Who Has Moral Authority?


I have long felt that being a good person is the most important trait that a person can possess. If you are not good to other people, it doesn’t matter much how smart, or strong, or funny, or hard working, or successful, or talented you are. If you don’t care for your fellow homo-sapien and the rest of sentient life on this planet, one will still come up short in the area that matters most. …at least in my opinion.

Like many; I’ve taken something of a journey in my quest to understand ethics and morality (I will use those terms interchangeably). Many would described their own journeys as “spiritual” in nature…a spiritual journey. It would be fair to characterize my own journey as spiritual also, but it has led me to dismiss actual “spirits” as being players in defining ethics.

I grew up Catholic. Some of my earliest church memories were of my ten-year-old self gazing about the congregation thinking “They know this all metaphor, right?” [ignore the fact that “metaphor” was almost certainly not in my vocabulary back then]. Catholicism and the whole Biblical narrative never really ‘took’ with me. I was surprised to find that, yes, actually quite a lot of people took the story as fact! I was later relieved to discover that a great many church-attending “believers” didn’t really buy into a lot of their own doctrine. I am not saying that I didn’t believe in God…or at least something that might be called God…who could be keeping a report card on us. I spent a good many years satisfied that, if I was simply a good person, that would satisfy whomever might greet me after I closed my eyes for that final time in this Earthly world.

Time passed and I pursued the sciences in school and as a vocation. Science is reeeeally cool in that it works where no other intellectual endeavor does when it comes to understanding our world and predicting events. Science and math are why we no longer buy “snake oil”. Science is why we now know that the Earth is an unremarkable planet orbiting an unremarkable star in an unremarkable galaxy amongst untold billions in a bogglingly old and vast universe. (Not that there aren’t those that still think the Sun orbits the earth and that plants existed before there was a sun to sustain them).

Like many, I grew up in a religious tradition that convinced me that morality only comes from God and that it is only through that belief that we maintain civil society. Were there no god…the argument goes… then there would be nothing to stop us from raping and pillaging. Being in the sciences; I really like the objective and the quantifiable when I can get it. So, probably shortly after 9/11, I began to forage for the objective and quantifiable that linked God-belief to ethics.

I was surprised to find that there was actually a large body of non-religious, scholarly research on the matter of ethics. That evidence was compelling and, for me, more than convincing. I became eminently comfortable that, despite the exhortations of religious talking heads, god-belief had nothing to do with morality beyond one generation’s attempt to codify our innate morality as best they could using a religious narrative. Moreover; god-belief could clearly lead to profoundly and uniquely UNethical behavior.

Trying to relate disparate and complex fields of research, however, is no way to prevail in a barroom discussion. I needed some simple, concise way to demonstrate how religion and/or god-belief correlates (or doesn’t) with ethical behavior. So let’s look at the federal prison system!

It seemed that if faith-tradition ‘x’ really had some line on morality, then we should see adherents of that faith tradition UNDER-represented in our prison populations. Similarly; if adherents of faith-tradition ‘x’ were OVER-represented, then we might conclude their beliefs actually foment UNethical behavior. I had seen an oft-copied table that showed the religious demographics of those incarcerated in our federal prisons and the results were jaw-dropping! The statistics showed those that specifically claimed non-belief  to be grossly under-represented. Could it be that belief in God was actually a hindrance to ethical behavior?!?

Unfortunately I could only trace those cited statistics back to “some guy got this list from some lady from the Federal Bureau of Prisons”. I tried to trace it back to “that lady”, but got no response so, earlier this year, I FOIA’d that information for myself. Lo and behold, several months later I got a list strikingly similar to the one that has been floating around in cyberspace for years. …and so began the complicated task to make sense of those numbers.

I started with Pew Research that has been doing some quality work in religious demographics. By comparing the representation of various faith-traditions in the U.S. population with their representation in our federal prisons we should be able to see if any tradition(s) actually make people better behaved (using the metric of federal laws). They do not.

Now if you have alrePrison Graphady looked at the chart that I included here; don’t read too much into portions that make Muslims look like Satan’s spawn and atheists look like..er..saints. There are vagaries in how minority groups are classified and how numbers are gathered and reported. When it comes to non-belief, there are many factors that make those numbers difficult to assemble. This point is brought home in the Pew data showing how some religious adherents say they don’t believe in God! Moreover, the scale on my chart is logarithmic and visually distorts some aspects to make other aspects more visible.

While I feel validated that non-believers such as myself behave at least as well as everyone else; that is not the important takeaway. The main takeaway is that God-belief (irrespective of a tradition) has little-to-no bearing on whether one behaves ethically. In the chart, I listed each faith (and non-faith) tradition and divided their percentage of prison population by their percentage of the general population. If the number is zero (0), then that tradition correlates to being perfectly ethical. If the number is one (1), then that tradition correlates with no effect on ethical behavior. If the number is greater than one (>1), then that tradition correlates with UNethical behavior.

So where DOES morality come from if not from God or some other higher power? The fields of evolution and primatology shed some some the most clarifying light on the subject. “Reciprocal altruism” is a scientific term for [what many know as] “The Golden Rule”. The Golden Rule not only predates Christianity, it predates humanity and is well documented in ALL mammals and even earlier. Read some of Frans de Waal if you really want to dig into some of that research.

We can also look at other statistical measures to corroborate my conclusions. Consider that (as of 1998) fully 72.2% of scientists appointed to the august U.S. body of The National Academy of Sciences expressed specific non-belief in any sort of god. (and only 7% believe in a theistic, personal god) If disbelief meant unethical behavior, walking through Fermilab waving a wad of cash would be more dangerous than doing the same on the west side of Chicago.Creighton Homicides

We can also look at homicide rates in “prosperous democracies” as they relate to “religiosity”. The countries with the highest levels of non-belief also have some of the lowest homicide rates. (I highly recommend reviewing the other findings in that Creighton University study. A Higher resolution copy can be viewed [here]).

So…I encourage you all to take that spiritual journey. Consider your ethics and how you arrive at them. It’s a rewarding and worthwhile effort, just don’t limit yourself to assuming that ethics must be found between the covers of a holy book.  And if someone claims some moral authority; that is the last person you want to listen to.


About Mike Bruno

I live in Geneva, Illinois and enjoy discussing contentious topics (what's the point otherwise?). I am very involved in my community and historic preservation. I write here as a way to explore my own positions. I am a computer engineer that has been in the business since floppy disks had a capacity of 720 KILObytes...and were actually floppy. I am something of a science evangelist. If you like (or really dislike) what you read here, say so...and point your friends here. Thanks! The opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect any persons or organizations with which I might be affiliated.
This entry was posted in ethics, evidence, morality, Religion, science and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Who Has Moral Authority?

  1. Pingback: Trump and the “Johnson Amendment” | Mike Ponders

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