Is Religion a Requirement for Good?

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

Jason K.

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22 comments on “Is Religion a Requirement for Good?

  1. John Metcalf says:

    Was actually looking for Agnostic/Atheist service organizations when I ran across your site. You previously had a list of Agnostic/Atheist orgs, but their sole (no pun intended) purpose seemed to be protect or promoting their own rights (not a bad thing.)

    Perhaps it’s time for us to put our money where our mouths are and create some Service Organizations that do what some of the religious based Service Organizations do, but without god as a focus. It’s just a matter of organizing. Why do Church groups do good works? Because they are an organized group, with a mission. Until we form Agnostic/Atheist groups with GOOD WORKS as our mission, we will continue to be looked at, rightfully or not, as not doing the good that the religious folks do.

    If anyone knows of Agnostic/Atheist Service groups, please advise.

    • jastiger says:

      One thing that I’ve heard said of AA groups is that it’s like trying to herd cats. It’s not that people hate being in groups, it’s just not in the nature of an atheist to go seek out others and hold meetings about it simply because they are an atheist. With religion it’s usually built in that you are supposed to insulate yourself with people that think like you.

      If you are looking for some secular organizations that do good works, I’d look at volunteer organizations like the Iowa Atheists http://www.iowaatheists.org They do a lot of community outreach and organizing. Also groups like the UNI Freethinkers group as well as the Atheist and Agnostic Society at Iowa State all do fund raising and relief events.

  2. Mike says:

    You do make some very valid points. However, the common denominator is not religion – it is the people. People have choices. It is THEY who choose to do good or evil, not religion. You can no more blame religion, than you can blame the plane that is flown into the twin towers, or the rifle that is used to gun down individuals.
    Sin exists in the world, and there are people who make the choice to abuse “things” to further their agenda.
    It is not religion that brings good into the world, but God. Because God is good, merciful, loving, gracious, and just, these attributes came from Him and therefore exist the world. We would not know that there was good or evil, if it were not for God. Because there would not have been a standard to make the comparison.

  3. jastiger says:

    How do you support that claim when there are people that do what you would consider “Good” but have never heard of your version of a god? What about those that do what you consider “Evil” in the name of god?

  4. Mike says:

    Jason, you’re not listening. It is a CHOICE. Everyone has been given the ability to CHOOSE to do good or evil. That ability was given to everyone by God. It is built into us. A person doesn’t have to be a “Christian” to know there is right and wrong, or to make the choice to do good or not. That choice will sometimes cause misled individuals to do something evil in the name of religion, whatever that religion may be – and Christianity is not the only religion where people do such things.

  5. jastiger says:

    So how about things like bestiality or homosexuality? Things that exist in all societies through all time. Things like polygamy or incest? How about recreational drugs? People have practiced these things both Christian and non for all time and yet you are going to step in in 2010 and tell them that they are wrong because your book was written ~2000 years ago? How do you judge someone for being good or evil if they are doing it out of custom? Or are you to step into the America’s in the year 200 and tell the Indian tribes polygamy is bad because of some custom in your far away land?

    It isn’t about listening, its about claiming moral superiority on things that have no bearing on good or evil without thorough examination.

  6. Mike says:

    Jason you are wrong. It’s not about moral superiority, its about what standard has been set for humanity as a whole, in EVERY generation, in EVERY part of the earth, AND who set that standard.

    I did not set the standard, the REAL God set the standard, and gave us the rule book so that anyone could know what the rules were. Again, it’s difficult to understand since we both are looking at this from differing viewpoints, but based on the scientific evidence it is just as plausable a model as yours.

    You are looking at it from the viewpoint of evolution, while I’m looking at from the viewpoint of creationism. Your view had no purpose for life, while my view does. your view laughs at the miracles of the bible, yet believes in the miracles of evolution.

    So I understand the difficulty you are having with this concept. I was there once too. The only way to know for sure if I’m just blowing hot air, is to study it out for yourself. You have to put aside all prejudices, and just look at the evidence.

  7. Mark says:

    I don’t understand why you call evolution a miracle. You see that almost all reputable biologists believe in evolution. Now you could say that they are not reputable specifically because they are NOT Christians (and I know that many are), but I can still think Christian scientists are reputable.

    You discredit those hundreds or thousands who have honestly worked their entire lives to build up a theory from only the data they collect. In all fields of science, biology included, researchers admit they are wrong when presented with contrary data that is more compelling than their own, that is the mark of a scientist. Why would the theory of evolution be the one theory that all scientists ignore the evidence for if it was a false theory? Scientists are not on a collective crusade against creationism, they simply interpret the data at hand.

    The theory of evolution stands up to all the data uncovered. It explains why so many things in the world are the way they are. Without it the field of biology would lack a critical support and would crumble. But with the help of biology incredible advances keep being make to marked benefit of everyone. Creationism has not done one ounce of good in this world, has not allowed one discovery of benefit to anyone. It merely teaches that this knowledge is permanently outside of our grasp. Such a limit has not been encountered in any other physical science and there is no reason why is should be encountered here.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Level_of_support_for_evolution

    http://www.physorg.com/news194614965.html
    I think it can be applied to most articles, plus you can always follow the references.

  8. jastiger says:

    I’m looking at it from the viewpoint of neutrality. If in some land a certain type of action is “bad” we must examine why it is labeled as bad and create new laws and ideals from that. From your point of view, it doesn’t matter what the consequences (or lack there of) are because in your own moral framework its bad. The reason that your point of view is less helpful is because often people have never heard of your moral framework, so its impossible to apply your morality to different times and customs. Mainly across different times as morality has evolved throughout history into what it is today.

    It is impossible to apply your 2010 version of Christianity to the year 200 in a place that has never seen Christianity. You cannot call those people objectively “evil” because they would say you were “evil” from their own framework. This blows your “real godly standard” out of the water the moment you come across a separate culture that has a different morality. I fail to see how my point of view ignores evidence and yours embraces it. It seems the complete opposite.

  9. Mike says:

    I understand that you feel your evidence is better than mine – I would expect nothing else.

    The fact of the matter is that there is only ONE moral standard for every human being, in every generation, every culture, or every society.

    Again, it is not mine, yours or anyone human beings standard, it is God’s. As the Creator, He has every right to establish moral standards for His Creation. The Bible gives us those standards. And yes, men have been the conscience to ignore them, or twist them into a different brand of morality, but that does not negate the fact that truth exists, and must be followed. Everyone will be judged by that one standard in the end. Even though you choose not be believe in that – it will happen.

    As the saying goes – “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

  10. Mark says:

    According to you these moral standards were established before time began and we are judged by them after death. Considering I don’t believe in these concepts this is of no concern to me, I will make my own moral standards based on equality and the use of logic and science to determine the best course for society. There is a good TED talk on this BTW. http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.html

    I don’t think it is valid to mention soldiers in foxholes in this context. I’m sure that soldiers frightened with the threat of death at any minute will think a lot of irrational things which they would later discount. In addition, when I usually hear this statement is in regard to a belief in the afterlife, not about accepting a certain set of morals, so I’m not sure why you used this line.

    On another note, why do some of my replies get posted immediately while others sit under “awaiting moderation” for days.

  11. jastiger says:

    That is not an argument against atheism, that is an argument against foxholes.

    Let me ask you this: What if someone has never even heard of the bible? Do they still stand judged even though the bible doesn’t exist for them?

  12. Mike says:

    As I have stated numerous times, I understand that none of you believe what I have said, or will say, because it all comes down to where our moral standards originate, and you don’t believe in the originator. So we must then debate and establish that FACT first.

    Jason, yes, everyone is accountable and will stand judged in the end (Romans 1:20). God has revealed His will through two methods and it is up to us to find it, and follow it. It won’t be His fault if a person spends eternity in hell. It will be the fault of every individual who refuses to believe, obey or to even look.

  13. jastiger says:

    So an all knowing, all loving god has no problem sticking Native Americans, Aborigines, and countless other cultures in hell for all time simply because they were born in the wrong area in the wrong time?

    Sounds pretty contradictory to me.

  14. Mike says:

    Area and time have nothing at all to do with it. Its their choice, just as much as it is mine or yours whether or not to follow God. It’s not His fault that most people CHOOSE to ignore God’s standards.

  15. Mark says:

    So is it correct to say that you believe the 10 commandments are imprinted on the human genome (or soul if you will)?

    I grew up a Christian, knowing basic Christian values. I can now say for certain that I do not “know” that these values are correct as you imply that everyone does. I did not choose to follow values that I know are wrong, I simply have values that I believe are good. Some examples that might differ from yours are: there is nothing wrong with homosexuality everyone deserves equal rights, I also don’t consider the commandments involving God.

    It also depends on your point of view. I think most people would agree that it is morally acceptable to break an unjust law in an unjust society. I’m not deliberately being inflammatory but the Old Testament and Revelation along with the idea of going to hell for not believing in Jesus paint a picture of God as a petty egocentric dictator.

  16. Mike says:

    Mark,

    To answer your question, you must realize that I am not your average “Christian.” I don’t hold to the Ten Commandments, nor do I believe in original sin, or that Jesus will establish a 1000 year kingdom on Earth, or that there will be any such person as the “Antichrist.” Why do I not hold to these beliefs? because they are not taught in the Bible – they are figments of men’s imaginations, just like denominationalism, which is why so many people today have a hard time believing in God and the Bible.

    No, the ten commandments are not imprinted on the human genome or soul. The only thing that is imprinted on the genome/soul is the concept of right and wrong. We may assume a thing is right or wrong, but the only way to know if it really is, is to go to the Scriptures to find out.

    I appreciate your letting me know where you come from, that helps a lot. I agree with you, that it is acceptable to break an unjust law. God also agrees. That is, as long as it is a law that breaks God’s law. Take for instance – should government make a law that all preachers had to marry homosexual couples – I would have to break that law because it goes against God’s will. Or if there is a law that contradicts the Constitution, the Constitution overrides that law.

    Now then, your sense of justice and goodness is based upon what standard? Your own? You say YOU have values that YOU believe are good. What about your neighbor? Would he think they are good, or would he say his are better? Or would it be the case that both are good, even though they may contradict one other?

    Based on your values system, are you willing to concede that there should never be justice?

  17. Mark says:

    You say the ten commandments are not in the Bible, what about Exodus 20:1-17? Also is not original sin in Genesis 3:6?

    Here I will try to answer the questions in your last two paragraphs. I do believe that most of my values are good. However it is inevitable that some are not as I am far from perfect and I am constantly learning new things. I also realize that no two people have the exact same set of values, and most people including me think that theirs are the best. But I think that many people, especially those from the same society can agree on basic sets of values that are of benefit to the overwhelming majority. It is on these common sets of values that laws and justice are based although this system is commonly corrupted by those in positions of power).

    I think that humanity should strive towards values that lessens human suffering (and enhances happiness). This implies the extermination of bigotry and hatred, and any laws that deny any right to any group of people, including religious values that fall into this category. I think that moral questions can be answered by examining this concept, although the answer may not always be clear. Obviously this does not cover many questions of law not directly pertaining to morals.

    In addition I think it is very detrimental to humanity to believe in an afterlife, in many cases this leads to many horrific acts such as suicide bombing and the protests that crazies like the Westboro Babtist Church members commit. Now I know that most are not this extreme but I still think an afterlife is a harmful concept for moderates. Now perhaps this would not turn out to be true but I think that if people knew this was their only life they would be more concerned about improving this world. There is also something to say about all the people who think Jesus will come back in their lifetime, I imagine there would not be much motivation to improve things in the meantime.

    Now ends my quite lengthy answer in which I discussed my hopes for humanity. 🙂

  18. Mike says:

    Mark,

    Thanks for your insights into how you think values should be arrived at in society. I noticed however that you failed to answer my question – “Based on your values system, are you willing to concede that there should never be justice?” I’m waiting for answer on that one.

    As for the Ten Commandments – I never said that they are not in the Bible, I said that I am answerable to them, nor is anyone living today. They were given strictly to the Jews of the OLD TESTAMENT, and were nullified when Jesus died on the cross (Col. 2:14).

    ALL men and women since the first century are held to obeying the NEW TESTAMENT LAW, in which the “principles” of the Ten Commandments are found. No one can follow the Ten Commandments unless they are going to concede that they must obey the Sabbath law as well.

    As for original sin,the context of Genesis 3 is where Adam and Eve did commit sin (broke God’s law), but their sin does not transmit itself into the DNA of every human being. They alone are responsible for their sin, and each of us are responsible for our own (Ezek. 18:20). The Bible does not teach hereditary depravity, or babies being born in sin – that is invented by men.

  19. jastiger says:

    I am confused by this last post. If all sin was washed away by Jesus’ death, then how can I possibly sin? On one hand you seem to argue that we need to follow a moral law set down by god, yet on the other you say we are all “safe” and those old laws don’t apply because Jesus died. Which is it?

  20. Mike says:

    Ok – Jason asked – so here it is – Theology 101 condensed

    God (The One and Only, Real & True), Created the universe for a purpose. With humanity in mind. He created us in His image (intellect, reasoning power, conscience, will, eternal existence, etc.), something He did not do for the animal kingdom.

    The real us lives within the physical body that will grow old, and eventually die, while the true us (soul) will live on forever. God built this environment as a proving ground for us. Because God has given the ability to choose on our own, has given us His revelation (Bible) with its set of morals, it is we who will determine our eternal destiny.

    To assist us, God established a training period. Like parents with a child, they raise the child with set rules, but stretch those rules when they are younger, and gradually make them stricter as they get older, to the point that they expect their child to understand there are responsibilities and consequences.

    The word religion comes from two latin words – ‘re’ and ‘lego’ which means “to bind back.” In the Garden of eden there was no need for regilion (binding back), because Adam and Eve were in fellowship with God. However, once they sinned (violated the law), they were kicked out and religion became a requirement in the lives of men if they wanted a relationship with God.

    There are three “binding back” systems in the history of mankind (1) Patriarchal; (2) Mosaical; & (3) Christian. The first was a tribal system, where God spoke directly to the head of the tribe and instructed them in what was right or wrong. This lasted until Moses was given the 10 commandments. Then God moved into a new stage of training by writing the laws down. The Mosaical system lasted until the first century AD, when Jesus died upon the cross and did away with the old law.

    The new system that ALL men and women in every generation since the first century, and every corner of the earth is to follow is the Christian system. Under this new system, Jesus died on the cross to make atonement for the sins of man. The blood has been applied, but there are certain things required in order for anyone to obtain the benefits of the blood that washes away sins.
    Faith is required in order to obtain its benefits
    Repentance is required in order to obtain its benefits
    Confession that Christ is both God and man is required in order to obtain its benefits
    Baptism (immersion in water) is required in order to obtain its benefits. It is in baptism that we contact the blood so that our sins are washed away.

    Now, anyone who makes the choice to do those things, and lives faithfully until they die, their soul will be rewarded with a heavenly home. but in those who make the choice not to follow God, or take the time to seek Him, or out right reject Him, it is their choice to reserve a place in torment for their soul.

    So, no, everyone is not safe, just because Jesus died on the cross. There are things you must do in order to benefit from what He did. That’s the answer in a nut shell.

  21. Mark says:

    Mike,

    In fact I did say there can be justice. I said that justice is done through common sets of belief agreed upon by societies. If you are talking about ultimate justice that assigns to each a perfect punishment or reward, I do not believe that such a thing is possible. I know that the system I talk about is far from perfect but I believe that it is the best we can do at the present. In fact I am simply describing the justice system America has now. I can’t think of any better one but I’m not ruling out the possibility.

    Thank you for clarifying your position on original sin. It is something that I have often thought a ridiculous concept.

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