In spite of a 2011 survey revealing atheists are on average as distrusted as rapists, I remain optimistic most would concede that some good people don’t believe in God. Those who know me well, at least, do not seem to distrust me on account of my unbelief. The problem, they say, is this: being a moral unbeliever may work for me, but it could never work for so-and-so. If it weren’t for his faith, there is no way so-and-so could have had the courage to overcome…insert every imaginable obstacle, challenge, and addiction. Religion seems content with no less than total authority on these matters. It isn’t enough to boast its accomplishments; it insists further that there is no other path to goodness and success outside itself.
This doesn’t speak to the question of whether a religion is true, only whether it is a useful or necessary tool to help people make moral choices. Undoubtedly, many people are incentivized by belief in God to do good things they otherwise wouldn’t bother doing. Similarly, when you send a child to bed on Christmas Eve, reminding her “Santa doesn’t bring presents to children awake past bed time” is sometimes an effective way to ensure compliance. Yet I wonder whether taking such shortcuts every day of the year is conducive to her blossoming into an autonomous moral agent.
A Fair Objection
As a former evangelical, I foresee an objection. A good Christian will tell you he does good and avoids evil not in fear of punishment but to please, honor, and otherwise glorify his creator. God gives him a purpose without which it would be difficult to see the point of anything at all. If we’re just matter in motion, destined to live short lives and die eternal deaths, what does it matter if we drop acid rather than finish our term paper? Let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. I am sympathetic to this distinction, and yet even this view is not free of unwanted baggage. First, it deprives one of the opportunity to enjoy doing good for its own sake. It can be impossible to forget that even the smallest act of kindness – dropping a dollar in a homeless person’s coffer when no one is looking – shines brightly on a cosmic moral scoreboard. The Bible teaches that to do good is to lay away reward in heaven. To suggest this teaching does nothing to diminish the reward of goodness for its own sake is sheer belligerence. It is unsurprising that one study showed atheists are more driven by compassion to help others than the religious. It appears compassion has room to flourish in the absence of competing incentives.
The other baggage comes in the form of doctrines which are wont to foster in-group loyalties and unwarranted prejudice. Doing good in the name of religion can appear to validate some of the worst ideas currently on offer. If one opposed gay marriage because he found it personally disgusting, we would rightly accuse him of intolerance. When he does so according to his faith, not only does he save face, but he reserves the right to call his opponents intolerant for challenging his personal convictions. In this way, doing good in the name of a religion can also seem to validate the oppressive doctrines attached to it.
But What About So-and-so?
Returning to the point, what about the person who feels disinclined to behave morally, in whose nature it is to feel overly gratified by illicit indulgences: the thrill of thievery, the lust of violence, the escape of dangerous narcotics. The religious insist the only framework in which this sort of person can effectively contextualize and enjoy goodness is one in which it is divinely mandated. I am frankly less than compelled to accept that the most inspiring force in the world is the right combination of religious nonsense and threat of punishment, but I’m willing to make a small concession here. Perhaps so-and-so really would not have cleaned up his act if it weren’t for religion. It could be Hamas, for example, saves thousands annually from STDs and addiction. Does it follow that Hamas does more good than harm or that there are no other means of reducing these societal ills? We must stop parading morally deficient people around in an attempt to justify our dependence on religion. There is something wrong when a person is unmoved by the plight of those who suffer. Something is wrong when a person has no regard for himself or others, and masking this with bad incentives treats the symptom to the neglect of the disease.
It’s true that some would do less good if theism were this very instant ripped out from under them for the same reason some would work less hard on a suddenly reduced income. Less money can equate to less work because we have been conditioned to work in a material reward system. Morality does not require divine approval or material compensation to work (unless one is conditioned to rely on them) because it has other, more compelling rewards. It’s puzzling that, in spite of this, so many are resigned to cope with the many pitfalls of religion in order to enjoy any of the benefits we have come to associate with it.
Good Reasons to Do Good
Most of theism teaches that God is the source of morality, making him the reason to be moral. Jesus himself is written to have said, “What [good] you do for the least of these, you do even unto me.” This teaching undeniably inspires some good behavior, but religion doesn’t stop there. It takes full credit for the good and then retroactively invalidates any other means of attaining it. It isn’t enough that so-and-so turned his life around. Religion insists that without it no other forces in the universe could have conspired to make this happen. There is a competitiveness to religious claims that has no place in open, unbiased discussions on morality and wellness. We indulge them because religion is the most popular guy in the room, but his condescending claims are retarding the conversation, and it’s time to stop taking them seriously when he repeatedly fails to support them.
There are good reasons to do good. There are reasons not to have unprotected sex, shoot heroin, or hold up a drug store which make no appeal to religious nonsense, just as there are reasons to give to charity, help your neighbor, and educate yourself. On occasions in which our incentive to do good, especially for others, is less material than contracting an illness or going to prison, the act itself is a source of pleasure, pride, and fulfillment. Doing good is an end in itself and perhaps the purest pleasure there is. Religion can water this down and handicap its adherents from experiencing it to fullness.
Where Is the Evidence?
This brings us to the final and most damning argument against the notion that some people need religion or God to be good: there is no evidence for it. Children raised to be religious don’t commit fewer crimes, perform significantly better in school, or pose fewer threats to themselves or others. There is even some evidence to the contrary. Here in the US, prisoners are disproportionately religious, while top scientists are not religious at all. Religious children in one study were less able to make accurate distinctions between fantasy and reality. Never mind whether it makes most people better, religion alone is not even a significant predictor of happiness. The religious propagandist has yet one trick up his sleeve, but it’s one swindlers and charlatans have embraced for hundreds of years with great success: the testimonial. Listen to so-and-so’s testimony and see how well our product worked for him! In this they rely on widespread ignorance of the adage, “the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data.'”
If so-and-so truly does need God to be good, her faith is an object of pity, not admiration. Fortunately, this ungenerous assumption (like so many religious claims) is typically under-supported and overstated. People do not turn into psychopaths when they cease to believe in the god of their parents. Yet in the face of ad nauseam appeals to our “sinful nature” and doctrines which declare us filthy and wretched at bottom, is it any wonder so many of us have come to underestimate our own moral resolve and “humbly” deferred too much credit to our faith? “Were it not for my faith…” are often grateful words, but what follows (again, like so many religious claims) nearly always presumes too much.