As reported by the LA Times, a recent UCLA study of "College Students Search for Meaning and Purpose" found that
students showed a generous level of religious tolerance and
acceptance for those outside their own beliefs. More than 80% of
students agreed that "nonreligious people can lead lives that are just
as moral as those of religious believers."
We discussed the question of morality and different religions on Saturday’s radio show (check out the recording of the show for the full commentary) and noted that, while interesting, it is a diversion from the real issue. The first question to ask of a religion is not "Does it produce ethical people?" but "Is it true?" To understand religion as primarily a provider of a moral standards is to miss the mark.Religion is about providing truth about reality. Moral standards will certainly flow from that, but they are a byproduct, not the main purpose.
Dennis Prager provides an excellent example of this problem in today’s column concerning the mission of Judaism. He states explicitly that Jews are on this planet to provide the rest of the world a standard for morality.
The Jews’ mission is as it always has been — to bring
the world to ethical monotheism. Ethical monotheism means there is one God and
therefore one moral standard that He has revealed, and He holds all humans accountable
to it. This is the point of Jewish chosenness. God chose a people — a
particularly small undistinguished people (chosenness has never implied
inherent superiority) — to make the world aware of the God of ethical demands
and moral judgment. Jews have never been required to bring the world to
Judaism, but they were chosen to bring the world to God and to the values found
in the Torah and the rest of the Old Testament.
Were Jews true to their mission, they would stand alongside Christians
who work to bring the Torah’s values to the world.
Prager is close to the truth, but notice the subtle problem. The biblical mission of Jews and Christians is not to show the morality of God to the world but to show God to the world. The primary purpose of the children of the Israel and of the Church is simply to be. Their goal is to be a visible manifestation of the One True God, Creator of the Universe. By being holy, these groups do declare values to the rest of the world, but only through providing a picture of the nature of God and only as one of many truths they declare. For instance, the Jews role in revealing God’s plan of redemption must be considered at least of equal importance to revealing his morality.
You cannot divorce ethics from fact. If Judaism and Christianity are true in regards to the nature of the God they worship and the world He is supposed to have created, then of course we should follow Judeo-Christian values. However, if they are false, then there is no reason to follow those values, no matter how convenient an objective standard for ethics they provide.
Ultimately, the question is not whether non-religious people can be moral but whether they are right about the ultimate nature of God and the universe.