A spate of magazine articles, cable TV shouting matches and debates among pundits this week have raised to prominence the question of whether the United States is a Christian nation. President Obama claims we are not, as we should not be. The majority of the public, ignorant of our history, believes otherwise. The arguments will rage on. But the current contretemps misses a central point about religiosity in general by focusing on Christianity specifically. More important than the degree to which the United States is Christian is the deeper but virtually unquestioned assumption in this debate that morality is derived from religion. The assumption is false and dangerous.
Traits that we view as moral are deeply embedded in the human psyche. Honesty, fidelity, trustworthiness, kindness to others, and reciprocity are probably primeval characteristics that helped our ancestors survive. In a world of dangerous predators, early man could likely thrive only in cooperative groups. Good behavior would almost certainly strengthen the tribal bonds that were essential to survival. We can reasonably postulate that what we now call morality is really a suite of behaviors favored by natural selection in an animal weak alone but strong in numbers. Morality is our biological destiny, not a gift from god.
Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, human beings are inherently moral creatures, as our sociality would demand. Our inherent good, however, has been corrupted by the false morality of religion. For millennia religious doctrine has manipulated us with divine carrots and sticks. If we misbehave, we are threatened with the hot flames of hell. If we please god, we are promised the comforting embrace of eternal peace. Under the burden of religion, morality has become nothing but a response to bribery and fear. We have forsaken our biological heritage in exchange for coupons to heaven.
Faith has triumphed over reason, and we have suffered terribly as a result. In much of the world, humanity endures crowded poverty, taught that contraception is an affront to god. We rape our environment, told in Genesis that the earth's resources were put here for our exploitation and pleasure. Millions have perished in wars fought in the name of some great god. Genocide, torture, and holocausts are perpetrated in the cause of a loving father in heaven. This vengeful, wrathful, jealous, petty, bloodthirsty deity is not an appropriate guiding light on moral values.
Popular and brilliant authors such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris understand the inherent danger of religion's false promise. All are eloquent and fully justified in their respective and beautifully written diatribes against god. But in some ways these authors have life easy. Religion is so deeply flawed that bashing god makes for poor sport. The target is too easy, like fish in a barrel, deer in the headlights, or flightless quail on a Dick Cheney hunt.
Tearing down religion is useful only if a viable alternative is offered. We need to take the next step of suggesting solutions to humanity's most pressing problems in a world absent any god. We can do so by returning to core values based on our own evolutionary history, derived from our biological legacy free from myth and fable. We can move beyond faith and god to a life more complete.
There exists for those willing to see a new perspective a deeply satisfying purpose and meaning to life free from any divine influence. To glimpse this world, imagine for a moment that there is no invisible man in the sky using magical powers in "mysterious ways" to control our fate. Imagine that we can toss away the crutch of false hope and bad myth to walk unhindered down the path of personal responsibility. Without the burden of a wrathful god, we have the power to create our own meaning, our own sense of purpose, our own destiny. By rejecting the false premises of religion we are free to move beyond the random hand we are dealt at birth to pave our own road to a better life.
With freedom of course comes the obligation to act wisely and responsibly. We fulfill this duty first by taking a more modest view of our place in the world. When we see that humans are a natural part of the ecosystem, not above or separate from the environment, we will protect the resources that sustain us. When we reject the hubris and conceit of religion, we will redefine our relationship with each other without calling upon god to smite our enemies. When we understand that true morality is independent of religious doctrine, we will create a path toward a just society. We each have the power to create a life in which we no longer accept the arbitrary and destructive constraints of divine interference.
The need to move beyond religion has never been more urgent. Our Earth is in crisis. Religion corrupts our relationship with the environment, fosters extremism that threatens our security at home and abroad, and breeds outlandish hypocrisy in personal behavior and public policy. A meaningful alternative exists for the millions of people unsatisfied with this status quo, for those who want to shed the yoke of tired rituals no longer relevant to modern life and who reject religious dogma that for too long has suppressed our inherent good. Morality without religion encourages sound environmental stewardship, offers a new approach to social ethics, and promotes and strengthens our better side. For those willing to consider a new path, shedding the constraining cloaks of religion leads to a life more fulfilled through personal responsibility and a morality based in fact instead of myth.