Atheism, Truth and Morality

There has been a bit of a conversation going on over at The Asexual Agenda about the intersection of asexuality and religion. This morning Siggy weighed in with a post on his own stance on atheism, and how that impacts on being asexual.

I don’t have any particular experiences with atheism impacting on my asexuality myself, so this post isn’t actually going to be about that. But Siggy’s post inspired me to write write something on atheism and morality, which I have been thinking about a lot over the past year, and have actually been meaning to blog about anyway. I haven’t blogged about atheism before, and I can’t really say I am part of any atheist communities (online or otherwise), so this is a bit of new ground for this blog. But needless to say, it’s a topic I find very interesting.

The idea that got me thinking today was this quote:

But the way we talk about intersectionality doesn’t quite work for atheists.  Just by saying I’m an atheist, I’m telling you that I think your theistic beliefs are wrong.  By telling you I’m a “new” atheist, I’m telling you that I think you’re wrong and you should stop being wrong.

When I first read this statement and the article by Greta Christina it links to, I was a bit taken aback, to be honest, because my inherent reaction to people saying ‘your religious beliefs are wrong and you should stop being religious’ is ‘who am I to tell someone their subjective religious beliefs are wrong?’ Sure, I think people have a right to disagreement and to say that they think other people are wrong, but I question whether that is always the most useful thing to do in the context of religion.

When I think about it a bit more, I can see the argument behind this statement, but I’m not sure that it’s the obvious and only conclusion. By saying you are an atheist you are saying that you don’t believe in God and that God doesn’t exist, which can be construed as saying ‘your belief in God is therefore wrong, because God does not exist.’ By the same line of argument, someone who says they are Christian is also saying ‘I think all other religions (and non-believers) are essentially wrong,’ and the same goes for any other religion. However, this also strikes me as a bit oversimplified. Atheism, to me, has always meant that I don’t believe in God, but not necessarily that my belief somehow translates to ‘everyone else should also not believe in God.’ Belief is belief and inherently subjective. Therefore it makes sense to me that other people can believe in something that I don’t believe in.

The other question I have of this idea is what ‘wrong’ means. Because to me, ‘wrong’ has two different meanings, which are actually quite separate in my mind. There is wrong to mean factually wrong, not truthful. And there is wrong to mean morally, ethically wrong.

What I think this argument predominantly reflects is the former meaning of wrong: i.e. your belief in God is not factual, not truthful, because God does not exist. But I am not actually that interested in the idea of establishing truth. As anyone who has ever talked to me about history will know, I think truth is constructed by power and knowledge and culture. I don’t necessarily think it exists as a separate entity. So just as I see it kind of pointless to argue about whether a particular detail of Livy’s historical record of Roman history is truthful or not, I think it’s a bit pointless to talk about proving or disproving God, finding the truth about whether God exists or not.  I don’t actually care that much, and I’m not all that interested.

What I am interested in is the second meaning of wrong: the moral, ethical part. This has much more to do with the ways that belief inspires and shaped how people think and act and live their lives. For religious people, belief in God (by whatever name or in whatever form) means a motivation to live in a certain way, in accordance with the will of God and the scriptures and principles associated with that belief in God. (At least, this is what I got from my years of being a Christian and from conversations with other Christians.) In most instances, that will be a motivation to live in a way that is good and moral, though how that manifests exactly can differ. For atheists such as myself, that motivation to live a good and moral life doesn’t come from a belief in a higher power, and I don’t think it needs to. It is perfectly possible to want to be good and act in moral ways without it needing to be because God requires it.

But the thing is, whether you are religious or not, whether you believe in God or not, whether you follow the teachings of a church or religion or not, and whether your belief is factually truthful and provable or not doesn’t actually mean that you can or cannot be morally good or morally wrong. I don’t think there is a causation between religion and being good, or even much of a correlation. People who have a religious belief are capable of acting in a way that helps people or harms people, just as atheists are capable of helping or harming people – I think most people will be able to see some obvious examples on both sides.

This is why I think that it’s important for anyone, regardless of their beliefs or non-beliefs, to actively engage with ethics and morality and interrogate their own principles, beliefs and practices. I’m not so much interested in pinning down where exactly where someone’s sense of morality comes from, because it can come from all sorts of places. I know that for me, it comes from my own experiences interacting with other people and my belief in principles of human rights, social justice and feminism. For other people it may come from scriptures or religious teachings, and I argue that those should be interrogated like everything else (especially in terms of historical and cultural context and how that may differ from the present day).

So to recap what has hopefully not been a too confusing post: my own conception of atheism doesn’t really care about claims of truthfulness as much as it does promoting that people interrogate their own moral and ethical codes and actions. I think that living in a way that is morally good is possible within both a religious and atheist framework. The belief is not the central question: the way that people act on it is.

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6 thoughts on “Atheism, Truth and Morality

    • Well, one thing I try to do is look at a belief or principle I have and ask what its implications are for other people. Does it harm or marginalise someone else? Does it contradict something else I believe in? If there’s a conflict, then I would feel the need to somehow modify or adapt my views to make my moral code more cohesive and to not harm or marginalise others.

  1. Most people would agree, I believe, with your two different definitions of “Wrong”. I certainly do. ;)
    I think it is obvious that religious people can be moral, even if their original religious doctrines are immoral – people often can adjust their beliefs to become more moral after careful thought, etc. But I don’t believe adjusting what you believe is true about the universe based on what is moral makes sense. Once you believe certain harsh “truths”, you can accept immoral things as necessarily moral, because whatever God wants even if it’s mean is moral or various trains of thought like that… and not shifting your views to become more moral makes sense to me – hence why I feel that we have to focus on the root causes of some of these immoral beliefs/actions.
    If you believe women are inherently inferior to men because of certain patriarchal religious teachings, that these two genders are different in fundamental certain ways that even scientific studies have proven that they’re not, etc… then you’re gonna have a hard time accepting feminism/gender egalitarianism, and you may refuse to listen to anyone who tries to explain how there are more than just 2 binary genders, because the religious “truth” in your mind is unassailable. That is why to me, it’s not so simple as “just let them believe whatever they want”. Practically speaking, people don’t drop religion very easily, so obviously I can live in a world and have friends (online and offline) who disagree quite strongly with me about religious topics. Most non-atheists find the atheist view wrong on many levels but they too can keep the peace. But this is easier when their religious beliefs are of a certain type, if their religion doesn’t shape everything about their worldview including their morality. If they truly believe I’m going to hell for not believing and converting me is their moral duty, it probably will not work out too well in the long run to try to “live and let live”, as they are, in their own minds, being immoral if they extend what I view as a politeness toward me. And how do you get them to stop thinking it’s immoral to “allow” me to live as an atheist unchallenged? By changing what they believe is true.

  2. I just want to note that though I dissagree with the stance put forth here, I do agree that what I said was an oversimplification. I was trying to be super brief on a topic that I could write whole blog posts about. :)

  3. I get very tired of the implication that theists (the term “religious” only applies to a portion of theists) by default only carry a set of ethics because they believe their God/s mandate it. Personally, for me it’s the other way around. My ethics are inherently part of me, and my faith is my support mechanism in growing those ethics. It gives me strength and peace in the face of the hatred and ignorance that infects humanity of all creeds.

    I also get very tired of the assumption that theists are invested in proving athiests and anti-theists wrong or condemning them in any way. What other people believe is their business. For them, it is their reality. For me, my faith is mine. I don’t need people to believe the same way I do, but I do expect their beliefs to do no harm to others. That is not about religion, that is about ethics. The same standard goes for those who are theists and those who are not. I will stand up to bigotry, ignorance and hate no matter who it comes from, even those who purport to hold the same spiritual beliefs as I do.

    I don’t know if you’ve read Chris Steadman’s book “Faithiest” but if you haven’t, it is an excellent book. (And it’s available from the library.)

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