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Monday, December 28, 2009

Can We Be Good Without God? A Challenge to the "New Atheism"

During the past holiday season, atheistic organizations used buses and billboards in cities around the world to proclaim the non-existence of God. For example, the American Humanist Association sponsored a message, "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake.” Ultimately, these public relations efforts have been designed to assert that nonbelievers are "just as ethical and moral as anyone else," according to a representative of the Secular Coalition for America.

Not only do these ads offend billions of believers around the world, but we also have a representative of the Freedom from Religion Foundation asserting that “Religion is a myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds” -- further indicating that strident atheists do not understand the cultural import of religion.

In this installment of Atheism 3.0 (conveying a kinder, gentler and more humanistic brand of atheism), I show that it is always possible for individuals to be moral without religion (“good without God”); yet I also reveal the failings of a purely secular morality and how religion makes for a more moral and benevolent society than would otherwise be the case without religion.

Religious Sources of Charity

According to Giving USA, American charitable contributions reached a total of $307 billion in 2007, a figure that represents more than 2% of the GDP, well above that of any other nation. Of that $307 billion, 33% was given to religious organizations – just over $100 billion.

Arthur Brooks, who has performed extensive research on charitable giving, has shown that religious people are 38% more likely than secularists to give money to charity and 32% more likely than non-religious people to volunteer their time. Thus, religious people donate about 3.5 times more money per year ($2,210 vs. $642) and volunteered more than twice as often (12 times vs. 5.8 times). Indeed, when looking at the difference between the populations that give the most vs. the least, on a percentage-of-income basis, religion is the most salient and reliant predictor.

Looking at other measures of religious affiliation, people who pray every day (whether or not they go to church) are 30 percentage points more likely to give money to charity than people who never pray (83% to 53%). Further, people who say they devote a “great deal of effort” to their spiritual lives are nearly twice as likely to give as those devoting “no effort” (88% to 46%). Moreover, these practices are not exclusive to any particular religion. It does not matter what religion one practices so long as it is practiced seriously.

Although the charity gap is not as great when we examine giving to non-religious causes, religious people are still 10 percentage points more likely than secularists to give to nonreligious charities such as the United Way (71% to 61%) and 21 points more likely to volunteer for secular causes such as the local PTA (60% to 39%). In addition, the value of the average religious household’s donations to nonreligious charities was 14% higher than the average secular household’s. The same is true when it comes to informal acts of kindness to others. Religious people were far more likely to donate blood than secularists, to give food or money to the homeless, and to express empathy for less fortunate people.

Atheists’ Misperceptions of Religious Morality

Atheists often exhibit a lack of understanding of religious morality. They assume that, for the believer, morality is very simple: whatever God dictates is right is right, and whatever God dictates is wrong is wrong. Atheists speak about religious morality purely as a reward-and-punishment relationship to mythic parental figures. Religious people are seen as moral automatons; believers are commanded to obey. The most cynical see in religion a blind obedience to moral authority and an oppressive behavioral-control system.

There is no question that some religious adherents exhibit an authoritative orientation, but the same can be said for many nonreligious people. For the vast majority of people, however, authoritarianism is not the defining feature of religious morality. God is not seen as a parent in a disciplinary or authoritarian sense, but in the sense of a loving father who teaches the way to achieve salvation or liberation. God represents the moral high ground to which humans aspire.

The great moral advancement of religion comes from putting forth an ethical code that is rooted in an Absolute. Every major religion stresses the objective existence of moral ideals, the importance of moral conduct, and the possibility of individuals and societies attaining a good and happy life. The believer sees a god who holds humans to the highest moral standards; and he feels a loving obligation to do what is right for God and for other human beings. Religious people do not strive to be good because they want to avoid punishment and earn bonus points in the heavenly sweepstakes; they strive to behave consistent with God’s love and grace in much the same way we naturally strive to be good for anyone we love.

The most essential contribution to cultural values is the sense of the sacred, of something so absolutely good that it is worthy of unconditional reverence. And morality is a manifestation of people identifying with and participating in those transcendent values. Righteous deeds, charitable acts, service to others, and ethical adherence are all primary vehicles for reaching the realm of the divine.

Moral values are central to a religious view that claims the world was created by a loving, all-powerful God concerned with human flourishing, and that posits a supreme goodness as the basis of all reality. The fundamental moral position that flows from a religious conception is that all of life, being a mode and manifestation of that ultimate reality, is holy and intrinsically valuable, and that moral action is the path to a union with the divine. This understanding necessarily obligates the believer into a moral contract under which by doing good he is participating in the highest good, the natural outcome of which is overflowing compassion and a deep, intuitive certainty of the common linkage among all living creatures.

Humans were said to be made in the image of God, an ideal that laid the ground for a Christian humanism that made individual persons objects of respect in their own right. Since humans were meant to share in the divine nature, they are to be respected as children of God and not treated as a means to an end. So wrote St. Augustine in his City of God: “Whoever is born anywhere as a human being, that is, as a rational mortal creature, however strange he may appear to our senses in bodily form or color or motion or utterance, or in any faculty, part or quality of his nature whatsoever, let no true believer have any doubt that such an individual is descended from the one man who was first created.”

Such a moral conception has led to the highest sacrifices among humans. If religion does motivate some people to heinous acts, it is more than balanced by the myriad good deeds performed in the name of God every day. It is unfortunate that a large conflagration attributed to religion attracts far more attention than the billions of small candles lit by religious people all over the world.

Explaining the Morality Paradox

In truth, it is not possible to be as good without God as with God. But it is also wrong to say that atheists are in any way immoral because they do not believe in God. How do we explain this paradox?

Marc Hauser, a Harvard psychologist, has shown through interviews around the world that all people – religious and secular – have similar moral inclinations; all of us, he says, are born with an equivalent moral code that grows out of humanity’s evolutionary need for pro-social behavior. In his book Moral Minds Hauser has written, “We evolved a moral instinct, a capacity that naturally grows within each child, designed to generate rapid judgments about what is morally right or wrong based on an unconscious grammar.”

Hauser's research revealed that moral decisions are made intuitively, and that all people come up with the same conclusions when faced with the same moral dilemmas, regardless of culture, religion or economic status. These findings usually lead to a “eureka” response from secular humanists like Hauser, who believe this proves religious people are no more moral than atheists or agnostics. Hauser has written that “our own nature, not God, is the source of species morality.” And he further states, “These observations suggest that the system that unconsciously generates moral judgments is immune to religious doctrine.”

It is clear that Hauser’s aim is to assert there is no difference in morality between religious and nonreligious people. And on the level of innate moral capacity, I think he is correct.

The Essential Role of Religion

However, nowhere in Hauser’s 400-page book does he seriously pay attention to the factors that result in the gap between moral instinct and actual behavior. He thus neglects the most important question to arise from his book: If we all intrinsically know what’s right and good, why don’t we all behave that way? There is a clear need for an intermediate dimension between the innate sense of right and wrong and the actualization of moral behavior. And as I will show, in this capacity religion plays an indispensable role.

In actuality, our innate moral capacity is just a vague moral inclination that points us all in the same general direction. This is to say that people are innately good, but that such goodness remains largely a potentiality and does not mean that people will always do the right thing. Science shows us that we are born with an undercurrent of good that is ready for adaptation, but which must first be activated, articulated, and actualized through culture.

It makes sense that the evolution of our nervous system would be biased in favor of pro-social behavior for the sake of our collective survival. But Hauser completely neglects to explain why if we are all hard-wired for moral behavior, we can be so immoral. Our history is one long list of people doing the wrong thing thinking that it is the right thing to do. Thus being in possession of a moral instinct does not mean that people will always do the right thing. In reality, there is a huge gap between our innate moral tendencies and our actual behavior. And because of the almost infinite variability of culture, it is consequently a long and variegated path to actual moral behavior, which is where religion comes into play. Therefore to say that people do not need religion for moral guidance is incorrect.

Hauser’s conceptualization does not begin to articulate the complexity of moral decision-making. I suggest that our moral behavior results from a dynamic interplay of eight factors on five interrelated levels, wherein religion plays an essential role both historically and currently.

The following five levels begin with two universal dimensions, one intrinsic (the moral sensibility) and the other externally derived (religious principles); followed by two culturally created dimensions, one applying to all people in a society (laws, education, and the social contract) and the other pertaining specifically to an individual’s immediate socio-cultural environment (parenting and peer-group norms); finally, these dimensions are influenced by an individual’s distinctive genetic make-up.

Level 1 – Intrinsic Universal: Innate Moral Sensibility
Level 2 – Extrinsic Universal: Religious Moral Principles
Level 3 – Extrinsic Objective: Social Contract, Education, Laws
Level 4 – Extrinsic Subjective: Parenting, Peer Group Norms
Level 5 – Intrinsic Subjective: Genes

The interrelationships among these five levels are so variable that it is almost impossible to generalize. The two absolute pillars are the Intrinsic Universal (innate moral sense) and Extrinsic Universal (religion). Over time, these absolutes are filtered through the level of Extrinsic Objective, which codifies the moral absolutes into broad social norms, institutionalized education, and a society’s laws. On a more immediate level, these norms and principles are further filtered through the levels of Extrinsic and Intrinsic Subjective, where they can further split and diversify like light through a prism.

Remarkably, with respect to generalized moral situations, religions agree much more than they disagree. And this is because, I believe, they are the primordial linkage with the universal innate capacity. Religion deserves its own category because it is antecedent and pervasive, because it trickles down to all other levels, and because it is attributed to an absolute (divine) source of validation. The greatness of the contemporary version of this moral principle is that it accepts and tolerates all people, including those who we might otherwise find unacceptable. My enemy is united with me in something that is above him and above me, the ultimate ground of Being that is in each of us (the absolute good). The other factors – society’s laws, education and social norms as well as parenting and peer-group norms – vary from culture to culture, and from individual to individual.

Thus religion does two things: It explicates the innate moral sense and objectifies it, making it into an external absolute that, in turn, is re-internalized as it becomes the conscience.

Morality Weakened without God

Coming back to our original question: Can we be good without God? It would seem that the innate moral sensibility obviates the need for religion. But it actually makes the role of religion all the more important. The “moral language” as described by Hauser and other evolutionary psychologists is inchoate, amorphous and abstract. Religion for millennia has been humankind’s most important intermediary between our selfish imperatives and our ethical behavior. That internal moral sense requires external articulation and reinforcement. And throughout history, the closest we have come to a formal moral education has emerged from exposure to religion.

Every atheist will say, correctly I think, that it is entirely possible for a nonreligious person to be moral. But to say that we can have a vibrant moral culture independent of religion is true in only a narrow sense. I believe we can hypothetically eliminate religion and still have a strong moral tradition in place, subject to three qualifications:

1. This transition to a religion-free culture can only happen if there is a determined, collective effort to replace religion with an explicit commitment to formally teach ethics to children via parenting and educational institutions to a degree that at this point does not exist in any sector of our society.

2. We must not forget that whatever ethical culture prevails today in our secular society was formed over centuries of religious moral education as an antecedent.

3. This hypothetical exercise does not apply to most of the developing world, where the educational and legal systems are considerably underdeveloped.

Religion for millennia has been humankind’s most important moral intermediary. And throughout our history, the closest we have come to a formal moral education has been derived from religion. The other sources of morality (education, parenting, legal system, cultural norms, and peer groups) are variable and insular, and not appropriate or adequate for the development of a moral society.

I do believe that atheists have the same moral capacity as religious people. But whether that capacity is fully actualized is another question. I am afraid that while taking religion out of the moral equation may mean fewer acts of martyrdom among a few thousand people, it would also leave a huge moral vacuum for billions more. I do not believe, as Dostoevsky did, that without God everything is permitted. But it is wishful thinking and not consistent with empirical findings that people will act just as morally without religion as they do with religion. Look around – outside of religion, where does the average child formally learn about morality? Religion is the only cultural institution intrinsically committed to the moral improvement of humankind, which cannot be said of education, government, business, the legal system, or any other institution.

Atheism by itself does not motivate people to do bad things, but it is lacking one hugely important moral dimension. In our modern secular society, many moral values have already been institutionalized and on some level we can possess these values apart from the religion that developed them. These values will not disappear if we eliminate religion, but the infrastructure that has held those values aloft will substantially weaken. Of all the cultural templates we have, religion is the most robust and explicit about moral behavior.

People of faith have often insisted that in the absence of God human morality would cease to exist. At one point in time that was probably true. Atheists like to point out that we can learn morality from secular sources. But none of those insights is remotely conceivable apart from the religious contexts out of which they emerged.

In other words, eliminating religion from the cultural morality equation can take place only under rarified and highly qualified conditions. For most people under most circumstances, religion remains the primary model for morality. The innate moral sense is necessary but not sufficient. There is an additional need for a codification and articulation of this moral sense through culture, a process taken up historically by religion.

The conclusion is that we are hard-wired to know the difference between good and bad, but religion helps people make that distinction in a way that fosters a moral society.


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