People who don’t believe in God are constantly disparaged as immoral by those who do. Many conservatives believe that most of what they perceive to be wrong with the world can be traced to secular humanism, a phrase they can barely utter without spitting. For them, secular humanism is a nasty weed that sprouts from the fact that it is secular. According to many Believers, humanists are immoral because they follow a secular approach—they fail to honor God.
Those who don’t give homage to a God are thus seen as incapable of holding political office, as declared by George H. W. Bush:
Believers are certain that those who don’t adore a Supreme Being have no moral fiber. When Believers learn that I have a naturalistic worldview free of supernatural and mystical elements, they often express surprise that I have any basis for loving and caring for my children or assisting a stranger in need. They are puzzled why I don’t go around setting random fires and eating my children.
This raises an interesting and fair question: Who has the superior moral character, the person who refrains from shoplifting because she doesn’t want to go to jail or the person who refrains because she thinks it’s not a decent thing to do? Or think of it this way: Who has a more admirable moral character: people who are motivated to show kindness because they fear that God will otherwise throw them into a fiery pit, or those who show kindness because it springs naturally from within them? Who is more trustworthy? Someone who obeys a set of commandments because someone commanded them to do so, or someone who consciously expresses empathy, just because (no commandment needed).
Whether people see God as their buddy or their threatening Parent-in-the-sky, there is no denying that some people are motivated to act with kindness and courage as a result of sincerely held religious beliefs.On the other hand, believing in God is no guarantee that a person will act morally. For instance, Hitler believed in God: Surveys regularly bear out that Believers are more likely to spend time in prison and Believers have significantly higher divorce rates than non-Believers.
But how could goodness and empathy spring from a person with no supernatural moral compass? Take a look at our biological cousins for some clues. In Our Inner Ape (2005), primatologist Frans de Waal has written extensively on the behavior of chimpanzees and bonobos. [Those of you who are convinced that evolution is evil will have to take a few long and deep breaths to get a foothold, but you will be amply rewarded.] Careful detached study of these marvelous animals shows that they are intensely social, capable of deep empathy and geared toward collaboration. The same is true of human animals. Because violence and competition are unusual and disturbing, such incidents can distract us from recognizing the ubiquitous cooperation among humans. This cooperation can be found in the establishment of libraries, hospitals, charities and random acts of kindness. It can even be seen in the establishment of churches.
How, then, are non-Believers capable of kindness and self-sacrifice? Though it’s going to take much more study, de Waal and other scientists have given us a terrific start. De Waal’s research has shown that altruism is natural, as natural as competition, and much more common than violence.
Non-Believers are decent, then, for the same reason that decent Believers are decent. It emanates from a source that runs counter to the faulty introspective efforts of Believers. Kindness is an instinct that is deep in our bones.