Here’s a headline that attracted my attention.
I disagree, of course.
The reason given for saying that only atheists can be moral is:
In most, If not all religions, There is a reward/punishment system at it's very core. Religion comes along, lays down some rules and convinces you that should you break any of these rules you will be subject to torturous punishment, pain and suffering for eternity. For eternity!
In light of that, How can any action performed by a religious person be considered moral? How can it even be a result of free will? If you are told to do something and threatened with eternal suffering should you not comply or promised a reward should you abide how can your action be considered good?
First (and this is admittedly pedantic) actions are right or wrong, people are good or evil. This is true in the same way that propositions are true or false, while arguments are valid or invalid. A more precise use of terms is helpful. Like I said, nothing really depends on this. It is just how I learned to write in studying moral philosophy, and what follows will make more sense if people are aware of these conventions.
Second, a right act is an act that a person with good desires would perform. A right act is not necessarily done from good desires. I borrow $15 from you and promise to pay you back on Monday. Monday comes, and I owe you $15. I do not owe you $15 paid from a particular motive. I simply owe you $15.
Or, assume that you are serving as a witness in a trial, and you are asked a question. Your motivation for telling the truth does not matter. You may tell the truth because you hate the defendant. You may tell the truth because you stand to gain a lot of money. The lawyers will certainly bring up these facts (as a way of determining if you have an incentive to lie), but they do not affect the fact that telling the truth is the right action. You still have an obligation to tell the truth, even if your motives are bad.
So, even if a person does the right act in order to avoid punishment or to obtain a reward, he is still performing the right action. It is not the case that only atheists can perform right actions. It is not the case that an act performed for the sake of obtaining a reward or avoiding punishment cannot be a right action.
So, what about the question that only an atheist can be a good person? A person is a person with good desires. A theist, apparently, only acts on a desire to obtain a reward or to avoid punishment in the afterlife.
This is almost certainly false. To begin with, if we talk about evolved desires, the theist’s (evolved) desire to care for their offspring (for example) is just as real as an atheist’s evolved desire to care for his offspring. No amount of religion changes the fact that theists are evolved creatures with the full range of evolved desires.
I have denied that evolved desires have anything to do with morality. Morality has to do only with learned desires. However, these learned desires involve, in part, strengthening or weakening those evolved desires. Evolution may have given us a sense of altruism. However, it has also given us the ability to strengthen or weaken that sense of altruism through social forces. Do we use those social forces to strengthen altruism, or to weaken it? These are the questions for morality to answer.
The relevant point here is that theists have these desires as well, and the capacity to have these desires strengthened or weakened, and ‘reasons for action’ for strengthening or weakening these desires. Not believing in evolution does not change the fact that one evolved any more than not believing in gravity changes one's weight.
People often do not know why they do things. One of my favorite examples has to do with riding a bike. Many bike riders cannot accurately describe how they keep themselves balanced on a bike. They claim to do this by shifting their weight, but the truth of the matter is that they keep their balance by turning the front wheel and using their momentum to carry their center of balance back and forth across the line from the front tire to the back tire.
We have been practicing morality for a long time - since before religion came into existence. Even animals, I argue, are capable of using social forces (praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment) to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. It does not take a lot of intelligence (certainly not as much as inventing the concept of ‘god’) to reward pleasing behavior and condemn displeasing behavior in others. Intelligence still has a role to play in morality - it allows us to create a better morality in the same way it allows us to create better tools generally. Great intelligence is simply not necessary.,/p>
Morality came before religion. Religion did not invent morality. Religion hijacked a moral system that was already in existence.
And what type of situation do these people count as a ‘reward’ in heaven? One of the most common aspects that I hear about is a reunion with family members and other loved ones – for those loved ones to come to heaven with them. What this means is that, yes, these people seek a reward in heaven. However, the reward they hope for is the perpetual safety and happiness of their loved ones in heaven with them.
In fact, this is precisely why many of these people hate atheism so much. Given their religious beliefs, atheists are a threat to the possibility that their children will live in perpetual safety and happiness in heaven. Instead, they will live in perpetual torment. This would not be an easy situation for any loving parent to accept. Is it the case that a parent is a ‘bad person’ because they seek a ‘reward’ of their children joining them in heaven as opposed to the ‘punishment’ of knowing that their child will endure perpetual torture?
Having said this, it is correct to say that that religion provides many religious people with a significant moral handicap. To imagine the handicap that a religious moralist is under, imagine the handicap that a physician would be under if he decided that all medical truths were written in the works of Hippocrates and that anything that deviates from his teachings is false? He would not be a very good physician.
For the same reasons, a moralist who works under the false assumptions that a group of substantially ignorant tribesmen came up with perfect moral knowledge and that anything that deviates from their teaching is a mistake will be working under the same type of handicap.
Anybody who goes to the Bible for moral guidance is going to an extremely unreliable source.
There are some in the Christian tradition who have found a way around this. They have gotten into the habit of rewriting (or reinterpreting) their religious texts, putting into them the most recent advances in secular morality. When secular philosophers discover a new moral truth (e.g., that slavery is wrong), these Christians write these new moral truths into their interpretation of scripture, interpreting scripture as a document that condemns slavery.
They do this, even when secular philosophers make moral mistakes. While Marx was an atheist and his views are often used to condemn all atheists, a great many priests and preachers embraced his philosophy - claiming that Marx described an economic system that Jesus would have embraced.
I challenge anybody to find where it says in scripture that abortion is immoral – that it is murder. People who make this claim are not getting this view from scripture. They are getting it from something else, from their culture, and reading this into scripture. They do this in the same way that they have read the abolition of slavery and democracy into scripture (when, for 1800 years, scripture stood for slavery and the divine right of kings).
Many Christians ignore the biblical prohibitions on the charging of interest and working on the Sabbath, but refuse to ignore the biblical prohibitions on homosexuality. This is not something they get out of the Bible. There is nothing in the Bible that says, ‘ignore this passage; give that one extra emphasis’. They get these prejudices from sources outside of scripture.
Let's go back to our doctor who thinks that all medical truth comes from Hippocrates. Imagine that this doctor keeps up on the most recent medical journals, accepts their findings, then 'interprets' the works of Hippocrates as containing those truths. To the degree that a physician does this, he is still practicing the best medicine available. He just has an odd way of relating to those medical facts.
The ‘moral handicap’ of religion only applies to those who refuse to engage in this practice, and who stick with an interpretation of scripture in the face of modern advances. A lot of religious people do think this way, and we are made worse off because of it. Yet, this fact falls far short of saying that only atheists can be good people.
An atheist can, in fact, be far worse a person than a theist. Because, while thinking that scripture is a good moral guide may be a mistake, it is not the only mistake that a person can make. Nor is it necessarily the worst.