Outspoken atheists like myself obviously spend a lot of time debunking the so-called ‘evidence’ for the existence of God, but it often seems to me that evidence is largely irrelevant to theists. Their beliefs are based on a need to believe in God for emotional reasons, and there are many. I’ve talked about some of these before (fear of death, fear of the unknown, the need for a “higher justice” etc.), but there’s one very big one that I haven’t tackled directly yet: morality. It seems that a big reason a lot of theists feel they have to believe in God is that without him, humans would have no morality.
Let’s begin with their most often cited ‘evidence’ for this idea, the great tyrants of the 20th century: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Jong-Il etc. These people were supposed to have been atheists, yet they are responsible for the greatest acts of genocide in the last 100 years. Surely this must prove that—whatever problems religion might have—atheism is actually far worse? As a matter of fact, it doesn’t prove that at all—indeed, when we look at the evidence more closely, it actually leads us to the opposite conclusion. For a start (unlike the countless examples of people killed in the name of God), none of these people committed any of their atrocities in the name of atheism. They committed them in the name of Nazism, Communism etc., which tells us what is actually going on here. These were in fact new religions—the only reason these tyrants denounced other religions is so that they could become Gods themselves. It is noteworthy that communism spread far more effectively in the east than it did in the west, and I think there are two key reasons for this. One is that the oriental countries have basically always accepted the idea of their king, emperor etc. being an earthly God, so it wasn’t really anything new to accept their communist leader as one. The other reason of course is that full democracy was already well established in the west, which naturally leads the people of those countries to question their leaders, and not blindly follow them. Which leads to my next point.
If the majority of the population were naturally inclined to always question what their leaders tell them, then how would the dogma of Nazism, communism etc. have ever become established in the first place? That, in essence, is what atheism actually is: it is not accepting what we are told on the basis of faith, but rather—and only—on the basis of hard evidence. This is why we have jokes like “organising atheists is like herding cats”—it is very difficult to get atheists to believe in something, unless you make a very strong, rational case for it, with very strong supporting evidence. While it is true that many atheists support socialism, this is definitely not the same thing as the communism practised by Stalin, Mao, Kim Jog-il etc. Indeed, democratic socialism has been shown to work very well in the countries which have practised it (most notably the Scandinavian countries). Theists often like to say that atheism is a religion in itself, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, the word atheism probably shouldn’t really exist at all; we don’t define anybody else by their lack of belief in something, which is all atheism actually is (the word atheism literally means lack of belief in God)—it doesn’t say anything about what atheists believe in, only what they don’t believe in.
If we replace the word atheism with something like rationalism, we get a clearer idea of what most atheists actually do believe in—and we can see these tyrants do not follow this belief system at all. Indeed, it was blind faith—of the sort used and promoted by religion—which allowed these tyrants to gain the huge following they needed to do their dirty work in the first place. When our most cherished beliefs (our religions) are based on faith rather than hard evidence, it leaves us completely open to manipulation by unscrupulous political leaders. Indeed, none other than Hitler himself was perfectly happy to use the existing apparatus of religion when it suited him—he quoted the Bible extensively in support of his campaign against Jews, for example (indeed, it seems very likely that Hitler was in fact a Christian, and not really an atheist at all). Perhaps even worse, established religion was very happy to support these tyrants themselves when it suited them—the Vatican actively aided and abetted the Nazis’ genocide and victimisation of Jews, for example, and even assisted several high level members of the Nazi regime to escape prosecution for war crimes after they lost World War II.
This leads to perhaps the most damning indictment of religion as an arbiter of morality: the fact that so much of what religion says—and what its followers do—is so immoral. The religiously justified genocide I mention above is just one of countless examples of people doing the most horrible things in the name of God; in fact, there’s so many of them, I won’t even start to list them here, or this post will go on forever. Instead, I’ll just focus on a little of what the Bible has to say regarding morality, to see if it really is likely to make us more moral. Let’s start with the example of God himself—if God is the enforcer of our morality, then surely he must set the highest moral standards of all. Actually, the complete opposite is true: the God of the Old Testament is in fact the cruelest genocidal maniac we know of! The tyrants I mentioned at the start of this article all pale in comparison to God—the Bible documents him as having killed literally millions of people, often in the most painful and tortuous way possible. He advocated and enacted death and destruction on a scale unimaginable to even the most cruel of human beings. Even the ten commandments—where he is supposed to have laid out the moral standards we are supposed to follow—document extraordinary cruelty. Disobeying any of them (even something as innocent as working on a Sunday, as all priests and housewives do in any case) is punishable by death. He literally says he is a jealous God (hence violating one of the seven deadly sins), so the punishment for worshipping other Gods is particularly monstrous: not only must the perpetrator be killed, but also their family—for four generations! Given what both the Bible and Koran say about non-believers, is it any wonder we have endless war and killing in the name of God?
Then there’s all the stuff that should be in the ten commandments but isn’t. A good example of this is how there is a commandment saying we should honour our parents, but there isn’t anything saying we shouldn’t commit child abuse, or even pedophilia. Then there’s the example of Lot, who offered up his daughters for gang rape (Genesis 19:8) and later impregnated them himself (Genesis 19:30-38)—yet he was spared from God’s genocide of Sodom and Gomorrah, because God considered him “just and righteous”! (Alas, his wife was not so lucky—God turned her into a pillar of salt for looking back at God’s destruction of her lifelong home, and all the rest of her family and friends.) There also isn’t anything forbidding slavery: in fact God gives very specific instructions on how we should buy, sell and even beat our slaves—including selling our own daughters into sex slavery (Exodus 21)! Then there’s all the hopelessly antiquated references, such as “thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s ass”. The ten commandments clearly are not the word of any God, but rather those of a particular group of people at a very specific time and place. Of course, many Christians conveniently choose to ignore the Old Testament, relying only on the words of Jesus. The problem with that is that Jesus himself believed in the Old Testament and saw nothing wrong with it; in fact, he specifically says that’s how things will be when he returns to earth to bring about end the world (Luke 17:27-32).
Then there is another even deeper problem with Christians choosing to only follow the teachings of Jesus, and ignore the Old Testament: this means they are choosing their own morality, rather than following that which is laid out in the Bible. This is perfectly understandable, given God’s outrageous immorality in the Old Testament, and how much our own standards of morality have moved on since Biblical times (such as the examples of slavery and child abuse/pedophilia I mention above). Yet it shows very clearly that for these Christians—and indeed the entire human race, given how our own current moral standards are so much greater than God’s—our morality does not come from God, but from ourselves. So how the does our morality actually come about? That’s a story for another post.