Nonbelief and mainstream values

There is a lot of prejudice toward religious nonbelievers in many parts of the United States; indeed, throughout much of the world. We’re not trusted. One of the first questions we face is whether we can be moral — after all, even if perchance we might behave decently, what possible basis can we have for such behavior? What keeps us from cheating if no one else, not even the gods, are watching? Open skepticism brings a burden of social mistrust.

So we get pissed off. It’s bad enough that devout believers live in a dreamworld overshadowed by gods and demons, heaven and hell. We then endure the much more consequential irrationality of people thinking that refraining from rape and murder, paying your taxes, and being a decent and trustworthy person is tied up with the world of prayer, attending services, and public acknowledgment of supernatural beliefs.

One way to respond is to insist that the nonreligious are as committed to mainstream values as anyone: that we uphold hard work, charity, responsibility, families, and community as much as churchgoers and Quran-reciters. David Niose reviews a Ralph Nader book in the latest Humanist, saying

If progressives and humanists have have failed to connect with mainstream America’s traditional values, Nader shows that it isn’t because progressive and humanist values are inconsistent with Main Street. On the contrary, it’s because progressives and humanists have failed to demonstrate the consistency between their values and the mainstream.

I’m not sure about this. This “consistency” seems to me to overlook much that I would consider small-minded, tribalistic, and socially conservative that is as integral to mainstream values as anything “progressive.” Do we really want to perceived as so mainstream as to include all that?

Sometimes arguments that nonbelievers should not be socially excluded paint a picture of religious skeptics as being virtually identical to their average devout neighbor in all social respects, except that they happen not to attend weekly services. And especially in a religiously pluralist society where people attend different services, it should be especially clear that non-participation in all religion is as morally irrelevant as non-attachment to any particular congregation. Fair enough, but are nonbelievers, statistically speaking, really so similar to the devout in relevant respects? And again, do we want to be so similar? After all, religious skeptics often approach moral questions from a different perspective compared to that of a believer. We might have some broad areas of agreement — no one is debating rape and murder here — but being free of supernaturalism may well lead nonbelievers to think and behave differently in many respects. Indeed, it seems obvious that this is so. Moreover, a prime reason for skeptics to criticize supernatural religion outside of narrow intellectual circles is the conviction that a more secular approach to morality would be socially desirable. In that case, what we want is not bland acceptance into mainstream society but more: also to be recognized as people who bring a legitimate point of view to wider social negotiations about moral matters.

There is a parallel here to the struggle over gay rights. One common argument for wider social tolerance of homosexuality is that sexual orientation is not a morally relevant trait, and therefore, for example, a gay couple should be able to marry and hold down a job and attain suburban respectability as well as their heterosexual counterparts. Indeed, some advocates of gay rights take care to present themselves as mainstream as possible and even resent more flamboyant representatives of gay culture. Finding acceptance, they think, will be helped by limiting seuxal radicalism, emphasizing monogamy and the ability of gays to be socially non-threatening. But a serious argument against such assimilation to mainstream values points out that homosexuals are trying to achieve liberation. The point is to retain dangerous notions such as sexuality oriented toward pleasure and not confined to conservative and reproductive concerns. Flamboyant gay pride parades assert one’s presence and voice as people with little in common with mainstream sexual culture, demanding that such sexual radicalism can take its place in the sun without GLBTetc people being subjected to beatings, job loss, harrassment, etc. etc.

I think there are some parallels here with the debate over religion and mainstream values. Right now, religiosity is very often part of the mainstream conception of morality. Displays of costly supernatural commitments is an important aspect of how people signal that they are integrated into a moral community and are trustworthy in general. This is a problem. If we are skeptical about the supernatural, at a minimum we want to be able to find other ways to signal that we merit trust. At the very least, we do not want to be treated as pariahs. But we should not, I think, be compelled to do this at the cost of sacrificing our distinct moral perspectives.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • CyberKitten

    I have always found the ‘argument’ that non-theists cannot be truely moral to be very irritating at best. Morality does not and indeed cannot come from God. Morality is based on choice. We chose to be good or bad. Without that choice we cannot be held responsible for our actions. A ‘Command Morality’ from books such as the Bible takes away our moral choice. When the options are to act as God tells us to act to burn in Hell for all eternity – what kind of choice are we honestly making?

    Morality based on terror is not morality. Theists seem to forget that philosophers have been considering Morality & Ethics since before the invention of writting. Atheists can (and do) draw on this human expertise gathered over the millennia to help them make informed moral decisions.

    It is not, and nor has it ever been, a choice between theistic morality and…. nothing. There have always been other options to consider.

  • Mentis

    We live in an interesting time period. We are essentially neither here nor there in terms of religion. In some places, you’d be virtually shunned for being an atheist. In others, you’d be scoffed at for your religious beliefs. Granted, you’d be more likely to find yourself in the former position, but the point remains.

    This is a transitional phase in society and culture. The younger generations are more and more inclined to be atheist, while the older generations are still more likely to hold some sort of religious values. In any case, religion is being watered down, at least in liberal countries.

    We can think of ourselves as being in an awkward phase where society is trying to rediscover itself in the presence of prevalent atheism. The social evolution of humanity is deeply entwined with religious and superstitious beliefs. All of our morality comes from religious principles at one point or another. The fact that religion and morality are so often used interchangeably shouldn’t really be a surprise. It is to be expected. In a few generations,I suspect there will be a more rational basis for morality. But as of now, all we can do is either endure the gradual evolution of society or become proponents of an accelerated change. If you’re for the latter, I’m with you.

  • CyberKitten

    Mentis said: All of our morality comes from religious principles at one point or another.

    [sigh]. Erm… No it doesn’t.

    There has been a *very* long and distinguished history of non-religious ethical philosophy going back to Greco-Roman times. There are also the great ethical thinkers of the Enlightenment to consider.

    Morality and religion (though sometimes *used* interchangably) are most definitely not one and the same thing. A move to a more secular outlook does not mean a decline in morality – though it almost inevitably means a shift in emphasis.

  • Mentis

    This is true, but the point still holds. So much of morality can be traced back to religion that they are often related to each other. That’s not necessarily how it should be, but it is what it is. The movement towards secularism hasn’t gotten to the point where you can effectively separate religion and morality. When I say this, I mean in society in general, not in specific cases such as in the atheist community.

  • RubySera Martin

    Religion and morals may be related, but I think it’s the other way around than you suggest, mentis. No matter what species of living entities you look at–whether animal, insect, other creeping, swimming, hopping, and flying things, or human–every last one of them has means by which to ensure the survival of the species. Exceptions occur in the case where unprecedented powers of the predator are exerted as when humans hunt a certain animal practically to extinction for its fur or ivory.

    I find it quite easy to see a relationship between the ensurance of survival of the species and morals and religion. Human moral codes have for their basis nothing other than ensuring the survival of the species. Since there is no higher aim for humanity than to retain its species alive for one more generation, it logically follows that the principles by which survival is retained are sacred.

    When something is sacred, you have to pass it on to posterity. To ensure that it is remembered and passed on, rhyme and ritual and ceremony are very helpful. Is any of this reminiscent of religion???

    Of course, it helps if stories are attached to the rhymes and rituals and ceremonies–stories that drive home the absolute need to live in a certain way, stories that show what happens when humans fail to “keep the commands.” I think it’s far more complicated than this but it makes sense in my mind that morals pre-exist religion. And they don’t die with religion, either, because–well–wouldn’t we hate seeing our species head into extinction? If this is rather hard to conceptualize, just imagine that you were the youngest human being alive on planet earth and that chances for you or your generation to have kids are zero.

    So that might prove the connection between morals and religion, but how do we prove that morals have as their basis the survival of the species? I’m trying to think of an example that would not lead to strife in short order and I can’t think of a single one.

    Whether it is to say hi when you meet a friend on the street or to drive on a specific strip of roadway, blatant and intentional violation has a pretty high level of leading to strife on some level or another. It is probably not necessary to explain the relationship between strife and the potential annihilation of our species. Thus, religious or not, we’re going to be moral.

    Perhaps the nonreligious have more reason to be moral than the religious. The religious can always trust God to somehow or other prevent annihilation. Those of us who are nonreligious know what a major roles we play as individuals to make this world the kind of place that is species-friendly.

  • Zimri

    Taner linked: “small-minded, tribalistic, and socially conservative”.

    The problem here is that “morals”, to most people who haven’t had a full classical education, means traditional morality. A follower of morality from tradition is by definition conservative.

    (And you lose a dozen pundit points for using the word “social” as a modifier. If I were your teacher I would ruler-slap your fingers for that.)

    As long as the public face of atheism is one which dismisses “conservatives”, in any way, as “small-minded and tribalistic”, conservatives are going to distrust atheists as Robespierres: seeking to replace their time-tested morality with your own, which is highly unlikely to be any improvement from their perspective.

    If you care about (actual) morals as much as you care about the negative press you (deservedly) get for saying amoral things: what is needed is not the discrediting of traditional morality; but the decoupling of traditional morality from shamanism.

  • Ken

    I also disagree with the claim that “All of our morality comes from religious principles at one point or another.”
    Surely its the other way around. Humanity in its natural and social evolution developed values and morals. These were always relative and developing. However, they were passed on in the stories, mythology and superstitions of people. A mechanisms for this was the religious or other ethical organisations people had. Sometimes these were theist, sometimes not, but probably always superstitious.
    The values came first, the religions and their dogmas came later.

  • Deacon

    I can agree that a non-theist can behave as morally as a theist. I believe the questions rests in “is there an absolute truth?”. If a non-theists morality/values is based on society than that is what worries me. Not every atheist does but for those that do I’m curious what happens if society changes the status quo?
    If truth is not absolute than how do we argue issues of slavery, segregation, sexism, etc. as being immoral? And if truth is absolute than what would you base that truth on because if you base it on something subjective i.e. personal convictions than it is once again relative? If you base it on laws than it’s subject to change. I’m not here to debate but just to gain a better understanding. Discourse may be needed though.

  • wjcore

    Isn’t it ironic that even with a world of evidence to suggest their moral basis is at best shaky theists have no problem claiming atheists have no basis at all for morality?

    If their religious based morality is so far above reproach then someone should explain why there continue to be so many amoral acts committed not only by the religious but in the name of religion.

  • Ryan

    I think that the one question that is missing is why? Why are non-theists moral? without a god or religion to support and back a morality, how can a non-theist be moral? What would that morality be based off of? It was said that morality based off our choices of good and bad. but what really determins good or bad if their is nothing to base one’s morals off of. Should not people live lives free of morals whatsoever? There is no standard of morality so why even worry about being moral.

    Therefore, I am the most important being in the universe in my eyes and everything i do should be done with my own interests in mind. Who really cares about what happens to other people if there is no real backing for a morality. But, obviously, people do care about others and the “right” and “wrong” choices we make. so then, where does the morality behind these choices and feelings come from if there is no god or religious truth. What really is true? — Nothing as far as i can see. So again, who cares about morality? I would love responses.