The question if one can live a moral life without being religious is really a question about personal responsibility. Throughout human history the greatest amount of violence and oppression has been accomplished through the moral high ground of religion. This has been accomplished through the cultish institutionalizing of superstition which would be relatively harmless if it was not consistently militantly enforced. The moral root at the heart of most religions is simply the golden rule, and those who do follow it the closest have been the targets for the greatest aggression. Religion is often used as a scapegoat for morality, and a willful abdication of the personal responsibility to think, and thereby develop one’s own relationship with spirit. Thus, living a moral life without religion entails the process of cultivating a personal morality which transcends authority.
The philosophic root of authentic altruism is Buddhist, and based on their belief that all humanity is one variegated expression of the Divine incarnating on the material plane in order to transcend it. Thus, aiding another is aiding oneself. However, the modern expression of altruism has been corrupted through the misuse of the application of religion, using various threats to coerce its followers into practicing altruism in the misguided belief that altruism is morality. The foundation for this corruption is the dogma of original sin which nurtures shame in those who belief it. That shame is used to coerce people into “behaving” and “giving till it hurts.” As a matter of fact, “All the major religions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam—advocate altruism; their holy books demand it. All so-called ‘secular humanist’ philosophies—utilitarianism, postmodernism, egalitarianism—call for altruism as well” (Biddle). Thus, those who practice this misguided belief are made slaves to others, which only reinforces authentic shame and builds resentment in the community of believers.
Morality on the other hand is a code of ethics which is based on a love of virtue, and not a fear of punishment. Ideally, morality would be a standard of behavior based on a fundamental respect for life-The Golden Rule. Religion could be a factor inspiring people to inform and enforce their own morality, but it can also be used as a scapegoat. The choice is all up to the individual, and their motivations for seeking guidance. As Christopher Hitchens observes;
We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid. (Good Reads)
The cause for this evident stupidity is often the logical contradictions in the faith. For instance, in the Bible there are many examples of God being incredibly cruel, wrathful, and simply not just. A strong example of this is Genesis 34, the story of Dinah and the Shechemites (Hensley). If Christians read the Bible (many do not) and afterwards can swallow the belief that the God represented therein is loving they have willfully given up rationality, which increases stupidity. In the very least morality requires intelligence, in that a person must have the capacity to understand what circumstances call for what action even while under the onslaught of emotions. Those who have given up rationality do not have the willpower or intelligence to act with a moral framework, and are often as reactionary as a child.
This loss of rationality creates a gap in the intellect which is filled with faith. Religious leaders and politicians capitalize on that gap through the use of simple buzz words and false promises. It is this essential and willful gap which enables much of the violence in society, as people refuse to take personal responsibility for their beliefs. As Bell Hooks writes in All About Love: New Visions, nearly everyone will admit that domestic violence is morally wrong, however;
if you then explain that we can end male violence against women by challenging patriarchy, and that means no longer accepting the notion that men should have more rights and privileges than women because of biological difference or that men should have the power to rule over women, that is when the agreement stops. There is a gap between the values they claim to hold and their willingness to do the work of connecting thought and action, theory and practice to realize these values and thus create a more just society. (Good Reads)
This gap she writes of is the gap of faith. All the major religions are Patriarchal, and the permissive nature of violence against women in this world is a direct result of the willful embracing of the delusions therein.
Once anything becomes institutionalized it often loses the germ of authenticity which sparked its creation in the first place. Hierarchies are established, conflicts of interests are ignored, and members settle down in what they know. However, a golden thread running through all religions and philosophies is a germ of truth which is used in religion to subjugate. As George Bernard Shaw wrote, “There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it” (Perennial). That consistent germ of truth lives on free of institutions of religion in the Perennial Philosophy. As Aldous Huxley wrote in The Perennial Philosophy;
Philosophia Perennis -- the phrase was coined by Leibniz; but the thing -- the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being -- the thing is immemorial and universal. (Perennial)
The Perennial Philosophy is a living compendium of the wisdom of humanity, and indeed focuses on how the divine is manifesting itself through humanity. This is an inversion of religion which points mankind to look outside themselves for the divine. However, as the great Sufi poet Rumi wrote “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it” (Good Reads). The most consistent artifice man has built against love is religion.
Thus, living a moral life appears to be more accessible if one is not religious, as religion tends to divide mankind more than unify them. Morality seeks to see all humanity as a family with inherent inalienable rights, while the divisiveness of belief easily delineates people into categories of “saved” and “damned” in ways that have no relation to morality. A recent study found that “religious people aren't more likely to do good than their nonreligious counterparts. And while they may vehemently disagree with one another at times, liberals and conservatives also tend to be on par when it comes to behaving morally” (Palermo). Anyone who has spent much time in a religious community will not be surprised by these results.
The way through the collective miasma of the gap of faith and the lack of morality seen in contemporary culture is by individuals determining their own beliefs, and thus taking personal responsibility for their actions. No longer thanking Jesus, or blaming the Devil for their fate, but cultivating self-awareness and personal morality which will naturally increase intelligence. However, actual morality is perceived as a threat by those in power, who are clearly not interested in morality, but in stealing all they can get their hands on. As such, religion is encouraged in society, as “Religion is the opium of the people” (Cline). Supporting this exploitive trend the standards of education have plummeted (for the majority but not the wealthy) so that people are less equipped to challenge authority as first embodied by religion and then the state.
However, this woeful reality can be overcome by individuals who take even a glancing interest in the nature of the self, and in the meat of the Perennial Philosophy. Morality is not something readily accessible in today’s culture, and it must be cultivated in opposition to societal norms, the status quo, and the overwhelming tide of greed which fuels so much petty action. On the other hand, morality is willfully embracing the power of each choice. As Ayn Rand writes, “I started my life with a single absolute: that the world was mine to shape in the image of my highest values and never to be given up to a lesser standard, no matter how long or hard the struggle” (Good Reads). Contemporary culture reveals that some people understand the power of their choices, and are using them to rampage the earth and her peoples.
The cancer of false altruism and the shame it hides completely disempowers people from standing up to this corruption. The answer to which is relatively simple: consumers have the power, and if they do not buy from a company which performs human, animal, and environmental rights violations those violations would end out of the necessity of profits. However, the consumer has been convinced they have no power, and their choices do not matter. Religion is the most effective tool for this lie, and the lurking shame of original sin will always provide an escape from confronting the reality of evil.
The reality of evil must be confronted if people will strengthen their morality, divesting it from delusion and distraction. Only then will the fruits of community be accessible, the fruits of which community is starving for today. Only then will Sait Faik Absiyanik’s vision have a ground; let's think about living in a world made of friendship, with hearts beating with duty and feeling, and people and animals and trees and birds and lawns. We'll have a morality never written in a book. A morality that looks in surprise at what we do now and what we'll do in the future, what we think now and what we will think. (Good Reads)
Living a moral life may be more readily accessible without the aid of religion, but for those who have the intelligence and passion to cultivate morality anything can be used as inspiration. The Perennial Philosophy unites the essential core truths of all religions under the mantle of inspiration from the very ground of being which is spirit. This spirit is seeking to realize and express itself through all life, and only the most tenacious delusions will keep the simplicity of this reality at bay. The resurgence of group think in the modern age has disastrous consequences for the global mismanagement of the planet on which humanity depends for this dance of spirit. The great call, the great need is for individuals to break off from the collective and begin to question the nature of morality in their own hearts.
Biddle, Craig. “Altruism: The Morality of Logical Fallacies.” The Objective Standard, 22 May 2006. Retrieved from: https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/2006/05/altruism-the-morality-of-logical-fallacies/
Cline, Austin. “Karl Marx on Religion.” About Religion, 11 Feb. 2016. Retrieved from: http://atheism.about.com/od/weeklyquotes/a/marx01.htm
Hensley, Ed. “Genesis 34: Dinah and the Shechemites.” Rare Bible, 7 Jun. 2009. Retrieved from: https://rarebible.wordpress.com/2009/06/07/rape-circumcision-and-mass-murder/
Good Reads. “Rumi Quotes.” Goodreads.com, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/875661.Rumi
Good Reads. “Quotes About Morality Without Religion.” Goodreads.com, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/morality-without-religion
Good Reads. “Ayn Rand Quotes.” Goodreads.com, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/432.Ayn_Rand
Palermo, Elizabeth. “Religion Doesn't Make People More Moral, Study Finds.” Live Science, 11 Sep. 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.livescience.com/47799-morality-religion-political-beliefs.html
Perennial. “The Perennial Philosophy.” 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.perennial.org