As I said, it is rare, but there are some who promote religion not as a means of developing a system of ethics, but as a way of bringing that system to the masses. Oddly enough, I have seen this hypothesis pushed more often by atheists than by theists. The line of thought seems to go as follows. The atheists (or, more specifically, the morally upstanding atheists) don’t need religion to be moral, because you can certainly generate a secular system of morals. Yet for many millions of people, religion is a fundamental part of their moral code. We can’t go taking that away from them.
It’s not just morality that comes up in these kinds of ideas. In my experience, it’s actually more common to try and sell religion as a means of contentment or satisfaction for those who aren’t up for the atheist way of doing things. But for now, I’m just going to stick with the idea of using religion to deliver morality to the populace. There are several ways to respond to this, depending on what precisely is being claimed.
First, we need to know just why using religion to deliver moral guidance to a large portion of humanity is supposed to be a good idea. Presumably, whatever the atheist is using for their morality isn’t going to cut it, and there could be a few different reasons why this is. I’ll focus on two. The first possibility is that many of those who are currently grounding their morality in religion would not be able to handle the transition to a secular system. The second possibility is that large numbers of people simply can’t “get” the secular version. Maybe it’s too complicated or maybe it just doesn’t resonate well with large segments of the population. Whatever flavor the second possibility may come in, we need to clearly distinguish it from the first.
Now very very few people go around claiming the second possibility, possibly because they come off as elitist when they do. I can make perfectly satisfactory work of secular systems to be moral, but most of you need to be deluded into believing some sort of sky-daddy; it just doesn’t do much for your PR. Furthermore, a few casual observations bring considerable doubt on the hypothesis. Theists and atheists are both quite varied lots. My first impression (aside from the relavance of last week's post) is that anyone claiming the existence of some key attribute which allows the atheists to stay moral without religion while many of the theists can’t ought to bring some evidence to the table.
My second thought is that if such a hypothesis turns out correct, we ought to try building a better delivery system. Whether or not billions of people need religion to maintain their moral integrity has nothing to do with whether we should persecute homosexuals or whether we should teach creationism in public schools or whether abortions should be made illegal. In short, if some people genuinely need faith to be good, the we ought to build some better religions for them to follow, with more well-written “sacred texts.”
So even if large swaths of people genuinely do need religion, this still doesn’t stand as an argument for Christianity or Islam or most of the major religions of the world. Perhaps if they cleaned up their chosen texts, made sure references to slavery, genocide, rape, and persecution were openly and consistently criticized, then maybe they could actually function as reliable sources of moral instruction. Then again, such a change would leave many atheists without any desire to argue the finer points.
Of course, many will opt to go for the weaker claim, insisting that religious people have tied their morality so closely to their religion that we shouldn’t try separating the two. Yet much of what I said last week is pertinent here too. Since most people are perfectly fine with picking out the agreeable parts of religion while rejecting the disagreeable parts, it seems that most people are layering religion over top of a fairly robust moral code. And that makes it hard to believe that their moral code would not survive the removal of their religion.
We must also bring up once more the question of what this hypothesis could possibly have to do with my criticizing the “Persecute homosexuals because they’re sinners!” crowd. A person’s moral code being unable to survive the removal of their religion doesn’t matter much when the moral code has become so warped that it glorifies persecution and/or violence. Exactly what is it we’re afraid will happen if we remove religion from a man who thinks suicide bombing American forces will earn him a wondrous eternity? It seems to me that there are plenty of atrocities committed in the name of religion where “my morals depend on it” just doesn’t fly.
Furthermore, those who have chosen the less radical “they’re entrenched” argument have actually weakened their position. Yes, it does help to soften the blow of elitism of the more radical hypothesis, but at the cost of sacrificing inevitability. If some people really have become so dependent on religion for their morals to function, why is our society not just letting but actively encouraging passing that dependence on to the next generation? If pounding religion into children’s heads causes some irreversible harm to their moral reasoning faculty, then shouldn’t we put a stop to that kind of indoctrination?
Whichever way you slice it, the idea that religion serves as a delivery system for morality is at worst false and at best problematic. The existence of people who have gone from devoutly religious to atheist without becoming heartless criminals illustrates that not everyone who claims to get their morality from their religion is irreversibly reliant on said religion. So it is up to the claimant to bring forth evidence for his hypothesis. Go out and look at people who deconvert and see if any significant number of them actually become muderers or rapists or addicts or otherwise harmful members of society.
And even if the data does indicate that some select portion of the population absolutely needs religion to function, the best response isn’t “Lay off the criticism.” If these people really do need religion to serve some function, then we ought to craft them a better religion. If some people actually do rely on faith to keep from committing atrocities, then let’s print a holy text that never glorifies atrocities, that reliably and consistently backs the secular morals those people failed to grasp.