Atheist Morality5 April, 2008
To too many theists (be they Christian, Moslem or Jewish), the title to this post ranks right up there with military intelligence, jumbo shrimp, and government organization (full disclosure: I was MI in the Army, I love jumbo shrimp, and I work for a government organization) — an oxymoron. I have, for most of my life, heard some form of “You can’t be moral without God(s),” or have read similar comments on atheist blogs. I disagree, and I don’t even feel I should be respectful about it.
When I was young I lived at Death Valley and Grand Canyon. These were small, isolated communities made up of people from around the country. I’m sure that there were many theists (at the canyon, there were lots of Mormons), but, at my age, I was blissfully unaware of most of it. Not all, but most.
One of my best friends was (presumably still is) Mormon. One of his frequent jokes was that, after I died, he’s make sure to make me a Mormon post mortem. What the hell, it made us both laugh. When I had dinner at his house (not often), I always found the prayer interesting. His father focused on the Mormon Church being the key to living a good life. Caffeine, alcohol and drugs were all immoral.
Yet my first cigarrette was supplied by my Mormon friend. He and another friend also tried to introduce me to grass (I wasn’t interested and they had no problem with that). We also used to break into the liquor cabinet at my other friends house. I had tried beer and scotch at home through my parents, but these two were trying to get drunk.
Now, I disagree with morality and abstention being synonymous, but it was my Mormon friend who was most eager to be ‘immoral’ through the use of these forbidden substances. He claimed (or his church claimed) that these things were immoral, but he reveled in them. I remember watching him get drunk, but, because it wasn’t forbidden, it never turned me on.
When we moved to the Cumberland Valley of Maryland (a northern suburb of the Bible Belt), I ran into the “No Morality Without God” again and again. There was a Social Studies teacher who, at least once a week, found a way to inject into her history class some form of that statement. Then her last name changed because of a divorce. I learned later on that she had been cheating on her husband with the her sister’s husband. Then, the next year, she got married again. This time, though, to a man in his mid-20s (she was in her mid-40s). That marriage lasted about six months. Luckily, I moved up into high school and lost track of her soap opera.
As I became more comfortable with being a ‘tradition Christian’ who was unsure about the existence of any god, I became more aware of those who insist that belief in a supreme being is all that ensures morality. I have seen Christians drink themselves into losing house, husband, son, and job. I have seen Christian girls intentionally get pregnant to ‘trap’ a man into marriage. I have seen beleivers abuse themselves, each other, their children, you name it.
I do not pretend I am perfect. However, my wife and I pay our way, pay our taxes, help our neighbors (when we can), welcome new neighbors (even when they are ‘different’). Out closest brushes with the law have been some speeding tickets (when I was younger), and being the victims of a drunk driver hit and run. We don’t get drunk at the local bar. We work hard, and try to be good people.
Why do we do this? From a theistic point of view, our life would seem odd. After all, without that little book, there is nothing to stop us from robbing, lying, killing, engaging in sexual perversions, eating meat during lent, you name it. Christians also insist that they are not perfect, just forgiven. That, I think, is the key.
If a Christian sins, if a Christian commits an immoral act (say, smoking meth with a male prostitute or buggering an altar boy), they can be forgiven. A Catholic, through confession and pennance; a Protestant through a personal intercession ‘saving’ them. For a Christian, death is a goal to be achieved and, as long as the heavenly judge has forgiven you, it doesn’t matter how bad a person you have been in your life on earth. My wife’s mother calls them ‘Life Cheaters’ — people who do not think the rules apply to them.
For an atheist (and yes, I’m gonna generalize here), this is the one life we have. There is no afterlife. There is no punishment or reward outside of this life. To me, this means that, when I die, my atoms will continue (possibly in other living thing) but my consciousness will not. When I die, the only thing which will live after me is the memories others have of me (good or bad), and the works I have created on earth (good or bad). If I lie, cheat, steal, step on others to advance myself, the world will remember me as an asshole. If, however, I live a life based upon the Golden Rule (treat others the way I would like to be treated), there will be positive memories of me.
I’m sure that there are many law-abiding and moral theists out there. Unfortunately, I don’t meet many of them. In fact, I would say that the more religious the person I know, the less likely they are to meet any definition of moral. I guess it all comes down to “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven;” atheists need to get it right this time.