Greetings! I’d like to return to my series addressing common myths surrounding church/state separation. If you’re aware of any myths surrounding church/state separation that I haven’t addressed so far please forward them to me at email@example.com and I will attempt to address them.
Many people believe that religion is the source of morality and without religion civilization would lack the moral compass necessary for good behavior. A line of thought certainly endorsed by our present line-up of Republican candidates. Many people argue that the activities of some of our greatest thinkers like Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu is evidence that one cannot be moral without religion. Both are great moral and religious leaders and there are many other religious leaders who provide positive moral examples. However, we cannot conclude from this that religious belief is a precondition for morality and there are some real problems with this idea in spite of what the Republican candidates would like us to believe.
If religiosity was a good indicator of moral behavior we might expect that those states with the greatest numbers of church-goers would display the least crime. However, it turns out that religiosity does not translate into good behavior, and disregard for religion does not correlate with vice. Quite the contrary.
Consider murder. According to a Gallup survey, Mississippi has the highest rate of church attendance in America with 63 percent of people saying they attend church “weekly or almost weekly.” But Mississippians are far more likely to be murdered than other Americans. On the other hand in Vermont, where church going is at a minimum, the murder rate is only about 25% that of the rest of the country. New Hampshire is the second-least religious state but has the lowest murder rate. These examples are not anomalies I’ve selected to prove my point. Of the 10 states with the most church goers, all but one has higher than average homicide rates. On the other hand, out of the 11 states with the lowest church attendance, 10 have low homicide rates.
Another fact is that religious people do not all agree on the same moral principles: some accept abortion while others do not. Also, non-believers don’t seem to behave less morally than believers but the converse is also true: religion has led people to commit a long litany of horrendous crimes. For example, the vast majority of those incarcerated in our prisons claim to be religious. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Thirty Years were all waged by believers. Many Christians supported slavery and we can look at the many atrocities we see around the world today committed in the name of religion.
It’s obvious simply from following today’s news that the religious do no better than their secular counterparts when it comes to adhering to moral standards – both sides lie, steal, and cheat on their spouses. Another problem is that many elements of morality seem to be universal. That is, throughout history many societies never exposed to religion still displayed moral tendencies. Many hundreds of years prior to the 10 Commandments societies existed and thrived without benefit of those commandments and their laws were based on strictly secular documents like Hammurabi’s codes. Also, over time Christians have made significant changes in their interpretations of holy texts so that what was formerly moral is now immoral. There are biblical passages, for example, which condone slavery, advocate discrimination against women, and promote intolerance against other religions.
The religious right’s view is that humankind is basically sinful and God provided Holy Scriptures to show the way. An alternative idea, consistent with what we have learned from biology and geology, is that we have evolved over millions of years a moral faculty that provides insights into right and wrong. Research in the cognitive sciences has shown repeatedly that humankind has an innate sense of right and wrong. Cases can also be seen in nature of animals exhibiting apparently moral behavior. These studies suggest that like other psychological faculties of the mind, like language and math, we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our judgments of right and wrong. It is simply intellectually dishonest for some religions to believe that they offer an absolute moral guide outside of innate logic and reason.