The Morality of Atheism
That there is a difference between religion and morality is uncontroversial. How can atheism be interpreted as a moral alternative? Although religion and morality reflect different values, they are deeply tangled for most individuals. In many cases, a person’s moral principles are grounded in religious commitments. In other cases, people find the source of morality outside of religion, such as the inherent value of all human beings. My central claim is that atheism rather than a theologically based value system offers the moral high ground.
Theism is defined as the belief in a God or Gods. The term theism is sometimes used to designate the belief in a particular kind of god the personal God of monotheism but, theism signifies the belief in any god or number of Gods. The prefix a means without, so the term, a-theism literally means without theism, or without belief in a God or Gods. Atheism, therefore, is the absence of theistic belief. One who does not believe in the existence of a God or supernatural being is properly designated as an atheist.
Atheism is sometimes defined as the belief that there is no God of any kind, or the claim that a God cannot exist. While these are categories of atheism, they do not exhaust the meaning of atheism, and they are somewhat misleading with respect to the basic nature of atheism. Atheism, in its basic form, is not a belief it is the absence of belief. An atheist is not primarily a person who believes that a god does not exist; rather, he does not believe in the existence of a God.
What propels people toward atheism is above all a sense of revulsion against the excesses and failures of organized religion. Atheism is ultimately a worldview of fear a fear, often merited, of what might happen if religious maniacs were to take over the world.
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good. (Psalms 14.1)
This passage captures the essence of how the average religious person views atheism. Atheism is probably the least popular and least understood philosophical position in America today. It is often approached with fear and mistrust, as if one were about to investigate a doctrine that advocates a wide assortment of evils from immorality, pessimism and communism to outright nihilism.
The principal problem with a divinely-based moral system is most obvious with respect to religious fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalists typically claim that there is one universally true religion and only one path to salvation. Christian, Jews, Muslims and others have taken this exclusivist position. The underlying difficulty is there is simply no rational justification for preferring one religion to another. All religions are based on faith, that is, a subjective feeling reflecting a personal preference. If faith is the basis for one’s religious beliefs, then no one religion has any greater claim to truth than another. But from the standpoint of the fundamentalist, articles of faith are magically transformed into universal truths.
When religious certainty is at the core of one’s world view, it is difficult to consider the possibility that one’s judgments are fallible. As a result, religious fundamentalism provides a breeding ground for arrogance, hatred, and intolerance. The Muslim fundamentalists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 believed they were involved in a Jihad, an inward spiritual struggle to attain perfect faith, and that their God would reward them with eternal life. Christian fundamentalist such as, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, faults the terror attacks on feminism, homosexual behavior and the American Civil Liberties Union. Jewish settlers in Israel claim land in the Gaza Strip belongs to the Jewish people based solely on their biblical interpretations. History has shown that religious differences have been at the heart of numerous disputes for centuries, and that countless thousands have been killed in the name of the Christian God, Muslim God, or Jewish God.
Religious fundamentalism builds walls between people given the perception that God will reward only a select group. According to Christian fundamentalists, for example, if Osama Bin Laden finds Jesus, then their God will reward Bin Laden with eternal life. That same God will condemn Mother Theresa, Muhammad Ali, Mahatma Gandhi and other honorable men and women to eternal damnation. Is that the judgment of a loving and compassionate God? Does a fair and just God place greater value on a few simple religious beliefs as opposed to the value of living a noble life? A noble life is best explained by interpreting if a person will be better off if they believe in God or if the have no religious beliefs at all. If your God is compassionate and just, then the path to salvation will be open to all. Bigotry and prejudice are moral evils, whether masked in racial, ethnic, or religious antics.
Atheists, instead, could base their moral ideals in humanism, that is, a philosophy that stresses the inherent value of all human beings. The humanist perspective commands respect for all individuals regardless of their religious or political preferences. Secular humanism condemns the elitist tendency of religious ideologues. There is no rational basis for asserting that one religion is better than another. Theologians have attempted to justify their religious preferences based on an appeal to the bible. Which bible are theologians speaking of? Does the Old Testament, New Testament, or Koran have any greater claim to truth? From a moral standpoint, atheists and humanists can avoid these complex, unanswerable questions. All human beings have moral worth regardless on whether or not there is one true God. Every human’s moral standpoint comes from a particular person, whether it is a parent or God.
Additionally, atheists are more likely to act from pure motives. Atheists are likely to be motivated to do what is right simply because it is right, and not because of some ulterior motive. There is no need to create fictions for the purpose of moral motivation and to do what is right because one wants to avoid punishment, whether the punishment take the form of incarceration or eternal damnation. The right thing is for honorable people to act for the sake of a reward, whether that reward is worldly or otherworldly. Moreover, a God who will forgive any and all sins does more to promote wrong acts than any secular philosophy. Atheists can avoid these pitfalls since they typically embrace the principle that virtue is its own reward.
However, religion can and does play a meaningful role in many lives. A great number of individuals lead a morally good life precisely because of their religious commitments. A deeply ingrained personal faith can provide one with the strength to face hardship and overcome adversity. Hope thrives for those who believe an in an omniscient and all-powerful God, but God and religion are form a necessity to act righteously. Believers and nonbelievers need to work together to live up to the highest moral standards for society to survive as a whole.