I am not a fan of the so-called “New Atheists”—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christipher Hitchens. I find their rhetoric to be little more than religious fundamentalism disguised as rational argument, and I think that they intentionally misunderstand the difference between religion as something that makes people do bad things and religion as something that bad people know how to use to do bad things. Don’t get me started on this; I can go on all day.
But I do respect the fact that these thinkers have shifted our discourse from the question, “Can you be good without religion?” to what I see as the much more important question,“Can you be good WITH religion?” I believe that the answer to both questions is “yes.”
Some of the most moral, compassionate, and honorable people I know are atheists, and I think that their atheism helps to make them this way. Some things about religion can actively get in the way of moral behavior, and not having a religion can eliminate some very big obstacles to being a good person. But some of the finest people I know are also very religious. I work at a university that was founded by an order of Catholic Sisters. These women have gone all over the world setting up ministries to bring education and health care to some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. I see these same fruits every day in my LDS ward: people who care about each other in profound ways, leaders who take other people’s problems on as though they were their own. Religion can and does make people better.
Some time ago I realized, quite to my surprise, that there are not two different kinds of religion, one good and one bad. The things about religion that can make people act badly are exactly the same things that can inspire people to be like God. It is the mixiest of all mixed bags. We absolutely can be good people without atheism, but we have to make a constant effort to monitor ourselves and correct for the weaknesses that our greatest strengths can turn into if we are not careful. Here are just a few examples of what I mean:
- The boundaries that define our community from the inside can become barriers for those on the outside who need our help. This is something that inheres in the way that communities work. Communities cannot function without boundaries, but boundaries erase people and their experiences in way that can cause profound pain. Every circle draws some people in and defines some people as “out.” Those of us on the inside have a sacred responsibility to notice who is absent and speak for them in ways that our boundaries do not permit them to speak for themselves.
- The certainty that gives meaning and structure to our lives can also make us real jerks. One of the most important things that religion does is give us a sense of certainty about a lot of big questions—purpose of life and “why am I here?” And because we are evolutionarily designed to generalize our beliefs into universal systems, we have a hard time not believing that everybody else should see things our way. This can cause us to discount other people’s values and experiences in ways that cause pain and ruin relationships. The corrective for this is the ability to meaningfully entertain the possibility that you are wrong. If you aren’t thinking “what if I am wrong?” on a pretty regular basis, then you are probably not doing it right.
- Belief in an afterlife can cause us to treat injustices in this life casually. As the only species who has any idea of its own mortality, humans have a deep need to believe that we will not simply cease to exist when we die, and most religions provide such an assurance. This is a good thing. It can become a bad thing when we start to believe that justice can wait until the next world. Far too many religious people are willing to endure great poverty and deprivation (not their own, of course, but other people’s) on the grounds that this life is just a blip and eternal justice will eventually take care of everybody. Not caring about deep injustices in this life—for whatever reason—is one of the most important definitions I know of a “bad person.”
- The existence of clear moral codes can confuse us into thinking that we have developed the capacity for moral reasoning when all we are doing is obeying stuff. Here, for me, is the pith and marrow of the matter. I believe that the most important thing that human beings can do in their lifetimes is develop the ability to exercise moral reasoning. As it happens, this is a belief that stems from the most Mormon part of my brain—the one that sees the War in Heaven as a battle between a philosophy that wanted human beings to develop the capacity for moral reasoning and one that wanted to make obedience the only real decision we ever have to make. According to LDS theology, we all voted for the former. Far too many of us seem ready to take back our vote.
As the BYU Title IX controversy unfolds, I am thinking a lot about this prospect of being good WITH religion. Here we have an honor code that, I absolutely believe, has been designed by religious people with good and moral intentions. It creates the expectation that students will behave morally, and it holds them accountable when they do not. In many ways it represents the best we are as a people. But, like so many of the best things about religion, it has the potential to become one of the worst things about us. In the hands of sexual predators, it can become a tool to ensure silence. And in the hands of uninspired managers, it has become a way to re-victimize survivors and discourage the reporting that is so necessary to preventing sexual assault.
This does not mean that the Church, BYU, or the Honor Code are bad things. It means that, like so much else in religion, the best things have the potential to turn into the worst things if we do not monitor them carefully and correct for our excesses.