A Story Before We Begin:
In Samuel Butler’s book, Erewhon Revisited, Higgs arrives in a remote country. After spending some time there, he escapes in a balloon. He comes back 20 years later and finds a new religion in which he’s worshipped under the name ‘Sun Child’ where it’s said that he ascended into Heaven.
The Feast of the Ascension is about to be celebrated. He hears Professors Hanky and Panky say to each other that they never set eyes on the man Higgs and they hope they never will. Yet, they are the high priests of the religion of the Sun Child.
Higgs is annoyed. He comes up to them and says, “I am going to expose all this humbug and tell the people of Erewhon that it was only I, the man Higgs, and I went up in a balloon.” He was told, “You must not do that, because all the morals of this country are bound round this myth, and if they once know that you did not ascend into heaven they will all become wicked.” Higgs is persuaded. He goes away quietly.
Is God Needed For Us To Be Moral?
The current argument is that religion teaches morality and atheism teaches immorality.
Before we start, we must remember that the question of whether religion is true or false is one thing and the question of whether it teaches morality or doesn’t is another. Meaning, the fact that a religion has a good moral effect upon someone —the current opinion— is no evidence that that religion is true.
In 2014, 36,854 people in 39 countries were surveyed. Out of those, 22 countries (the majority) said it’s necessary to believe in god to be moral and have good values. This view was more common in poorer countries —such as African, Middle East, Latin America and Asia/Pacific countries— than in wealthier ones.1
However, we don’t need religion or need to believe in god in order to be moral. Morality isn’t derived from religion. It precedes and predates it.
Jainism, a religion that emerged 600 years before Christ, is objectively a better guide for becoming like Martin Luther King, Jr. than Christianity is. Mahavira, a Jain “saint”, surpassed the morality of the Bible with a single sentence: “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being”. Where did Gandhi, a Hindu, get his doctrine of nonviolence? He got it from the Jains!
Anyone who believes the Bible offers the best guidance on the questions of morality has some very strange ideas on morality. In other words, morality can be taught by other people such as philosophers, self-help authors and leaders. Someone can be a great moral teacher without being divine. And, people can and have been moral without religion. Claiming that atheism leads to immorality is a giant fallacy. It requires evidence —which, as we’ll see, there isn’t.
It’s true that Jesus said some profound things about love, charity and forgiveness —such as the Golden Rule. But, again, numerous teachers offered the same instruction centuries before Jesus. For example, Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius and Epictetus. And, countless scriptures discuss the importance of self-transcending love more articulately than the Bible does.
The problem is with the Bible is that its teachings are so muddled and self-contradictory that it was possible for Christians to happily burn heretics alive for five long centuries or follow in the steps of St. Francis of Assisi or Martin Luther King, Jr. People cherry-pick from the Bible to justify their every impulse. If you look for evidence of one thing, you’ll find it. And, if you look for the evidence of its opposite, you’ll also find it!” As Dawkins said, “If you’re picking and choosing from scripture, you might as well throw it out and write another book.”
So, has Christianity stood for a better morality than other religions? No serious student of history would agree with this.
Those who wish to base their morality literally on the scriptures have neither read them or understood them. There’s a story in the Bible in which King David slept with a married woman, Bathsheba, and got her pregnant. In order to cover up his transgression, David arranged for Bathsheba’s husband, a soldier, to die in battle. David then took Bathsheba as his own wife. How is this moral!
If we got our morals from the scripture, we would all:
- Observe the Sabbath strictly and think it just and moral to execute anybody who chooses not to.
- Stone to death any new bride who couldn’t prove she’s a virgin —if her husband pronounced himself unsatisfied with her.
- And, execute disobedient children, sanction killing, make praying mandatory, scare the entire world of hell and impose impossible tasks and rules.
Thank god (don’t actually) that our sense of right and wrong —like fair play or the abhorrence to cruelty— is derived from our Darwinian past. It was built into us by evolution. As Dawkins says, “Our moral judgments evolved over millions of years.” Our natural impulse —as we’ll see— is to do good and be good. There are biological reasons why we tend to treat our parents well and think badly of murderers, adulterers, thieves, and liars. We dislike murders, adulterers, thieves and liars not because of religion but because of our own physical fear.
Studies of primate behavior reveal that morality precedes humanity itself. All of our primate cousins are partial to their own kin and generally intolerant of murder, theft, deception and sexual betrayal.
It’s absurd to believe that religion causes people to conduct themselves better or that atheism makes them behave badly. If morality depended on religion then all 1.1 billion atheists in the world would all be criminals and makeup 100% of the jail population.
And on top of that, it doesn’t matter if the two worst people in recent history —Hitler and Stalin— were atheists. What matters is whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things.
In the same 2014 survey quoted at the beginning of this section, Australia, North America (except the United States) and Europe agreed that belief in god isn’t necessary to be moral. The survey also concluded that, in general, individuals age 50+ and those without a college education are more likely to link morality to religion —59% of those without a college degree believe morality is linked to religion compared to 37% of those who are college graduates.1
The Philosophy of Morality: The Difference Between Absolutists and Consequentialists
The major divide in the philosophy of morality is between deontologists/absolutists (such as Kant) and consequentialists, including utilitarians, (such as John Stuart Mill).
Moral principles that are based upon religion are absolute. Absolutist believe that morality consists in obeying rules. That it’s about duty and that there are absolutes of right and wrong. Immanuel Kant articulated the principle that a rational being should never be used as merely an unconsenting means to an end, even if the end benefits others. For Kant, this was a moral absolute. However, morals don’t have to be absolute. That’s where consequentialists come in.
Consequentialists pragmatically hold that the morality of an action should be judged by its consequences.
Any student of history knows there are no absolutes. Morality is always changing. Meaning, at one point in the development of the human race, almost everybody thought cannibalism was right and moral. At another time, some can argue even now, patriotism was held to be an absolute virtue.
There’s nothing more absolute than the phrase “my country is right or wrong” from a citizen or a soldier. The consequentialist reasoning may influence the political decision to go to war but, once war is declared, absolutist patriotism takes over with a force and a power not seen outside religion. Meaning, if a soldier allows his thoughts of consequentialist morality to persuade him to take or not take an action, he’ll likely find himself court-martialed.
Alright, Away With Philosophy…Any Studies On Morality?
In 2013, researchers asked 1,252 adults of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds in the United States and Canada to record the good and bad deeds they committed, witnessed, learned about or were the target of throughout their day. The premise is that if we get our morality from religion, then the results between the religious and nonreligious would differ.
However, they didn’t. The study found that “religious and non-religious people commit similar numbers of moral acts.”2 Therefore, atheism doesn’t influence people to do bad things. In other words, it’s not religion that makes a person good or bad. It’s the person’s own morals.
What About Charity? Do Theists, Since They Are More Moral, Give More To Charity Than Atheists?
A study done in 2013 shows that theists give 9% more than secularists. However, a word of caution. The money that theists give goes to the church and not to charity.3 Incredibly, donating money to an organization that will ultimately benefit the giver or Christianity is considered charity. However, Christians helping Christians isn’t charity. That is self-serving in the guise of helping others, which is worse than merely self-serving.
Let me pose a question, which is more moral: helping people purely out of concern for their suffering or helping them because you think you’ll be rewarded for it in the afterlife or because it will benefit your religious organization in some way? Clearly, the former.
If we’re doing something so that god can reward or punish us, we really have no morality. We’re pleasing an entity for a reward. It’s not sincere or genuine. In other realms this is called, a “teacher’s pet” or “kissing the boss’s ass.”
Check this! When we de-class the money that goes to church as charity, the 9% turns into zero. Meaning, theist and atheist give the same amount!
The Trolley Study
The religious agree over what’s right and what’s wrong. But they can’t defend why.
In an experiment, Mark Hauser and his colleagues adapted their trolley experiment to the Kuna, a small Central American tribe with little contact with Westerners and no formal religion. They changed the “trolley on a line” thought experiment to crocodiles swimming towards canoes. With corresponding minor differences, the Kuna show the same moral judgments as the rest of us.
Meaning, the way people respond to hypothetical moral tests and their reasons behind it is independent of their religious beliefs. In other words, moral intuitions are often not well thought out —hence intuitions. But, that we feel them strongly anyway because of our evolutionary heritage.
The main conclusion of Hauser and Singer’s study was that there is no statistically significant difference between atheists and religious believers in making moral judgments.5
Is Religious Upbringing Associated With More Altruism?
Here’s a quick story: During the recent Charlottesville riot6 —which was led by very religious right-wing groups such as white nationalist, Neo-Nazis and the KKK— where was their morality? Why didn’t the fear of God restrain them? Where was their colossal and god-given morality? This was a great natural experiment to test the hypothesis whether the belief in god makes us good. And, it doesn’t! People say we need religion when what they really mean is we need the police.
A study examined 1,170 children’s tendency to share, their inclination to judge and punish others for bad behavior in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa, Turkey and the United States). The study found that those from religious families were less likely to share with others than children from non-religious families! A religious upbringing was also associated with more punitive tendencies in response to anti-social behavior. As in, children from religious households judged anti-social behavior more harshly than non-religious children. On top of all that, the negative relation between religiosity and altruism grew stronger with age. Meaning, children with a longer experience in religion were the least likely to share.4
These results support previous studies of adults which found that religiousness is linked with punitive attitudes toward interpersonal offenses. The lead researcher, Jean Decety said, “…the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact, it does just the opposite.”
The religious once asserted that we had to depend upon the Bible to be moral. These studies take away religion’s monopoly on morality.
How Are Animals Moral, If They Don’t Have Religion?
How do theists think animals live moral lives without religion? How is it that animals behave morally without scripture, the Gospels or the sutras? How is it that they can do that and we can’t? Most species don’t commit suicide, yet humans have been committing suicide in the name of religion for thousands of years!
We don’t need god in order to be good or do good. If people are good only because they fear punishment or hope for a reward then we’re a sorry bunch of people.
If you agree that, in the absence of god, you’d commit robbery, rape, and murder, then you reveal yourself as an immoral person. On the other hand, if you admit that you’d continue to be good even when not under divine surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that god is necessary for us to be good!
Even if the studies quoted above proved the opposite, that atheism led to moral chaos and less charity, this still wouldn’t suggest that Christianity, Hinduism or Islam is true —I eluded to this in the introduction. On top of that, even if it were true that we needed to believe in god to be moral, it still wouldn’t prove that God exists. Let’s go one step further: Even if the Bible was moral, it wouldn’t prove that Jesus was moral or that Jesus/god wrote the bible or that god existed when the Bible was written. It would only prove that the Bible’s unknown writers were moral.
Again, we no longer need religion to teach us morality. And if some of you still get your morality from scripture, why not cut out the scriptures and pick up a book on ethics, morality and character? Meaning, we no longer need to confine ourselves to 1st century or 6th century moral teachings which includes genocide, torture, rape, incest, sadism, misogyny and much more. Instead, we can come to the right morals teachings by debating what’s right and what’s wrong. We can come up with a universal definition of good and behave accordingly.
So, how do we know what’s good and what’s bad? For most of us, as Hauser showed, it’s intuitive. It evolved through evolution. For others, we can learn it by reading —as I mentioned above. Socrates was a better man than Allah, Yahweh or the Christian god ever were. In fact, most people are more moral than these gods! We now have Jim Rohn, Robin Sharma and Tony Robbins who can teach us better morals than any of these gods combined! As Hitchens said, “The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the…ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose [religion].”
In short, religion isn’t just amoral, but immoral. Morality happens in spite of religion, not because of it. And this immorality doesn’t stem from the individual but it’s sanctioned by the scriptures themselves. As Thomas Huxley said, “The foundation of morality is to give up pretending to believe that for which there is no evidence and repeating unintelligible propositions about things beyond the possibilities of knowledge.”
To your success,
- Hauser, Marc. Moral minds: How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.