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During a trial at The Old Bailey in February 2010, a man was given no jail sentence for deliberately breaking a stranger’s jaw in an unprovoked attack. He was let off with community service and a fine. The judge reasoned that the accused merited no harsher punishment because he was religious, and therefore unlikely to reoffend. The decision highlights the bizarre, yet persisting, assumption that religious faith is somehow an indication of good character – that there is something intrinsically and self evidentially good about being religious.
Society supposes to believe in the morality of religion due to its moral teachings and the charity done by religious groups. However, if you do think religious people are moral, you must ask yourself why they are moral. Is it plausible that their morality comes from the teachings of the holy books and from a belief in heaven and fiery hell? The holy books of the monotheisms were written when humans had no understanding of bacteria, tectonic activity or electricity; when they believed the earth was a disk, and the sky a dome. Is anyone seriously suggesting that without these we wouldn’t know right from wrong? If the Jewish ancestors were not at the foot of Mount Sinai would we not understand that it is wrong to murder? If God were proven not to exist would we all immediately embark on lives of theft, murder and cruelty?
Virtuous behaviour by a believer, or on behalf of a religious organisation is not proof of the moral steadfastness of religion. It is not even argument in its favour. People of religious charity did not originally lead self-centered and selfish lives until instructed by scripture to donate their money and free time to others. Such an argument goes nowhere in explaining the good actions done without supernatural consideration or inducement. With the claim that religion is inseparable from ethics and morality they are conceding that if it were not for faith, they would lead a lives of unbridled immorality. Is it ethical to be good only because you fear punishment? A person who led a good life only because they feared hell would go straight to hell.
Morality is part of human nature. It is also in the nature of a large number of animal species that don’t claim to be divinely inspired. If you see a child trying to run into a stream of traffic, something tells you what you ought to be doing about it. Equally, if you think of the worst thing you have ever done, the action of which you are least proud, and that you would least like to have widely known about, it undoubtedly pales in comparison to the actions of Dr Harold Shipman. Dr Shipman took great pleasure in murdering people who trusted him. Although you are ashamed of what you did, you think: “Yeah, but I’d never do that, I wouldn’t, and no one needs to tell me why I wouldn’t’.”
Morality is effortless, it’s innate, and doesn’t need to be taught to children. Even an 18-month year old child will try to comfort someone they see in distress. The argument is brilliantly summed up by Christopher Hitchens: “name me an ethical statement made, or an action taken by a believer that could not have been performed by a non believer. As yet I have heard of none. However, if you ask an audience to name a wicked action directly attributable to religious faith, nobody has any difficulty in finding an example”.
In spite of the current pessimistic view of the declining morality of society, the historical trend is of a positive improvement in society’s moral outlook. Today’s views on race, gender, equality, war, torture and sexual orientation are wildly different from the widespread views of society at the beginning of the 20th Century, and even from the views of the 1950s. Mainstream views on all these topics have only improved. The standard of morality in society improves decade on decade, and it is only based on our own ethical intuitions, and on conversation with the ethical intuitions of others. The moral standard has advanced so far that even the actions of Hitler, widely regarded today as pushing the envelope of evil into unchartered territory, would not have even been noteworthy in the time of Genghis Khan.
In accordance with this shifting morality, people of faith choose to reject the holy pearls of wisdom that encourage death by stoning for, among other things, adultery, premarital sex, atheism, belief in another God and homosexuality. These teachings are in the holy texts not as metaphors or analogies but as explicit instructions. The monotheistic texts celebrate war, murder, and genocide. Even good old Jesus was clearly a fan of slavery. Religious believers instead choose to emphasise the teachings similar to the golden rule – to behave to others as you wish them to behave towards you. The golden rule is not unique to any religion or society past or present, in fact, almost every society in the history of the world had a version of this rule in its cultural teachings.
A large number of believers go through the holy texts picking out the nasty verses from the nice verses; they choose the teachings that conform to current secular, moral standards. Religion gets its morality from society, not the other way around. The social standard to which religion conforms is available to everyone, and it advances in parallel in everyone. The places in which the moral standard has not advanced are typically the places in which religion looms large. Equally, the most successful, prosperous and democratic countries are those in which state and religion are separated by law (the only legal exception is the United Kingdom, however, the UK plainly functions as a secular republic).
A common riposte by the faithful is that the 20th Century was the most secular period in human history, and produced such monsters as Hitler and Stalin. If we’re on the subject of dictators, however, Mussolini, Franco and Salazar were installed and maintained by the Catholic right wing. Hitler was a Catholic, and the Catholic Church said prayers to celebrate Hitler’s birthday until as late as April 1945. Stalin was also able to exploit the apparatus of subservience adroitly created by the Russian Orthodox Church. In response to this argument, it is only necessary to highlight the decision of the Pope in 2005 to announce that condom use could worsen the problem of HIV and AIDS in Africa. It is difficult to imagine how the Pope could have caused more misery and human suffering with fewer words. Equally the advance of stem cell research is held back due to the religious theory of ‘souls’, a theory, which is shown to be spurious by a short spurt of the most basic scientific analysis. In any case, is the ‘soul’ of a cluster of cells more important than the life of a six-year-old child with cerebral palsy? The religious bludgeonings in the Middle East are almost too obvious to mention. It must be noted, however, that the actions committed there are not done “in the name of religion”, which is a common get-out clause of the faithful, but under the direct instruction of Imams and Rabbis. The easiest response to this claim of the deficiency of secular morality is that there are no atheist suicide bombers.
The idea that religion, ethics and morality are intrinsically linked is promulgated alongside the taboo of criticising religion. Throughout human history no one has been able to provide any type of evidence for a supernatural being, in fact only an abundance of evidence to the contrary. However, it remains that people’s faith cannot be questioned because ‘it’s their religion’. Although it is not understood where human morality comes from, it certainly does not come from religious texts. Richard Dawkins describes a convincing evolutionary theory in The God Delusion. Stephen Fry, however, concludes the argument most eloquently: “we should never allow religion the trick of claiming that the altruistic, the morally strong, and the virtuous are in any way inventions of religion, or particular or peculiar to religion”. An argument that claims morality stems from religion would be equally as convincing as an argument for an all loving, all powerful God who kills tens of thousands of people every year in natural disasters, who only chose to reveal himself after 100,000 years of human existence, whose only method of getting his son to earth was to impregnate a Palestinian virgin, and then to have all subsequent revelations in the same district.