The question that first arises when considering the link between religion and morality is whether someone can truly be moral without necessitating the existence of God? However, when high levels of moral behaviour are found outside the framework of any religious belief or teaching it seems hard follow Aquinas’s line of reasoning that goodness is somehow ‘a reflection of the supreme goodness of God’. As Bertrand Russell points out, this suggests that ‘a man who loves what is truly good, loves god even if he doesn’t advert to God’. In fact, isn’t doing what is ‘good’, simply in the hope a divine reward, immoral and selfish in itself? Dawkins states that if someone needs God holds in order to be moral – to abstain from ‘robbery, rape and murder’ – then they are unveiling a fairly shocking characteristic.
Firstly, it would seem that what needs to be considered is the nature of a morality if it is based on the Devine. Plato in his ‘Euthyphro dilemma’ asks the question ‘is X good because God loves it or does God love X because X is good?’ Therefore, for Plato we are left with two options, either an action such as murder is simply wrong because God commands or murder is wrong in its self? Now, if the theist holds that only morally good acts are willed by God, then they become morally good prior to, or independent of, his will and subsequently his existence. God is, in effect, diminished of all his power, since he defers to some kind of higher set of absolute value judgements. Although, if the theist holds that moral values are true by virtue of God’s command (divine command theory) then, if they had not been commanded, would they still be wrong?
Would not morality simply become arbitrary to the will of God? As Gottfreid Liebniz writes ‘…in saying that things are not good by any rule of goodness, but merely the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory. For why praise him for what he has done if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing exactly the contrary.’ Ultimately, even if moral values from an atheist perspective are relative, and therefore derived by the subjective self, it still leaves the dilemma that religious objective moral values lead to a subjective choice of a deity. In the bible particularly there are some quite conflicting moral principles, with the charge of the deities’ instruction, particularly in the Old Testament, being arguably immoral. For instance, in the book of Numbers God commands the Israelites to attack the Midianities, but not only do they attack, at Moses divine inspired command they burn down the whole city and kill all the men/boys but bizarrely spare the virgin women?
Or, in Judges 11, Jephthah vows to God that if he is given victory he will sacrifice the first person to come out of the house and meet him, and although his daughter greets him, she fully accepts the obligation and Jephthah in the end defeats the Ammonites? In relation to such events, Richard Dawkins states that ‘modern morality, wherever else it comes from, does not come from the Bible.’ Therefore, it is proposed, that Christians ‘cheery pick’ Holy Scripture, abstracting only those moral values conforming to the ‘cultural norms’ of our secular society. Certainly, Christians don’t follow some of the commands in Levitcus to stone disobedient children or not eat shellfish. Michael Tanner states that ‘the content was evidently for the continuance of the tribe, whose living conditions were vastly different in many ways from ours.’ Therefore, the moral principles in the bible are bound to seem quite strange since they have been removed from their original context; this meaning that they have little use for situations in our modern society. For this reason Bertrand Russell describes religion as the ‘principle enemy of moral progress in the world.’
In fact, far from Morality having any correlation to the existence of a Deity, Richard Dawkins maintains that religion is the main cause of evil in the world. In the ‘the selfish gene’ (1989) he tries to account for the adaptation of culture in terms of a Darwinian origin and hypothesized the ‘meme’; this is any cultural entity replicating through exposure to humans, by a similar method of natural selection, if it tends to promote biological survival. However, Dawkins adds that religion acts as a ‘memetic virus’; this meaning, as with a virus, it may not be completely be beneficial, but simply has a higher success rate in replicating. This characterized as the result of faith, which is defines as ‘blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence’, being valued as the highest virtue. For this reason Dawkins perceives that Religion is promoting an irrational blind trust that discourages followers from exercising reason in determining what is indeed morally virtuous.
In the root of all evil he states that religious faith is an ‘indulgence of irrationality that nourishes extremism, division and terror.’ In Genesis 22 there is an account of Abraham being commanded sacrifice his son by God, and although he is stopped by God at the very last minute, what seems disturbing is that he was fully willing simply because God commanded. Claiming an action is in the ‘name of God’ is the very reason why some quite terrible atrocities have been carried out around the world and throughout history; this was particularly the reason for 9/11, the inquisition or crusades.
Bertrand Russell in ‘why I am not a Christian’ argues that ‘the whole contention that Christianity has had an elevating moral influence can only be maintained by wholesales ignoring or falsification of the historical evidence.’ Certainly, the concept of the conscience or ‘voice of God’ guiding our actions has also been put under some quite strong physiological scrutiny. Sigmund Freud claimed that there was a mature (the ‘ego’) and immature (the ‘super ego’) conscience. The immature conscience he identified as merely the feelings of guilt distilled from an early ‘pre-rational’ stage by parents, schooling and importantly religion. This Immature conscience, he argued, ‘blindly obeyed’ and simply aspired to follow actions in order to gain approval from others. Whereas, the ‘mature conscience’, was displayed by those who claimed autonomy over social pressures, and only did what right and wrong out of the value of the action itself.
Furthermore, Dawkins in his book ‘the selfish gene’ (1989) adds that our moral ‘altruistic’ behaviour (selfless welfare for others) has a biological Darwinian origin. The contention is that the gene serves to guarantee its own survival and replicate itself. Hence, a gene that programs the individual to favour its own genetic kin (organisms with the same genes) has a higher probability of generating copies of itself. For this reason animals may care for, defend, warn of danger and share resources with its fellow individuals. In addition to this he adds reciprocal altruism, a ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ principle; this meaning that we will be altruistic between our own species, and even others, in the intention of repayment. Kinship and reciprocal altruism for Dawkins are the ‘twin pillars’ for a Darwinian explanation of morality. To this he further adds such things as the ‘power of reputation’ in our culture for being altruistic; we want to be seen as ‘good’. The Darwinian survival value being that we will not just be a good reciprocator but will have a reputation of being a good reciprocator. Therefore, Morality could be described as little more than a set of best practices, Moral terms such as “right” actually meaning ‘best for survival’ in terms of the Homosapien species.