Religion and Morality: Righting The Causal Arrow

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I want to take a moment to applaud Cara Freyasdaughter for this article.

If you read it quickly, rage-skimming as so many of us do on the internet, you might have misread this article. If you did that, let me back up and give you a slightly expanded TLDR. What she was saying was far-reaching, universal, and important.

Misogyny, racism—none of these are endemic to Viking Age religion or culture. In fact, women in the Germanic areas in the Viking Age had many more rights than the rest of their European counterparts. Also, the concept of “race”, much less the prejudices or hate behavior based on a person’s race, was not a part of their worldview.

Given the right motivation, however, a modern Heathen can look to the Lore and come up with something to support either racist or misogynist actions. Their actions, in their eyes, would then be seen as being “ethical”, because The Gods Said So™. It’s ludicrous, but it’s not any different that what fundamentalist Christians or Muslims have been doing for centuries.


Why must morals and ethics come from religious beliefs? I think that unnecessarily complicates things. I find it easier to call out the good and bad behaviors I come across when I don’t have to cut through the layers of religious justification and BS that people often use to defend their actions. If you beat your wife, I don’t care how your religion justifies it; it’s still wrong.

Yes, Cara, well said.

Humans have this nasty propensity to decide that they want to do something horrible, and then they figure out a way to use whatever mythology is central to their religion as an excuse. Some humans are just warped, and in trying to be both warped and religious at the same time, they warp religion.

Ethics do not and cannot come from religion. There have been unethical people from every religion which has ever existed. Children raised with atheism tend to demonstrate greater empathy and generosity than their Christian and Muslim counterparts. I know that there are many Pagans and Polytheists who will blame this on the number of deities that their parents worship, but I don’t actually think so.

I think there is no fucked up religion, really. Just fucked up people who happen to be religious.

I suspect that the truth more closely resembles what happens when your average person starts taking green tea supplements to lose weight. Or condensed fiber pills. Or Acai berry capsules. Or Garcinia Cambogia — take your pick.

These things probably do have some small amount of weight-loss property. If two people put in the same amount of effort, given comparable endocrine and metabolic circumstances, the person taking the wibbly-whatever pills would probably lose weight slightly faster. And yet, we have this resounding feedback from the general populace that these pills “don’t work.”

Speaking from personal experience, what usually happens, actually, is that I’m not taking those pills to lose weight faster. I’m taking the pills so as to lose the same amount of weight with less effort. If I’m on a low carb diet, I stick to it. If I’m on a low carb diet and taking the wibbly-whatever pills, I figure I can cheat a little. And then I actually wind up cheating more than what the pills actually compensate for. Paradoxically, knowing that the pills might help causes me to see less overall progress. In other words, you need to know how to use the supplement as a way to support an already successful health routine. You cannot rely solely on your choice of dietary supplements to manage your health. True, they can make a solid self care routine more effective. But even if you have the best possible supplements, you cannot make any sort of progress with day to day habits that are fundamentally unhealthy.

Knowing that you take your kids to a temple/ church/ demos/ synagogue/ coven/ kindred or whatever is like that acai-berry cleanse pill. It helps a little, but is not as meaningful as taking time to explain to your kid how to be a good person.

And yet, far too often, we hear people say, “Of course I am raising my child to be ethical. I know so because I take them to church.” Or even, “Of course I’m ethical: I go to church.” That is a lot like saying, “Of course I’m losing weight. I know so because this supplement I’m taking was endorsed by Dr. Oz.”

Religions can make your efforts to live a moral life more powerful. They can also make your efforts to be a stupendous asshole more powerful.

More than that, if we have no sense of right and wrong which is independent of religion, how will we even know if we are becoming better people or not? I believe, as Cara suggests, that we need to have an open dialogue about what behaviors are good and not good, which ideas are just and unjust, which build community and which destroy it, which lead to wisdom, and which to folly. We must focus on empathy first. Then, once we stand on a solid ethical platform constructed using the natural light of reason, grounded in an understanding of history, we can build an interpretation of whichever religion we choose that supports us in our goals of becoming the best people and communities that we can be.

Ethics and morality lead to better religion. Religion doesn’t generally fix human ethics and morality. Causal arrow, fix’d.


  1. As I understand it, back in the Roman and I think also the Greek period, religion was either a national thing, or a family thing, or a highly personal thing, it was separate from legislated law, separate again from social customs, and separate yet again from ethics, which was the domain of philosophy in the abstract, and virtue (as a characteristic of the individual) in the concrete. They didn’t tread on each others toes much. Euthyphro’s dilemma is an example of when they did, and Plato comes down on the “morals precede gods” side.

    It was really a Hebrew religious innovation, to tangle them all together into one ball of lawreligioncustomethics. Christianity picked that up and ran with it, and I suspect the new hotness of that plus its being the first orthodoxy anyone had heard of, was part of what made it so catchy. You didn’t need to go to a boring, expensive teaching philosopher to be considered an authority on ethics. You could cite scripture. Some of the centralizing strictness of the Catholic church seems to me to be borne out of this ferment. Everybody was doing lawreligioncustomethics! And everybody was reaching different conclusions from it, some of which were very odd, or threats to the established political order.

    1. I see a lot of evidence in the Greek myths to suggest that hospitality and piety were things upheld by the gods. I’m thinking particularly of the stories of Lycaoon, for example, or, as a positive counterpoint, the story of Philemon and Baukis. The idea of being a good person, a blessed person, a just person, a virtuous person and a physically beautiful person were all tangled up in a huge “Kaloi k’Agathoi” ball.

      Certainly, Plato’s position on this is quite clear, and I very much agree with him — Euthyphro, and the entire category of people he represents, is disappointing. Morals should precede gods. The fact that he had to say it meant that it wasn’t taken as a given.

      I do agree that the Jewish conflation of law, ethnic identity, religion, ethics, piety and custom is a very real thing. I’m not sure that it’s unique, however. Christianity initially tried to resist this influence, separating “being a good person” from “following these customs and religious strictures.” At least, that is what I infer from my (admittedly somewhat limited) study of the writings of 1st century church fathers.

      Somehow, when they got sucked into being the Roman state religion, they backslid into a mindset much more similar to what they initially rejected in Judaism. I can only infer from this this that it was sort of a larger cultural thing than just the Jews, and that with the influx of too damn many Mediterraneans, it was an impossible thing to keep out of the culture.

      1. Christopagan here! Just wanted to add that your analysis (from my comitted, but not yet scholarly, study the Bible and its historical context) is legit, as far as I know. The reason why Roman Catholicism/Christianity became legalistic and ultimately, one of the most toxic doctrines ever known to humanity despite JC being all about acceptance and love and not sweating the small stuff, is that legalistic “lawreligioncustomethics” is a FANTASTIC way for any state to control its people on a very fundamental level, especially when part of the doctrine -when taken out of context- prohibits even *thinking* about “sinful” things like sex, anger, and rebellion against authority figures.
        Judaism, however (again from my limited perspective as a Christian Gentile), wasn’t really the problem; the Jewish religion had all sorts of laws and customs in place for getting right with God when one did, inevitably, screw up, and didn’t include a threat of eternal hellfire for nonbelievers -thus why Judaism doesn’t actively evangelize the way Christians do and have, on some occaisions more violently than others. Historically Jews pretty much just wanted to be left alone, whereas Christians have been taught since it became a state religion that it is our “holy duty” to save as many souls from Hell….and sometimes -when it suits the agenda of whatever State is teaching us- by whatever means necessary. 😦

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