03 May 2012

Atheism does not equal immoral

On Good Friday the Q&A show on the ABC had Richard Dawkins and Cardinal Pell on talking about religion and atheism – what else would they be talking about. A member of the audience asked the age old question around where atheists get their morals from if they don’t believe in the bible. This irritates crap out of me and is a stereotype I would like to deal with once and for all. I will cover this off from as an argument from a Christian, as I have never had a person from another religion ask me this question and it is the dominant religion of Australian society so it makes sense to approach it from this angle.

I am an atheist, it means I do not believe in any gods or the organised religions that have been created around those beliefs. This does not make me evil or bad, and I resent the implication that you cannot be a good person with some religious direction.
Moral: n. 1. The lesson or principle contained in or taught by a fable, a story, or an event.
2. A concisely expressed precept or general truth; a maxim.
What does your Bible actually teach you?The concept that you require the bible to get morality is a very narrow-minded view that is often pushed by the church, but think about it people, what morals do you actually take from the bible? Do you believe adulterers should be stoned or that conquering armies should be allowed to plunder the population for slaves and wives? Do you take the morality that women are effectively chattels that are handed over from parents to husbands with no rights? And don’t get me started with what morals you actually take from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, what father would offer his two virgin daughters to a marauding crowd? It’s all in there, along with a myriad of other ambiguous morals on gender, rape, slavery etc.

Or are you talking about the ten commandments? That’s really interesting because apparently it is as important to remember the Sabbath (which I’m sure you all do) as it is to not Kill and to Honour your parents. And apart from the biggies about not killing, stealing, lying, coveting or committing adultery – there isn’t a lot of other ‘moral’ teachings in the ten commandments that would give you clear direction on how to be a good person.

Maybe we should move into the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus then, you know the stuff, turning the other cheek, caring for the poor and sick, not judging others, and generally being nice to people. Is this the stuff you are talking about? Because this sounds more like the sort of morality I think Christians are referring to, and they are the sort of things I also practice.

Compassion doesn’t belong to religion
If so, this is the stuff that can generally be referred to as the ‘golden rule’. It is the basis of compassion and it exists in some form in pretty much EVERY religion, philosophy and culture that I’m aware of. It is an evolutionary imperative to be like this, since the anti-social behaviour that is contrary to this rule would result in you being ostracised from the tribe, and that usually led to death.

Further to this, I think that I learnt more morals from reading Aesop’s Fables than I remember learning from scripture. Yes I was forced to endure scripture in primary school, until I learned that I didn’t have to any longer, not something they openly shared with me.

The reason this annoys me so much is that I believe that I am fundamentally a good person. I am a pretty law-abiding citizen (some slight road rules aside at times), I donate money to charity and medical research, I am very polite to strangers and will help them out if asked, I feel compassion and empathy, we rescued an RSPCA dog when we decided to get one, I sign petitions to make the world a fairer place and I do try to be compassionate in my dealings with other people.

And I don’t require some fear of future judgement to make me toe the line. I do these things and act this way because I believe that we are all in this together, and this is how I want other people to be towards me and everyone else in the world. Yes I can be selfish, jealous, envious and inconsiderate; I am by no means a paragon of virtue. But I do not believe that I am any more prone to these outbursts than religious people, and I am reassured by the fact that I don’t practice the hypocrisy of calling myself a “good Christian” as I’m judging people for their sexuality, religion, culture or any other random feature.

And that’s another thing, I am generally accepting of these differences between people. As long as you are not oppressing or hurting me or other people in your sexuality, religion or cultural practices then why should I be bothered? I might find what you do strange and I may even be uncomfortable when initially confronted by it, but who am I to say whether it’s right or wrong?

This is my only chance at happiness
The fact that I don’t believe that there is an afterlife that I will be judged to enter does not make me careless or feel that life is pointless either. Rather, it means that I cherish the life that I live, the people I share it with and the experiences that I have because I believe that this is all there is. And why would I want to spend my only chance at life being nasty and mean, effectively isolating myself from other people, and moaning that there is nothing after the 70-90 years I get to spend on the planet, when I could spend those years getting the most out of my existence and sharing it with people I care about? Surely you can appreciate how counterintuitive this argument is?

Don’t get me wrong, I think that faith must be an incredibly powerful thing to have. And if your faith supports you and helps you get through this life then more power to you. I don’t get it, but there are a lot of things that I don’t understand so that is nothing new. All I’m saying is that you should take a leaf out of your own religion and not judge those who don’t believe what you do.

"But Hitler was an atheist…"
Another audience member, and I think from memory Cardinal Pell mentioned this too, said that Hitler and Stalin were both atheists – so this apparently proves the point that we’re all evil. For starters, Hitler was a Christian and for much of his life a very devout one apparently - own it people! Stalin was an atheist as this aligned with the philosophy behind Communism. Neither of these men did the things they did because of their religious beliefs, they did them out of fear, a thirst for power and some ill-informed judgement calls about the greater good.

So I guess this rant is just to say, being an atheist does not make me evil, immoral, amoral or even nasty and selfish for that matter. I’m sure there are atheists that fall into this category, just like there are theists that fall into this category.  Whether I believe in a god, your god or no god is not the defining factor of whether I am a good person who is good to others, we’re all far more complex than that.

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