The midterm elections are fast approaching, and their outcome could well be determined by the “moral values” of conservative Christians. While this possibility is regularly bemoaned by liberals, the link between religion and morality in our public life is almost never questioned. One of the most common justifications one hears for religious faith, from all points on the political spectrum, is that it provides a necessary framework for moral behavior. Most Americans appear to believe that without faith in God, we would have no durable reasons to treat one another well. The political version of this morality claim is that our country was founded on “Judeo-Christian principles,” the implication being that without these principles we would have no way to write just laws.
It is, of course, taboo to criticize a person’s religious beliefs. The problem, however, is that much of what people believe in the name of religion is intrinsically divisive, unreasonable, and incompatible with genuine morality. The truth is that the only rational basis for morality is a concern for the happiness and suffering of other conscious beings. This emphasis on the happiness and suffering of others explains why we don’t have moral obligations toward rocks. It also explains why (generally speaking) people deserve greater moral concern than animals, and why certain animals concern us more than others. If we show more sensitivity to the experience of chimpanzees than to the experience of crickets, we do so because there is a relationship between the size and complexity of a creature’s brain and its experience of the world.
Unfortunately, religion tends to separate questions of morality from the living reality of human and animal suffering. Consequently, religious people often devote immense energy to so-called “moral” questions—such as gay marriage—where no real suffering is at issue, and they will inflict terrible suffering in the service of their religious beliefs.
Consider the suffering of the millions of unfortunate people who happen to live in sub-Saharan Africa. The wars in this part of the world are interminable. AIDS is epidemic there, killing around 3 million people each year. It is almost impossible to exaggerate how bad your luck is if you are born today in a country like Sudan. The question is, how does religion affect this problem?
Many pious Christians go to countries like Sudan to help alleviate human suffering, and such behavior is regularly put forward as a defense of Christianity. But in this case, religion gives people bad reasons for acting morally, where good reasons are actually available. We don’t have to believe that a deity wrote one of our books, or that Jesus was born of a virgin, to be moved to help people in need. In those same desperate places, one finds secular volunteers working with organizations like Doctors Without Borders and helping people for secular reasons. Helping people purely out of concern for their happiness and suffering seems rather more noble than helping them because you think the Creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it, or will punish you for not doing it.
But the worst problem with religious morality is that it often causes good people to act immorally, even while they attempt to alleviate the suffering of others. In Africa, for instance, certain Christians preach against condom use in villages where AIDS is epidemic, and where the only information about condoms comes from the ministry. They also preach the necessity of believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ in places where religious conflict between Christians and Muslims has led to the deaths of millions. Secular volunteers don’t spread ignorance and death in this way. A person need not be evil to preach against condom use in a village decimated by AIDS; he or she need only believe a specific faith-based moral dogma. In such cases we can see that religion can cause good people to be much less good than they might otherwise be.
We have to realize that we decide what is good in our religious doctrines. We read the Golden Rule, for instance, and judge it to be a brilliant distillation of many of our ethical impulses. And then we come across another of God’s teachings on morality: If a man discovers that his bride is not a virgin on their wedding night, he must stone her to death on her father’s doorstep (Deuteronomy 22: 13-21). If we are civilized, we will reject this as utter lunacy. Doing so requires that we exercise our own moral intuitions, keeping the real issue of human happiness in view. The belief that the Bible is the word of God is of no help to us whatsoever.
As we consider how to run our own society and how to help people in need, the choice before us is simple: Either we can have a 21st-century conversation about morality and human happiness—availing ourselves of all the scientific insights and philosophical arguments that have accumulated in the last 2,000 years of human discourse—or we can confine ourselves to an Iron Age conversation as it is preserved in our holy books.
Wherever the issue of “moral values” surfaces in our national conversation in the coming weeks, ask yourself which approach to morality is operating. Are we talking about how to best alleviate human suffering? Or are we talking about the whims of an invisible God?
Sam Harris is the author of Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith. He can be reached through his website, samharris.org.
October 22, 2006