In this installment in our series on anti-theist Sam Harris' debunking of ten myths about atheism we'll consider "myth" number 9. Harris writes that this myth states that:
Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to society.
Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any religious doctrine. This is why we have terms such as "wishful thinking" and "self-deception." There is a profound distinction between a consoling delusion and the truth.
In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering, or doing so 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?
Among other shortcomings in Harris' reply is the fact that he has a much too pinched view of the this-world benefits of Christianity, thinking them to be limited solely to the moral sphere. Many scholars agree, however, that Christianity provided far more benefit than just a moral basis, as important as that is, to Western civilization and eventually to the world. For example, Christianity provided the only cultural milieu in which modern science could and did develop. It also gave rise to a rich tradition in the arts, especially music, unmatched by any other culture. It fostered a high view of women and of the value of education, and was the motivating force behind the development of the university system in Europe and the United States.
None of these things ever really emerged in any other cultural setting. They only arose among people who believed that God was personal, rational, and that He had laid down certain standards for the treatment of other people. The appearance of these benefits also required that it be widely believed that individuals are created in the image of God and are loved by Him. Only this conviction, as John Locke reminds us, can support and sustain a belief in human dignity and worth.
For more on the contribution to human progress and well-being made by a Christian worldview see Rodney Stark's Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success, or Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization by Alvin Schmidt
Moreover, Christian theism satisfies human yearnings that non-theistic peoples have no hope of satisfying. For example, if Harris is correct and there is no God then there's also no meaning to life, no ground for morality, no basis for human dignity or worth, and no real justice. Nor is there any basis for believing that we are a coherent self, that love is anything more than a chemical reaction in the brain, that there is such a thing as objective truth, or that we have any real basis for trusting our reason to lead us to that truth. In other words, the belief that there is a God gives us an existential hope that our deepest yearnings will not go unsatisfied forever. Atheism can only shrug its shoulders and admonish us to get over it.
Since Harris asks us to consider which is more moral - to help the poor out of concern for their suffering or because God wants us to do it, let's turn to that question.
We can begin by pointing out that the question is mis-framed. It should be stated thusly: What obligates us to be concerned about another person's suffering in the first place? Why would it be wrong to be indifferent to another man's pain? Mr. Harris may wish to help the man who suffers, but if he did not wish to help him, even if indeed he wished to cause the suffering, why would that be immoral? Where does an obligation to help those who suffer come from if there is no God? Surely Mr. Harris doesn't think that nature or evolution can impose obligations upon us, but then, if not, what does?
The desire to help another is, if atheism is true, nothing more than an arbitrary preference some people have and others lack. Those who have it are no more "moral" than those who don't. They're just different in the same way that those who have color vision are different from those who are color-blind.
So, the answer to Mr. Harris' question is that if he's right about God, neither concern for another's suffering nor a mistaken duty to obey a non-existent God is more moral because there simply is no moral right or wrong. There are just things that people, like other animals, do. To pose the question of which is more moral is like asking whether starfish are more emotional than clams. The question is nonsense because, on the assumption of atheism, moral right and wrong is not a property of human behavior any more than emotion is a property of starfish and clam behavior.