devil dog. Run for the hills!

Reza Aslan recently made an argument in defense of religion that I’ve heard often – basically it boils down to religion being responsible for nothing.

It goes something like this (taken from the Friendly Atheist Site):

I think the principle fallacy of not just to the so-called New Atheists, but I think of a lot of critics of religion, is that they believe that people derive their values, their morals, from their religion. That, as every scholar of religion in the world will tell you, is false.

People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion. Which is why religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, [and] Islam, are experienced in such profound, wide diversity…

It seems like a logical viewpoint — if you are just a person who doesn’t know much about the history, philosophy, sociology of religion — it seems like a logical thing to say that people get their values from their scriptures. It’s just intrinsically false. That’s not what happens. People do not derive their values from their scriptures — they insert their values into their scriptures.

Does this apply to good deeds as well? When religious people say they gave to charity or did some other noble act because they were moved by the holy spirit or their scripture, can we ignore it and tell them it had nothing to do with their belief in God?

I’m pretty sure many would take offense to such a proclamation.

Why do we seem intent on ignoring what people tell us. If I say I was once a Christian (which is true) a segment of the population will insist that I wasn’t. If a suicide bomber says they were intent on killing people to attain heaven, why do some of us say he’s lying or simply dismiss his claims? If a Christian (or other religious person) asks me where I get my moral framework, are they saying this because they don’t believe they get theirs from God and their particular brand of scripture?

As The Friendly Atheist Said in his post:

As Linker writes, atheists take religion seriously. We listen to what devout believers say. We see what’s written in the holy books. We don’t sugar coat it to make it more acceptable.

Aslan is willing to ignore all of that because, in his view, religions are all the same and what’s written in the holy books is irrelevant. That’s a dangerous way to think when some religions — and some believers who take the Words of God literally — pose real threats to society.

It’s the same defense I hear over and over from both atheists and religious people – what the books say isn’t important. It’s what people do. There is no bad religion, only bad people, which I consider to be a weak argument and incorrect view. If religion can be credited for the good things it teaches, it can also be criticized for the bad things. You can’t have it both ways.

The defense that beliefs don’t matter because there are good Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews (insert religious or political affiliation here) is flat out false. Imagine if we used this defense when considering other types of ideologies or belief structures.

  • Nazism isn’t bad, there are only bad Nazi’s. Many Nazi’s are moderate and don’t believe Jews and other groups should be gassed to death. Look at all the good Nazi’s have inspired in their fellow people.
  • There are good communists and bad communists.
  • There are good dictators and bad dictators.
  • There are bad cults and benevolent cults.

This commercial break has been brought to you by the fiery depths of doggy hell.

Hell, many of the arguments put forth by theists against atheism use the idea that because we don’t believe in a higher power or use their archaic set of moral codes, we have no basis for morality. If they don’t believe that beliefs matter and have an effect on behavior, they wouldn’t be using that argument.

In any group there are good people and bad people. That doesn’t mean that the ideology they’re part of is true and not harmful. It doesn’t mean the ideas they have adopted are good ideas. Of course some of what religion teaches is good, and that’s great, but we can use those parts (most of which can be found outside religion anyways) and honestly point out the harmful things these dogmas say about reality and how we should treat one another. Anyone who has sat down and honestly read the bible, Torah or Qur’an (or most other religious texts) can see the harmful nonsense mixed in with the good bits. You can easily cherry-pick good verses to line up with societal norms, but those bad bits are still there and the person who uses those bits to justify hating homosexuals (for example) are equally as correct as the person who condemns such behavior based on their holy book of choice.

If beliefs didn’t influence behavior, then we might as well stop trying to teach kids morals. Parents who are religious might as well never read the bible to their children or talk about ‘Christian morals’ or a good ‘Christian upbringing’. Humanists might as well give it up – what they’re passing on doesn’t matter.

I remember when I was a much, much younger Christian. I had all types of (what I now consider to be ignorant) beliefs that influenced my behavior.

For example, I was taught that AIDS was a punishment meted out by God because of homosexuality. My behavior  reflected that. I didn’t like homosexuality. I thought homosexuals were immoral and going against the will of God. I could easily find passages in the bible to back up my view, even if I ignored the bits about stoning them because I believed God would handle it once they were dead. My hands were clean. If I told a homosexual they were an abomination, I was actually doing them a favor.

My beliefs influenced my behavior and those beliefs were reinforced through the church community I was a part of. Only later, after I’d been exposed to other ideas, did I see how wrong I had been. Those new beliefs replaced the old ones, and now my behavior reflects my belief that homosexuals are people and deserve the same rights, opportunities and protectuion under the law as heterosexuals.

When I believed that homosexuality was against Gods will, was I a bad person?

I don’t think so. I did many things that were what I consider to be good deeds, but the fact remains that my initial beliefs certainly affected how I behaved.

If you want to argue that religion is beneficial, that’s fine. We can have that discussion.

But arguing that it has no influence whatsoever is nonsense of the highest order. Not even religious people act like that’s true.

If you’re religious, do you think religion influences the way you act?

If you’re an atheist, do you think religion influences behavior in any way?

As always, thanks for reading. I’m sorry for the longer than usual post.



  1. “If you’re an atheist, do you think religion influences behavior in any way?”
    Definitely. Both in good ways and in bad ways. Good post.

    Wait a minute. I forgot. I’m not talking to you. You’re trying to trick me into talking to you by writing an interesting and persuasive post, aren’t you? =)

    (Love the commercial! Needs a caption – “Can I please, please eat the pink crocs?”)

  2. Excellent post, GC.

    “If you’re an atheist, do you think religion influences behavior in any way?”

    Absolutely. As the world renowned psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, stated:

    “It’s not the bad apples, it’s the barrel.”

    Then there’s cerebral automatism, a brain phenomena related to the learning process. People (studies show approximately 75%) go with majority opinion even when it contradicts evidence presented before their very eyes.

  3. Good post, GC. “If you’re an atheist, do you think religion influences behavior in any way?” Living in the US, one can’t help but be influenced by religion, given that three-quarters of Americans claim Christianity as their religion and more than 90% claim a belief in some sort of supernatural deity. “In God We Trust” is on our money. “God Bless America” is sung at sporting events almost as much as the national anthem. If you go to court, you put your right hand on a Christian Bible and say, “I swear to God.” Christmas and Easter are the two largest national holidays. And being an open atheist is setting yourself up for ridicule and condemnation by the mostly Christian community. So yes, I think in this country religious influence, for better or for worse, is inescapable.

  4. It’s the same defense I hear over and over from both atheists and religious people – what the books say isn’t important. It’s what people do. There is no bad religion, only bad people, which I consider to be a weak argument and incorrect view. If religion can be credited for the good things it teaches, it can also be criticized for the bad things. You can’t have it both ways.

    Yes, but what people do is in fact their behavior. It seems weird to spend time criticizing something in a book if the person isn’t following that idea. So it always leads back to criticizing actual behaviors and the ideas that fuel them. The problem is ideas are always open to interpretation.

  5. There are good people and bad people, some of whom are religious and many of whom make mouth music about religions they don’t actually practice. Others who atheists — and they are good and bad according to their own inclinations.\

    Basically, I agree with you … but you paint with to broad a brush for me. I have not found the world to be so neatly divided, or people to be “this” or “that.” We are all, no matter what we say, a mixed bag. Most people who aren’t entirely evil in some horrible way, have at least a few redeeming features.

    I have met wonderful religious people and horrible ones. Fantastic atheists and viciously cruel ones. Mostly, I’ve met a lot of people who say they believe in this, that, or the other thing, but show no evidence of any such beliefs.

    When I was younger, I was quicker to see the world and people in tidy categories. The longer I live, the more I see shades of gray in most things. Sometimes the aggregate result is purely evil, even when the individuals involved are not … and vice versa. Life, people, culture, everything is complicated. Endlessly complicated.

  6. Pingback: Who Is Responsible For Toxic Views? | Amusing Nonsense

  7. Great post. I had noted Aslan’s argument. But I think that, in some ways, he’s right. Of course, it is true that religious texts influence the moral and ethical views and conduct of the followers of those texts. But it is also the case that followers sort through those texts to find pieces that confirm their pre-existing biases.

    That’s why I claim that everyone acts as though morality is logically prior to religion. Even believers judge their own religious texts against some separate and necessarily pre-existing moral code (which code may be more or less vague).

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