How Morality Differs from Law & Religion

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Moral Dilemma: Definition & Examples

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 Definition of Terms
  • 1:16 Enforcement
  • 2:06 Societal Norms
  • 2:55 Jurisdiction
  • 4:19 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will highlight the differences between morality, law, and religion. In doing so, it will focus on the law's inability to legislate morality, as well as morality's relationship to societal norms.

Definition of Terms

Today's lesson on the differences between morality, law, and religion won't contain any earth-shattering information. Quite the contrary, it'll contain common stuff that most of us just never stop to think about despite the fact that it governs most of our daily lives and actions. With this little teaser of sorts, on to the lesson.

For starters, morality is defined as beliefs pertaining to the differences between right and wrong or good and bad behavior. The rules of morality are not mandates or commands; they are beliefs. Laws, on the other hand, are the rules a country or community mandates its citizens follow in order to regulate society. Laws are not optional. They must be obeyed. Adding to the mix, religion is a structure of faith and worship. It's a belief system based on faith in a supernatural power.

Now, on paper, these terms seem rather cut and dry. However, their application is where things get a bit tricky. Also, these terms take on very different meanings depending on where you live. For instance, in a fundamentalist Islamic State, they are almost interchangeable. However, for the sake of time, we'll limit our discussion to what Western ideology has to say about morality, laws, and religion.


For starters, in a Western system of governance, the major difference between morality, law, and religion is that laws are enforced by the state. For instance, many religions believe that drunkenness is a sin. However, an alcoholic can sit quietly at home downing shot after shot to the point of unconsciousness, and the police have no business interfering.

Now, many would say what he's doing to his body and his family is immoral, but as the popular, albeit not completely valid mantra states, government can't legislate morality. The law must wait until our imbiber threatens public safety. Unless he destroys someone else's property, hurts someone, or gets behind the wheel of a car, he's free from prosecution under the law.

Societal Norms

Adding to our differences, morality and laws are usually linked to overarching societal rules. Religious convictions are based on the commands of a perceived higher power. For instance, in the U.S., it's completely normal for some people to eat bacon with breakfast. You won't get funny looks, and you won't get thrown in jail for liking fried pig. However, if you are an Orthodox Jew or a Muslim, pig is a big no-no. To eat it would be breaking faith.

As another example, Western law and mainstream Western morality sees no problem with a woman wearing make-up or showing her legs. However, the very conservative faith of the Amish would consider this scandalous. Unlike laws and typical ideas on morality, religious standards often exist outside mainstream societal norms.


Our last difference of the day has to do with jurisdiction or the official power to make decisions and judgments. Keeping things as simple as possible, sociologists argue that religion and morality have jurisdiction over a person's private life; the law does not. Revisiting our poor alcoholic, the law can't dictate what he does to himself. He can keep drinking until his liver gives up. However, the morality police can call him a drunk and exclude him from society's embrace.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account