Documenting the Coming Singularity

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Do We Need God in Order to be Good? (Part 2)

According to statistics I have seen, taking one particular measure (divorce rate), those who profess a born again experience are just as likely to get divorced as those who do not. (Some studies show that divorce rates decrease as church attendance rates increase. This can easily be explained by taking into account the social pressures to avoid divorce in a closely knit church setting. In fact, in my former church, the claim was made that there were no divorces among its members. But any members who did get divorced would have to leave the church due to being shunned, so this specious statistic was maintained only by sleight to hand.)

We often assume, and hear it proclaimed by the religious, that our society gets its morality from its religion, and that without religion, people would have no reason to be moral and would thus descend into hellish deviltry.

Let us consider two aspects of morality. There is first the question of knowing what is moral and what is immoral. Can we know right from wrong without religion? The second question is, knowing right from wrong, are we likely to choose the right without religion? The religious say that the answers to both questions are negative. They claim that without God, without the Bible, we have no objective way to distinguish right from wrong. Let’s examine that claim.

In the words of Jesus (according to the New Testament), “Therefore all things, whatever you desire that men should do to you, do even so to them; for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). According to Jesus himself, then, the entire set of God’s rules can be distilled down to this single principle. It is more familiarly known as the golden rule. So, do we need the Bible to teach us this principle. In fact, this principle is internalized in all normal human beings by virtue of human empathy. Do not children learn this principle when their mothers first pose the question to them: “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” I know that it is wrong to steal because I would not want anyone to steal from me. I know it is wrong to commit adultery because I would not want anyone to commit adultery with my spouse. When I consider acting in a way that would bring pain to another human being, I am given pause by that fact, that the other person will feel pain. Even if my actions would supposedly not hurt anyone directly, if they would inhibit my ability to do good, the same considerations would apply. I avoid becoming a drug abuser because such a course would hinder my ability to do good for my family or even society in general. So, as we can easily demonstrate, the idea that we cannot know right from wrong apart from religion is false.

The second question is, as I stated earlier, can I find the motivation to do what is right without religion? We have already seen that we can, since empathy is a powerful motivation. What other motives exist? There is the desire to be liked and respected by others. There is the desire to avoid punishment. There is the desire to respect myself. The additional motivation afforded by religion are not necessary, therefore.

Tomorrow we will look at this question: Does religion in our culture cause our culture to be more or less moral?