Ariane Sherine’s article in Tuesday’s Guardian, Why I Ditched God for Good was a clear, open call to action: whether you’re an atheist or a believer of any faith, what matters most is that you are kind.
So far, so uncontroversial. But, with such a provocative title, it is perhaps unsurprising that her message was rapidly quagmired in religious debate. 819 comments were posted in the article’s first six hours online, the most incendiary of which questioned the motivations of kindness in a godless world.
“Kindness is trumped by self interest virtually every time when people no longer believe there is a greater reward for being altruistic.”
Although often cited, this argument is deeply flawed. Faced with the spectre of secularisation, religious leaders have insisted that fear of divine retribution keeps society in check; that falling church attendance leads to a diminished morality and with it, the incentive to be kind. But history contradicts these fears, time and time again.
It’s a common misconception that society is increasingly violent and dangerous, both in the UK and on a global scale. In fact, as the evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker has shown, per capita instances of violent behaviour, such as murder and rape, have been in steady decline since early civilisation. What’s more, the trend accelerates sharply from the Age of Reason, when the birth of humanism moved us away from wholesale religious doctrine, instead using rational and empirical evidence to contemplate issues such as morality, justice and responsibility.
What this suggests is that, overall, ethical codes developed by non-religious thinkers, and without reference to higher wisdom, have been more successful than their spiritual counterparts in creating kinder, less vicious communities.
That’s not to say that religions do not advocate acts of kindness – they all do. But, as we know, religions also advocate acts of great cruelty, including acts that may have seemed kind in the past, but seem abhorrent to us now.
Let’s take a relatively recent example: Hitchcock’s 1964 film Marnie. The film depicts a hero who, having coerced a woman into marriage, rapes her on their honeymoon, before demonstrating his kindness and patience by helping her to uncover an underlying childhood trauma, in the hope of making her more receptive to his advances. When the film was released in 1964, Christian beliefs on marriage dominated the legal system and meant that this man would have been well within his rights to rape his wife; by this logic he was indeed showing an act of kindness by going above and beyond in making the experience less traumatic for her.
Thankfully, secular ideas about right and wrong led to marital rape being outlawed in this country in 1991. In countries where religious doctrine continues to dominate public life, such as the Bahamas and the Lebanon, Christian and Muslim leaders actively campaign against legal changes of this nature.
Over the past century we have done more to promote equality, increase empathy and generally become a ‘kinder’ society than at any other point in British history – and it’s no accident that this coincides with our increasing secularisation. This is not because religious people, on an individual level, are less kind, but the five major world religions were clearly constructed at a time when the world was dramatically crueller. Societies evolve and become kinder by challenging past wisdom that no longer seems right or fair, but religious frameworks rarely offer a mechanism for this.
Ironically, however, the most fundamental problem with the incentive-to-kindness doctrine is that, by encouraging people to think in terms of reward and punishment, it transforms acts of kindness into deferred self-interest. This attitude reduces religious faith to a simple contract: if you follow the rules, you’ll get something in return. There’s little incentive for genuine empathy or acts of kindness not outlined by the rules, and less still for questioning these rules, even you can see for yourself the suffering they create.
By contrast, the secular, humanitarian efforts that have made the most strident improvements to people’s lives over the past century have not sought divine reward. They are borne out of genuine empathy, an instinct towards fairness and, most of all, the rational belief that religious institutions can – and do – fail on both counts.