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?