Morality not a product of religious teachings


Prejudice is a funny thing. There’s always somebody out there who makes a convenient target for disliking and it’s not always the most obvious one. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, Americans would be less willing to accept an atheist president than they would a Jew, a Mormon, a woman, someone who has been married three times or even a homosexual.

This last item in particular shocked me. Homosexuals in this country are struggling just to gain the fundamental rights that straight people enjoy, but 55 percent of Americans would be willing to vote for a gay president, whereas only 45 percent would be willing to vote for an atheist. That’s a huge difference.

Why so down on the godless? If I had to venture a guess, I’d say it’s for the same outrageous claim I hear from some people when they find out I’m agnostic: People without religion lack morals.

I find this claim very offensive. My parents raised me agnostic and they raised me to know the difference between right and wrong. They taught me stories out of the Christian Bible, although the morals gleaned from those stories had no greater impact on me than those I learned from Aesop’s Fables. I’d say the impact is the same for many devout Christians, as I have frequently observed their puzzling contradictory behavior: God preaches one thing, they do another. But no matter; a few Hail Marys makes it all better.

Oh, how dare you, Karen! Some people might be hypocrites, but you can’t possibly say “many” Christians are. That’s a gross generalization.

Au contraire, says I. If you don’t want to take my word for it, there are numerous studies out there that support my personal observations. The Darley-Batson Good Samaritan Experiment of 1973 is a particularly interesting one.

A group of divinity students at Princeton were told they needed to give an impromptu speech to some freshmen undergrads as part of an experiment to see how they could think on their feet. Half were told they needed to give a talk on employment opportunities after graduation, while the other half were asked to give a speech on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Half of each group were told they were already late while the other half were told they had a little time to get to the next building for their speech.

On their way to the next building to deliver their speech, each subject encountered a person slumped on the ground, moaning and coughing. The real experiment was not the speech, but to see if these divinity students stopped to help the person in need.

Guess what? The topic of the speech had no effect on whether they stopped to help — time did. If they were running late, regardless of their speech topic, they were less likely to offer assistance. Some students preparing to talk about the Good Samaritan even stepped over the man on the sidewalk in their rush to get to the next building.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is irony.

I’m not saying useful information or morals can not be gleaned from religion. I’m simply saying that religion does not produce morality any more the absence of religion does. Generally, people can be counted on to do the right thing, regardless of their religious background, if it suits them. No amount of preaching can teach you empathy or humbleness. You’re better off learning these things by having a few hard knocks in life. If you have experienced pain or hardship, you can identify with others who are in need. That’s empathy. This is why poor people tend to be more generous and willing to help than rich people, even if the money is fake.

An experiment by researchers Katherine Vohs, Nicole Mead and Miranda Goode had subjects play a game of Monopoly. After the game, subjects in the experiment were given either $4,000 or $200 in Monopoly money and told they would need it for another task later. People in the control group were given no money after the game. As they moved to another room in the building, they passed by someone in the hall who dropped a bunch of pencils. People with $4,000 were less likely to stop and help than people with $200 or no money. This was Monopoly money — pretend money — but it still changed people’s willingness to help someone in need.

Again, this is behavior I have observed in real life with real money. People with lots of money or material goods just don’t help people in need as much as people with less do. It doesn’t matter how religious you are or aren’t.

As an agnostic, I humbly ask you to give me the benefit of the doubt when it comes to my morality. I might not have your God, but I have my empathy and it guides me well. My favorite passage from the Bible is Proverbs 15:33, “before honor is humility.” I find much truth in that passage and it’s not because of God, but because of the things I have experienced in life that make me wish to help people in need.

Karen Ingram is a junior in English. Please send all comments to