Saturday, October 9, 2010
Morality without God-How the Virtue of the Nonreligious Surpasses that of the Religious
Can one be moral without religion? Most Christians would say no and in fact they rely heavily upon that argument to both explain the need for religion and also to validate their desire to shape and control the societies in which they live. Now those who would call themselves rationalists, freethinkers or atheists have started to become more vocal in their attack upon the moral validity of religion. Both sides often end up accusing the other of offering nothing of value to issues of morality.
Now I obviously disagree with those who believe religion is the only way to be moral but I’m not willing to go so far as to say that religion cannot lead people to live good, moral lives. What I will say quite confidently is that religion, at its best, gives people bad reasons to do good things. Two people, one religious and one not, can commit the exact same moral act and I would argue that the person who acted based upon their religious convictions did the right thing for a worse reason than the person who needed no religious conviction to commit the same act. The religious person acted because God said it was the right thing to do while the nonreligious person acted simply because it was the right thing to do. The problem I see is that the religious person does not need to examine the act itself but rather is encouraged not to ask unnecessary questions (have faith) as to why they should act in such a way. Neither the context nor the effects of their actions make a difference because they have been told what to do. The nonreligious person, on the other hand, must think about why they should act a certain way. Both the circumstances and consequences of their actions become vital issues in determining what act is, actually the right thing to do. Again both people, the religious and the nonreligious, may end up doing the exact same thing but in the end it is the nonreligious person who does it because of the fact that it truly is the right thing to do and that is far better.
One of Christianity’s favorite analogies for humanity’s relationship with God is that of a parent and a child. We are told God loves us like his children. He cares for us and provides for us. While that may be fine and good it creates a problem with how the Abrahamic God relates to us when it comes to morality. The fact is that this God treats us like children concerning virtue, which limits our ability to be moral agents responsible for making ethical decisions. If one were to ask this God why we should act in a certain way, like a normal child would ask their parent, he would provide one of two answers; the first and most common answer is “because I said so and I know best.” The second and equally important answer is “because I will reward you if you do it and punish you if you don’t.” Now these are answers that are commonly used with little children and for a time they are answers that are okay but eventually they are no longer sufficient if a child is to make true moral choices. For while both reasons can lead a child to act in a virtuous way neither reason enables the child to choose in a virtuous way.
Sadly, the Abrahamic God neither wants us to grow up nor helps us do it. He dilutes the moral actions of those who do as he commands because he encourages blind, thoughtless obedience by stroking our egos, you’re special so do as you’re told and by playing on our greed and fears promising prizes (earthly rewards and heaven) for obedience and threatening punishment (earthly afflictions and hell) for disobedience. Jesus’ ethics are built upon a foundation of reward and punishment. Little more then self-interest is needed to do as Jesus commands though of course one must also actually believe what he promises and threatens. By no means does this signify that Jesus’ ethics are worthless or wrong (though some of them are) but it does denote that the person who does the same thing as Jesus with no need of reward or fear of punishment is a person I would consider far more virtuous and worthy of imitation.
Doing the right thing because one was commanded to do it is good, doing the right thing because one chooses on their own to do it is far better.