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Thomas G. Plante Ph.D., ABPP

Do We Need Religion to Be Ethical?

While not essential, religion potentially helps people be and stay good.

Do we need religion to be ethical or to be good? Most people (including moral philosophers) would say no ... yet it can be helpful. Obviously, people can certainly maintain ethical perspectives and subscribe to ethical principles and behavior without engagement in religious or spiritual beliefs, institutions, or practices. However, there are very few secular forums that can offer the guidance, fellowship, support, models, organizational structure, and engagement that the religious institutions can offer.

Religious organizations have a wide variety of comprehensive services, programming, groups, lectures, readings, models, and so forth that can regularly impart, support, and provide corrective feedback about ethical principles and guidelines to their members. The secular community just doesn't seem to have the organizational structure to do so. There are some exceptions of course. For example, the Boy Scouts are technically a secular organization not affiliated with one particular religious tradition. They offer a clear set of ethical principles that tend to use a virtue approach to ethics (e.g., Scouts are loyal, courteous, kind, thrifty, reverent, ...). Perhaps self-help groups based on the Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) model does the same. While not affiliated with any particular religious tradition, the 12 steps of AA are spiritually focused with numerous references to God and His will. AA offers ethical principles that highlight virtues such as honesty, integrity, and responsibility. So, it appears that one doesn't have to be religious or spiritual to be ethical but it might help having the organizational structure that religion offers to encourage and reinforce ethical principles and behavior.

Religious engagement and practices encourage and support "clean living." Research has consistently found that religious people are less likely to engage in criminal behavior, marital infidelity, alcoholism, unprotected sexual activity as well as being more likely to engage in pro-social behaviors such as volunteerism and charity. Thus, those who tend to report being spiritual, religious, or both tend to behave themselves pretty well. In a nutshell, people in the church choir usually don't rob banks. Check out Harold Koenig's Handbook of Religion and Health as well as his Handbook of Religion and Mental Health for excellent reviews if interested in the scholarly support for this.

Religion and spirituality encourages ethical behavior in their sacred scripture readings, in their models or exemplars for behavior (not only well known religious figures such as saints and founding members of religious traditions but also among religious elders, pastors, teachers, and congregants).

My point really is that overall, research supports the view that spiritual and religious practices (e.g., meditation, church-sponsored social justice ministries, religious service attendance) have certain physical, mental, community health, and ethical benefits.

Of course there are many examples of religious beliefs and practices being terribly harmful to self and others and of course there are many examples of outstanding non religious and completely secular organizations and individuals who are outstanding models for ethical behavior, community engagement, and physical and mental health. So, there are exception to these general principles for sure but the overall trend suggests that religion does assist and support people in living more ethically.

So, to answer the question, "do we need religion to be ethical?" The answer appears to be no but it could be helpful under the right circumstances.

What do you think?

A postscript...

Some comments on this post and elsewhere have asked for research evidence. I've listed some of this peer-reviewed material in the references section. The review articles and books might be the best place to start if you have limited time. Otherwise, consider doing a PubMed, PsycInfo, or Google Scholar search as well.


Bormann, J. E., Gifford, A. L., Shively, M., Smith, T. L., Redwine, L., Kelly, A., Becker, S., Gershwin, M., Bone, P., and Belding, W. (2006). Effects of spiritual mantram repetition on HIV outcomes: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 29, 359-376.

Hackney, C. H., & Sanders, G. S. (2003). Religiosity and mental health: A meta-analysis of recent studies. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 42, 43-55.

Hill, T. D., Ellison, C. G., Burdette, A. M., & Musick, M. A. (2007). Religious involvement in a healthy lifestyles: Evidence from the survey of Texas adults. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 34, 217-222.

Kendler, K. S., Gardner, C. O., & Prescott, C. A. (1996). Religion, psychopathology, and substance use and abuse: A multi-measure, genetic-epidemiologic study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 154, 322-329.

Koenig, H. G., McCullough, M. E., & Larson, D. B. (2001). Handbook of religion and health. New York: Oxford.

Leigh, J., Bowen, S., & Marlatt, G. A. (2005). Spirituality, mindfulness, and substance abuse. Addictive behavior, 30, 1335-1341.

Marks, L. (2005). Religion and bio-psycho-social health: A review of and conceptual model. Journal of Religion and Health, 44, 173-186.

Marsden, P., Karagianni, E., & Morgan, J.F. (2007). Spirituality and clinical care in eating disorders: A qualitative study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 40, 7-12.

Masters, K.S., Spielmans, G. I., & Goodson, J. T. (2006). Are there demonstrable effects of distant intercessory prayer? A meta-analytic review. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 32, 337-342.

McClain, C., Rosenfeld, B., & Breitbart, W. (2003). Effect of spiritual well-being on end-of-life despair in terminally ill cancer patients. The Lancet, 361, 1603-1607.

McCullough, M. E., Hoyt, W. T., Larson, D. B., Koenig, H. G., & Thoresen, C. E. (2000). Religious involvement and mortality: A meta-analytic review. Health Psychology 19, 211-221.

Michalak, L., Trocki, K., & Bond, J. (2007). Religion and alcohol in the U.S. national Alcohol Survey: How important is religion for abstention and drinking? Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 87, 268-280.

Miller, L., Warner, V., Wickramaratne, P., & Weissman, M. (1997). Religiosity and depression: Ten-year follow-up of depressed mothers and offspring. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 36, 1416-1425.

Oman, D., Shapiro, S. L., Thoresen, C. E., Plante, T. G., & Flinders, T. (2008). Meditation lowers stress and supports forgiveness among college students: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of American College Health, 56, 569-578.

Pardini, D., Plante, T. G., Sherman, A., & Stump, J. E. (2000). Religious faith and spirituality in substance abuse recovery: Determining the mental health benefits. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 19, 347-354.

Plante, T. G., & Sherman, A. S. (Eds.) (2001). Faith and health: Psychological perspectives. New York: Guilford.

Plante, T. G., & Thoresen, C. E. (Eds.) (2007). Spirit, science and health: How the spiritual mind fuels physical wellness. Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood.

Powell, L., Shahabi, L. & Thoresen, C. E. (2003). Religion and spirituality: Linkages to physical health. American Psychologist, 58, 36-52.

Seeman, T. E., Dubin, L. F., & Seeman, M. (2003). Religiosity/spirituality and health: A critical review of the evidence for biological pathways. American Psychologist, 58, 53-63.

Shreve-Neiger, A. K., & Edelstein, B. A. (2004). Religion and anxiety: A critical review of the literature. Clinical Psychology Review, 24, 379-397.

Siegrist, M. (1996). Church attendance, denomination, and suicide ideology. Journal of Social Psychology, 136, 559-566.

Stewart, C. (2001). The influence of spirituality on substance abuse of college students. Journal of Drug Education, 31, 343-51.

Worthington, E. L., Kurusu, T. A., McCullough, M. E., & Sandage, S. J. (1996). Empirical research on religion and psychotherapeutic processes and outcomes: A ten-year review and research prospectus. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 448-487.