There is a fundamental question that religion needs to answer if it expects to survive in an increasingly secular world. The question is, “how is your religion better at making the world a better place than ethical atheism?” Now, I’ve never heard this question stated outright like this; many atheists (and some others, too) seem to take it as a given that religion is inferior to ethical atheism and that religion is a “crutch” for the unintelligent. I, naturally, disagree. I would like to address this assumption and answer the question from a Mormon perspective, generalizing to wider Christianity when appropriate.
Let me begin by saying, I have a great deal of respect for ethical atheists. By “ethical atheists” I mean people who believe in right and wrong and who do their best to follow their understanding of how to be a good person – helping others, being productive, advocating for education, making the world a better place, etc. These people tend to contribute substantially to society. Christians could learn a lot from them. A good atheist can be just as good for society as a good Christian.
Ethics, as understood my most Christians, is rooted in love for your fellow human beings. However, we also acknowledge that people are “fallen” and require salvation, because our nature is, as stated in the Book of Mormon, “an enemy to God.” (Mosiah 3:19) A post I read recently by Michael Sitman described this state well:
This isn’t because we all fail to uphold certain ideals on occasion, but because we are sinners, meaning that even our supposed good works are tinged with self-interest or self-regard. Nothing pure issues forth from human hands, nothing escapes from the fallibility and brokenness in which we are inevitably implicated. Jesus didn’t just talk about our deeds, but our motives. He told us to pray in closets and not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, such is our capacity for arrogance and self-congratulations. He didn’t just talk about adultery, but lust, and asked those of us who have never murdered someone if we’ve ever been filled with anger. I wish more churches would preach about sin this way – not as some kind of list of what not to do, but rather as the impossibility of being truly good.
The science is pretty clear to support this. Our Darwinian instincts and survival mechanisms make us inherently selfish and self-centered. Even our desire to do good is nearly always rooted in “what’s best for me?” So, even when we have excellent standards and ethics most of the time, there are always times when we will fail to follow our principles, and will take an easier or more appealing path. Do that a few times, and you will be in a rut that can be hard to get out of.
Salvation, particularly the Mormon interpretation thereof, not only raises our sights to the ethics taught, but gives us hope and help in striving to meet those ideals, despite our past and inevitable future failures. We believe that even failed efforts to do what is right will be rewarded in the end. In this way, our efforts to do good are never wasted. This can be a great comfort in difficult or dark times in our lives, thereby encouraging us to keep trying.
On top of that, there is an excellent support structure in the LDS church, for those willing to accept the help, consisting of the leadership, the home teaching and visiting teaching programs and fellow members. Because the church is run by the members, people are involved in the congregation and in each others’ lives. Wherever you go in the world, you will find a congregation with shoulders to cry on and backs to help carry your burden.
Another area where religion surpasses ethical atheism is in teaching the next generation. There’s a simple reason for this – Christianity has an absolute moral authority. While most atheists see a lack of authority as a positive, the level of knowledge and wisdom necessary to turn that into a positive is a significant barrier to teaching children ethics. While the litmus test of “can I predict any negative consequences from my actions?” may, for a mature adult, be a good way to make decisions in an unforeseen scenario, for children or teens, this could be potentially disastrous. Even if a parent claims to be the ultimate ethical authority, that authority will be mimicked and challenged eventually.
People need an ethical authority when they are growing up. A parent can be an ethical authority, but our children know us far too well for that to be consistently effective. To have God and the scriptures as an ethical authority takes that burden from us, and helps us to teach kids even when we want them to do what we say, and not what we do. When we teach our children how to reconcile ourselves to that moral authority when we make mistakes, we can even help kids become better through our failings.
I guess you could summarize my argument in one word: sustainability. Devout Christianity, and Mormonism in particular, are more sustainable systems for perpetuating ethical behavior than ethical atheism. It is for this reason that I truly believe that following Jesus Christ to the best of our abilities is the best way to bring about a better world.
Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God. – Ether 12:4