Standing on Air

Despite endless reiterations of how atheists find justification for morality, we all routinely hear from apologists who claim that without believing in God, we can have no basis for ethical behavior. That’s one thing, but today I want to discuss a far stranger and more disturbing variant of this argument.

Regardless of whether we agree about the existence of God, you would think that atheists and believers would agree that good behavior should be encouraged. You would think that a religious evangelist would say to an atheist, “I may not understand how you can justify acting ethically, but I’m glad you do and I hope you continue treating others with kindness and doing good deeds.” But often, that’s not what we get. Instead, we see apologists not just scorning the idea that atheists can have moral principles, but actively trying to convince us that we should be evil!

Consider three recent examples from comment threads on Daylight Atheism:

Why is the next step [after becoming an atheist] to treat others with kindness? We don’t have to do that at all. If there’s no God telling us to be kind, then I say its survival of the fittest. I should oppress as many as possible to make my own position better. (source)

You have nothing but your own mind, a clump of chemicals, to judge the actions of another clump of chemicals. It’s like a dog judging the way a cat runs his life, or Uranus criticizing the orbit of Pluto. It’s ridiculous, incoherent nonsense. If you were consistent, you would just shut your mouths and do whatever pleases you at any moment, and not criticize when someone else did what pleases them…. (source)

Nonetheless, why do you even care about this? As atheists I would think that survival of the fittest at any cost would be acceptable. You have no accountability to anything. Truth and right is subjective in your eyes, so why is scamming a few suckers so bad? (source)

One might assume that the apologists engage in this bizarre behavior because they want us to conform to their stereotype of atheists as selfish, amoral nihilists – making it easier for them to frighten others away from joining us. And I think, at least in some cases, there’s truth to that. The atheist movement is a convenient scapegoat for religious preachers who blame every evil in the world on our wickedness. There’s nothing like a good atheist-bashing sermon to get the congregation reliably riled up, and if we persist in doing good deeds, helping people, and being productive citizens, it’s going to make things very awkward for the sermon-writers (especially since it’s no longer socially acceptable to bash the previous scapegoat du jour).

However, I think the real roots of this behavior go deeper. Religious evangelists aren’t just calling atheists immoral because it’s on their list of talking points. I think most of them truly believe it: it’s an article of faith for them, a cornerstone of their worldview. And when they see that expectation violated, it induces a profound and frightening feeling of cognitive vertigo that they’ll try to cure by any means possible.

Imagine you were walking along the rim of a high cliff when you saw someone, a dozen paces beyond the edge, apparently standing on thin air with no visible means of support. Most likely, you wouldn’t placidly accept this. Wouldn’t you be stunned, amazed, terrified? Wouldn’t you cry out that this was impossible? Wouldn’t you demand, “Why don’t you fall?”

Just so is the situation with religious apologists encountering ethical atheists. They believe, because they’ve been taught to believe, that belief in God is vital and necessary both to provide moral guidance to individuals and also to hold the fabric of society together. They believe that humans are inherently sinful and that only God provides a moral law that can check our selfish impulses. Thus, the conclusion that atheists have no morals isn’t just a claim of no consequence; it’s a link in the chain of interconnected assumptions that constitutes their worldview. It’s something that, as far as they’re concerned, has to be true.

No wonder, then, that they react so strongly when they see atheists who are moral. Their missives betray not just anger and denial – the usual response to someone whose worldview is threatened – but maybe even a hint of fear. (“Why do you even care about this?” has more than a hint of pleading, doesn’t it?) After all, an argument that God doesn’t exist or that the Bible contains contradictions is a worldview threat that most Christians are familiar with, and they have well-rehearsed apologetics to soothe their own minds. But the discovery that atheists are moral is something they can’t dismiss as easily; it just doesn’t fit into their worldview. (Some apologists employ the face-saving gambit of claiming that even if atheists are moral, it’s only because we’re unknowingly following the law of God written in our hearts – but this amounts to much the same thing, and in any case this claim tends to evaporate when we point out how our morals lead us to conclusions that differ from what’s written in their holy books.)

And as a consequence, we see claims that boil down to, “If I were in your position, I’d be evil and selfish! Why aren’t you?” It’s the same intellectual anguish we’d experience upon seeing someone standing on thin air: “If I were in your position, I’d be plummeting to the ground! What’s keeping you up?” It’s the shock of someone confronted with what they believe cannot exist, the existential dizziness induced by trying desperately to explain the inexplicable. In a way, a good and moral atheist is far more threatening to them than any kind of intellectual argument against God. A committed theist can use faith to overcome any evidence or reason used against them, but they can’t use faith to wish us away. But they clearly wish they could, which is what leads to the bizarre spectacle of apologists trying to persuade us to do evil.

Of course, the existence of a moral atheist isn’t inexplicable in general. It’s only inexplicable to people who start with the presupposition that believing in God is the only possible source of morality. To atheists who have moral principles, the answer is clear enough: we’re motivated not by the fear of divine punishment, but by the emotional experience of the unpleasantness of suffering, coupled with the intellectual realization that the world is populated by other human beings who probably feel the same way. Our morality, in other words, arises from reason blended with compassion, and when you try it, it turns out to be a perfectly workable basis. We’re not standing on air after all, but on good solid ground – it’s just that it’s invisible to the apologists who’ve convinced themselves that it can’t exist. If they’d open their eyes and their minds, they’d see it for themselves, and maybe even consider stepping out onto it and exploring it with us.

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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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