The Good, The Bad, and the Unbeliever: Defining “Religion”, Part 8


When asking questions in regard to morality—that is what we do, or how we act—we have to ask foundational questions about “right” and “wrong”. We’re asking questions ultimately about ethics. Even within the conversation, we make conscious distinctions between matters that are “moral”, “ethical”, and “legal”. Such distinctions may mean that an action may be moral, but it may have been ethically questionable. Or an action may be legal, but it may be morally repugnant. Failing to both recognize the distinctions and harmonize them can lead to conflict.

Ethics are described as “well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do…” as such ethics describe them, “in terms of rights, obligations, benefits…,fairness, or…virtues.”(40) As noted earlier in this essay, there is a measure of overlap between religion and the larger socio-culture, making it often difficult to distinguish between the two unless there is significant variance. Similarly we find this problem in the relationship between ethics and religion, so much so that it is often difficult to differentiate them. So much so, that it’s almost a foregone—if erroneous—conclusion that people who are not obviously religious (eg atheists) are considered to be inherently immoral by those that are (eg non- atheists). If this were true, however, it would mean that ethics only applied to those who were self-identified as “religious”.(41)

The question seems to be one of priority in relationship: are people ethical because they are religious, or are people religious because they are ethical?

If we consider the first question in the affirmative, that means that being religious is the ethical standard. If this is the case then the atheist objection, “which religion” would have traction. Is it simply enough to be religious, or is there some other requirement, a specific religion or sect

within that religion? The inherent problem of such an affirmation is in what it requires: positive, affirmative knowledge. What we know, at least from any careful reading of history, whether it be in the time of the Reformation or at the time of the Caliphs in Islam, when the beliefs a particular sect becomes the ethical standard for the society, a system known as the sacral state, it tends to paint everything red with blood as it becomes totalitarian.

However, what about answering the latter question in the affirmative: that people are religious because they are ethical. If that is answered in the affirmative, then the whole argument changes. If it is ethical to be religious, then a particular religious system becomes subservient to ethics. The very practices and beliefs within a particular system of religion become questionable and accountable. If this is the case then a religion serves as a vehicle, a means for carrying the principles that its appealing to. If ethics are prior, then people cannot be anything other than religious because it is the natural outgrowth of their ethical presuppositions. The question becomes, how then do we ground ethics? That particular question goes beyond the scope of this essay, which is simply seeking to answer the question: is modern atheism a “religion” in proper, social scientific terms?

In previous a previous entry, we endeavored to answer the question in the affirmative, demonstrating that atheism exhibits five of eight characteristics. In this section we will question as to whether or not atheism meets another characteristic: ethics.


Former president of American Atheists Frank Zindler has written,


He goes on to name off a list of half-a-dozen or so characteristics that flow from that particular “first principle”. As such, most atheists often also describe themselves as being secular humanists. As such, it is described as a response to a demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion.(43) The problem with ethics is that it involves choice, choice in both application and principle.(44) The question, then is how does one presume that they are making correct choices, and thereby moral choices?

Another atheist, makes a similar argument to Zindler, noting that, “Morality…is a kind of enlightened self-interest.”(45) As such a note, a second one in two sources, should beg the question, what is providing the light? One seems to be required to ask such a question since the use of an adjective (enlightened) has an effect on the word that it is reinforcing or emphasizing (self-interest). But answering this specific question is presently outside the scope of our present interest. The question at hand is whether or not there is an ethical system of rules that atheism. That question seems to be answered by the fact that atheists, at least in these two sources, answer the affirmative: that there is an ethical principle that atheists do have, at least, a negative rule: “Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself…”(46)

As such, it can be demonstrated that—at least for the purposes of the examination conducted here—that atheism proposes an ethical requirement upon those who would adhere to it. This seems to be consistent across those who would identify as such. Our next examination will be as to whether or not atheism possess a system of rituals.

For earlier posts in this series


40. Markkula Center for Applied Ethics “What is Ethics?”

41. Ibid

42. Frank Zindler. “Ethics Without Gods”

43. Article 5, Amsterdam Declaration (2002)

44. Julian Baggini. “Atheist Ethics”

45. Ibid

46. Ibid