Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Religion and morality

Religious conservatives are all worked up about some pro-atheism ads recently placed on buses by the American Humanist Association. The ads caused them to trot out the usual argument against atheism — the idea that morality can only come from religion:
"Codes of morality, of course, have always been grounded in religion. For those of us in Western civilization, its tenets emanate from the Judeo-Christian ethos. By casting this heritage aside, and replacing it with nothing more than the conscience of lone individuals, we lay the groundwork for moral anarchy." — Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League

"How do we define 'good' if we don't believe in God? God in his word, the Bible, tells us what's good and bad and right and wrong. If we are each ourselves defining what's good, it's going to be a crazy world." — Tim Wildmon, American Family Association
This is one of those arguments that people just accept as true without thinking about it; to people of a religious background, it seems obvious. I don't think it stands up to scrutiny, however.

First of all, religion itself often follows the lead of conventional wisdom. The Bible has always been interpreted in ways that reinforce existing social prejudices. When slavery was considered moral, Biblical passages were used to support it. The same was later true of segregation. When Henry VIII found Catholicism too binding, he simply created a new church with a moral code that he found more palatable. Far from being a solid grounding for society's moral code, religion is in fact more often used to rationalize and defend a set of values society has already agreed upon.

It's also false to assert that, without a set of moral rules handed down from heaven, it's somehow every man for himself. Nowhere in the Bible does it say "thou shalt not cut in line," but try it at your local supermarket checkout and see what kind of moral outrage you generate. Every society has a moral code, and no central authority necessarily needs to provide it. In fact, societies nearly always adhere to certain moral absolutes, like a prohibition on murder, regardless of whether or not their culture includes commandments carved on stone tablets.

The argument that religion is necessary for morality is a particularly pernicious one because it leads to suspicion of atheists. In one Pew Research poll, 47% of Americans indicated they believed faith in God was necessary to be a good person, and 54% had a negative view of atheists. This all stems from the idea that humans are incapable of following any moral code unless it comes from a deity. I find this a depressing, cynical view of humanity; it's as if we're a bunch of children who can't be trusted unless they know their parents are watching them.

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