In arguing against religion, Bertrand Russell turns to the claim that religion should be supported on the grounds that it encourages good behavior.
Initially, I found myself ready to agree with Russell, as I thought he’d make the perfectly valid point that a belief system isn’t true simply because it gets people to behave. Instead, he said this:
One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it.
That is the idea — that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked.
While I’d quickly agree with anyone who claimed that religious people are not nearly so good as we know we should be, studies on the effects of religion have not turned up anything like what Russell and others claim. Quite the contrary, it has more often been a positive influence on believers and communities.
This is especially problematic for the New Atheists, who tend to put such stress on trusting and respecting science. The fact that the findings of the relevant sciences run counter to their arguments here does not seem to have phased them. In fact, many of them seem to have developed a selective deafness on this point.
But, of course, none of this addresses the question of whether God exists.
Saying that we should reject God’s existence on the grounds that Russell (or anyone else) can make the unsupported claim that religion makes people bad should not make anyone question religious belief. In my view, there is only one interesting thing about this idea: that it isn’t immediately obvious to everyone that it is a worthless argument.