Religion, Nontheism and Unethical Behavior

As support for their argument that atheism leads to immorality, some religionists quote Voltaire. He said about atheism: “Even if not as baleful as fanaticism, it is nearly always fatal to virtue.”

Although Voltaire made many great statements, modern research shows he was wrong in assuming that disbelief in God causes unethical behavior.

In the book The Psychology of Religion, which is used in college courses, authors Bernard Spilka, Ralph W. Hood Jr., and Richard Gorsuch state: “Most studies show that conventional religion is not an effective force for moral behavior or against criminal activity.”

The same authors cite studies showing higher rates of religious affiliation among criminals and juvenile delinquents than among the rest of the population.

Alfie Kohn of Psychology Today summarizes the results of many years of research. He says: “What . . . can we surmise about the likelihood of someone’s being caring and generous, loving and helpful, just from knowing that he or she is a believer? Virtually nothing, say psychologists, sociologists, and others who have studied that question for decades.”

Kohn also mentions a 1975 study of college students. It found that the temptation to cheat on an exam was resisted by a greater percentage of atheist students than religious students.

Throughout history, many persons of exemplary character and some of the greatest benefactors of humanity were either disbelievers or skeptics on the issue of God’s existence. Examples include Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Luther Burbank, Clarence Darrow, and John Stuart Mill.

In fact, Mill wrote in the nineteenth century: “It is historically true that a large proportion of infidels in all ages have been persons of distinguished integrity and honor.”

On the other hand, the ranks of the God-believers have included numerous evildoers. Among them have been slaveholders; Inquisitors; Crusaders; conquistadors; witch-burners; Nazis; Ku Klux Klansmen; child molesters; wife beaters; and many corrupt and cruel politicians and rulers, including Hitler and Mussolini.

The Founders of the U.S. knew firsthand the lack of correlation between religious belief and desirable behavior. During the Revolutionary War, they saw that not only members of many different religious denominations but also nonbelievers were willing to fight and die for American independence.

And numerous religious people – both ministers and laypersons – opposed the American Revolution and worked to subvert it. Many of these pious Tories wanted the Founders defeated and hanged as traitors to the king of England.

Not surprisingly, then, the Founders provided in Article VI of the U.S. Constitution that there shall be no religious test for any public office.

George Washington was opposed to religious discrimination in business, too. In seeking to hire mechanics for his estate, he wrote to his agent: “If they be good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mohammedans, Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists.”

During the 1930s, Nazi Germany had more religious affiliation than any other country in Europe. Aside from the Jews, almost the entire German population was composed of Lutherans and Catholics. But religion didn’t prevent Germany from starting World War II and carrying out the Holocaust.

In the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders welcomed the participation of persons from all religions and denominations, and also the nonreligious. King’s personal attorney, Stanley Levison, was a white nonobservant Jew and an atheist.

The idealistic Levison provided legal services to the movement free of charge. Rather than reject or distrust Levison, who was a lifelong friend, King would gently rib him by saying, “You believe in God, Stan. You just don’t know it.”

Former Republican U.S. Senator John Danforth, who is an Episcopal priest and was appointed by President George W. Bush to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, also recognized there is no necessary correlation between religiosity and ethics.

Danforth said: “Plenty of kind, decent, caring people have no religious beliefs, and they act out of the goodness of their hearts. Conversely, plenty of people who profess to be religious, even those who worship regularly, show no particular interest in the world beyond themselves.”

There now exists overwhelming proof that moral character cannot validly be judged based on disbelief in God. To assert otherwise is to promote religious prejudice against nonbelievers.

And this prejudice maligns millions of loyal, honest, and productive Americans in a manner that would be deemed totally unacceptable if directed against other religious minorities.

In the interest of fairness, religionists who cite Voltaire should also mention his description of Christianity as “the most infamous superstition that has ever degraded man.” And he said that “for 1700 years the Christian sect has done nothing but harm.”

Voltaire was a deist who had a low opinion of both Christianity and atheism.

[For further information on this subject, please see the article titled “Morality Without Religion.”]