The claim that religion cannot be the driver of moral progress will surprise—and in many cases offend—some readers, who may assume that advancement in the realm of morality has been primarily due to the guiding light of religious teachings. The reason for this misunderstanding is twofold. One, religion has had a monopoly on morality for millennia and so we have grown accustomed to associating any moral progress with the one institution most closely associated with it. Two, religious institutions take credit for moral progress while ignoring or glossing over moral regress. Before I turn to what the data show, a brief history of religious morality is illuminating for my thesis.
On the good side of the moral scale, it was Jesus who said to help the poor, to turn the other cheek, to love thine enemies, to judge not lest ye be judged, to forgive sinners, and to give people a second chance. In the name of their religion, people have helped the poor and needy in developed nations around the world, and in America they are the leading supporters of food banks for the hungry and post-disaster relief. Many Christian theologians, along with Christian churches and preachers, advocated the abolition of the slave trade, and continued to press for justice in modern times. Some civil rights leaders were motivated by their religion, most notably the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose speeches were filled with passionate religious tropes and quotes. I have deeply religious friends who are highly driven to do good and, though they may have a complex variety of motives, they often act in the name of their particular religion.
But for too long the scales of morality have been weighed down by the religious thumb pressing on the side of the scale marked “Good”. Religion has also promoted, or justified, such catastrophic moral blunders as the Crusades (the People’s Crusade, the Northern Crusade, the Albigensian Crusade, and Crusades One through Nine); the Inquisitions (Spanish, Portuguese, and Roman); witch hunts (a product, in part, of the Inquisitions that ran from the Middle Ages through the Early Modern Period and executed tens of thousands of people, mostly women); Christian conquistadors who exterminated native peoples by the millions through their guns, germs, and steel; the endless European Wars of Religion (the Nine Years War, the Thirty Years War, the Eighty Years War, the French Wars of Religion, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the English Civil War, to name just a few); the American Civil War, in which Northern Christians and Southern Christians slaughtered one another over the issue of slavery and states’ rights; and the First World War, in which German Christians fought French, British, and American Christians, all of whom believed that God was on their side. (German soldiers had Gott mit uns—God with us—embossed in the metal of their belt buckles.) And that’s just in the Western world. There are the seemingly endless religious conflicts in India, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan, and numerous countries in Africa, the Coptic Christian persecution in Egypt, and of course Islamist terrorism has been a scourge on societal peace and security in recent decades and a day doesn’t go by without some act of violence committed in the name of Islam.