Two of the most common arguments in favor of the existence of God—or against atheism— are: 1. God gives us morality, 2. without religion people would be immoral. These arguments, which are essentially one in the same, are illogical and ill-informed on several counts. Nonetheless, this type of thinking permeates so much of our culture. We can approach, and subsequently debunk, this argument somewhat scientifically:
1)One popular assumption is that the “godless” are less moral than those who believe in God. If we use propensity to commit crime as a measure of moral health, you would expect that there would be a high ratio of atheists in prison. But studies have shown that at least 80% of people in US prisons define themselves as religious: 50% as Baptist or Catholic, and roughly 30% claim to have a religious preference but do not specify a specific religion or denomination. Additionally, if morality was a byproduct of a belief in God, than states with a high number of believers would conceivably have lower rates of crime than those that are comparably more secular. But this is also entirely untrue. SC ,Tenn, Tex, Louisiana and Georgia all rank among the top 10 in terms of crime rates, and these states are the heart of the Bible Belt...but if there are so many believers then why do these places have the highest rates of crime? The point is if we use crime rates as a metric, a high degree of religiosity does not correlate with morality, which is exactly what you would expect if religion or a belief in God were the bedrock of our sense of morality.
2) What about Hitler? Theists just love to point out that the mass murderers of the 20th century (Hitler, Stalin, etc) were all atheists, which proves atheists are evil and cannot be trusted in positions of power. Again, this view is not based in the facts. Hitler's ideology contained both pro- and anti-religious doctrines and dogmas so at the very least his religiosity is inconclusive. On one hand, he speaks about carrying out 'His' (God’s) will in exterminating the Jews and the importance of prayer. On the other hand, he speaks of maintaining the superiority of the state over the church. Beyond that, anyone who has ever read the Bible knows it provides ample anti-Semitic ideology. Not surprisingly, Antisemitism in Germany was biblically based and these ideas were prevalent in German society well before Hitler ever came to power. My point is that, despite Hitler's religious ambiguity, Antisemitism would never have been tolerated if not for its biblical roots.
Stalin was a self-affirming atheist but he does not support the conclusion that atheism leads to moral decay since he never killed anyone because of his atheism. Compare that to murderers that are clearly motivated by their religion—Timothy McVeigh, the September 11th martyrs, abortion clinic bombers, etc. Who could dispute that, but for a belief in the afterlife and the ideas of martyrdom, Islamic terrorists would lose most of their destructive motivation? Who could deny that religious ideology has been the root cause of innumerable conflicts in modern times?
3) More recently, scientists have begun studying what underlies morality. They’ve found that regardless of social class, religious upbringing, or country of origin, people have similar basic principals regarding morality. Additionally, specific areas of the brain are activated in response to moral questions. Collectively, these studies suggest that our sense of morality is innate and, therefore, independent of religious background. If our morality is not dependent on religion then where does it come from? Although the jury is still out, there is evidence of morality in animals. One study demonstrated that a chimpanzee will starve itself in order to prevent harm to another chimp and studies from behavioral biology clearly demonstrate that social primate societies are intolerant of rape or theft. This is obvious evidence of morality among creatures that completely lack the capacity to believe in God.
From the examples above, it is clear that being religious and believing in God does not correlate in any way with social health or general morality. Furthermore, scientists are beginning to understand where our morality comes from and it is clear from the work done thus far that our sense of right and wrong has roots in our evolutionary past--not a system of beliefs and ideologies invented merely 2000 years ago.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)