Out of curiosity I subscribed (a few months ago) to a daily Google alert for “question for atheist”, just to see what people are wondering about atheists. Aside from the occasional “why do you hate god?” and “how did something come from nothing?” the overwhelming majority of questions that have made it into my inbox has been some variation of “how can you be good without god?” or “where do you get your morals?”.
Usually when these types of questions are posed the result is a long discussion on how we decide what is good or evil, whether or not there’s such thing as an objective morality or if morals are subjective, whether we need to be accountable to a higher power in order to keep ourselves in check, whether we could have evolved a sense of right and wrong, and so on.
The objection most frequently raised by defenders of faith to atheism and atheists is that there can be no morality without religion. One of the more disturbing recent secularist trends is a compulsion to answer that silly argument, in an effort to prove to the world of faith that we are as capable of goodness as everyone else. This strikes me as the moral and intellectual equivalent of gays feeling obliged to prove that they can be faithful lovers or African-Americans knocking themselves out to show that they are not anti-white racists. Who gave straights, or whites, the right to set themselves up as arbiters of behavior and morality? Why should atheists assign a similar power to religious believers?
I was stunned the first time I was asked, by a right-wing radio talk show host attacking my Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004), what would prevent me from committing murder if I did not believe in God. I answered truthfully, because I had never been asked such a question before, that it had never even occurred to me to murder anyone. I will never respond to such an insulting question again.
It really is an insulting question. Why should non-belief in a higher power immediately put a person in the position of having to defend their character?
I certainly see ample evidence that humans–at least as soon as they become aware of the existence of other humans–manifest a kind of empathy that predates maxims like the Golden Rule, which appear in one form or another in all decent ethical systems. Darwin called this the “instinct of sympathy,” which he described as something that cannot be checked “even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.”
But it is equally true that humans are subject to selfish impulses capable of inflicting great evil. And history offers ample evidence that neither religious nor civil law has proved particularly effective at quelling the worst of these impulses. A Hitler, to use another unambiguous example, is unhindered by the laws of God or man and, at some point, has to be removed from the human landscape by brute force. And here is where someone will contend that Hitler did what he did because he was an atheist, and where I could respond that Torquemada did what he did during the Inquisition because he was a Christian. (In fact, the latter’s Christianity is much more certain than the former’s atheism. Every member of the Wehrmacht wore a belt buckle with the motto, “God With Us.”) There are people in every society, subscribing to every sort of belief system, who turn out to be monsters.
Asking whether atheists are good is not the right question, neither is asking whether people of faith are good. An individual’s behaviour should be the determining factor in whether or not they are a good person, and the real question should be “what leads people within both groups to choose one path over another.”
It is time for atheists to stop trying to prove what there is no need to prove: that they are as good as people whose religion began with a father’s willingness to kill his only son at God’s behest or with the crucifixion of a man-God. For goodness sake, let us look to the only real evidence of good and evil in the world–our behavior and its consequences.
What do you think?