Morality: Top Down or Bottom Up? - Blog#12 - 5 April 2019


Many religious leaders talk as if religion has a monopoly on morality, and that one cannot act morally in the absence of religious belief. In Good Without God (2009), Epstein cited several advocates of the presumed religious monopoly on morality.  For example, Albert Mohler, head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, stated (2004), “Without God there are no moral absolutes. Without moral absolutes, there is no authentic knowledge of right and wrong” (par. 4). Dostoevsky’s (1880/1993) character, Ivan Karamazov famously exclaimed, “If God is dead, all is permitted.” Likewise, in The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren (2002) asserted, “If your time on earth were all there is to your life, I would suggest you start living it up immediately… You could indulge yourself in total self-centeredness because your actions would have no long-term repercussions” (p. 38). Yes, you could, but would you? This stance reflects what I call the criminal level of moral behavior. How would you act if you had a policeman on your shoulder? Would your behavior be much different from what you do when you’re sure that no one is watching? This distinction, between criminal morality and moral integrity, is quite relevant when we are trying to compute an individual’s moral quotient. Warren implied that without consequences, we are naturally immoral. But nature equips us with a conscience, and a capacity for empathy, not just an ability to anticipate likely consequences. It comes from within, regardless of whether it initially comes from above (from God), or from around us (socially). And it starts out emotionally, not cognitively. In the words of the primatologist, Frans de Wall (2013), who studied morality in other mammals, morality is “bottom up, not top down.”

Yes, it’s true. Without God-given ethics, humans are theoretically free to act like amoral, self-centered heathens. But it is also true that even with religiously-inspired morality, many humans act quite selfishly much of the time, and some are quite adept at killing each other, especially in the name of their various gods. It is also evident that despite religious press to the contrary, most atheists, and even some nonhuman animals, are capable of acting quite morally. Zuckerman (2014) cited research concluding that religious Americans tend to be more racist than secular Americans, more supportive of military aggression and the use of torture, the death penalty, and corporal punishment of children, while being less supportive of women’s and gay rights, and protection of the environment, than secular individuals. He also noted that atheists are grossly underrepresented in the prison population.  Atheists are not immoral; they accept ownership of moral capabilities rather than exporting and re-importing them. Humans originally discovered virtues and vices in our interactions with each other. Religions objectified these virtues, attributed them to God, and claimed a moral monopoly. A secular approach to morality reaffirms such virtues, but not their alleged divine source. Certain virtues work, by promoting cooperation and connectedness with our brethren, which satisfies us at our moral and social core, not because someone in a temple or a courtroom says so. But if morality is subjective, do we have a right to judge others’ behaviors? Sure, we have a right to gather together and write laws to codify intersubjective morality and consequences. And we all have gut responses to others’ actions. But to borrow an AA phrase, we sometimes “should all over” ourselves when applying our moral principles, and our expectations, to others.

The illusion of objective ethics is a source of security for the masses, particularly if compliance is seen as being monitored, and rewarded or punished, by a divine overseer. Objective morality, monitored by an eye in the sky, may be seductive as a means of inducing social compliance, but is compliance really morality? As John Bradshaw (2009) wrote, “Obedience and respect for authority are a necessary part of the process of growing up morally, but if we stop there, we become arrested at a developmental stage that predisposes us toward the rigid polarization of rightdoing (good) and wrongdoing (evil)” (p. 33). He went on to note that such a focus promotes “moral totalism” and a “culture of obedience” characteristic of totalitarian regimes, rather than fostering moral intelligence. Morality is an internal affair. It operates within the mind, and specifically, within the conscience of an individual person. We can abdicate moral responsibility in two ways, via an atheistic, nihilistic devaluing of morality, or by outsourcing morality to a higher power, religious or political/legal.

We can make a case that moral choices predate cognitive instruction and discussions of morality, both phylogenetically and developmentally. De Wall provided convincing evidence for the presence of ethical behavior among primates, and a biological, evolutionary component to morality. He cited examples of empathy, compassion, fairness, altruism, gratitude, and community concern among primates, and underscored the role of attachment in morality, noting that we expect empathy only among animals that display parental attachment, which includes only a few reptiles. He added, “Mammalian maternal care is the costliest, longest-lasting investment in other beings known in nature” (p.49). Citing another source of primate morality, he added, “Hunting and meat sharing are at the root of chimpanzee sociality in the same way that they are thought to have catalyzed human evolution” (p. 124). Moral behavior is abundantly evident in our evolutionary backyard, and is clearly not a unique capacity in human beings. The mammalian need to belong, coupled with our capacity for empathy with the feelings, needs and anguish of others (which is originally promoted by secure and loving attachments in childhood), drives moral behavior far more than rules or intellectual considerations. Likewise, Jonathan Haidt (2012) emphasized that moral choices are intuited before they are reasoned, stating, “Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning” (p. xx). Developmentally, moral behavior in children is evident long before their development of religious understanding or advanced cognitive skills. Likewise, one can argue that morality predates, and led to the appearance of religion, rather than viewing religion as the source of morality. De Wall noted that religions were invented to bolster morality, via an eye in the sky, once our communities became too large for everyone to know everyone else.

What people say (and are taught to believe) about morality, and what they do morally or immorally, are not as consistent as one might think, nor is an individual’s moral behavior from one situation to the next. Moral development is not primarily a result of moral instruction, though we have mistakenly prioritized this approach for centuries. If morality is more an emotional/intuitive than a cognitive operation, it should not be surprising that verbal instruction has its limits in developing moral character. Bradshaw (2009) proposed “a radical change in our approach to moral education,” involving an emphasis on the development of emotional and social intelligence. Emotional intelligence refers to intrapsychic awareness and skill in the management of our internal emotional life, which contributes to social intelligence - the skillful handling of our social relationships. Cognitive factors are far from irrelevant, but again, emotional and social factors are emphasized. In particular, we must approach our own traumas and emotional injuries, and work through those radioactive emotions, rather than suppressing them, erecting a false self, and then acting out or numbing our disowned feelings. Bradshaw explained (2009), “We cannot fully develop our inborn capacity for moral intelligence without taking the feared journey of self-confrontation” (p. 261). With this self-awareness and self-soothing, we are better equipped to empathize and compassionately respond to others. Thus, the view of humans as essentially selfish has given way to a portrait of a species neurologically wired for empathy, and then primed via early attachment bonds to activate such empathy. Krznarik (2012) identified six habits of highly empathic people, including an “insatiable curiosity about strangers.”

It is ironic that atheists and religious individuals substantially agree on what constitutes moral behavior, but both often prefer to focus on the stark differences in their beliefs. We are all part-time hypocrites, sometimes violating our beliefs and values via contrary behavior. And we often find ourselves too critical and judgmental. We do better when we apply our subjective values to ourselves, while limiting our judgment of others. In addition to emphasizing practices over beliefs, and actions over thoughts, moral behavior is optimally active not passive. As Bradshaw (2009) noted, “One of the most important recovery rules I learned stated, ‘We have to act ourselves into the right way of feeling and thinking rather than trying to think or feel ourselves into the right way of acting’” (p. 60). Good deeds beget good feelings, which spur further moral action. Guilt (Bradshaw’s “guardian of the conscience”) is blatantly produced by our immoral actions, but also creeps in when we are too passive to step up and seize opportunities to act in situations calling for justice and compassion. Robust moral behavior is proactive rather than just passive or reactive, and it is positive rather than simply non-negative. Morality involves far more than the guilt-driven avoidance of immoral behavior. It also involves virtue and initiative, deliberately seeking opportunities to act upon your positive values. Morality may be subjective, and optional, but it is inherently rewarding. All this is well and good, but let’s see what my actual behavior looks like tonight.


The above passages come from Chapter 18, “Debunking Objective Morality and the Religious Monopoly on Morality,” and Chapter 19, “Ungodly Morality: Listening to Your Own Conscience,” in Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices, now available in print and e-Book on Amazon. Chapter Highlights from the Beyond Atheism are available at

Thank you for listening, and for adding your own take on morality in your comments below, if you so choose.



Bradshaw, John. (2009). Reclaiming virtue: How we can develop the moral intelligence to do the right thing at the right time for the right reason. New York, NY: Bantam.

De Wall, Frans. (2013). The bonobo and the atheist: In search of humanism among the primates. New York, NY: Norton.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. (1993). The brothers Karamazov. (D. McDuff, Trans.). London, England: Penguin. (Original work published 1880).  

Epstein, Greg. (2009). Good without God: What a billion nonreligious people do believe. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Haidt, Jonathan (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York, NY: Random House.

Mohler, Albert. (2004, November 7). Can We be Good Without God? Retrieved from:

Krznaric, Roman. (2012, November 27). Six habits of highly empathic people. Greater Good Magazine. Berkeley, CA: UC Berkeley. Retrieved from: https:/

Warren, Rick. (2002). The purpose driven life: What on Earth am I here for?  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 

Zuckerman, Phil. (2014). Living the secular life: New answers to old questions. New York, NY: Penguin.