Zeytinoglu: Do religion and morality go hand in hand?


Ekin Zeytinoglu, Columnist

Voltaire once said: “I want my attorney, my tailor, my valets and even my wife to believe in God, and I fancy that then I’ll be robbed and cuckolded less.” 

Morality’s dependence on religion has been discussed for centuries. Today we mostly recognize that any nonbeliever can be as morally good or bad as a religious person, yet there is still a perception that religion engenders moral behavior superior to that of its alternatives. However, is that viewpoint really accurate?

From their births, religions have always emphasized the idea of being good. Some accentuated this in the form of the Ten Commandments, some with the actions of the prophets. Some offered incentives in the afterlife, some in the form of a new life. Regardless, every religion is, to a degree, based in morality. Nonbelievers see this as nothing more than a marketing strategy. For believers, it is actually a sign of the benevolence of a higher power. Whatever the reasons, religions have encouraged people to be better, but the question remains as to whether this encouragement has actually worked. Furthermore, if it has worked, we must ask if religion is the right way to justify morality in the first place.

In his 2006 book, Arthur Brooks claims religious people generally care more: They donate more blood, volunteer more for community activities and are happier in general. The same book also reveals that according to data from the Internal Revenue Service, more religious states tend to donate more to charities than less religious states do. Also, according to a study, religious people are half as likely to believe they have not accomplished enough in life. Another benefit of religions is that they also give people something to believe in, an elementary need of mankind. They provide people with a purpose, a reason to live.

However, when it comes to religion, positives are easily balanced with negatives. Gordon Allport shows in his book, “The Nature of Prejudice,” that religious groups are much more prejudiced against foreigners and minority groups than non-religious people. This is indicated by, for example, many churches being against same-sex marriages, and Islam not allowing Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men. Perhaps the most concerning study found that when Caucasians are exposed to religiously thematic words, their levels of prejudice against African-Americans increase dramatically.

It is also widely claimed that as faith has diminished since the Enlightenment and religious beliefs have dwindled in the last couple of decades, crimes and amorality have increased. However, according to an analysis of 18 democracies, researcher Gregory Paul found more atheist societies do better on many measures of well-being, with lower rates of suicide and murder, sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancies.

So does religion make us more moral? I must answer both yes and no.

Yes, because religion motivates people to do good, to help and to care whether they want to or not. No because it simply creates inequalities and alienates everyone who is not in a specific group. However, religion is basically a tool, regardless of its divinity or lack thereof, which helps us solve — in economic term — the “free rider problem,” people who don’t contribute to the society as much as they benefit from it. Religion, in this case, demands everyone to contribute the same, eliminating the “free riders” from society.

Today, as educated adults, do we still need such a tool to give back to our societies, or are we already morally developed individuals willing to contribute to the communities to which we belong? Do we still need our attorneys, our tailors, our valets, our wives and our husbands to believe in God so that we will feel less cheated, or has the time come to believe that people around us now acquire certain ethical values without needing a religion?

Ekin Zeytinoglu is a McCormick freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].