Challenging Religious Myths 1: No Morality without Religion
Myth 1: Without religion we would have no moral values and our society would be worse off.
Surely, the argument goes, the benefit of having a god in your life is that it gives you rules to live by. “If God does not exist then everything is permissible,” said Dostoyevsky, and indeed, without the threat of eternal toasting what’s to stop us? And without a moral backbone based on religion, our society would suffer.
Of course, there are plenty of things to stop us from behaving totally selfishly. With, or without religion, human beings have tremendous capacity for empathy and often modify their behaviour because they know of the pain that they might cause others. And although religion is good at shunning, society is good at disapproving of behaviour in order to protect itself too. We have survived in our present form because we are good at stopping those things which are threatening to our tribe. With, or without a god, we are capable of love and altruism and nobility because of choice, rather than the desire to avoid the ultimate, eternal, divine shunning. I am sure that both theist and atheist would agree that morality based on positive choice is preferable to one based on fear.
There is also growing evidence that religion appears to have little clear positive benefit on society, and there is a case to be made that it is, in fact, very detrimental. Although there have certainly been many individuals from a religious perspective working tirelessly to promote good, there have been atheists doing the same, and the cumulative damage done by religion seems to far outweigh any societal benefit.
From a developmental perspective, it can be argued that the West went into the Dark Ages in the fifth century as the church stifled activity in the fields of medicine, technology, education, science, and it took over 1000 years for it to recover. And of course, the present obscene immorality of religion abounds – the decades of slaughter in Northern Ireland and the bloody clashes between Sunni and Shia Muslims over who has the best way of worshipping the same God; the thousands of Africans who have died of AIDS after following the proclamations of Catholic priests that condoms would not protect them against HIV, and the thousands of victims of Catholic sexual abuse; the warped version of Islam that led the 9/11 hijackers to believe that they would be spiritually rewarded for murdering thousands. The human, financial, and societal developmental costs of all these things are huge. No sane government would want to argue that they were somehow benefitting their country.
The financial cost alone to society is enormous, representing a huge drain on limited resources (particularly for poorer nations) – resources that could be better used for the benefit of humankind. In an interesting paper John Perkins tries to assess the economic cost of religion – keeping women from the workforce, time spent on religious activity, cost of defence resulting from religious conflict etc. He concludes: “While religious beliefs may be implausible, counter-factual and irrational, and while religious institutions may be immoral, may encourage outdated cultural practices and may stimulate dangerous conflicts, these faults do not entail religion’s most serious shortcoming. The main negative impact of religion on the world community today is its enormous economic cost, estimated here to be a fixed cost exceeding $US200 billion, which falls mainly on poor countries, and an annual cost, again exceeding $US200 billion, which falls mainly on the industrialised world. The cost of religion is not just a shameful waste of human potential, but also a waste of economic resources often by those who can least afford it. These are resources that should otherwise be used to improve the human condition.” Religion is a developmental brake.
There is mounting evidence from several sources continuing to challenge the myth that religion is somehow helpful to society. Gregory Paul compared data on the level of religiosity of people in 18 developed countries with data on various social ills. If religion is beneficial the level of faith in the population should correlate with people doing fewer bad things. But it doesn’t. The analysis revealed that higher rates of belief in a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion.
A larger analysis by Gary Jensen compared homicide rates with measures of religiosity in 54 nations and found that nations with high numbers of people believing in both God and the Devil have the highest homicide rates. A third study published in 2003 found that levels of conservative Protestantism in cities in the southern US states correlated with homicide rates there: more conservative Protestants, more murders.
Of course, the correlational data between measures of ‘health’ and a lack of religion do not resolve questions of causality. Belief in God may lead to societal dysfunction; societal dysfunction may foster a belief in God. However, they suggest that atheism is compatible with the basic assumptions of a civil society, whereas the case for religion has yet to be proved. The above data certainly kicks the idea that faith automatically makes for a better and more moral society firmly into touch.
- A Thinking Man