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Can We Be Good without God? An Atheistic Perspective on Morality
Flying Spaghetti Monster
Misconceptions about Atheism and Secular Humanism
Before we begin to explore the complexities of the moral implications of an atheistic worldview, it is important to first clear up common misunderstanding about atheism itself. There is a common myth that the sole raison d'être of atheists is to oppose religion. This is however based on a misunderstanding of atheists in accordance with their perceived role in society. The assumption is that an atheistic perspective on the world is predicated on an ostensibly anti-religious outlook. Consequently, atheists are perceived to be defined not only by their lack of religion, but also their perceived animosity toward religion. The reason why this myth endures is because it is certainly true that atheists are defined by not believing in a deity and there do exist atheists who actively oppose religion, but there is more to it than that. Atheists live in a world that is not governed by any spiritual force or any form of religious organization and corresponding service to a higher deity. As such, atheists use reason and ethical philosophy to find their own definition of a virtuous and meaningful life rather than adhering to the tenets of any particular religious organization or spiritual outlook. I will delve into this in more detail further down. Atheism in its purest form simply means non-theist. However, atheists throughout the 20th and into the 21st century have been systematically demonized by their religious contemporaries. The word "atheist" has become a pejorative in certain religious contexts because the word itself has evolved not only to encompass simple "non-thesim", but through certain religious propaganda to become a palpable threat to the integrity and mission of religious institutions. This is particularly apparent in the United States within the context of Christianity. One common misconception within an American context is that proponents of upholding the constitutional separation of church and state do so in adherence to some kind of atheist agenda dedicated to eliminating religion from public consciousness. However, this is a grave misconception indeed.
Evangelical Hypocrisy and the Separation of Church and State
I once heard an American evangelical pastor proclaim on a televised service that an attempt to keep religious teaching out of schools and to remove God from public life is destroying America. I was immediately stricken by the hypocrisy of this statement. It is a common misconception that the United States was built on a foundation of Christianity. The constitutional separation of church and state is not a modern invention of bitter atheists for the purpose of vexing the Christian majority, rather a proclamation of the founding fathers to ensure the American people would be free to worship as they wish. Separation of church and state is an aspect of both freedom of religious expression, as well as freedom from religion. Thus, it is separation of church from schools and public life which is an aspect of the freedom in America to worship as one pleases and to hold the faith of one's choosing. In spirit, separation of church and state was not devised to limit religion, but to allow for a multiplicity of religious views with equal legal standing in direct contrast to the historic religious oppression in Europe and modern such oppression in such Muslim nations as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, among others, where it is illegal to outwardly promote any religious faith other than Islam.
Freedom of and from religion is an ideal which stems from the Enlightenment in Europe in the 18th century. The same Enlightenment, by the way, which informed much of the American Constitution and was made possible by the preceding Reformation which challenged Catholicism's ultimate authority in Europe and led to the development of Protestantism, upon which all American Baptist denominations are based. It is common for American Baptists and Evangelicals to forget the history of their religious denominations, which were made possible by the historical challenging of ultimate religious authority. The majority of Christian denominations (excluding Catholicism, of course) in modern America originate from the historical challenge to the religious status quo and authority in public affairs in Europe prior to the Reformation. Thus, modern American Protestant opposition to the separation of church and state and the corresponding demonizing of ostensibly atheist proponents thereof is a shining example of gross hypocrisy and demonstrates a profound level of historical ignorance and nearsightedness. What the evangelical pastor I observed clearly failed to understand is that it is the very spirit separation of church and state which allows him to publicly preach his version of evangelical Christianity in the first place.
The Question of Morality
In debates about the separation of church and state between Christian opponents and ostensibly atheist proponents, the question of morality inevitably arises from one of the religious speakers. The question is often posed thus: "If you don't believe in God, where do you get your morals from? I get my morals from the Bible, but you don't get yours from anywhere." This is a valid question, and one to which there is a thorough and satisfying answer which fully legitimizes the potential to live morally as an atheist. What must first be understood is that the Bible is not always exemplary of profound moral integrity. Yet again, I take it upon myself to indicate the support for slavery which is spelled out in the biblical scripture. I do not bring this up to demonize Christianity or fixate on one of several dubious passages in the Bible. In fact, the Bible is certainly rich in constructive moral philosophy. However, it is clearly not the Bible alone which is responsible for humanity's moral compass when we consider its role in the uncomfortably recent history of slavery in the United States. Many slave owners used their interpretation of support for slavery as indicated in the Bible to justify slave ownership. My point is that morality is fluid and changes along with the shifting moral zeitgeist. The assumption at any given point in time is that the Bible stands as a flawless code of conduct for humanity when it is in fact a device which may or may not gel with standards of morality and require reinterpretation or rejection in order to fit into contemporary society. There are other examples, but slavery clearly demonstrates how the moral zeitgeist shifts independently of the Bible and that modern society has the capacity to makes necessary changes, such as the abolition of slavery, independent of the Bible.
Can We Be Good Without God?
In short, yes. To return to my earlier example, it was not the Bible which abolished slavery, but human reason and the shifting moral zeitgeist. Although the Bible offers extensive philosophical insight into morals and ethics, it is not the supreme source thereof. Secular philosophy and human reason can just as well function independently of religious scripture and make positive change in society and the world at large.