The claim I always have to shake my head at is the idea that religion will make someone a better human being since it provides something a person would not otherwise have. However, is there any real validity to this claim? Let’s look at a little evidence and use a little logic, shall we?
Without a doubt, nearly all religious people are good, moral people. It’s silly to claim otherwise. However, I’d argue that most people are naturally good to start with. Can we really attribute religion to that person being good? All people have a natural sense of empathy. It’s what makes us feel bad when a person is harmed or what makes us feel guilty when we do something that harms another. It seems more like religion is the way humans try to codify that sense of empathy. Plus, the existence of empathy is easy to see even before the development of the Ten Commandments. In the older Code of Hammurabi, one can find the same general rules that basically direct people not to harm one another. At least as long as there’s been civilization, humans have felt empathy towards one another. The next question becomes: could we have developed empathy without a higher power?
One can easily see why evolution would favor humans who help others within their own social groups. Besides our cognitive abilities, humans excel at few things. We can’t run fast. We don’t have any natural defenses. We dehydrate quickly. Our brain requires a vast amount of energy to operate. Our young are helpless for more than a year after birth. There seems to be no reason for us to have survived until one adds empathy to the equation. Since empathy makes people feel good about alleviating suffering in others, it makes people want to work together because it lessens suffering throughout the society. Working together, humans can acquire more resources than loners, and empathetic individuals care for the sick and wounded, making it more likely empathetic humans will live long enough to reproduce. Loners would not have these benefits. We can see it today. People who lack a sense of empathy, rapists, murderers, etc., are quickly shunned from society, preventing them from gaining the benefits of society. Therefore, it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to see why surviving humans would naturally develop a sense of empathy. Plus, we can see the same behavior in chimpanzees, so it’s not a trait unique to humans.
Now, if religion is just how people codify empathy, then what’s the problem? The problem is that religion can also remove the sense of empathy one feels towards a different group of human beings. Every religion proclaims its believers are the only people that matter and nonbelievers are to be despised. This removes the sense of empathy a group of religious people would otherwise feel towards nonbelievers. This dehumanization then allows the believers to maim, torture, kill, and otherwise harm other humans with no sense of remorse. Plus, it makes the believers feel good because they believe they have helped others within their social group. Just look at the historical example of the Inquisition. Inquisitors happily killed heretics because they felt they were helping society by removing the destructive influence of sin. This willingness to kill in the name of religion is just an unfortunate side effect of our ability to be selective with our empathy.
Of course, religion isn’t the only societal construct to do this. Racism and the efforts of Social Darwinism do the same things. However, most modern people can agree that adherence to racism and Social Darwinism is harmful to those who suffer from it. Why should religion be any different? It needlessly categorizes people along lines that would otherwise not exist.
In the end, most people will be good because we’ve evolved that way. It’s what allows us to survive in a dangerous world. Unfortunately, our sense of empathy only extends to humans within our perceived societal group. Religion inadvertently exploits this shortcoming, making it easer for religious people to discriminate those of a different faith. In the end, it’s an extra rift that simply doesn’t need to be there and doesn’t add anything substantial to our sense of morality. We don't need fear of a giant, invisible man in the sky to be good people.