I love my father-in-law. He's a Catholic Deacon. I love my mother. She is a non-denominational Christian who attends a church that is loosely based on the Baptist and Methodist versions of Christianity. I love my aunt, who attends a growing mega-church. I love my deceased grandmother, whose gravestone bears the words that I still sing to my daughter most nights before she goes to bed, "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound." The point being - lovely, caring, intelligent people believe in God and attend church, but you don't need God to be good.
The reason you don't need God to be good is because there is no evidence that God exists, and probably does not; yet people - secular and theistic alike, still commit random acts of kindness all over the world. At the same time, most of the worst atrocities in history were committed at the hand of one tribe's religion over another. It's in the brain.
People are lost, confused in a sea of contemporary knowledge
With discoveries like billions of lonely planets in the universe, advances in evolutionary development (evo-devo for short), and new insights with fMRI technology that shows how the brain responds to various environmental influences, it is becoming increasingly clear that God is made in our image, not the other way around.
Religion is simply an antiquated remnant of a misguided biological heritage, and the times and needs of humanity call for a revolution in our mindset before it's too late.
The Psychology of Religion - Good and Evil
This could be a long post about how nearly every major bloodbath in the history of of the world has been fought by religious zealots under the guise of fighting on the side of the Lord, but that's what encyclopedias and history books are for. After all, most of us are level-headed, normal people who don't do such things, right?
Well, not so fast. According to massive amounts of psychological research, there is a very fine line between a typical human being's reaction in a typical situation, and a wholly irrational reaction in an untenable, atypical set of circumstances. Under the right level of stress, a generally good person can easily slide into an emotional fight or flight state of mind. That, however, is in the short term.
In the long term, in-group psychology, a biological default for all of humanity, means that we naturally believe that what is most like us is better than what is less like us. And in the "right" situation, worth dying for. As a matter of fact, as Psychologist Stanley Milgram found, all you have to do is put a lab coat on someone and completely "normal", unsuspecting people, will do their evil bidding for them.
Another psychologist, and founder of the Heroic Imagination Project, Philip Zimbardo, calls this "The Lucifer Effect" in his book by the same name. The subtitle explains it all, "Understanding How Good People Turn Evil." It is basically in our natural programing that if the situation arises, all of us are capable of doing what we would otherwise consider evil as long as we can justify it with something abstract, like patriotism, or lack of intelligence, or dehumanization of the enemy, or religion, and last but not least... just doing your job under a supposed authority figure.
Cardinals vs. Cubs
The good news is that simply by being aware of this psychological defect in our humanity, a person can avoid the pitfalls of evil. Herein lies the problem with religion, even in a moderate or liberal religious sense. The essence of religious belonging, or personal classification, is that in it's most important sense, "My God is the right God, therefore, your God is the wrong God."
If you have ever seen a drunk Cardinal fan heckle a Cubs fan at Busch Stadium, you will see the consequences of this psychological defect first hand.
However, unlike baseball, religious matters are the most serious of these in-groups, dealing with our deepest emotions and natural tendencies, like the need to belong, the need to survive, and the need to feel like we have some semblance of control over our lives.
It doesn't help that children are indoctrinated (besides daily activities, think baptisms, christenings, bar mitzvah's, weekly religious indoctrination "schools," etc.) with their particular culture's superstitions from birth into adulthood. This is an important point considering the logical part of the human brain, the pre-frontal cortex isn't fully developed until around the age of 26.
Some may not like the term "indoctrination," after all, most like to feel as if they are completely in control of their beliefs, but it is no accident that if you are born to Muslim parents, it is a near certainty that you will be a Muslim. If you are born to Catholic parents, it is a near certainty that you will grow to be a Catholic. If you are born to Hindu parents, it is a near certainty that you will grow to be Hindu.
None of this started with this generation. It was the same with their parents, and the parents before them, and the parents before them, etc. The point being, in the mind of an individual, the only thing that makes one's religion more right than someone else's is that their parents believed it before they did. This is the case with the Muslim who flies a plane into a building, with a Christian who shoots eighty children, and with a Jew who lobs hand grenades into a crowded Palestinian wedding.
Being Good Without God
Do Christians and Muslims and Jews et al do good as well? Absolutely. Why wouldn't they? It's in our nature to be good, even if it is for selfish reasons. Others who do good are the folks at the Foundation Beyond Belief, The United States Government, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Bono from U2. As the latter have proven, you can (and should) be good without God.
The case I am making here is not that good people be can not be religious, but that religion is ultimately detrimental to all people, both good and bad. Religion is an unnecessary filter for what is right and what is wrong. Ninety-nine percent of the normally developed human race knows innately that killing is wrong. We don't need a secondhand tablet from God to tell us it's wrong.
Since there is no evidence whatsoever that any kind of God exists, the phrase "Good without God" becomes self evident.
Delusion and Denial
Besides the most obvious harmful traits of even the most well-meaning religious institutions, the greatest harm at the hand of religion is that of delusion and denial.
By having a foundation in superstition, civilizations are constantly mishandling major challenges, often times intentionally by the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the unsuspecting. Relevant challenges in our time include issues like climate change due to man-made global warming, poverty, war, local and global economics; all of which are almost always addressed irrationally, and from a position of general ignorance by the religious populace.
After all, God has a plan and knows what is going to happen anyway - but if we try hard enough, we can attempt to influence his decisions through mental telepathy strategies, like prayer, or other kinds of magic.
The Finality of Death
So what's the alternative? To begin with, simple bits of factual, practical knowledge should be well known. For example, if a lion dies, or a fly dies, or a monkey dies, we accept them as forever, eternally dead. Nothing in the next 30 trillion years is going to change the fact that the dead monkey will never live again.
Yet, even though we have most of the same characteristics of a monkey (head, two arms, two legs, a mouth, two eyes, a nose, two ears, hair, anus, reproductive organs, 96% of our genes, veins, heart, lungs, kidneys, intestines, etc.) we believe that some how, some way, when we die, it is not final.
For no good reason, and with zero empirical evidence, we have convinced ourselves over several millenia that there just has to be something else out there. Yet, as I said, no good reason or evidence exists that our deaths are any less final than a flattened skunk on a country road.
There is No Longer a Good Excuse (In the Developed First World) To Be Religious
In the 21st century, there is no longer a good excuse for the amount of effort and intellectual brain power lost to the dense black hole of religion. In an era where life as we know it becomes increasingly, predictably uncertain, it is time to put the irrational beliefs of billions into the fairy tale books where they belong.
It is time to sit down and begin to have a rational, measured discussion on the challenges that lie in front of us as well as the challenges yet to be identified.
If the human race, our grandchildren and beyond, are to survive, we must begin to strive for a post-theocratic society, where modern religions (and those destined to take their place) are relegated to the same cultural history books as their forebearers - as we have already done with Zeus and Athena.