Writing in the City Journal, Theodore Dalrymple criticizes the equivalence of religion with the immoral and atheism with the moral:
Lying not far beneath the surface of all the neo-atheist books is the kind of historiography that many of us adopted in our hormone-disturbed adolescence, furious at the discovery that our parents sometimes told lies and violated their own precepts and rules. It can be summed up in Christopher Hitchens’s drumbeat in God Is Not Great: “Religion spoils everything.”
What? The Saint Matthew Passion? The Cathedral of Chartres? The emblematic religious person in these books seems to be a Glasgow Airport bomber — a type unrepresentative of Muslims, let alone communicants of the poor old Church of England. It is surely not news, except to someone so ignorant that he probably wouldn’t be interested in these books in the first place, that religious conflict has often been murderous and that religious people have committed hideous atrocities. But so have secularists and atheists, and though they have had less time to prove their mettle in this area, they have proved it amply. If religious belief is not synonymous with good behavior, neither is absence of belief, to put it mildly.
In fact, one can write the history of anything as a chronicle of crime and folly. Science and technology spoil everything: without trains and IG Farben, no Auschwitz; without transistor radios and mass-produced machetes, no Rwandan genocide. First you decide what you hate, and then you gather evidence for its hatefulness. Since man is a fallen creature (I use the term metaphorically rather than in its religious sense), there is always much to find.
The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies. (Emphasis mine.)
Read the whole thing.
I have written before that I don’t consider religion the problem. I consider the problem fanaticism.
Dalrymple makes an additional point. A perpendicular axis to the issue of religion or atheism is whether an individual feels awe for the majesty of creation, and this awe is necessary — at least in my opinion — for moral behavior.
Let me explain what I mean. Like many people, I watched and enjoyed the Discovery Channel series Planet Earth — a multiple part documentary looking at different ecosystems. It was excellent; it has to be the only show that I have ever seen for which HD TV is actually required. In HD at one point you can see the individual blood cells moving through the capillaries in a salamander’s gills. That is pretty cool.
I have a video clip. This is the mating dance of the Bird of Paradise. The producers suggest that this has never before been seen on film.
Watching this show you are dumbstruck by the majesty of creation. To see the Universe in all its beautiful complexity, the only appropriate response is stunned awe. It is awesome in the true meaning of the word, and the magnitude of that truth defies the limited meaning of words and leaves us speechless.
I argue that this feeling of awe at creation is necessary for ethical behavior. We are not tawdry and irrelevant bits of matter participating in a farce meaning nothing. We are part of the cosmic play, and as a consequence the life of each living being is sacred. And in this world the truth — to grasp even a small fraction of the infinite — is the highest moral good. To confront reality is not only the means by which we live: the aspiration to understand reality is the meaning of life.
Now I have met scientists who truly feel this awe. It is hard to ignore it as a biologist, although some lab researchers who have allowed their science to become dissociated with the natural world do sometime lack this feeling. Likewise, I have met religious people who lack this impulse; they usually have a strong puritanical streak. The cosmic order is for them the dictates of a savage master, and their lives are filled with guilt about their failure to fully conform to those dictates.
However, the fact that I can attribute this trait to both the religious and the scientific is suggestive. There are many arguments for and against religion, but I deny that the capacity for morality is one of them. Neither science nor religion possess a monopoly on moral behavior. The New Atheist authors have emphasized religion’s failures, and they have offered atheism as a more reasonable alternative. They make several valid points. However, this discussion cannot occur without also including religion’s merits of which an understanding of the majesty of creation is most certainly one.