Monday, January 01, 2007

Atheism, religion, and morality

Alana is going in for a sleep study tomorrow night. Her doctor suspects she has sleep apnea. I haven't noticed, but then again I'm a deep sleeper (and when I snore, she pokes me until I roll onto my side... hmmm, TMI?).

Last week a nurse phoned her to ask some pre-study questions. Alana said everything was fine, they were getting along well, and then the woman asked The Question! "Religious preference?" Alana answered, "None." There was a pause, then the conversation's tone changed. Things, apparently, got weird for the nurse.

This isn't the first time that Alana's run into this kind of "weirdness". The folks in her office have a hard time reconciling the fact that she's an agnostic with the fact that she, like, helps people. She volunteers her time for a couple of committees, she goes out of her way to help her clients, and she regularly works outreach events. Yet she's not a member of any specific church and she's not religious. The fact that you can be altruistic while not being religious is hard for people around here to believe.

There is a belief that's pretty common here in the Bible Belt that religion equals morality. It's probably the one belief that spans the major religions. It's also a myth.

Morality doesn't come from religion. If it did, atheists and agnostics would be immoral and the religious would be moral. We all know that the vast majority of history's most infamous people believed in an afterlife. This was shown this week when Saddam Hussein apparently called out "God is great!" before being hanged. I don't have statistics for atheists and agnostics with regard to morality. All I know is that each of the dozen or so people I know with no particular religious following are some of the most tolerant, helpful, caring individuals you'd ever care to meet.

Altruism is hardwired into humans. A conscience is an evolutionary advantage, as it helps societies survive; the good of society can take precedence over the good of the individual.

Most religions have morality as a basis. The major religions stress the necessity of doing the "right thing", even if they stress it by saying, "do the right thing or you'll be in Hell for eternity". Unfortunately, the major religions have a tendency toward, oh, let's call them "mixed messages" to be gracious. This was most obviously seen on September 11, 2001, when religious zealots killed thousands of people in the mistaken belief that they would be going to paradise because of it. The Koran, the Torah, and the Bible are full of stories of vengeance and intolerance. Look at the number of hate crimes committed by the devout. The Southern protestant denominations in the U.S. developed due to a schism over the morality of "African slavery". Even the "peaceful" Buddhists have their share of violence, like the Buddhist revolts in Japan in the 15th and 16th centuries.

I'm not saying that atheists and agnostics are better than the devout. I'm saying that religious or non-religious, people are people.

For a more detailed look at what I'm getting at, check out 10 Myths — and 10 Truths — About Atheism (Alana sent me the link). It's a good link. I thought it could have been a little more forceful in defending point 2, the myth that the greatest crimes in history were committed by atheists. There's no mention that Hitler was a Roman Catholic, or that Saddam Hussein invoked the Koran when it helped his cause. It didn't point out that the war crimes committed by the Japanese during World War II were largely the result of men who were staunch Buddhists and Shinto practitioners.

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