Atheists and the question of morality
I gave a lot of thought to this subject before deciding I would devote a few words to it. My apprehension is due to the fact that I consider my self neither to belong to the label of “Atheist” nor to any flavor of theism, thus leaving me square in the middle tagged with the label “non-theist.” So it might seem that I have no connection with this title, that is until you get to the word morality. I am, if nothing else, a subscriber to humanist principle, and in that context morality is a word which transcends the ideological precepts of both theist and atheist belief. And so it is from a perspective of humanist philosophy that my contribution is relevant.
I can only speculate that this title was created by somebody from the religious side of this issue because I can’t fathom any atheist, and I have known are good many of them, who would think that their atheist belief made them amoral as well. But I guess that would depend on what one defines as moral conduct. My affiliations on the other side of this coin, my familiarity with most monotheist religious beliefs, suggests to me that from the religious perspective the act of being an atheist in the first place would be considered immoral. Thus in this narrow context, all atheists and probably non-theists like myself as well would be labeled in the minds of most of the religious faithful as immoral, simply because we do not subscribe to their belief.
Religiosity defines as immoral conduct today
A funny thing about all this is that what religiosity defines as immoral conduct today will likely be morally sanctioned tomorrow. A few examples my bring perspicuous clarity to this point. In the 1950s with respect to the Pentecostal belief, it was considered immoral to go to the movies or dancing. Within a decade, it seemed that the immorality of movies and dancing had subsided and Pentecostals, Baptists, and other evangelical fundamentalists were forming “Christian Rock bands” and making their own movies. Does anyone remember the “Rock Opera” and subsequent movie adaptation “Jesus Christ Superstar?
And then there was the “moral dress code.” Girls were not allowed to wear make-up nor show their legs above the knee. That was a short-lived instance of moral conduct, as I recall. In another case of moral amorphousness, my own great grandfather was excommunicated by the Mennonite brethren, not quite 100 years ago, for riding in a car. When he died some years after, the very same preacher who had presided over his ex-communication, arrived at his funeral in a car. What about divorce? It is not only immoral but a downright sin in both the New and Old testaments of the Bible. Up until the 1960s, divorce, as far as the Christian church was concerned, was strictly prohibited, but today 60% of the population has been divorced, and the irony of it is that the vast majority of them got married and said their vows in a church presumably before God. It would seem that when it comes to marriage, morality takes a back seat to convenience.
In the 1950s, there didn’t seem to be much moral outrage about all the cloning of polioviruses going on to produce vaccines. But today when people with Diabetes, Parkinson’s and a host of other diseases patiently await a cure that stem cell cloning may provide, President Bush and the neo-cons, with the backing of the late Jerry Falwell’s moral majority, withhold federal funding of stem cell research on purported moral grounds. So much for morality.
What seems most amoral to me, is one group claiming the banner of morality as their own and condemning those who don’t agree with them. You don’t have to compare atheists with theists to see this disparity, it is just as apparent it comparisons of Christians with Muslims, Jews, or even other factions of Christianity; and these are people who profess a belief in the same God, the same heaven and hell, and the same ten commandments. Is the death penalty moral? Is killing anybody for any reason moral? Most Christians seem to think so, and yet I know a few atheists who would think killing another human to be immoral conduct under any circumstances. So who can really lay claim to the banner of morality?
Personally I like the adage “those who live in glass houses should not throw stones,” which interpreted for the faithful reads “judge not lest ye be judged.” I think this is especially true when you are talking about something as amorphous as moral values. Atheists are humans just like the rest of us. There are some who by one standard or another may be guilty of immoral conduct but simply the fact of being an atheist has no bearing on an individual’s moral aptitude. When Jesus came upon the woman being stoned for immoral acts of fornication, he said to those who had taken her judgment upon themselves, “let him who among you who has not sinned throw the first stone.” So for those theists who want to judge the morality of Atheists, I say take a page out of your own book, heed the lessons of your teacher, and leave the poor atheist bastards to their own devices.