I love it when readers ask me questions. For one thing, I haven’t been a theist in a long time, and sometimes I forget what it was like to have a totally different point of view. For another thing, I tend to write about things that are interesting to me at the moment. I get my inspiration from books I’m reading, news stories, or conversations with friends. Sometimes I forget that a lot of things are old hat to me, but are going concerns with new or part-time readers. So I was thrilled when Susan gave me a great question. It’s an oldie goldie, but only from the perspective of a seasoned atheist activist. I’m happy to try to answer one of the best questions out there:
I’ve known a lot of nonbelievers of a variety of faiths who have sent their children for religious education for the “moral grounding” and to understand the family’s religious history/tradition. I’ve also heard many people say, “What difference does it make? I’ll either know when I’m dead, or I won’t know that I don’t know.” There’s a certain logic to that – it begs the question, “What is the advantage of not believing?”
There are several great parts to this paragraph, and I need to take each one individually. First, as to the “moral grounding” of a religious education — science and philosophy say no.
First, all the evidence we have points squarely to atheists as equally morally capable when compared to theists. That is, all humans have exactly the same genetic history, and for practical purposes, exactly the same moral instincts. (There’s a great article on the science of human morality in the New York Times Online.) We’ve had strong indications in this direction for years. The famous Trolley Experiments showed us that regardless of cultural upbringing, humans have an innate sense of what kinds of acts are fair and which are not. More importantly, we have pretty well ingrained ideas on when it’s ok to kill another human and when it’s not — again, in terms of kinds of situations. (We’ll see in a minute why kinds of situations are far more functional than specific situations when discussing morality.)
Second, there is some compelling evidence that at least within Western Culture, atheists are actually more moral in some important ways. Atheists are startlingly under-represented in jail populations. They are more likely to stay married. And as many activists are quick to point out, never in the history of the world has any notable human killed other humans in the name of atheism.* Many of the world’s most generous philanthropists are atheists. Entire nations have primarily atheist populations, and for the most part, they are significantly more functional (moral) than America when it comes to violent crime, sexual crime, STD transmission, and shockingly, abortion. (That is, theists aren’t significantly more likely to carry to term than atheists, as far as we can tell.)
Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, theist morality is not an accurate representation of what human morality really is. If you haven’t read my article on the subject, you must read it (HERE) to have a full picture of just how impotent theism in general, and Christianity in particular, are at adding anything of substance to a discussion of morality. In a nutshell, it works like this:
- Attempts to categorize morality as lists of do’s and don’ts are doomed to failure. Morality is a value assessment of the meaning of actions, and as such, is necessarily dependent on act-specific variables. That is, for virtually any “immoral action” we can imagine (such as killing a child), we can imagine a scenario in which it would be the best option, and therefore, if not “good,” at least morally acceptable. That’s just the way morality is, and when religion teaches otherwise, it’s not contributing to any kind of better moral foundation.
- When religion teaches that morality is “instilled in man by God,” it is at once thwarting accurate scientific knowledge and setting up a paradox. We know now that morality exists in most social animals, in simpler forms. Our morality is different in degree from other animals, not kind. Furthermore, we can easily see that IF God did instill morality in man (and other animals), then this knowledge doesn’t add any real knowledge or guidance. We are still faced with the problem of trusting science or a religious leader. If we trust science, why are we bothering to add God? Occam’s razor instructs us otherwise. If we’re adding anything at all to science, then we are taking away from real scientific understanding. Perhaps far, far more dangerous, we are giving implicit support for the idea that there’s a good reason for including God in discussions of morality. This is the first step towards non-scientific proclamations about God’s will for our behavior.
So, to answer the first implicit question: Why not send your children to religious school for moral guidance? Because it doesn’t add any real moral guidance, it misrepresents our scientific understanding of morality, it implicitly suggests that there might be merit in religiously motivated moral dictates, and it might just make your children less moral than if they were raised without any religious overtones.** I should also add that religion is a lot like smoking. It’s really hard to find someone who has their first cigarette at 30. In the same way, it’s very rare to find someone raised “intellectually atheist” who adopts religion past adolescence. Keeping your child out of religious school is cutting down on their exposure to a meme you don’t believe. How bad can that be?
What Difference Does It Make? I’ll Know or Not When I’m Dead.
I hear this a lot. And in fairness, it’s a good question. Rather than take the tired approach of listing all the bad things religion has done, I want to come from another angle. Let’s look at the implicit claim in the question. If someone asks this question, what they are really claiming (whether they realize it or not) is that there is no difference between being theist or atheist. Think about it carefully. If it really, truly makes no difference at all — if us activists are wasting our time on a completely pointless endeavor, then we ought not be able to discern any difference whatsoever between theists and atheists.
I’d like to challenge this assumption on two levels.
- Personal – Can we really claim that with no influence of religious belief, there would be no difference whatsoever in individual behavior? We have the hot-button issues to begin with. Would the abortion rights debate look exactly the same if there were no religious convictions behind the anti-abortion lobby? Is there any scientific reason to attempt to deny abortions across the board? If there were no individuals in the country with religious convictions, would there be any reason to accommodate non-scientific abortion legislation? What about bigotry? I have used myself as an example many times. When I was a theist, I was bigoted against gays. The only reason I can come up with for my bigotry was that I had been taught that God doesn’t like gays. When I stopped believing in god, I stopped being bigoted against gays. Is it possible that I am the only human on the planet that has changed moral viewpoints when going from theism to atheism? Or is it more likely that there is a significant difference when we are forced to look at morality in completely scientific, non-religious terms?
- Cultural – Groups of individuals make cultures. Cultures behave as super-organisms, moving as effectively singular entities. Do cultural behaviors change based on the presence or absence of theism? Of course they do. The most obvious example is the one I’ve been on about for the last week. In primarily atheist cultures, there is no discrimination against atheists, and there is no prevalent belief that we are worse people than theists. In atheist cultures, there are no religiously motivated laws. (Can you find a primarily atheist country where women are legally bound to give breast milk to their neighbor before taking their veil off?)
I don’t want to overstate my position just yet. I think we should agree that there are real differences between believing and not believing. (When we stop to really think about it, it’s kind of bizarre to imagine what the world would look like if there really was no difference whatsoever.) This might just be a trivial observation. Suppose we restate our question somewhat:
What significant, practical value is attached to non-belief?
This wording gets closer to the nuts and bolts of what most moderates/agnostics/cultural believers mean when they ask why we’re so fired up about being atheist. So ironically, we’re right back to listing off all the horrible things religious belief has done, right?
Well, not exactly. Causation is difficult. Are highly religious individuals that way because of their culture, or is their culture that way because of them? Is it possible that even though no atheists have ever killed other atheists in the name of atheism, that all of the deaths in the history of the world would have taken place anyway, with some other excuse besides religion being used?
Furthermore, we haven’t even addressed the question of liberal theism. Is it possible that Karen Armstrong and her ilk are right, and we’ve simply been misusing religion for thousands of years? Is it really a way to get in touch with a higher human existence which would transcend even the envisioned atheist world in which science and rationality were cultural norms?
Asking these questions gets us to the crux of the atheist answer, and the one word answer to why it really does matter. Belief and non-belief are separated by one of the most basic of philosophical concepts, and this difference fundamentally changes the way we think about the universe — and therefore, why we act differently in response to our individual environments. Put simply, it’s all about our attitude towards evidence.
Like it or not, any belief in a deity — no matter how loving and benign — requires the suspension of the Burden of Proof. Put another way, it requires faith. Faith is, at its core, pernicious and destructive. (Here’s the best article on the subject I’ve seen in some time. It’s long, but it’s worth reading in its entirety. At least twice.)
Because faith beliefs are not based on reason and evidence, and because faith as a way of establishing beliefs need not and often does not accept any limitations or feedback from reason and evidence which might alter those beliefs, faith by its very nature can always be used to determine morally and epistemically indefensible beliefs
Or, to put it another way, faith can add nothing to any discussion of reality which cannot be supplied by science. It can, however, add non-scientific and potentially harmful elements which must be — because of the mandate of faith — believed despite their opposition to reason and evidence.
The objection that liberal and moderate theists don’t believe anything harmful is irrelevant. The existence of faith as a virtue allows and promotes the belief in literally anything that someone wants to believe. It removes objectivity. Completely. Any objectivity in an individual’s worldview is entirely dependent on her own tolerance for suspending the Burden of Proof. And as any competent psychologist will tell us, that tolerance is wildly variable between individuals. In other words, the existence of faith gives individual and social permission to anyone who wants to use it for their own conscious or unconscious nefarious plans.
So we can ask: Would it be better if the majority of a society rejected non-empirical claims, and looked down on people who try to justify the unjustifiable, or would it be better if the majority rejected empirical claims and looked down on people who try to verify the truth of claims before acting? When we put it that way, I can’t think of any way of justifying faith. Can you?
OK, but ANSWER THE QUESTION!!
Please pardon my digression. But I believe it was necessary for understanding why I believe there is both a quantitative and qualitative difference between believing and not believing. A careful look at existing data hints at the real truth: Belief or non-belief will not bring about wholesale changes to human nature. However, the espousal of either reason or faith as a predominant epistemological foundation will alter the general direction of both individuals and cultures.
On an individual level, it means that as an ideal goal, atheists (or more precisely, rationalists) will attempt to hold every idea up to the light of evidence and reason. Because they are human, they will fail some of the time. When they do, they will generally feel bad for not believing the evidence. They will strive towards truth as an answer to all questions, even when the answer is not emotionally satisfying.
A theist, on the other hand, must — by definition — leave some wiggle room for faith as a virtue. There must be at least one thing for which faith is necessary and good. We have seen from history that significant numbers of people will not stop at only the existence of God. Instead, they will use faith to justify whatever aspect of God’s existence feels emotionally satisfying — from the promise of the afterlife to the practice of celibacy or the avoidance of alcohol. Or… hatred of homosexuals. Or… whatever. You fill in whatever nasty theist thing you like. It hardly matters.
When we extend this line of thinking to a cultural level, we can predict that a society which values reason and evidence will do its best not to institute unsupported laws, or to promote things like teaching religious creation myths as science, or whatever else we want to talk about. We don’t imagine that the society will be perfect. Japan is largely atheist, and science and evidence are a big part of the cultural standard. And they do some straight up weird things. We’re still human, and we will be quirky. We will always have biases and blind spots. But the important difference between a primarily rationalist society and a theist society is that the rationalist society will at least have as its overarching goal the adherence to reason. When it fails, it will feel collectively bad about its failure, and will try to correct its mistakes.
But in fairness, I’m willing to withhold final proclamations about the overall effects of rationalism on a society. We haven’t been in the science era long enough to have a genuinely scientifically minded culture, and it’s just speculation to say how far cultural rationalism can alter the course of human existence. But it’s not speculation to talk about it on an individual level. The primary difference between believing and not is the removal of permission for ourselves or others to justify the unjustifiable.
Which brings me to the final piece of the puzzle:
Choose To Believe?
Let’s avoid the disclaimers and just admit the obvious. We can’t choose to believe. We can only choose to act as if we believe. This changes several important aspects of the question. What we’re asking about now are the individual, societal, and moral implications to acting as if we believe when we do not.
I will begin with a bit of an emotional appeal. (Irony noted.) It appears that atheists in America outnumber blacks. Considering that it’s demonstrably true that atheists are no less moral than theists, is it morally acceptable to condone a belief system that encourages discrimination of atheists? Is it right that atheists cannot effectively run for public office in huge swaths of America? Can we blame this bigotry on anything but the religious belief that we are not good people? If it was wrong to discriminate against blacks because of something they can’t change — their skin color — is it not equally wrong to discriminate against atheists because they cannot believe?
Assuming for a moment that all other things are equal, and there are no significant differences between acting at belief and not, can we justify actions that condone and even encourage the cultural disenfranchisement of as much as 15 or 20% of the population?
It was not acceptable when it was blacks or women. However, there’s a difference. We atheists can simply pretend at belief. So long as we genuflect, or at least say “amen” after prayers, nobody will bother us, and we can be accepted in all areas of society, right? Is it better that — for the good of the society — we institute a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy towards atheism? After all, it’s so upsetting for so many theists, and theists are in the majority. Why… if they had to accept us as part of their society, it might make them really uncomfortable. They might…. um…
What might they do? Might they oppress us and single us out? Beat up our children on the playground? Prevent us from holding public office? Label us as degenerates?
Are there any gay readers feeling uncomfortable? Any straights who don’t believe in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”? If you think it’s a bad policy, can you give me any justification for not actively opposing suppression of openly atheist living?
More to the point, while just talking about atheist discrimination, can we honestly say that it is morally acceptable for moderate “pretend theists” to accept the social benefits of theism while knowingly contributing to the oppression of atheists? Were the whites and men who stood up for blacks and women better moral people than the ones who sat quietly by and didn’t voice their concerns so they could keep their social status? I leave you, gentle readers, to decide individually.
If atheist discrimination isn’t a big enough hot-button for you, I understand. We all have our windmills to tilt, and equality just isn’t as high on some people’s lists as others. But there are still questions to answer. What about women who want abortions? What about gays? What about the owners of sex-toy stores? Condom manufacturers who would love to send free condoms to Africa? Children who are being taught that abstinence is the only acceptable sexual behavior before marriage? Children whose parents refuse medical treatment for religious reasons? Children who will be taught religiously motivated “facts” on every subject from evolution to American History? Women who feel guilty for enjoying sex?
For any borderline “pretend theist,” I ask you this pointed question: Is your social comfort a fair exchange for all the things religious people are doing in the name of faith? Are you really, genuinely comfortable claiming that religious belief really, truly isn’t the cause of any of this? Do you really, honestly believe that the wacky fundamentalist extremists would have exactly the same political power if all the pretend believers in the country stopped pretending?
That is the question, isn’t it? Can you as an individual look yourself in the mirror and say that:
- faith is harmless
- oppression of atheists is not a big deal
- there is no practical difference between espousing faith rather than reason and science — for anyone
- there is no social permission effect from large number of people pretending to believe
- there is no real political power inherent in religious adherence,
- there are no significant political or social consequences to politicizing religion, and finally
- somehow, the harmlessness of religion is consistent with its history, especially in theocracies?
If you can truly, honestly say that you believe all of that, then yeah. I can’t fault you on moral grounds for pretending to believe. While you’re doing that, I’ll be over here not running for office. And I’ll respectfully disagree with your evaluation of both social reality and moral obligation in an egalitarian society.
But I don’t want to end on a snarky, judgmental note. Any number of activists could write equally impassioned pleas for activism on other issues. I personally believe pretty strongly in environmentalism, population reduction, conservation, and responsible food production. But I’m not an “activist” for any of those causes. I just don’t know enough about any of them to feel like I can make a significant difference.
But… I do my part. I take the bus, walk, or carpool pretty much every time I leave the house. I keep my AC significantly higher than complete sweatless comfort. (I usually don’t turn it on until it gets too hot to sleep.) I avoid fast food like the plague, and try to eat as many “whole food” meals as possible. I support my local growers and farmers. In short, I do what I can within my limited sphere of influence.
I don’t expect every non-believer to become an “atheist activist.” That’s unreasonable. But I do ask that non-believers do what they can in their sphere, and more importantly, if you agree that there might be something to my position, don’t hinder me by kissing theist ass if you don’t have to. Don’t pretend at religion. Don’t sit idly by while someone badmouths an atheist. Don’t drop a dollar in the collection plate if you go to church on Christmas or Easter. Vote for atheists if they’re qualified. Do what you can. I don’t ask for universal activism, but I do ask for all pretend theists to ask themselves the difficult question: Am I really comfortable with accepting the societal benefits of pretend belief, and can I look my openly atheist friends in the eye and tell them honestly that I’m not making things worse for them?
* Yes, I know. Stalin. Mao. Hitler. Hitler was a theist. Mao and Stalin killed in the name of political ideologies, not the absence of the existence of God. Religious leaders and belief were logistical obstacles to the military, social, and political goals these men had set for themselves. It wasn’t about killing people because they were believers.
** It’s worth noting that of all the currently respected philosophers of morality, virtually none espouse a theory beginning with religion. Going back several hundred years, moral philosophy has attempted to ferret out a general theory of morality based on human nature — not the dictates of any deities.