In a very rare moment away from work, I looked through my emails and saw a rather silly article posted by a student who insists not only that religion is necessary for morality, but that Christopher Hitchens said so. Talk about hearing what you want to hear. Most of the comments to his article obviously haven’t been very nice. As someone who now is charged with educating people of his age, I feel compelled to try and educate while correcting. Will he listen? Probably not. Hell, not all of my students listen either, but that’s their problem.
Josh, you clearly misheard what Christopher Hitchens was saying then. Have you never heard his comments regarding the Good Samaritan story? That story, in the heart of the Christian bible, shows that not only isn’t religion required for good morals, but that having religion is no guarantee of good morals either.
Atheism is a response to a proposal, the proposal that there’s a god. As that is all it is, obviously there’s no moral code to atheism. That doesn’t mean either that atheism is immoral or that it requires religious morals. It’s not a belief system or philosophy, but rather a response prompted by a belief system or philosophy, and there’s no one belief system or philosophy required in order to be an atheist. If it helps, let’s use vegetarians as an example. To be a vegetarian is to have a response to the proposal of eating meat. What prompts that response? Well it could be a religious belief, it could be a health concern, or it could simply be acute sensitivity to the idea of having to take the life of an animal. Likewise, one could be an atheist for religious reasons (ie – Buddhists, Raellians, etc), emotional reasons or for the purely logical reason that there doesn’t appear to be any evidence for the existence of a god. “True unadulterated atheism” is simply a non sequitur, Josh.
So atheists require a moral code. Well all of us humans do, and we all work it out one way or another. Perhaps it all started from basic reciprocity, otherwise known as the Golden Rule (which not only didn’t suddenly appear thanks to Christianity, but the Christian variant of it discourages human empathy). The origins are not really important. What’s important is what we have now and assessing if they work. That’s the role of society, and it’s been society’s perpetual tweaking of morality that has allowed for the progresses of today. It’s been society’s pressure which has dragged religious morality forward, against its will. It’s the influence of society’s morals which color interpretations of so-called holy texts so that what once called for oppression of others can now be spun the opposite way.
You suggest that somehow todays morality is built on the foundation of religion, and as a foundation, it can’t be removed. I would say instead that there was a foundation in place prior to any religion, and perhaps some have added to it or tried to refine what was there (as in the flawed Christian retooling of the Golden Rule) but largely they’ve provided a false foundation, one upon which anything built is flawed and thus a hazard. Sadly we have too numerous a list of examples of that. Crusades, genocides, Inquisitions and even one way flights into tall buildings. Anyway, if there exists good in any religion’s morals, then it’s wise to adopt them. I’ll have to assume that’s what you heard at Hitchens’ lecture. Again, where an idea came from is irrelevant, what’s relevant is its efficacy so we’re wise to take the best from wherever, just as religions have whether they wanted to or not throughout history.
Imagine if most churches in the US still called for slavery and holding women down as 2nd class citizens? They wouldn’t be very popular, would they be? In fact, that’s what many are finding out now as they maintain unpopular positions such as opposing equal rights for gays. They’re losing members in droves, especially from the key demographic, the young. Eventually their morals will evolve or they will die due to the pressure of society’s morals.
So no, Josh, religion is not necessary for morals and no, Christopher Hitchens doesn’t believe they are, either.