April 14, 2015

Atheist Morality

Detail from James Gillray's "New Morality...
Detail from James Gillray's "New Morality" published in the Anti-Jacobin Review (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have never been convinced that one's answer to the question of whether gods exist has much of anything to do with whether one is a decent and moral person. Plenty of atheists are decent and moral persons; plenty of atheists are not. Plenty of religious believers are decent and moral persons; plenty of religious believers are not.

Unfortunately, I live in a society that uses god belief as a proxy for morality. From an early age, many of us are taught to assume that there is a strong connection between the two; however, I have found little evidence of an actual connection. Moreover, the assumption that god belief suggests morality has led to widespread bigotry toward atheists and made it far easier for some who profess religion to exploit others.

As an atheist, nothing stops me from recognizing that atheists can be morally deficient. I have no reason to believe that atheism confers any sort of moral goodness on someone. I need not be surprised when an atheist does something morally wrong. I am free to recognize that atheism is irrelevant to morality. The fact that another person may have reached a similar conclusion on the question of gods tells me nothing about whether he or she shares any values I might consider to be evidence of a moral character.

Similarly, nothing stops me from recognizing that religious believers can be persons of good moral character. I have no basis for assuming that they are morally suspect simply because they believe in gods. The fact that someone has arrived at a different answer to the question of gods than I have tells me nothing useful about his or her values or behavior. Knowing that he or she believes in gods does not help me decide whether to embrace or condemn this person.

If only religious believers had as easy a time of it as we atheists! Far too many are brought up to believe that we are morally deficient merely because we do not share their belief in gods. Some are convinced that we are evil, cannot be trusted, and should be avoided at all costs. They may believe that we are headed for eternal torment in a hell their gods designed. And some have even been raised to believe that we deserve death for what they imagine to be our sins against their gods.

To be sure, some fair-minded religious believers do not think this way and are willing to extend the branch of tolerance to those who do not believe as they do. But they have typically had to overcome much of their religious indoctrination and ignore parts of their "holy" books to reach this point. This can be an uphill battle because most religions teach not only that they have the right answers but that those who do not share their beliefs are morally flawed.

I'm glad that atheists do not have this problem. I think it is great that we can evaluate someone's moral character on the basis of how he or she behaves rather than what he or she believes or which gods he or she prefers. It is sometimes said that the transition from religious believer to atheist is a liberating experience, and I think this is an important part of why that is often the case.
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