December 2, 2009

Pardon me while I rant

Can you be good without a belief in God? I think the more pertinent question is can you be good with a belief in God.

In the Nov. 28, 2009, issue of the Washington Post, Columnist Cal Thomas wrote this in response to the American Humanist Association's new "Godless Holiday" campaign:

Actually, no God, BIG problem, because that would mean this life is all there is and, thus, without purpose or meaning and without hope for anything beyond this life. And if there is no God the very idea of "goodness" becomes relative and subject to change. Even dictators think they are doing "good."

The bigger question is: If one can be "good" without God, why bother? Indulge yourself. Be selfish. Be promiscuous. Cheat on your spouse. Cheat on your taxes. Lie and steal. Hate and destroy your enemies. If there is no God, who is to say anything is bad . . . or good?

Let's examine Thomas's argument, which is not even original in its speciousness. It's a rehash of tired old tripes that every agnostic regularly hears.

1. If a belief in God makes us good, let's examine how belief in God makes for a better society. This is what Pitzer College sociology professor Phil Zuckerman found: "We definitely find much lower concentrations of atheism and secularity in poorer, less developed nations than in the richer industrialized democracies." The following paragraphs contain data shamelessly cribbed from Zuckerman's Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions.

All of Africa is religious, as is also the Middle East (except Israel, where 75% are not religious. Isn't that interesting?). All of Latin America is religious, except for Argentina (39% say religion is unimportant in their lives).

Rates of atheism and secularity are markedly high in Europe, according to Zuckerman. Sweden (up to 85% non-believer) and Denmark consistently rank near the top of the most atheist countries in the world. In North America, 28% of Canadians are secular. Among Americans, the more educated they are, the more likely that they are to be atheist, agnostic or secular.

Would you rather be stuck alone as a stranger in Sweden or in Saudi Arabia? Data have consistently shown that in terms of societal health (which measures education, health care, crime rates, etc.), the more "atheistic" countries are better than more religious ones.

2. If there is no belief in an afterlife or divine punishment, why bother to be good? When was the last time you said to yourself, "I'd better not do this evil thing because I don't want to go to Hell." Be honest. I've never used that reasoning myself, and I was raised Catholic. I don't need a celestial dictator to frighten me into being good. The average Swede or Dane, I'm sure, don't even think of Hell in their daily life, and they have no trouble being for the most part ethical and good people.

3. We're wired by evolution to be good, because it's in our self-interest to cooperate with one another. We are wired by evolution for empathy and altruism. In societies, altruism benefits the giver because when others see someone behaving altruistically, they are more likely to give to that person. Nicholas Wade wrote in an article called "We May Be Born With an Urge to Help" that:
Babies are innately sociable and helpful to others. Of course every animal must to some extent be selfish to survive. But the biologists also see in humans a natural willingness to help.
... When infants 18 months old see an unrelated adult whose hands are full and who needs assistance opening a door or picking up a dropped clothespin, they will immediately help ... The helping behavior seems to be innate because it appears so early and before many parents start teaching children the rules of polite behavior. (Underscoring mine.)
"When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That's my religion," President Lincoln said. I agree.

4. If we believe "God" had told us something, it's easier to be evil. Let me tell you a story. Once there were a group of men who, based on what God supposedly told them, flew two planes into the World Trade Center in New York City. Need I say more?

U.S. physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg sums it up this way: "I think on balance the moral influence of religion has been awful. With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil. But for good people to do evil -- that takes religion."

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