Atheists can be every bit as moral as believers

Barney Zwartz considers the moral track records of science and Christianity respectively.

On the recent Monday –  as the ABC’s Q&A pulled the scab off its self-inflicted wound in giving a platform to former jihadist and present misogynist Zaky Mallah – public atheist Lawrence Krauss could not resist sliding the stiletto into religion. Morality has nothing to do with religion but rather rationality and compassion, he averred, rather fatuously for a scientist who presumably values empirical evidence.

Nearly all religions have strong moral teachings, though Krauss might not like elements of these. And rationality, as David Hume observed, is often used simply to rationalise our emotions. But the basic point Krauss was trying to make, that atheists can be just as moral even though rejecting religion, I entirely accept.

Christianity certainly has a mixed moral record. Much harm has been done in its name. That’s largely because it has been made up of billions of human beings who are highly flawed.

What no one on Q&A challenged Krauss about was the moral record of science, which is mixed for the same reasons: science is also a complex human pursuit beyond the glib characterisation of people like Krauss, and also subject to human fallibilities, both in the research chosen and the way it is done.

Exhibit A: Eugenics, scientific theories now generally rejected but widely believed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which led to horrible cruelties.

Exhibit B: The Nazis, who claimed their genocidal master race theories were thoroughly scientific. We are still unpacking today what race actually means (not very much, apparently).

Exhibit C: Modern germ warfare, nerve gas and similar programs of mass destruction or torture.

The huge expense of much modern science means it is largely funded – and therefore directed – by governments and big business. Does this mean science is immoral? Of course not. But beyond that, science deals with the material world. What constitutes good or morality is beyond its purview. These are religious and philosophical questions. “The greatest good of the greatest number”, for example, is not a scientific principle but a philosophical one. It’s only very recently that people such as Sam Harris have claimed science can determine morality, and I find the argument extremely unconvincing.

I have a Christian reason for believing atheists can be every bit as moral as believers, and that is the ancient biblical teaching that humans are all created in the image of God. That is a rich and deep concept, but at its simplest means that humans are rational agents and moral agents and social agents (we are constructed so that we want to relate to others).

All humans have these capacities, and it is up to each of us what we make of them.

Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared at The Age.