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Atheism, morality

Good Without God?

This is a cut-and-paste version of an ad created by a secular student organization.  The frame with Pat Robertson is an unauthorized addition.  (Here’s the original.)  This version doesn’t reflect the intent of the creator, but it still has an important point to make.  (Look here to see that the creator agrees with me.)

One of the staunchest claims of theists has always been that religion helps people be more moral.  But more and more, we’re coming to doubt the truth of that statement.  In the recent debate, famed statesman, orator, and debater Tony Blair was at a stuttering impasse when he himself could not come up with an instance of religion promoting a peace process.  Here are the relevant exerpts:

Blair: [L]et me give you one from the Northern Ireland peace process, where people from Protestant and Catholic churches got together and the religious leaders tried to bring about a situation where people reached out across the faith divide…

Hitchens:  [I]t’s very touching for Tony to say that he recently went to a meeting that bridged a religious divide in Northern Ireland; where does the religious divide come from? 400 years and more, in my own country of birth, of people killing each others’ children, depending on what kind of Christian they were, and sending each others’ children in rhetoric to hell, and making Northern Ireland the place, the most remarkable in Northern Europe for unemployment, for ignorance, for poverty and for, I would say, stupidity too. And for them now to say, maybe we might consider bridging this gap; well, I should bloody well think so.  (Emphasis mine.  –HD)

I don’t want to be accused of resorting to anecdote.  And it’s not my intention to try to prove or even suggest that the Northern Irish conflict is solely a religious one, or that it would not exist to some degree or another without religion.  However, I want to talk about the “moral argument” and think about what theists are up against trying to prove that they’re better than us.

Many People ARE Good Without God

This is an undeniable fact.  Entire nations are populated with non-theists, and at worst, we can say that many of them are at least as good as highly religious nations.  We can find examples all over the world of non-believers behaving generously and benevolently to their neighbors, even when they don’t deserve it.  Atheists have started numerous charities.  They are under-represented in jails.

We know all these things.  Even most religious leaders are quick to admit that atheists can be good people.  Can they really suggest otherwise without being labeled barking mad?

Many People Are Very Bad With God.

Again, this point is undeniable.  It hardly needs any explanation.  Simply pointing to the juxtaposition of Bill Gates and Pat Robertson should be enough.  If Pat was a better person, he would act more like Bill.  Simple.  (No, theist readers, I’m not claiming that Bill Gates is a perfect person.  Only theists would suggest such an absurdity about anyone.)

What’s The Difference?

So this leaves us with a glaring question.  On the surface, it seems that the most we can claim is that with or without religion, some people are good and some are bad.  However, if it’s true that religion helps people to be more moral than they would otherwise be, we need a mechanism.  What is it in religion that promotes morality?  Is there one thing common to all religions that can be demonstrated to promote better behavior? I honestly can’t think of one, and I’d love to hear suggestions.  Here are the answers I’ve heard so far:

  • Heaven and Hell.  God will reward people who do good, and punish those who do wicked.  Therefore, people who believe in god will behave better than those who don’t.  So goes the claim.  The problem is twofold.  First, it runs contrary to the evidence.  Among the most uncivilized countries in the world, a majority are Christian or Muslim.   Second, it presents theists as self-interested — not especially altruistic.  A non-theist is doing good out of a desire to do good, but if a theist is ever more moral than a non-theist, he is doing so under duress, which isn’t more moral, is it?  We admire people who do good for the right reasons more than those who do it for their own gain.  So theists would actually be less moral even though they were still doing good things.
  • Faith.  This was Tony Blair’s big soapbox.  Faith (when it’s not perverted) is the glue that binds all religions together and makes them a collective force for good, even though they’re sometimes a force for evil.  But Mr. Blair has fallen victim to a gross generalization.  And he hasn’t defined his terms.  Faith in what?  Some theists have faith in reincarnation.  Some have faith that they’ll get lots of virgins if they blow themselves up and kill dissidents.
  • Belief in something higher.  Higher purpose, higher meaning, higher goals.  These are common catch-phrases of theists, but we’re in the same pickle as we were with faith.  Higher than what?  What could possibly be better for humans than ending hunger, poverty, and disease? Or, more generally, what can we do for our fellow man that is better than improving his condition?  Some religions would say that saving his eternal soul is more important, but doesn’t that make them less moral?  After all, they’re saying it’s not as important to do good works as it is to believe the right thing about what happens after we die.  Maybe that’s Pat Robertson’s problem.  It would be wasted time to give up his diamond mines and donate his money to charity.  After all, that kind of thing doesn’t win souls.  Right?

Again, let me say this as loudly and clearly as possible:  I am not suggesting that non-belief makes people better.  I’m saying I can’t find anything in religion that makes people better, either.  And I can point to several things in religion that make people worse.  So what’s the deal?  Is there anything I’m missing here?  Is there any belief in religion that cannot be held by non-theists that also clearly and unequivocally promotes better behavior?

 

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Discussion

10 thoughts on “Good Without God?

  1. Couple of things I would like to point out:

    1] Nobody is truly altruristic. Theists and non-theists are good for the same reason: It makes them look good.

    2]

    I am not suggesting that non-belief makes people better. I’m saying I can’t find anything in religion that makes people better, either. And I can point to several things in religion that make people worse.

    Actually, if you claim that religion makes people worse, you ARE suggesting that non-belief makes people better.

    3] I would like to point out that you are half way there. The reason you can’t think of anything unique to religion that promotes good, is because there isn’t anything unique in religion that promotes good.

    The reason for that is that there is nothing unique in religion at all. The reward/punishment system, the reliance on faith and the belief in something higher can all be found sans religion [unless you define religion as one of those things]

    Posted by cptpineapple | January 4, 2011, 3:55 am
  2. 1] Nobody is truly altruristic. Theists and non-theists are good for the same reason: It makes them look good.

    Partly. People are also good because it makes them feel good. And that’s the most important reason. And it’s why there are anonymous donors and silent samaritans, and things like that. And that’s why what I suspect is the spirit behind your observation is wrong. (It really would be simpler for me if you made your points instead of alluding to them.)

    To say that altruism is selfish because it creates good feelings is stretching the point to the absurd. Yes, it’s true that nobody really does anything that has absolutely zero return for them, and in that sense, mathematical altruism doesn’t exist. But humans often feel good about altruistic acts that have far less return for them than the investment. Including acts where they get zero face time with anyone who will pat them on the back or admire them.

    Actually, if you claim that religion makes people worse, you ARE suggesting that non-belief makes people better.

    It’s where you set the zero mark, Alison. Nonbelief = 0. Religious belief = -5. Nonbelief + Humanism = +5. This is an illustration of the point I’m making.

    The reason you can’t think of anything unique to religion that promotes good, is because there isn’t anything unique in religion that promotes good.

    Ok… sounds like I hit it on the head, since that’s exactly what I suggested.

    The reason for that is that there is nothing unique in religion at all. The reward/punishment system, the reliance on faith and the belief in something higher can all be found sans religion [unless you define religion as one of those things]

    What a great way to start off the new Year, Alison. Let me do this in giant all cap bold since it’s the thousandth time.

    IT’S NOT THAT IT’S RELIGION. IT’S THAT IT CLAIMS TO HAVE IMMUNITY FROM FACT-CHECKING, AND MUST BE BELIEVED PRIMA FACIE. WHICH IS WHY I ALWAYS INCLUDE THE OTHER FAITH BASED SYSTEMS, LIKE STALINISM, MARXISM, MAOISM, AND ALL THE OTHER NON-RELIGIOUS BELIEF SYSTEMS WHICH SHARE THE QUALITY OF “FAITH BASED” AS OPPOSED TO “FACT BASED.”

    Are you dense? Why do you make me say the same thing every time? Stop it!

    Posted by hambydammit | January 4, 2011, 2:22 pm
  3. some more things:

    1] Why are you yelling at me for saying faith isn’t unique to religion while yelling that faith isn’t unique to religion? Quit menstruating

    The reason I said there isn’t anything unique about religion is because there isn’t.

    2] excuse for assuming that

    And I can point to several things in religion that make people worse.

    means religion makes people worse.

    3] As I’ve repeatitly pointed out, your justification of “it’s obvious” have immunity from fact checking.

    4] you seem to have an annoying tendecy to interchange terms.

    You claim that you don’t think religion is the source of all ills, yet everytime there’s an ill you point to religion, and when called upon you resort to saying that it’s not religion it’s faith based belief, but then call everything faith based a religion. That gets very confusing.

    So I think somebody needs to come up with a coherent definition of religion and stick with it. Pick one of your 200 definitions of religion and stick to that. Then we can argue whether that definition is valid, and THEN we can start talking on the same page when it comes to religion and social ills.

    That’s the reason we talk past each other all the time, it’s either because of your oscillating definitions of religion or maybe you do have a single definition of religion and just oscillate how you explain it or I oscillate how I read it or……

    Something’s oscillating here and not in the good way.

    Posted by cptpineapple | January 5, 2011, 12:50 am
  4. Wow, I am a bitch.

    hamby, what I’m trying to say is that it is EXTREMELY frustrating:

    1] That you claim religion isn’t the root of all evil, but then try to link all evil to religion

    2] Your aforementioned seemingly inconsitent definition of religion

    3] Your insistance of “it’s obvious” and “the evidence is all around you” as an acceptable proof

    4] My sudden tendency to make lists.

    Posted by cptpineapple | January 5, 2011, 3:34 am
  5. 1] I’ve never found where anyone said religion is the root of all evil. Simply that it is used to justify a lot of evil that has no other justification provided (i.e. people use religion to claim righteousness when doing demonstrably evil deeds).

    2] religion = faith based “reasoning” in any organized way, used to justify any actions.

    3] It is obvious that people use religion to justify things. Some of those things are evil. Thus it is obvious that religion is used to justify evil (not imply all evil or all religion in any way).

    4] This list stuff is hilarious.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | January 5, 2011, 10:35 am
  6. Alex, that was my point, I didn’t say that Hamby thinks religion is the root of all evil, rather he seems to put the blame on religion pretty much everytime

    As for the definition of religion, that seems to incorporate all irrationality as a religion, 9/11 NWO conspiricaies for example or Marxist groups.

    It seems that religion is defined as being wrong and that anything evil can be defined as a religion.

    Posted by cptpineapple | January 5, 2011, 2:54 pm
  7. 1. Rich people giving money is the definition of Good? What about poor people?
    2. Ignored that Christians are commanded to give anonymously.
    3. Letting the world know what you are giving IS getting something in return.
    (Money for recognition/popularity/TAX RETURN)
    4. Plenty of rich people give away money and still remain rich.
    5. You are commanded biblically to give when it hurts, not out of abundance.
    6. Who says giving money means you are a good person?
    7. It goes against “survival of the fittest” the poor and weak must perish for the strong to survive,
    8. Lots of really nasty people donate, dictators, criminal gangs etc.
    9. appeal to authority, straw man, just some of the logical fallacies attached to this

    Posted by bagsy84 | May 25, 2012, 10:15 pm
  8. Stalin and C. Mao want to thank you for avoiding the subject of what happens when People Are Very Bad Without God!

    Posted by PG | May 27, 2012, 4:56 pm
  9. *sigh*…And the guy who’s blog this is probably wants to thank you for avoiding to read what he actually wrote.

    “Again, let me say this as loudly and clearly as possible: I am not suggesting that non-belief makes people better.”

    It’s never loud and clear enough, it seems.

    Posted by TC | May 28, 2012, 7:12 am
  10. “Letting the world know what you are giving IS getting something in return.”

    LOL. Giving your faith and expecting salvation is = giving and expecting of “getting something in return”

    Posted by Nanny Green | January 27, 2013, 3:42 am

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