Replacing Religion, part 3

In this series of posts, I will be looking at a variety of different human needs, exploring how they are filled by religion, and attempting to find secular ways to fill those needs instead. By doing this, I hope to discover whether the claim that “people need religion” is true or not. Can religion be replaced?

In this post, I’m going to discuss the idea that humans need religion to be moral.

People are often surprised to discover that someone they know and like is an atheist because they believe that atheists are evil, immoral, and have no reason to follow laws. One classic reaction to learning someone is an atheist is recounted on Converts’ Corner: “Really? But you’re not a murderer or a rapist! You’re a really nice kid. I thought all atheists were really evil people!”

The reason so many religious people think that atheists are immoral is because religious people look to religion and their god for their morality. They believe that without religion to teach a person right from wrong and keep them on the path to paradise, eternal life, or whatever their deity supposedly offers, the nonreligious person will do whatever she wants or whatever her basest nature drives her to do.

To me, this suggests that religious people actually need someone watching over them and threatening to take something away in order for them to behave in a moral fashion. Are religious people really so unsure of their ability to control themselves? Do they really think they need an eye-in-the-sky looking over their shoulder to keep them from stealing, raping, killing, or doing some other immoral act? Do they need the threat of something being taken away from them simply to be nice to other people? I think they should give themselves more credit. It’s really not hard to be a good person. In fact, I find it quite enjoyable and fulfilling.

Why is it that we atheists don’t need a sky bully watching our every move (and reading our every thought) to make us good people? The same reason religious people don’t need one (despite the fact that they seem to think they do). It’s because we’re all members of the same social species: Homo sapiens. Humans.

“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.”

Physically, humans are pretty pathetic. We’re weak and slow and our fangs wouldn’t frighten a raccoon. We do, however, have really big brains and, by working together, our ancient ancestors could survive and thrive. But working together required humans to follow certain rules even when doing so was contrary to their short-term interests.

Say you covet your neighbour’s cave. You could just smash his skull and move in. But you need your neighbour’s help in the mammoth hunt. And besides, if you smash his skull and take his cave, someone else might get the same idea. So in the long run, both your neighbour and you will be better off if everybody agrees it is wrong to smash thy neighbour’s skull.

Humans who learned to restrain themselves prospered. Those who didn’t vanished. Over time, the internalized rules we call morality became hard-wired instinct.

That instinct remains no matter what we believe about invisible spirits. And its force is not diminished by recognizing its origins in biology: We can no more choose not to feel moral impulses than we can choose not to feel sexual desire.

So it’s no surprise to learn that atheists can be perfectly decent people. They are human, after all.

Excerpt from “Atheists aren’t a bad lot” by Dan Gardner, Ottawa Citizen

And so yet another need that supposedly only religion can fill disappears. But there are still a few more on my list. I’ll see how many I can cover in my next post.

2 Responses to “Replacing Religion, part 3”

  1. All so true. And in an interesting counterpoint, I’ve had a few fanatical christians tell me that they aren’t worried about their crimes (sins) because they’ve confessed and Jesus has forgiven them. In other words, their belief in their god has led them to believe they can get away with committing crimes because all can and will be forgiven by that same invisible non-existent god.

    This attitude leads me to believe our world would be more moral and honest if we lacked religion altogether.

  2. Also, some fundamental religious types believe in “the ends justify the means.” Killing infidels is ok, that’s what the mean-spirited, vengeful, fire and brimstone god wants us to do, their actions will be forgiven because it’s done in the name of their god.

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