A man sets himself on fire in the middle of a busy street to protest violence. A couple stops what they are doing, quits their jobs, and travels to the most remote regions of the planet to build homes. A group of middle aged house wives take time away from their family to support a homeless shelter for disadvantaged people in a big city. An eccentric artist paints the dome of a cathedral so large that it takes him years to complete.
What could one find in common with all of these different examples of self sacrifice and dedication? Well that would be religion would it not? Can not religion drive people to do great deeds of service to others such as those listed above? Is not religion the driving force behind morality and the care of your fellow human beings? Why, where would those homeless eat and drink if not for the local church group? How else would those homes be built in the far reaches of Africa if not for missionaries? Such artistry as Michelangelo is surely the divine hand at work?
It has been argued that good deeds both great and small are driven by religious ideals and that without them we would be left in a world devoid of morality or a care for the well being of your fellow persons. Many religious apologists cite such examples above as paragons of moral virtue, a moral virtue unobtainable to those without faith. However, when a separate, more sinister aspect of religion becomes the center of attention such abominable acts are attributed to perversions of faith or that individuals are responsible for such evil actions. For example:
A man sets another man on fire in the middle of a busy street to protest his religion. A couple stops what they are doing, quits their jobs, and travels to the most remote regions of the planet to stop the proliferation of condoms. A group of middle aged house wives take time away from their family to rally against those that have a sexual preference different than their own to ensure they do not have a family. An angry mob destroys the works of an eccentric artist who happened to paint a piece that depicted a faith different than their own.
Oh, there is more too;
A man flies his plane into his enemies, committing suicide to gain the favor of his divine emperor. A mother drowns her children in a lake due to divine instruction to do so. A group enthralled by the coming of a comet commit ritual suicide together. A country wars with another constantly over the rights to build houses on a certain tract of “holy” land.
Is it not strange that the same thread can be seen through all of these examples? Deeds both good and bad are done in the name of religion, yet good is attributed to the goodness of the religion and bad to something else. How can we separate the two? How could a man set fire to another man if not for some religiously inspired fervor? Why else would a group of family women protest against the very families they them self value so much, but for others? What drives a couple to travel around the world to ensure the spread of sexually transmitted diseases? If you were to ask any of these people outside of their religious beliefs they would be offended at your allegations, yet when wrapped in the veil of religion it is suddenly different somehow. It is suddenly legitimate to do things you would otherwise never dream of doing to another person.
The point of these illustrations is not to see how far we can twist a religion to serve our own means. The fact that this can even happen is reprehensible in and of itself. The point of these examples is to show that religion can be used for both extreme good and for extreme bad, but also that secular morality can do the same. There are several of those without faith that practice all of the good things that we have seen illustrated above. Atheist groups volunteering at soup kitchens, Wiccans holding food drives, Free Thinkers granting scholarships and building homes for Habitat for Humanity. However when we turn to the second group of examples we are hard pressed to see a mass murder in the name of atheism, or ritual suicide in the name of not having souls.
So where does this leave us? It leaves us with a very important question when it comes to the usefulness of religion as a yard stick for good deeds. It is a cursory search away to see exactly how vile religion can turn what would otherwise be good people into epitome’s of bigotry and hatred, yet we must search very hard to find the same hatred generated due to a lack of faith in any coherent sense. The fact remains that people can be good to people without the need for a religious dogma and without a fear of divine retribution if we don’t. Only by reaching these conclusions in through secular means-that every person deserves to be treated with respect and goodness- can we truly hold our heads up high and claim to have found a coherent case for morality.
“With or without it [religion], you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.” Steven Weinberg