There is a story that believers like to tell and it goes something like this: everyone is sinful. We are all tainted and filthy. We murder and steal and generally wallow in our lowly state. But religion lifts us up and brings us closer to God. Religious precepts makes us moral, so that we may rise up above our fallen state until the final day that sweet chariot swings low and carries us up to be with God.
That’s the story anyway. And it’s also a load of bunk. Since Pythagoras at least, the story is fueled by the powerful metaphor of verticality; the natural state is to sink “down” (hellish) and the way out is to float “up” (heavenly). It’s a testament to the ancient Greeks that the association of evil/down and heaven/up still holds us firmly in its grip. But today we know there’s no truth to it. No seventh heaven. No celestial spheres. No Hades. Just bedtime stories.
Another thought occurs to me. Scandal routinely hits religious believers like waves on the beach. One day the Diocese of Boston (or any number of cities) pays out millions to sexually-abused alter boys and another day a pious pastor’s wife murders her husband. I imagine that if you summed it all up – took all of the actual behavior as opposed to the rhetoric – you’d find that behavior is about equal whether people are atheists, Christian, Buddhist, or whatever. In other words, our belief or nonbelief in this or that god has little if any bearing on our morality. In the end, I believe that the principles of humanism, in which we come to embrace prescriptively the notion that everyone possesses intrinsic worth, is the best way forward. Let’s once and for all disabuse ourselves of this bedtime story that says our goodness depends upon our nearness to God. Bracketing out the existence or nonexistence of such a being, let’s just admit to ourselves that there is no “fallen state.” Everyone enjoys the basic dignity of being human and we have the potential to do enormous harm or good whether we are religious or not.