A common claim among religious conservatives is that morality is fundamentally grounded on religion–not necessarily on divine command, but at least on a religious worldview broadly conceived. Atheist individuals, they grant, may be morally scrupulous, but this is because they have inherited a moral code from their residually Christian society, a code their own metaphysics cannot justify, and as this residual Christianity erodes, we can expect society to slide toward nihilism. Atheists counter that they are more moral than religious people because religious morality is inferior–either it is unthinking bigotry and thus insufficiently rational, or it is motivated only by fear of punishment and thus insufficiently disinterested.
Neither claim matches my observations. From what I see, atheists tend to be more passionate about moral issues than ordinary people. Rather than being nihilists, a fairer accusation would be to say that they are themselves moralistic bigots, seeing every issue through the lens of presumed absolute evil and absolute good. This suggests that the actual role of organized religion is not to instill moralistic zeal, but to restrain it.
This can be hard to notice because religious phenomena are so often described using the opposite assumption. Consider the common claim that the Hebrew prophets and Protestant Reformers “purified” religion. To purify something, one removes foreign, extraneous elements, so presumably what prophets and reformers removed was not properly religious, but some sort of non-religious accretion. Now, what prophets and reformers usually want to get rid of is some degree of ritual, priestly mediation, and folk superstition. What they want more of is morality. It should strike us as odd that this is called a purification, because ritual, priestcraft, and superstition are ordinarily considered quintessentially religious. Reducing religion to matters “of the heart” and moral rectitude seems more a dilution of religion; it is making religion into something less distinctive, something more like a combination of philosophy and moral instruction.
It is remarkable how little role moral disputes played in history prior to the rise of atheism. Pagans and Christians had ethical disagreements in ancient Rome, but the dispute between them always centered on the proper issue of whose was the true gods rather than the morality of infanticide or cousin marriage. The complete lack of social justice crusading by the medieval Church is a matter of embarrassment to Catholic apologists (but a cause of satisfaction to me).
How can morality be restrained? Morality is itself the science of what should be done. Is not restraining it necessarily immoral, indeed evil? Yet, morality must be restrained. Justice is a good, but it is not the only good. Surely truth and beauty, science and art, must be given some consideration? Not to mention innocent fun and happiness, wealth and comfort. But morality is not only one competing good; it is the arbiter among goods–can we ever expect anything but for it to rule in its own favor? Read about the effective altruists if you want to give yourself a fright, at the hell they make of their own lives, and imagine what would happen if one of these moral fanatics was to gain power over the rest of us.
To make life tolerable, religion has put a leash on morality, often by doing exactly the things atheists accuse us of doing. We promote an ethics of rule-following–“don’t sin”–rather than an open-ended, insatiable benevolence–“eliminate evil”. We don’t tell people to sin, but we tell them that they are sinners, a self-conception that makes it easier for them to admit their own faults and be understanding of others’. Let’s not deny it, it also makes us more complacent about our sins, since we expect it of ourselves. We grant a strong presumptive legitimacy to the status quo. Religious men tend not to worry that they might actually be evil for doing what their fathers taught them is good. Considering the pride of those with purer morality, we can even be grateful that religion, by filling our heads with ideas of eternal rewards and punishments, has removed our opportunity for pure self-sacrifice. Finally, by introducing us to the sacred, religion has given us a hint of an order even higher than morality.