Science for the De-Converted – Part IV
This is a very popular argument these days. Christians proclaim that without God, morality cannot exist, and there would be nothing keeping a person from robbing and killing another person because one’s own self-interest would be all that matters. Hitler and Stalin are often dragged out as examples of what you get when you take religion out of society. Sometimes Pol Pot is thrown in to give the point an exotic flair. These arguments between rationalists and theists often result in a banal body count—as if the viewpoint that has murdered the least is more valid.
The conclusion I always reach is that we already do live in a brutal, bloody society—and so far no world view has been able to change that. Societies began to succeed by establishing rules that helped curtail the violence and allowed groups of people to survive through order and control. Yet religious teachers twist the history of societies into a seemingly good v. bad (theist v. atheist) choice. This is a fallacy known as a “false dilemma.”
The argument is insulting to non-believers. There is absolutely no evidence that moral behavior is the result of God’s influence. It’s like saying campfires could have never existed without the Boy Scouts. Nor is there evidence that brutal behavior is the result of a godless influence—there is no data to support this idea.
The burden of proof is on Christians to show that morality comes from God, and they have yet to prove it. We have evidence around us that humans are (often) moral; in plenty of cases these people do not invoke or even believe in any god.
Even though it is not the non-theist’s job to prove that morality comes from non-theistic sources, it can still be done.
Evolution has influenced human and non-human animal behavior just as much as it has influenced morphology. The behaviors of all living things are the result of millions of years of evolution. While we humans have a strong drive to act in our own self-interest, it is also in our self-interest to preserve the well-being of the tribe. After all, for hundreds of thousands of years we were doomed to die if we were somehow separated from our tribe. So the humans who had the ability to act selflessly in defense of the tribe were more likely to succeed. Morality was born.
Acts of selflessness can also be evidenced in non-human animals that presumably have no concept of God. Ants will drown themselves in order for their bodies to form a bridge for the rest of the colony to traverse the water. But in another context, an ant will avoid immersing itself.
Just a few minutes ago I was taking a stroll and happened upon a duck on the ground , and it’s wings were slightly unfolded. I approached slowly to see if it was injured. It looked at me threateningly and growled. (Who knew ducks could growl?). Then, I was relieved to see a few adorable little ducklings underneath it. The mother wasn’t injured, she was just protecting her young. To that end, she was ready to fight off another animal that was literally 50 times bigger than her. Pretty admirable stuff. When a human takes selfless action to defend his or her young, we call it moral behavior. But when a duck does it, is it merely instinct?
Animals have morality every bit as much as humans do. But since we perceive morality as humans, we simply think ours is better.
While Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot may have arguably been atheists, the people they ruled were still deeply religious. Hitler professed Christianity (and indeed, often invoked it in his oratorical justifications for the Divine Right of his Master Race to rule), so that argument won’t work at all.
But beyond that, these three societies were very controlling of what people said, what was published, and what was broadcast. They each were threatened by intellectuals (and killed them) and demanded strict adherence to a complex set of irrational principles. These were not rational societies, and cannot be used as a comparison with what most rationalists today would like to see when they speak of wanting a more scientifically based government.
This one may surprise you. Less theistic societies are more peaceful, crime-free, and better behaved than religious ones. A study just published by Gregory Paul concludes, “the strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and mid-west [has] markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the northeast where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms.”
Additionally, Phil Zuckerman’s book “Society Without God” provides compelling statistics when comparing the relatively atheistic nations of Denmark and Sweden with those of the theistic United States.