In my recent speech at the Reason Rally, I closed with a rather cryptic suggestion that I wanted us all to be bad without god. I couldn’t expand on it there — I was right down to the wire in my 15 minute time slot — but I can explain myself here. I’ve been feeling a bit bugged by the common “good without god” campaign, and I’ve been thinking about what it means.
On a glib and superficial level, I sympathize with its intent. Atheists have a bad rep, and the general public thinks we’re all amoral, corrupt monsters who reject god so that we don’t have to be held accountable for our wild drug-snorting, baby-chomping gay sex orgies. It’s a false stereotype; most atheists are indistinguishable from their Christian neighbors and make many of the same ethical choices they do. So a campaign that emphasizes that atheists are also good citizens and cheerfully socialized human beings is a good thing.
But sometimes the pendulum swings too far the other way. Announcing that atheists are “good” is a repudiation of our actual goals, which are subversive. We aim to change the culture. By the definitions of the people we’re trying to reach with that slogan, we’re actually very, very bad. So here are a few of my objections, and why in principle I can’t say any longer that I’m “good without god”.
“Good” is an over-used and generic word; the only word worse would have been to declare that we are nice without god. It’s so vague and context-dependent that it is meaningless: tell Rick Santorum “be good!” and he’ll make a speech declaring women to be ambulatory ovaries, slaves to their husbands; tell me “be good!”, and I’ll be thinking about a weekend of beer and sex and heresy. And I suspect that every one of my readers has a completely different vision of what goodness involves.
The implication of “good” is thorough conformity. Has challenging an authority figure ever fit the definition of being good? When abolitionists broke the law by smuggling slaves into Canada, when suffragettes picketed to demand the vote, when Stonewall erupted and Martin Luther King marched, when students protested the war in Viet Nam, were they being “good” in the general public’s understanding of the term? I don’t think so. They were being very, very naughty. Which was good. See what I mean? It’s an empty word that offers nothing but vague reassurances.
It gets worse. We’re addressing the misconceptions of Christians by telling them we’re good, but many Christians have a specific understanding of goodness: it’s defined by their religion. Being good involves obeying the laws of their faith, of heeding the rules that their god uses to determine whether you get into heaven. Do you obey the ten commandments? Do you believe in Jesus? We overtly and explicitly reject the rules: by their definition, we aren’t good at all. They see our claim to be “good without god” as a contradiction in terms that proves that we’re bad.
Yet I can still see myself as “good” because my definition of the word doesn’t involve obedience or blind loyalty or acceptance; it’s all about integrity, honesty, principles, questioning, independence. Try replacing “good” with any of those words — it becomes more accurate, but it also loses the blandly reassuring quality that is intended.
And that’s really my big problem with the phrase: I don’t want to be reassuring to people whose awful bogosity I oppose. I want to provoke and challenge, I want to change the status quo, I want to tear down the gooey conventionality of morality and narrow standards of public behavior. I want us all to mock and laugh at public professions of piety. I want to change how people think, and I want people to reject the absurd claim that our morality is founded on an odious holy book. If you want to have a wild weekend of sex and drugs and rock and roll, as long as you don’t hurt anyone, I will say, “good for you.” If your weekend is spent as an escort at an abortion clinic, if you spend it lobbying for separation of church and state at your Capitol, if you spend it heckling homophobes, good.
Nobody ever changed the world by being complacent, obedient, pleasant, or “good”. Atheists intend to change the world. Therefore, atheists should be as bad as they can be…productively, aggressively, happily bad.