God is Not My “Mommy” Susan Harris

By Susan Harris


Susan Harris

Napoleon Bonaparte, who probably knew what he was talking about, said, “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet.” Organized religion serves many purposes, the primary one being to stop its followers from asking questions. In doing so, it offers a creed (in some cases, even a specific list of unacceptable behaviors) that, to the black and white minds of the devout, is nonnegotiable. It purports to champion a kind of morality. It pretends to be not just the savior of its followers but, through its supposedly moral offerings, a savior of the entire world. Of course, to the logical, to the skeptics, to the people who can’t turn off the rational part of their brains to embrace “faith,” all of the above is completely bollocks.

I don’t need religion to be moral because I see that religion has little at all to do with morality. It is not the source of morality any more than school textbooks are the source of scientific discovery. Rather than a spontaneous creator of morality, as religion claims to be, it can only aspire to be the former’s unfortunate cousin: a weak enforcer of doctrine.

A common view of religion (in relation to morality) is that religion functions as a guide, like a parent teaching his or her child not to take that other kid’s cookie at playtime. The only problem with that is that it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Of course people need teachers sometimes, but why throw in a lot of God gobbledygook when it’s completely unnecessary? That same kid should be able to learn that taking that cookie is wrong by listening to his mommy and daddy and by learning a little bit about having compassion for other people. Why does that kid have to believe in some supreme being up in the sky for it to make sense that Timmy’s cookie belongs to Timmy?

Going to an adult (or to one’s own conscience) for guidance makes more sense than a supreme being up in the sky anyway, for one simple reason: those things, unlike God, are real. When that same kid grows up or doesn’t have a Mommy figure anymore, he should be able to continue his moral education by himself. Once he comes to understand that he should respect Timmy, that’s pretty much all he needs to know anyway. Religion, it seems, might only be really necessary for people who don’t have the capacity for argument by analogy.

Besides: even so, religion is not and could never be the source of morality. All it can offer is rules and guidelines (which may be discriminatory or hurtful or, dare I say it, immoral). Religion offers a threat, a “fear of God” that for some reason some people really seem to admire. I, however, view real morality as something that is self-driven. It starts with knowledge of what you can and can’t do without hurting other people emotionally or physically, and expands outward. Enforcing a so-called morality through threats of punishment is comparable to enforcing law through the police: it might get the job done, but the ideals are missing in action. If someone only follows a law (like, say, not killing someone) because she is afraid of getting caught, well, that’s good that she didn’t kill someone. But wouldn’t it be better if she realized she shouldn’t kill someone in the first place? Religion can function in the same way, but again, it isn’t a best-case scenario. That’s because the threat of enforcement can only go so far. When police enforcement breaks down, for example, rioting often occurs. Deaths occur. That’s because people weren’t really moral. They had only been acting in a moral way outwardly without being moral inwardly.

Religion has the same problem. The threat of enforcement–through hell, a bad reincarnation, or whatever–has the potential to seem really distant. When many religions take things a step further and offer salvation through faith, and not even good works, then the capacity for enforcement is diminished even more. Real morality is something that isn’t dependent on someone watching–not the police, not your mommy, not even God.

Real morality has to be self-driven, because only then will it remain constant. Only then, still, will there be a moral motivation behind moral acts. Here, the question is: what is the underlying point of a moral code with supernatural enforcement? If the answer is to ensure that things are done in a moral way, then that code could succeed. (This is similar to the argument behind requiring community service for high school graduation. If the school board just wants service done for the community, then the policy accomplishes its goal. If the point is to make people good, then it doesn’t succeed.)

If a person acts in a moral way only to avoid punishment, that isn’t really moral: it’s scared. Something similar happens when people act in a way that they think will get them rewarded in the afterlife. On the surface, people could be really great. On the inside, they may be no more than Girl Scouts selling cookies to win trips to Disneyland. They are doing things to get “points” with God, to get something good out of it. It is clear that a religious code of ethics serves not to create actually good people, but only to direct certain types of actions (just as Napoleon said). As much as religion might try or even appear to be a source of morals, it really just attempts to enforce a mode of behavior. It gets people to do what their religion wants them to do, and nothing more.

To assert that supernatural beliefs are required for morality is to assume that humanity is inherently stupid, lacking any kind of self-awareness or reasonable judgment. I don’t buy into that assumption. I don’t need to believe in Jesus, or anybody else for that matter, to know how to treat other people. I can figure out that killing people is wrong–and act in accordance with that conviction, all the time–without a supernatural bogeyman to scare me into submission.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca summarized it quite nicely when he wrote, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” I don’t claim to be a sage, but I don’t need to be dictated to by a church, either. My morality isn’t based on anything imaginary, and it doesn’t need enforcement. It is unceasing and unswerving and it, vehemently, does not require religion.

Susan writes: “I have grown up in Place County, Calif., which is predominantly white, Republican, and evangelical Christian (except for my family who, of course, are cool). I became an atheist when I was eleven, which is when I figured out what an atheist was. I have been active opposing ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance and all that type of thing, and I also work with human rights and political organizations like Amnesty International and the local Democratic Club. This fall I will be attending UCLA to major in political science. I’m looking forward to the change of scenery.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation