Some people would say that without religion, there would be no moral code to tell us what is good and bad.

Some Darwinist's like Dawkins say that acts like sharing and feelings like guilt are innate and that we don't need religion. And that we can have morals without religion. He gives the examples of a monkey sharing it's food.

However there appear to be some religions, e.g. human sacrifice in paganism, or death for apostasy in Islam, which seem to suggest that the notion of what constitutes good and bad is more flexible. And the feeling of guilt would be more a social construct.

Sure we can have laws without religion. But these laws might just suit the majority not the minority.

So for instance would a person who had never been taught that murder is bad. But that murder as a revenge for steeling (for example) is good. Would they then feel guilt after comitting a murder? (As Dawkin's might posit). Or feel like they have done a good deed?

Thus, from a psychological standpoint, is Dawkin's correct in thinking that humans would be kind to each other in the absence of society built on the foundations of a religious code. If so what exactly is "guilt" if it only exists with respect to social expectations.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you actually cite where Dawkins makes those claims? I think you may be inferring some claims that are not made but I may be wrong. I think you are also making a false link between "learned" and "religious": even if morality was entirely learned, that says nothing about a requirement for religious codes. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 28, 2019 at 0:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Bryan I can't remember. It was on TV. He was talking about how in the animal kingdom monkeys show empathy by sharing their food. $\endgroup$
    – zooby
    Jun 28, 2019 at 21:05
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for a well thought out question regardless of the fact that Dawkins was not referenced. The concept of what constitutes good and bad can be blurry as you point out and the origins of good and evil have been studied over many years by the likes of Phil Zimbardo (Abu Ghraib, Stanford Prison Experiment, his book Lucifer Effect etc.) $\endgroup$ Jul 3, 2019 at 7:45
  • $\begingroup$ I wonder if "guilt" is related to "anger" combined with "empathy". In the sense that putting yourself in the mind of another person you would feel anger towards yourself. But then what causes "anger"? A feeling towards people who mean you harm? Or who have trangressed an agreed moral code which gives someone an unfair advantage over you? In this case "good" would have to be an agreed moral code that is somehow "fair" to everyone involved. $\endgroup$
    – zooby
    Jul 3, 2019 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ Although a set of rules that is "fair" may just be an equilibrium point that societal rules move towards as feelings of guilt and anger push the rules towards this point. There may be other equilibrium points that are less fair in some sense. $\endgroup$
    – zooby
    Jul 3, 2019 at 16:18

2 Answers 2


Psychologically, guilt can be described as "a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined" (Dictionary.com).

Guilt is an emotion triggered by a belief that you did something wrong, based on what you think is wrong. You can feel guilty after breaking your New year resolution. You can also feel guilty when doing something what is considered wrong by social, moral or religious criteria set by others but only when you believe that what you did is wrong.

So, you can feel guilty when you do something against your personal beliefs. I'm not answering to "Is a concept of good and bad innate or learned?" because, this is not a psychological question...The question what is innate and learned, of course, can be a psychological question. I believe that the capability of feeling guilt (not guilt by itself) is innate.

  • $\begingroup$ But what does "wrong" mean? A transgression against societal norms? Or some innnate feeling of "wrongness" which has evolved in our species? $\endgroup$
    – zooby
    Jun 29, 2019 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ Wrong can be what you believe is wrong. You believe it's right to get out of bed at 6 am, but you actually get out of bed at 8 am - you can then feel guilty because you did not meet your own criteria about what you believed was right. To feel guilty, you don't need any social norms or any criteria set by others. Of course some social criteria can make you feel guilty if you break them, but only if you believe in them. If you don't believe it's necessary to wear a tie, and you don't, you don't need to feel guilty, even if some people are telling you that you are doing wrong. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Jul 1, 2019 at 7:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Chris Rogers I expanded that paragraph. What I'm saying is that the question what is good or bad is beyond psychology. I agree that the question if something is innate or learned can be a psychological question and I believe that the capability of feeling guilt is innate. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Jul 3, 2019 at 7:49
  • $\begingroup$ How do you reconcile the idea that capability of guilt is innate but you have situations found in conformity studies such as the Milgram Experiment, Ron Jones' Third Wave Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment? $\endgroup$ Jul 3, 2019 at 7:54
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisRogers, I'm not sure if I understand what are you saying - what are the situations you are referring to? $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Jul 3, 2019 at 7:55

There is no evidence that humans need religion to develop the concepts of morality and ethics. In contrast, there are endless examples of where religion is the primary cause of inhumanity and murder. The "however" in your question doesn't make sense. You posit that religion is necessary for morality but then move straight to an example of where religion shows the opposite. In addition to Dawkins, I suggest you read 'God is Not Great' by Christopher Hitchens and 'The End of Faith' by Sam Harris. Both make thorough, well-researched arguments against religion as a source of morality. Look for some YouTube videos of Hitchens, he also had a reputation as an excellent debater.

  • $\begingroup$ But you are assuming murder is bad. But that may be from your Christian-inspired upbringing. "Though shalt not kill". In some cultures murder is not bad. e.g. a Fatwah or Pagan Sacrifice. $\endgroup$
    – zooby
    Feb 17, 2020 at 6:35
  • $\begingroup$ e.g. also capital punishment. No, I'm not saying that murder is always 'bad' or that anything is 'bad'. I'm saying that humanity is perfectly capable of working out the rules for how a society can decide those things without getting religion involved. Also that there is a strong case to make that religion's net contribution ends up being negative. $\endgroup$
    – Kevin Ryan
    Feb 17, 2020 at 12:31

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