My question is summed up in the title.

Is it possible for a group of people who are completely devoid of religion to develop a set of common morals that differentiate between right and wrong? How would these develop? Would they be firm like Christian morals or would they be more ambiguous? Are there any real world examples of this?


For a real-world example: monkeys have a sense of fairness, but do not have religion-based morals. Thus they have morals without religion. Similar examples could likely be given for early humans, had someone been there to make observations.

Young children also quickly develop a sense of fairness; long before they can understand anything about religion (apologies for the oxymoron).


Philosophy is one way to arrive at morals without religious support. This is indeed a good backing of religious morality, to give people who aren't going to philosophize all day, a book on religious code of conduct.

A good example of the above, is to realize that most religions converge on most issues of morality, even though the histories of said religions might have been completely different.


Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind) and Jesse Graham identify at least five innate moral foundations. Some focus on the individual and others on the community. The tension between multiple individual and communal foundations guarantee there will be conflicting moral paths to choose from. That these are innate means they are present prior to rationalization and culture. One of them is “Sanctity/Degradation”. Wikipedia and YouTube offer overviews of the idea.

If religion is restricted to a cultural product, then a specific religion is not required for morality which has an innate foundation. However, because one of those innate foundations include sanctity, a foundation for religion in general is also innate. Religion may be the likely way our species expresses this moral foundation. Other species may do this differently and have different foundations.

I don’t think moral foundations theory considers other species. The data comes from our species. However, given morality as innate in humans I think we should allow for the possibility that in some way such foundations may be present in other species as well.

Given the above, I would rephrase the question as asking: “Can human societal morals develop with no concept of sanctity/degradation? Then my answer would be “no” based on Haidt’s research because the sanctity/degradation moral foundation is innate. An answer to the original question would require separating religion from the sanctity/degradation moral foundation perhaps by thinking of it more as “purity” than “sanctity”. Although no specific religion is necessary, I suspect some kind of cultural, religious or spiritual, response would be expected since we all share the sanctity/degradation moral foundation and I see no reason for us to keep this to ourselves.


Absolutely. I'd look to the framers of the US Constitution--the Bill of Rights supplants any religious doctrine in US society. Most modern democracies are likewise non-secular.

The relationship of religion to ethics is likely a function of limited understanding of the natural world and primitive mathematics. (Without rational explanations for natural phenomena, one is left with only imagination to fill in the blanks, unless one takes a strictly rational, Socratic approach.) Once you have advanced mathematics, you can start analyzing issues such as economic and material disparity.

Religion is partly used as a method of contextualizing suffering, which is often the result of disparity/disequilibrium.

  • 2
    US Constitution is a bad example, all framers were Christians, and much is borrowed from English common law, which developed under strong influence of canon law. The OP asks about development, so as long as secularism developed out of monotheistic societies it is not a relevant example.
    – Conifold
    Nov 3 '17 at 19:11
  • 1
    I can see how mathematics might model behavior, but it doesn't in any way serve as a normative standard for behavior.
    – user3017
    Nov 3 '17 at 19:18
  • 1
    @Conifold I'd say the framers were nominally Christians (even today, all US Presidential candidates must claim to be non-atheists) but driven by Masonic and Enlightenment-era ideas. I'm not sure why origin in monotheistic societies would disqualify the example.
    – DukeZhou
    Nov 3 '17 at 19:32
  • Not yet, but we've only had calculus for about 400 years, Game Theory for less than 100, and Machine Learning is only in its infancy, but is already proving to be quite good at tracking patterns of human behavior. Nevertheless, the US constitution is specifically secular and establishes a normative standard for the society.
    – DukeZhou
    Nov 3 '17 at 19:34
  • Because the question is whether it could have developed without monotheism as a predecessor. Free masonry and Enlightenment do not work for the same reason, they are transparent heirs of medieval Christendom.
    – Conifold
    Nov 3 '17 at 19:39

Nobody knows what religion means, so this is not one question, but a collection of them. I would claim that for three prominent meanings the answers are not consistent.

Literally, from its etymology and earliest usage, religion is simply 'the link back' -- whatever binds you to an earlier history. Everyone has that, and brings it with them. That would give the answer 'no', whatever you come forward from, you are bound back to it.

In one modern sense, religion is about relationships to the supernatural. But that requires a later notion of the natural to be interposed after the tradition has lost its claim to accurately explain nature. Until it becomes obvious that people are maintaining it out of context, what we now think of as a religion is just immature science (including rational psychology as a science).

Only once the choice is made to maintain its truth whether or not it really fits to the context, because it supports meaning and a given psychology, can there be a notion of anything supernatural -- up until that point, there was just nature, and the system explained that nature. It assumed we knew on its basis how people worked, naturally, and what was ultimately best for them.

So although they had intricate ritual habits and strong theories of how the universe worked, from one POV, Homer preserves evidence that at some point Greeks seem to have had no criterion to separate religion from simple knowledge. So your answer is 'yes', primitive cultures that arise without an already separately identified science should logically all naturally lack the concept of religion in this sense.

In another modern sense, the sense in which Confucianism is one, a religion is a collected set of principles whose effects are enforced by an institution. That approach gives the opposite answer for exactly the same reason. A government is an institution, and any set of principles either is religious, or will be soon enough, because the world changes, and we choose for certain things not to change with it.

  • Pardon me jobermark, but I felt it necessary to downvote this answer for its lack of grasp of religion. Even the first clause of the first sentence is dodgy. I've never before seem 'religion' defined as 'the link back' and as a religious person do not believe in the supernatural. It's an opinion and valid as such but does religion no favours.
    – user20253
    Jan 3 '18 at 11:31
  • @PeterJ I don't care what you have and have not seen, that is the etymology of the word itself an therefore its meaning in Latin. If you feel I don't grasp religion, you could present evidence instead of bias. I have no intention of doing favors, I am recording facts. People do espouse these definitions, whether or not you approve. I cited Snell for a reason.
    – user9166
    Jan 3 '18 at 18:36
  • Pardon me for holding a different view and please don't let us fall out, but I must stick to my guns. 'To bind' is part of the etymology of religion but is not its full meaning or even its common one in modern language, and it need not mean 'bind to the past'. Meanwhile my religion states there is no such thing as the 'supernatural'. As for idea that 'religion is immature science' this is a reflection of your understanding of religion. It is a rude, contemptuous, ill-informed and inflammatory remark and you should expect some serious flak. . .
    – user20253
    Jan 4 '18 at 14:52
  • @PeterJ OK, and did you see that this is one modern view? Did you read closely enough to see that the fact people will disagree because there are too many different sources for this definition is entirely the point of the entire post? This is a reflection of ONE OF THE THREE DIFFERENT definitions of religion that I list to DEMONSTRATE LACK OF AGREEMENT. You never read what I wrote through before you object, and I am really, really sick of that.
    – user9166
    Jan 4 '18 at 18:13
  • @PeterJ I will not continue to put up with this incredibly unequal kind of argument where you speak but do not listen. If you think I am stupid enough that each of these three contrasting definitions is my personal definition that you claim to take issue with, there is no point in arguing with me. Because not to see that everyone is probably going to reject at least two of three contrasting options, and may reject all of them, would require that I be rather a moron.
    – user9166
    Jan 4 '18 at 18:17

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