One of the insistent claims of the new atheism is that "the world would be a better place without religion." All the atrocities of history are typically laid at the feet of "religion." Consequently, if there were no religion, there would be no problems. There would be no religious extremists to fly planes into buildings; there would be no religious causes to fight wars over; there would be no heretics to persecute; and there would be no dogma to stand in the way of pleasurable pursuits and scientific progress. In the words of John Lennon, if we imagine there's no religion, "all the people" would be "living life in peace" and "the world will be as one."
A reply to this would begin by questioning whether it is indeed true that all, or even most, of the atrocities of history are religiously motivated. As it turns out, an objective survey of history will turn up quite a number of murderous and oppressive examples that are purely secular in nature. A few that come to mind include the Columbine massacre, the eugenics and racial elitism of Margaret Sanger and company, the killing fields of Pol Pot, the systematic purges of Stalin and Mao Zedong, the sadistic and bloody French Revolution, and probably the bulk of the barbarian invasions and national conquests of the ancient world. Only by a definition so broad as to be meaningless could we attribute these things to "religion."
Perhaps it may be argued that these persons and societies were not properly atheistic, or an appeal might be made to examples of virtuous atheists. To the issue of what constitutes a "proper" atheist, I will speak latter, but here I would point out that the same could be said of religious people. Innumerable examples of selfless devotees could be brought to bear, and religious contributions to society could also be referenced, like hospitals, universities, orphanages, emergency aid organizations, youth programs, and soup kitchens. In my own small town alone there are several dozen relief organizations which are founded, staffed, or provisioned primarily by Christians. And I will gamble that it is the same in your own town.
I would argue that the charitable contributions of religion far outweigh any of its real or alleged abuses by orders of magnitude. This could only be denied by attempting to secularize certain key contributors, but it is not fair to selectively secularize only what is flattering and then turn a blind eye to atheism's culpability in the unflattering. Or perhaps it could be denied by defining certain contributions as something other than "good," but that begs the question as to why atheism's standard of good should prevail in arbitrating this dispute. One cannot simply assert that things like proselytizing, opposing abortion, or defending traditional families are strikes against religion without first demonstrating the fiction of such things and the religion(s) that sponsor them.
The atheist's argument begins with the assumption that there is no truth in religion, but then lodges complaint against actions that may be consistent with that religion in order to condemn the religion itself. This means that if one assumes, for the sake of argument, that the religion is true, then any act consistent with that religion is removed as grounds for complaint, and, conversely, any act inconsistent with it is exempt from complaint.
Of course, what the religion actually teaches about humanity and how it ought to behave may offer grounds to question the religion itself if it is contrary to all reason and experience. However, if there is any truth in religion, then there will surely be some hard teachings involved that are distasteful to human preferences, and we must also deal with the question of how we might, outside of a transcendent standard that religion would provide, judge certain doctrines "bad" or against "right" reason.
When asking whether a behavior is caused by a belief system it must first be determined if that behavior is consistent with the beliefs in question. For a religion like Christianity there is some hope of doing so, since it is founded upon certain doctrines and is in possession of a guidebook — the Bible — to which one might appeal in making a ruling. For this reason a strong case can be made that most of what is commonly credited to Christianity is actually a violation of its fundamental principles. It is not consistent with Christianity; it is antithetical to it. And if something is inconsistent with a thing it is hard to make a case that it is caused by that thing.
I once had an atheist insist to me that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber, was a Christian, as if to blame Christianity for the bombing itself. To answer such a charge it is not necessary to know anything at all about Timothy or his motivations; you must simply ask yourself if it is reasonable to imagine Jesus helping him pack his truck full of explosives. Since the answer is obviously "no," then even if McVeigh thought of himself as a Christian he must have a very different thing in mind when he uses that word — a thing which no classical Christian would care to defend.
If religious wars, inquisitions, and heretic burnings were in fact consistent with Christianity, then we should expect to have seen such things from its very inception and Christians would be repeating the behaviors even to this day rather than apologizing for them. This is exactly why the events referenced as "Christian atrocities" are generally isolated episodes in history and not things that invariably spring up wherever the Gospel is preached. Christianity has within itself exactly what it needs to be self-reforming. But no matter how divine her doctrines, because the visible church is composed of humans (some of which are only arguably "believers"), it is guaranteed to manifest flaws large and small. If the skeptic is looking for proof of God in the perfection of His followers, then the skeptic is presuming something about human nature that Christianity does not teach.
Of course, I have here been defending Christianity as opposed to "religion" in general. However, most of those arguing against religion train their guns primarily on Christianity and only employ things such as Islamic extremism for the sake of the juicy examples it affords. I will not take pains to defend religion at large, though each group surely has its own defenses to offer. I am only obliged to defend what I believe to be true: classical Christianity. If any who consciously differ from that truth consistently commit offenses, then it is not Christianity's burden to bear, and they "prove" the truth of atheism only as much as they prove Christianity, or anything else in opposition to themselves. The sins of the one, or even the majority, do not categorically invalidate all. If this were not so then we must condemn all thought of government because of the abuses of communists and fascists.
In fact, the rejection of religion would be a bit like the rejection of all formal government. Gone would be any objective moral framework, historical narrative and vision, or idea of absolute justice. But what would take its place in a strictly atheistic world? What ethical theory follows from atheism? John Lennon thought we could all "live as one" if we gave up on religion, but given that atheism's only dogma is the rejection of the supernatural it is impossible to say what such a world would yield.
Many atheists would propose something like secular humanism, but that is merely a broad ethical creed that begs for consensus over details, and it is no more objectively binding on its supporters than a New Year's resolution. And even if its followers were all passionately committed to it and everything derived from it, it is not the case that all atheists are on-board with it. Some atheists are nihilist. Some are anarchists. Some are communists. Some are hedonists. Some are quite sympathetic to religion. And some are just psychopaths. The frightening thing about atheism is that while it is difficult enough to say what is consistent with it, it is quite impossible to say what is inconsistent with it.
Unlike with Christianity, there are no grounds on which to even begin a debate over how atheism is to be lived out. So long as there are no gods and souls being appealed to, then it all equally qualifies as atheism. But worse than that, without a transcendent standard of morality, there are no grounds for saying how atheists ought to behave or why they ought to behave in any proposed way. Along with God goes any idea of fixed and binding moral imperatives. Morality simply becomes whatever humans define it to be at any given time and place. Lennon's imaginary world of brotherhood would be spoiled in the determination of which humans have the power to control the definition of the good and true. And the hunger for power is a very human trait. History has taught us at least that much.
Religions that explicitly teach violence aside, from a purely theoretical perspective it only makes sense to think that if one believes in divine justice, from which even death is no escape, then one is more likely to be concerned about his or her own good behavior. If people do bad things in contradiction to a system that teaches otherwise, then it must be the case that something else is driving them. I would suggest that something more subjective is at the bottom of human aggression — something at the very heart of humanity. As one sage has said, human depravity is one of the most empirically verifiable of all the doctrines of Christianity.
If we removed religion, people would simply find alternate grounds for oppression. There would always be substitute causes, movements, and justifications for evil persons to employ in their service. People have an incorrigible need to feel justified in their actions — even hardened criminals will make excuses. Religion is simply one very powerful justification to be leveraged. Removing the "excuse" of religion will not magically make bad people into saints. It would be as reasonable to believe that removing gangster rap and heavy metal will leave us with responsible and well-adjusted teenagers.
Some might argue that Europe has become largely secularized and it is doing just fine. Well, that returns to one's definition of "fine." When the news delivers stories of moral absurdities — stories that could make even an atheist cringe — they often will originate in one of the European bastions of secularism. Some notable examples would be: sex vendors at sporting events, a woman marrying a dolphin, the mainstreaming of pornography, problems of child pornography rings, lesser standards for what qualifies as child pornography, welfare recipients being forced to take available jobs in the sex industry, involuntary euthanasia, porn stars in politics, football (soccer) riots, and the breakdown of the traditional family. (Of course, I am begging the question to think that an atheist will take issue with such things. But for those who merely shrug at my list, it proves my point that it is indeed consistent with atheism; and for those who are troubled by it, it proves my point regarding the diversity of atheism.) Additionally, when it is said that Europe has become secularized it does not necessarily mean that it has become atheistic; it has simply become more diverse and "spiritual" but less inclined toward organized Christianity.
But even if all religious people died tomorrow in some great pluralistic rapture, I would expect that the world would not immediately descend into a pre-modern barbarian chaos. Modern atheists are so fat with the moral capital of their Christian heritage that they could probably live for decades before suffering bankruptcy. And most are either in denial or have quite forgotten that if there is no God anything is permissible. Well, anything that you can get away with at least. In a world without purpose and standards beyond personal happiness, what taboos can stand?
Is it really true that it would be the end of evil if we made an end of religion? As I've argued, it would only be the end of evil in the name of religion and the end of our grounds for naming anything evil. Evil would remain, but would be called by a different name, and it would be celebrated, tolerated, medicated, or carefully regulated — but never judged.
Labels: Atheism, Common Objections, Morality