Over the past few years we have often heard conservative politicians speak of the decline of so-called “family values” in America, to the point that the very term has become cliché. In most cases this longing to return to family values is a thinly veiled reference to religion, specifically Christianity, and the belief that the United States of America was established upon the tenets of Christian dogma and has somehow fallen away from its beliefs. This apostasy has resulted, they reason, in virtually all of the bad things that happen in our world, from increases in violent crime to decreases in church attendance and revenues.
If only America once again embraced its Christian roots, all would be well. At least that is what we are led to believe. This romantic notion is, of course, frivolous. But it does give rise to the question of whether religion is a prerequisite to altruism? Can people, as both individuals and societies, be inherently good without religion?
The very notion of living life without the moral compass of religion is anathema to ardent believers in America. They are convinced that the motto, “In God We Trust”, printed on our currency is evidence of a mandate by the founding fathers to be religious, and if we ignore that mandate we will surely imperil our existence as a free nation. Ironically, it was George Washington himself who said in 1796, “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
On June 19, 2000 the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed in a 6-3 decision (Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe, 99-62) the importance of the separation of church and state, by prohibiting student led prayers at public school functions.
Will this governmental environment of decreasing religious entanglements result in our nation inevitably becoming a morally bankrupt, evil empire, or is it theoretically possible for a government led by non-believers to conduct its affairs in an equally ethical and moral, albeit atheistic fashion?
My personal belief is that we are born morally neutral, that is, neither inherently good, nor inherently bad. The potential for both good and bad lies dormant within each of us at birth. I am not speaking here of the theological concept of original sin per se, though I do believe that no one can live a flawless life. The concept of original sin, to me, is pessimistic dogma that can be believed or not on an individual basis.
If you accept the idea of moral neutrality at birth, what remains as the determinant of the ultimate goodness or wickedness of a man are the environmental influences that affect him, and his responses to them. These environmental factors can be justifiably extended to include the sum of a person’s life experience.
Now, it is difficult indeed to imagine a society in which religion is absent. I know of no such society in human history. Even pagan cultures have their beliefs and rituals, their gods, if you will, and they...