In a review of the collected writing of Steven Weinberg, a Noble Prize winning physicist and fellow atheist, Jerry Coyne quotes Steven Weinberg‘s “great mantra” of the New Atheist movement:
“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”
This quote encompasses a common claim of the New Atheists – the claim that not are religions only wrong, or wrongheaded, they are the primary incitements for evil acts in the world. It is an oft repeated claimed popularized by Dawkins in his documentary The Root of All Evil and Hitchen’s book, God is Not Great.
The claim itself of course suffers from a fundamental inherent contradiction – in calling people ‘bad’ or ‘good’ or in claiming the actions of certain people are either bad or good, the statement assumes a commonly understood objective notion of what constitutes a good or bad person or action. Of course, atheism provides no means by which to make such a measure. To get around this, atheists often cite the general standards of good and evil as proffered by society – Western society in particular. Of course, those standards are themselves dependent on notions of good and evil that are imparted by belief systems that aren’t at all atheistic, but instead are inherited from Judeo-Christian ideas about good and evil.
And so the atheist mantra, such as it is, is inherently a question begging claim. Exactly what people are ‘good’ in the atheist prevue? Which people are ‘bad’? If people are doing what is evil, how can they be said to be good people? And how can a religious belief, which forms the basis of one’s ideas of good and bad, cause one to do evil, if one is conforming the standards of good contained therein? The only way an atheist can call an action ‘evil’ is if they have an objective measure by which to measure it, and atheists have no such standard.
But even if we assume good and evil exist objectively, it is easy enough to see that it doesn’t take a religion to provoke ‘good people’ to do evil. The Eugenicists thought their science would do humanity a great good, and they provoked countless evil acts. Communists thought their philosophy was for the betterment of mankind, and it incited some of the worst atrocities in human history. The idea that religion is peculiar in provoking evil actions is plainly wrong – humans continually do evil, and religious beliefs aren’t special in this regard.
The Christian perspective of course, which most fits what we see in human history is that humans have an inherent tendency o do evil. Romans 10 chronicles the ubiquity of this human tendency:
“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.
All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
It’s not that humans can’t do good acts – The Parable of the Good Samaritan reminds that all are capable of a kind or good act – it’s that none of are actually good. Our nature is to do what is serves our self. So we all can be led into evil acts by our beliefs, whether they are religious or not. In short, a religion can’t make a ‘good person do evil’ because none of us is actually good to begin with.
That being the case, neither we nor any other person can be the measure of what is good – the measure of what is good must come from outside, from an immutable objective standard. Christians of course believe this standard not to be a set of rules, but Christ Himself, who embodied and exemplified what is truly ‘good’. Thus the Christian has a basis for calling something good or evil, not according to their own ideas about such things, or according to society’s measure of the same, but according to life and words of the only one who could truly be called good.
So as much as atheists try to enter into a conversation about what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person, the discussion is invariably contradictory to atheism itself, because atheism has no basis for making such a measure. But such a measure exists – in the only person in history who could truly be called good.