It infuriates me whenever someone tells me that religious faith is required in order to keep people moral. Apparently, if it weren’t for the fear of divine retribution, eternal damnation, etc., everyone would be a brute, stealing, raping, killing, and generally behaving badly. We would be in a Hobbesian state of nature. To keep society functioning, it is necessary for everyone to be ruled by fear. To be “God-fearing” is to be gentle and humble.
This is a very dim view of humanity — people can’t be good on their own? — and I’m happy to report that it’s as wrong as can be. In my experience, it’s the atheists and the agnostics who are by far the most moral and decent people: the most ready to lend a hand, the most reluctant to inflict harm, the most community-minded, the least selfish. They are guided not by fear for their immortal souls but by enlightened self-interest: sharing and caring buys you entrée to a culture that shares with and cares for you too. (Perhaps there’s a bit of San Francisco hippie utopianism in there as well.) For them, virtue may or may not be its own reward — it is for me — but at the very least it’s the currency with which a class of rewards can be purchased.
I submit that those who behave in a moral fashion for their own reasons instead of someone else’s are more moral. To such people, religion is probably irrelevant, especially if they’ve outgrown their simian need for a super-father-figure/tribal-leader/alpha-male.
What about everyone else? After all, it is lamentably true that not everyone behaves in a moral fashion on his or her own. Probably most people do not. For many of those, we see again and again on the local news (“if it bleeds, it leads”) how religion does not serve as an effective restraint on their darker lusts and passions, even in spite of occasional sincere belief in divine judgment.
Which leaves the remainder: those people who aren’t moral on their own but whose wrongdoing is effectively prevented by religious belief. They want to murder and steal and covet their neighbors’ wives and kick adorable defenseless puppies, but they don’t because God is watching.
Are there many or few such people? The Talmud says that to save one life is like saving the world. By that reasoning, if just one would-be victim’s life is spared by the inhibiting effects of religion on his or her would-be killer, then religious belief is a good thing. On the other hand, think of all the lives that runaway religious belief has cost over the centuries. In attempting to curtail one kind of evil, religion unleashes another kind. Which way does the scale tip? Does religion do more good than harm, or more harm than good?
Violent fanatics are the dark side of religious belief. Is it possible to have religion without creating fanatics? That would be the best of all possible worlds. I suspect, however, that, just like acting morally, acting fanatically is possible with or without religion to justify it.
…But without a religion to organize around, the damage they could do would be limited. Hmm, I guess I’m down on religion after all.