Good Things Without God
"A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. . . . If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives." - Charles Darwin
An aside before I even begin. It is an increasingly little known fact amongst those who rabidly oppose Darwinian evolution that Charles Darwin was himself a Christian, an avid supporter of the Church and organized religion in a time when it was under attack, and indeed, before his voyage on the Beagle, planned to become a clergyman himself.
Darwin's discoveries and conclusions made him very uncomfortable indeed as he tried to balance what he observed in the natural world with his own theology and it is quite possible that he would never have published the 'Origin of the Species' had it not been for the fact that another young scientist was hot on his heels in coming to the same conclusions Darwin himself had been coming to in the 25 years after the voyage which changed the world forever.
This article is written in response to a reader who wanted to know how atheists explain human qualities such as hope, faith, love and goodness without including God in their world view.
It's a common argument among those who like to argue about this sort of thing that without God, mankind would be a degenerate pack of savages killing each other willy nilly and generally falling apart morally. It doesn't take a great amount of introspection or thought to disprove this idea, but those who use it are generally not concerned with introspection or thought, rather they are in battle mode, defending their belief system.
I personally have no desire to strip anyone of a belief system in which they find truth, happiness and security. As I wrote in my previous article on the subject, Is Atheism Inevitable? Or Is God Real?, I believe that for some people, 'God' is an active force in their every day lives.
However this does not mean that without a sense of God, humans are left bereft of moral compasses.
Morality can and does exist independently of religious beliefs, in fact, one could say that non religious people are more moral than religious people, because they behave well without the threat of eternal torture of a vengeful god if they do wrong.
The Scientific Explanation For Love, Self Sacrifice and Goodness without God.
Hope, faith, love and goodness can all be described as altruistic behaviors, behaviors of self sacrifice. Biologically, this behavior is defined as being behavior which decreases one's own chance of breeding, but which increases the chance of other people breeding.
Altruism is an adaptive trait which helps ensure the survival of the species as a whole. Take the 'women and children first' mentality. This is a fine example of evolutionary altrusim at work. Why women and children first? Because children carry the genetic material of their parents and are therefore precious. If a child dies, much effort and energy must be exerted in creating and protecting a new one. It is much better for us as a species if we can ensure that healthy children live to adulthood, regardless of whether or not they are our own.
Women are also relatively more precious than males because they are capable of bearing young in a limited supply. One man can successfully reproduce in a short amount of time with a large number of women, however one woman can only reproduce with one man every nine months. Therefore, if anyone is to be considered more disposable in this scenario, it is the males.
You also have the added advantage of the strongest males surviving the disaster, which aids in natural selection for strong, healthy mates for the next generation. Christians could call 'women and children first' an act of kindness and mercy towards those weaker, and indeed it is, but it is also natural altruism and natural selection at work.
Altruism Predates Modern Religion
The Judeo-Christian god is a relatively new invention when you consider the time line of humanity as a whole, yet love, kindness, mercy and other positive behaviors associated with following the philosophy of Jesus Christ have been observed and recorded long before the advent of his arrival.
Humans are group animals. We function best when we work well as a community. In order to work well as a community, altruistic behaviors are essential. It is also worth noting that altruistic behavior is not limited to humans, many animals also demonstrate altruisim, and even lower order creatures such as insects which cannot possibly be concious of their impact of their behaviors display altruistic tendencies.
This paper from Stanford explains in a clear fashion how this has been observed in all branches of the animal kingdom. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism-biological/
Science and God Can Be Friends
I see no reason why people of faith cannot be comfortable with the existence of a natural, biological basis for altruistic traits and other positive human qualities. After all, if one believes that a creator created the building blocks of life and let his children evolve from there, there is no contradiction in believing that all humans are capable of moral good. After all, as is often said 'We are all God's children' – even those of us who don't believe in him, her, or the great Is.