Good Without Gods


An early version of this post was written in 2007. It has been revised and expanded since it addresses a topic that remains relevant: the relationship between religious belief and morality.

There was a great article by Dan Gardner published in The Ottawa Citizen. Unfortunately, it is no longer available online. When I read it in 2007, I noted that it was precisely the sort of pro-atheist article we atheists need to get out there more frequently. Gardner not only dispelled one of the most important myths about atheists but he also showed how the Christians who condemn us as immoral have to keep revising their criticism as it proves erroneous.

Here's my favorite part:

No, they say, we cannot be good without believing in an invisible spirit who, like Santa Claus, knows when we've been bad or good. No invisible spirit, no reward or punishment. No reward or punishment, and moral codes become empty words. Inevitably, atheists must conclude that morality is for suckers -- and so believers are, ipso facto, better people than non-believers.

Gardner explains that religion has been viewed as being necessary for morality for centuries but that believers are increasingly forced to confront the falsehood of this view as they encounter more atheists.

This has complicated the issue considerably because now everyone knows a few atheists who are not lying, thieving, murderous wretches. They work. They pay taxes. They have kids and don't beat them or sell them for medical experiments. How can this be?

An answer comes from the godless science of evolutionary psychology. "People have gut feelings that give them emphatic moral convictions," writes Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, "and they struggle to rationalize the convictions after the fact." Those "gut feelings" are not the result of what we learned in Sunday school. "They arise from the neurobiological and evolutionary design of the organs we call moral emotions."

It would seem that those religious believers who are at least partially connected with reality have been forced to adopt a much weaker position regarding the relationship between religion and morality.

This has led believers to a subtler attack. "People who don't believe in God can be good," writes Reginald Bibby, a theist and University of Lethbridge sociologist. "But people who believe in God are more likely to value being good, enhancing the chances that they will be good."

So religion is no longer viewed as being required for morality but as merely facilitating moral behavior. Gardner and others have shot down that claim too, noting that some of the nations scoring at the top on a list of various indicators of morality happen to be among the least religious. When it comes to the claim that religious belief is required for one to be moral or even the softer claim that religious belief facilitates moral behavior, religious believers keep moving the goalposts.