I think religion can help people to be moral.
This may seem to directly contradict what I’ve said before, and which has been repeated at length many times, in many religious debates, for the benefit of religious people who seem to need it repeated many times. But I stand by the familiar secular humanist trope: God is entirely superfluous for morality to exist, and no worthwhile system of ethics can be defined simply in terms of obedience to some more powerfully coercive force.
Religion does not equate to morality. One does not remotely depend on the other. But there can be a positive causal link there.
Ask a humanist about the source of their morals, and they’ll probably mention compassion for other humans as an end in itself – being good for goodness’ sake, and all that. This, for many, is where true morality lies: we don’t need to be told not to murder and rape each other by God to figure out that we just shouldn’t do it. And, conversely, if we are told that, say, homosexuality is somehow inherently evil, then we can look at the plain facts and figure out for ourselves that there’s no moral basis whatever for such an assertion.
But while this is all ethically sound reasoning, it does many religious people a disservice to assume that the motives for their behaviour go no further than the whim of their god. Many of them aren’t so monomaniacally fixated on their divine delusion; they live most of their lives in the real world, and engage with it in the same ways, and for the same reasons, as I do.
I know religious people whose love for their children has nothing to do with their belief that God placed us all on this earth with some deliberate purpose in mind. The humanistic idea of loving people because they deserve it, because it brings about greater happiness and comfort and joy and well-being which are all good things in and of themselves, are precisely what motivate a lot of devout believers in the good they do.
Everyone who understands the inherently good purpose of being a good person, learned it somehow. The experiences in their lives brought them to that point. For some, this journey is kick-started simply by loving parents, and other similar positive influences, who nurture a positive approach to the world. For others, what gets them there is the idea that God wants them to be good to people, and that belief inspires them to find a sincere, innately good compassion for others. They’re not just behaving themselves because they think it’s what God wants; but the idea that God wants this has shaped how they truly feel, prompted them to think about loving their neighbour and realise on their own what a good idea it is.
It doesn’t always work, of course. For some, the divine edict really is the be-all and end-all of moral meaning, and actual care or love for humanity doesn’t enter into their picture of how anyone should behave. Then it’s all about using God’s will to enforce and justify their own prejudices and bigotry, and it all gets rather ugly. It’s largely because of these people that the “Good without God” slogan is still worth repeating; an alarming number of people still don’t get it.
But many roads can lead to love and kindness, and it’s not the most terrible thing in the world if some of those roads aren’t too rational. Good with God deserves a chance, too.