While there is much joy in the world, it can also be a harsh and unforgiving place, full of disasters both natural and man-made. This is why it is so important that people try their best to follow the Golden Rule, modernly rephrased as treating others as they wish to be treated. By cultivating our empathy, and acting on it to benefit others, we may all lead better lives free from unnecessary conflict and pain. While some rely on religious belief to inform their morality, others such as humanists, derive their ethics from philosophy, scientific discovery and personal experience.
Surprisingly, many Americans don't think that morality can even exist without a commitment to an intervening god. In fact, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 53 percent of Americans felt that belief in God is essential to morality, which, although lower than the 57 percent of Americans who felt similarly when surveyed in 2007, shows that most Americans still tie morality with theistic belief.
What's curious about this perceived connection between faith and morality is the fact that so much of the behavior we see that violates basic precepts like the Golden Rule is motivated (or at least excused) by religious teachings or beliefs. I heard Nobelist Steven Weinberg say while accepting the Humanist of the Year Award, "With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." In my view, it's not so much that religion makes people do evil, it's that it provides a convenient excuse for nearly anything, and that lowers the bar for committing bad behavior we might otherwise avoid. So while religion isn't required for people to be jerks, it may perpetuate jerky behavior and make it more widespread.
Ancient religious texts and divine revelations about the will of God are often used as convenient excuses for personal prejudices and may even instigate people to act on those prejudices. Examples of this run the gamut from the flippant to the frightening, from people refusing to tip servers because they already paid a tithe to their church, to the campaign to "de-gay" LGBT people, to violent hate crime attacks on people of other religions, to George W. Bush embarking on war because of what he thought his god told him to do it. And some even use religion as a convenient excuse to get out of paying for good health care for their employees, as witnessed Hobby Lobby and their allied businesses. While these type of bad behavior may only affect a few people, many of us commonly experience religiously motivated immoral behavior by simply being on the receiving end of unbridled faith-based judgements.
Instead of using religion to excuse the more banal prejudices that people harbor, those who believe in a god should use their faith as a motivator to be kind and do good. Fortunately, religious people are not monolithic. For every fundamentalist ready to discriminate against atheists, Jews, gays, liberals, ethnic minorities, etc., there are two religious progressives who have interpreted their faith in a more humanistic way. It's time for non-theist and faithful progressives to unite and stop giving the conservative religion a free pass for prejudice.