One sometimes hears the argument that morality cannot exist without a god. There is an often aggressive and even belligerent claim among believers that religion is necessary for society to keep on existing. They claim that religion does more good than harm. Many people have enumerated the horrific acts of violence that were fueled by religious fervor throughout humanity's history, and such acts continue today. While the homosexual lifestyle is mostly verbally attacked in the United States, there are places in the world where suspected homosexuals are being killed, largely because of faith-based prejudice. Women may be killed or mutilated without consequence in some parts of the twenty-first-century world because of the religious beliefs of the society into which they are born. Moral behavior does not follow from religious belief.
Despite massive evidence against it, the mythical link between religion and morality remains so strong that many Americans would have a problem voting for an atheist president. Presumably, they would prefer a leader who believes that he answers to a higher power, who embraces a responsibility to lead righteously. And yet, faith has justified wars, excused oppressive laws, and masked hatred and bigotry. Rather than ask whether there can be morality without religion, one must question why the two were ever rationally linked to begin with. Religious belief may allow for unquestioned forgiveness, but it doesn't prevent abominable behavior. Some people would also claim that religion provides a number of services as well, that faith motivates people to do good, and that good outweighs the evil that is done in the name of religion.
Fear is in some way the motivator for most claims of faith, however. People believe in salvation because they fear damnation. People believe in faith healing because they fear dying. People believe in prayer because they fear all sorts of things: personal responsibility, medical procedures, collection agencies. Groups who become targeted by religious leaders are actually the groups those leaders fear. Homosexuals are denied the right to marry out of fear. Women are denied the right to make decisions about their own bodies because of fear. National healthcare is opposed because of fear. Dire predictions are made about "what will happen if...", and a segment of the population trembles.
Some of the fear gets expressed as righteous indignation or moral outrage. Fervent believers fear that their faith will be marginalized in society, so they have to fight. Religious leaders fear that they will have control over a smaller sector of the population, so they have to pronounce judgment loudly and foster more fear in those who still cling to their words. In turn, believers are infused with a fear that the Others (homosexuals, atheists, Muslims, etc.) will somehow harm them just by existing. They become afraid of letting their children be taught science by an atheist. They become afraid of allowing a homosexual couple to move in on their street. They become afraid of doing yoga because it is somehow connected with worshiping Hindu gods. They become afraid of anyone with different clothing or accent or skin color, because different is somehow threatening.
But fear doesn't really convince anyone to change. Yanking your child out of the atheist teacher's biology class won't ultimately keep your child from learning science, and it won't change the teacher's beliefs. Denying a young single mother the opportunity to decide for herself whether she can realistically take care of an unwanted child doesn't guarantee that either person's life will be improved. Prohibiting the homosexual couple from attending neighborhood social events won't convince them to change their lifestyle, although perhaps the belief is that your spot in heaven will be secure because you have refrained from socializing with heathens. Look around! Churches are full of people doing deplorable things. Sinful things. Immoral things. Why don't they warrant a little fear?
Ah, but if we had to admit that immorality co-exists with faith, we'd have less of a reason to judge those scary Others who believe and behave differently from us. Fear can make people just a little bit crazy. Fearful people can fire a weapon without thinking. Fearful people can start a hate campaign against someone without letting the truth get in the way of juicy accusations. Fearful people can act without worrying about the consequences in someone else's life. Fear is a very selfish emotion. It doesn't allow room for much else, even though a person may believe that they are being compassionate or loving in some twisted way while doing something entirely motivated by fear.
Fear is not exclusive to people of faith, however. The wealthy are afraid of being impoverished. The employed are afraid of being jobless. Everyone has to deal with fears. When the fears are justified by belief in a perfect higher power, however, there is little one can do to combat those fears. If one realizes that the fears are all a product of one's own mind, they can be much more easily dispelled. In many ways, religion relies on people being afraid. The more conservative a sect is, the more fear is fostered in its faithful. It's particularly strange for believers in an all-powerful deity to be so fearful. Their fear suggests that perhaps their god is not powerful enough to handle the existence of atheists and homosexuals, that they somehow have to take matters into their own hands. Or perhaps their fear is that their god will turn on them in wrath and judgment if they don't take action. Either way, people who live with such fear paint a very strange and primitive picture of their god.
What about compassionate and loving acts done by people of faith, though? Isn't there some counterbalance to the fear? Of course there is, because people who are not overwhelmed by fear can relax and be nurturing to others. Some people can be very compassionate in feeding the homeless people that they don't fear at a shelter and then turn around and be profoundly dispassionate toward one of those homeless people when they walk into a religious service. In one instance, the person isn't at all threatening, and in the other, the person is threatening to upset comfortable norms. But when fear is put aside, we can see the humanity in other people much more clearly. We don't actually need a god to tell us to clothe people and feed them and treat people like human beings. The absence of fear leaves room for compassionate behavior.
We have the ability and the responsibility to question our fear. When you find yourself in judgment over someone else, what is it you're honestly fearing? When you feel violently toward a person, or a group of people, what are you afraid they will do to upset the norms of your life? When you become indignant or outraged about something, what are you really afraid of? And is that fear in any way reasonable? It is rational in that instance to be afraid? Is it possible to set aside irrational fear -- no matter where that fear comes from -- to see another person's humanity?
Unfounded fear won't lead you to do anything good. Believe instead in your ability to see that the people you're tempted to fear are just like you in so many ways, and believe in your ability to treat them with love and compassion. You don't have to agree with everything about another person in order to treat him with love and compassion. There's really nothing threatening about someone being different from you in some small ways. Without fear, there is no cause for violence or oppression -- although it's important to realize that the whole world will not become rational and fearless all at once. In the end, though, violence and hatred work against faith, even when they seem to be fueled by it. You could be a vanguard for rational fearlessness, even if you believe in a higher power. After all, wouldn't a reasonable god want you to be fearless in your faith?