Victor J. Stenger
The religions of the world have lain claim to the role of arbiters of human behavior. Their leaders continually decry the moral decay they allege to see in society. They insist they have the right to tell the rest of us what is right and what is wrong because they have a special pipeline to the place where right and wrong are defined—the mind of God.
Even secular institutions pay tribute to this assertion. Whenever a moral issue arises in politics, such as stem-cell research or when to end life support, clergy are called upon to provide their wisdom. On the other hand, the opinions of atheists, freethinkers, and humanists are rarely solicited—and frequently reviled.
The implication is that atheists and humanists are somehow undesirable members of society, people you would not want to invite into your house. What chance does any one of us have to be elected to political office in the United States? Bill Clinton understood that, and made sure he waved his Bible to the crowd leaving church one Easter Sunday, before going back to the White House for a blowjob.
According to Phillip Johnson of the Discovery Institute, nonbelievers think humans came from monkeys, and this is the source of many of the evils of modern society including homosexuality, abortion, pornography, divorce, and genocide—as if the world had none of these before Darwin came along.
I know that facts, change to do not mean much in this era of faith-based initiatives like the war in Iraq and faith-based pseudoscience like intelligent design. However common may be the view that religion is the source of moral behavior, what do the data say? I have seen no evidence that nonbelievers commit crimes or other antisocial acts in greater proportion than believers. Indeed, some studies indicate the opposite. Six of the seven states with the highest crime rates are in the Bible Belt. Fifty percent of the prison population are Catholics. Atheists comprise about 0.2 percent. A child's risk of sexual abuse by a family member increases as the family's religious denomination becomes more conservative, that is, when the teachings of scriptures and other doctrines are taken more literally. Similarly, the probability of wife abuse increases with the rigidity of a church's teachings pertaining to the gender roles and hierarchy.
But let me not rely solely on sociological statistics, where correlation does not always imply connection given all the mitigating factors. But even observers from the Christian side have expressed dismay that the current dominance of evangelical Christianity in America has not translated into a strengthening of the nation's moral character, nor the characters of evangelical Christians themselves. In an article last year in Christianity Today, theologian Ronald Sider noted that "survey after survey [demonstrates] that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general." Divorce is more common among "born-again" Christians than in the general American population. White evangelicals are the most likely people to object to neighbors of another race. Evangelical youth are only slightly less promiscuous than that of their nonevangelical peers.
It is not my purpose in this article to say how humans ought to behave. Rather I am operating as a scientist, observing how they do behave. In this regard, I reject the notion that science has nothing to say about morality.
Preachers tell us that any universal moral standards can only come from one source—God. Otherwise standards would be relative, depending on culture and differing across cultures and individuals. However, the majority of human beings from all cultures and all religions or no religion agree on a common set of moral standards.
While specific differences can be found, universal norms do seem to exist. As anthropologist Solomon Asch has noted, "We do not know of societies in which bravery is despised and cowardice held up to honor, in which generosity is considered a vice and ingratitude a virtue."
While we live in a society of law, much of what we do is not constrained by law but performed voluntarily. For example, we have many opportunities to cheat and steal in situations where the chance of being caught is negligible, yet most of us do not cheat and steal. While the Golden Rule is not usually obeyed to the letter, we generally do not try to harm others. Indeed, we are sympathetic when we see a person or animal in distress and take action to provide relief. We stop at auto accidents and render aid. We call the police when we witness a crime. We take care of children, aged parents, and others less fortunate than us. We willingly take on risky jobs, such as in the military or public safety, for the protection of the community.
That stealing from members of your own community is immoral requires no divine revelation. It is revealed by a moment's reflection on the type of society that would exist if everyone stole from one another. If lying were considered a virtue instead of truth telling, communication would become impossible. Mothers have loved their children since before mammals walked the Earth—for obvious evolutionary reasons. The only precepts unique to religions are those telling us to not to question their dogma.
Of course, not everyone agrees on every moral issue. These disagreements can be very pronounced—especially within specific religious communities, where the same scriptural readings are often used to justify contradictory actions.
For example, consider the opposing interpretations of the commandment against killing found within the Christian community. Conservative Protestants interpret this commandment as prohibiting abortion, stem-cell research, and removing life-support systems from the incurable, among other actions. However, they do not view capital punishment as prohibited, pointing to the biblical prescription of an eye for an eye. Catholics and liberal Protestants, on the other hand, generally interpret the commandment as forbidding capital punishment. But Catholics oppose while liberals allow abortion, the removal of life-support, and stem-cell research. In all these cases, the Bible is evidently ambiguous. So how do Christians decide what is right or wrong? While they may look at the Bible, how they interpret what they read must depend on ideas that they have already developed from some other source.
The Judeo-Christian and Islamic scriptures contain many passages that teach noble ideals, which the human race has done well to adopt as norms of behavior and, where appropriate, to codify into law. But without exception these principles developed in earlier cultures and history indicates that they were adopted by—rather than learned from—religion. While it is fine that religions preach moral precepts, they have no basis to claim that these precepts were authored by their particular deity, or, indeed, any deity at all.
Perhaps the primary principle upon which to live a moral life is the Golden Rule:
Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.
In our Christian-dominated society in the West, most people wrongly assume that this was an original teaching of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. For some reason, their preachers, who surely know better, perpetuate this falsehood. Jesus himself made no such claim. Indeed, the phrase "love thy neighbor as thyself" appears in Leviticus 19:18, written a thousand years or so before Christ.
Furthermore, the Golden Rule is not the exclusive property of a small desert tribe with a high opinion of itself. Here are some other, independent sources showing that the Golden Rule was already a widespread teaching well before Jesus:
q In The Doctrine of the Mean 13, written about 500 BCE, Confucius says, "What you do not want others to do to you, do not do to others."
q Isocrates (c. 375 BCE) said, "Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others."
q The Hindu Mahabharata, written around 150 BCE, teaches, "This is the sum of all true righteousness: deal with others as thou wouldst thyself be dealt by."
The call to "love your enemies" also has ancient roots:
q I treat those who are good with goodness. And I also treat those who are not good with goodness. Thus goodness is attained. I am honest with those who are honest. And I am also honest with those who are dishonest. Thus honesty is attained. (Taoism. Tao Te Ching 49)
q Conquer anger by love. Conquer evil by good. Conquer the stingy by giving. Conquer the liar by truth. (Buddhism. Dhammapada 223)
In fact, no original moral concept of any significance can be found in the New Testament. As early twentieth century historian and former Franciscan monk Joseph McCabe noted,
The sentiments attributed to Christ are . . . already found in the Old Testament. . . . They were familiar in the Jewish schools, and to all the Pharisees, long before the time of Christ, as they were familiar in all the civilizations of the earth—Egyptian, Babylonian, and Persian, Greek and Hindu.
As with the Bible, the Qur'an contains many sentiments that most of us would classify as commendable. It tells Muslims to be kind to their parents, not to steal from orphans, not to lend money at excess interest, to help the needy, and not to kill their children unless it is necessary.
Not only personal behavior but also societal behavior is supposedly regulated by God. But, once again, we can find no evidence for this in practice. One of the prevailing myths in modern America is that the nation was founded on "Christian principles." However, the Constitution is a secular document that contains no reference to God, Jesus, Christianity, salvation or any other religious teaching. Nowhere in the Bible can you discover the principles upon which modern democracies and justice systems are founded. Only three of the Ten Commandments are codified into modern law, and those rules—against killing, stealing, and bearing false witness—predate the time of Moses.
The Bible was widely used to justify the practice of slavery prior to the Civil War. Both the Old and New Testaments do not forbid slavery but actually regulate its practice. While Christians in the South held onto their slaves as long as they could, secular humanist Richard Randolph of Virginia began freeing his in 1791.
Adolph Hitler's Catholicism did not stop him from killing six million Jews and, in fact, may have contributed to his twisted vision. Admittedly, Joseph Stalin's atheism did not stop him from also murdering millions. But I do not think anyone would label him a humanist.
The Old Testament is filled with atrocities committed in the name of God. These are rarely mentioned in Sunday school, but anyone can pick up a Bible and read them for herself. I will just mention one of the worst:
Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. (Numbers 31:17-18 RSV)
Most Christians dismiss this and other biblical carnage as anachronistic and imagine they were eliminated with the coming of Jesus. However, in the New Testament Jesus frequently reaffirms the laws of the prophets, saying he came not to abolish them but to fulfill them. The theist may respond that the above quotation is not a law but merely the report of an event, but the stories of the Bible are supposed to provide guides to proper behavior.
Of course, no one of conscience today would think it moral to kill everyone captured in battle, saving only the virgin girls for their pleasure. Few modern Christians take the commands of the Bible literally. While they claim to appeal to scriptures and the teachings of the great founders and leaders of their faiths, they pick and choose what to follow—guided by some personal inner light. And this is the same inner light that guides nonbelievers.
As George Bernard Shaw said, "No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says. He is always convinced that it says what he means." Christians draw Jesus Christ in their own image. Every time a theologian reinterprets Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed, he further reinforces the point I am trying to make: We humans decide what is good by standards that have not been handed down by God. But if human morals and values do not arise out of divine command, then where do they come from? They come from our common humanity.
A considerable literature exists on the natural (biological, cultural, evolutionary) origins of morality. Darwin saw the evolutionary advantage of cooperation and altruism. Modern thinkers have elaborated on this observation, showing in detail how our moral sense can have arisen naturally during the development of modern humanity.
We can even see signs of moral, or proto-moral behavior in animals. Vampire bats share food. Apes and monkeys comfort members of their group who are upset and work together to get food. Dolphins push sick members of a pod to the surface to get air. Whales will put themselves in harm's way to help a wounded member of their group. Elephants try their best to save injured members of their families.
In these examples we glimpse the beginnings of the morality that advanced to higher levels with human evolution. You may call animal morality instinctive, built into the genes of animals by biological evolution. But when we include cultural evolution as well, we have a plausible mechanism for the development of human morality—by Darwinian selection.
It seems likely that this is where we humans have learned our sense of right and wrong. We have taught it to ourselves. Just as God has been found superfluous in the physical and biological sciences, modern research is driving the supernatural out of our understanding of morals and values.
Victor J. Stenger is emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. He is the author of five published books, with another two in press. This article is excerpted from his latest book, God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, submitted for publication. His website is at http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/.
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