Atheists claim they can be good without God. But what about theists? But what about religion? Does believing in God actually make you more likely to behave morally? Is it helpful where ethics are concerned.
The obvious answer is probably the idea that God rewards good behavior. Say that whenever I use the word "good" you can substitute in the phrase "commanded by God." (This is essentially Divine Command Theory's view.) If God actually exists and He's in the punishment game (so that doing X will result in punishment Y), that solves the question of why we should bother with morality. God, after all, is powerful, and pleasing him is likely to help you out in practical terms. There's also the argument that DCT avoids the problem in arbitrariness in ethics. If, say, we let the King of England decide what is moral at any point in time, then right would change as the king changes (either by maturing or by dying and being replaced by his son). In theory, torturing kittens could be wrong one day and personally permissible the next. But God doesn't change and He doesn't die, so this means what is right yesterday will still be right tomorrow.
I've never been terribly fond of those reasons, personally. It feels a bit shallow, almost sycophantic, and for me my sense of morality is much more developed than that. But since I went into philosophy, I came across a much more rigorous argument against DCT, which I find basically familiar. Those of you who took freshman philosophy may have hear of the Euthyphro Dilemma. Essentially: Plato argues that, if "right" just means commanded by God, we can rightly ask which came first, morality or God? If something is moral just because God commanded it, that means that if God commanded you to torture kittens it would be right to do that – basically, that whatever God commands, that's moral no matter what our sort of inner sense of ethics tells us. On the other hand, if God commands us to do something because it's moral, then it's moral because of some power, and that other power is controlling God's pronouncements, not God's decision. Which would basically mean God can't be omnipotent, since there's something else controlling what God can control. Since neither possibility pans out, the first assumption – that "right" was just another word for "commanded by God," doesn't really stand up to scrutiny either, and must be wrong.
To be sure, there are answers people have developed to this argument. One of my personal favorites follows along the same line of argument as the old philosophical chestnut, could God create a boulder so heavy He couldn't move it? It seems that either way,, there would have to be something God couldn't do – either a limit on what He could create, or else a limit on what He could do with the world He created. One answer (I think proposed by C.S. Lewis, but don't quote me on that) is that God could create a rock so heavy that – within the world as it currently exists – no one could move it, and then God could move it in essence by reorienting the world so the rock is a meter to the right. Similarly, we might say that God could make torturing kittens for fun and profit the right thing to do, but the way He'd do that is by reorienting the world so that torturing kittens actually was the best thing to do in that situation. In which case it would no longer seem wrong to us, but natural. And in which case God couldn't arbitrarily command something that wasn't already good; it would involve a complete redefining of reality.
There are other options, but none are anywhere near as convincing to me. They just don't seem to talk about what most people mean by God and by right/wrong. The tricky thing is that if this is true – if morality is as much a feature of the universe as gravity – then that seems to mean we should be able to discover it by observing the world. Looking at the kinds of things that really do promote human and total flourishing, and nail them down into moral laws. There shouldn't be any need for God to command anything, since the kind of thing God commands is already part and parcel with the way the universe is. This is actually a line of thought more or less in line with what Paul said: "Just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned – for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no Law." (Romans 5:12-13, NASB) I mention the Biblical precedent because it's a line of thought Christians should be more or less familiar with, if they read their Bibles. Good and evil is not something created by God's commands; it is a feature of reality even before there was the command.
So back to my original question. Does believing in God actually make it easier to be moral? There may be other good reasons to believe in God or to be a member of a religion whether you believe in God or not, which I won't go into because it's the holidays and I'm not keen to jump into deep thought. *g* But the ethics question is interesting in its own right. Does being religious help you do the right thing?
I think so, personally, and I think understanding why will help explain why some people do really awful things in the name of religion while others genuinely become more moral: they're not using the religion in a way that actually promotes moral growth. Whatever else a religion might be (true theology, good or bad metaphysics, psychological comfort, etc.), it is also a language that helps us grapple with deep ideas. It gives us a tradition to grapple with, that frames the discussion in a way that we can come to grips with it. To be sure, people can find this in other contexts. Philosophers, religious or otherwise, read the great thoughts of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Marx, Russell, Camus – pick your poison. And they read it and try to make sense of it, comparing one philosopher to another or different texts between the same philosopher, or even just the philosopher and our everyday experience. Scientists too have to deal with the implications of scientific advancements. (Does the fact that our actions are controlled by brain impulses take away moral responsibility? Are stem cells human lives? etc.). So the non-religious may find a tradition that helps them at that – but to my mind, there are also some real advantages to using a religion-based language.
First, whether or not the religious text is actually infallible or divinely-written, many people actually believe it is. This raises the stakes quite a bit over philosophical writing or scientific advancements that must be grappled with, because the people doing the grappling are in some way constructing their own language. Natural law seems to lead to bizarre consequences? Chuck it. Descartes's Dream Argument simply seems too out there to be allowed? Then just exclude it from your vocabulary. People dealing with a religious text like the Bible or the Koran don't have that luxury because they aren't defining the vocabulary; they are working within it. This raises the stakes substantially, and forces the religious person to think long and hard about both how they read the text and also the assumptions they bring to the table with them.
I've seen that a lot in my own experience as I've struggled over how to approach LGBT issues. I am familiar of course with the famous clobber texts (Sodom and Gomorrah, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, etc.) Growing up I heard them used to show why homosexuality was always a sin – and, since Christianity teaches the possibility of atonement, that usually meant that gay people could repent of their sin. Quite aside from issues of protecting marriage, I was taught that we shouldn't "enable" homosexuality through gay rights, any more than you should offer wine to a recovering alcoholic. But then I had several good friends who also happened to be gay, and seemed just as happy and fulfilled in their relationships as I was in mine. I also realized that I had not chosen to be attracted to men, so it didn't seem like my friends should choose to be attracted to the same gender.
Rather than simply pushing aside my experience or making some sort of vague statement that "God is love" and so how could the expression of any kind of love be sinful, I decided to wrestle with the Bible. And with my own beliefs based on my experience, of course. Being raised Methodist, I'm pretty strongly influenced by the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which basically says we understand God best by using Scripture, tradition (including contemporary scholarship), our own experience, and our reason. Since truth does not conflict truth, then there can only be seeming conflicts with the Bible and reality. Sometimes our perceptions are wrong, but often too sometimes how we understand the Bible is wrong. So if I have been taught my whole life that homosexuality was a sin but my experience didn't bear that out, maybe it was time to examine those beliefs more closely, and – just as importantly! – examine the way I read the Bible. Just because my pastor says it's true doesn't mean that's what the Bible means. Struggling against something that cannot so easily be set aside is a good struggle, and religion gives people ready access to just something like that.
Moving on, another way I think religion helps you become good is through the variety of people trying to work out what the religion means regarding right and wrong. Philosophers dealing with Kant are, well, philosophers. That's neither good nor bad in itself, but there is a certain type of person that's attracted to philosophy, and to academia more generally. There's an inherent bias in academia, part class and part race/gender, but also just on personality traits: only brainiacs would choose to read big books for a living. That means that the person who is more drawn to work with his hands, or become an artist or a computer programmer or a therapist, and so on. Religions do deal with all those people, and so – to greater or lesser extent – these kind of people try to make sense of what the Bible says and what that means for their beliefs. I don't agree with all of them, but having the different approaches available has some sort of evolutionary advantage, I think. It creates competition, and it offers options you don't have with other languages to help you think about morality.
One final point in favor of religion can actually help you be good. Religions have a built-in community, and for centuries they have been the heart of the larger community. Religious affiliation tends to be inherited (if you're Catholic, Baptist, Hindu, etc., your kids probably will be, too), and it's one of the most family-centered institutions out there. It's also, in many areas, the provider of the ceremonies that mark various life stages: birth, coming-of-age, marriage, death. My friends were always from church, because that's where the organized activities were and where you regularly met people and interacted with them as people rather than as a way to get something you needed. Now, I'm more or less an Aristotelian in my ethics, which means I recognize the vital role of friendship and of role-models. You become courageous (or whatever) according to Aristotle because you see a courageous person and copy her actions until they become second nature. And friendship, true friendship, is what inspires you to be the best person you can be. That means that a person who is in a network of relationships will want to become more like those people he respects, which will usually involve some sort of moral growth. Now I know secular crowds are working on this, and in some areas they do quite well at it. But, at least in my experience, the church was always better at providing deep community, the kind likely to lead to Aristotle's virtue-based friendships, than any country club or civic organization ever was.
To be sure, there are problems with using religion as a way to become more moral. It can lead to complacency and smugness. For some personality types, there's a drive to trust in authority too much. And for those people, more secular ways of making sense of morality may be helpful as well or even instead of religion. But I think there are real benefits, too, and for many people religion can be a real help toward being moral. I say all of this without making any claim about whether religion's claims about theology are true or not. I believe most of them are, but I also don't think you really need to talk about them to see why religion can be useful here. It's possible, I think, to be good without God – but for many people, it just may be easier to be good when you believe in God or at least participate in a religious group.
Now, I mentioned at the top that I think all of this makes sense of why some religious people are moral and why others can be the worst kind of bigots, thieves, and charlatans. Every group has its bad apples, of course, but religion does seem to have more than secular groups. It's not just size, though that's a part of it. Before I mentioned that religion tends to be inherited. If I'm born a Baptist and don't care enough to consider my beliefs carefully, I'll almost certainly remain a Baptist. On the other hand, if I do consider my beliefs carefully I may decide they hold up and choose to stay in that group; or I may decide to leave it. So basically, some members of each group will be coasting off inertia and some people just won't have considered it enough to make up their mind. Atheism doesn't really have the critical mass or the history and relation with politics and culture to face that same problem. Some Christians are reflective and working to improve themselves, but not all. With atheists, the group you start off with has almost all considered their beliefs more carefully.
Why does that matter? Quite simply, people who have thought about a belief are more likely o act on it. So on the surface, just because someone's a Christian doesn't mean that she's been influenced by Christian ideals or the ways Christianity can help you become an atheist. Whatever benefits atheism has in that area, they're more likely to influence each individual atheist. That doesn't change the fact that Christianity, and religion generally, can help people become good people; it just makes that benefit less obvious.
One last thing: just because I find religion practically helpful in becoming a better person, that doesn't mean that atheists are bad people. I do think atheists believe in right and wrong and can be trusted to live by the same rules society depends on. (It's a little trickier to answer whether anyone's actions, religious or otherwise, actually makes them good, but that falls under the category of "deeper arguments I'm calling a Christmas truce on.) But sometimes when people talk about being good without God, there's this assumption that if you're religious you're always less ethical than the atheist. Sometimes I get sick about that, because I know how religion actually helped me develop my character. It's also not as tied down to groupthink as outsiders tend to think, at least in my experience. So I thought it might be interesting to lay out why I thought religion could actually be helpful here.
As a P.S., Dr. Louise Anthony has a really interesting article on this topic over at the NY Times. If you enjoy thinking about this topic, it's well worth your time.