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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Blaming the Virginia Tech shootings on a philosophy that emphasises the dignity and worth of all people is nothing short of ludicrous. Does Steven Grant even know what “humanism” means? Personally, I would have thought emphasising that word and its true meaning would be one of the best ways to explain that atheists are usually moral!

  • Polly

    I was listening to Christian Radio as I often do on the commute home from work on Monday (old habits die hard). An ex-Mormon atheist called in to a talkshow, in response to questions about Mormon doctrines.
    The host boldly asserted that “you must be a moral relativist, then.” “You just believe in creating your own reality.”
    What really got to me was that I don’t think the young man on the other line really understood the discussion he was suddenly engaged in. He agreed that morality was a personal choice. When he started to realize (I think) that he was being accused of A-morality and living in a fantasy world of his own choosing because he was a relativist like Rousseau or Nietzsche (the radio host’s references not mine), the phone call was done before he could clearly state his views.
    It’s bad enough when Xians promote that image, but what can you do when other atheists seem unable to explain their position? That’s why I’m glad you, Ebon, discuss morality so much. It IS important and even atheists need to know how to articulate their basis for morality or to even realize they have one.

    As for Phelps, he’s a great test-case for our commitment to civil liberties. Speech, to the extent it doesn’t directly prompt lethal actions, should be completely free. I fear the day that merely expressing my views in public could land me in jail or worse – and for that reason, I also fear ultra “liberalism” just as much as theocrats.

  • Amissio

    I’m just sick of how everyone is using the Virginia Tech tragedy in general. I missed the news on whether Phelps went to any of the funerals – I heard that he was planning to, but did he?

    Well written.

  • http://mcv.planc.ee mcv

    According to my knowledge of the cristian morals (love your naber as yourself and the positive form of the Golden Rule) you can follow the cristian morals and be an atheist.

    And on the point of atheists lacking absolute morals…well all power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.

  • anti-nonsense

    As for Phelps, he’s a great test-case for our commitment to civil liberties. Speech, to the extent it doesn’t directly prompt lethal actions, should be completely free. I fear the day that merely expressing my views in public could land me in jail or worse – and for that reason, I also fear ultra “liberalism” just as much as theocrats

    I have to agree, I consider myself a liberal, but a lot of liberals appear to be obsessed with the idea that all opinions should be treated as “equal”, the fact is, all opinions are NOT worthy of equal attention. Some opinions are just plain WRONG (like creationism) and should not be treated as being “equal” to anything. Which doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be allowed to hold them or express them, but it means that people who don’t hold those opinions shouldn’t feel that they have to give consideration to those opinions. That kind of thinking is partially what has allowed creationists to get their nonsense taught as science. At a certain point you need to put your foot down and say “NO, that opinion is wrong and I’m not going to say that it deserves “equal consideration” because it doesn’t”.

  • http://thereisnobeep.blogspot.com heliobates

    It’s a good indicator of the intellectual (non)integrity of the conservatively religious, neh?

    Guilty of engineering false beliefs.

    Lets discuss sentencing ;o)

  • http://atheistself.blogspot.com David W.

    “I missed the news on whether Phelps went to any of the funerals – I heard that he was planning to, but did he?”

    Last I heard a radio station had offered him free airtime to preach his nonsense in exchange for him not going anywhere near Virginia Tech, and Phelps agreed. I haven’t heard confirmation that this was in fact what took place, though.

  • Alex

    Hmm, well, if atheism leads to moral relativism and therefore to kill-crazy rampages, it would be reasonable to assume that non-theists engage in such behavior more frequently than theists, no? I suppose that nobody reading this will need to be told that exactly the opposite is true.

    Gotta love that ‘clear light of reason’ stuff.

  • Vicki Baker

    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say “atheists can be moral?”

  • http://thereisnobeep.blogspot.com heliobates

    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say “atheists can be moral?”

    It’s “more accurate” to say that “atheists as a group are overwhelmingly morally normative”. Unless you have some statistical evidence which demonstrates that atheists commit a disproportionate amount of immoral or illegal acts. (See Alex’s link, above)

  • Alex

    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say “atheists can be moral?”

    No, actually, it would be slanderously misleading. To say that atheists ‘can be’ moral would be to imply that one would expect them not to be moral, all other things being equal. It, in fact, seems to connote a certain amount of surprise in the truth of the statement, similar to the implication of unexpectedness in the statement ‘criminals can be moral’ or ‘CEOs of large oil companies can be moral’. What I imagine Ebon is trying to get at is not that atheists can be moral under certain circumstances, but that most atheists do behave morally, all other things being equal; and therefore the assumption that atheists are generally immoral is a result of either bigotry or ignorance on the part of the person making that assumption. The propper reading (and, I would assume, the one that springs to mind most readily) of the sentence ‘atheists are moral’ is ‘most atheists are, all other things being equal, moral’. The title of this post needs no more apology than a sentence such as ‘Christians are moral’, or ‘the residents of Kelowna, British Colombia are friendly’.

  • Vicki Baker

    “Christians are moral” – doesn’t seem right either. How can group membership or a label guarantee morality? “Christian doctrine has a moral code” and “Atheism does not necessitate the lack of a moral code” would be accurate statements.

    I’ve known some Ayn Rand-influenced atheists who definitely would not agree that “atheist morality is based on the human sense of compassion.”

  • Alex

    “Christians are moral” – doesn’t seem right either. How can group membership or a label guarantee morality?

    It doesn’t. But Christians (people in general, in fact) are typically reasonably moral. Which is how that sentence should, and without other qualifiers usually is, interpreted.

    I’ve known some Ayn Rand-influenced atheists who definitely would not agree that “atheist morality is based on the human sense of compassion.”

    Okay.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    “Christians are moral” – doesn’t seem right either. How can group membership or a label guarantee morality?

    It doesn’t. Nevertheless, on the whole, I’m confident that most Christians are moral and decent people, just like most atheists are moral and decent people. As Alex said, the statement is meant to be a descriptive observation, not a normative pronouncement.

    I’ve known some Ayn Rand-influenced atheists who definitely would not agree that “atheist morality is based on the human sense of compassion.”

    They’re welcome to disagree with me if they want to. However, it doesn’t undermine my point that atheists most definitely do not lack a basis for ethical behavior, and it is extremely dishonest to claim otherwise.

  • Beth B

    I have found that when faced with the big morality debate (all of my encounters have been with Christians) I pose this question, “If it is indeed true that Christians far surpass Atheists in the moral department then why the need for confession, penance and forgiveness?” If they still want to debate it I continue with, “In your mind you have a ‘get out of hell free’ card that doesn’t expire. I don’t share that point of view and I have to live with myself and the repercussions of my actions, so I choose to avoid creating my own personal hell and do it as right as I can the first time around.”

    I chuckle as I type this, recalling a dinner one night at a quality restaurant with three other couples. A large part of the dinner conversation consisted of my husband and myself being questioned about our morals (or perceived lack there of) and how would we raise our children? What would we tell them? How would we instill any sense of morality in them? While waiting for the waiter to come back with the check, two of the couples decided that they wanted the salt and pepper shakers and proceeded to slip the shakers into one of the women’s purse. I politely smiled and stated that I was pretty sure that even my boys were familiar with ‘Thou shall not steal.’

  • James Bradbury

    @Beth,

    Nice story, I’ll keep your quotes in mind. :)

  • Alex

    A large part of the dinner conversation consisted of my husband and myself being questioned about our morals (or perceived lack there of) and how would we raise our children? What would we tell them? How would we instill any sense of morality in them? While waiting for the waiter to come back with the check, two of the couples decided that they wanted the salt and pepper shakers and proceeded to slip the shakers into one of the women’s purse.

    *sound of head making brisk contact with desk*

  • tommy

    Let’s remember the difference between morals and ethics, people. Morals are relative, ethics are not. I.E. Rape is moral if God commands it, but it is still unethical.

  • Alex Weaver

    I think the principal difference between “morals” and “ethics” is that “ethics” has the distinction of never being blemished by being hijacked to mean “throwing a tantrum over your neighbors having more, better, and diverser sex than you.”

  • sean

    I take comfort from the fact that if there is a god then these people (Grant et al) are certainly not destined to meet him at the pearly gates and if there isn’t, then they provide evidence to us for the potential malevolence of religiousity.

    Aside from that I feel sorry for anyone these people hurt and would hope that one day people will realise that freedom of speech should not be bourne without responsibity.

    Morality and ethics are by they nature relative and I will only be guided by my internal compass and secular law in judgement of myself. I refuse to judge others as I am not an expert in this field and defer to those better qualified (i.e. Judges) to do this on my behalf. I also refuse to moderate any behaviour that offends religious sensibilities (providing it is lawful), and do not consider how fundamentalists will view me when making decisions.

    My actions reflect on me and not on any beliefs or disbeliefs I have. One of the reasons I dislike organised religion is because of their attempt to control behaviours through spurious arguments. I do not see atheism or agnosticism or whatever I am as an organisised religion and as such refuse to prove my morality.

  • Alex Weaver

    sean, how does your philosophy deal with situations where the secular law permits or even mandates immoral behavior, or prohibits morally incumbent behavior (such as that one bill that would have made it a federal offense to transport a minor to another state to obtain an abortion without her parents’ permission…did that actually pass anywhere?)?


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