I made a response to a comment to my previous blog that I think deserves more development.
I argued that California’s Proposition 8, which would ban homosexual marriage, provided an example of people claiming to do harm to others because God told them to. Then, I was asked to look into the prospect that an atheist can also oppose Proposition 8, and be opposed to gay marriage completely. The answer points to an asymmetry in the way some atheists look at the relationship between morality and religion.
On the one hand, we hear that religion is the source of a lot of evil. From this, people draw the conclusion that if get rid of religion, we can get rid of this source of a great deal of evil.
On the other hand, we are told that religion is not the source of much good. The impulse to do good comes from another source (typically, I hear it argued, from our genes). Atheists also have access to this ‘other source’ of good, so it is not only possible but common that a person can be good without religion. If we get rid of religion, this will leave the amount of goodness in the world untouched
I do not see any basis for this asymmetry other than the fact that it has emotional appeal for somebody who already hates religion and is looking for an excuse to attack it.
The fact of the matter is that both good and evil come from other sources. Kindness, charity, parental affection, all come from other sources. Then they get written into the religion. Atheists have the same access to this source of kindness, charity, and parental affection as theists have, and are capable of being just as good as theists.
Similarly, hatred, bigotry, the disposition to divide the world into “we” and “they” and to attack ‘they’ groups violently also come from another source. They then get written into the religion. Atheists have the same access to these sources of hatred, bigory, and injustice as the theists have, and are capable of being just as evil as theists.
The point is easy enough to prove. Everything in religion is made up. It was created by humans from “another source” and then written into the religion. The forces that caused people to select “this religion” or “that religion” have no divine origin. They are natural human processes – at much at work in the brains of the atheist as in the brains of theists.
Otherwise, this evil would not have been invented and, as such, would never have found its way into scripture. It had to come from somewhere, and none of it – none of the good and none of the evil – ever came from God. It all came from some other source.
Which means that you can’t fight evil by fighting religion. The other source of evil will still exist, and will still drive evil, even without religion – just as it will continue to drive good, even without religion.
Having said this, one of the roles that religion plays in morality is as a way of rationalizing unjustifiable actions. It provides a way of giving an illusion of legitimacy to actions that cannot be justified outside of an appeal to religion.
This is different from saying that evil comes from religion. The evil does not come from religion – that evil comes from someplace else. However, insofar as these dispositions are evil, they seek some form of justification. An appeal to religion is a particularly useful form of justification (at least within our current culture) because an assertion that “God wants this” is not subject to any further proof or justification. We are supposed to take the word of the person who advocates something harmful on faith – without asking too many questions – without, in fact, asking any questions at all.
This role of giving something the appearance of legitimacy actually applies to good and evil both. Depending on the moral character of the person who is inventing any given religion, that person will often use religion to give legitimacy to anything he seeks to promote – regardless of whether he promotes good or evil. Good and evil people both can and do make appeals to religion as a way of convincing people that what they want is what God wants. The good person just happens to want what is right (and, consequently, so does his god). The evil person wants that which is wrong (and, consequently, so does his god).
However, only the evil person needs religion.
The good person can use the fact that he is promoting something that people generally have reason to promote to demonstrate the legitimacy of his morality outside of religion. The good person can defend honesty, charity, kindness, responsibility, liberty, and the like without appeal to religion. He may choose not to. He may not actually believe that he can do this. However, he can. The requirement for something to be good is that it be something that can be justified by appeal to the reasons that people have for promoting it, which does not depend on any religion.
The evil person, on the other hand, has no legitimate place to turn to justify what he seeks to promote. He needs the illusion of legitimacy, and religion provides a very useful illusion. Once he assigns his prejudice to religion, he can then stop anybody from asking any further questions about the legitimacy of his moral claims. He only needs to say, “God wants it this way; and that is something you must accept on faith, without asking any questions.”
It is a very useful way of arguing, if you can only get your audience to go along with it – to claim that the harms that others will suffer as a result of adopting the speaker’s moral attitudes needs no justification or defense – that it is to be taken on faith.
Yet, it is still the case that these prejudices and unjustified moral attitudes do not come from religion or god. Prejudices cause people to believe absurd things and to think them profound. Some people accept the absurdities of religion. Some people accept blatant contradictions like thinking that evil must come from religion and be reduced by reducing religion, while good must come from some other source and can live without religion.