Sometimes, believers argue that whether or not God exists, it is good for people to “get religion” because it makes them live better lives. Religion motivates people toward goodness better than atheism does, they say.
This raises a two questions I want to explore:
- Can religious people lead better lives?
- Is it okay for people to believe things not because they are true, but because such beliefs are beneficial?
Can religious people lead better lives?
I will not quote statistics. I’m not looking for what the average Christian or atheist does to help his fellow man. Let’s think about this theoretically for a moment.
It wouldn’t surprise me if religious people are more moral. If someone really believes there is a sky bully who will torture him forever if he is immoral, but give him crowns of gold or 72 virgins if he is good, it would not surprise me if such a person acted more morally than someone who thinks humanity has no such all-seeing babysitter.
In a comment I left on a post I contributed to a Christian webzine, I wrote about my Christian friend Mark, who has given up a great deal of personal happiness and freedom to feed and serve the urban poor of Minneapolis because he sees it as his cosmic mission from Jesus. I said:
I think it’s likely that in general Mark is a more “moral” person than I am… He “loses some moral points” due to (what I claim to be) his irrationality and lack of care with truth… but this is more than made up for by Mark’s consistent dedication to servanthood, charity, kindness, and love. I spend a lot of time advocating rationality and truth, which I think is a very moral cause, but in comparison to Mark I have not sacrificed nearly as much of my wealth and comfort and time to serve the needs of others. Nor have I taken so many risks to do so. Possibly, I never will.
Let me put this clearly. I think there are many religious people who are more morally dedicated and motivated than I am because of their religious beliefs. That is, I don’t think their goodness is just a product of their biology and childhood values. Sometimes, one’s religious beliefs provides the motivation for stunning service and sacrifice.
Atheists will be quick to point out that religion just as often (or more often, probably) motivates people to do repressive or aggressive harm, and I agree. But we all know there are some “saints” out there who are so wonderful precisely because of their religious faith. Mother Teresa is a bad example (she probably made the world much worse, not better), and Gandhi seemed more motivated by secular concerns than religious ones, but one might give the examples of Shane Claiborne or Dorothy Day or, well, my friend Mark.
But then, there are amazing displays of kindness and sacrifice and charity among atheists, too. The two greatest philanthropists of all time – Warren Buffet and Bill Gates – are atheists. The two men who (quite separately) saved more lives than any other people in history – Norman Borlaug and Maurice Hilleman – were non-religious.1 (How did they do it? Science, duh.) I’ve met many atheists who have given up everything to feed the poor or save the environment or assist refugees of war. (In particular, moral vegans and environmentalists tend to be atheists, in my experience.) And of course there are lots of secular charities.
So it seems religion and superstition are not needed to develop highly moral persons. But would we be a more moral race if our world was dominated by, say, Jainism – instead of by Christianity, Islam, and the non-religious? Perhaps.
Maybe we should invent a religion that, when tested, develops the most moral people possible, and then teach it to all our children, worldwide – even though it’s not true.
That brings us to my second question…
Is it okay to believe things that are beneficial, even if they’re not true?
I think about this when I think of the prospect of deconverting my good Christian friend Mark. Should I even try? If I deconverted him, maybe he would become less motivated to do the good work he is doing! Perhaps his life of charity depends on his faith that it is what Jesus wants.
Of course, our question here asks, “Is it morally permissible…” – and that requires a theory of morality to answer properly. But what do you think? Is it okay to believe things that are beneficial, even if they’re not true?
- Or at least, these men never talked about religion, and certainly never indicated that religion motivated their life-saving work. [↩]