Are Religious People “Better” People?

I am a religious person. That’s part of my identity and how I navigate life. Yet, apparently, some people think that if you call yourself a religious person, it means you think you’re better than everyone else. Either that or you really ought to be better than everyone else.

This came up for me based on a comment I made on another blog. I won’t link to it, since the person who got upset with me did so because of me drawing attention to the negative review my book got on Amazon. He thought it was very low of me to point it out and ended with a very sarcastic “Oh, you’re such a spiritual person.”

And I thought, “Well, yeah, I am. That doesn’t mean that I always do everything right.” (Though I still don’t see any problem with discussing a review that someone posted publicly).

The same notion came up the other day when I was watching America’s Next Top Model: All Stars (I have terrible taste in TV!) One of the contestants is very vocally Christian. Which does get on my nerves, but she’s a sweet girl and very sincere in everything she does. I do respect her. One of the other girls got upset about something the Christian girl said and in the private interview, the Christian girl spoke about how her being a Christian doesn’t mean she’s perfect or does everything right. It means she cares and really thinks hard about her actions. But she still makes mistakes.

I feel the same way. I feel like being a spiritual/religious person doesn’t mean you don’t stumble. It just means that spiritual pursuits are important to us, are set at a priority.

Another side to this, though, is should a religious person be holding themselves/be held to a higher standard than not religious people?

There’s an aspect of I should “know better” because I’m spiritual. I guess it comes from the idea that I have a belief in a God who could discipline me if I weren’t being “good” but that an atheist doesn’t have to worry about pleasing anyone. So it is expected that a religious person would be more moral, etc.

I’m not sure that’s true, though.

What do you think? Should people who consider themselves to be religious be held to a higher moral standard?

About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • Jeramy

    So, most importantly, I want to say that you do, in point of fact, have atrocious taste in TV :P

    Religious people are no better or worse than anyone else and shouldn’t be held to a different standard. Regardless of whatever the spiritual consequences might be, there are often real-world consequences to one’s behavior. Whether you justify your actions (positive or negative) with the real-world ramifications or with spiritual concerns, people are going to find reasons to justify what they do.

    There are charities both secular and religious. One’s motivated by wanting to make this world a better place, the other has the additional motivation of wanting a pleasant afterlife. People that want to be good will find a way to justify it.

    Take, for instance, terrorism. The people that carried out the 9/11 attacks were convinced on a religious that the actions were the will of their God. Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City federal building, and he was motivated by secular political beliefs. People that want to be bad will find a way to justify it.

    Religion is convenient justification regardless of what you want to do. Maybe y’all aren’t better, just lazier :-P

  • HARRY

    DEFINITELY.. Yes

    Let me explain before all the good people who are not religious jumps down my throat.

    First, you ( all the good non religious people ) don’t have to abide by the rules of the society if you don’t want it to, but in my case, I have to, because I haven’t got a choice, otherwise people look down on me and also the God would be angry with me, which in turn, I have to have this standard and a benchmark even if I don’t like it. But in your case, you don’t have to please the God or the society either, thus you are all free from all the constrains of the moral code of conduct. BTW when I talk about society, I’m not talking about anything that is illegal but rather what is moral from society point of view.

    When I was younger I used to trash the house when I knew my parents were away but at the end of the day, I always knew that I had to tidy it up before they came home. This is same as that.

    So……. Yes, We are better people, because we take recommendation of the society in general, thus, better people then others.

    HARRY

    PS When you sumble, it’s a human thing not a religious thing. And I am sure a religious person doesn’t do it intentionally, well most of the time any how.

    • Ambaa

      I don’t know, Harry, I think getting thrown in jail is a more frightening negative consequence than embarrassing yourself (having people look down on you)! I think all people have to abide by the rules of society.

      Something my atheist friends have pointed out to me is that an atheist who is a good and moral person is making that choice freely. A religious person might be being good/compassionate/kind because of wanting to make other people think he is good at being religious. Then again, I suppose most human beings do want to be seen as good people by their peers.

    • Dorfl

      Harry, I don’t intend to jump down your throat, but I would like to see some evidence that what you say is actually true. I mean, anyone can come up with a more or less plausible chain of reasoning for why people with belief X should be more moral than people with belief Y. It’s a very different matter to show that this is actually the case in the real world.

      • HARRY

        @ Dorfl

        Maybe I didn’t explain it well.

        First, I am not comparing two different beliefs. What I am comparing is religious verses non religious person. I am not saying that they are imoral, but what I am saying is that they have choice in what they do, where as religious person doesn’t, and I will explain it to you why.

        Let me explain this differently, lets compare this with people who are either married or in relationship with the ones who are not, and you will clearly see the difference in what I am trying to say. The ones who are married cannot clearly behave like a free agent, where they are allowed to do what ever they like with whom ever they want, because all relationship are govern by the code of the conduct set by our society in general, where as a person who is not in a relationship does not have to follow the same code of conduct or the rules set by the same institute. I am only talking about in terms of sexual matter here, and nothing more, where there is no judgement involved on my part here. I am not saying that the ones who are not in relationship are bad people but rather what I am saying is that, the ones in relationship are govern by the institution which says that you have to have standard even if you don’t like it, and therefore must behave by the code set by them, thus having standard and more moral then the ones who simply don’t follow this system.

        By looking at the above example we can apply the same model on religious people verses non religious and that’s what I was trying to say in the previous post. Therefore we can say that religious person have no choice on certain matter, where as a free individual can behave in what ever manner they want . I know my answer is not politically correct, but that’s least of my problem, because some times the answer is not always the one that you and I like, and that’s the way things are.

        HARRY

        • Dorfl

          Your explanation is good, but it doesn’t really address the objection I had. I mean, I could give a counterargument to what you said. For example

          “Most religions state that people have the choice of not obeying their god(s), but that this is the wrong choice to make. Similarly I, as an atheist, have the choice of not concerning myself with my fellow humans well-being, but doing so would also be wrong. So neither of us is a ‘free agent’ in any way that the other is not.”

          You could then give a counterargument to that, which I could give another argument against, and so on. The problem is that we’d both just be armchair philosophers bouncing arguments off each other. To actually resolve the question we have to look at the real world for evidence that either view is actually correct. That’s why I want to see some sort of evidence that religious people on average actually do act more morally, not just arguments for why they should do so.

  • Sandesh

    Hi Amba,

    I have been reading your blogs for a while now to be frank just started last evening :) but I feel like a while now… :P for religions do always get me thinking.

    I will come straight to your question though… karmayogis need not be associated to any religion… and such people can be found in all religions… and even religious people can be karmayogis. It’s about what we perceive about the world and for that I do not need to love God or be scared of him I just want to be good. Even good upbringing can make you a karmyogi without being associated to any religion

    So for me association to any religion need not make someone more moral than others…. more than that it’s the upbringing. A good upbringing can do more wonders than being associated to any religion. Religion has high chances of making you biased towards others…

    And of course I agree with Jeramy as well :)

    • Ambaa

      I completely agree! This is exactly how I see it. Thank you for putting it so eloquently.

      Except for the part about the TV! :) Other people tell me I have bad taste, but I love my TV shows!

      • Jeramy

        I will point out that it’s possible (you’re living proof) to have bad taste AND enjoy what you watch :-P

        • Ambaa

          :P

  • Seeker

    I think there’s a problem with the question (Should people who consider themselves to be religious be held to a higher moral standard) because it equates religion and morality. Things that from my religious viewpoint would be immoral would be moral from another religious viewpoint. The first example that comes to mind is disfellowshipping wherein a person’s best friends can’t even talk to them. To me, that’s immoral. To someone who attends that church, it’s moral.

    One way around this is to pose the question Should people who consider themselves to be religious be held to the standards of their religion.

    • Ambaa

      Very good point!

      So, what do you think? Do you hold people to different standards depending on what the morals of their religion or non-religion dictate?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimgerlyknight Kimberly Knight

    This is a great question and one I (faithfully) wrestle with frequently. I guess in some ways yes, but only so much as the standards our path sets before us. Not that they are higher/lower but that if we claim to follow the path then we should constantly be striving to live into that idea. Gracious knows I fail plenty but I should keep reorienting myself based on the compass that my tradition gives me. Of course, we can also take part in constructing new ideals, a new compass if you will within our tradition but the goal seems to be to try and live more authentically, more open to the beauty and complexity of creation as we understand it.

    Long way to say yes, but with the caveat that perhaps it is not higher, just more specific? Ok, late in the day and am being circular :)

    Thanks for the question though!

    • Ambaa

      I like that idea of it being specific rather than “better.” I guess, as with most things, it comes down to individuals. There are individuals who live with purpose and don’t believe in a God and there are those who believe in God, but are hateful to others!

      The image of reorienting oneself is really lovely too.

  • seeker

    Hi Ambaa–

    I definitely do. What i find truly immoral is when a person tries to “Enjoy the benefits of a religion without incurring its responsibilities.” (Wish I knew who said that but can’t remember the source.). If a person says they are Hindu (as I am), I expect them to follow basic principles of Hinduism–not the “fine print” principles but the ones like you don’t hurt people except under very special conditions. In my therapy work with those who have seriously injured others, I make sure that anyone who claims to be a member of a particular religion lets the other group members know the basic principles of the religion and which ones they violated so they will take their religion more seriously and learn from its teachings.

    • Ambaa

      That is a very interesting take on it!

      I think that’s part of the fear about people who are “cafeteria” religious and pick and choose the parts they like. I’ve come around to thinking that it’s a valid way to do things, but the danger is that you just take the parts that you think benefit you and leave out anything that would require commitment or sacrifice from you!

  • http://moralcompassblog.com Terry Firma

    I know a lot of Christians who are kind and loving people and who don’t put themselves above me (I think), even though I don’t believe in God. But I also know scores of religious believers who are downright panicky about secularization, because all those non-believers have terrible morals, they think (or none at all), and more atheists will just open the floodgates to nationwide theft and rape and murder. The “reasoning” is that people get their morals from God, and that non-theists subscribe to immoral hedonism and an ethos of “if it feels good, do it.”

    Muslims, by and large, equate atheism with wickedness, but then, so do untold millions of mainstream Christians. Atheists are the most hated (or least-trusted) group in the U.S., according to a 2009 study by the university of Minnesota. The researchers found that atheists ranked lower than “Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in ‘sharing their vision of American society.’ Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.”

    The people who believe this bunkum DO think of themselves and their religious brethren, WITHOUT A DOUBT, as considerably more morals than non-theists.

    I run a website dedicated to proving them wrong — in other words, dedicated to chronicling the crimes and misdeeds of those who believe they have a lock on morality. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Mormons… Look for Moral Compass Blog if you’re interested.

    Good post, glad you’re so inquisitive!

    • Ambaa

      I’m looking forward to checking out your blog!

      I may be unusual as a religious person who really likes atheists! I’ve found that I understand and get along with atheists usually better than I do people of other religions. It’s sad to me that people distrust atheists so much. I completely agree that this idea that atheists wouldn’t have any morals is ridiculous.

      I guess one of the reasons I feel comfortable with atheism is that my branch of Hinduism is less divinity focused than others and veers towards an almost atheistic mindset. I see my inner Self as God and so I trust and depend on myself. I know many upstanding and wonderful atheists who depend on and trust themselves also. We just have a different understanding of what that inner compass is, I think.

      I’m sad that you’ve had to go the other direction and show that religious people can be quite immoral. But it’s true. And I am in favor of showing the full spectrum of human behavior. I really don’t think any one religion or non-religion is above or better than others. I think each individual person has the path that is right for him and we do not need to force others to be on our path or to acknowledge our path as the best.

      • http://moralcompassblog.com Terry Firma

        Thanks Ambaa. My wife is religious (master’s in theology), one of my best friends is a preacher, and so on…so it’s fair to say that religious beliefs don’t bother me in the slightest — unless and until they are used coercively, and unless they are used to argue that theists are more moral than non-theists.

        On another note, I saw your post on the wedding cake … congratulations! A Hindu wedding’s gotta be fantaststic. As a pro wedding photographer, I shoot secular and Christian and Jewish weddings all the time, and enjoy them greatly. I’d keeping my fingers crossed (are atheists supposed to do that? ;-) ) that I’ll book more variety. I almost had an Indian (Hindu) bride last year but she canceled, unfortunately.

        If you need any advice on wedding planning or wedding photography, I’m well-versed in all of it by now, just e-mail me at terryxfirma at gmail dot com…happy to help!

        • Ambaa

          Very cool! Thank you so much :) I LOVE weddings, so I’ve felt pretty comfortable with planning my own. Not too overwhelmed! lol.

  • Jash

    Everyone, whether they’re religious or not, should hold themselves to the correct moral standard. This means taking responsibility for the things you are responsible for, both good and bad, and not being inappropriately humble and self effacing, or inappropriately proud and holier-than-thou. Comparing yourself morally to others is unhelpful; you shouldn’t try to be better than other people, you should try to be the best person you can be.

    I don’t know whether religious people are better than non-religious people, but it doesn’t really matter. And when you stumble, you need to accept your imperfections, but still make an effort to correct your mistakes and carry on with life.

    Jash

    • Seeker

      Hi Jash–

      I like your post with its emphasis on not trying to be better than others. Comparing leads to sinking deeper and deeper into maya.

    • Ambaa

      “Taking responsibility for the things you are responsible for.” YES! This is so important, I think.

      I definitely agree that comparison is a terrible idea. I’m not sure if I’ve posted here about that, I should check. I know I’ve spoken in some places before about how I think that comparing ourselves to others whether good or bad (“At least my life is better than that guy”) can only lead to misery. It’s strange how society (at least in the west) really emphasizes being grateful for the things you have based on looking at how many people don’t have that thing. A terrible idea, if you ask me!

  • Leum

    In Buddhism we’re called upon to observe the five precepts: do not kill, do not steal, do not abuse sex, do not lie, do not take intoxicants. But the priest/monk who first explained the precepts to me said that these aren’t supposed to be specifically Buddhist values, they’re things that everyone is expected to adhere to to live a moral life. Buddhism rejects the idea that you need to be a Buddhist to be a good person, but it offers a community (sangha) and teaching (dharma) that will support your efforts to become a better person.

    So I suppose my answer would be that I don’t expect religious people to be more moral than non-religious people, but I do expect them to become more moral than they were before joining the religion.

  • sujit

    great post and good discussion.
    Andrea@ great co-relation with other religion.

    when i was a child, entire family woke to Hanuman chalisa, played by mother (maa). Such an auspicious beginning to the day.

    Great work !!

  • sujit

    sorry for wrong posting.

    I agree with sandesh and leum.


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