The objection most frequently raised by defenders of faith to atheism and atheists is that there can be no morality without religion. One of the more disturbing recent secularist trends is a compulsion to answer that silly argument, in an effort to prove to the world of faith that we are as capable of goodness as everyone else. This strikes me as the moral and intellectual equivalent of gays feeling obliged to prove that they can be faithful lovers or African-Americans knocking themselves out to show that they are not anti-white racists. Who gave straights, or whites, the right to set themselves up as arbiters of behavior and morality? Why should atheists assign a similar power to religious believers?
I was stunned the first time I was asked, by a right-wing radio talk show host attacking my Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004), what would prevent me from committing murder if I did not believe in God. I answered truthfully, because I had never been asked such a question before, that it had never even occurred to me to murder anyone. I will never respond to such an insulting question again.
People who prefer to describe themselves as humanists rather than atheists–I consider myself both–seem especially taken with the idea that we ought, sometimes literally, to advertise our goodness to the world of believers. The American Humanist Association garnered considerable publicity over the holiday season with its “Be Good For Goodness Sake” posters on buses in cities across the nation. In a strange way, this campaign smacked both of a sense of moral superiority and a sense of inferiority. Do we think that we’re better than religious believers because we are capable of being good without the hope of eternal life or the fear of eternal punishment? Or do we still consider ourselves outcasts in America because it contains a great many stupid people who think that atheists are about to embark on a killing spree because they don’t believe in any divinity?
The newest trend in the unnecessary defense of the goodness of atheists is an effort to use social and cognitive sciences as evidence that religion is unnecessary for basic morality. In the February issue of the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, [Link], Harvard psychology professor Mark Hauser and Finnish scholar Ilkka Pyysiainen scrutinize a number of international studies of moral judgment and conclude that humans’ sense of right and wrong in many situations is independent of religious belief or nonbelief. This strikes me as a valid conclusion of no practical significance, and it is based more on psychological and emotional speculation than science.
All cultures and all religions, for example, have prohibitions against murder but they define murder quite differently. When I said that it never occurred to me to murder anyone, I was not thinking of helping someone with a terminal illnes to die on his own terms–because I do not consider it murder to aid a person with a hopeless prognosis and a sound mind in his wish to end his suffering. But I suspect that my right-wing talk show host would have disagreed. Psychologists may find that sane people, whatever their formal belief system, take a dim view of murder, but that does nothing to resolve disagreements over whether assisted suicide or embryonic stem cell research do in fact constitute murder.
In an article in Free Inquiry magazine, Hauser and the bioethicist Peter Singer published the results of a Web-based study which they called a “moral sense test.” They found no difference in responses of the religious and nonreligious to question asking whether certain acts were morally obligatory, permissible, or forbidden. One of the scenarios was: “You pass by a small child drowning in a shallow pond, and you are the only one around. If you pick up the child, she will survive and your pants will be ruined.” Would rescuing the child in these circumstances be: a) obligatory; (b) permissible; or (c) forbidden? What a surprise that 97 percent said it was obligatory to rescue the child! I think that my radio interlocutor and I would have agreed that it’s a bad thing to ignore a drowning child because you don’t want to get your clothes wet. So what? (Full disclosure: Free Inquiry is published by the Council for Secular Humanism, which is affiliated with the Center for Inquiry, and I am a consultant for the New York City branch of the Center.)
This was not really a scientific study, in that the respondents were volunteers, but it is fascinating that respected scholars find it necessary to use such simpleminded examples to bolster the claim that the nonreligious are just as nice (or naughty, let us not forget) as anyone else. If all moral questions were as conveniently unambiguous as this one, human beings would never have invented not only religion but secular philosophy and civil law.
I certainly see ample evidence that humans–at least as soon as they become aware of the existence of other humans–manifest a kind of empathy that predates maxims like the Golden Rule, which appear in one form or another in all decent ethical systems. Darwin called this the “instinct of sympathy,” which he described as something that cannot be checked “even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.”
But it is equally true that humans are subject to selfish impulses capable of inflicting great evil. And history offers ample evidence that neither religious nor civil law has proved particularly effective at quelling the worst of these impulses. A Hitler, to use another unambiguous example, is unhindered by the laws of God or man and, at some point, has to be removed from the human landscape by brute force. And here is where someone will contend that Hitler did what he did because he was an atheist, and where I could respond that Torquemada did what he did during the Inquisition because he was a Christian. (In fact, the latter’s Christianity is much more certain than the former’s atheism. Every member of the Wehrmacht wore a belt buckle with the motto, “God With Us.”) There are people in every society, subscribing to every sort of belief system, who turn out to be monsters.
All historical arguments over whether secular or religious sociopaths have done more harm are meaningless in a fundamental sense, because the claim to absolute truth–and the certainty that anyone who challenges that truth is a traitor who deserves to be punished–is common to religious and secular totalitarian ideology. Such ideology overwhelms both the naturalistic “instinct of sympathy” and the restrictions, both religious and secular, designed by civilizations to guard against the worst human impulses.
This returns us to the question of why so many atheists are trying, through propaganda or some form of research that may or may not have any validity as science, to prove that they are just as good as the religious. I have no doubt that neuroscience, with its expanding array of tools for brain imaging, will demonstrate one day that the brains of atheists and the religious light up in the same places when they stop to bind up someone else’s wounds and that the brains of those who enjoy violence also light up in the same places while inflicting pain on others. To “prove” this serves the cause of atheism no more than it does religion, because the real question is not whether atheists and believers derive the same psychic or neural gratification from bad or good acts but what leads people within both groups to choose one path over another.
It is time for atheists to stop trying to prove what there is no need to prove: that they are as good as people whose religion began with a father’s willingness to kill his only son at God’s behest or with the crucifixion of a man-God. For goodness sake, let us look to the only real evidence of good and evil in the world–our behavior and its consequences. And I hope I never encounter any people in that 3 percent who would let a child drown in a pond in order to preserve their dry clothes.