Atheists Are Moral: Why It Matters

In the aftermath of the recent Virginia Tech shootings, the lowest and most contemptible specimens of religious fundamentalism have been crawling out of the woodwork to blame atheism for this horrible tragedy, without presenting a shred of evidence. I castigated some of these vile fanatics in my previous post, but since then, yet more of them have come to light. A Load of Bright points out another one, a deceitful and arrogant apologist named Steven Grant:

The shooter at Virginia Tech was a madman. However, he had also been raised on a solid diet of secular humanism which teaches no moral absolutes. “If it feels good, do it,” is one of the many mantras he ingested. Consequently he did what felt good, and innocent people died as a result.

Grant’s piece contains the comical assertion that David Barton – whose major pastime is promoting fabricated quotes from America’s founding fathers to support his anti-religious-freedom viewpoint – is “perhaps the nation’s leading historian”, and goes downhill from there. After the standard lies about prayer being “banned” from public schools, which seems to be obligatory nowadays in the writings of every religious fanatic unconcerned with the truth, it culminates in the atrocity quoted above.

This attempt to extract a trite Sunday-school moral from the rampage of a psychopath is all too typical of the breed. Grant neither possesses nor offers any evidence whatsoever in support of this claim beyond his own fantasies. Cho-Seung Hui never claimed to be an atheist or a secular humanist, nor has anyone who knew him said he was. In the video rant he taped, he actually compared himself to Jesus Christ. But when have inconvenient things like facts ever stopped a religious right partisan from exploiting tragedy in an attempt to inspire everyone else to hate whom they hate?

In tone and in substance, rhetoric like this differs in no significant way from that of the rotted, hate-mongering lunatic Fred Phelps, who travels around the country with his clan of like-minded believers to picket and scream abuse at the funerals of AIDS victims, American soldiers, and all others who in his eyes have sinned against God. Phelps is unapologetic about his ghoulish desire for self-aggrandizement through deepening the wounds of those already in pain. (I have to admit, though I steadfastly oppose laws that would ban “hate speech”, I find my allegiance to that principle sorely tested by his actions.) D’Souza, Parsley, Ham, Grant and all the rest may be slightly less gleeful than Phelps, but in their callous desire to score self-promotion through the exploitation of tragedy, they are all one and the same.

As readers can probably tell, I’m more than a little tired of being told I have no morals just because I’m an atheist. That is a brazen and deceitful falsehood long overdue for the burial it deserves. As I have explained, along with many others, atheist morality is based on the human sense of compassion and on our rational ability to determine what ways of acting will create the most happiness and justice and allow people to live together most harmoniously. This is a simple, obvious ethical standard that is in no way dependent on the edicts of holy books or the dubious commands claimed to emanate from God.

If religious apologists were aware of this philosophy and clearly explained why they disagree with it, that would be one thing. I have no fear of fair criticism. But that is not what they are doing. Instead, they are pretending that this alternative does not exist, that atheists have never stated a basis for non-religious morality. In other words, they are lying. That, more than anything else – the dishonest refusal to acknowledge that atheists do have an alternative basis for moral action – is what I find so infuriating.

But this is not just about outrage or wounded pride among atheists; it matters for a far more important reason. If people believe that atheists have no morals, they will be far more likely to believe the corollary that usually goes along with this message: since religious leaders do have access to an absolute morality based on God, this means they are decent and trustworthy people. And when people believe that, that leads to stories like this (HT, Atheist Revolution):

A six-month investigation was unfolded Friday night on ABC’s 20/20 which found “preacher predators” all over the country and shielding themselves in churches.

Cases of clergy members molesting and abusing children are sickeningly common, as groups like the the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests testify. As Vjack points out, this is very likely because priests and ministers, of every denomination, are often viewed by church members as the epitome of morality and trustworthiness. Their behavior is too often considered to be above question or reproach, in a way that other professions such as schoolteachers or coaches are not. This belief is a direct descendant of the more general religious belief that God’s ways are not for human beings to question or criticize. That wholly undeserved cloak of infallibility may also end up being applied to those who claim to be God’s servants and to speak in his name.

The naive trust that religious authorities all too often receive also plays into the epidemic of faith-based fraud, which I discussed in a post from February. Tightly-knit religious communities are magnets for scammers and fraudsters, many of them in positions of authority within the community, who exploit the credulity and unquestioning trust of lay members to get away with all manner of theft and deceit.

This is why it matters that atheists are moral. Too many theists believe that the world outside their religious community is rife with sin and cannot be trusted, and conversely, that everyone within those sacred walls should be given the presumption of trust and good will. If it were widely known that atheists had reasons to be good that were every bit as strong as the reasons offered by believers, that would break the perceived link between religion and morality that has facilitated the commission of so many crimes.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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