How Religion Can Strip You Of Your Morality

How Religion Can Strip You Of Your Morality December 14, 2018

There’s this new show on HBO I’ve been watching, The Night Of. It’s managed to completely capture me after just three episodes but in a horribly uncomfortable way. Most of the show is from the perspective of a college-aged young man in New York City. He appears to be a really thoughtful, smart, hardworking kid who loves his family deeply. The show follows him as he takes a few risks one evening, no worse than anything you or I have done in our youth, and ends up wide-eyed and trembling with utter terror in a holding cell, under suspicion of committing a murder it seems he did not commit. As you follow him through the events that lead up to this, your body can’t help but fill with the turbulent boil of adrenaline. The hairs on my arms stood on end, and my eyes glassed over watching this naive, nerdy kid for whom his mother still does laundry, stumble into a situation he may not get out of. With my heart pounding, I couldn’t help but coach him from my end of the television screen, clutching a pillow and trying to ignore my racing heart. I felt for the kid. I feel for the kid.

Watching something like this, whether it’s in real life or very expertly portrayed on screen, you relate to the individual. You recognize the emotions he’s experiencing, and you almost feel a phantom version of them yourself. A situation as desperate and hopeless as a good, young kid getting wrongfully convicted of murder can haunt you for days because you feel the injustice so deeply. You can’t help but picture yourself in that situation – what would you do? What would you say? It’s stressful for the viewer, just like it was stressful for the viewer watching the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones, or the Terminus episodes of The Walking Dead.

If their viewers didn’t have empathy, shows like these would fail miserably when they tried to produce those feelings in its audience. As empathetic creatures, we recognize the emotions another is going through, and feel it even more powerfully when we’re witnessing these things happen in real life. That’s why Serial was the number one podcast in the world for a long time; that’s why Making a Murderer captured the attention of just about everyone. We feel for other people – we see the pain on their faces, we know how we would feel in those situations, we can relate to them and the negative feelings they’re experiencing as a result of the bad spot they’re in. We can do this because we are full of empathy, and for those of us who are fully-functioning, this is the infinite resource from which our morality springs.

We don’t kill because we know how it would feel if one of our loved ones was taken from us that way, and we don’t want other people to feel that. We don’t rape because we have an idea of how it would feel being violated like that, and don’t want other people to experience it. We don’t steal because we know how it would feel to be stolen from, and we don’t want other people, be they strangers or not, to have to deal with that. Empathy is the driving force behind morality. Empathy guides us. Empathy gives us a good gut feeling about what is right and what is wrong. Empathy is what drives us to develop much of our legislation and what colours the way our society is set up.

The Christian, however, believes strongly that morality can come only from God. The Muslim believes the same about Allah. They happily ignore their innate empathy in favour of their interpretation of God’s word. If their empathy is at odds with what they believe God wants, God wins out, because God is the source of objective morality.

This is a problem because it leaves the doors open for the faithful to be convinced that anything could be moral if God appears to have condoned it. Just make a good enough case that God said so, and suddenly we have ISIS.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Here’s what Christian, Dallas Duff, had to say while on Dogma Debate (episode #251):

David Smalley: In your Christian worldview, where you can have right from wrong, you can have morally good and morally bad because you have a moral arbiter. So, you play by different rules than I do. You can say what’s good and bad. I can’t. I’ll give you that for a moment. Now, assuming that I can’t say what’s right and wrong, and you can, by your own Christian values, does your god meet the Christian standard of good?

Dallas Duff: That’s definitely an interesting question. I’ve already kind of conceded, I have some serious questions and issues when I read the Bible. I’m very liberal in the way that I look at it – 

David Smalley: Hey, hey, Dallas, I just asked you a question. Does God live up to the Christian standard of good?

Dallas Duff: Well, he would have to.

David Smalley: No, no he doesn’t have to. He’s God, he doesn’t have to do anything. He could be a total tyrannical douchebag and still say, ‘you have to believe me and you have to be a Christian in order to go to Heaven’. He doesn’t have to live up to the same standards that humans do. So, my question is, do you believe, if God were suddenly here and still acted the same way he acts from the Old Testament through the New Testament, would he be considered good by Christian standards?

Dallas Duff: Yes.

David Smalley: Okay. Well, that brings up some good questions, then, because my favourite story which I’ve already mentioned earlier in the show, of God telling Saul to go wipe out the Amalekites. It’s 1 Samuel 15:3. And he tells him to wipe out the Amalekites and he says do not spare them, kill every man, woman and child. And then he says kill nursing infants, kill donkeys, camel, oxen, wipe everything out. Now, with all the powerful options that you know that god has available to him, does that sound like the Christian thing to do?

Dallas Duff: It’s certainly problematic, I agree. 

David Smalley: Doesn’t sound very Christian to me. I know if Obama said that, if Obama said, “Hey, I’m tired of dealing with Syria. Marine corps, I want you to go wipe out everything. Kill the camels, kill the kids, kill everything.” It wouldn’t just be Fox News jumping all over him, everybody would jump all over him and say, “what the hell are you doing?”. That’s not a leader, that’s not respectable. That certainly isn’t the Christian thing to do, it’s not the American thing to do to go wipe out innocence. 

Dallas Duff: Sure, but you’re talking about a man versus God in that specific scenario.

David Smalley: And that’s why I said he doesn’t have to play by the same rules. So, I’m perfectly fine with you saying, no, God would not be considered good by the Christian standards because he plays by different rules, so he can do whatever the hell he wants. 

Dallas Duff: Well the Christian standard is essentially to follow what is God’s standard and according to Christian theology god, by nature, is good, and there is objective good and evil. The whole Christian theology, as far as the big picture goes, is basically, not only following god, but the understanding that god by nature is good and any opposition to that is evil.

Here you have a Christian, and not even a particularly devout one, definitely not an extremist, nor a fundamentalist, presented with the act of wiping out an entire people, including “nursing infants”, who has explained it away as good, simply because God. He has abandoned his own empathy, which we all know he feels when asked this question. He ignores it, buries it as deep as it will go so that he can force himself to say that a god who did these things is good. This is the problem with faith. This is the problem with religion. It makes otherwise good people accept horrible things. It can lead otherwise good people to ignore their innate morality; to abandon it and commit heinous acts because they have convinced themselves that God has commanded it, and God is nothing but good.

Every healthy human being can see that the god of the Bible, or the god of the Quran, or many of the other gods humans have worshipped throughout history, are evil. They commit acts of genocide, they slaughter with abandon, cast down the harshest of punishments for the mildest of crimes and are anything but the benevolent father-figures religious people want to believe they are. They are heinous, atrocious excuses for human beings let alone deities and yet, millions of us worship them unquestioningly.

The god of the Bible requires you abandon your empathetic nature. The god of the Quran requires you to ignore your innate human compassion. Religion turns you away from morality. It doesn’t lead you to it. It requires that you accept the heinous acts of God as inherently good, and so you have no morality at all. You can be talked into accepting anything as good, so long as God commands.

If you’re a believer reading this, you might be angry at me right now, but I want you to answer this one question: If God commanded, would you kill your own child? If you answer no, then you don’t believe god is the source of objective morality. If you answer yes, then you prove my point that a mere belief in god can lead good people, a group to which I presume you belong, to do horrible things.

When you witness someone else experience great pain, fear or discomfort, whether it’s the wrongful conviction of a character in a television show or just your friend getting kicked in the junk, you feel that empathy. It’s there. You can’t eliminate it without severe mental illness. Whether you believe in a cruel god or not, you feel that empathy. You can feel your innate morality.

If you believe the Abrahamic god to be good, then your religion has forced you to ignore that morality. It has forced you to give up a part of your humanity; of your compassion. The only thing that will ever replace what you’ve lost, is to leave your faith behind and never turn back.

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Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay

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  • Graham Heron

    … and interesting extension of the question would to ask – what would you do if your revered leader, political and/or religious, who claims to speak on behalf of your god asked you to kill everyone in the next village over?

  • Zetopan

    Self imposed brain death in action. People who are deathly afraid of doubt end up endorsing absurdities with certainty.

  • Zetopan

    And it is no great mental feat to predict what at least some of them would do under those circumstances.

  • Jim Jones

    Religion is the opposite of morality. We see that by their actions.

    And their religion tells them that they can be forgiven anything at all if they can figure out and follow the rules and the plan.

    As depicted at the following website, the plan looks like this:

    However, there is a monkey in the works, and that is the fact that there are many other relevant scriptural references that muddy the water and make the path to salvation appear to be much more complicated. At the same website, it looks like this (reader will need to access the site to read the captions):

    The failure of the Bible to present a consistent description of the requirements for salvation is a tell-tale sign that it is not a product of divine intervention, but rather the expected outcome of an assortment of books authored by various men all of whom had a different idea of God’s intentions.


  • persephone


    And then legalism arises. If you can’t point to a specific thing god has done that would guide you, you take a verse, a suggestion, an aside, and you stretch it and twist it and sculpt it into a new rule that has to be followed. All three Abrahamic religions do this.

    Take the golden rule. It’s pretty standard in most religions. Treat others as you want to be treated. Definitely a good guide, a basis for empathic behavior. So why are there all these rules and laws laid out in religions? Not just the Abrahamic ones, but all of them. What starts as simple becomes a tangled mess. There’s always someone who has to say, “But what about [this circumstance]?” It can be rare; it can be common; but something that should be obvious suddenly isn’t. Or the person making the rules decides that his friend/child/cousin/spouse should not be treated the same as everyone else, and what starts as a little chink in the dyke, suddenly becomes a huge crack that requires a whole new set of rules to keep them from being flooded out.

  • physicistdave

    Courtney asked:

    If God commanded, would you kill your own child?

    Well, Courtney, the book of Genesis does confront that issue head on in the tale of Abraham being ordered by God to kill Isaac as a human sacrifice. Of course, Abraham is praised for his willingness to kill his son to prove his faith.

    There is an interesting, well-known (perhaps apocryphal) story about that passage and Martin Luther and his wife:

    For family devotions, Martin Luther once read the account of Abraham offering Isaac on the altar in Genesis 22. His wife, Katie, said, “I do not believe it. God would not have treated his son like that!”

    “But, Katie,” Luther replied, “He did.”

    Dave Miller

  • Christians that I grew up with squirmed when dealing with the concept that their supposedly all-good, all-benevolent god ordered the slaughter of innocents (multiple times). Intuitively they knew that was wrong, and they came up with all sorts of justification- like, the people carried DNA of demons procreating with them so all the demon progeny needed to be destroyed, that we can’t know God’s reasons because he knows more than we do, that God allows bad things to happen because of our sin, etc. There’s no way they would admit that their God is an asshole contrived by primitive humans and thus was created with the same passions both good and bad that we possess.

  • Tom Sramek Jr

    Your premise is that empathy is innate and is overridden by unthinking religious obedience. What if that is NOT the case? What if savagery such is that which is portrayed in “Lord of the Flies” is the default human condition and that empathy is actually a God-given gift? There are two primary imperatives in Christian faith: Love God and love your neighbor (by which is meant all human beings, especially those in need.). It is easy to focus on the judgemental, extreme actions and point to them as examples of what religion has done. In fact, good and kind actions motivated by religious faith rarely make the news. But without faith, where do your good impulses arise? Certainly not from our DNA–kindness and goodness are not survival skills.

    Oh, and the whole “slaughter everyone” thing–keep in mind that the Bible was written from the point of view of those who were victorious, who survived. Could it be that Saul was simply a bloodthirsty savage and he told people that God told him to do it? He wouldn’t be the first or the last person to use “God told me to” as an excellent excuse. The “kill them all” God isn’t the one I worship.

  • Craig

    Those who claim that they are Christians want those who are not Christians to be like them in surrendering or denying their inner moral sense and conscience for whatever the Bible says.

    I suspect these people ( who claim that they are Christians ) are ultimately motivated in their beliefs by the threat and fear of hell.

  • Brien

    From now on….

    When a god is mentioned, especially by politicians,
    do not let them walk away without proving the god that they claim;
    Force them to show evidence….
    or never mention their gods again —


  • KtotheP

    Fantastic article. This is the exact reason I was never religious (my parents never forced their religious beliefs on me). I was able to objectively look at christianity, and all religions, and they all go against my personal moral beliefs that I have always had. I have never found a god worthy of worship nor any evidence that even one of them actually exists. Cheers to human born empathy!

  • Russell King

    So many, many things wrong here. First, violence in TV shows does not work because we empathize with the victims, it works because we are entertained by conflict and violence. New writers and TV/film writers have known this for decades. It’s even invaded sports, where an ESPN VP boasted that polarization sells and a sports new talker said games are more fun to watch when the team hate each other. Second, the writer displays a third-grade understanding of ancient stories, which would be OK were the writer still in third grade. I’m not a theist, but even I must cringe at the thin, shallow, juvenile understanding and conclusions the writer makes about religions, believers, and the relationship among them. The writer fails to demonstrate even the most casual understanding of the varieties of belief and morality. But then, what can we expect from someone who loves watching TV this much?


    If religion equaled morality, the Middle East would be the safest, sanest, most secure place on earth, and not the never-ending horror story it is.

  • You seem to be suggesting that what the Bible says there never actually happened, or at least not in the way it is said to have happened. It’s been awhile since I read “God or Godless” by John Loftus and Randal Rauser, but if I recall correctly, Rauser posits something similar, that God never wanted that, but that the people simply misunderstood him. Rauser extends this idea further, suggesting that it took God until the 1800s to get it across to humanity that slavery is wrong.

    I suppose in some denominations that Bible isn’t really that important. The church speaks for God, and it gets better over time at doing that. In other denominations, the Bible is believed to be perfect.

    I think Courtney Heard’s point stands though, that morality is not to be learned from the Bible. If the Bible contains both immoral and moral ideas, all presented as coming from God, and we just pick the ones we already know to be good, what purpose does the book serve?

  • Thaddeus Monroe Slamp

    I’m not sure I disagree with you @ all, but as a mystic, I believe I can show u what ur not considering, of what u may not even b aware/I’d like, w/a dose of Quixoticness, to go ahead/give such a try. Art does not just involve the beautiful. It also includes the sublime. The difficult to accept. When an Abrahamic religion follower tells u they will do what God says, even tho, thru empathy’s lens it looks wrong; he might not b telling he’s gleefully happy about it, but that he, like any human has trouble with what’s difficult to accept, but he feels he has seen evidence that failure to accept the sublime is a human failing. His expression that God is good may b merely the star to which he’s trying to get HIM/HERSELF to have faith in. Relativistic Ethics has value, but what r u to do if u suddenly see evidence that it is not always the best most accurate way to view/b? What would u do if u found that the beautiful wonderful empathic gods and goddesses was not the ultimate good, if ur eyes suddenly had revealed to them what suddenly seemingly had to b a higher truth? Really….what would u do? I think most, if not all of us come to the same answer, when this happens; we hitch ourselves as best we can to the star that is presenting this seemingly higher truth, because we don’t want to b victimised by an illusion. If u really seek to understand an opposing point of view, I think I’ve just done my best to provide u w/a key to that kingdom. Should we have empathy? Almost certainly; as the INXS song say’s “you can care all you want. Everybody does; / that’s OK”. What would u do if u saw hints things were different (Much less, if it were more than hints)?

  • littlekat

    You may think her points simplistic, except that we see it play out all the time. I have worked with several hundred religious groups and you can smell the privilege emanating from them from a mile away. They tend to believe that societal rules do not apply to them, from basic common courtesy to vandalism. I have seen them destroy hotel rooms, start fires in buildings with a hundred occupants, demand to be the exception to the rule (because god), demand to be given things for free that other, far more worthy, nonprofits pay for. Just the fact that when you tell them that you are completely uninterested in hearing their dogma doesnt shut them up is a personal violation of space and courtesy. I have watched my brother, the thumper, shun and insult my parents, who, through their continued love and support of him, both financial and emotional, prove them to be better people than he, while he justified his actions with xtian dogma. No. Simplistic, it may seem to you, but I, and many of the people I have been coworkers with over the years, can attest to the truth of her words. In my opinion, she hit the nail squarely on the head.

  • HematitePersuasion

    Does pretending to believe count? Or does pretending to believe just make it worse?

  • craigmcloughlin easy

  • Raging Bee

    FACT: none of the claims ever made about god(s) are either proven or credible. That’s all we need to support a conclusion that Christianity is false, just like all the other religions.

  • Raging Bee

    Theism does not condemn rape and murder. It’s just folktales and wish-fulfillment fantasies and nothing more.

  • Raging Bee

    First, violence in TV shows does not work because we empathize with the
    victims, it works because we are entertained by conflict and violence.

    Actually, it works for both reasons on TV. You’re probably thinking of stupid horror movies.

  • Raging Bee

    What would u do if u found that the beautiful wonderful empathic gods
    and goddesses was not the ultimate good, if ur eyes suddenly had
    revealed to them what suddenly seemingly had to b a higher truth?
    Really….what would u do?

    Unless you have real evidence that this has happened, or is about to happen, to anyone, than it’s utterly useless to try to answer your hypothetical question. If we found actual evidence that some god(s) existed, we’d probably start believing in them — but since that still hasn’t actually happened, none of us has any reason to change our non-beliefs now. Just like we still don’t have any reason to give our cops wooden bullets because What if we found out that vampires are real?!

  • Sophotroph

    Atheism doesn’t have to condemn rape and murder. It’s a single position regarding a single proposition regarding the existence of gods.

    But you know this, and just hope you’ll trip up a reader who doesn’t.

    That you find dishonesty both necessary and acceptable is telling.