Sunday, January 20, 2008

Aren't atheists less moral than religious people?

Q: Aren't atheists less moral than religious people?

A: The short answer is no. But of course, when it comes to religion and morality, short answers rarely suffice.

The longer answer to this question is "it depends". Specifically, it depends on how you define "moral", because it's very easy to define someone right out of the picture. Many theists, for example, flatly believe that morality and religion are essentially the same thing. Under that definition, it is literally impossible for a non-believer to be moral.

You quickly see the difficulties inherent in discussing what is and is not moral when you start getting into hot-button American moral political issues like abortion, pornography, and homosexual rights. Each camp defines their position to the moral one, and the other camp's to be immoral. If you think homosexuality is inherently immoral, then by definition all gay people are immoral. If you think tolerance (at a minimum) of homosexuality is moral, then theists who condemn homosexuals are inherently immoral.

In other words, it's all in how you define it.

One common approach to answering the question of whether atheists or theists are more moral is to pick an issue and see how each group fares with regards to it. While this approach can be very useful, it is also easily abused. For example, many Christians like to point to a Barna Group survey that shows atheists are about half as likely as Christians to give to charities. Since charity is commonly considered a great moral good, the Christian thus "proves" that atheists are less moral.

On the other hand, Barna also found that atheists are about half as likely as Christians to get divorced. Most Christians consider divorce to be a great moral failing, so by using this example, atheists "prove" they are more moral than religious people. You can see why it's so important to treat these kinds of surveys cautiously, and not to overgeneralize from them. Morality and human behavior are very large, very complex subjects with lots of moving parts. Cherry-picking one example from the bunch and trying to hold it up as definitive is misleading.

But I think what most people mean when they talk about morality pretty much involves adherence to the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". Honesty, kindness, a giving nature, bravery, helpfulness, faithfulness to your word, being respectful of others, dependability, and so on; in other words, how we treat others.

And that's where much of the Christian angst over atheism's supposed lack of morality, I suspect, comes from. There is a fear that atheists, without hanging their moral code on a religious tradition, will have no reason to adhere to the Golden Rule, causing the social order to collapse, leaving us all in a bleak, grim, Hobbesian struggle for survival as savages, where might makes right and the strong prey on the weak with no conscience at all. To that concern, all I can say is, look at Norway:
Depending on the definition of atheism, Norway thus has between 26 percent and 71 percent atheists. The Norwegian Humanist Association is the world's largest humanist association per capita.

And what has secularism done to Norway? The Global Peace Index rates Norway the most peaceful country in the world. The Human Development Index, a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and standard of living, has ranked Norway No. 1 every year for the last five years.

Norway has the second highest GDP per capita in the world, an unemployment rate below 2 percent, and average hourly wages among the world's highest.


TazHall said...

Howdy! Just offering my perspective.

Can people be moral without being religious?

It's good that you mentioned that and I agree. People certainly can be moral without being religious. Even Christ made the distinction. He even said people can be religious without being moral!

"You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder."--James 2:19

Religious or not, everyone has a conscience-- born "with knowledge" of right and wrong and the Golden Rule. It just depends on how much a person listens to it. The question would then be what an individual's relationship to God is. A runaway prodigal, a Pharisee, a rebel, a mindless robot, or a child to a Father?

The point of Christianity is that sure, people are moral, but they are still spiritually dead and do not meet God's perfection and holiness. In that logic, someone can be a good, walking dead person without eternal life. That's where the whole need enters for humility and the Cross to satisfy both divine mercy and justice. The humility comes from realizing Jesus' scars were supposed to be ours.

God desires holiness and relationship with Him, not just good morals. That eliminates the need for boasting and equalizes all people no matter their station in life. The creation was not intended to live indepenently of the Creator any more than the earth was meant to exist without the sun.

A lot of general America doesn't even understand the backdrop of the Bible, sadly, many churchgoers don't either end end up making a mess of things and alienating people. The judgement of atheists as being a bunch of amoral savages is completely sad and unfair. Can't judge people you don't even know. I've learned to take people case by case and by no means do I have the authority to sit on the throne of judgement.


Jeff Hebert said...

I think that's a theological point that most Christians miss. If you believe that God gives everyone a moral sense, then even those who don't believe in God are capable of being moral. The atheist of course doesn't understand or agree that God gave them the moral sense, but that doesn't make it any less present (according to the theist).

I understand of course that a lot of theists believe that humans do not, in fact, have an innate, God-given moral sense, that humans are all morally depraved savages who can only be saved by learning what is moral from the Bible. In that kind of universe, you'd have to be a Christian to be moral by definition. But given ongoing research into moral behavior in animals, I think it's pretty clear that this is not the case.

Of course, as an atheist I think the moral sense we do have is a legacy of our natural evolution, and not a "gift from God", but that's sort of neither here nor there. Either way, atheists and theists both are capable of living moral lives; belief in God isn't the deciding factor.

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