One of the primary arguments for the value of Religion is its moral guidance. Benjamin Franklin once stated that
religion will be a powerful regulator of our actions, give us peace and tranquility within our minds, and render us benevolent, useful and beneficial to others…1
He was right, but not at all for the reason he would have thought. Not only do I think that Religion is unnecessary as a moral guide, it actually enables good people to perform evil acts by suspending normal moral boundaries with the excuse that harming fellow humans is secondary to obeying God. My central thesis is that Religion is no guarantor of good behavior, let alone a source of morality, and any perceived association between the two is totally manufactured to serve the interests of those promoting their belief system.
The US is arguably the most religious nation in the developed world, yet it also leads or is no different from more secular countries in rates of nonviolent and non-lethal violent crime2, homicide3, adolescent suicide4, teen pregnancy5 and teen STD transmission6. I do not argue that Religion is the root cause of the first three in this list, but I will argue in a later segue (Religion and Politics) that it is a significant factor (if not the single major factor) in the last two items. Yet many Believers would have us accept that the solution to such social problems is yet more religious belief when it is abundantly clear that it has far too much of a negative effect on society with vastly insufficient positive compensatory traits.
Many Believers that feel threatened by the Theory of Evolution complain that Darwin’s insights remove morality from our lives. They are correct in one respect – there is no logic behind morality – but miss the point that its presence at some level of in a species that has adopted a social survival strategy is crucial. It is an inherent trait in our and other social mammalian species, this behavior developing as part of our evolution as a social species.
The bible contains a story which I think shows a positive face of values held by Christians. That is the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-37:
10:30 And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
10:31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
10:32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
10:33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,
10:34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
10:35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
10:36 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?
10:37 And he said, He that showed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.
I agree that everyone should act in this manner, but no one needs to be a Christian (or of any Religion whatsoever) to help those that require it. Religion holds no monopoly on performing good. Christopher Hitchens asks a very pointed question to great effect in debates with religious opponents: what moral act can a religious person do that a non-believer is unable to perform?7 The answer to this (mostly rhetorical) question is, of course, nothing. Christians overlook something about this story which is plainly obvious (which is quite possibly why they don’t see this until it is pointed out to them): The hero of this story was not Christian. Nor was he Jewish. He was a Samaritan! Jews of the time despised Samaritans, and assigning this background to the protagonist is likely an intentional underscoring by the author. The story of the Good Samaritan also has an intrinsic slippery slope. If neither Judaism nor Christianity is required to be moral and ethical, should we not question whether religion is at all necessary for people to do good acts?
Christianity often lays claim to the values of love, peace and harmony (even while its practitioners simultaneously fail to adhere to these values), sometimes to the point where it seems that its followers believe that it is impossible for outsiders to share these values. I have been asked a number of times why I reject Jesus’ message of living these tenets. I do not reject them at all, of course. I reject the hypothesis that Religion is at all a condition to holding such values. Love, peace and harmony are indeed worthy traits to have, but as the parable of the Good Samaritan implies, no religion is better able to supply them than any other since none of them do. In fact, there is an ample supply of evidence to show that Religion has little (if anything) to do with morals and ethics other than adopting those which are already inherent in human nature. What Religion has done is hijacked these values and present them as if it invented them.
But Religion, particularly the three Abrahamic religions, run into a quagmire of moral and ethical contradictions. One of the biggest theological problems, one that has stumped theologians for centuries, is the Problem of Evil. Epicurus (341-270 BCE), reiterated by David Hume (1711-1776 CE) centuries later, sums up the issue nicely:
Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered. Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?8
The Problem of Evil can lead to strange places when presupposing a just and good God devoid of malice. In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins relates an anecdote from when he was on a television panel with fellow Oxford professors Richard Swinburne, a theologian, and chemist Peter Atkins:
Swinburne at one point attempted to justify the Holocaust on the grounds that it gave the Jews a wonderful opportunity to be courageous and noble. Peter Atkins splendidly growled, “May you rot in hell.”9
It is unfortunate that that last remark was edited from the final version of the program.
In a radio interview, prominent Christian apologist William Lane Craig made the claim that the biblical genocide of the Canaanites was a moral act.
God is not bound by the same moral duties we are. Our moral duties are established to God’s commandments to us, that in virtue of being commanded to do this or that that we have certain moral obligations or duties…. So it would be wrong for me to whip out a gun and shoot somebody for no reason at all. But if God wants to strike me dead right now that’s His prerogative…. But when God commands the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanite clans they are acting as God’s moral agents under his command and so I feel that God has the right to command them to do something which in the absence of a divine command would have been wrong… it becomes their moral duty….He used the armies of Israel as His instrument of judgment upon these clans in Canaan known that ultimately their extermination would be better for Israel in the long run, they wouldn’t be contaminated by their influences, that these persons were deserving of judgment. And in the case of innocent people who might have been killed that even in their case God has the right to give and take life as He sees fit.10
Thus for Swinburne and Craig God is tautologically defined to be good, no matter how lethal or heinous its acts. This is the makings of dangerous stuff and I’m sickened by such apologetics. God can not be considered good without holding its actions up to the litmus test of what humanity generally considers good first. Failing that test numerous times, such a god is obviously a barbaric monster – a reflection of its creators and their Bronze Age values.
Even the slaughter of children can be twisted to be a moral act, since they would have grown up into the wicked ways (for which the Old Testament is the only source that one can cite) of their elders, so they were spared the eternal hellfire that awaited their parents:
‘…the [Canaanite] children, by being killed are really, in one sense, better off if we believe that children go to heaven, as I do, than they would be allowing them to live on in the circumstances in which they were.’10
For Craig, God can only do good, no matter how much suffering and death its acts create, and he must use any means necessary to drown out the nagging feelings brought on by his cognitive dissonance.
The bible prohibits killing, yet God commanded killing almost at every turn of the page in the Old Testament. These are confusing messages. The only conclusion that one can draw is that the moral imperative is to obey God’s whim. If so, then any claim to an objective morality vanishes. Craig’s rationalization of mass murder, reminiscent of a Cirque de Soleil contortionist, demonstrates the power of religion to suspend normal moral boundaries, and the purest acts of evil can be guiltlessly justified for those who believe (or simply state) God commands it.
Marcion (110-160 CE) came up with an interesting solution to the problem: God is in part evil.11 This is in fact the most logical conclusion to come to concerning God’s ethics if you buy into the whole God thing. Marcion recognized the intractability of maintaining a good and just view of God, whereas Swinburne and Craig are unable to accept the only logical conclusion and paint God the color good. This is the philosophical equivalent of the ostrich sticking its head in the sand when the problem of their God’s obviously bad behavior comes up.
Both Swinburne and Craig’s moral positions are logically untenable and frankly quite disturbing. That genocide can at all justified within a religious framework in the eyes of these two philosophers (and unfortunately there is no shortage of their type) in their attempts to stave off denial that their version of God is good and demonstrates the moral bankruptcy that such reasoning leads to. Step back from the argument and it becomes immediately apparent that these are bizarre, sickening and (at best) amoral positions to take.
Well, so what? God-ordered genocides don’t happen anymore, do they? Hell, yes they do. Former Palestinian foreign minister Nabil Shaath described what President George Bush in a meeting with him in 2003:
President Bush said to all of us: ‘I’m driven with a mission from God’. God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did, and then God would tell me, ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq . . .’ And I did. And now, again, I feel God’s words coming to me, ‘Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East’. And by God I’m gonna do it.12
This kind of rhetoric sends shivers down my spine, and not good ones. Anyone that thinks God is telling them to do a thing can perform the most heinous of acts with a clear conscience that under no other circumstances would they ever even conceive of doing. As Nobel laureate Stephen Weinberg said,
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.13
What about all those evil atheists throughout history that committed unspeakable acts of violence on unimaginable scales? Hitler, for example, was raised Catholic but did not attend Mass as an adult. He massacred six million Jewish people, as well as Poles and Norwegians, in the Holocaust. Absolutely. It is rather unclear what Hitler’s theological position was, but in Mein Kampf he clearly states his belief in God numerous times, including this ominous foreshadowing statement:
‘Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.‘14 [Emphasis mine.]
This is not the language of an atheist. One could argue that he was only imitating being a religious person when he wrote that, but that is unlikely. It is unreasonable to accept that a megalomaniac like Hitler would ever misrepresent his own deepest views in such an obviously self-serving book. Hitler believed in God, it’s as simple as that. But even had he not, anti-Semitic vitriol preceded Hitler by centuries. In the Fourth Lateran Council (1215 CE), anti-Semitic principles were laid down in Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus15 (translation: ‘Outside the Church there is no salvation’). The title itself tells how non-Christians can be artificially vilified, lifting normal moral boundaries to allow horrific acts to be meted upon them with a clear conscience for the perpetrators.
Within this document is the strange and ludicrous doctrine of host transformation, whereby the Eucharist is somehow magically changed into blood and flesh of Jesus. Any desecration (or perception thereof) is met with gruesome execution of the victim. It introduced pogroms against Jews, prohibiting them from holding public office, forcing a tax on them for being Jewish and to wear special clothing. It wasn’t all that long before it was put into action. In 1243 CE an accusation of host desecration by a Jew led to every last Jewish person in Berlitz being burned alive in the first of many atrocities using this trumped-up charge as a pretense. The city’s name was changed to Judenberg in honor of the event.16 The Nazis simply reintroduced an already existing set of laws. The yellow star (interestingly, the state did not supply these but the wearers were forced to supply their own) that is so emblematic of the repressive cruelty of Nazi Germany was reinvention of the Roman Catholic Church’s edict that Jews must wear a yellow or red conical hat to distinguish themselves from Christians. Anti-Semitism strongly influenced Martin Luther, who wholeheartedly adopted these values if On the Jews and Their Lies is any evidence.17 The Lutheran Church continues to struggle with the realization that the anti-Semitic views of their beloved founder are not appropriate in today’s much more tolerant world.
Another problem with propping Hitler up as the evil atheist poster boy is that Hitler himself did not carry out his own orders. He left it up to others to do his dirty work for him. To believe that even a small fraction of those involved were not religious is ludicrous.
Similarly, Jews were oppressed in the former Soviet Union (again influenced almost exclusively by Christian anti-Semitism). The atrocities committed by Joseph Stalin (who was indeed an atheist) were strongly influenced by this, as well as his penchant for asking himself ‘what would Ivan the Terrible have done?’ He was never found far from a book on the subject of his hero.18 The whole history of Russia is filled with violence, which continues even under Vladimir Putin. Today, political assassination is almost a sport in post-Soviet Russia.19
What I’m saying here is that to lay blame for acts of evil such as these men callously ordered at the doorstep of atheism without considering all contributing factors is an absurd argument for Religion. It is an example of a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument – nasty guy was an atheist; nasty guy did nasty things; therefore atheism is nasty. It would be just as valid to blame their acts on the fact that they both sported mustaches!
When morality is considered in light of the concept of ‘reciprocity’ we gain considerable insight into its evolutionary source. For instance, vampire bats that have a surplus of blood will feed individuals had little food in order to keep the unfortunates from starvation (nightly feedings by vampire bats are necessary to stave off starvation).20 If an individual that previously benefited from this apparently altruistic act refuses to reciprocate at a later time, the rebuff by the uncooperative individual will be remembered and refused food next time it needs it.
In other words, morality arose as a means by which all individuals in a group (not to be confused with group selection) benefit from acts of reciprocity. In its important aspects, there is little to differentiate between our behavior and those of the bats. We help others in need in the hope that, should we need it, others will similarly aid us. Reciprocity leads to cooperation, essential in a social survival strategy. Feelings of good when we do good and bad when we act badly are how our genes try to push us to act in the spirit of cooperation in order to increase the survival odds of the group (and by extension those of the individuals within the group). Shame is a very potent weapon in dealing with cheaters. We have been developed an ability to cheat in order to increase our individual competitiveness within the group and co-evolved abilities to detect cheaters. All of these behaviors have been observed in a number of social animal species.
So, if morality does not come from God or Religion, where does it come from? There is a growing body of evidence that our moral sense is purely biological in nature. This should be of little surprise considering that at least half of our behavior is determined by our genetics. If morality did indeed arise through evolutionary processes, we would expect to observe moral behavior to varying degrees in species closely related to our own. We need to be careful here. Any behavior we ascribe to being moral must also carry the caveat that we are unable to ask the subject how it is feeling when performing that behavior. It is unfortunately necessary to be project our own nature on what we conclude to be moral acts in other species. There is no way round this. Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, display what appear to be altruistic behavior when they share resources with non-kin individuals20,21, console non-kin individuals in distress20,22,23 and even reconcile disputes with non-kin individuals20-23.
In his popular overview of the state of knowledge on this question, Moral Minds, Marc Hauser and others have put forward the idea that, in analogy to language, we have a moral center in the brain which yields ‘moral verdicts based on unconscious and inaccessible principles.’24
To show what he means, lets look at a couple of hypothetical situations (taken from Moral Minds. It is up to you to decide whether the action taken is obligatory, permissible or forbidden:
Situation 1: Denise is a passenger on an out-of-control trolley. The conductor has fainted and the trolley is headed toward five people walking on the track; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. The track has a side track leading off to the left, and Denise can turn the trolley onto it. There is, however, one person on the left-hand track. Denise can turn the trolley, killing the one; or she can refrain from flipping the switch, letting the five die. Is it morally permissible for Denise to flip the switch, turning the trolley onto the side track?
Most would agree that it is obligatory for Denise to throw the switch. How about this one?
Situation 2: Frank is on a footbridge over the trolley tracks. He knows trolleys and can see that the one approaching the bridge is out of control, with its conductor passed out. On the track under the bridge there are five people; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. Frank knows that the only way to stop an out-of-control trolley is to drop a very heavy weight into its path. But the only available, sufficiently heavy weight is a large person also watching the trolley from the footbridge. Frank can shove the large person onto the track in the path of the trolley, resulting in death; or he can refrain from doing this, letting the five die. Is it morally permissible for Frank to push the large person onto the tracks?
This one is tougher. Intuition tells most people that it is forbidden to push the large person into the path of the runaway trolley. What’s the difference? Frank is still trading one life for five, just as Denise should do. These are just two of many scenarios Hauser uses to study the workings of moral judgement25. As the ethics become deeper, the more difficult it is to express in words the answer to the question why. Those interested can participate in his online Moral Sense Test.
The results of these mind-twisting dilemmas are quite telling: there is absolutely no difference in responses between people of widely varying religious backgrounds including atheists.24 The interesting part is when an action forbidden by the ethical sense of the subject in one scenario becomes permissible when the details are subtly changed. Rarely can the subject articulate why this switch in permissibility occurs. These experiments show that moral behavior is not learned, but rather a moral sense has evolved. Culture certainly shapes morality to an extent, but only in terms of its boundaries.24
The idea that there is a specific moral machinery within the brain has a good deal of experimental evidence in support from evolutionary biology, neuroscience and experimental psychology. Functional MRI, an imaging technique which can locate brain activation on the basis of local blood flow, has shown that the polar medial prefrontal cortex, dorsal posterior cingulate cortex, and posterior superior temporal sulcus regions of the brain are involved in making moral decisions. The moral behavior ‘stream’ (route of the process in the brain) requires ‘decoding by sensory systems, activation of basic emotional reactions by anteromedial temporal, brain stem and basal forebrain structures, attachment of moral-emotional relevance by orbital and medial prefontal structures, and implementation and control of actions by the frontal lobes. The surveillance and orienting systems, for which the thalamic reticular nucleus and ascending activating systems are critical, help orchestrate these mechanisms into a dynamic behavioral stream…’26. Disruption of this stream at any point can result in any of a number of social behavior changes. In other words, there is nothing about our (admittedly early) understanding of how moral decisions are made have anything other than to do with brain structure and function, which are eminently under genetic (and hence evolutionary) control.
Thus morality is neither arbitrary, nor is it God given. In fact, Religion has no relationship with morality whatsoever. As is the case with so much of Religion, it’s just another failed attempt at explaining what was at the time unexplainable. Claiming God exists because morality exists, God is yet again born from our ignorance and premature curiosity satisfaction – Where does morality come from? Don’t know, must be God.
How banal. This is hardly intellectually satisfying and, as usual, not only answers nothing but begs ever more questions. The bible covers a period from roughly a few thousand years B.C.E. to about 200 C.E. while what we would call modern Science has only been around for the last few hundred years. Their periods do not overlap at all. And we are now arriving at a much better synthesis based on Science: morality arose evolutionarily through social interactions between members of a group within species. Those individuals that got along better with their cohorts had a better chance of survival through cooperation and tended to pass those genes which allowed for this behavior on to the next generation. That there are individuals who do not act morally and take advantage of the ‘moral majority’ is predicted by evolutionary theory (more specifically by application of game theory, which predicts an ‘evolutionarily stable strategy’ between the two27). It’s time to place the failed ‘explanations’ (to use the term loosely) Religion so dogmatically supplies for natural phenomena into the wastebasket where they belong.
Don’t get the idea that there is a gene ‘for’ any given social behavior. This is largely a fiction created by the news media reporting on Science. No gene acts in a vacuum. The structure of the brain is extremely complex and arises from the interactions of many genes, particularly the timing of homeobox gene on/off switching during development. This incredibly delicate timing is what produces the immense complexity that we see (and through which some ‘see’ God). Over time the timing can subtly change to produce the behavior we deem ‘moral’ that we have today. Evo Devo and neuroscience will have a lot to say on the matter in the coming years.
It is quite clear that our moral sense in innate, a product of our biology. Thus, Religion is not a moral compass. Too often it is acts far more like a lump of loadstone steering us off course.
- Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Simon & Schuster.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics, Cross-National Studies in Crime and Justice, US Department of Justice.
- Leonard Beaghley, Homicide: A Sociological Explanation, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
- World Health Organization, 2001: ‘Suicide Prevention.’ http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/ country_reports/en/index.html
- S Singh and JE Darroch, ‘Adolescent Pregnancy and Childbearing: Levels and Trends in Developed Countries’, Fam Plann Perspect 32:14-23 (2000).
- C Panchaud, S Singh, D Feivelson and JE Darroch, ‘Sexually Transmitted Diseases Among Adolescents in Developed Countries’, Fam Plann Perspect 32:24-45 (2000).
- Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza, ‘Is Christianity the Problem?’, in a debate at King’s College, New York, October 22, 2007.
- David Hume, in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Dover Publications.
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, page 64, Marlin Books.
- William Lane Craig, interview entitled ‘Is God Real of Imaginary’ on ‘The Things That Matter Most’ radio show (http://www.thethingsthatmattermost.org/gallery06102007.htm).
- Tertullian, in Adversus Mardionem, Oxford University Press.
- Nabil Shaath, interview in ‘Elusive Peace: Israel and the Arabs’, BBC production.
- Steven Weinberg. ‘A Designer Universe?’. Retrieved on 2008-07-14. ‘A version of the original quote from address at the Conference on Cosmic Design, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C. in April 1999’.
- Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf, Reissue edition (September 15, 1998), Mariner Books.
- Christopher Bellitto, The General Councils: A History of the Twenty-One Church Councils from Nicaea to Vatican II, Paulist Press.
- Joseph Jacobs and Max Schloessinger, Jewish Encyclopedia (http://jewishencycolpedia.com), retrieved August 10, 2008.
- Martin Luther, The Jews and Their Lies, Liberty Bell Publications.
- Maureen Perrie, The Cult of Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia, Palgrave Macmillan.
- Steve Levine, Putin’s Labyrinth: Spies, Murder and the Dark Heart of the New Russia, Random House.
- Frans de Waal, Good Natured, Harvard University Press.
- FBM de waal and F Aureli, ‘Conflilct Resolution and Distress Alleviation in Monkeys and Apes’, Ann NY Acad Sci 806:317-328 (1997).
- N Kutsusake and DL Castles, ‘Reconciliation and Post-conflict Third-party Affiliation Among Wild Chimpanzees in the Mahale Mountains, Tanzania’, Primates 45:157-165 (2004).
- J Goodall, ‘Learning From the Chimpanzees: A Message Humans Can Understand’, Science 282:2184-2185 (1998).
- Marc Hauser, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, Ecco.
- J Mikhail, ‘Universal Moral Grammar: Theory, Evidence and the Future’, Trends Cogn Sci 11:143-152 (2007).
- J Moll, R de Oliveira-Souza and PJ Eslinger, ‘Morals and the Human Brain: A Working Model’, Neuroreport 14, 299-305 (2003).
- WG Hines, ‘Evolutionarily [corrected] stable strategies: a review of basic theory’, Theor Popul Biol 31:195-272 (1987).