The following was published as a Guest View in the Eugene Register-Guard on 21 Aug 2021 with the title: “Whose morality carries more weight?” I submitted it with the above title. I spent a fair amount of time writing this and I think it’s self-explanatory.
Saying that an entire class of people is immoral, such as Blacks or Jews, is generally considered prejudicial and hateful. I would be surprised to see, and don’t recall seeing, such racist statements in the RG. Yet, versions of “atheists are immoral” have appeared at least eight times in the past four years – including three columns within the last year. This is usually stated in less obvious, but logically equivalent, variations of “morality derives from god.” But, after all, how can atheists be moral when they deny the source of morality?
This isn’t just a philosophical issue. There are countries where atheism is a capital offense. I’ve met someone that is hiding for fear of their life because they left Islam. Complete shunning – loss of family, friends and jobs – is not unusual when people leave some religious communities. I’ve met someone that was kicked out of their house at sixteen for leaving Christianity.
The acceptance of openly stated anti-atheist prejudice epitomizes religious privilege. But this privilege shows itself daily via “in god we trust” and “under god.” Public promotion of faith and prayer is also an example of this privilege and prejudice. And it is very concerning that the Supreme Court is legalizing religious discrimination based on this prejudice.
Claims of moral superiority based on god aren’t limited to denouncing atheists. There are religions where not believing in the proper god deserves eternal torture. Even within a single religion, god’s supposed morality has been used to claim supremacy and privilege for men, heterosexuals, the monogamous, the married, whites, and castes (among others).
Another harmful result of morality from god is the promotion of the U.S. as a Christian nation. Stating the mistaken belief that the Constitution is based on Biblical principles reduces the roughly 30% of the U.S. that are non-Christian to second class citizenry. I’ve personally been told I should leave the country because I’m atheist. This erroneous belief also played a part on Jan 6th. Most of the people in the capital mob weren’t just white supremacists, they were also Christian Nationalists. Their movement is partially motivated by the belief that Christians are morally superior. Their violent actions are even supportable by Jesus’ militant side (Matthew 10:34). The Christian god is an authoritarian figure – a divine king, not an elected official.
I am not saying that all theists are inherently immoral. I am not claiming there is a single external source of morality and that you are immoral if you deny it. I claim, and the evidence supports, that theists are simply mistaken about their source of morality. For example, most people today condemn slavery, yet slavery is doctrinally supported by the three largest religions. Jesus never denounced slavery and implicitly condoned it, while Paul explicitly wrote, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters …” (Ephesians 6:5-6); Mohammed owned slaves; and then there’s karma. Even if some doctrinal passage appears to be anti-slavery, it demonstrates doctrinal self-contradiction rather than elimination of the doctrinal support. This is evidence that people look for doctrine to support their preexisting beliefs rather than deriving their beliefs from doctrine or god.
Religions are doctrinally in opposition. Yahweh is not Allah is not Zeus. Reincarnation does not lead to Valhalla. Claiming belief in one religion is claiming that all other religions are false. (Why claim one of thousands of religions if you don’t think it’s the one true – and thus superior – religion?) If you want to promote unity – to bring everyone together – you have to keep your religion out of the public square. This is the reason for the establishment clause of the First Amendment. This is why it is unconstitutional to promote religion in public schools and why it is polite to hold a moment of silence rather than a prayer at public gatherings. I fully support people’s right to their religious beliefs, but that same right allows me to say, “Keep them to yourselves; they’re divisive.”
Where does morality come from? There are arguments based on evolution, but most people are unaware of them. I believe most people, secular or not, derive morality from love, compassion, and humanism. Isn’t having a conscience part of the human condition? Would you rape and murder if god didn’t tell you not to?
What’s more important, promoting morality and unity, or claiming one group of people is morally superior to all others?
(The cover image is the Atheist logo developed by the Dawkins Institute.)