Portrait of Adam Smith

Adam Smith on Religion and the Rules of Morality

Found in: The Theory of Moral Sentiments and on the Origins of Languages (Stewart ed.)

The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) was the author of two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776).

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith discusses the development of moral rules. In Smith’s account, moral rules result from a “habitual reverence” (III.5.2), a deep feeling of respect learned and strengthened over time by seeing and feeling the socially appropriate moral reactions to behaviour and misbehaviour in a given society.


These natural hopes, and fears, and suspicions, were propagated by sympathy, and confirmed by education; and the gods were universally represented and believed to be the rewarders of humanity and mercy, and the avengers of perfidy and injustice. And thus religion, even in its rudest form, gave a sanction to the rules of morality, long before the age of artificial reasoning and philosophy. That the terrors of religion should thus enforce the natural sense of duty, was of too much importance to the happiness of mankind, for nature to leave it dependent upon the slowness and uncertainty of philosophical researches. (FROM: Chap. V.—: Of the Influence and Authority of the general Rules of Morality, and that they are justly regarded as the Laws of the Deity) - Adam Smith