What about all the good things religion has given us?
William Donohue, head of the Catholic League, writes:
- "It was the Catholic Church that created the first universities, and it was the Catholic Church that played a central role in the Scientific Revolution"
Arthur C. Brooks, at Stanford's Hoover Institution, writes:
- "The differences in charity between secular and religious people are dramatic. Religious people are 25 percentage points more likely than secularists to donate money (91 percent to 66 percent) and 23 points more likely to volunteer time (67 percent to 44 percent). And, consistent with the findings of other writers, these data show that practicing a religion is more important than the actual religion itself in predicting charitable behavior. For example, among those who attend worship services regularly, 92 percent of Protestants give charitably, compared with 91 percent of Catholics, 91 percent of Jews, and 89 percent from other religions."
What is the argument?
Assuming for the sake of argument that religious beliefs cause people to be better, this does not imply that those beliefs are true.
In other words, "religion gives us good things, therefore religion is good" is an argument for the usefulness of religion, not its truth.
What is the causality?
Is there something about religion that causes people to do good things? Or are the good things attributed to religion due to some other cause?
For instance, in a community that is 75% Catholic, one would expect about 75% of all good deeds to be done by Catholics, all else being equal.
Is religion, on balance, a good thing?
Religious institutions also often do bad things, such as opposing the teaching of evolution in schools or promoting the spread of AIDS by denigrating the use of condoms. Therefore, we must ask ourselves whether, on balance, religion is a good thing or not.
Is religious charity selfless?
One must remember that when a religious person does charity, they may be doing this for a reward, such as heaven, if applicable to the religion in question. Many people act out on the word of God, to impress God. Many are not doing these good deeds out of the kindness of their heart, but for eternity in heaven. American Christian fundamentalists of the Religious right give small amounts of money to charity, they feel good about this and imagine it will help them get to heaven. At the same time they vote and campaign against political parties that promote tax funded initiatives with potential to help poor people far more than voluntary charity can do. Small scale charitable giving is a smokescreen that seeks to prevent the religious right and the public at large seeing how far the Republican part religious style of politics is actually harming poor Americans.
Dodging the issue
If brought up with reference to Atheism, this response may be a dodge. Atheists may just as well do good, so as an argument against atheism it misses relevancy.
This is part of the common misconception that: Atheism has bearings on topics other than the lack of belief in deities. And at the same time the misconception that: without religion, there can be no moral standards. Thus, the apologist who responds with this dodge probably believes that the Atheist cannot have moral standards as he/she has no religion.
Furthermore Atheism is not equivalent to lack of morality. Although religion may promote morality, it is fallible to say that therefore Atheism promotes lack of morality. Morality is an issue of the individual not of an institution, thus Atheists and Theists have the same capacity of being moral or immoral as they both choose which morals to include in their lives.
The idea that morality is originally based on religion is frequently heard from apologists in debates and conversations. Some of the reasons for this belief can be that,
- one cannot imagine a world without religion
- one imagines the world to be barbaric without his/hers religion (Indians, Vikings, etc. Essentially societies that one believes were barbaric)
- the scripture speaks a lot of morals and laws, and one assumes that the world must have been without morals and laws before the scripture
- animals cannot read, and they act like animals
The reality is that morality is intrinsic to animals. Charles Darwin refers to this as altruism. Morality is basically a product of natural selection, and homo sapiens is far from the only species to exhibit this behaviour that we have labelled as "goodness".
It's also important to note the difference between ethics (more universal views of what is right or wrong - developed namely through cultural evolution) and morality (culturally-based views of what is right or wrong). Morals are not always ethical, and it is quite arguable that many religious morals are anything but ethical.