Free Inquiry
Appeared in Free Inquiry, vol 35 issue 5


Good Without God—But Better Without God?

Ronald A. Lindsay

There is no God. This assertion is very probably true. Humanists agree on this point, although there may be some difference in the level of certainty assigned to this proposition.

But so what? What’s the practical significance of rejecting belief in a deity? Why should humanists band together in local or national groups, publish magazines, hold conferences, and so forth? It can’t be simply to show that we are right and others are wrong about the existence of God.

Humanists do share a number of beliefs, of course, and not just their belief that there are no gods. So humanists form a natural affinity group of sorts. But although being a member of a like-minded group with similar interests has its attractions, the level of commitment of most of those who are members of the Center for Inquiry or the American Humanist Association or other humanist groups indicates that we think humanism is much more important than being a member of an astronomy club, sewing circle, or softball team. There has to be more to joining and supporting humanist groups than the opportunity to hang out with people with similar worldviews.

Granted, there’s still substantial stigma attached to being a nontheist, at least in the United States, so mutual support in the face of intolerance and discrimination remains a valid reason to be a member of a humanist group. With the increase in nonreligious Americans, however, let alone the tidal wave of irreligion in Europe, there is reason to think this prejudice against nontheists will diminish. Accordingly, joining forces to protect the rights of the nonreligious cannot be the sole reason for belonging to humanist groups—or, if so, these groups may lose their raison d’etre in a few decades.

No, there has to be something else. There has to be some other motivation that explains why people join together to promote humanism.

And there is. It seems to me that one of the principal reasons humanists belong to CFI or other humanist groups is that we believe we can make the world a better place. I would submit that we are correct in this belief, but it’s important to understand how it is we can improve the world—in other words, what makes humanism distinctive and better than religion as a means to satisfy human needs and advance human interests. In particular, it’s important to understand in what way humanist morality can be an improvement over religious morality.

To begin our analysis, we need to recognize there are distinct types of moral failings. We need to recognize these distinctions if we are to have an appropriate understanding of the advantages (and limits) of humanism and the extent to which it can improve upon religious morality.

Someone can be a “bad” person in the sense of having a bad moral character. A person with a bad moral character fails to manifest the common moral decencies, that is, those virtues that are important for successful, cooperative, day-to-day interactions with others. A bad person may be dishonest, unreliable, untrustworthy, selfish, thieving, uncooperative, mean-spirited, and so forth.

Having moral failings in this sense is not correlated with belief or disbelief in God. With respect to core moral character, there is scant, if any, difference between religious people and nonreligious people. I have detected none in my six-plus decades of life, nor am I aware of any empirical study that would establish a significant difference. The traditional knock on nonbelievers, including humanists, has always been that one can’t be “good without God.” We know that’s nonsense, and, increasingly, believers are conceding this claim has no support. But the opposite claim is also nonsense. When it comes to moral character, religious people can be and are good people as well. The nature of one’s belief about God is simply not a reliable predictor of one’s moral character, and, because of that fact, we can’t claim that humanist morality is an improvement over religious morality when it comes to shaping one’s character.

If either religion or lack of religion has no significant effect on a person’s core moral character, it follows that humanism has little to offer by way of improving this character. This should not be a surprising conclusion. We humanists think we have a better understanding of what practices and policies will lead to a better world, but bad character is not a question of ignorance, of not knowing the correct moral principles. A lying hypocrite knows what he or she is supposed to do—he or she simply will not do it. Assuming we have the standard neurological equipment (yes, brain anomalies can produce sociopaths), then our characters are largely a product of our upbringing and, in particular, how well our parents or guardians instilled in us core moral norms (e.g., were we habituated into “playing well with others”). With respect to the success of this moral training, religious faith or lack thereof seems to have little effect.

So how then is humanism a significant improvement over religion with respect to matters of morality? I’ve already alluded to the answer in the last paragraph. We humanists can achieve a better understanding of the practices and policies that will lead to a better world because—if and when we actually engage in the critical thinking we espouse—we use reason and evidence to examine the consequences of different courses of action and how these relate to the promotion of common human interests. In other words, we give serious thought to the moral aspects of our policies and practices. By contrast, too many religious people still adhere to their religious doctrines (or to religious leaders who interpret the doctrines for them) as a guide for moral decision-making. These doctrines are not typically justified by showing how adherence to them will improve the human condition. Instead, they are justified because they supposedly reflect the will of God. In practice, this means that they reflect the musings of some semiliterate, God-intoxicated, self-designated prophet from centuries ago.

This is no way to reason about moral issues, especially moral issues that relate to public policy. As indicated, humanists do have a significantly better way of addressing these issues. We don’t look for answers in scripture. We have no holy texts. We don’t defer to some authority who will instruct us on what to do. We have no authorities. Instead, we carefully consider the objectives of a particular policy or practice, examine the relevant evidence, and then reason together. Humanists don’t look above for answers; we look to each other. Humanist ethics is far superior to religious ethics if for no other reasons than it is focused on the good of humanity and its principles are subject to rational debate, testing, and revision.

This different approach is illustrated by the different viewpoints that most humanists and many religious (especially religious fundamentalists) have on public-policy issues. For example, some religious rely on their interpretation of scriptural texts to condemn homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Humanists support LGBT rights and marriage equality because we base our understanding of human sexuality on human experience and scientific studies, and we ask whether allowing two loving people to marry is consistent with the state’s interest in supporting committed relationships instead of rigidly and mindlessly adhering to “traditional” marriage. Some religious oppose contraception either because of their interpretation of scripture (the notorious story of Onan; Gen. 38:7–10) or because they defer to some church figure who denounces contraception as “unnatural.” Humanists see no reason why people should not be able to exercise control over their own reproduction and support contraception, assuming the method in question is safe and reliable. Some religious oppose physician-assisted dying because all life belongs to God and is sacred and killing is never permissible. Many humanists support physician-assisted dying, assuming it’s properly regulated, because they believe each person should have the right to determine whether or not to hasten his or her own death, provided others are not harmed. Moreover, if we consider the norm against killing not as something imposed on us by a deity but rather as a norm that promotes the peace and stability of the human community by helping to ensure that people will not be deprived of their life against their will, we can see that the rationale for that norm doesn’t apply in the situation where competent, terminally ill patients voluntarily seek to end their suffering.

There’s no need to multiply further examples. When humanists apply their critical reasoning skills, they derive better solutions to moral issues and public policy problems than those who rely on what they claim is God’s word. This is true even when the religious person may have good intentions and, perhaps, some appreciation of the empirical evidence relevant to an issue. Pope Francis seems to be a well-intentioned person; he also has recognized the critical problems arising out of climate change and the role of human-generated greenhouse gases in causing these changes. Yet, at the same time that he urges us to pay attention to climate change, he continues the Catholic Church’s adamant opposition to any sort of contraception, which is a major cause of overpopulation in developing countries—and accelerated population growth, in turn, leads to an exacerbation of the problem of greenhouse gases. His Holiness, despite good intentions, is boxed in by the irrational, dogmatic foundation for his moral outlook.

So, “Better without God?” The answer is a qualified “yes.” It’s qualified because there is no inevitability that humanists will come up with better policies. You may have noticed that in discussing the advantages of humanistic, secular reasoning, I emphasized that humanists can achieve a better understanding of the policies and practices that will lead to a better world. Whether they will or not depends on whether humanists, and secular thinkers in general, commit themselves to the use of critical thinking on matters of ethics and public policy. Some have abandoned religion only to embrace some secular dogma, some ism or ideology that they think will provide them with all the right answers. It’s always tempting to turn one’s thinking over to others; it’s a great time-saver. But that’s no way to achieve progress in ethics. We can make the world a better place, but whether we do so depends on us—that’s both the promise and the challenge of humanism.

Ronald A. Lindsay is the president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of The Necessity of Secularism (Pitchstone, 2014), which addresses at greater length the differences between secular morality and religious morality.

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