Update: Bird Dog over at Maggie's Farm has posted on a very similar topic today, based on a marvelous essay of GK Chesterton's.
Few things tick off the non-religious more quickly than any hint of a suggestion that one can’t be moral without religious beliefs. I don’t think religious people make that accusation anywhere near as often as claimed, and it would be easy to conclude that there is some defensiveness and oversensitivity on the issue, but it is certainly true that some religious people, particularly Christians in this culture, do make that claim. Mostly, those people make the claim automatically – something they’ve heard but haven’t thought out. Dostoyevsky’s comment without God all things are permitted is often trotted out.
As with most arguments generating more heat than light, each side is speaking of something different, hence shouting.
Insofar as people are claiming that atheists or other shades of non-religious people are incapable of being generous, or kind, or honest, they are simply fools. I can’t imagine what limited powers of observation would allow a person to come to such a conclusion.
If we state it another way, however, there is something to it. Put morality under pressure and it reveals itself as either religious or empty. I have to use a broad definition of “religious” to get to such an outrageous statement, but given that, I believe it holds.
Most human beings in civilized places are trained in a mild social morality, adequate for the day-to-day interactions of waiting one’s turn, not grabbing things off the shelves and stuffing them in your pockets, greeting others pleasantly. This minimum is so expected that we are significantly annoyed when rude drivers or arrogant pricks offend against it, even in small, unimportant things.
At the other extreme is morality under extreme pressure, when we are fearful, at risk of impoverishment – when consequences are dire; or complementarily, when reward is high and risk of being caught is low.
Most of morality takes place in the great in-between. Objectivists maintain that altruism is an illusion. We get something back for our good behavior, whether in terms of goodwill from others or warm feelings about ourselves. As a result, objectivists and similar Randian types are among the most contemptuous of religion. Whatever we say is a decision based on our moral code, they will counter is based in the selfishness of that return. We like ourselves better, or others like us better, or we believe we have contributed to some overall improvement in the world that we will benefit from.
It is worthwhile for our humility to contemplate the hidden benefits of our good acts, as it prevents us from taking too much credit for what special, high-minded folks we are. But I don’t see reason for any ultimate discouragement in the face of this. Objectivism can undermine our belief in the morality of many things, but not everything. Two fairly simple points – assistant village idiot sorts of points – bring it down.
Whatever value we might place on our opinion of ourselves, we can keep inventing scenarios, increasing the rewards, increasing the consequences, reducing the risk, until we come to a place where no rational actor would say he is getting adequate recompense for his moral behavior, and only a disputant childishly unwilling to face facts would persist. But these scenarios are not just hypotheticals. However high we set the bar, some human being – many human beings – have surpassed it. I may not have proved real altruism possible with my own life, but others have.
Second, we are all aware when we are more selfish. It stands to reason that we have moments of being less selfish. We may not ever show a perfection of unselfishness, but if there is worse, there must be better, and “better” thus has some real meaning.
As pressure increases, our reasons for doing good come under stress. Financial setbacks test our generosity. Isolation tests our choice of lifestyle. Oppression tests our kindness. A virtue that has not been tested is no virtue. What keeps us going? We rely at first on “being that sort of person.” Is that obedience to our need to feel good about ourselves, or obedience to something higher? Only pressure will reveal that. As character is increasingly tested, the payback for thinking well of ourselves, or having others think well of us tops out. Beyond that we need something more or there is just no reason to keep on keepin’ on.
The idea comes to us that we must continue to do well because it’s just Right. Why it is right may be rather vague to us, connected to some obscure order of the universe – the Tao, as CS Lewis wrote, taking the term from the Buddhist idea of the fitness of certain acts. We’re not quite sure why it would be wrong to be take something from a helpless person, even if we are hungry, even if we have no danger of being caught – but we know that it is wrong. Something in the universe itself would be wounded, or all of humankind would be diminished were we to do what we know is evil.
That’s a religion. It may not be well-articulated or understood. It may not have a specific deity in mind, or seem especially like the religions of the people around you. It doesn’t have any special foods, dances, or recitations associated with it; it needn’t have any systematic theology behind it. Or going in the other direction, it may have elaborate history and commentary among the learned, so that we think of it as a philosophy rather than a religion. The major philosophies on the market today cover an enormous amount of territory, and many strive mightily to not be a religion at all. They can explain most of what happens without regard to even a vague or vestigial religion. You can go through most of your day-to-day life without ever coming up against something that isn’t covered by these philosophies. There is usually no need to resort to a religious explanation.
I expect some internal protest from readers at this point. Most people believe that their animating philosophy of life covers all important items, and are quite sure that even if they have not thought it out or researched it fully (yet), that their particular belief does have an explanation for even difficult phenomena. All bases are covered. My challenge to that, well, evasion, however well–intended, is to momentarily sidestep the lengthy discussions of whether philosophy A does indeed cover all theoretical possibilities, and direct you back to your own life as you actually live it. Are some things just right? Are there acts which are simply evil even if the provocation is enormous? Are there places where all the earthly payback (not only gratitude from others but our own satisfaction at having upheld our honor) is never going to be enough - yet we feel that a person should do the right thing anyway?