Reclaiming the Moral High Ground, Part 1: On the Moral Superiority of Non-Believers

Reclaiming the Moral High Ground, Part 1: On the Moral Superiority of Non-​​Believers

The religious have always claimed the moral high ground, even whilst burning non-​​believers alive, waging ‘holy’ wars, and raping children. Indeed, the sententiousness of the religious is so often entwined with iniquitousness and licentiousness as to render it comically predictable. For instance, few are still surprised by such things as the discovery of overtly homophobic ministers with male prostitutes.

The fact is non-​​believers are morally superior to their religious counterparts. This is no doubt a contentious claim, and I suspect many will misinterpret what I mean when I say it, so let me first be clear about what I am not saying. I am not saying all non-​​believers are moral, or all religious people immoral. Nor am I saying religious believers are incapable of being moral simply for believing in the metaphysical or divine. All I am saying is the religious forfeit the moral high ground the moment they profess moral certainty, which all true believers do and must profess, and that non-​​believers who don’t by default have a superior starting perspective with which to view moral questions and make moral decisions.

Here I will argue the moral absolutism of religion makes it morally bankrupt, redemption (particularly of the vicarious kind) makes it morally reprehensible, and that in any case religion is not a source of morality.

In writing about why non-​​believers are morally superior, there is the potential to appear as sententious as the religious, so one must first deal with this charge. After all, I am by no means a moral authority; only unlike the religious I don’t claim to be one, or to possess revealed knowledge of absolute moral truth. The question then is why should anyone care what I – a mere ape – have to say about matters of right and wrong? It’s a fair question. My answer:

Given I am yet to drown all of humanity barring one family in a flood, kill every first born of an entire nation, condone slavery, racism, homophobia, rape, genocide, infanticide, sadomasochism, ethnic cleansing and the genital mutilation of children (amongst other things), I think we can at least establish my moral superiority over the God of Abraham. And for that matter the moral superiority of every human being there is, was, or ever will be over the God of Abraham. Furthermore, given I am not one of the many self-​​appointed representatives of this God, who claim that all of his patently wicked actions are morally justified by invoking a ludicrously hypocritical double standard, I think we can establish my moral superiority over every single Jewish, Christian and Islamic apologist as well.

Moreover, the evasive and euphemistic defence of God made by the religious is also made in defence of themselves. Consider the example set by the Catholic Church, which refuses to accept responsibility for its institutionalised rape and torture of children. The rampant pedophilia of priests has been blamed on everything from secularism, pornography, homosexuality, the Jews, and incredibly even the child victims. It is simply preposterous that an organisation run by people so out of touch with ethical common sense that they cover up the rape and abuse of children1 should see fit to lecture anyone on morality. And yet they continue to do so, without any appreciation of the irony, and seemingly with a clear conscience.

I suspect it must be easier to justify immoral behaviour when one believes God condones or will forgive one for it. The comedian Emo Philips is perhaps best known for a skit in which he said,

When I was a little boy, I used to pray every night for a bicycle. Then I realised the Lord in his wisdom doesn’t work that way. So I just stole one and asked him to forgive me.

The offer of redemption, particularly the vicarious form it takes in Christianity, is a teaching so atrocious it exceeds the wickedness of the sin it is meant to redeem, because no matter how bad the sin is one can be forgiven for simply believing. Never mind we are told God gave us free will despite knowing in advance we would sin, and in his infinite wisdom couldn’t think of a better way to forgive sin than a human sacrifice to appease his own appetite for bloody retribution2. We are expected to rejoice at the torture to death of a human being, the crucifixion of whom we didn’t ask for and would have stopped if we could? Are morally decent people really to burn in hellfire for eternity for rejecting such a hideous act, or any god that thinks this is the ultimate expression of love? This is not a moral teaching, nor is the absolution of moral responsibility conferred by redemption.

Non-​​believers are better placed than the religious when it comes to matters of morality. This is no accident. The reason for it is that religion perverts morality; it is neither foundational nor complementary to it. The fact religious people take their religion à la carte – picking and choosing not just which religion they identify with, but which parts of their holy books they pay credence to, and which rules set by their religious authorities they abide by – clearly shows they do not derive their morality from religion.

Morality precedes religion and thus can no more be derived from it than religion can be foundational to it. But that is not to say religion doesn’t influence one’s morality. After all, religion has proven itself capable of making otherwise sane and decent people mutilate the genitals of children without compunction, to give but one example3. This is the perversion I speak of, and the horror is it goes unnoticed, ignored, or worse, is extenuated by the argument that religious people who do immoral things in the name of God are not the ‘true believers’. But they are the true believers.

Having spoken to countless religious individuals, three distinct types of religious people have presented themselves: Religious adherents really believe what their holy books and preachers say. They take scripture seriously, often literally, and are more likely to be fanatical zealots. Religious believers still believe in God, though many when pressed reveal belief in only a deistic god. They take scripture as metaphor open to interpretation, are less likely to believe institutionalised religion is a good thing, and are more likely to be moderate. They are unwilling to give up belief in some sort of divine being or the afterlife. Religious identifiers keep the label but jettison all religious beliefs, which is why religious identifiers are not actually religious at all. Try telling them that though. Many fail to realise that just calling yourself Christian, for example, doesn’t make you Christian.

I can call myself African American, but the fact is I am a white Australian, and no amount of calling myself anything else (or even truly believing otherwise) will change that4. I had lunch the other week with a ‘Christian’ who is a self-​​professed agnostic, doesn’t believe in the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus Christ, or the resurrection. That this individual is also a practising minister would have come as a surprise to me years ago, but not now, such is the lack of religiosity I have encountered from a Christian community increasingly made up of religious identifiers.

Understand that when I argue non-​​believers are morally superior to the religious I am referring only to their superiority to religious adherents. The fact is religious identifiers are non-​​believers too, and religious believers are often close enough to question whether morality comes from God, or are deistic and therefore functioning atheists anyway. It is the religious adherents who are morally bankrupt, for they are unwavering in their moral absolutism. And it is this certainty that distinguishes the self-​​righteous from the righteous.

Religion is not a source of morality, but in the perceived absence of anything else to fill the role, many have accepted it as a moral compass. Thus, people do not derive morality from religion, but it does influence their moral decisions. Unfortunately, even in cases where it influences them for the better, the basis upon which these decisions are founded is untenable. “Because God said so” is an argument that can be used to support anything, and it is used to this day to support no lesser insult to humanity than mass murder and the torture of children. Few things in this world are as dangerous as people who know they are right, and who truly believe they have God on their side. 


[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Nietnagel]

  1. Because they are more concerned about protecting the Church’s reputation than the rape and torture of children. []
  2. And we are expected to believe that Jesus Christ was God in human form. This raises the question of whether God was punishing himself for his own creation? []
  3. Religion may even influence people to behave better. But it says a lot about such people that they only behave better when there is hope of reward in heaven or fear of punishment in hell, which are the only discernible causal elements behind what might be called uniquely ‘religious’ behaviour. []
  4. Note the difference between being a ‘true believer’ and ‘truly believing’ something. Here ‘true believer’ refers to a category of believers (the one that best reflects the criteria relating to the category), and ‘truly believing’ refers to the sincerity of belief. There are a lot of people who truly believe they are true believers and aren’t.  []