Posted by: Tobias | April 13, 2009

A bad, personal pun comes to mind…

I’ve long tried to simply ignore Walter Mixa, the Bishop of Augsburg, head Catholic military bishop for the German army and common guest on German talk shows, but I can’t any longer. He’s long been saying things that I considered to be outrageous and morally offensive, but during his recent Easter sermon, he spoke his mind on an issue that is quite dear to me, my agnosticism:

“Die Unmenschlichkeit des praktizierten Atheismus haben im vergangenen Jahrhundert die gottlosen Regime des Nationalsozialismus und des Kommunismus mit ihren Straflagern, ihrer Geheimpolizei und ihren Massenmorden in grausamer Weise bewiesen.” In genau diesen Systemen seien “Christen und die Kirche besonders verfolgt” worden.

Der Bischof weiter: “Wo Gott geleugnet oder bekämpft wird, da wird bald auch der Mensch und seine Würde geleugnet und missachtet.” Und: “Eine Gesellschaft ohne Gott ist die Hölle auf Erden.”

[“The godless national socialism and communism regimes, with their penal camps, their secret police and their genocides have been the cruel proof positive of the inhumanity of practiced atheism.” In precisely these systems “Christians and the church were persecuted particularly harshly.”

The Bishop continued: “Wherever God is denied or antagonized, soon human dignity will be denied and violated.” And: “A society without God is hell on earth.”]

I will not even dignify Mixa’s bold distortions (to put it charitably) about the role of the Catholic church during the Third Reich with a comment, other people have already done a far better job of this than I ever could. Rather it is the claim that without God, “anything goes” and that a godless society is therefore a terrible prospect that really riles me.

I’ve heard the same argument countless time before, during my discussions with deeply religious people in the United States and every once in a while in discussions with much less religious people here in Europe. “Why,” the argument goes, “would people continue to behave well and virtuously if we abandoned the absolute moral truths of Scripture and the belief that violations of these moral principles will be sanctioned by the Lord?”

This does not seem to me to be a prima facie silly argument. Even if one did not believe in God, there might still be reasons, utilitarian or otherwise, in favor of religion as a social institution. To put it bluntly, if we really thought that without the threat of divine punishment people would start looting, stealing and raping, it might be worthwhile to keep religion around to keep people that are more easily fooled into believing in line.

But the thing is, I see precious little reason to believe that the premise of the argument is correct as an empirical matter. Others may judge my own behavior, but it does not seem to me from personal experience that people of faith are on average more virtuous and good than atheists, agnostics and the whole rest of the godless lot. And the few studies on the subject of which I am aware come to basically the same conclusion: there does not appear to be any systematic difference in moral behavior between believers and non-believers.

And taking a more birds-eye view, those countries in which religions already play a relatively minor role don’t look like “hell on earth” to me and I doubt they would descend into anarchy if even the last few percent of people abandoned their belief. Then again, maybe that just reflects my hope that, should I turn out to have bet on the wrong horse God-wise, hell will turn out to be like Sweden, Estonia or the Czech Republic, good beer, beautiful women and everything.

The idea of a life without absolute moral principles to guide life’s decisions may seem scary to some. And yet millions of people all over the world seem to lead happy lives of moral relativism and the places where this stance has been adopted collectively generally seem like pretty nice places to live. Mixa would do well to check them out sometime.

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