Saturday, December 31, 2005

On being good

In yesterday's posting, I suggested that empirical knowledge -- with its attendant principle, Ockham's Razor -- is corrosive of traditional belief. When I was writing for the Boston Globe I often heard from fundamentalist Christians who sent me tracts or tapes asserting that science is antithetical to moral values. Scientists become atheists so they can lead dissolute lives without fear of hellfire, claimed my correspondents. Every time I wrote about evolution, especially, I got letters saying I would burn forever.

There is no evidence that I know of -- and I have looked -- that atheists or agnostics are in general less ethical in their daily lives than theists. In fact, most studies I have seen point in the opposite direction. Certainly, religions can be applauded for promoting ethical values, but I would be quicker to trust my wallet to any one of the atheists of the National Academy of Sciences than to those churchgoing Christians who sent me the damning letters.

The 18th-century essayist Montesquieu wrote: "Happy it is for men that they are in a situation in which, though their passions prompt them to be wicked, it is, nevertheless, to their interest to be humane and virtuous." It has always seemed to me that empirical learning makes one more inclined, not less, to recognize that our personal interests are best served by ethical behavior towards our fellow men and women. Christian charity has done much to alleviate human suffering over the ages -- would we all lived by the Sermon on the Mount -- but Montesquieu's Enlightenment values have led us forward too. We have not reached a Peaceable Kingdom on Earth by any stretch of the imagination, but we are probably closer than at any time in the past.