In Uganda, tell a religious person that you’re an atheist, and they’ll probably think one of two things about you (if not both). They’ll either think you’re a devil worshipper; or once you’ve made them understand that you don’t believe in any supernatural entities of any kind, they’ll conclude you must be a highly immoral person. ‘On what basis, then, besides religious laws, do you base your morality?’ believers will often ask the non-believer.
Indeed, most believers imagine that religion is necessary for morality. They think unless one believes in gods and their associated holy texts, one cannot have a good guide for morality. It is believed that the details of things that ought to be done and ought not to be done are contained in religious texts, and that for one to be considered a moral person they would need to possess a good understanding of these guidelines prescribed in the preferred holy book of that culture, and be seen to adhere to them. Those that don’t subscribe to religious belief of any kind are thus viewed with suspicion.
For example, Nsaba Buturo, the current Minister of Ethics and Integrity, last year wrote the following in an article that was published in the New Vision, the main government newspaper:
Ugandans must be wary of anti-God secularists and extreme liberalists who seek to dictate the national agenda. The objective of all citizens of goodwill must be to decapitate Uganda of the tag of moral degeneration.
Here, he is not-so-subtly attempting to vilify non-believers for Uganda’s woes, accusing us of having to do with the ‘moral degradation’ he thinks Uganda is experiencing. (Good enough, I responded with a rebuttal a few days later in a letter to the editor, that ran 2 days after Buturo’s article appeared in the same paper. It was published as the ‘letter of the day’ for that day!)
In order to explore this issue further, at the next Freethinkers’ Night the topic will be: ‘Is Religion Necessary for Morality?’*
Discussing this topic will provide us a good opportunity to show believers that atheists, agnostics and non-believers in general aren’t the evil people many believers imagine we are.
At the philosophical level, the debate is much different. Christian philosophers seldom claim atheists are bad or evil people (although they’ll waste no time in fallaciously dredging up Mao, Pol Pot and Stalin whenever it suits their purpose). Many of them will graciously state that atheists are no different from believers in terms of morality. What they will make, in debates with atheists and agnostics, is the heavily contested claim that a non-theistic worldview cannot account for an ‘objective’ morality… and this is something I’ve tackled at length in my essay on the Moral Argument.
For now, we need to get believers in Uganda to understand that even without being religious or having any belief in a ‘God’, a person can be moral.
Statistics and research into this area have repeatedly demonstrated that there is no direct correlation between religiosity and societal health – based on such indicators as respect for human rights, democracy, high standards of living, low crime rate, low unemployment, high education, availability of social services, respect for rights of women, freedom of speech, etc. In fact, the inverse seems to be true. Where religiosity is high, the above indicators tend to fare poorly.
Meanwhile, a study published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences found that people who have no religion know right from wrong just as well as regular worshippers – and are just as ethical and have as strong a moral compass as churchgoers (The Telegraph has more on this story here).
This subject will definitely make an interesting topic for discussion.
See you at this month’s Freethinkers’ Night – on Thursday, 29th April 2010 at 4 Points Bar & Restaurant, Centenary Park, Kampala, starting 6PM!
(For readers outside the Kampala area, or overseas, don’t worry – we’ll be continuing the discussion on morality without religion here on the blog.)