God is my co-pilot

PBS ran a program posing (inter alia) the question, “Where was God on 9/11?”

The answer: God was in the cockpits of those planes. He was, indeed, the hijackers’ co-pilot. What they did, they did for God.

You might argue that theirs was a perversion of religious faith. But people have been thusly arguing for millennia over who’s got the real truth, while religious zealots have tortured and murdered millions upon millions, century upon century, often in service to those very arguments.

The problem is that true belief in a God is by its nature such an inflated, extreme belief that it doesn’t lend itself to benign moderation; rather, to enflamed righteous passion. Thus repeated faith-inspired holocausts (like 9/11) are not aberrations, they are grimly predictable. If you truly believe that you’ve got the remit of the Lord of the Universe, it’s an all too short step to believe that anyone not with this divine program should be extirpated. Faith has been prone to this, way too often.

Religion’s defenders might acknowledge this drawback, but would say it’s more than balanced by the good religion does – mainly, its claimed role in keeping people moral (the ones who aren’t impelled to atrocities).

That believers in general are more moral than non-believers is very debatable. Again, the 9/11 hijackers believed they were acting with the highest moral purpose. But even on a more mundane level it’s doubtful whether religious believers act better, in their everyday lives, than non-believers. There’s actually a strong reason why the opposite would obtain. Non-belief forces one to examine one’s conscience on a regular basis. Religious believers, in contrast, have a tendency to suppose that since they’re good with God, whatever they do must be okay. That’s a very slippery assumption.

But even if it were true that religious belief correlates somehow with acting morally, the real point is that people don’t need faith for that. We have other paths that lead to moral conduct. Religion isn’t even the best one. Nonbelievers do the right thing because they work out that it’s right. Believers because some archaic book dictates it, and they fear punishment. Which is really being moral?

Human cultures developed moral sense both from our evolutionary background, where cooperation and even altruism had survival value for ancestral tribes, and from our thinking, reasoning minds. Religions were invented later, to incorporate these primordial moral values. If we didn’t have religion, we’d still have the values, and human cultures would still inculcate these moral values in each new generation. Supernatural man-in-the-sky beliefs are completely unnecessary for this.

Bottom line: for the good religion supposedly provides, we don’t need religion. We can have the good stuff without it. And we’d certainly be far better off without all the bad stuff.

[ Originally published at The Rational Optimist ]

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