There goes Billy Graham again

Thanks to Bruce Gerenscer over at the NW Ohio Skeptics blogs for bringing this one to my attention. Building on my semi-recent rant about how us happy atheists are a bit of a conundrum for believers, the Reverend Graham takes his own stab at the classic "Why is my atheist friend so happy and awesome?" question, and the torrent of spurious reasoning he unleashes is downright impressive in its vacuity.

Reverend Graham was given the following query:
DEAR DR. GRAHAM: The kindest, most thoughtful person I know says she's an atheist and doesn't even believe in God. I always thought we needed to believe in God before we'd behave like she does, but I guess this isn't necessarily true, is it?
What's that you say? A happy, functional atheist? Aren't we all supposed to be amoral, depressed hedonists? Graham replies (emphasis mine):

I'm convinced that when a person comes to Jesus Christ and commits his or her life to Him, they will become a better person than they ever were before. If your atheist friend comes to Christ one day, she'll be an even better person than she is now.  
Why is she such a kind and thoughtful person? I don't know the reason; perhaps she simply has a sunny personality (as some people do), or perhaps her parents taught her to be kind and considerate when she was growing up. But I do know this: She's not this way because she's an atheist. In fact, she's this way despite her atheism — because a true atheist has no real reason to believe in right and wrong or to behave sacrificially toward others.
This is just the same old ignorant nonsense we hear time and time again from theists: without a magical being in the sky to preside over everything, morality become relativistic and life becomes meaningless.

There are some obvious questions here. First of all, human beings have been around for roughly 200,000 years. The oldest religions are maybe five or six thousand years old. This isn't to say there weren't other religious practices (surely there were many pre-historic indigenous cultures with complex religious beliefs), but if we all need Jesus so badly, were was he the last 195,000 years? How did we humans make it so far without the Judeo-Christian tribal god watching our backs?

The answer is that, as the primatologist Frans De Waal so eloquently phrased it, we are as a species obligatorily gregarious. None of us has the luxury of moral autonomy. We depend on others for every aspect of our physical and emotional well-being. To quote De Waal again: cooperative group living is a survival strategy, not a choice. Too many people ignorant of the real science of evolution misconstrue our history as an "every man for himself", dog-eat-dog kind of world. But the overwhelming majority of species on Earth, especially primate species like us, thrive by sharing resources, caring for the sick and wounded, and living in highly cooperative societies. Empathy isn't some mystical force – it's an evolutionarily selected behavioral trait.

But I'll do one better than our mere biology. We treat others well because we recognize that if we do not respect the needs and interests of others, others have no reason to respect our own needs and interests. We behave charitably because it's the kind of world we want to live in; we want to believe that if the roles were reversed and we were in dire circumstances, others would come to help us. We humans are by no means alone in our altruistic behavior – it's been observed countless times in our primate cousins. It's an integral part of who we are and how we as a species made it this far.

Does life become meaningless? That's trickier to answer, but I've never quite seen the logical connection between God and meaning. Leaving Christianity and ultimately becoming an atheist has in no way diluted the beauty, depth or intensity of my Earthly experiences. I still feel close to my family, have wonderful friends, experience love and heartache, marvel at the beauty of nature, and feel a deeply personal sense of meaning. I just don't derive it from some magical deity whose mere existence is devoid of supporting evidence.

Nice try Billy Graham. But functioning, happy atheists remain a thorn for believers because we expose religion for the vacuity that it is.


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