Internal and External Morality

To some, morality and secularism may seem like mutually exclusive concepts. This stems from a belief that morality is intrinsically linked to religion: God dictates moral behavior through his holy writings and divinely inspired prophets. Therefore, nonbelievers--those who do not look to a god for moral guidance--must be immoral. Yet this concept is simply untrue.

Every day, crimes are committed by both religious and non-religious people. Similarly, churchgoers and atheists alike can be ethical, caring citizens. The concept of moral secularism presents the idea that morality is independent of religious belief (or non-belief). Yet to understand how morality can exist without religion, many believers have to challenge themselves to think more deeply about what morality actually means.

To most people, the concept is simple: morality means good; immorality means bad. But what is "good" and what is "bad"? One way to better understand morality is to look at the motivations behind "good" or "bad" choices.

External and Internal Morality

External morality essentially refers to following rules that state what is right and what is wrong. These rules may come from any authority (church, government, parent, etc.). Whether these rules are just is irrelevant. The idea of external morality is that these rules will be followed because the authority says they should be followed. This is the kind of blind faith promoted in many religions.

Internal morality uses one’s own personal values (principles) to determine what is right and wrong. It often begins with learning about external rules or commandments, however, these rules are then considered against personal experience, knowledge, and critical thought before a decision is made to follow or disregard them. This is the kind of skepticism and reasoned living that is often promoted by atheists, agnostics, humanists and free thinkers.

That is not to say that religious people operate only from an external morality while nonbelievers solely function from internal morality. The world is never that black and white. Morality as a whole is a complicated mesh of both externally and internally motivated decisions.

Self-Interest or Empathetic Altruism

One argument for a lack of morality in nonbelievers hinges on the idea that moral choices are dependent on a hope for reward (Heaven) or a fear of punishment (Hell). But are potential consequences really the only motivating factor when making any decision? What if empathy for other human beings also motivates people to make ethical choices?

For decades, social psychologists have explored the question of whether moral decisions are based on self-interest or altruism. C. Daniel Baston's well-known empathy-altruism hypothesis presents the theory that feeling empathy toward other humans will prompt people to help each other, regardless of personal gain. Other social psychologists, such as Robert B. Cialdini, counter that allegedly altruistic acts are actually more based on a person's desire to see themselves as a "good" person or receive praise from society for their actions.

While the debate over self-interest or empathetic altruism is likely to continue among social psychologists, it is clear to see that either motivation does not have to be linked to religion to prompt ethical decisions. 

A person might choose to save someone else from injury because they want to earn a place in Heaven (or avoid eternal torture in Hell). But that person may also make the same decision for secular reasons, such as the praise of society or simply because they do not like seeing another human being in pain.

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