For anyone who cherishes reason, the last several decades of American life and politics must seem like a long descent into madness. We have always been a religious society, yet the public role and influence of religion has become phenomenally pervasive and powerful in the current Bush administration. We live in a time of faith-based justice, faith-base social services, faith-based science, faith-based health and faith- based war. Religious ideology, and not reality nor facts, in increasing measure, determine how you are to govern your own uterus, whether your alcoholism counseling comes with a heavy dose of Jesus, whether you will be taught about evolution and whether global warming is a fact, whether you will have access to contraceptives, and whether Christian scenarios of Armageddon will determine American foreign policy.
Christian conservatives comprise the base of the Republican Party, and this administration has stopped at nothing to curry favor with that most cherished constituency. If it means driving talented people from federal agencies and replacing them with religious fanatics, so be it. If it means destroying the wall of separation of church and state and moving us closer to a theocracy, then so be it. If it means denying science, and sidestepping facts, such as the dangers to the planet posed by global warming, then so be it. After all, as this administration has notoriously declared, it is not “reality-based.”
American society is saturated with religion and we live in a moment of religious triumphalism. This morning I want to examine one of the consequences of religious power in American life for people like us. In the most basic sense, the importance that religion has received in American life has given religious conservatives a feeling of confidence, while it has, to varying degrees, placed on the defensive people who identify as secularists, humanists, atheists, and others who are not religious. If nothing else, the religious power of the moment has strengthened the attitudes and the biases of religious conservatives toward those people who are not religious, or are not religious in the same way as themselves.
Let me digress for a moment to look at Ethical Culture among the religions. Felix Adler, our founder, wanted Ethical Culture to attract people who were both religious in some sense, and people who were not religious. He wanted the common denominator not to be ultimate, metaphysical, beliefs, but a shared intuition that living one’s life ethically and for the sake of the moral advancement of humanity was the most important thing. On the matter of religious identity, he had once said “Ethical Culture is religious for those who are religiously-minded, and simply ethical for those who are not so minded.” By “religiously-minded” he meant people who feel that there is something beyond this realm of time and space, something transcendent, so to speak. So, if someone were to say that he or she was inspired by ethical ideals, and he considered himself religious, he was making a type of cosmic pronouncement. The religious person feels that ethics is something built into the structure of reality, and is timeless, and not something merely constructed by human beings. As noted, Adler wanted Ethical Culture to be equally accommodating to people who had this religious feeling and to secular people who did not. Whether they considered themselves religious in this minimal sense or not, Adler’s early followers, as Ethical Culturists are today, were essentially modern people, who were rationalists, and had an enthusiastic appreciation for science and scientific discovery.
My talk today is addressed to both kinds of Ethical Culturists, but more emphatically to the second kind; the person who does not consider himself or herself at all religious, and concludes that ethics does not come from another reality, but is created here on earth — in short, the person who considers herself a secular person, an agnostic or an atheist.
My talk grows out of the concern that in these religious times, it is socially outré and difficult to be a so-called “non-believer.” In most arenas of American life, to walk into a crowd of strangers and declare oneself a religious person, a person of faith, is not very difficult. It is, in fact, to place oneself on the side of the angels. However, to walk into a crowd of strangers, unless it is a gathering of academics or scientists, and to declare oneself an atheist, is to run the risk of social ostracism or worse.
To be an atheist is to be on the receiving end of what is the last broad-based, socially sanctioned prejudice in American life. In an often cited Gallup poll taken in 1999, 95% of Americans said they would vote for an otherwise qualified woman for public office, 94% would vote for a Roman Catholic, 92% for a Jew, 92% for a black, 79% for a Mormon, a staggering 59% for a gay. But just 49% of Americans said that they would vote for an atheist for public office.
There are several reasons for this prejudice against non-believers, but I want to focus on just one. First, let it be said that there is something distinctive about religion and the power that it has to grip the minds of people who hold to religious belief. More than any other allegiance in life, I find that there is something about religious commitment that doesn’t permit many people to think outside of the box. The presumption of many religious people is that other folks hold to beliefs just like theirs. In parts of this country to state that you do not believe in Jesus as your Lord and savior is not merely pernicious, it is simply unimaginable. In parts of the American south and Midwest, Christian belief is so inherently part of the culture that it might as well come out in mother’s milk.
I recall having a conversation years ago with a gentleman, to whom I was trying hard to explain Ethical Culture. After I engaged in a precise and meticulous effort at unpacking the ins and outs of our movement, our humanism, the absence of dogma and binding creeds in Ethical Culture, without the slightest irony he turned to me and said “But you do believe in the New Testament, don’t you?”
Religious beliefs, unlike, say, the truths of mathematics, are often validated and strengthened by very powerful communal bonds which impede the entry into the mind of contradictory ideas, and the acceptance and appreciation of other people who hold them. While religious apologists will often put forward the universal virtues of religion such as a respect for the stranger, the value of love, and care for the needy and downtrodden, the widow and the orphan, what is often overlooked is that religion is also the human phenomenon par excellence that grounds absolute and exclusive truths. And because of its extraordinary power to bind people together into an in-group, religion is masterful at drawing lines between those in the in-group and those who are therefore outside the group, those who are blessed and those who are damned, those who are believers and those who are infidels. Because of the binding power of religion and power to appeal to absolutes of good and evil, all too often and all too tragically it sets the stage for xenophobia and ultimately violence. So much for the power of religion.
But I am getting somewhat ahead of myself. The issue I want to confront is the status of so-called non-believers and the prejudice that they labor under in our society, indeed, in many societies.
Part of the prejudice against so-called non-believers, atheists, freethinkers and the like is the assumption that unless a person believes in God, he or she simply cannot be moral. Belief in a Supreme Being is primary, and morals derive from that belief. Indeed, what made Felix Adler a religious radical in the 19th century was that he foursquarely broke with that notion. His was the view that ethics need not be grounded on God-belief or on theological presupposition. In other words, he held that the capacity to be a moral person is independent of theology and morality can stand on its own without divine support. In briefest terms a good act remains good, whether it is sanctioned by God or not. If nothing else, Ethical Culture is founded on that radical moral freedom.
What is astounding about this prejudice toward non-believers is that it is both very old – thousands of years old – and it is completely false. That it is false is demonstrated both by endless anecdotes as well as by social scientific studies. We can simply ask ourselves the question of whether a person who did not believe in God would love her children any less than a pious believer, or whether an atheist would be less inclined to assist a blind person cross the street than a theist. The commonsense answer would, of course, be “no”. As atheists frequently point out, America’s prisons are filled with people who proclaim a pious belief in a Divine Being, but you will find very few atheists, agnostics or professed humanists in our prisons and jails. Research has shown that among federal prisoners fewer than 1% are identified atheists, which is much smaller than the population as a whole. A sociological study done by the University of Washington several years ago compared students who were self-identified “Jesus people” with a comparable number of students who were atheists. The study found that atheists were no less likely to cheat on tests or to refrain from doing hospital volunteer work than their Christian peers.
In a brief article in the current issue of Free Inquiry magazine, Princeton philosopher Peter Singer evokes an interesting angle to a series of newsworthy events. We have all heard that the world’s wealthiest person, Bill Gates, has left Microsoft to devote himself and his many billions of dollars to philanthropic activities in the U.S. and in the developing world. And Warren Buffet, the world’s second wealthiest man, recently gave away $37 billion, $30 billion of which went to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in what is the biggest philanthropic commitment in American history. In terms of sheer magnitude their generosity is beyond comprehension. Yet, as Peter Singer points out, neither Bill Gates nor Warren Buffet is at all religious. Buffet’s biography claims that he inherited his father’s ethical underpinnings but not his belief in an unseen divinity. And Bill Gates has stated that he doesn’t find religious devotion very efficient and that he has better ways of spending his time than in religious activity. One can also add to the list of non-religious philanthropists the name of George Soros, who is an unambiguous non-believer. In the face of the contention that without God, human beings would be only self-interested, selfish and immoral, here are three very dramatic instances that clearly run in the opposite direction.
Why does this prejudice persist in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence that it is groundless? The brute reason is in what I have already implied. Atheists as a minority have been outsiders to the dominant group culture and their existence is an irritant, and, as such, creates a type of dissonance in the way in which the existence of Jews in Christian-dominated Europe fomented and foments anti-Semitism. But beyond this, what reasons are given for assuming that atheists cannot be moral? There are two — one is crude but very popular. The second is more sophisticated, but also fallacious.
For millennia, and even today, the common presumption is that human beings are inherently selfish and aggressive, in a word, immoral. In the Christian outlook, man is a fallen creature who is possessed of original sin. If unpoliced by an external agent, and left to their devices, the selfish instincts of human beings will ensure that social order will be impossible to maintain and chaos will reign. Hence, without God, to paraphrase Dostoyevski, all things would be possible. And how does God do his policing work? He does it by rewarding virtue and punishing bad deeds, if not in this world, then in the next. Perhaps a small number of intellectual elites can get by without the external goads of divine reward and punishment, but the uneducated masses, who are driven by impulse and lust, absolutely need religion, God and the fear of divine punishment and reward in order to be held in check. Religion, with its threats of punishment and its scale of rewards, has throughout the ages been seen as force for social control. Atheists, because they deny the existence of a divine custodian, simply cannot be trusted to be honest or moral, and their presence is, therefore, subversive of social order. Even the British philosopher John Locke, who wrote his famous Letter of Toleration, which relegated religion to the private sphere, and was a forerunner of what became the Jeffersonian doctrine of separation of church and state, did not extend tolerance to atheists. In Locke’s view, atheists simply could not be trustworthy citizens because they could not take oaths. Fortunately with Jefferson, that assumption disappears, but it was not until 1961 that the Supreme Court concluded that Article VI of the Constitution, which bars religious tests for public office, applies to atheists as it does to traditional believers.
The problem with this reasoning, however ingrained in Western thought, is two-fold. In the first place, it is again, empirically false. While I am perfectly willing to admit that many people and society at large need laws and earthly policemen to deter crime, the same does not apply to need for a divine custodian. The United States is prevailingly a religious society, whereas countries such as Norway, the Czech Republic and Holland, by contrast, are essentially, in their national character, secular, yet the crime rate in these countries is far lower than it is in ours. According to Sam Harris, in his new book Letter to a Christian Nation,
While political party affiliation in the United States is not a perfect indicator of religiosity, it is no secret that the ‘red (Republican) states’ are primarily red due to the overwhelming influence of conservative Christians. If there were a strong correlation between Christian conservatism and social health, we might expect to see some sign of it in red-state America. We don’t. Of the twenty-five cities with the lowest rates of violent crime, 62 percent are in ‘blue’ (Democrat) states, and 38 percent are in red states. Of the twenty-five most dangerous cities, 76 percent are in red states, and 24 percent are in blue states. In fact three of the five most dangerous cities are in the pious state of Texas. The twelve states with highest rates of burglary are red. Twenty-four of the twenty-nine states with the highest rates of theft are red. Of the twenty-two states with the highest rates of murder, seventeen are red.
One datum that Harris doesn’t include is that of all the religious groups in the United States, the rate of divorce is highest among Evangelical Christians, and lowest among atheists. In fact, if you wish to create the best shot at an enduring marriage, you would be smart to become an atheist, and move to Massachusetts, because Massachusetts, the bluest of the blue states, has the lowest divorce rate in the country.
But there is a second problem with the need for religion and God to keep us moral. And that problem goes right to the heart of what we understand ethics to be. One doesn’t have to be a semantic or moral genius to recognize that if one engages in ethical acts simply to be rewarded for them, or to avoid punishment, one can rightly ask what is ethical about the behavior in the first place. This type of reasoning not only demeans the person who proclaims it because is sort of infantile; it also demeans ethics by reducing it to nothing more than a cost-benefit calculus – not what ethics is supposed to be at all. If I am honest because I will get a cookie for it, or get a cosmic spanking if I tell a lie, such motivation and the reasoning that accompanies it drains ethics of any distinctive ethical content. As biologist Richard Dawkins observes: “Most thoughtful people would agree that morality in the absence of policing is somehow more truly moral than the kind of false morality that vanishes as the spy camera is switched off, whether the spy camera is a real one monitored in the police station or an imaginary one in heaven.” Indeed Dawkins is right. For ethics to be ethics, and not merely punishment avoidance based on fear, people need to be able to see what is the right, just or good thing to do, and to be inspired to do it because it is right, just or good. True enough, we may want to do the right thing because we experience some kind of sublime satisfaction in doing so. But this motivation is far different from the crude motivation of receiving some externally derived reward from an agent, divine or otherwise, whose good graces we want to satisfy. To say to oneself, “I want to act in a way which is truthful, honest and kind because it is right to so act and this is the kind of person I want to be”, is very different in its motivation that saying that “I will be honest because God is looking over my shoulder and will punish me if I tell a lie,” and is closer to what anyone with maturity greater than a 10-year old’s understands ethics to be. A person can strive to do the right things because in a certain sense they have a love of righteousness, or justice, or kindness. In the same way as beauty can be appreciated on its own, so can the pursuit of what is right, truthful, just or whatever.
But there is a second moral criticism thrown at atheists, which is more sophisticated, yet increasingly popular these days. At first glance, it seems compelling, but it is seldom examined critically by those who make it. The argument is essentially this — if I deny a divine lawgiver who is the source of morality, and morals are something that are created by human being alone, then morality simply becomes relative to the interests of the person who is professing it. Abolish a divine, absolute standard for ethics, and it is all up for grabs. Who is to say that Hitler was wrong, or Pol Pot, or whatever malefactor you choose? If ethics is a human creation, then it is readily manipulated by those who hold the power; “might makes rights.” In short, those who deny a divine and absolute source of morality are guilty of what is frequently referred to as “moral relativism.” This, of course, implies that those who are God believers have their hands on moral absolutes, which atheists lack.
This claim, though it makes for more interesting arguments, fails in at least three ways. First those who make the claim have to also know God’s will. For most Western believers God’s will and his moral law are known through reading his word, which is found in Holy Scripture. The problems here are legion. First not all Bibles are the same. The King James Version, which Protestants use, is not the Bible Catholics use, and of course, Jews do not recognize the New Testament, but do have the Talmud as the basis for divine law, which Christians have no use for. Muslims with the Koran, Hadith and Sharia present an altogether different scriptural tradition.
But generic to which scripture you consult is the unavoidable issue of interpretation. Even if you accept that the Bible is the actual word of God, all reading of scripture must pass through the interpretative filter of the human mind. There is simply no way around this. All reading, including for those who claim to be biblical literalists, is a matter of interpretation. Because of the unavoidable condition of interpretation, the presumed absolutes of the divine morality are subject to the vagaries and interests of those human beings who are making them. In short, the claim by the theist to be in touch with moral absolutes leaves him or her no better off than the atheist whom he is disparaging as a moral relativist.
Related to this is the fact that the Bible says many things that are contradictory. We are commanded to love the stranger, but the Bible commends genocide (read the Book of Joshua). We are commanded to choose life, but the Book of Leviticus commends the death penalty for committing adultery, homosexuality, and working on the Sabbath. And, of course, the Bible allows for slavery, not to mention pervasive patriarchy. In the face of these moral contradictions, religious apologists will simply cherry pick the morality they favor and leave behind that which they don’t — which demonstrates again the need for interpretation, as well as the fact that large swaths of the moral values they affirm are not primarily derived from the Bible. They come from elsewhere and are then retrojected into their understanding of the Bible. But on a deeper level still, a problem with making absolute moral claims emerges when two absolute moral values collide with each other. So what happens if the Bible commands us to have an absolute commitment to life, but I am faced with the classic problem of self-defense – I either kill the attacker or I am myself killed? Or, what happens if my absolute commitment to life extends to the fetus, and bringing the fetus to birth will kill the mother? I am forced to choose. By upholding the absoluteness of life on one side of the equation, I am forced to relativize it in the other. In short, the theist who prides himself on having his handle on divine absolute morality ends up in no better position than those who deny that morality comes from an absolute law-giver in the first place.
But the God-believer, in condemning the atheist for his or her alleged “amorality,” is also making another mistake. For he arrogantly assumes that there can be no source of morality but religion itself and that the atheist has nothing to fall back on but self-interest.
It is here, at this point, that I want to turn the nature of my discussion around. So far, I have allowed myself to be placed on the defensive by responding to the attacks of the believer. But, it is my purpose this morning, in the face of the blinding power of religion in our society, to argue that it is not those who deny a divine source of morality who should be on the defensive, but those who make the claims that morality comes from heaven who ought to be made to defend there views. It is they who should be on the defensive.
Humanist that I am, I do not believe that morality comes from another realm, beyond the world of nature. But it is, like culture, like society, like politics and government, deeply rooted in the human condition. It is my firm conviction that a sense of right and wrong has a distinctly natural origin, and that at some time in the deep recesses of pre-history it was appropriated by religion, and the claim was made for it that it comes from heaven and not from earth.
Theists make the claim that if you deny God, you destroy the basis of morality. I firmly believe that this is wrong, and is the substance of propaganda and smearing lodged against those such as ourselves who dissent from the dominant religious culture. In fact, there are many sources for morality that do not have anything to do with God. A problem that people, such as myself, who believe this confront is that God is a type of sound-bite, a type of conversation stopper. When a person declares that he or she is “a person of faith” or “God-believer,” in the minds of most people, one need say no more. In the popular imagination it resolves all questions of morality. It is much easier to invoke the name of God and claim that He is the source of morality than it is give a more detailed exposition of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, or to claim that morality is born out of the human social condition and has positive survival value for the human species in a Darwinian sense. But the fact that God is easy to invoke and has popular resonance doesn’t make it right. On the contrary, it is merely a sign of intellectual laziness.
My own view is that a sense of morality, which we associate with altruism, is naturally built into the social nature of our species. I believe that just as we have natural propensities to be aggressive and self-interested, so there is the capacity to be empathetic to others in the face of their pain and deprivation. Small children are known to exhibit this capacity for empathy when they encounter the distress of other children. I believe that ethics starts with the empathetic emotions. Needless to say this natural capacity for empathy needs to be educated and shaped, but I believe that it is inherent in the human species.
There has been a great deal of exploration recently into the natural origins of morality. On person who has written about it is the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins sees the origins of morality in Darwinian terms, that is, in the survival value it has for the human species. In Darwinian theory, an organism strives to ensure that its genes will be successfully propelled and proliferate into the next generation; that is, that the organism will achieve reproductive success. This implies a “selfish” impulse toward survival. But this selfish survival, as Dawkins makes clear, will favor different tactics in different circumstances. As he notes, “There are circumstances – not particularly rare – in which genes insure their own selfish survival by influencing organisms to behave altruistically.” Being good to one’s own children is the most common example. But this extends outward to my larger kinship group. As he notes, “…animals tend to care for, defend, share resources with, warn of danger, or otherwise show altruism toward close kin because of the statistical likelihood that kin will share copies of the same genes.
A second mechanism apparent in nature is what Dawkins calls “reciprocal altruism,” otherwise known as symbiosis. Because of asymmetries among living things, I will benefit my gene pool if I extend a benefit to you. As he notes “The hunter needs a spear and the smith needs meat. The asymmetry brokers a deal. The bee needs nectar and the flower needs pollinating. Flowers can’t fly so they pay the bees, in the currency of nectar, for the hire of their wings.” This type of mutually supportive relationship across species is very common, and serves as a natural source for altruism in humans as well as other living species.
But the question still remains, why would humans be endowed with a sense of moral altruism beyond their own kinship group, or beyond those organisms from which they derive benefits. Why be altruistic in large cities where we are surrounded by strangers and not by kin? Or why would we be inclined to give aid to tsunami victims on the other side of the globe whom we will never meet? It is because the process of natural selection works by rules of thumb for which, as Dawkins points out, there can be misfirings. As an example, he says,
In a bird’s brain, the rule “Look after small squawking things in your nest, and drop food into their red gapes” typically has the effect of preserving the genes that built the rule, because the squawking, gaping objects in the adult bird’s nest are normally its own offspring. The rule misfires if another baby bird somehow gets into the nest, a circumstance that is positively engineered by cuckoos. Could it be that our Good Samaritan urges are misfirings, analogous to the misfiring of a reed warbler’s parental instincts when it works itself to the bone for the young cuckoo?
I am suggesting that the same is true of the urge to kindness – to altruism, to generosity, to empathy, to pity. In ancestral times, we had the opportunity to be altruistic only toward close kin and potential reciprocators. Nowadays that restriction is no longer there, but the rule of thumb persists. Why would it not? It is just like sexual desire. We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile and unable to reproduce). Both are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: Blessed, precious mistakes.
Though lots of work needs to be done, and lots of work is being done, in areas such as these, I personally find this type of investigation, which sees morality as a totally natural, human phenomenon wedded to our biological and social natures, to be extremely compelling – much more compelling than the assumption that morality comes from heaven.
Religion has appropriated morals, but I think it is our charge, with confidence, and without defensiveness, to take it back. There is no empirical reason, when it comes to the possession of moral values, that non-believers should be coy, apologetic or defensive. In fact the word “non-believer” is a misnomer for it implies a negative stance toward convictions and moral values which is undeserved.
In closing, let me say that when it comes to ethics, when it comes to moral values, I am as much a believer as any professing, God-fearing, Bible thumping, faith-proclaiming Christian, Jew or Muslim. Here is what I believe:
I believe in the indwelling dignity of every man, woman and child.
I believe in the need to create a just social order in which that dignity, and what is best in human beings, will achieve its full flourishing.
I believe in a world at peace and striving to make it so.
I believe in preserving the earth on which we dwell and on which we all ultimately depend, for the sake of humanity and of all living things.
I believe in fulfilling those responsibilities incumbent on me as member of my family, as a member of my community and as a member of the human family with whom I share a common destiny.
I believe in striving to grow in compassion and kindness.
I believe in the importance of love and friendship.
I believe in the importance of honesty and the pursuit of the truth, and speaking truthfully to the extent that the truth is in my possession.
I believe in closing the divide, as much as I can, between what I believe and what I profess in the pursuit of living a life of integrity.
I do not believe that meaning in life is conferred from something outside it. I do believe that meaning is found in life through moving beyond self-interest, and living for the sake of those causes, concerns and ideals that are greater than we are and that will outlast us.
— Dr. Joseph Chuman, 5 November 2006