Lack of religion does not mean lack of morality

There’s a fairly vigorous thread going on in the discussion of the previous article, and I wanted to clarify some points that I am making about China. I appreciate that people have taken the time to read the article and give such thoughtful commentary, so hopefully I can do their comments justice, although it’s a bit like trying to talk to twelve points at once.

I think the basic objection that people have in the previous article is that they believe I am associating a lack of religion with a lack of morality. This is not the case. I myself am fairly atheist. I was born a Catholic but I haven’t really followed up with it (sorry, mom), finding that I had a lot of disagreements with the Catholic church and its history of hypocrisy. I am still a very spiritual person, however. Having been through the process of thinking about religion and considering it carefully, I was forced to think about morality, so to some extent the absence of religion in this case is as defining as the presence of religion. So no, I’m not saying that atheists are amoral. And I’m also not saying that the Chinese are atheist. An atheist states “there is no deity”; the attitude that I met in China is “what deity?”.

The point of starting with religion as a root of morality (not the root!) was to ground the discussion in a reference point that I am familiar with. However, I transitioned away from that in the article over a single sentence, a point that I did not expound greatly upon, and I will do now in this post. The sentence I refer to is this:

“I was talking to some of the locals who were familiar with both Chinese and Western cultures, and it seems that in the absence of religion, the moral code is primarily enforced by family: loyalty, family reputation (or disgrace), and social status.”

I believe that morality has its roots in many sources. Religion is a very American source for morality. However, the world is not America. Family and tradition are just as important in other cultures, a fact which I perhaps too glibly accepted in the previous article without exposition. I myself am Chinese, and I know many Chinese of no religious background who are very moral, upright individuals, so clearly one can be moral without religion. However, I was never forced to consider where the roots of such morality would come, if they were not exposed to the 10 commandments and nuns, like I was, at a young age.

Let’s take a step back. I think–perhaps wrongly–that morality is essentially the system of default assumptions that enables a large group of humans to co-exist. The power of defaults is amazing–how many people still use IE as their web browser? How many people still type QWERTY, despite it being a keyboard layout designed to slow down typing? The conflict of defaults is also very powerful; it is perhaps no small chance that the “vi versus emacs” debate is often termed a religious war (fwiw, I’m an emacs guy, and I use dvorak too. I suppose if I can reject Catholicism I can reject QWERTY, too), and there is vigorous debate over the default assumption of a marriage being a union between a man and a woman.

Now the question is, how is a default imposed upon an infant or an adult? In my opinion, moral defaults are imprinted through consistent exposure to societal rituals and judgements. Therefore, the most important source of moral imprinting is your family, because you spend the most time with them growing up. The customs and traditions of your family influence your views of the world. A first generation Chinese American myself, I was exposed to the strength of the family unit. Cultures tend to make unique names for things important to them; the Chinese have an extentsive naming system for extended family relationships. I call my parent’s friends, who have no blood relationship to me, Auntie or Uncle, as a sign of respect and trust. Confucianism adds a layer of almost “religious” cohesion on top of this basic foundation, with its emphasis on relationships, filial piety, and humaneness: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you”–parallel to the Christian saying “Do onto others as you would have done on yourself”. At Chinese New Years, I bow to my parents, and I also bow to the graves of ancestors, and we have shrines to our ancestors. Therefore, one could say that the Chinese have a deity-free religion of ancestry and tradition. Or you could say they have no religion, but they have their moral code enforced by a strong sense of family and family ethics. For the specific case of sleeping around, sleeping around is bad for a tight-knit family culture, since it leads to accidental pregnancies that can greatly upset the balance of power in families, especially when land titles and estates were merged and undone by family relationships. Thus, I’m going out on a limb, but it appears logical that many traditional Chinese would have a very straight moral ethic when it comes to sexual relationships.

The important point is that family exposure is constant and imprinting, thereby creating defaults. Parallel to this, religion also imprints through constant exposure and teaching. Christians go to church every weekend; Muslims pray several times a day. Regular study of the Bible, Koran, or Torah causes us to change our thought patterns. These books are filled with parables that are meant to imprint a certain pattern of thought, and our religious advisors help us interpret and understand these challenging and extensive texts. Of course, families are also important in these cultures. However, the key difference between religion versus family is that a religion is formally codified and therefore a child estranged of family can find guidance in the church, mosque or synagogue (for better or for worse…).

Coming full circle, my point in the article is that the modern China has interfered with several of the classic mechanisms used to imprint ethics and manners: religion, tradition, and scholarship were done away with in the Cultural Revolution, leaving nothing but family and the rule of law. The rule of law is indeed strict, but even in China it does not have an all-seeing eye, and the favor of law can be bought anyways. The most important pillar – family – was attacked by the one child per family policy, thinning the ranks of extended family and causing many children to become spoiled. The coup de grace is the mass emigration of young people from the country into the city, where they leave their family behind. Here, with no familial supervision, and no traditional teaching, texts, or religion to refer to, they float in a moral vacuum. Again, this doesn’t mean they are amoral, it just means they have no defaults to rely upon, and they must create a version of morality for themselves, de novo. Perhaps a friendlier term for “moral vacuum” could be “innocence”–innocence has a connotation closer to what I am getting at.

Therefore, I should restate an opinion in the article to more accurately reflect these conclusions: I said that perhaps American morality is 5% inherent, 15% fear of law, and 80% customs and traditions (not necessarily religious, but it does include religion). Perhaps I should have made the Chinese comparison as follows: 5% inherent, 40% fear of law, 10% customs and traditions, and 45% innocence. Innocence, like a vacuum, is neither good nor evil, and it tends to be filled with other things, and these young people were filling it in the philosophy of “to become rich is glorious”.

And that was the truly shocking point about the women in the Hard Rock Cafe in Beijing. They did not believe they were prostitutes, no more than the women in American bars who come up to you, chest forward, asking you to buy them a drink (and nothing more), believe they are. [Note that no where in the previous sentence did I declare anyone a prostitute; the sentence is left deliberately vague to accomodate your world view]. It is simply a matter of scale along the same vector. Consider, however, that some would be upset upon learning that their significant other uses their sexuality in bars to score drinks from strangers. Now, remember that many, if not most, people would not use their sexuality to go up to a stranger and ask them to pay for their drinks–just as most Chinese women would never offer sex for money. I am not casting broad judgement upon Chinese society from this limited experience: it is clearly a corner case. However, as every engineer knows, the corner cases are the most interesting and informative cases. Therefore, in my previous article I contemplate (perhaps incorrectly) what could have lead to this, and what the implications could be for an up and coming generation that will play a major role in defining the world we live in.

As a final point, I extend the concept of a “moral vacuum”–remember, neither good nor evil, but it needs to be filled, so perhaps a better phrasing is “moral innocence”–to the realm of MMORPGs. An MMORPG is a society like any other, yet no Biblical text tells you how to live in one (unless you consider Snowcrash to be Biblical), and certainly my parents have no notion of what an MMORPG is. There is also virtually no rule of law in an MMORPG, and the cost of doing something “bad” in an MMORPG is currently almost nothing. Therefore, the observation that overt commercial sexuality is rampant in some MMORPGs shines a new light on the adage “prostitution is the oldest profession” for me.

The contemplation of morality and MMORPGs is a new thread, however, probably best saved for another post on another day.

22 Responses to “Lack of religion does not mean lack of morality”

  1. […] « Site Down Lack of religion does not mean lack of morality » […]

  2. John,Perish says:

    yes, i agree with you bunnie: to some extent, religion is the root of morality.

    morality has to have its root. for thousands of years, the teaching of confucious had been the root chinese morality, then it was communism, now what??? yes, the gov is still promoting its “developed” communism, but who’s gonna buy it since the gov itself doesn’t believe it according to its behavior? maybe…conscience? but i don’t think people are born with conscience. we gotta be well educated what is good and struggle to conquer the innate evil inside us(without being taught about consciece, it’s even impossible to define “good” and “evil:”).
    talking about morality(like recently, some online guys/gals are arguing if it is mortal to have sex with several people), we ask and are asked: 1 what is morality? 2 what kind of behavior is mortal? 3 by whom mortality is defied? 4 why should we follow his/her definition of mortality but not mine? 5 why should i be mortal(so long as i do legal).

    i’m not saying there’s no morality in china at all. after all, the remains of the influence of confucious is still out there(say, most chinese men are not happy to marry a non-virgin girls, many of which even say they’ll sure to have affairs as a revenge). but how much does it leave and how long will it last? moreover, money is becoming or has become the center of the life of chinese people. will it become the root of the morality? someone has already begun to claim that it’s the era in which the poverty are laughed at whereas the prostituts are not.

  3. Think About It says:

    Prostitution exists because of economic in-equality, not because there is some kind of ‘moral-vacuum’. Take the Philippines as an example: 90% of citizens are Christian, 81% of whom are Catholic. Yet there is by no means a shortage of people willing to become prostitutes or dance naked at their infamous ‘girly-bars’.

    The trait that China and the Philippines have in common is not a lack of morality, rather, it is the presence of people (foreign and local businessmen) who have lots of money amongst a population that does not.

    When a person in this economic situation realizes they can make more in one night than they can by working at a demeaning and repetitive factory job for a month, I’m not sure why you are surprised that some choose to do so.

    After all, the factory workers are selling their time and bodies for their work as well. They just get payed less to do so.

  4. Think About It says:


    “And that was the truly shocking point about the women in the Hard Rock Cafe in Beijing. They did not believe they were prostitutes…”

    I think you fell for it. Of course the girls are going to act like it is not a big deal!

    Think about it: it is all part of the fantasy they are selling. What ‘patron’ would want to be reminded that the pretty girl in front of them doesn’t really want to have sex with them? Or be reminded that the girl is simply doing this because they need money? That’s just bad for business.

    They know who they are and what they are doing.

  5. nex says:

    “that’s a terribly constructed setence, yuck!”

    The next time you have this thought, don’t expend words on lamentation, but improve the terrible sentence, please. This should take less time than the time collectively lost by, say, 1000 readers spending, on average, 15 seconds figurung out what the heck you’re trying to say. Assuming that your time is more important than that of your readers is morally wrong ;->

  6. Angela says:

    b…I was with you for most of it…

    I was born a Methodist, but my parents and I didn’t follow up either. My moral imprint came mainly from my parents and then from my extended family, including my Chinese “Aunties” and “Uncles”.

    The part that made me cringe was when you equated “only child” with “spoiled”. Then you continued to say that when young adults move away from their parents and into urban environments they “float in a moral vacuum” from which they need to reconstruct their moral imprint “de novo”.

    Well, I am an only child. I had many advantages but don’t believe I was “spoiled”, although many people seem to still hold that automatic, “default” view of me. I am very grateful for my life and use my skills and “advantaged status” to help others through service to the community. I, like many young adults the world over, moved away from my parents at 18. I didn’t enter a “moral vacuum”. My deeply ingrained sense of morality came with me and helped me to choose relationships with people that had similar values and standards.

    As for the prostitutes…I’m sure each has an individual story to tell. Perhaps some may have been rejected emotionally by their families for being female. The existence of “dying rooms” in Chinese orphanages filled with little girls tears my heart out. Some may have financial motivations beyond getting rich, perhaps to get enough money to support an ill parent. There are many reasons for a person to choose prostitution. While I don’t believe prostitution is “moral”, the reasons for it can be, in some cases.

    Why don’t we get back to making Chumbys… :)

  7. skooter says:

    YAY! \o/
    This has turned into a ‘reality cracking’ essay for fravia.

  8. […] Lack of religion does not mean lack of morality bunnie’s discussion of building Chumbys in China draws him into a much bigger debate. […]

  9. Caliboy says:

    You really misinterpreted what you saw at the Hard Rock Cafe in Beijing. Their are pimps crawling all over that place and in its vicinity. (The Hard Rock is located next to the Great Wall Sheraton, one of the first 5-star hotels in Beijing, and thus an old center of foreigner-targeted prostitution.

    I’m guessing the local franchisee of the Hard Rock gets a cut of the action. You’re not going to see women approaching you at a regular Chinese restauraunt. What goes on at the Hard Rock is not really representative of Chinese attitudes about sex.

  10. Gregoire says:

    What seems clear is that you don’t like women in general. “They did not believe they were prostitutes, no more than the women in American bars who come up to you, chest forward, asking you to buy them a drink, believe they are.” That’s as close as you can get to saying that all women are whores–and don’t even know it–as you can get short of saying just that. No wonder then, you are fascinated by what you witnessed at the Hard Rock Cafe.

    As always, when foreigners witness the prostitution THEY bring about, they equate it with poor morals amongst the local woman. That is really sick and deluded. (Let me remind you one more time you can find whores in Dubai, Sao Paulo, Libreville, and Bangkok which covers a lot of very religious places but that’s not my point.) I live in Thailand, and here too, the men who have just gotten here go on and on about how prostitution is somehow different here, somehow not something thrust upon the women, somehow made OK by local culture. And they turn into weekend anthropologists to devise the theories that back this nonsense up. Well, anthropolgists don’t make assertions based on what they witness from their bar stool. They dig a lit deeper. The truth is, the white men who speak of Asian bar girls know nothing of these girls. They don’t speak their language, they don’t know their background, they don’t know their culture, at all. They’ve only seen bars made for foreigners and for satisfying their appetites and they think they can expand on local culture based on this world that was created for them and to satisfy them. They are in a world of corruption that they have brought about; and they have the nerve to equate this corruption with some kind of local character when they should be equating it with their character. Think about it, where did you see these girls? In a Chinese temple? Or was it in an American bar packed with white men–the Hard Rock Cafe. A better place to observe the absence of morality and corruption brought out by Western men than one to observe the morality of Chinese women, I would say.

    I hadn’t replied to your first post because I see too many people like you to bother trying to enlighten them all. They usuallly don’t want to be enlightened anyway. They are too turned on by the idea of women willingfully throwing themselves at men for the price of a meal (or that of a drink in the case of American woman, according to you). But as you post once again the same twisted ideas and seem to have quite a readership, I had to speak up for those women.

  11. Angela says:

    Let me chip in here…bunnie is in no way a misogynist and has always treated me with a great deal of respect. He seeks and values my female perspective on issues related to chumby.

    I have picked on one tiny poorly expressed piece of the overall message and disagreed with it. I know bunnie doesn’t really see things this way or I wouldn’t be his friend.

    However, I still appreciate the main point that bunnie is trying to express here. He is concerned that social changes in China going back over several decades have eroded social cohesion. He merely wanted to express this concern and describe several recent examples that illustrate his point. Hopefully, more people will recognise that his concern is real and may have a global impact in the foreseeable future. Me…I don’t know…I’m not a sociologist…so I will shut up now…maybe bunnie might too *grin*

  12. bunnie says:

    I’m learning that the problem of discussing unusual cases when you don’t regularly discuss the usual cases is that many assume that the tip of the iceberg is the same as the whole.

    Thank you, Angela, for defending me, I appreciate it. I believe all people should be treated with respect. I have many female and male friends whom I admire for their intelligence, personality, and moral courage. I also met many women and men in China who were hard working, genuinely nice and were good honest people, including the dozens of ladies I met in the factories–workers, sales representatives and engineers alike. Regrettably, I did not devote a proportionate amount of time discussing their virtues.

    My discussion instead zoomed in and focused on a single social event, one which I do not fully understand, and the issues are complex and not easily generalized. I think of it as someone taking a micrograph of a zit and discussing it and its implications on skin care; during the discussion of the zit, one does not discuss a billion times over the qualities of good, clean pores, nor does one imply that everyone is covered with zits. However, by studying the zit, one may learn how to treat it and prevent further infection, and perhaps elucidate otherwise unrecognized features and functions of healthy pores in the process.

    My posts are not written with relish of the subject of prostitution, and I desire not to pass judgement on any moral standard or system of ethics. Rather, I write my posts with concern and an earnest desire to discuss and understand social behaviors that could, or could not, be leading indicators of the future. Men also exhibit pathological behavior, showing off their bodies, power, or wealth to try and capture a sexual event. Also, problems occur in every society, and it always takes two to tango–indeed, the men and foreigners are probably more at fault in these cases. And odd behavior happens everywhere, in every country and in every culture. My hope in discussing these unusual cases is to understand how things break, in order to better understand how things work as a whole. It’s a typical hacker approach to looking at a system, and perhaps it is not a very friendly or sensitive approach, as I seem to have managed to offend countless people.

    Again, I apologize for making people upset, and I’m learning that I should probably stick to discussing electronics and avoid any wandering social commentary/speculation in the future…the purpose of this blog is hacking, which of course has a strong moral and ethical component to it, and when appropriate I will focus on and discuss those issues.

    Finally, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I am sad that I have not expressed myself sufficiently clearly to be understood, but I fear that I could spend the next two weeks trying to explain my position and get nowhere. All I ask is that people try to withold judgement of me until they meet me in person, and have a real-time conversation with me where we can easily and rapidly clarify our points of view and share our experiences. Blogs are a one-sided conversation and therefore a very poor forum for fair discussion. If you are truly motivated to talk about it with me, send me an email and perhaps we can arrange a discussion over phone, IM or in person–or we can even just trade emails if that’s more comfortable for you. There is a link in the upper right hand corner of this blog’s home page with my contact information.

    Thanks for expressing your opinions!

  13. Vegas Vic says:

    re: Bunnie

    It’s only by talking to eachother that we understand eachother! :)

    It’s been my experience that the people who yell the loudest have the least understanding. Why should you let them dictate what you can and can’t talk about?

    I was very interested in your post and how it compared to my own experiences and I’d bet that most other readers were too but just didn’t post anything.

    PS – thanks for opening up the xbox, I use one to run XBMC

  14. Anon Cow Herd says:

    “Again, I apologize for making people upset, and I’m learning that I should probably stick to discussing electronics…”

    That’d be a shame. Like many who’ve posted comments, I disagree with the cultural value judgments you’ve scattered throughout your last two posts (“sexual commerce == teh evil”, etc.), but I can still respect the thought process that prompted them and the person who posted them.

    This is *your* blog, and if someone wants to condemn you for a (real or imagined) point of view you’ve expressed, that’s entirely their own problem. Please keep up the thoughtful commentary on whatever subjects seem appropriate. There were quite a few interesting insights about Chinese economic, industrial, and cultural trends in your posts that I haven’t seen anywhere else.

  15. bean says:

    Trust me, if this blog had *merely* stuck to being about electronics, I wouldn’t have enjoyed reading it much. The socio-economic insights, sprinkled with thoughts on gender-issues, inequalities & morality, made it FAR more interesting.

  16. China Blogs Influence Foreign Media…

    The always superb Rconversation blog just did a fascinating post on the influence of China blogs on foreign media (h/t to GZ Expat and to Asia Pundit), entitled, Blogs and China correspondence – survey results. Rconversation is written by Rebecca…

  17. j l says:

    j l…

    shit-happens 3947439 Master information for j l….

  18. hanmeng says:

    “First, the claim that Dvorak is a better keyboard is supported only by evidence that is both scant and suspect. Second, studies in the ergonomics literature find no significant advantage for Dvorak that can be deemed scientifically reliable. Third, the competition among producers of typewriters, out of which the standard emerged, was far more vigorous than is commonly reported.”

  19. Atonunrenny says:

    The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time.


  20. In reality, no single religion could guarantee us a place in Heaven. In the end, what matters is how we a treat other people.`-;

  21. AirShowFan says:

    As an atheist, I was quite outraged by your comments in the previous post. But now that I read this post, I see that the point you were trying to make is reasonable.

    Maybe the best way to explain this is by splitting it into two distinct questions (since I don’t think that you, or many vocal atheists for that matter, appreciate the distinction): One: What is the best way to formulate an optimally good set of moral rules? (And you can argue about what that means, but most reasonable people will agree that it has to do with a society that is just, happy, and prosperous). Two: What is the best way to lead people to internalize a set of good moral rules?

    You’re talking about religion (and the rule of law, and relatives who judge and who set examples) as a mechanism for the SECOND question, for making people want to be moral. But when you say that religion is a foundation of morality or that without religion there is no morality, you sound like the people who strongly believe that religion is the only answer to the FIRST question, of formulating good moral rules.

    I’ll admit that while religion is a significantly faulty way of coming up with moral rules, it is indeed an effective way to make people want to follow them! So are relatives who set example, who judge, who punish, and who reward, during our most impressionable years. And, to a lesser extent, so are laws and their enforcement. We all (except psychopaths) want to do what’s right, to not hurt people, and it’s interesting how our brains form these gut reflexes about what hurts people and what doesn’t.

    It’s interesting to think how these different factors play different roles in shaping the personal moralities of people in different cultures (“I better not do this, the Bible tells me not to” and “… my mother would be disappointed if she knew” and “… I might go to jail” and “… it would hurt people unfairly”) by which I mean not just the beliefs about what’s wrong, but the motivation to not do the wrong thing.

    And keep up the great work.

    (And sorry I’m late to the party, I just came to this blog from a BoingBoing comment months after you posted this. But I did briefly meet you when you talked at USC about 4 years ago, for Cory Doctorow’s course, about your experiences hacking the X-Box).

  22. it does not matter what religion you have, just do good things on this world:`,