Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Is Theism Necessary for Morality?

The Pew Research Global Attitudes Project finds that there's a widespread belief around the world that belief in God is necessary for morality.

It's unfortunate that the survey questions were framed the way they were because I think they miss the point. I'll explain why in a moment.

Here are some of the results. Note that with the exception of the United States, people in wealthier countries did not think belief in God is necessary to be moral and with the exception of China, people in poorer countries do.
In 22 of the 40 countries surveyed, clear majorities say it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values. This position is highly prevalent, if not universal, in Africa and the Middle East. At least three-quarters in all six countries surveyed in Africa say that faith in God is essential to morality. In the Middle East, roughly seven-in-ten or more agree in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, the Palestinian territories, Tunisia and Lebanon. Across the two regions, only in Israel does a majority think it is not necessary to believe in God to be an upright person.

Many people in Asia and Latin America also link faith and morality. For example, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and Malaysians almost unanimously think that belief in God is central to having good values. People in El Salvador, Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela overwhelmingly agree. However, most Chinese take the opposite position – that it is not necessary to be a believer to be a moral person. And in Latin America, the Chileans and Argentines are divided.

In North America and Europe, more people agree that it is possible to be non-religious and still be an upright person. At least half in nearly every country surveyed take this view, including roughly eight-in-ten or more in France, Spain, the Czech Republic and Britain. In these two regions, Americans are unique – 53% say belief in God is necessary to be moral.

There are also significant divides within some countries based on age and education, particularly in Europe and North America. In general, individuals age 50 or older and those without a college education are more likely to link morality to religion. For example, in Greece, 62% of older adults say it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person, while just 29% of 18- to 29-year-olds agree. In the U.S., a majority of individuals without a college degree (59%) say faith is essential to be an upright person, while fewer than four-in-ten college graduates say the same (37%).
There's much else at the link to mull over.

My criticism of the study is that I think it asks the wrong question. The question is not whether belief in God is necessary for someone to adopt a particular set of moral values, but rather whether the existence of God is necessary for objective moral values (i.e. values that exist independently of our own feelings about them) to exist.

A non-believer can certainly live by whichever values he pleases. He can be as kind, loving, honest and forgiving as the next person. The values he adopts don't depend upon his belief in God, but the point is that the non-believer has no reason other than his own personal preference to adopt those values. They're neither right nor wrong in any objective sense. He could as easily have adopted the opposites of these and he would be no more wrong nor right to do so. He has no obligation to do anything which he does not want to do, or to live in any fashion in which he does not wish to live.

As atheist philosopher Richard Rorty said, "If you do not believe in God, you would do well to drop notions like 'law' and 'obligation' from the vocabulary you use when deciding what to do." Rorty also observed that, "The secular man has no answer to the question, 'Why not be cruel?'" Atheist biologist Richard Dawkins laments that it's very difficult for an atheist like himself to say that Hitler was wrong.

The question, then, that the Pew Project should have asked is, "Is belief in God necessary to avoid moral nihilism?" It seems pretty clear that a lot of atheists think it is.

The Interconnectedness of Life

Here's a great ecology lesson packed into four and a half minutes of film:
If you've never been to Yellowstone it's definitely worth the trip. It's probably the most geologically unusual landscape in the United States and it's a great place to see wildlife.