Can We Be Good without

Conduct is ii by-product of religion—an inevitably by-product, bui: nor the main point. Every great religious teacher has revolted against the presentation of religion as a mere sanction of rules of" conduct. , . . The insistence upon rules ot conducr marks the ebb of religious favor

—Alfred North Whitehead1

1 he opposite of sin is by no means virtue, .,, No, the opposite of sin is faith,

—Stfren Kierkegaard2

People of faith have often insisted that in the absence of God human morality would fall to pieces, If a good God exists, they have reasoned, this gives otir moral behavior a sccure and eternal foundation. Bui if God does not exist, isn't everything permitted? Why would we want to behave ourselves, after all, if there are no timeless standards of right and wrong? And isn't it one of the essential functions of a deity to draw up, for all times and places, a clear list of what is right and wrong, to issue rtiles of conduct that we should obey unquestioningly, and then to reward the good and punish the evil? And dont all religions exist primarily to place moral constraints on humans, who would otherwise act like animals? Moreover, if you accept human evolution, hasnt it been religion, especially ethical monotheism, that has lifted us out of the purely natural sphere and allowed us to become a distinctively moral species?

Although many believers in God would answer these questions affirmatively, theologically speaking things have never been quite so clear. In fact, understanding the relationship of morality to religious belief has always been one of the more challenging tasks of theology. However, as we have already observed many rimes, the new atheists are nor interested in the-

j ology, preferring instead to set it aside as though it does not exist. As far as this chapter s topic is concerned, they are content to make nvo theologically unadorned declarations and leave it at that: First, morality does not require belief in God, Second, humans would behave much better without faith in God, since, in Christopher Hitchenss words, "religion poisons everything. Let us now look more closely at each of these wo claims and then, in a third section, ask why religions that claim to be so good can often be so bad.

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