How being an atheist has deepened my sense of morality

If there's any one issue that believers like to hang their hat on, it's morality. The exact criticism of secular morality varies by theologian, but they all suggest that for us, something is missing. Some suggest that without belief in God, our moral values are whimsical and arbitrary – that we have no basis by which to affirm whether anything is "right" or "wrong", because to do so would affirm that there is actually such a thing as right and wrong in a manner that transcends the whims of humankind. I've often been asked by Christians if the reason I'm an atheist is because there was some "sin" I wanted to commit, or if I just wanted to live a life free of moral responsibility. Bring on the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll!

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. It's not to say I haven't done my share of reckless things, but I'm pretty much a straight shooter. I don't lie to people I love. I don't have unprotected sex with multiple anonymous partners in a consequence-free environment. I haven't battled drug addiction. I've battled other things, but who hasn't had their share of struggles? That's just how life is. Think for a moment of all the conservative Christian pastors and politicians who have confessed to having affairs, to having homosexual affairs after hypocritically condemning homosexuality, to battling drug addiction, who have gotten divorced, etc. etc. I know lots of people whose marriages have failed and who have battled addictions and metal disorders of all kinds; some of them are devout believers, and some of them aren't. What I can say with great certainty is that belief in God, or lack thereof, made no difference in whether these people struggled with such things or whether they were able to overcome them. Some people will tell you that until they were "saved", their lives were hopeless; but just as many, if not more, will tell you that they overcame their problems with therapy, friends, family, or just good old fashioned willpower. Some believers are convinced that they were only able to find peace through adversity because of their faith; but innumerable others find peace without faith.

So it's worth asking, then, how faith can really help us to have stronger moral values. There's an intrinsic problem with any claim that you are adhering to a higher, absolute moral law – namely that there is someone else out there (actually, lots of other people) who is just as passionate as you are, just as certain in their faith as you are... whose beliefs are opposite to yours. Even within Christianity alone (home to over 30,000 denominations), there is little agreement on exactly what God is, to what extent God intervenes in the world, and what exactly God wants from people. Absolute moral law doesn't do humanity much good if we can't all objectively discern, and hence agree, on exactly what that law is.

From where, then, do I as an atheist derive my moral values? I'll use my standard refrain, which borrows heavily from Frans De Waal's excellent book Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved:
We are, as a species – and like all primate species – inherently bonded and interdependent. We all depend on one another for every aspect of our physical and emotional well-being. Accordingly, none of us has the luxury of living a life of moral autonomy. Living cooperatively is not a choice – it is a necessary part of our survival. We intuitively recognize – from a very young age – that if we do not respect the needs and interests of others, others have no reason to respect our own needs and interests.
Since President Obama has just declared June to be LGBT Pride Month, let me use gay rights as an example of how this secular perspective deepens my sense of morality. I am a passionate supporter of gay rights. I believe that they should have fully equal rights under the law – to love, to marry, to visit each other in hospitals, to serve in the military, etc. etc. Now, when someone opposes gay rights, they do so more often than not with references to scriptures. Nevermind that even in the New Testament, we can find scriptures saying that women should not speak in church, that they must cover their heads, and that they may not hold positions of authority. No reasonable Christian would try to implement these scriptures in a day and age in which women have largely been liberated from civil oppression; these are, along with all the Old Testament misogyny and barbarism, dismissed as cultural quirks of a long bygone era. Yet homosexuality is hypocritically condemned, and the scriptures deemed contemporarily relevant. This is just another example of the fact that the Bible is merely interpreted arbitrarily to conform to changing social norms and biases. But I digress....

I support gay rights because I can empathize with them. Because in my life I have had many people close to me who are gay, lesbian or bisexual and I can see first hand that they are just like me. They are honest, loving people – I've trusted them, confided in them, and loved them. So I can imagine a world in which the tables were turned, and being straight was the minority. I would be outraged at being told whom I could or could not love, whom I could or could not have sex with, whom I could or could not marry, or that I could not serve my country or visit the person I love in the hospital.

I also support gay rights because I have looked at the research. If there was strong evidence that homosexuality led to all kinds of undesirable social outcomes, I might be more reluctant to support it. However, decades of research has shown those in the LGBT community to be just as emotionally well-adjusted, productive members of society as anyone else. If anything, their greatest struggle comes in the form of the ostracization they face from friends, family and society because of deeply embedded bigotry and prejudice.

In other words, I support gay rights because I am in touch with my human empathy, and because I follow scientific evidence. Those who oppose gay rights do so on the basis of unsubstantiated claims to be in congruence with an infallible, transcendent source of absolute authority – a claim that crumbles under even the most superficial scrutiny.

And while I'm using gay rights as just one example, it extends across all manner of issues. I oppose the oppression of women in fundamentalist Islamic countries not because I think their religion is wrong and mine is right, but because I can imagine that if I were a woman, I would be outraged at the notion that merely because of my gender I am not entitled to education, freedom, independence or equality. In fact, I think any Christian would have an awfully difficult time supporting women's rights with scripture, since the god of the Bible commands some of the most atrocious misogyny imaginable.

When we shed the shackles of faith, we're required to acknowledge the complex nature of many moral dilemmas. But we can talk about them, empathize with one another and find common ground instead of hopelessly butting heads with claims of divine knowledge that are not amenable to criticism or argument. Being an atheist does not free us from our responsibilities toward one another or act as a free pass to live a destructive, hedonistic lifestyle; but freeing ourselves from dogmatic beliefs allows us to base our morality on our shared solidarity, our shared humanity. It deepens our sense of responsibility toward one another, and by doing so we free ourselves from oppression, prejudice, bigotry and selfishness. Isn't that the way we would all like to live?

Comments

  1. I am recruiting atheists and agnostics to join in a debate. The official debate started about 4 years ago or so at http://www.GodvsNoGod.blogspot.com. It was a very lively debate with plenty of opinion from all sides. The quality of the debate was very high both in intellectual content and civility. After a necessary pause, the debate is being rekindled. We need folks who are capable of being guest writers, commentators, editors, and even helping with some of the admin of the site. If you are interested, write me at RandyKirk77@gmail.com I especially would like to invite you, Mike. Not merely because your writing is clear and compelling, but because you appear to desire that spirit of courtesy in the debate.

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  2. Thanks for the invitation, but I'm going to politely decline, for the following reasons:

    - I already devote a lot of time to this blog, and still don't feel like I devote quite enough.

    - I'm fully open to debate and discussion on any topics I raise in my blogs, and I regularly visit other blogs and discuss their issues as well.

    - I've too often found that arguing with people who assume a priori truths is a pointless exercise and doesn't benefit either party or the audience, if there is one.

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