The idea that you cannot have a “moral compass” without religion is, in my opinion, mistaken. Morality is the set of principles adopted by the human race, from time to time and from place to place, to allow us to live together in harmony. Moses may have theatrically produced the Ten Commandments from the mountain top, but for the majority of human beings morality is common sense. It comes naturally to the sensitive person who wants to get along in life, who wants to please and have friends, who wants to avoid violence, anxiety and strife. I agree, however, that sending kids to Sunday school can do little harm and maybe some good.
I have a hypothesis (not very profound): consideration for others and pure-self-interested morality works on a Bell curve principle. At one end are the saints, not necessarily religious and rather few. In the middle, the great majority, are those who instinctively adopt a sense of common morals (no murder, theft, assault; look after the old, succor the young etc). On the far side, however, are the mentally challenged, the bullies, the paranoid, the violent, the selfish and chronically anti-social, not to mention the attention- seekers. A lifetime of Sunday school, lectures and homilies are going to have no effect, because they were born this way. They are sociopaths, and may be best put somewhere where trained people can look after them.
All religious people bring up Stalin and Hitler to illustrate the immorality of godless-ness. In my opinion it is irrelevant. Hitler was born in Austria and claimed, I believe as late as 1943, to be a devout Catholic. The crimes of Stalin had little to do with Marxism-Leninism. The fellow was a cruel murderer and paranoid control freak. Given turmoil and revolution these people tend to turn up on top. He was interested in power, not ideology. His attitude to ideology was dismissive. If nothing else he was pragmatic. No, you cannot use these two “gentlemen”.
Let me try Philip II of Spain and his successors on you. Philip was known as a devout Catholic, immersed in the morality of the church, in a Court so boringly religious and moralistic that even the papal nuncios were taken aback. But he was responsible for untold massacres, rapes, and torture, all supervised, or at least consented to, by attendant priests, mostly Jesuit. (No, I won’t mention the inquisition, Galileo, the graft and corruption of pre-Reformation Popes. It is too embarrassing).
It is fair to raise the issue of China. Those who have close dealings with Chinese businessmen report that there is an unusual incidence of lying, cheating and corruption in business, government and industry, and that our concept of ethics and morality does not resonate there (in an earlier draft of these comments I put it more harshly).
If true, is this down to Communism and godlessness, which only took over less than 60 years ago? Perhaps. The ultra-right would like to blame Communism and the Cultural Revolution. But then you have to remember the effects of the Chinese revolution, social turmoil, Mao (another paranoid power-crazed monster), and the huge problems caused by unprecedented movement from village to faceless city. The truth may be that in a small village, where everyone knows one another, the elders keep the lid on disruptive behaviour. In the mega-cities people have no roots, no friends and no anchors. it’s every man for himself. In situations like this morals come second to survival. I have no idea what China was like before the Communists took over. Maybe it has always been a free-for-all there.
Morals preceded religion, at least they preceded Christianity. The Christians adopted the moral code it found at the time and many practices from the pagans (who were fun guys!), and added heaven and hell, fire and damnation, to frighten us into conformity with State and church thinking. Christianity, for instance, started off absolutely opposed to war, but once it became the official religion, fully supported the Emperors in their vicious wars of dominion. Christian emperors massacred as many harmless civilians as non-Christians. Morality had nothing to do with it. Power was the driver.
I take issue with the nonsense idea, espoused by the Christian Right, that atheists are immoral. On the contrary, the atheists I know are humane, decent, kind, thoughtful and moral. The fact is, some people are good and others are not so good. Among the “moral” Christians there are some really good people who lead a fine moral life while still retaining a sense of humour and managing to enjoy it all (some members of my own family fall into this category). On the other hand the ranks of the Christians appear to contain as many pornographers, wife-beaters, philanderers and thieves as elsewhere.
Every man has the ability to choose his road in life. The idea that the Intelligent Designer has fore-ordained our roles in the world is bunkum. The difference between the Christian right and Epicureans is that we think for ourselves and are relatively rational (or try to be). We eschew the fear (or try to) that is fostered by the Church and governments. Meanwhile, as individuals, we can be good and bad, moral and immoral like everyone else. If American Christians think they represent “morality”, may they answer for their presumption in their heaven (that might prove a disappointment, but I can no more prove its existence or non-existence than they can). Up the moral minority!