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Chapter Four: Why people believe

Section 6: Justice and morality

Believers who turn to God for justice and morality are deceiving both themselves and others.

Michaelangelo's Last Judgement

Earlier in this chapter we saw that religion helped primitive humans to develop a sense of morality. From those early beginnings the idea persists today that our sense of good and bad comes from God.

4.6a Punish the wicked, reward the good?

Many people base their faith on the idea that only religion stands between civilisation and anarchy. They are convinced that without God's laws nothing would stop us from killing, stealing from or having indiscriminate sex with each other.

These laws are transcendant. Good and evil - meaning bad in a religious sense - existed even before the human race appeared and will continue to exist even if the race dies out.

They also compensate for human failings. Although good should be rewarded and evil punished on this earth, sometimes the opposite is true. To ensure final justice, therefore, the afterlife will see the righteous in Heaven while the evil spend eternity in Hell. (That's the Jewish / Christian / Muslim scenario; bad Buddhists, Hindus and others are repeatedly reincarnated until their souls become pure.)

4.6b No natural justice

This idea - that God must exist because evildoers must suffer - is heartwarming, but false. As we will see in Chapter Six, morality is a very human concept. Our sense of good and bad did not come from God, but God emerged from our early attempts to define morality.

In fact true morality is better than the religious version because it focuses on people's welfare, not God's demands (see Chapter Six). What true morality cannot do, however, is guarantee justice. Murderers may never be caught; victims of fraud may never receive compensation; the child-abuser may never face trial; and so on.

The deep roots of belief

Despite reason and evidence indicating that God does not and cannot exist, billions of people across the world continue to worship him in one of his many forms.

Belief in God draws its strength from a wide range of sources and provides a sense of security and wellbeing for many. Transforming that belief into an understanding and respect for rationality takes time and much effort.

4.1: The origins of religion
Where did faith come from?

4.2: In the genes?
Are we programmed to believe?

4.3: Community and identity
Defining ourselves through faith

4.4: Peer pressure
Faith as fashion

4.5: Death and despair
There must be a better world

4.6: A sense of justice
Evildoers must be punished

4.7: God and meaning
Religion gives us a purpose

4.8: The power and the glory
They reflect on us too

4.9: Against the tide
Converts and natural-born rebels

4.10: Nature calling
A glimpse of God?

4.11: Pick 'n' mix
What are your reasons?

4.12: Summary

Finished this chapter? Move on to

Chapter 5
Faith in action

People create God in their own image. What happens when they not only believe in God but put their faith into action?

The results are predictable: good people do good things in the name of religion and bad people do bad things. They act in God's name but God is irrelevant.

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In other words, there is no natural justice. That is unfortunate, but it is reality, and it is a more honest view of life than fairy-tale stories of Heaven and Hell.

The longing for moral certainties may lie at the heart of many people's faith, but those who turn to God for justice and morality are deceiving both themselves and others.

Chapter Four: Section 7 God and meaning

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

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