“The question is not how can you be moral if you don’t believe in God, but how can you be moral if you believe in God.” (Phil Zuckerman, below).
The most common criticism religionists make of atheists is embodied in the first part of the quote above, a quote from Phil Zuckerman in a speech he gave at the recent Freedom From Religion Foundation meeting. The notion that atheism destroys morality has been dismantled several times, most recently in an exchange between Diane Morgan and Ricky Gervais in the terrific show “After Life.” I’ll let you listen for yourself: it’s in Season 3. And here Zuckerman does it not philosophically, but with data (or rather, assertions about data we don’t see).
As you may know, Zuckerman is a professor of secular studies at Pitzer College in California, and was the first person to become a full-time professor in that area. Here’s a list of his books, of which I’ve read just one: the 2008 one, which shows how well two atheist countries, Sweden and Denmark, function without religion. (You can now add Iceland to that list.) It was that book that convinced me that there is no innate need for societies to be religious to function well. As Zuckerman remarks in his talk, and argues at length in Society without God. Scandinavia has some of the most “moral” countries on earth, yet they’re a pack of atheists. Moreover, Scandinavians have nothing I can see to “replace” religion: no “secular churches” or any of that nonsense. Yet religionists ignore this.
Zuckerman’s talk apparently relies heavily on his 2019 book below, but he mentions that he has a new book coming out, which surely has the data he mentions below.
His books (he’s been a busy atheist!)
- Zuckerman, Phil (2019). What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press. ISBN 978-1640092747.
- Zuckerman, Phil (2016). The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199924943.
- Zuckerman, Phil (2014). Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. London: Penguin Press. ISBN 9781594205088.
- Zuckerman, Phil (2011). Faith no more : why people reject religion. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199740017.
- Zuckerman, Phil (2010). Atheism and secularity. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. ISBN 9780313351815.
- Zuckerman, Phil (2008). Society without God : what the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 9780814797143.
At any rate, in this talk Zuckerman makes the case that atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists have a set of values that leads to a better “morality” than that espoused by believers. He adduces data from a variety of areas—vaccination, acceptance of science, wearing masks, recognizing the existence and importance of global warming, acceptance of LGBTQ rights, animal rights, reproductive rights, and reparations for slavery—showing that nonbelievers seem to group on the “more moral” side. And even religionists who accept these values tend to have, as reader Sastra noted yesterday, a more “secularized” view of religion. It’s the Euthyphro argument of Plato: we can only get goodness from God if we assume God is, a priori, moral, and that view must come from non-religious values. Saying that morality comes from God devolves to the odious “Divine Command” argument espouse by people like William Lane Craig.
Zuckerman then asks why nonbelievers are more moral than religionists, and his response is that we’re motivated by empathy and compassion when constructing our morality, rather than by trying to obey the “will of God.” Well, perhaps, but if you derive God’s nature from secular considerations, as noted above, then there’s not much difference. But where there is a difference is that religion considers as part of morality notions like how to have sex, what to eat, what to wear, and so on—issues that really aren’t what most people consider within the ambit of morality.
Zuckerman also notes that religious folks are more tribalistic than nonbelievers, and tribalism breeds xenophobia and hence immorality.
In the end, I’m a big fan of Zuckerman, and the data may well show that the moral values of nonbelievers are sounder than those of nonbelievers. But the real question, which is very hard to answer, is this: “On the whole, is the average per capita amount of net good done by atheists better than the amount done by believers.” I believe the answer is “yes,” but I’d be hard pressed to prove it. Hitchens answered it with anecdotal data, citing people like Mother Theresa who pretended to be moral but didn’t really help people. But we need more systematic data. Perhaps Zuckerman provides these data in his new book.
After all, as Karl Marx said, “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”