Nov 7, 2008

Do We Need God to be Moral?

Facsimile Copy of Exodus 34 1-10 Moses Receives the Second Tablets with the Ten Commandments

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Some years ago, I watched an episode of "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher," that has always stuck with me. The topic was the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal, which was erupting dramatically into the headlines. I don't remember who all was on the show, but I vividly remember a collision between Sandra Bernhard and some right wing fundamentalist. His point was that the Catholic Church was doing all these sinful things because they were not following scripture strictly enough. They were religious, but not religious enough, and needed to get right with God. It got pretty ugly from there. I was utterly struck by the absurdity. How is it, I thought, that the openly atheistic Bill Maher and a bisexual, secular Jew like Bernhard had managed to figure out that sexually abusing children is wrong, when a disturbing number of Catholic priests had not. How, then, is more religion the answer?

Sex abuse, of all things, does not really seem to be inhibited by religion or any strictly enforced moral code. Louise DeSalvo explains, for instance, that it was epidemic during the straight-laced Victorian era, in Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work. There have been several high profile cases in Amish communities, where by some measures, it is rampant. Some of the most heinous crimes do not seem to be deterred by religious piety.

This issue came to mind as I was reading an article in Slate, this morning, which addresses the question of kindness and generosity in the religious vs. the atheistic.

In a review published in Science last month, psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff discuss several experiments that lean pro-[Dr. Laura] Schlessinger. In one of their own studies, they primed half the participants with a spirituality-themed word jumble (including the words divine and God) and gave the other half the same task with nonspiritual words. Then, they gave all the participants $10 each and told them that they could either keep it or share their cash reward with another (anonymous) subject. Ultimately, the spiritual-jumble group parted with more than twice as much money as the control. Norenzayan and Shariff suggest that this lopsided outcome is the result of an evolutionary imperative to care about one's reputation. If you think about God, you believe someone is watching. This argument is bolstered by other research that they review showing that people are more generous and less likely to cheat when others are around. More surprisingly, people also behave better when exposed to posters with eyes on them.

So, it's not, so much, God, who keeps us on the straight and narrow. It's eyes. All of which seems to point to the notion that our moral compass is entirely externally imposed and motivated. If the research is accurate, that would seem to be the answer, at least in the United States. And, there's the rub. It seems that when we look beyond our own borders, this argument runs into trouble.

It is at this point that the "We need God to be good" case falls apart. Countries worthy of consideration aren't those like North Korea and China, where religion is savagely repressed, but those in which people freely choose atheism. In his new book, Society without God, Phil Zuckerman looks at the Danes and the Swedes—probably the most godless people on Earth. They don't go to church or pray in the privacy of their own homes; they don't believe in God or heaven or hell. But, by any reasonable standard, they're nice to one another. They have a famously expansive welfare and health care service. They have a strong commitment to social equality. And—even without belief in a God looming over them—they murder and rape one another significantly less frequently than Americans do.

Denmark and Sweden aren't exceptions. A 2005 study by Gregory Paul looking at 18 democracies found that the more atheist societies tended to have relatively low murder and suicide rates and relatively low incidence of abortion and teen pregnancy.

Slate's Paul Bloom postulates that it is not so much "God" or, even, religious doctrine that moderates our behavior, but a strong sense of community.

The Danes and the Swedes, despite being godless, have strong communities. In fact, Zuckerman points out that most Danes and Swedes identify themselves as Christian. They get married in church, have their babies baptized, give some of their income to the church, and feel attached to their religious community—they just don't believe in God. Zuckerman suggests that Scandinavian Christians are a lot like American Jews, who are also highly secularized in belief and practice, have strong communal feelings, and tend to be well-behaved.

American atheists, by contrast, are often left out of community life. The studies that Brooks cites in Gross National Happiness, which find that the religious are happier and more generous then the secular, do not define religious and secular in terms of belief. They define it in terms of religious attendance. It is not hard to see how being left out of one of the dominant modes of American togetherness can have a corrosive effect on morality. As P.Z. Myers, the biologist and prominent atheist, puts it, "[S]cattered individuals who are excluded from communities do not receive the benefits of community, nor do they feel willing to contribute to the communities that exclude them."

Although, even extremely cohesive community doesn't seem to prevent some of the more hideous abuses I discussed above, the idea does have a certain resonance. The key seems to be in our shared experience and empathy. And, empathy appears to be a natural part of our human development. Children who are raised in safe, nurturing environments become increasingly empathetic throughout their early development. Those who do not, develop with varying degrees of attachment disorder, with some abused and neglected children demonstrating a complete incapacity for empathy. Some of those start abusing others when they are still children. Religion seems irrelevant, when we view it through that prism. In fact, some religious constructs, such as "Spare the rod, spoil the child," would appear to run directly contrary to healthy development of an innate moral compass. If our only impediment to antisocial behavior is fear of judgment and punishment, something is just horribly wrong. It is also less likely to be consistent, inclining people towards secrecy and shame.

I am always somewhat amused when people say, "You can't legislate morality." In point of fact, we legislate morality all the time. Prohibitions against murder, theft, rape, and a litany of other crimes are based on fairly universal taboos, that seem to arise pretty naturally. We don't need the Ten Commandments to tell us that murder is wrong. I have yet to meet the atheist who disagrees.

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