“Godless – The Truth Beyond Belief” investigates one of the last frontiers in civil liberties and human rights: Atheism. So reads the opening sentence on the website of a new film about atheism and society. It asks, “can you be good without god?”
Well, yes, you can. That’s the whole point of secular humanism, philosophy and the entire Buddhist faith. Morality is a choice we make, not a divine command.
It also hides another question within its folds: can you be good and still have free will? If you need a god to be good, that suggests you don’t have free will. You’re simply some deity’s meat puppet. If you have free will to be evil, then morality is clearly a choice, a human construct, not divine.
Despite what the religious right say, being good is not necessarily a part of being pious. I briefly mentioned this in the footnotes of my previous post on Horace’s Ode 2.14. The two attributes may be complementary (in some people), but history is equally replete with examples of pious people who were predatory, con artists, killers, torturers, rapists, thugs and murderers. They call their evils “doing God’s will.” Atheists never have that hypocritical motivation.
The two attributes of goodness and piety don’t always coincide, and as noted above, religious belief can even make it worse. Just think of the Spanish Inquisition and the witch hunts of the Reformation or anything ISIS does. As Blaise Pascal, said, “Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions.”
But isn’t the whole parable of the “Good Samaritan” about the ability of an outsider, someone not of your own faith to do good, to act in a moral manner? (Not that the Samaritan was necessarily an atheist or even a pagan: he would have been considered heterodox. The point is: no one faith, creed, cult or sect has a lock on morality.) But this lesson seems forgotten today.
And, as Cicero wrote in On the Nature of the Gods (De Natura Deorum):
Is there anything, indeed, so discreditable as rashness, and is there anything rasher and more unworthy of the dignity and strength of character of a wise man than the holding of a false opinion, or the unhesitating defence of what has not been grasped and realised with proper thoroughness?
The original question has a sibling: “can you be good without (x) god?” Substitute x for a pronoun: my, our, their, his, her… it’s always a possessive thing. My god versus your god. My god is good, yours is bad. My good has the truth, yours is false. My god has power, yours is weak. My god exists, yours doesn’t.
Religions are highly intolerant of other religions’ deities. Their leaders never imagine them having a brew together or maybe working together to do something good for humanity. They’re always at war with one another.
Ask a religious Christian or Muslim or Jew if they have the same level of respect or tolerance for each other’s version of god (and his/her/its prophets), or for Ahura Mazda, Krishna, Zeus, Ganesh, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or any of the world’s many other gods. Of course not: our history since the Sumerians started recording it is an endless stream of wars of religious intolerance. It probably goes back to the Neolithic.
And believers are not just intolerant to outsiders: they kill their own if those others stray from some perceived, cherished orthodoxy. Muslims, Christians and Jews all fought bloody battles against members of their own faith and still do. Tiny, even insignificant (to outsiders) differences in theology can spark violent, lethal reactions. Islamic suicide bombers kill more Muslims today than non-Muslims because of a 1,400-year-old spat over leadership that has never healed. Sectarian violence among Christians is as old as its church and the Protestant split gave Europe 500 years of bloody religious wars. And it’s going on today: the Colorado Springs massacre in 2015 was just one of many acts of Christian terrorism in the USA.
So why don’t people have more tolerance for the atheists and non-believers who we all know are not going to be the cause of any of this violence, hatred and division? The Godless website says:
In America, people find it acceptable to offend atheists on national television and in other 13 countries a person can be sentenced to death simply for not believing in God.
You’d think that just a few news stories about Islamic fundamentalists like ISIS, the Taliban, or Christian extremists like the Westboro Baptists would encourage any audience to be more sympathetic, more tolerant to those folk who are not threatening to kill or torture them for religious reasons. But apparently many folks prefer radical, religious crazies than to not believing at all.
According to the movie trailer, one recent study says 50% of Americans found atheism “threatening.” But threatening how? Atheists can’t bring down eternal damnation, after all. What, threaten someone with dissent? With an argument? With debate? With a book by Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins? With a cartoon of Mohammed or Jesus? Come on, the religious right has the NRA on its side: the NRA is complicit in terrorism and thrives on mass shootings and massacres. A Christian fanatic with an assault rifle or an ISIS madman with a rocket launcher is a lot more lethal than an atheist with a book.*
Writer Tom Jacobs suggests (based on a recent study) fear of dying is at heart of the fear:
(Atheists) threaten the comforting narratives that gives meaning to so many people’s lives, and make the thought of death bearable… among believers, the mere contemplation of atheism can arouse intimations of mortality… non-believers are not only distrusted; they also stir up morbid thoughts, and perhaps raise discomforting doubts about what happens after we die.
In other words, atheists make people realize death is inevitable. Religious people cherish the myth of their own immortality and rather than deal with the reality, they wall themselves up in fantasy. And they hate those who don’t share that fantasy because it makes their own house of cards tremble (would that more Americans and Canadians were taught to read Cicero’s De Senectute – On Growing Old – in school to appreciate a Stoic’s view on aging and death…)***
There are many people who believe all they need to get into this afterlife paradise is a show of faith. Not just faith but Faith writ loud with a capital F and lots of hoopla around its exhibition! Their actions – meh. Easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. They can do what they want in the real world because if they just show belief – act it out – they have no need to actually do good. The gates are open if they only mutter a few prayers. Whereas atheists and secularists know that what you do while alive is what counts, and you can’t depend on some post mortem forgiveness for evil acts.
An article (a rather weak piece, to my mind) in Psychology Today offers alternative excuses, including: “…rejecting God is the same as rejecting morality” and “Atheists are sometimes not very nice about their beliefs.”
Aww. Not nice. That will really stand up to some NRA-stoked Christian armed with a cross and an AK-47. But the alt right in America have made faith an issue of patriotism, conformity and orthodoxy. Their faith and theirs alone makes patriots. Everyone else is a traitor. Especially the atheists.**
Yes, there are people called “militant” atheists – but they’re not the same as militant Christians. After all, how militant is an unarmed person who doesn’t want to convert you by force to their belief? The term is a derogatory label applied by the religious alt right to anyone who dares speak up about the separation of church and state. Right-wing entertainment media like FOX “news” use ‘militant atheist’ to describe anyone who doesn’t want prayer in public schools, religion on their currency or who doesn’t think people should be discriminated against because of their religious or sexual orientation.
Even Richard Dawkins – easily the most vocal atheist today – has not led any violent or extreme action against religion. His strongest show of “force” is in writing his books to argue for a secular world. But because Dawkins once said in an interview “I’m an atheist, and I have no time for religion,” he was labelled a “militant atheist.” Just standing up to be counted as an atheist gets you labelled as an extremist.
But allowing a teacher to proselytize and hold prayer groups in the classroom is not – in some states, like South Carolina in a newly-proposed bill – considered extremist. It’s acceptable, maybe even mandatory, to promote Christian (or rather, specific, evangelical Christian) views as part of public programs and education. But offer an alternative view and you’re labelled evil.
Yes, there’s an open hypocrisy at work, as atheism.about.com notes:
Open, unapologetic atheism challenges the assumption that everyone is some sort of religious theist and that some sort of religion or theism forms an unshakeable foundation of society. Public challenges to society’s foundations are perceived as militant. So, if you tell people you’re an atheist instead of staying in the closet, you’re a militant atheist. Religious theists, however, are not militant if they regularly engage people (even strangers) about their religious ideology.
A recent Pew Research survey found that religion doesn’t always make the difference when measuring human-human interaction or when making the socially-aware choice:
Highly religious Americans are happier and more involved with family but are no more likely to exercise, recycle or make socially conscious consumer choice…
Sure, they’re happier when interacting among their own. But while 63% of religious Americans felt that praying was important to being a Christian, only 52% felt working for the needy or poor mattered and a dismal 22% felt that protecting the environment mattered. So prayer becomes a substitute for acting good.
But as for actually obeying religious laws, only 18% felt it important to actually rest on the Sabbath (all those pesky Old Testament laws are so inconvenient and dreary). So it seems that, for these respondents, it’s not so much obeying the religious laws as how much you let them inconvenience your shopping that matters. What’s god’s law when the mall is open? Consumerism is important to Americans; religion only when it doesn’t interfere with buying or eating or drinking or screwing.
This is also an interesting finding:
Three-quarters of adults – including 96% of members of historically black Protestant churches and 93% of evangelical Protestants – say they thanked God for something in the past week. And two-thirds, including 91% of those in the historically black Protestant tradition and 87% of evangelicals, say they asked God for help during the past week.
Thanking your god for a perceived boon I can understand, but asking for some personal favour… like a new car, or a better parking space, your kids to get an A on their exams or that new Lexus – seems more than a bit selfish. But that’s religion: that possessive thing again. Like god is some personal dispenser of lottery wins for the faithful. All you gotta do is ask, and ka-ching the money falls from heaven…
As a political junkie with an interest in religion, I have watched faith n America with the sort of fascination, horror and fear one has when watching a train wreck or fatal car crash. Sickening, but hard to avert one’s eyes. America grows increasingly theocratic along very narrow, fundamentalist lines. As Gibbons blamed Christianity for the fall of the Roman Empire, I think later historians will point to the rise of right wing Christianity as the prime factor in America’s demise in the early 21st century.
The American hatred – it’s not too strong a word – of non-believers out-scorches even its hatred of anyone whose beliefs differ from their own. Being an atheist is seen as being un-American, unpatriotic, a hangover from the Godless Communist Red Scare days (the alt right and the right-leaning Democrats even used the scare of godless socialism to help discredit Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate…).
A nation allegedly founded on freedom and tolerance is anything but when it comes to faith. It’s hardly surprising to anyone that the American right has been called the American Taliban because it shares the same intolerance of others and other faiths, and exhibits the same violence towards difference and dissent, that the extreme Islamic cult has.
In mid-2014, Pew Research asked Americans to rate their tolerance of other faiths, with 100 as full acceptance, 50 as neither accept or reject and 0 as full rejection. Americans rated atheists at 41 (Muslims, the target of the Republican Trump attacks, rated 40). But Republicans alone ranked atheists at a low 34.
Of course it’s not just in the USA where atheists face discrimination. A recent story in the Huffington Post points out that discrimination might be the least of their worries:
Atheists in 13 countries face execution under the law if they openly express their beliefs or reject the official state religion — Islam in all of these cases.
Islamic states are the least tolerant of atheism, or in fact any religious dissent. Recently the Saudi Arabian ministry of education announced a program to “inoculate” students against “Westernisation, atheism, liberalism and secularism” – all considered “deviant behaviour.” These are considered greater threats to their state than ISIS or Al Queda to Saudi security.
But even when not being tortured or killed, in the USA atheists may be restricted from work, marriage, volunteering, participating in community events, graduating school or joining popular groups like the Boy Scouts.
Dragging this back to the earlier premise: can you be good without god, a right wing writer notes:
…they claim that people can be moral without God, yet without God there can be no absolute right and wrong, meaning their “morality” is merely based on accepted social conventions, nothing more. And those conventions have room for change, change that could allow or even laud any behavior. In looking at the not-too-distant past, many American Indian tribes celebrated exceptional thieves, as do many gypsies today. That could happen again under atheist moral codes. Consider also that even in our enlightened day and age, many Americans claim that determinations about which humans get to live or die should be a matter for government to decide, and if the sanctity of human life is a judgment call, nothing is off the table.
Pretty much sums it up: ignorance, arrogance and self- righteousness combined. I wonder how many of these true believers wear mixed threads or eat bacon or shrimp in violation of their god’s law? Apparently you can cherry pick which of god’s laws you can obey based on what inconveniences you. And which ones you want to impose on others.
People like this writer say you need a deity to make moral choices – yet these same folk when in government make it a crime for a woman to get an abortion while promoting the death penalty for transgressors and opponents (who can forget Trump’s supporters calling for Hillary Clinton to be lynched?). And they all love to upscale the NRA’s agenda. The same folks who not very long ago burned crosses and lynched people without trial. So tell me again how they are being moral…
The “determinations about which humans get to live or die should be a matter for government to decide” is already in place and has been since America’s independence. In fact it’s true in all nations: governments make those laws, always have. They’re not made by one or two people with some claim to moral supremacy. And the Republicans in power will make them harsher, more punitive, more atavistic next term. They will call it “god’s will.”
(The risible comment in the article about American indians, thieves and gypsies is just another example of the alt right’s blatant racial bigotry at work.)
Philosophy, it is said, is questions that may never be answered. Religion, on the other hand, is answers that may never be questioned. I think I’ll stick to philosophy. It’s less dangerous than faith, less hypocritical, has more books, and fewer Americans with guns populate its environs. And I can’t help myself: I like to question things.
And the movie is on my viewing list for this winter, after the holidays have passed.
* Even some religious Christians recognize that the NRA is no more than a profit-motivated “political front for gun manufactures”:
The NRA is a mean-spirited corporate body, pure and simple. We are always wise to remember that corporations are not Christians, and for-profit corporations only exist if they make a profit. We can hope they are managed by Christians, and operate to support the same principles by which we Christians try to live our lives, but they are not Christians! In fact, corporations like the NRA owe their continued existence to the very antithesis of biblical teachings. Their foundation is the root of all evil, that being the love of money. 1 Timothy 6:10.
Unfortunately not enough of them do.
** At this time of the year, Christians seem particularly intolerant of atheists, accusing them of conducting a “war on Christmas” – even though it’s long been know this was a conspiracy created by Fox “news” entertainment services to further the alt right’s Christian agenda. Simply wishing someone “happy holidays” is enough to get you branded by the alt right as “another soldier in the War against Christmas”
This hoax has even spread to the UK where a 2015 story in the Telegraph noted:
Across the United States, many of the FFRF’s 23,000 members have mobilised to ban Jesus from classroom plays, silence school choirs and take down nativity scenes… Across America, the battle over Christmas has become a permanent feature of the holiday season.
Banning religion from the classroom or any other public facility or institution isn’t a “war on Christmas” – it’s defending the separation of church and state. Putting religion into the classroom is a war on the US Constitution. And even the paper had to grudgingly admit that it’s not everywhere: “If a Christian display is in a public space – rather than on the property of a government-affiliated body – freedom of expression protects it. All that the atheists can do then is file petitions to erect their own hoardings.”
Some “war” – filing petitions against the NRA-backed and armed alt right Christians. But the alt right got the propaganda wheels well greased and truthiness rules the media these days. Why fact check when you can simply lie or just reprint what someone else says? The New American – a right wing media source – had a story last week in which it chastised the American Atheist organization for erecting billboards that say “Make Christmas Great Again. Skip Church.” Everyone has the right of free speech, except, of course, atheists who must be excoriated for exercising their rights. Probably the gentle parody of Donald Trump’s jingoistic message further infuriates the right who cannot stand being laughed at even in a mild manner.
The article noted:
“It is important for people to know religion has nothing to do with being a good person, and that being open and honest about what you believe — and don’t believe — is the best gift you can give this holiday season,” said David Silverman, president of American Atheists. “More and more Americans are leaving religion, but we still have work to do when it comes to fighting the stigma many atheists face.”
The article goes on to ask:
Just why the atheists think it’s so important to make their disbelief so vocal is unclear.
Why should anyone feel it’s important to express their views in the USA? To exercise their freedom of speech when YOU don’t agree with them? He doesn’t ask why should Christians feel it important to make their belief so vocal. Just atheists.
Then it adds:
As the existence of Jesus Christ is incontrovertible, one would think that atheists should at the very least view the celebration of His birthday in the same vein as celebrating the birth of Martin Luther King or Abraham Lincoln.
Unfortunately for Christians, they do not, and each year, the Christmas season is tainted by the presence of these billboards.
Well, it’s not incontrovertible, but the real issue is not Jesus as a human but rather the whole son-of-god-divinity-three gods-hairy thunderer thing. But that’s not the point of this post. Then it adds:
Lastly, the entire premise of their billboards is somewhat specious because the best scientific evidence suggests the likelihood of the presence of God, not the absence of God.
Which is total codswallop, and no such “scientific” evidence exists or even canexist any more than can Russell’s teapot or the invisible pink unicorn be proven or disproven. But it basically underscores the nature of the conversation between the religious right and everyone else. Their god is right, they have the truth, they have the facts: everyone else is wrong or lying. End of discussion.
*** In a frantically consumerist culture where meaning is associated with what you have and how much money you have accumulated, rather than what you are or how you act, death has a particular menace: in even in the most lenient of modern religions, those material goods don’t accompany the dead to the afterlife. Thus they lose their meaning – hard to accept after decades of pursing the gimme, gimme, gimme. Enough to give any American a case of severe cognitive dissonance. The biblical statement “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” from Matthew 19:24 (and Mark 10:25, Luke 18:22-25) has been craftily re-interpreted by some right wing American televangelists (who are all about the money) to avoid the obvious criticism of the grasping rich (themselves) and instead make it about humility:
Christ wasn’t referring to the eye of a literal needle—that would be preposterous. Instead, He was talking about a narrow entrance into the city of Jerusalem, a gate known locally as “the eye of the needle.” This gate was so small that a camel could only be brought through with great difficulty, squeezed through on its knees—which depicts how we humbly need to come to the Lord.
But it ain’t so. There never was any such a gate. They just don’t want you to look too closely at their mansions and bank accounts.