Without God, everything is permitted, said Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky’s novel. Atheists are hit with this constantly: that people are basically bad and need religion to be good. That despite all the undeniable evil religion has inspired, still we’d be even worse off without it.
At a public event a preacher came up to my humanist group’s table, loudly making the Karamazov argument. “If there were no God,” he was asked, “would you steal, rape, and murder?” He said yes. I know many atheists, but no rapists or murderers.
That’s because morality was actually bred in the bone by evolution, long before religion: because tribes whose people treated each other right survived and reproduced better than dog-eat-dog groups. Further, our power of reason tells us which is the better way to live.
But comes now a scientific experiment testing Karamazov’s thesis – performed by University of Chicago neuroscientist Jean Decety, published in Current Biology. Children aged 5-12 were shown a collection of 30 attractive stickers and allowed to choose and keep ten. Afterwards, each was told the other children wouldn’t be getting any – so would they share with a random classmate?
Guess what? Children from non-believing families were no less generous than from religious ones. In fact, they were more generous: giving away an average of 4.1 stickers, compared to 3.3 for Christian children and 3.2 for Muslims.
Case closed? One might quibble whether this was a true morality test; there was no moral obligation to share stickers. Yet clearly the nonbeliever children acted more, well, Christian than the Christians.
The study also found that rich kids were more generous than poor ones; and it wasn’t down to immaturity, as the generosity rose with children’s ages. Meantime, the religious parents rated their children as more sensitive to injustice than did the nonbelieving parents. One might conclude that when it comes to altruism, (on average) the religious talk the talk while nonbelievers walk the walk.
In reporting on this, The Economist wondered what it is about religious teachings that actually makes things worse. Maybe it’s a kind of moral smugness or hubris: if convinced of your god-given righteousness, then your conduct (whatever it actually is) must be okay. It’s an automatic pass. Whereas nonbelievers have more cause to doubt and question themselves. A believer with a selfish impulse may convince himself it’s God’s will; a nonbeliever can’t fob it off on God.
Religionists also say fear of God keeps them in line. Atheists consider that an ignoble basis for virtue; better to do right because it is right than out of fear. That’s a more positive way to live.
There’s also a fundamental incoherence in the idea that morality comes from God. If so, where does he get it from? As Socrates asked, is something holy because the gods love it, or do they love it because it’s holy? In other words, is something moral because God says so, or does he say so because it is moral? If the former, it’s just arbitrary; and if the latter, then God is merely telling us what our reasoning minds should be able to figure out for ourselves.