Do I Need Religion to Know Right From Wrong?


Your web site has been really helpful but I have a question I would value any comments on. I go to Sutton Coldfield Girls’ School in Birmingham, UK and as part of a R.S. lesson there was a discussion with the title: Do you need religion to know the difference between right and wrong?”As a member and believer in Glebe Farm Baptist Church, I have my own ideas concerning this but I need to justify that I am not the only one who feels this way. Thank you in advance.


Before answering your question, I think we should look at what we mean by religion. What is religion? In its basic form, religion is any system of belief, practices, ethical values devoted to God or to powers believed to govern life.

Religion can help in understanding right and wrong only to the extent that it represents complete or accurate knowledge. For example, the ancient Aztec or Inca Indians on our Continent had elaborate religious beliefs, which to them epitomized all right and wrong, but those same beliefs included the rites of human sacrifice and the worship of spirits and demons. Certain religions today have been involved in mass suicide, or uprisings against the government. Such religions could not possibly be a “right” religion even though their members may uphold such behaviors.

To be effective in teaching what is right or wrong, a religion must promote the building of an upright character and restrain the lower instincts of one’s nature.

Human views of right and wrong vary widely. For example, the standard of ethics accepted by many young people today is called situation ethics, which says there are no absolutes. Whatever fits the situation is said to determine what is right. If telling a lie achieves the desired results, it is all right to lie. What is the control on human conduct? “If it hurts, then God does not require it,” says one. A little thought shows the folly of such a conclusion. Bad habits—especially if we enjoy them—are sometimes painful to break. Such a philosophy condemns discipline of any kind.

There is also the philosophy which says that our conscience is a reliable guide, whatever it tells us, that we instinctively know right from wrong by an inner intuition or feeling which is thought to be from God. But when we think about it, don’t training and environment play vital roles in our development? Suppose a child is taught that cows are sacred. There is an abundance of beef, but he will starve before he will eat it. This has been a very serious problem in India. The German people during the time of Adolph Hitler are another example. To many of that nation it was “right” that they should hate and destroy the Jews.

None of these ideas find any support in the Bible.

The next issue in this question is a clear definition of what is “right” and what is “wrong.” Shall we say that “right” is what is generally believed, what is accepted by our society, or what is accepted by our Creator? Were we to ask everyone in a community for a definition of right and wrong, we would likely get as many definitions as there are individuals in the community.

All of the above confirms a statement made by the prophet Jeremiah long ago, a statement inspired by God and recorded in the Bible. “I know, O Lord, that a man’s life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23 NIV).

The answer to your question is yes, we do need religion to know the difference between right and wrong. The only problem is that humans, by and large, do not want to be told what is right or wrong, especially if it conflicts with their own idea, or if it involves some type of self-denial or sacrifice.

We do need religion to know the difference between right and wrong, and a religion founded on the Bible is the only unchanging standard.

What the Bible teaches about right and wrong

If we define “right” as conduct which pleases God and promotes the physical and spiritual well being of others, let us turn to the Bible for some definitions of that standard. We find the following:

  • A kindly attitude toward others, whether family, friend, associate, or stranger. “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:31–32 NRSV).
  • Self-control and upright living. “[The grace or gospel of God] teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12 NIV).
  • A desire to follow good (godly) examples. “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God” (3 John 11 NIV).
  • Clean, moral behavior at all times. “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Rom. 13:13–14 NIV).
  • An attitude of peacemaking. “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14 NIV).
  • Growth in humility, gentleness, patience and love. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2 NIV). “…Do to others what you would have them do to you…” (Matt. 7:12 NIV). “Let love* and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart” (Prov. 3:3 NIV).
  • Encouraging goodness in others. “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24 NIV).
  • Loyalty and respect to one’s government. Jesus was asked this question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Mark 12:14 NIV). His answer was, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s…” (Mark 12:17 NRSV).
  • Obedience to the laws of one’s nation, as long as they do not contradict the laws of God. “Obey the government, for God is the one who put it there. All governments have been placed in power by God” (Rom. 13:1 NLT). But if authority contradicts the laws of God, then as Peter said, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29 NRSV). In the United States our Constitution guarantees freedom of worship to all, for which we are very thankful.
  • Wholesome, constructive thinking. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8 NIV).
  • Then there are “wrong” types or modes of conduct—some as natural as breathing—which we must restrain or remove from our lives:
  • Don’t complain or argue. “Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world” (Phil. 2:14–15 NRSV).
  • Don’t slander or backbite. “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors” (Ps. 15:1–3 NRSV).
  • Don’t be angry. “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:19–20 NRSV).
  • Don’t retaliate. “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else” (1 Thess. 5:15 NIV).
  • Don’t be covetous of what belongs to another. “Keep your lives free from the love of money…the love of money is the root of all evil…” (Heb. 13:5 NIV; 1 Tim 6:10 KJV). Nor should one unnecessarily go in debt, but rather “…be content with what you have…” (Heb. 13:5 NRSV). There are many people today that live far above their means. They go into debt to meet obligations. The Bible principle is: “Owe no man anything, but to love one another” (Rom. 13:8).
  • Avoid dissension and gossip. “A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends” (Prov. 16:28 NIV).
  • Avoid evil and deceitful speech. “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech” (1 Pet. 3:10 NIV).
  • Avoid deceit. “No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house; no one who speaks falsely will stand in my presence” (Ps. 101:7 NIV).

Why all the emphasis on upright character and virtue? Because Christ will soon return and establish a Kingdom that will never end. Only those whom He judges as doing right will be allowed to live in His Kingdom. Life in that Kingdom will be wonderful beyond anything we can imagine. For the first time in the history of the earth there will be universal peace, universal goodwill and universal health and justice. Every individual who lives in that world will benefit, for “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (Rev. 21:4 NRSV, 1 Cor. 2:9 NIV). What more could one hope for!

Yes, religion is the only way to know right from wrong. But that religion must have behind it the authority of God and His written Word, if it is to be of any more than temporary or social value. Such a religion will do more than just restrain improper conduct. It will discipline our thinking and create in us new desires and a new purpose in life—in short, a whole new nature.

*The word “love” has many shades and grades of meaning in the English language. We are interested in only one kind of love, the love that the Scriptures teach. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor. 13:4–7 NIV).