Morality and God

04/10/2014 11:49 EDT | Updated 06/10/2014 05:59 EDT

A recent Pew Report relates how individuals, throughout the world, view the relationship between God and morality. The report concludes that "many see belief in God as essential to morality," but also notes that the "richer nations are [an] exception."

In specific terms, in most of the countries surveyed, the majority of people -- in fact, the vast majority of people -- maintain that it is "necessary to believe in God to be moral." In the wealthier, industrialized nations of the West, however, the result is the opposite; the majority believe that it is "not necessary to believe in God to be moral."

The obvious issue would be why this is so. A necessary, more basic question is, though: how did people even understand this connection? Why did the respondents from both perspectives consider belief in God to be necessary or not necessary?

The report has, in fact, generated much discussion in a variety of ways. One focus, for example, has been on the two countries that turned out to be exceptions to the general rule. The first of these is China, a nation with a lower GDP per capita, but where most people answered that belief in God is not necessary in order to be moral.

The second exception is the United States, the country with, in fact, the highest GDP per capita of the nations surveyed, but whose people mostly believe God is necessary for morality. Attempting to explain the discrepancy in these two countries has, thus, become one undertaking of those trying to understand the report. See, for example, with a focus on the United States, The destructive myth about religion that Americans disproportionately believe.

Yet, even in addressing this issue, what I felt to be the most basic question on this topic was not really addressed -- and without answering this question, we cannot truly understand what is being conveyed in this report. Again, what exactly is this connection between God and morality understood to mean, especially in the minds of those responding?

People could have said 'yes' or 'no' for variant reasons, or based on different definitions of God, morality and their connection, and unearthing this can greatly affect how we interpret the results. Even if everyone was considering the same definitions, these definitions are still not clearly defined to the public -- so what is the message of the report for us looking at it now? What were the respondents thinking when they made their answer choice? How did they understand the question put before them?

One possibility for why morality may be dependent on God is that God ensures there are consequences for one's moral choices. From this perspective, the importance of belief in God would be simply an issue of reward and punishment.

How many of the Pew Report respondents were thinking along these lines, considering whether or not allegiance to morality requires fear of punishment or the incentive of a Heavenly reward? It's possible many of them were -- a possibility that would then call for the further question: what does it mean that large segments of the world believe people are only moral because of possible consequences? And why is it that people in the more developed nations declare they do not need these consequences? But this train of thought is still only one possible approach people may have been adopting. We still don't know if such a theology is really what was being relayed in the answers to the Pew Report's question.

Another possibility is that God is deemed necessary for morality because otherwise we do not have any yardstick by which to explain what morality is. What makes murder or theft wrong? What does this term wrong even mean within this context? Belief in God provides a basis for elucidating morality -- it is what the Deity deems to be correct. According to this understanding, the argument for the necessity of belief in God would be that otherwise we would have no basis for morality; no way of telling what that term even means. The argument against the necessity of belief would be that humanity still inherently has a sense of what is moral and why it is important for people to follow a standard. How many people surveyed perceived this debate as what was behind the question?

Then there is the possibility that the question was really addressing how we know what is moral, what is right or wrong? This would touch upon the issue of Revelation versus Reason. While a belief in God does not necessarily mean that a person also believes that God communicated with humanity and presented us with the basic principles of morality (i.e. Revelation), one who does not believe in God clearly also does not believe in this communication.

So a further aspect of the question may have been whether one believes in a revelation of some nature or not. How many of those who maintained that a belief in God was essential to morality, would tell you they further believe that this morality was communicated through a revelation -- and that this is the only sure way of defining what is moral? And how many of those who maintained that such a belief was not essential to being moral did so based on a rejection of revelation? Different ways of understanding the question -- so what were the people really relaying with their answers

What do people really mean by God? What do people really mean by morality? What do people really believe about the connection? This report raises more questions than it answers. It tells us what many people said, but not really what they meant. The further problem, however, is that in the discussion around this report, many are acting as if they do know exactly what is meant. In doing this, they are choosing to perceive their understandings of the matter as the only understanding -- thereby further missing the complexity of the issue.

To really benefit from this report, we must go beyond the simple answers. The issue is not simply whether belief in God is necessary to be moral. The greater issue is why people believe that it is or it is not.