One cannot criticize religious dogmatism for long without encountering the following claim, advanced as though it were a self-evident fact of nature: there is no secular basis for morality. Raping and killing children can only really be wrong, the thinking goes, if there is a God who says it is. Otherwise, right and wrong would be mere matters of social construction, and any society would be at liberty to decide that raping and killing children is actually a wholesome form of family fun. In the absence of God, John Wayne Gacy could be a better person than Albert Schweitzer, if only more people agreed with him.
It is simply amazing how widespread this fear of secular moral chaos is, given how many misconceptions about morality and human nature are required to set it whirling in a person’s brain. There is undoubtedly much to be said against the spurious linkage between faith and morality, but the following three points should suffice.
The notion that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality is really quite amazing, given the contents of the book. Human sacrifice, genocide, slaveholding, and misogyny are consistently celebrated. Of course, God’s counsel to parents is refreshingly straightforward: whenever children get out of line, we should beat them with a rod (Proverbs 13:24, 20:30, and 23:13–14). If they are shameless enough to talk back to us, we should kill them (Exodus 21:15, Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18–21, Mark 7:9–13, and Matthew 15:4–7). We must also stone people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshiping graven images, practicing sorcery, and a wide variety of other imaginary crimes.
Most Christians imagine that Jesus did away with all this barbarism and delivered a doctrine of pure love and toleration. He didn’t. (See Matthew 5:18–19, Luke 16:17, 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 20–21, John 7:19.) Anyone who believes that Jesus only taught the Golden Rule and love of one’s neighbor should go back and read the New Testament. And he or she should pay particular attention to the morality that will be on display if Jesus ever returns to earth trailing clouds of glory (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 1:7–9, 2:8; Hebrews 10:28–29; 2 Peter 3:7; and all of Revelation).
It is not an accident that St. Thomas Aquinas thought heretics should be killed and that St. Augustine thought they should be tortured. (Ask yourself, what are the chances that these good doctors of the Church hadn’t read the New Testament closely enough to discover the error of their ways?) As a source of objective morality, the Bible is one of the worst books we have. It might be the very worst, in fact—if we didn’t also happen to have the Qur’an.
It is important to point out that we decide what is good in the Good Book. We read the Golden Rule and judge it to be a brilliant distillation of many of our ethical impulses; we read that a woman found not to be a virgin on her wedding night should be stoned to death, and we (if we are civilized) decide that this is the most vile lunacy imaginable. Our own ethical intuitions are, therefore, primary. So the choice before us is simple: we can either have a twenty-first-century conversation about ethics—availing ourselves of all the arguments and scientific insights that have accumulated in the last two thousand years of human discourse—or we can confine ourselves to a first-century conversation as it is preserved in the Bible.
People of faith regularly allege that atheism is responsible for some of the most appalling crimes of the twentieth century. Are atheists really less moral than believers? While it is true that the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were irreligious to varying degrees, they were not especially rational. In fact, their public pronouncements were little more than litanies of delusion—delusions about race, economics, national identity, the march of history, or the moral dangers of intellectualism. In many respects, religion was directly culpable even here. Consider the Holocaust: the anti-Semitism that built the Nazi crematoria brick by brick was a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity. For centuries, Christian Europeans had viewed the Jews as the worst species of heretics and attributed every societal ill to their continued presence among the faithful.
While the hatred of Jews in Germany expressed itself in a predominantly secular way, its roots were undoubtedly religious—and the explicitly religious demonization of the Jews of Europe continued throughout the period. (The Vatican itself perpetuated the blood libel in its newspapers as late as 1914.) Auschwitz, the Gulag, and the killing fields are not examples of what happens when people become too critical of unjustified beliefs; on the contrary, these horrors testify to the dangers of not thinking critically enough about specific secular ideologies. Needless to say, a rational argument against religious faith is not an argument for the blind embrace of atheism as a dogma. The problem that the atheist exposes is none other than the problem of dogma itself—of which every religion has more than its fair share. I know of no society in recorded history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.
According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report (2005), the most atheistic societies—countries like Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom—are actually the healthiest, as indicated by measures of life expectancy, adult literacy, per-capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate, and infant mortality. Conversely, the fifty nations now ranked lowest by the UN in terms of human development are unwaveringly religious. Of course, correlational data of this sort do not resolve questions of causality—belief in God may lead to societal dysfunction, societal dysfunction may foster a belief in God, each factor may enable the other, or both may spring from some deeper source of mischief. Leaving aside the issue of cause and effect, these facts prove that atheism is perfectly compatible with the basic aspirations of a civil society; they also prove, conclusively, that religious faith does nothing to ensure a society’s health.
Clearly, we can think of objective sources of moral order that do not require the existence of a law-giving God. In The End of Faith, I argued that questions of morality are really questions about happiness and suffering. If there are objectively better and worse ways to live so as to maximize happiness in this world, these would be objective moral truths worth knowing. Whether we will ever be in a position to discover these truths and agree about them cannot be known in advance (and this is the case for all questions of scientific fact). But if there are psychophysical laws that underwrite human well-being—and why wouldn’t there be?—then these laws are potentially discoverable. Knowledge of these laws would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality. In the meantime, everything about human experience suggests that love is better than hate for the purposes of living happily in this world. This is an objective claim about the human mind, the dynamics of social relations, and the moral order of our world. While we do not have anything like a final, scientific approach to maximizing human happiness, it seems safe to say that raping and killing children will not be one of its primary constituents.
One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith. Incompatible religious doctrines have balkanized our world into separate moral communities, and these divisions have become a continuous source of human conflict. The idea that there is a necessary link between religious faith and morality is one of the principal myths keeping religion in good standing among otherwise reasonable men and women. And yet, it is a myth that is easily dispelled.