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by Graham Peters

The stigma of atheism

Atheism and agnosticism are frowned upon all over the world. In many places they are punishable by death[i], and although there are areas where neither constitutes a forfeit of one’s rights, there are still whole subcontinents where they do. But why are atheism and agnosticism so vilified?

First, it helps to understand what each actually is. Atheism is the lack of belief in God or gods; agnosticism is essentially admitting that we can’t know for sure.

Many people immediately oppose the ideas, asking: how it possible to get by without faith? What will happen after you die? What will you believe in? It’s difficult for many of us humans to imagine a world without God. Perhaps it is frightening to do so. Yet, these questions arise precisely because so many of us are conditioned to believe in the concept of an afterlife and a god to begin with. They’re easily dismissed once belief in one disappears. A more troublesome query is: if there is no god to base our morals on, how does anyone discern right from wrong?

This moral dilemma is the quintessential objection to atheism and agnosticism. It is likely the reason why faithlessness is most vilified. It’s likely also the reason many people turn to religion in what is a terribly complicated world. The thing is, this dilemma is actually built on assumptions. Principally, the assumption that ancient texts are morally objective, that they constitute “correct morality”. Perhaps people need to believe that there’s something morally fixed and unchanging in the universe, because without that objectivity, everything becomes relative.

Yet, not only is there no evidence that religious morals are objective; but most cultural anthropologists don’t support the entire concept of moral objectivity. For if we look all across the world, we see varied cultures with varied needs; their needs direct their morals: morals that differ, sometimes subtly and sometimes drastically. Although there are almost universal moral similarities (most societies consider it wrong to kill, for instance), these are a result of common social needs among our species, not necessarily evidence of morals being cosmically objective. Conceding this, it’s still possible to argue that even if morals aren’t objective, atheism and agnosticism assign no real significance to morality. Faithlessness of either variety might therefore be called morally lacking; if humans aren’t being told which moral viewpoint is best to take, then it’s possible for us to fall into a horrible spiral of murder, hate and buggery. But this is the second assumption: that a lack of religion means a degenerate moral outlook. Really, it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Developed, free countries with higher levels of atheism are considerably less violent in general[ii], while recent sociological studies show that children of atheists tend to be considerably more compassionate, altruistic and empathetic than their religious peers[iii]. What would you call “good morals” if not compassion, altruism, empathy and nonviolence?

Extend this moral view outwards: take a glance across history, and see that the worst atrocities to ever have graced us, were committed out of a religious or quasi-religious framework. Sometimes those atrocities were carried out directly in the name of the supernatural God (think the Crusades, suicide bombings), and sometimes the all-powerful-figure in the cult framework was an actual person (Pharoah, Charles Manson, Stalin). The common denominator: complete, religious-like reverence, obedience and supplication to this authority figure, whether by force, coercion or choice. Neither atheism nor agnosticism demands such oppression on people. Neither commands anyone to kill millions of people. They can’t be misinterpreted to incite slaughter, because they aren’t an interpretable written philosophy. Both have strict definitions, neither of which is ‘a lack of morals’.

In fact, atheist and agnostic people aren’t really any different to anyone else where morals are concerned. Almost every human has an inborn sense of empathy – the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is what guides us, in our symbiotic societies, to consider the needs and wishes of others as being at least equal to our own. Without that empathy, intrinsic morality would be impossible. Without religion, however, morality becomes no more difficult than it has ever been. In fact, many would argue it becomes easier.

As the late atheist Christopher Hitchens put it: “can you think of one moral act that a religious person can do, that an atheist can’t? Can you then think of one immoral act that only a religious person could do?”

The point being that the second question, for most people, is much easier to answer than the first.