24 February 2012

Why I'm an atheist, Part 2: Morality & Law

In the previous post I shared an overview of my personal experiences with religion and atheism. In this post and those following, I'll get into some of the particulars of my views on religion.

So I'm an atheist—what exactly does that mean? Well the average religious person may not call themself a “theist,” but that's the applicable term; it describes someone who believes in a god or gods and/or practices a religion. So when you add the “a-” it literally means something like “without a god” or “without religion.” And that does describe me: I don't believe in the existence of any deities or other supernatural entities or forces, nor do I practice anything that might be described as a religion.

But here are some things I'm not saying when I say I'm an atheist (starting with the most ridiculous). Atheism is not devil-worship. Devils and demons are considered just as non-existent to atheists as are gods and angels. Atheists also don't hate god (or at least the intellectually honest ones don't), because you can't hate something that you don't think exists. If someone says they're an atheist but they say they hate god, they're probably just an angry theist and not an atheist, unless they're speaking purely figuratively. Atheists are not inherently amoral. Sure, we've got our share of assholes just like any other demographic, but their being bad people comes from within them, not the fact that they're atheists. If someone comes right out and claims that atheism gives them a reason or the right to be an asshole, then they're almost certainly a moron in addition to being a jerk.

That last misconception is a popular claim with anti-atheists, so I think it's worth going into a bit more. The fact is that atheism itself doesn't prescribe any particular code of morality, but neither does it say that people shouldn't hold to a code of morality. All it says on the subject is that a claimed supernatural source for such a code isn't sufficient justification. Atheists vary widely in the specifics of their philosophies of ethics and morality, but very few would advocate a lawless, amoral society in the light of their disbelief in the supernatural. And like I said, those guys are assholes.

Theists love to ask the question, “So then where do you atheists get your notions of right and wrong if they're not decreed from on high?” The thing is that they don't seem to realize how terrifying that question is. It implies that if they were left to their own devices they'd have no way to know right from wrong and would have no reason to act ethically. I've even seen people say outright that it was only fear of divine retribution keeping them from murdering the people they dislike, which is absolutely chilling. But I'm not saying those latter people represent the norm for theists. In fact, my point is the opposite. I think that most theists, if pressed, would admit that even if they thought God wasn't watching or wouldn't care, they still wouldn't run around stealing and killing. And that to me says that human morality ISN'T handed down to us from the heavens, but comes from within us.

I think our species has the foundation for morality built in to us. If you ask me, the conscience isn't a whisper from God but a whisper from ourselves: the combination of our natural empathy with our natural reasoning. We're a highly social species. The intricacies of our social systems have a reciprocal cause-and-effect relationship with our emotional states and our evolved ability to recognize the same states in others. We have the ability to know that something that makes us feel bad when done to us will probably make another person feel bad if you do it to them. And in this day and age, we've realized (or have mostly realized, at least) that there aren't “greater” or “lesser” types of humanity. We're all human beings, and while we're all different there are certain generalizations that can be made about what makes us happy and sad. And as equals, we all deserve to have our hopes for safety, freedom, and happiness respected, assuming we don't try to hinder the same in others. Even if it's been applied more narrowly, societies throughout history have embraced this logic, and you find the so-called Golden Rule in moral philosophies from the world over. Now I admit that it's a very general foundation, albeit a strong one. But there are whole professions devoted to coming to a consensus on the details as they're best suited to contemporary society. And their conclusions come from logic and our gut instinct that others have as much a right to happiness as we do. We possess and make good use of our own capacity for establishing codes of ethics. There's plenty of disagreement, but that's fine; that leads to progress. The results aren't so absolute as divine commandments might be, but I say they're better suited to the reality in which we live. And not only do we not need God to give us our morality, I'd argue that most people don't actually agree with what he's supposedly given us.

If you watch the video at that link, it makes the case that it's foolish to suggest that a country like the United States base its laws on ancient scripture because that scripture doesn't espouse our modern sense of morality. And I agree whole-heartedly. I'm not saying holy books have nothing good to offer; most advocate the Golden Rule, for instance. But I am saying that for the most part they represent the ethical philosophy of days long passed. The United States was intended to be a secular nation. The forefathers we largely deists (i.e., they believed in a creator god but not the interfering god of Christianity and most other religions) and some may have been atheists. But whatever their particular beliefs, they intended the nation to be governed on secular ideals. They established the separation of church and state, and in 1797 President John Adams signed his name to a treaty that stated “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The founding fathers were men of the Enlightenment, and sought to create a nation built upon the virtues of human creativity and reasoning that characterized that movement.

Religious thought had a resurgence in America during the “Revival Era” of the 19th century, but many of the seeming connections between religion and government didn't appear until the Cold War. Soviet Russia was adamantly godless, and so there was a reactionary surge in religious thought in America during the Red Scare as a way to further separate ourselves from our mortal enemies. It was only during this time that the national motto was changed from “E Pluribus Unum” (“From Many, One”) to “In God We Trust” and that “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. I find it especially ironic that the phrase “under God” divides the phrase “one nation indivisible.”

These days there seems to be another resurgence of religious thinking, especially as it applies to politics. I think it's merely a symptom, a response to a resurgence of secular thought. Atheists are feeling less persecuted and more willing to be open with their views. And we're tired of theists trying to force religion down the throat of a nation that was founded on secularism. So like a fever rising in response to the intrusion of a foreign organism, religiousness is on the rise now that its comfortable place of dominance has been disrupted. My hope is that it's the beginning of a last gasp, and that soon we'll be back to the America that the founders intended, rather than this cruel parody.

So, what do I and other atheists want exactly? Do we want to de-convert everyone from theism? Do we want to eradicate religion altogether? Well I'm sure many of us would agree that people would be better off without religion in their lives; we know we are ourselves. But that's not a realistic or a necessary goal. All we really want is the removal of religious thought from government. You'll find most of us are still very much for religious freedom, and while we might personally think that you'd be better off without it, we respect your right to choose otherwise. It's just when you infringe upon our same rights and violate our shared Constitution that we get upset.

Now some atheists certainly take a more active stance against religion. And I support that, because there are many injustices being carried out in this world in the name of one god or another. The molestation and rape of children by the Catholic Church; that same church's efforts to spread misinformation about the effectiveness about condoms in Africa, contributing to the spread of AIDS there; the murder of albinos as witches in Africa; the murder of women in so-called “honor killings” in Islam; religion-sanctioned homophobia, often leading to abuse and murder; and the oppression of females through practices like “female circumcision” and the denial of reproductive rights. To name a few. It strikes me that these primitive and brutish practices should not exist in the 21st century but for the influence of religion. We know better than this. We should be better than this. But religion is too often considered untouchable. It seems to get a free pass to commit atrocities. And in countries like the United States, churches pay no taxes and still complain of being oppressed. And so I don't blame some of the harsher critics of religion for their lack of sympathy toward the “plight” of the religious, at least not until those religious people rise up and address the lack of the same in their own institutions.

I'm also not opposed to some of the ridicule expressed by the more strident atheists. Ridiculous ideas deserve to be ridiculed, and there's no shortage of them in religious thought. And changes don't occur in society without a few hard pokes. But the majority of atheists take a softer approach, myself included, and I think that's the way it should be. I think most religious people are good people, even if I think they're a bit misguided. I don't actively seek to convert people, but I certainly don't shy away from politely making my case, as this series of posts hopefully demonstrates. My goal isn't to leave a trail of atheists in my wake, it's just to get people thinking about religion. Too often people just accept things without any thought. I'm fine with them being religious, but I think that as intellectually honest adults they shouldn't be coddled; they shouldn't be shielded from carefully considering and defending their beliefs. Take a look at this post for an example of my approach. And as always, feel free to disagree and debate. It goes both ways and I'm willing to defend my own views, though hopefully I'll do a fairly thorough job with this series of posts.

In Part 3 I talk about the logical approaches that lead me to conclude that there are no gods.

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