An irreligious morality


There are many people, probably the majority, who believe that morality is ordained by a supreme being of some sort. They therefore subscribe to what is called an absolute moral code. Others take the view that our morality is a product of a mixture of our own choice and the evolutionary pressure arising from our being a part of society. It is therefore subject to change to reflect the changing conditions and needs of society. They believe in what is called relative morality.

Believers in an absolute moral code deride this view. They say that it is not true morality, as a relative moral code could consist of anything, depending on the whim of the person concerned - it could be one based on hate or love or any of the permutations in between. Granted, however, that the relative or secular morality of any era is a product of our evolution as a social species, then it far less open to extremes than one might imagine. Evolutionary pressure would be expected to exert a counter-influence against variations which would damage society. If our morality is in fact a product of our evolution as a social animal then we might also expect at least a simple form of morality to exist in other groups of social animal – which, of course, is the case.

Neither is absolute morality as absolute as it claims. We have seen considerable changes in so-called absolute morality over the centuries and millennia.

The evolutionary view of morality explains this usually unacknowledged, but episodically changing nature of “absolute” morality, as well as the constant flux of relative morality and the relatively benevolent morality which we have today in the West.

Paul J Buckingham

The need for morality

We have laws that require us to behave in a particular way and sanctions for when we don't. We support this because if the rule of law were to break down, then our lives would be much more difficult. We could not assume that mostly we can walk down the street without being attacked, buy things which are what they purport to be or pay premiums to insurance companies in the expectation that claims will be met. It makes sense to us that we should live our lives as part of a matrix of people who can trust each other at this level.

Acting morally, however, includes much behaviour which would not be the subject of any normal legal system. So why do we bother to act in this way? If you believe in a god, then it is simple - it is an absolute requirement. It is Gods law. And God's law does not change.

But is this really so? Let us go back in time to when, to most people, at least, it was perfectly clear that our morality came from above. The absolute nature of morality was a given. The slight difficulty with this was, of course, that across the world there were many absolute moralities, unknown to probably the majority of people, or if known, then brushed aside as the standards of savages, pagans or heretics.

The changing nature of absolute morality

Not only that, but, looking at Christianity as an example close to home, it is quite clear that its absolute moral code has in fact changed radically over the millennia. I include here the morality of Old Testament times which has always been accepted as an integral part of Christianity [1]. The fact is that the moral code given to the Children of Israel, would not in any way be acceptable today, whether to secularists or to Christians. We have the direct authorisation of God in the Old Testament for genocide [2], rape as a weapon of war [3], deliberate killing of civilians, including children [4], and other acts which would trigger the issue of indictments by the War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague and, of course, slavery.

Slavery was expressly approved by the Old Testament [5], condoned in the New Testament by Paul in his letter to Philemon and, although controversial amongst the Church fathers, it was encouraged over many centuries by the Vatican in respect of pagans and heretics [6]. Although quite common in Anglo-Saxon times, when William the Conqueror arrived at Hastings, the Normans would not accept its continuance. Slavery was not acceptable, at least where they had come from in Northern France, and so, although no law was actually passed to ban it, slavery came to an end in England by the end of the 12th century. Mind you, they did introduce the feudal system which was perhaps slavery light.  But then slavery itself it reappeared in the 16th century, albeit mainly using offshore locations, and was fundamental to the considerable fortunes made in the colonies.  It became so ingrained in society that it became an integral part of many people’s pension plan, including Anglican priests and little old ladies in the United Kingdom, until its abolition in 1833, when they all became entitled to compensation for their loss of income!

The truth is that these absolute moral rules are incompatible with the relatively tolerant and fair society which we are today in the UK and in most of the rest of Europe. We have simply adopted a different moral code. Somehow, then, the original god-given Judeo-Christian moral code has changed over the years, at least in most of Europe. Although there are still some extremists, by and large the present day Judeo-Christian interpretation of their code(s) has somehow come more or less into line with the way in which we think as a modern liberal society.

Punctuated equilibrium view of absolutism

Although the absolutists claim that their morality is a set of unchanging precepts against which we can confidently judge our actions, we can see that this is contradicted by the evidence. The long history of our morality is, in fact, analogous to the idea of punctuated equilibrium in the description of how evolution has occurred over the aeons. That is to say, there are long periods of relatively little change followed by a short burst of considerable change with the loss of many species and the appearance of many new ones. This is then followed by a long period of relative stasis and so on. And so with religions promoting absolute moral codes. There are periods of little change followed by a catching-up demanded by circumstances and social attitudes which cause a change in the official interpretation of the absolute rules accepted up until then.

Sometimes, of course, those absolute rules are wiped out altogether, just as some species are, because the people upholding them are themselves defeated and forced to accept someone-else's (absolute) rules, or are themselves wiped out as a people. So then while we may talk in philosophical terms of the concept of absolutism, in practice it cannot really be said to exist. The examples of it we have seen have had a limited shelf-life. In fact, we have only what we might call 'Punctuated Absolutism'.

Relativistic morality

So then, what of the relativists? Are they in any better position? Clearly, if my morality is defined by me, then it may be based on anything from pure altruism to pure hatred. That at any rate is the theoretical position. In that event, you would expect to see moralities reflecting the full range of possibilities. Of course it may be that their distribution would follow the usual bell curve and so the more extreme moral codes would be expected to be less prevalent. But I would suggest that there is in any event no free market in moral codes. Their prevalence is substantially modified by various countervailing influences and controlling factors.

The received view of the problems associated with a subjective morality derive largely from an over-concentration on what it could logically be, but which ignores the evidence amassed of how we in fact behave in order to make society work for us and so the factors which in fact drive morality. This also deals with the point often made by religiously inclined people that, in the absence of a God who defines our moral code for us, we have no right to judge anyone’s actions. There is no standard by which we can be judged. But as we shall see later on, this is a fallacy. There may not be a God-given right to judge others behaviour, but there is certainly every reason to outlaw certain types of behaviour for the good of society. And in what sense has God-based judgement of our moral behaviour actually produced a better society?

Evolutionary pressure as the source of morality

The point at which we should start is an acknowledgement that our secular morality is not something created primarily by philosophers or theologians, but by evolutionary pressure. Theologians are at best reacting to what they see as our group’s behaviour code and attempting to categorise it in terms consistent with the religion they at that time espouse. One might indeed argue that they in fact take the moral code that then exists and create a religion around it. But we see that, even in the absence of a belief in god, for most of us, for most of the time, acting according to a moral code of some sort comes quite naturally.  We don’t behave in some random way. It appears from research carried out that there are several main inter-related reasons for this.

 1. The discovery of mirror neurons confirms a physiological underpinning for our ability to empathise, an emotion which in itself modifies what most of us would see as a default position of total selfishness. We feel to a greater or lesser extent what others are feeling and we modify our actions and attitudes in the light of our emotional response. For the vast majority of us empathy is regarded as part of the human condition; a difficult emotion to ignore - as witness the phenomenal success of telethons like 'Children in Need' in the UK and the equivalent in may other countries. The sociopaths amongst us do not feel this emotion and are likely to act (or rather not act) accordingly.

Then there is the observation of reciprocal altruism in various animal species, explained by game theory as a means of improving your chances of survival by helping someone-else's chances. The poster boy for this, of course, is the rather less than cuddly vampire bat. These nocturnal mammals feed on the blood of larger animals when they are in the land of nod. But even sleeping animals can wake up and get a bit ratty at being sucked dry and so meals of this sort are not easily come by. Bats often return home to their roosts hungry. If a bat goes more than 48 hours without blood, it may well starve to death. If a bat goes without blood for more than 24 hours, however, other bats will often regurgitate blood into its mouth until it can get its own supply again. For this system to work, though, bats that have received blood must return the favour when the roles are reversed otherwise the giving bats are almost certain to suffer in the long term.

Research [7] has shown that such behaviour is not confined to kin-groups as one might expect, but exists between non-relatives as well. "These animals seem very capable of keeping track of associations over long periods of time", according to one of the leading researchers, Gerald Wilkinson, a zoologist at the University of Maryland. He has also shown that bats will not share blood easily with new members of their group, suggesting that these blood-sharing associations are built up over time. The unrelated bats are in fact quite picky as regards sharing and form a buddy-system for the sharing of blood with those who can be trusted to reciprocate.  Now, as we all know, there are very few of us humans who will carry on helping someone who shows no sign of wanting to reciprocate.  Our altruism is not true altruism.  It too is reciprocal altruism.  It comes with expectations.  Indeed, those who truly practise pure altruism we regard as saints and true saints are as rare as hens' teeth.


The concept of fairness is also of relevance, beautifully confirmed as an animal instinct in experiments with Capuchin monkeys.  Capuchin monkeys get very upset if they are unfairly treated (reported in Nature in September 2003 [8]).  Initially, all of the members of the group were offered a piece of cucumber as a reward for handing a small piece of granite to a researcher.  However when later just some of them were given the reward without handing over the piece of rock, or were given a better reward e.g. some grapes, the others revolted - they variously refused to eat the cucumber they had just earned, or threw it back at the researcher in apparent disgust, with a series of grunts which were no doubt the Capuchin equivalent of that's not b***** fair.  Well, they were very angry.  And we instinctively know how they felt.

Fairness is a part of our emotional make-up too and in human society is even more to the fore than with Capuchin monkeys: there is barely a day which goes by without some heated call for fairness - demands for better detection of the use of doping in sport in order to eliminate unfair advantage, for the people on benefits to stop playing the system, for redistribution of wealth in order to alleviate poverty or for the rich to stop avoiding the payment of tax through the use of tax-havens or ‘aggressive tax avoidance’. The hugely successful comedian Jimmy Carr abandoned his (lawful) cunning tax avoidance plan; Starbucks decided to pay tax even though making a theoretical loss here. Google has decided to at least pay some tax in the UK. It just illustrates the scale of public displeasure (and what that can achieve) when faced with what it regards as unfair and so immoral.
4 There is also the very important effect of group pressure. There is a wealth of experimental data to show that there is within us a desire to conform to the norms of the group to which we belong. This both ties us into the morality of our group and also at the same time acts as a brake on change in that moral code, for good or ill. It is probably why we have absolute morality and why it changes in the punctuated way described above. Group attitudes will only change when their non-adaptive nature becomes too much to ignore. This being so, then relative morality will also be subject to times of stasis and change. In that sense it is no different to the way that we see absolute moral codes changing. It's just that relativists can be upfront about it.

Co-operation in groups gives evolutionary advantage

The overarching reason, however, for the existence of the emotions which give rise to our secular morality, is the fact the we function best as part of a group. It is worth noting that the father of sociobiology, Edwin O Wilson has changed his view on the importance of groups in evolutionary terms. From the 1960's there had been a consensus amongst sociobiologists that significant evolutionary pressure came only through the individual and his genes. Wilson has now however concluded that although the individual is important, the group to which the individual belongs can actually be equally important, as Darwin originally proposed.  One group can outdo another by reason of its members' willingness to co-operate and thus favour the quality of life of its members and therefore their individual reproductive prospects.

The benefit of the rule of law

Clearly, however, despite our fairness instinct and group pressure, the tendency to act altruistically or fairly is not the same in everyone.  It is for that reason, I would suggest, that the human race has gone one step further by evolving legal systems which are, normally, based on fairness.  The 'nice guys' are fed up with being taken for granted and have brought the lawyers in.

The law has evolved over the millennia to reflect what society currently regarded as fair. Taking a few modern examples we see, for instance, that the law of contract is based on the premise that it would be unjust (i.e. unfair) for someone to take advantage of a bargain entered into without doing what he had undertaken to do in return.  The criminal law imposes fairness (justice) by punishing people who steal from us or by penalising those who drive so carelessly that they endanger others.  Fairness demands that damages be paid for injury caused by your negligence.  We are willing to vote for governments which will levy redistributive taxes to support those less well-off than ourselves, but we get very upset if we find that people are playing the system. Its not fair.

The law penalises the exercise of anti-social moral codes

Of course group pressure is a powerful tool, but one which can produce widely varying consequences. Some groups require as a part of their moral code the commission of what the rest of us would regard as immoral or even illegal actions for acceptance.  If I am on a sink estate, then I am likely to find that stealing cars or dealing in drugs is regarded as necessary behaviour if I wish to belong to a gang.   I shall be expected to lie to the police for my friends.  However, here, there is a ganging-up by the rest of society on those whom we categorise as criminals. We use the law to try forcibly to stop them complying with their particular moral code.  Why?  What is our justification? It is because we see them as acting to the disadvantage of society as a whole.   As we have already noted, the law is there to ensure fairness in society, and this, despite what particular individuals may consider to be in their individual best interests.

Which seems to mean that the aspects of fairness which we judge to be absolutely essential to our lives are a part of our legal system - we enforce fairness.  And it seems to me that this makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, because societies which have under-developed or corrupt (i.e. unfair) legal systems or those which disadvantage a section of society, such as women, are mainly less successful economically (and in most other ways) than they could be, with all that that implies.

As an aside, it is worth noting that freewill does not have to enter the equation in order for the law and indeed moral pressure to be useful or justified.  Free will is an age-old conundrum but the difficulty is a theological problem.  That morality in general and the criminal law in particular are thought to depend upon it is a confusion of thought.  Without some alternative to decisions made as a result of the chain of causes and effects of the physical world, religion cannot meaningfully blame us for our sins.  Secular morality and the law can, however, as they have a different function. So, how to tease them apart?

The law doesn't punish me where there is duress – for example the deadly thrust of a knife held in my hand but where someone stronger than me has hold of that hand and uses it as if it were his own.  That is not my action in law.  But in a deterministic world the causes and effects leading up to a decision I actually do make to kill someone mean that I am equally constrained to do what I have done.  And so it is argued that, logically, I should be excused.  But the law is not religion.  Instead, the law can quite justifiably be regarded simply as a feed-back mechanism.  It is there to discourage us, as rational beings aware of the results of what we do, from doing things which would disadvantage society.  Through the threats it makes to those thinking of criminal activity, it becomes a part of the chain of causes and effects leading up to our actions.  It can do so in the explicit knowledge that we are the consequence of our nature and our nurture, whilst making allowance for the inappropriateness of punishment in the case of, for example, mental illness affecting our ability to reason and foresee the consequences of our actions.

Our everyday moral code is likewise a part of the cause and effect chain. It usually has the effect of promoting cooperation and so the functioning of society in a more general sense. Steven Pinker's analysis of the reduction in war and violent crime over the centuries, shows that it all seems to be doing a pretty good job.  Clearly, though, it is an evolutionary adaptation.  Religion, as distinct from secular morality, however, has to claim a different modus operandi.  It cannot claim to be merely a feedback mechanism even when actually resulting in “better” actions. It has to claim that our choices can somehow be made non-randomly, but independently of deterministic constraints and that we should be judged accordingly. When the theologians come up with a cogent explanation of what that actually means, I shall be interested to hear it.  But in the meantime, I am happy to say that freewill is simply not my problem. For a fuller description of the difficulties thrown up by freewill, please click here.

The real basis of our morality

Our empathy, our wish for fairness, group pressure and our reciprocal altruism are the source of our relativistic moral code.  We should not though forget that these emotions are all subject to our critical consideration using our reason.  We can consider the likely end-results of our actions and these will affect the decisions taken. 

So then even without the benefit of God, there is still, in the vast majority of us, a wish to act according to a moral code. It comes quite naturally to us. But although emotionally motivated, it can be rationally controlled, unlike its absolute counterpart.

The success of the concept of an absolute moral code

The absolutists have in fact always been fighting a rearguard action to convince others that they were right.  We were never very inclined to be good in the way the Church or other religions wanted us to be or to observe the rituals demanded of us.  It went against human nature - as indeed they kept telling us. Hence the need for their continual exhortations and threats of hell to get us to do as we were told.   In practice, though, there was the absolute morality being preached from pulpits and then there was the peoples' morality derived from our humanity, our sense of empathy and fairness which, where it has clashed with rigidly imposed religious rules from another age, has ultimately pushed them to one side. This was relativism in action. The contemporary reluctance of ordinary people to take the Church's dogmatism too seriously can be seen in the low birth-rate in Italy and other Catholic countries since the advent of easily available and effective birth-control. The same is true of a number of Muslim countries, including that most Muslim of countries, Iran. This democratic, relativistic, form of morality has in fact forced Christianity, at least, to change over the centuries in line with secular thinking, although homosexuality still seems to be a bit of a problem for them to get their heads around.

But the idea that there is such a thing as absolute morality is still there and so, as a meme, it must be admitted to have been very successful over the ages. This, despite its obvious incoherence granted that we keep demanding and getting changes to it. We seem, though, to want or find comforting the idea of a morality which is bigger than the individual. Organised religion is following the unpopularity of extreme absolute codes in Europe and is itself declining. It is, however, being replaced at least in part by a feeling that there is something which demands our obedience, although we're not quite sure what it is and we feel free to interpret its demands as we wish. Organised religion is being replaced by an amorphous, self-defined belief in 'spirituality'.

I suspect that the reason for this is not only that we would all (?) like to think that we will live forever in some kind of heaven, but also that most people see a disjunction between the generally accepted requirement for morality and the suggestion that our morality has no higher force behind it to give it the right to rule our lives. They cannot see how that can work and so take refuge in the self-contradictory ideas just described.

This incomprehension results from the fact that the vast majority of people do not understood that our survival as a society and ultimately as a species would be threatened if we failed to act as we do. If they did, then perhaps their need for the artificiality of absolutism would melt away in favour of the absolute need to act morally in order to assure our own survival.


We find ourselves, therefore, in a situation where the concepts of neither absolute nor relativist morality as discussed by theologians and philosophers over the millennia have as much relevance in the real world as they would like to think.

Absolutist morality comes in many forms at the same time and these are subject to periodic change, because society demands it. So then they cannot really be said to be absolute. Having lost their only raison d'être, they have no right to compel our obedience.

Relativistic morality has no rights over us either. To the extent, however, that it moves away from what is required for the survival of society then, eventually, evolutionary pressure can reasonably be expected to bring about the necessary course correction. And because of its evolutionary underpinnings, it is far less laissez-faire and more resistant to wild swings than one might expect. Its implementation is undoubtedly variable and has not always produced brilliant results. In this democratic age, however, our tolerant moral code commands general acceptance because we are the ones who define it and so it can move more easily with the times.

Now, whether there are other, non-moral, paradigms which could assure our survival as a species is difficult to say: certainly any others which may have appeared over the millions of years of our existence don't seem to have stood the test of time. Stephen Pinker tells us that this is an age when violence, particularly in Europe, is at an all-time low, in contrast to when the Church was a real power. In the UK and in Europe generally, crime is at an historic low. I guess that that, in turn, means that we may be reasonably confident that the relatively tolerant and peace-loving society in Europe which we have at the moment is a pretty good approximation to what we need for our continued survival. And if this is so, then it looks as though our relativist morality has served us very well indeed, despite the drag on its development caused by the absolutists.

Maybe we should get out there and explain it better.

Paul Buckingham


1. Matthew 5: 17 - 19

17 “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

2. Joshua 6:20,21 (Battle of Jericho);

20 So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city. 21 Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword.

    Joshua 8:1,2 & 24 27

1 And the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not fear or be dismayed; take all the fighting men with you, and arise, go up to Ai; see, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, his city, and his land; and you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king; only its spoil and its cattle you shall take as booty for yourselves; lay an ambush against the city, behind it.”

24 When Israel had finished slaughtering all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword. 25 And all who fell that day, both men and women, were twelve thousand, all the people of Ai. 26 For Joshua did not draw back his hand, with which he stretched out the javelin, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. 27 Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took as their booty, according to the word of the Lord which he commanded Joshua.

3. Numbers 31:18

   18 But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

4. Numbers 31:17

  17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him.

5. Leviticus 25:44 46; Joshua 9:23

44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. 45 You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. 46 You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness.

6. See e.g. this extract from the Papal Bull 'Romanus Pontifex' of Pope Nicholas V (1454) -

  ...We [therefore] noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ...and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery..

   Complete text here:

7. Click here for paper regarding research on vampire bats

8. For summary see -

All Biblical references from
Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971

© Paul J Buckingham 2017

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