One of the common arguments religious people use in discussion with atheists, and one which I have come up against, is “Without a god, why would anyone behave morally”. My usual response is to say to whoever advances this argument. “If I could prove to you that there was no god, would you become an immoral violent criminal?” A common response is “No, I wouldn’t suddenly become immoral, but other, less clever people, would behave badly without the threat of religious judgement to provide their moral compass.”
I have always regarded this as insulting and patronising. I believe that people’s morality can be based on rationality combined with empathy and does not require an external authority. I also believed that adults, having reached their position on a continuum of morality from sinner to saint don’t move too much up or down the scale. Or “Bad people do bad things and good people do good things – to get good people to do bad things takes religion”
Several recent events have made me doubt these beliefs, So, here are my second thoughts…..
First I saw an interview with an ex prisoner who had turned his life around after “finding Jesus”. He had a long history of violence and robbery but had been straight for a long time and said that God had shown him the difference between right and wrong. It occurred to me that if I proved to HIM that there was no god, he might well become an immoral violent criminal again. For him right and wrong really WAS based on an external, enforcing, authority.
I can’t go into detail about the second event (maybe in a month or so) but it brought home to me that many things can slide people up and down the morality continuum. Very ordinary people can behave very badly particularly if they are in groups rather than acting as individuals. The recent history of Yugoslavia and Rwanda, where normal people butchered their neighbours, gives plenty of evidence for this phenomenon called deindividuation.
The other events are, of course, the recent riots and looting in various cities across the country.
There were some, probably already with criminal histories, quite far down the morality continuum to begin with, who behaved the way they did for a very simple reason – because they could! The rules were gone because the police could not enforce the rules. So there was no external authority to prevent them from behaving the way they did. Most of us, starting from further up the scale, wouldn’t behave this way, even if we could, because of empathy for the victims and our own internal authority – or conscience.
Part of the explanation for the behaviour of other rioters however, is to do with group psychology. People get swept along and behaviour they would consider wrong as individuals is considered normal when part of a large, largely anonymous group.
I suspect that lots of people felt pretty awful in the cold light of the next day and found it hard to understand their own behaviour.
So are the religious right right? It is a depressing thought for rational, atheist, humanist, libertarians like myself!
No, I don’t think they are right.
Unchallenged obedience to authority (any authority – not just religious) may prevent the kind of chaotic violence and disorder we have recently seen but it can also lead to even greater violence on a much bigger scale. Jihadists, crusaders, Maoists and Nazis committed far greater crimes than these recent riots but they all thought they were morally right and were very obedient to authority.
But we who think that people should not be subject to arbitrary authority, and who think the decline of deference and automatic obedience is actually a GOOD thing, have a duty to look long and hard at these riots and realise that if we remove God, class, and simple patriotism, as sources of authority we may have to replace them with something.
I don’t know what that might be, perhaps another kind of group psychology, the kind that gave rise to the twitter groups who volunteered to clean up the mess, and show publically that human beings are capable of spontaneous goodness.
I don’t have the answers. There are links opposite to lots of other opinions. But I can say that Cameron is dead wrong.
It may be criminality but it is seldom pure, and never simple.