Trusting Atheists and Morality

A friend asked me recently about moral decisions and atheists. In particular, I was asked how an atheist should approach forgiveness. It lead to a discussion about morality, and how atheists are viewed by the rest of the world.

The answer was much shorter than our back and forth: Badly.

Personally, I live in Washington. If you want a place where you can be who you truly are, and not have to worry about being lynched, this is it. But I know not all of my brothers and sisters across the country, world even, are nearly as lucky. Heck, there is science that says so.

Let me summarize: No group of people are more distrusted than atheists. Not Muslims, even with usual foolish American overreaction. Not homosexuals, the people who are out to ruin Michelle Bachmann’s marriage, I assume using rainbows and stagecraft.

This seems like a trick right? No way if you ask a normal group of people would they choose rapists before trusting an atheist. But here in the US of A, the polls would say that just isn’t true. In fact, you can occasionally see signs of it in the media, in our celebrities.

Me, I know plenty of reasonable and kind religious people. They trust me, they know that what I believe about the nature of this world and the next doesn’t relate to me being a good person. But that doesn’t mean I feel free to tell anyone and everyone that I am an atheist. Because at the end of the day, I know there is that chance that they will use that fact to pass me up for the job, treat me like less than what I am, or talk down on me. I don’t need that, and not many people do.

So the topic at hand, morality and atheists. What does drive an atheist to be who they are, to make good decisions and bad? I imagine it is the same thing that drives every person, whether they believe it or not, society. As a human being, I do right because I believe in humanity, I believe that everyone around me is doing the same. Whether they are trying to make life better for their kin, for their friends, their coworkers, or in the odd situation of trying to help distant strangers, it is part of what it means to be human.

I guess, this is part of what it means to be an animal. That idea, being merely a creature, is one of those ‘final lines’ for most religious folk. To them, we are made by God, and therefore there is a grand plan for us, as intelligent beings. We have a set rule of morality, of intelligence, we have been created by a designer with big things in mind. So if we are animals, we would be baseless, instinctual, and our lack of Lord of the Rings level ‘chosen one’ status would mean we should all be dirty backstabbers who can’t even attempt at being civilized. Here, let me take this quote from Dr. John Lennox.

“Ideas have consequences and if we teach people that morality is an illusion, they will begin to believe it – many already have with the result that our institutions are awash with scandal, families are increasingly fractured, people are lonelier than ever, and trust is at an all time low.  We have sown a wind and are reaping a whirlwind.”

Unfortunately, morality as a hard-coded mystical list from an equally mystical mountain is an illusion. Now morality as a social construct, that is very real. The sort of morality you would find among relatively intelligent but still instinctual, animals. Darwinism is not something to build a philosophy on, as many fear, it is simply a fact of nature. We shouldn’t be worried that our best friends are going to stab us in the back if it could make them some extra cash. They care about us, and as part of their community it is important that our lives are lived well. As a species, we are about family, tribe, community. We want our community to do well, and yes we will do that at the expense of other communities, but no we aren’t all in it to punch babies and trip the blind.

But to the religious mind, the atheist is distrustful. Since the atheist doesn’t believe in divine punishment for their deeds, doesn’t think that they will fry in a terrible beyond for their transgressions, they cannot be trusted to do the right thing. Just ask Steve Harvey, we have no moral barometer.

Of course, if you ask me, having your hard-coded rule of morals set by a book 2000+ years old, a book that has more to say about stoning people than forgiving them, and you might have trouble reconciling that with our modern world. So they don’t, no one does. The books of the past stay in the past, and we usually work with piecemeal ideas of morality from our everyday experiences, based on the good we want to see happen to our friends and loved ones. I don’t kill because I want to see my family live, I don’t steal because my friends have worked hard for what they have, and I trust others because our communities need trust to survive.

Besides, no offense to Dr. Lennox, but it seems like a lot of those scandals were concocted by people who feared an almighty god.


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