One of the more fascinating debates that C.S. Lewis was often involved in, and which remains important when one judges the moral effect of religious beliefs, is the issue of the morality of unbelievers. It has always been true that those who profess themselves to be believers of God have not always (or even often) lived up to the moral demands of their religious beliefs. At times, as is the case with, say, Muslims and heathens, the only people among those faiths I would consider to be relatively good would be those who would not be particularly fiercely loyal to the tenets of their faith. A good Christian would automatically be a good person, at least in my own admittedly biased perspective, but for someone to be a “good” atheist, they would have to be living by the residual (and unrecognized) force of God’s laws in their lives and not the tenets of their irreligious practice. A morally and logically consistent atheist would, by definition, be a very evil person. It is perhaps for the best, in many cases, that people are not morally or logically consistent very often.
When we judge other people as good or not, we often do not judge particularly accurately. When we see someone who is religious but not the “best” sort of person, we tend to immediately leap to the belief that such a person is a hypocrite and brings shame and dishonor upon the name of believers as a whole. We do not often pause to think that such an imperfect and flawed person could easily be far worse a person without religious belief than they would be with religious belief. I know that to be the case with me, for example. As imperfect as I am personally, I know that I would be a great deal worse as a human being if I was not aiming at a standard of morality and justice that external to myself and to my own narrow personal interests. Such kindness and charity and graciousness towards others as I exhibit, however imperfectly, would be far less if I did not view them as obligatory aspects of character to be practiced and perfected and improved. If my morality had to depend on my own determination of my interests and my own personal opinions about other people and their ways, I would be a far more savage and harsh person than I am. And I tend to think that to be a common thing, if the savagery of our own time has any bearing on the matter.
There is, ultimately, none who is good but God. And to the extent that we are good, we owe that goodness ultimately to God, whether that is in the residual value of the personal example of those who sought to live according to God’s ways as they understood them, or of societal habits that are godly, or whether it is due to our own efforts to walk according to God’s ways and to seek His goodness. To the extent that those godly habits are encouraged and continued, we may maintain or increase such goodness as we possess. Yet if we neglect to do so, as is common at present, it is very easy to see a declining effect of the residual effect of the blessings that come from obedience to the laws of God and man. Rebelliousness and lawlessness are contagious; to the extent that some people can be seen to regularly and habitually violate the law, eventually other people will be tempted themselves to violate the law with the expectation of impunity. If the laws are not enforced on evildoers of one particularly stripe, then an increasingly larger share of evildoers of a different stripe will demand the same freedom from restraint. And that is what we see now. Where justice is not executed speedily, or at all, against evildoers, lawlessness abounds.
People rarely realize that their encouragement of revolt against some authorities lowers the respect that all authorities are held in. We all have our natural biases and perspectives and preferences about what sorts of authority we would prefer to have in our own lives or over others and that sort of authority we would like to have over us. We would like to think that our hostility towards others or that our rebellion against others was focused. We might, for example, hate the patriarchy but not realize that this hostility decreases the willingness anyone would have to support a matriarchy. We decry privilege for whites, but do not realize that this makes people sensitive about the privileges enjoyed by ethnic minorities. And so it goes. We are hypersensitive to the slights that we suffer and casually unaware of the slights that we inflict upon others, all of which increases the mutual hostility that we have. And the results of that are easy to see, as we find ourselves in a situation where we increasingly see rebellion in all aspects of life, and fan the flames of that rebellion when it is against authorities we do not like, not realizing that it sabotages our own efforts at securing authority that we might better favor but which other people view with abhorrence and contempt.