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Religion, Morality and Charlatanism

Rand, David

"Religionists have no special competence in framing moral judgments."

— Paul Kurtz, 2001

"With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion."

— Steven Weinberg, 1999

Ethical systems based on supernatural religious dogma are at best dishonest. At worst they are clear examples of moral incompetence or moral charlatanism.


The Moral Pretensions of Religions

Religious traditions and institutions generally consider themselves to be privileged arbiters of morals, to have particular expertise in matters of ethics and morality. Indeed, even many non-believers defer to religious leaders or in some way acknowledge their authority in such matters. For example, many parents who are not themselves religious nevertheless consider that the education of their children should include some moral instruction based on the religious traditions of the society in which they live. They assume, apparently, that to be a good person requires at least some grounding in a faith-based moral system. The late Stephen J. Gould, paleontologist and avowed agnostic, promoted the principle that, while science deals with empirical truth, the religious "magisterium" includes that of ethics. [1]

However, there is no reasonable basis for this preconceived notion that morality belongs to religion. Throughout recorded human history, many non-religious ethical systems have been proposed. The Golden Rule promoting mutual respect in human relations, for example, originates from several different sources, some of them non-religious. The philosopher Paul Kurtz has this to say about Gould's principle:

I think that this position is mistaken. Indeed I would argue that there also ought to be a separation between ethics and religion. Religionists have no special competence in framing moral judgments. I say this because a great effort has been expended in the history of ethics -- from Aristotle to Spinoza, Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey -- to demonstrate that ethics can be autonomous and that it is possible to frame ethical judgments on the basis of rational inquiry. [2]

When we consider that religious dogma is based on irrational beliefs in supernatural phenomena such as god(s), the soul, spirits, demons and angels, heaven and hell, creation, etc., we must ask ourselves: What does such mythology have to do with sound ethical principles? Why should acceptance of these vacuous concepts be a prerequisite for morality? Religious belief systems are human inventions. So-called "sacred" scriptures were written by human beings. To declare with ostensible certainty that the Bible or the Coran or the Bhagavad-Gita is the word of some god is just a pious lie. The fact that some people sincerely believe in the sacredness of scripture does not make the idea any less absurd.

Even modern religious tendencies which prefer a very metaphorical interpretation of traditional dogma remain ultimately founded on supernatural principles such as the belief in an omnipotent creator transcending time and space. Every theist is essentially a creationist in the generic sense of the term, even if he or she places that creation billions of years in the past.

Indeed, if we adopt the simple ethical principle of intellectual honesty, then we are forced to confront the following conclusion: As religious systems of morality are based on unfounded beliefs and are thus fundamentally dishonest, they are inherently unethical. For example, if a religious authority declares that lying is sinful because it is contrary to "God's will", then that authority is guilty of hypocrisy, because even if one were to grant the existence of "God", we have no way of knowing "His" will. The author of this article knows as much about the will of "God" as does any pope or ayatollah, and that knowledge is zero.

Charlatanism: Medical, Psychological and Moral

So far we have briefly discussed the supernatural basis of religious ethical systems. It is useful to compare this with other systems which are not ostensibly religious but which, like religion, erect their theoretical foundations on beliefs which are evidently supernatural.


Homeopathy is (or pretends to be) a medical practice. It "treats" disease using solutions in which the active ingredient is of such infinitesimal concentration (of the order of one molecule in a swimming pool) that it is in most cases completely absent. For such solutions to work, water would have to have a memory in order to "remember" the substance which it no longer contains. (Not to mention all the impurities which would inevitably be found in the water in concentrations much greater than that of the missing "active" ingredient.) Homeopathic theory nevertheless holds that these solutions are indeed effective because they have been somehow "dynamised" (whatever that means) during the dilution procedures. This theory is utterly incompatible with our current scientific knowledge. If homeopathy were empirically confirmed (which it has not been), then most of modern physics and chemistry would have to be thrown out and a scientific revolution more important than those of Einstein, Newton or Galileo would ensue. Because of homeopathy's lack of effectiveness, it is classed as a pseudo-science. Because it thoroughly contradicts well established scientific knowledge of the natural world, it must be considered supernaturally based. Homeopathy is an evident example of medical charlatanism, and any practitioner who accepts payment to treat disease using this pseudo-science must thus be considered medically incompetent, especially if they use it to the exclusion of other, proven, treatment methods.

Apologies to any readers who may think that homeopathy is valid, but you really should know better. See, for example, the article homeopathy in Robert T. Carroll's The Skeptic's Dictionary.


One can safely assume that the reader is familiar with the ancient divinatory scam called astrology, which purports to predict the unfolding of a person's life, and/or offer psychological insight, based on the positions and movements of celestial bodies at the time of the person's birth. Suffice it to say that anyone who accepts payment for psychological advice based on astrology is a charlatan. Again, The Skeptic's Dictionary's article on astrology is a useful reference.


As an example of religious morality, let us consider Roman Catholicism and the ethical system espoused by the Vatican. (We could just as well consider a different Christian sect, or a sect of some other well-known religion, monotheistic or other.) Catholic morality is based on classic Christian mythology, which is rich in supernatural content: a personal, anthropomorphic, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, eternal god; creation; the soul; heaven and hell; the last judgement; the virgin birth and resurrection of the messiah; transubstantiation; exorcism; etc., etc....a veritable season of the X-Files all in one handy cosmology. More sophisticated, modern Catholics try to minimize the embarrassment by adopting a metaphorical interpretation of the more egregious aspects of the dogma of their faith, but they all accept a certain core of it centred on a personal god and creator, the soul, and the resurrection.

Based on this confusing collection of myths and superstitions, the Catholic Church proposes a set of moral judgements which it attempts, to the best of its ability and power, to impose on its members and even on non-members. The concept of the soul, for example, is used to justify the forbidding of abortion, contraception, the use of condoms for disease prevention, homosexuality, pre-marital and extra-marital heterosexuality, embryonic stem-cell research, etc. The Vatican is not deterred by the fact that the soul is a myth, a supernatural concept thoroughly incompatible with scientific knowledge. Not only does the Catholic Church expend a great deal of effort promoting this pseudo-scientific thesis, it also collects a great deal of money from members and benefits substantially from financial privileges accorded by many governments to religious institutions. At the same time, it promotes the remarkable idea that is has special expertise in ethical matters.

What the Three Systems Have in Common

Although the term "charlatanism" is used primarily to describe medical fraud, if we extend the concept to the field of morality (as it was extended to the field of psychology in the discussion of astrology), clearly we are dealing with a case of charlatanism in the domain of morals and ethics. Just as homeopathy pretends to be a medical science but contradicts well established scientific fact, and just as astrology purports to be a psychological science yet has no rational basis, so too Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular present a system of ethical values based on supernatural mythology. Each of these three belief systems is an example of incompetence and charlatanism in its respective sphere of activity.

The Parish Priest

Given the fundamentally irrational nature of Catholic morality, let us consider the position of an ordinary priest in some parish in which a significant number of persons continue to be active participants in the church. Catholic priests traditionally take on the role of moral counsellor, a sort of pre-modern therapist who advises parishioners on a variety of personal and social matters. Perhaps this priest has a sympathetic ear, a certain talent for this type of role. Perhaps after years of practice he has acquired a certain skill in this role. However, if he bases his counsel primarily on the tenets of Roman Catholic dogma, he cannot hope to play a positive role. If he counsels his parishioners never to practice contraception, if he counsels them to avoid all forms of sexual behaviour deemed dogmatically unacceptable, if he motivates his advice through threats of eternal damnation and/or promises of eternal paradise, then he cannot avoid being a moral charlatan. It is only by abandoning the dogma of the institution he represents and adopting a more humanistic, open-minded attitude that he can hope to be of any real help to those he counsels. In other words, this priest, this religious ethical "authority", must, in order to avoid doing more harm than good, become in effect non-religious.

Examples of Religious Moral Dishonesty and Incompetence

Minor Examples

The following examples of the dishonesty of religion-based ethics may be considered minor because their consequences are not extremely negative and may even be positive, at least in the short term.

Note that even if the moral principles involved are ones which most people would consider positive, such as kindness, honesty, love, etc., that does not justify the use of religious dogma to motivate them. There are plenty of realistic, down-to-earth reasons for adopting positive moral precepts (which is why most people tend to agree with them). Appealing to a god or other supernatural myth, rather than to one's own humanity, alienates and perverts these principles. The mother would be much better advised to apply the Golden Rule by asking her child, "How would you feel if I lied to you, or stole your toys?" With an older, more mature child, she could make the point that avoiding dishonest behaviour will be in the child's own best interests in the long run. To be charitable in order to invest in eternity turns acts of generosity into a bizarre form of selfishness. In the words of H. L. Mencken, "religion has not really promoted charity, but debased it." If one must be selfish, it would be more intelligent to be motivated by enlightened self-interest: to promote social justice should be in everyone's best interests because it directly or indirectly improves the general quality of life of us mortals down here on this earth.

A further comment about the occasional positive effects of religious morality: sceptics of the paranormal have a pithy saying which is very appropriate here. Even a broken clock displays the correct time twice a day. In other words, when you base your science or, in this case, your morals, on an irrational set of supernatural beliefs, by sheer chance you will sometimes hit a "correct" answer. But as the following examples will illustrate, the wrong answers are more frequently hit, i.e. supernaturally based ethics generally do more harm than good.

Serious Examples

The following are examples of various religious moral precepts whose application has serious negative consequences. Here we can legitimately talk of moral incompetence or moral charlatanism.

Extreme Examples

The following examples involve even more dire negative consequences and should be considered instances of extreme moral incompetence.

An Example from World Youth Day

A recent incident in the news gives a further illustration of the nature of religious morality. In July of 2002, a nun reacted angrily to Milton Chan, a young Catholic dissident who was distributing condoms to World Youth Day participants in Toronto. "You're going to answer for it. God is good. You'll answer for your act," she said, according to CBC News. Let us pass on the obvious contradictory nature of her comments -- a declaration of "goodness" mixed with threats, all in the same breath. Let us also assume that the good sister was not threatening Chan personally, that she did not plan to take the whip to him herself.

Evidently she meant that "God" would punish him. Punish him for what? For having the courage to challenge the Catholic Church's retrograde and very damaging policies on sexuality and reproductive questions? Or for having the bad taste to raise the issues during a papal visit? Any reasonable person would recognize that the positive merit of the first greatly outweighs the trivially negative aspect of the second. Apparently this nun claimed to know the thoughts of "God", claimed to know that "God" disapproved of Chan's action, and made a vague, ominous threat against him based on her claims of divine knowledge. Objectively, she had no more access to this knowledge than did Chan, who had the good sense to speak for himself and not for "God". If this interpretation of the intent of her comments is correct, then this nun, like the church she supports, was morally incompetent.

In a clear demonstration of the danger which Catholic morality represents, the Toronto police sided with the Church and stopped the dissident from distributing condoms.[3]

A Curious Convergence of Charlatanisms

As a final example of charlatanism, let us mention a case in which all three forms discussed above -- medical, psychological and moral charlatanism - converge into a single egregious illustration of the depths to which religious "ethics" can descend. We are referring to the so-called "Catholic Medical Association" [5], whose goal is "To uphold the principles of Catholic faith and morality as related to the science and practice of medicine." What this means in practice is anti-abortion fanaticism, an active fight against the rights of gays (and by the way, blaming gays for the sexual scandals in the Catholic clergy!) and a general perversion of medical practice and ethics by making them subservient to Roman Catholic ideology. Or in other words, enslaving science to mythology.


Religions are human inventions. They have waxed and waned, evolved or stagnated, blended together or split apart, etc. throughout human history. Given that they have been a part of the evolution of societies, can religious moral traditions be of any value to humanity in the present and future? This article has argued that religious belief systems do more harm than good and will continue to do so unless they are completely expunged of their supernatural elements, at which point they would cease to be religious as the term is generally understood. In matters of morality and ethics, the best religion is no religion at all.

We should encourage the abandonment of ethical systems based on supernatural religion. In response to this proposal, some would argue that we must first find a replacement. Personally, I find this line of reasoning unconvincing. If we conclude, as I have argued, that religious morality does more harm than good, then we can only gain by foresaking it. Those who fight for racial equality are not asked, "But if we abandon racism, what will replace it?" This is not to equate religion with racism, but rather to make the point that both are harmful, and we can only gain by abandoning that which is harmful.

However, even if one rejects the above argument and insists on the proposal of a reasonable ethical system to replace religious morality, we can observe that such a new system is in fact emerging, through a slow process of evolving consensus. This emerging consensus, which many people, organisations and governments have already adopted at least in part (or at least they pay lip service to it), consists of a set of ethical principles which are considered ideals in a democratic society: the rule of law, human rights, equality of the sexes, racial equality, individual freedoms, social justice, church-state separation, non-violence, universally accessible education and medical services, etc. Perhaps it is by refining and completing this set of principles that a new, secular, ethical system, one which may approach a degree of universal acceptance, will, in time, be developed.


  1. .Stephen J. Gould, "Non-Overlapping Magisteria", Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 23, no. 4, July/August 1999
  2. .Paul Kurtz, "Are Science and Religion Compatible?"Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 26, no. 2, March/April 2002
  3. ."Toronto police close down Catholic protester", CBC News, 24 July 2002
  4. .Sceptiques du Québec
  5. .Catholic Medical Association