I Give Homage to God. I am Morally Superior.

| March 23, 2006 | 6 Replies

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:

No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.  

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. 

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Category: Evolution, Good and Evil, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. Deb says:

    Comment to the facts about believers spending more time in prison:

    That statitstic might have some relationship to the fact that many inmates "find" Jesus while they are in jail, believing that to be one way to impress the parole board. Sadly, it may. Must be nice to be able to commit murder, mayhem, etc., etc., and have a get out of jail free card, even if you didn't ever actually go to jail. Just tell God, or Jesus, or the priest, or whoever, you're sorry, your bad acts all disappear. Well, maybe not for who or what you harmed, but for yourself. And for most of those people, what else really matters?

  2. Doug says:

    Further on the question of "how could goodness and empathy spring from a person with no supernatural moral compass?," the situation is likely to be exactly the opposite: that all of the world's supernatural moral compasses (including those found in Christianity, Islam, Judiasm, etc.) are merely a codification of mankind's prior, naturally-occurring goodness and empathy. Unless we believe that the Bible's creation story in Genesis is literally true, the human species is much older than the Bible, and so is our moral compass. Moreover, given the degree to which Christianity has co-opted so many pre-existing pagan belief systems (the Christmas ritual being but one example), there is good reason to believe that any "moral compass" found in the Bible (or the Koran, etc.) was already part of human collective consciousness long before the Bible came along to claim them. Indeed, what better way for a new religion to create legitimacy for itself than by vacuuming up pre-existing behaviors that are considered by most people to be moral, and claiming them for itself? To suggest, as many Christians do, that moral qualities such as love, honesty, compassion, fidelity, etc., were things first introduced by Jesus is laughably absurd. One need not be a Christian to appreciate the many benefits (both to oneself and to one's community) of moral behavior.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    My response to someone who just commented to my Myspace site, writing that Christians are more moral than atheists, because "If it came down to choosing a person to hold a gun to one's head, I think it is fair to say the average American would trust a Christian who is suppose to follow the commandment "thall shall not kill" over an atheist with no god or religion, who leaves us nothing to guess at."

    I wanted to respond to your comment. Check out my reasoning at http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=42 .

    I think that any sort of commandments or rules serve only as training wheels of morality. I would much rather trust someone who is thoroughly empathic. That might be a Christian or that might be a non-believer like me.

    Though I don't have a moral code heaped upon me (successfully) by any church, I can assure you that I have a very strong and carefully thought out moral code. I don't set random fires and I don't go around smacking people. I love my children and I go to extraordinary lengths to take care of them. But it's not commandments or external rules that keep me in line. Nor do I think external rules are what guides most behavior of most Christians. The most caring decent and devoted Christians I know would laugh if I suggested that they were good because of the commandments.

    I agree with you that atheists have a terrible reputation, for the reason you suggest. But I think it's terribly unfair. There is absolutely no evidence (criminal records, divorce rates or anything else) to show that Atheists are less moral than Commandment-following Christians.

    My opinion . . .

    Thanks for writing.

    Erich

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    Erich is right. According to Daniel Dennett's book, "Breaking the Spell," surveys of prison inmates show that the distribution of religious beliefs inside prison are identical to those outside prison. Unfortunately, I don't know if these studies adjust for inmates who become religious after they are incarcerated, but we also don't know to what extent this is true outside prison.

    Furthermore, holding a gun to someone's head is obviously not the only measure of morality. Many people who identify themselves as Christians are conspicuously immoral, even according to their own claimed religious standards. Consider televangelists who embezzle money from their ministries, priests who sexually molest children, public officials who abuse their office (and violate the Constitution) by trying to impose their religious dogma on the public, etc. The world has no shortage of people who call themselves Christians, but who display highly anti-Christian — even anti-social — behaviors. Indeed, some of the worst people in history have been "Christians" who have justified (in their own minds) all sorts of immoral behavior in this world in their effort to gain favor in the next.

    Bottom line: as Erich points out, Christians not only have no monopoly on moral behavior, they also have quite a lot of immoral behavior on their side as well.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    In a letter dated october 22, 2006, Sam Harris writes that religion "tends to separate questions of morality from the living reality of human and animal suffering." As the mid-term elections approach, he asks us to consider whether converstions regarding morality are focused on A) the best way to alleviate human suffering or B) the whims of an invisible God. See: http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/do-we-rea

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    This is almost on topic: In state having the most gay-bashers, the divorce rate is highest.

    Kentucky, Mississippi and Arkansas, for example, voted overwhelmingly for constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage. But they had three of the highest divorce rates in 2003, based on figures from the Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics.

    Here's the link.

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