You would think Yale would attract a smarter class of stude…oh, wait. I forgot what famous Yalies have risen to power in this country. OK, maybe it’s not surprising that a Yale freshman would raise the tired canard of the “amoral atheist”.
Recent years have seen an influx of anti-religious publications in the Western world, as well as a growing audience for such publications. From Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” to Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great,” anti-theistic works have poured into bookstores as atheists in the United States and elsewhere have taken on a more strident tone in public discourse. Unfortunately, their approach has been one characterized more by noisy rhetoric than reasoned arguments, and they have particularly failed in their attempt to present a coherent system of morality that in no way rests on a belief in the supernatural.
Of course, Christians and other theists have raised the objection that naturalistic materialism — the notion that only the physical world exists — can provide no foundation for morality. That’s not to say that naturalists cannot behave morally, but merely that they can have no real and consistent reason for behaving morally. As this has been a long-standing and widespread objection to naturalism, it would seem only reasonable to expect atheists to devote careful attention to the question of morality.
This notion that morality is a reason to believe is a common thread to many religious apologetics, as is its complement, that atheism doesn’t provide a moral rationale. In part, I agree: the simple statement that the world exists does not state how we should act within it, and the fact that the universe is godless does not dictate standards of human behavior. But then, neither would the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient god.
My atheism is complete. When I am afraid, I do not cry out to the Lord for protection; I don’t even feel the beginnings of a stirring to consider doing so. When I am in despair, I don’t find solace in the rituals of the church or in the belief that there is a Great Being who is concerned for me. When life goes well for me (and there’s no denying that my life has been good so far), I do not feel grateful to Zeus, and I don’t see any point to burning a hecatomb to him, and I don’t even dedicate a drop of wine to the lares and penates. I feel that transcendant sense of awe ascribed to religious feeling regularly, but no god inspires it — it’s more likely to be triggered by a molecule, some music, a book, or an organism of one phylum or another.
Yet, somehow, without even a hint of god-belief, not the slightest dread of hell, nor the least bow of respect to any god, I somehow ended up a moral person in the most conventional sense — I don’t steal or cheat, I do not desire to murder, I honor my parents, I’m not particularly covetous, I have been happily faithful to my one and only wife for 27 years, I don’t smoke or do drugs at all, I only drink in moderation, and aside from a few weird obsessions, have been pretty much a boring Ward Cleaver all of my life. Except for the silly handful at the beginning, I am following most of the Ten Commandments…and seem to be doing so more faithfully than some of the more sanctimonious Christians I’ve met.
I don’t say this with any intent to brag — I don’t see myself as a better person than a divorced pot-smoking gay man with a lust for Porsches (which also does not imply a lack of morality), for instance, and suspect that my casual acceptance of simple bourgeois values makes me a little less interesting as an individual — but only to point out that I’m pretty much a perfect match to the image of the Christian paragon of family values … except for the god-worshipping, sabbath-keeping, tithing-to-the-church part. There is no god in my life, yet here I stand, a testimonial to the falsehood of any claim that godlessness leads to amorality.
I also have three children of whom I am proud, who were brought up in the complete absence of church or even private expressions of faith … and they are smart, decent, industrious people with moral goals and a strong commitment to progressive ideals of equality and fairness.
Explain that, pious Christians.
I do have a real and consistent reason for behaving morally, it’s just one that doesn’t require a supernatural foundation. I was raised in a happy family, one that reinforced that conventionally ‘good’ behavior, and that rewarded appropriate social behavior. I lived with good role models who offered love without conditions, who taught by example rather than with fear or threats. I live now in a family and with a community of friends who do not demand obeisance to superstition in order to give respect. I am rewarded materially and emotionally for moral behavior.
That’s the recipe for building an environment that fosters moral behavior. It doesn’t involve gods or even belief in gods. It is completely independent of Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, or atheism. It works — religion is irrelevant to morality. The surest way to create moral individuals is to build a stable society where desirable behaviors are rewarded, and the hoop-jumping frivolities of religion are not a requirement to accomplish that. Atheism is not a requirement, either; the only virtue of atheism is that it can free people of dogma and tradition and allow them to work towards a better society without the pointless spectacle and distraction of one kind of irrational belief.