Theists often argue that without religion humans are intrinsically immoral, or even that religion is necessary to provide morals as morality and ethical behaviour doesn’t or wouldn’t exist otherwise.
However, there are very good reasons for morality and ethics existing both at a societal level, and to act or be moral at an individual, personal level.
Arguably it is the so-called “golden rule” of do unto others as you would have them do unto you or treat other people as you wish to be treated, which forms the fundamental basis of “morality”, and interestingly the golden rule is not found explicitly in the bible.
Regardless of what is written in ancient books, the imperative to act morally and ethically stems from the fact that humans require other humans to survive (for the first 7-8 years at the very least), and we have developed to act in socially beneficial ways. Those who act antisocially will (over time) die out and be removed from society’s gene pool, unable to create significant numbers of highly immoral or antisocial progeny, it is as simple as that. There is a discussion here about how this can be distorted within autocratic and dogmatic theocracies, though for another time.
The key to unlocking the golden rule in any given human is the emotion of empathy, not religion. Think of others as similar to yourself and you will treat them more positively and equally, like you (hopefully) treat yourself.
Babies are born with basic instincts, which (despite some theistic wishes) are neither moral nor immoral. Complex feelings and emotions develop as the child learns about the world and the rules of socialising with other humans. More on empathy on the Science page of this blog.
If children are taught all humans are equal regardless of ethnicity, skin colour, gender, sexuality, ability, language, or even beliefs, then they will be more likely to treat everyone with equal respect, as they wish to be treated. Give them the ability to question and reason in an open-minded, rational manner and they will be able to more easily discern when others’ beliefs are discriminatory and immoral, and to act in an ethical manner. They will also be more likely to empathise with other humans and less likely to engage in behaviour which negates others rights, be that robbery, rape, assault, murder, or other socially negative actions.
If however children are taught that one way of thinking, a world view or specific doctrine is the only way, and the only thing keeping them from behaving immorally is the threat of judgement by an invisible force and unspecified punishment after they die, then they risk not internalising moral behaviour (since they have been taught they are naturally immoral and sinful) and less likely to be empathetic to others, especially if they are taught differences like sexuality and other beliefs or viewpoints are also wrong and immoral.
This may (and has) lead to persecution of others, unequal rights, and – if believers act immorally and think they can’t control it – can result in negative ideation, guilt, depression, self-harm and further immoral, unethical or socially undesirable behaviour (the “acting out” Americans in particular are so keen to diagnose).
A religious education is an oxymoron and can only create internal and external discordance and divisiveness, not true acceptance and equality amongst humans, which is surely the most moral and ethical existence possible.
Religious indoctrination is therefore not just potentially harmful to the individual and an equal society, it is tantamount to intellectual abuse, especially of children.