"I'm for decency -- period. I'm for anything and everything that bodes love and consideration for my fellow man. But when lip service to some mysterious deity permits bestiality on Wednesday and absolution on Sunday -- cash me out."
FRANK SINATRA, Playboy Magazine, Feb. 1962
One doesn’t usually think of Frank Sinatra as a deep thinker or a moral philosopher, but the quotation above shows that he very clearly saw the central problem with religion as a source of morality. He was able to capture the illogic of that idea in one sentence. There can be no real threat of punishment in religion when absolution is offered merely for the asking.
Most Christian sects hold that merely accepting Jesus as your savior and asking his forgiveness is all one need do to gain absolution for the most heinous offenses. The only way this could constitute a threat of punishment is if the sinner were to die with such complete suddenness that he could not mentally work through this thought process in his head before losing consciousness. That may happen to people on occasion, but it is so rare in ordinary life that the possibility approaches zero. Consequently, the threat of divine punishment is so small as to be illusory, even if such a threat actually exists.
Some churches impose penances of one sort or another, but they are usually quite mild in comparison to the offense committed. The archetypical example of the worthlessness of penance is captured by an interview with a former organized crime hit-man that appeared on the television news show "60 Minutes" a few years ago. The man had killed 20 people by his own admission. After being caught he went to a priest, confessed, and received an assignment of penance and then absolution. His penance: Recite 10 Hail Marys and 10 Our Fathers. That's it: one recitation of a meaningless religious mantra for every life he took. After that, as far as he and his church were concerned, he was no longer going to hell, no longer going to be punished for murdering 20 people.
If that is the threat of punishment that belief in god offers, then it is meaningless. It can form the basis for morality only in the most simple of minds. Only in the most childlike mind, where the mere idea that someone is watching can be persuasive, does this constitute a deterrent.
When this specious argument rears its ugly head, simply say:
"If all you have to do is ask god's forgiveness, then it doesn't seem like there's much of a threat of punishment."
"When I was a kid, I used to pray every night for a new bike. Then I realized, the Lord doesn't work that way. So I just stole one and asked Him to forgive me... and I got it!"
Morally, the function of religion is obviously to make the believer feel good about himself in spite of what he or she may have done wrong. It allows the believer to give himself an imaginary forgiveness that he imagines to be absolute (because from the absolute authority) without having to gain the forgiveness of anyone he may have actually victimized, without having to suffer meaningful and proportionate punishment or make meaningful and proportionate restitution--without really having to do anything.
The evidence in the real world bears out this interpretation. Not only has it been my own experience that religious people are actually less moral--and that they don't really know what the word means (more on this later)--but as I mentioned before there are a disproportionate number of religious people in prison compared to their numbers in the general population. Societies with a significant presence of religion suffer more greatly from the social ills that are most often considered sin by the religious than societies that are more secular.
Thus, an alternative response to this argument is:
"Actually, the moral function of religion is to allow bad people to feel good about themselves."
Then explain why this is so.