Not long ago I was told by a well-intended acquaintance that it was impossible for a person who did not believe in god or his scripture to be a moral and ethical person. He had a very low opinion of atheists in general and had been shocked when I told him that I was one.
But he really seemed interested in why I was not a criminal. I smiled kindly, muttered a choice phrase, sighed, and once again began to express my opinions.
I did this knowing full well that this particular individual most likely could not or would not see my arguments. About an hour later I left and felt as if I had failed in getting my points across in a clear and precise manner. After that I decided that I should write my thoughts out so that next time I found myself in this all too familiar situation, they would be easier to regurgitate.
So here I go: Why I think that an atheist can be the most moral and ethical type of person and why I believe that religion does not have the moral authority over these endeavors. And, how we can change the way atheists are perceived.
In many ways I am a behaviorist. Meaning that I believe that a person’s family, friends, community, society, and culture all have a dramatic effect on people, and especially children, as they are growing up. We can say that these groups of people are someone’s sphere of influence. Behaviors, attitudes and ideals are learned behaviors in that they are copied from what they see around them. For children and young adults, behavior modification begins when they mimic the attitudes and actions of parents, siblings, peers, and other adults around them like their teachers. This mimicking is strengthened with the inclusion of either positive or negative social and cultural influences.
All too often we see these ideas presented in everyday scenarios. If a father beats his wife it is far more likely that his son will do the same when he is an adult. He learned at a young age that it was acceptable to do so by seeing his father do so. It would not matter what his father’s religious beliefs were.
We see this conundrum all over the world every day—the caustic and harmful attitudes people have learned that are in direct conflict with their stated religious stance.
Why is this, if one believes that their faith has such an important and unwavering effect on their lives?
Why do they not live their religious teachings? Why is unethical and immoral behavior not stopped by one’s faith?
Theists are always saying that their beliefs are one of the most important things about them, but I believe that it has far less actual effect on their lives.
Following this line of thought it is important to know that the first five or so years of life are the most important in determining how someone will turn out. And often times religious people put too much emphasis on the power of their chosen religious dogma to teach their children right from wrong.
But I believe that if a child does not see and experience the wished societal moral and ethical practices being performed by everyone in their sphere of influence most of the time, then the dogma of a religion will not be able to help them.
It would seem that a societal system based on unseen and unprovable dogma will no more create a perfect person than one based on the belief in Santa Clause. These flawed systems are based on teachings in which most people can see that it is flawed but they choose not to discuss it.
This is a dangerous learned behavior and it is called willful ignorance. But even more damaging is that even though they know deep down that it’s flawed they keep teaching it to their children anyway.
This is neither a moral or ethical course of action.
In truth I do not believe that you can shape a better person using the flawed and unrealistic beliefs of religion as the main guide. And therefore, unproven and unseen ideals, based on faith will never be the full test of whether a person’s morality is good. A person’s learned behavior is far more influential in how they will turn out than one’s learned faith. Thus I believe that the learned behaviors one gets from their sphere of influence and the behaviorists age-old, time proven processes of child rearing has a far more definitive effect.
So why don’t religious individuals always act morally and ethically? I believe it is quite simply that religion takes the power and effect of “one’s self” and conveniently passes it on to their god.
Religion lets you off the hook. There’s confession and atonement and Hail Marys and being able to have your sins washed away. Technically, if you really think about it, there’s less accountability.
We see this manifest in many ways. I don’t have to try not being prejudice and sexist because my religion teaches these qualities. I don’t have to believe that humans have an effect on climate change because my god has a plan and will fix everything anyway. Therefore, I can neither do harm to the planet nor can I do anything about it if I did. I don’t have to have a plan, because my god has one for me. I don’t have to change the world for the better because I cannot change his plan.
Without those beliefs, atheists view things much differently.
In absence of someone else’s plan in which you have no control, atheists carry a much stronger weight on their shoulders. There is no opportunity for complacency.
Instead, they believe their actions do matter. That other people’s actions matter. They feel a responsibility for their actions and the consequences of them. And that others carry a responsibility as well. That humanity, and our individual and collective actions, affect and help decide the fate of the planet.
To me this viewpoint breeds a pretty darn strong, case for morality, don’t you think?
Now, I know that for things to change we must act for ourselves. But what can I do? Through my sphere of influence, I like to think that I have learned to be a moral and ethical person. And through my continued learning I have learned how to be so, all without having been influenced by a god and his unknowable plan.
Let’s face it without god these problems become real and as an atheist I believe that all of these problems are up to us to fix. And I believe that for the continuation and improvement of humanity, fix them we must. But how do we mobilize action on issues when a large portion of the world’s populous believes that a god controls everything and they are powerless in his plan.
Let us remember that to them god=good and without god=bad. Therefore, anyone who does not believe in their version of god is bad. We see this in the way that many theists use the word atheist. It is spat out with the same venomous tone that they use when they talk about their omnipresent and altogether evil being, Satan.
They cannot see how anyone without god could be a good person. To theists it often comes as a shock when they find out that a moral and ethical person that they admire does not believe in their god. They deny that it is possible to have ethics and morality without god. If it was true it would only point out their religion’s faults. They do not want to be reminded of their willful ignorance. So they try to prove that their god is the only moral and ethical authority. They ask questions in an attempt to soil your reasoning. If you do not believe in teachings like the ten commandments, then what is stopping you from just going out and stealing or murdering someone?
They scoff when we tell them that it’s quite simple. We do not want people to do those things to us or the people we care about so we don’t treat others this way. They try to discredit us when we tell them that as an atheist we do not have to be told by a higher power how we should act. That we have learned moral and ethical behavior from our own sphere of influence and that as we get older we extrapolate these learned behaviors using our ability to reason.
But none of this will change the way they look at us.
So how can we change the way atheists are perceived and treated?
First I would like to say that I commend the groups who have been pushing forward our shared concepts out into the public. I believe that we atheists have allowed religion to have far too much power and for far too long. We have allowed them too much control over the conversation. They vilify us in the media, try to deny our right of equality, and our freedom from religion around the country.
However, I believe that we have been too quiet, too careful, and too worried about offending. Meanwhile theists have been behaving in that way that bullies do while in an argument—the concept that the louder person is always the most correct.
I think we atheists need to continue and push out of the shadows and out from under the stigma that religion has placed on us. We must unite and organize our base into a social and political force. Atheism is not a religion but it’s about time we organize like one. The truth is that there are far more atheists and agnostic people than is ever reported in our country.
We must decide on how we want to be perceived in our world and to what aim we as a group are working towards. And with shared goals become a force for good, and of reason.