Morality: The Product of Human Reason, Not Divine Decree (November 2001)

Human beings are not taught to be atheists; we are born that way. The concept of God is nebulous, irrational, and inconsistent; hardly something a child would imagine. Adherence to religion, therefore, is not innate. It is taught. Our culture is infected with theology because it has become an institution deeply ingrained in our society and our psyches. One of the most disturbing facets of this institution is the myth that morality and piety are inseparably intertwined. Atheism, then, is deemed utterly evil.

As a life-long atheist, I maintain that this assertion is both ridiculous and dangerous. I was fortunate enough to be born into an environment where no such myths were embraced. Staunch supporters of truth, my parents never attempted to impose religion on me. While they gave me the option to attend church if I desired, both my mother and father admitted that they had abandoned any such practices by the time they were adolescents. Although my sister and I took an interest in learning about the history and practices of various world religions, we never felt the slightest inclination to adopt any of them; indeed, even to the mind of a six-year-old, the teachings and trappings of religion seemed absurd.

Many people hear this and expect us to be immoral; this is far from the case. In fact, we are some of the few individuals I know who operate on internal codes of right and wrong, rather than externally imposed rules. Many believe that the Ten Commandments and other such divine decrees are the only thing preventing men from falling into a cesspool of their own base desires. This misassumption is indicative of the self-effacing philosophy that pervades religion. All religious doctrines are based on a low estimation of humankind’s worth. Perhaps because of their own weaknesses, people who subscribe to the idea of God do so because they cannot bear the burden of their own existence. Fear, not only of God’s wrath, but also of responsibility for their own actions, makes people cling to a figure which reason (fear’s opposite) deems totally false.

By the time that I was seven years old, I realized the uniqueness of my position. It seemed absurd to me that my classmates and my teachers, well-respected adults, invested faith in some supposedly omnipotent figure of which they had no direct knowledge. Of course the more evangelistically inclined students in my class would strike out against my criticisms of Christianity, claiming that the bible was proof of God’s existence. This argument never swayed me; if the bible affirms the existence of God, then why don’t we still believe in Zeus? The Greek Myths stated that he was real, yet everyone now regards tales of Mount Olympus to be no more than stories, used both to entertain and to explain natural phenomena (such as lightning, stellar patterns, and planetary motions), which at the time seemed magical.

This argument represented the first in a series of schoolyard defenses of my atheism. Yet no matter how hard I tried to appeal to my peers’ logic, they always turned the disagreement into an attack on my character. Because I didn’t go to church, it followed that I was a “bad” person. Never mind that I was known around the elementary school for my consideration and kindness; as soon as my atheism came out, I became viewed as a little walking heathen. Kids would spit the word “pagan” at me, probably without even realizing what it meant.

Through high school, despite my straight As and drug-free lifestyle, many parents discouraged their kids from spending time with me; evidently I was a “bad influence.” During my sophomore year, when I engaged in heated debates about the existence of God in philosophy class, I actually had a girl tell me that I was a “terrible human being.” Incidents like this perplexed me more than hurt me; because I had always been encouraged to question and analyze my own beliefs and surroundings, I could not understand their inability to look objectively at the spiritual systems that seemed so vital to their lives.

Despite controversies in high school, I thrived socially within a small but tightknit group of other non-believers. Not only that, but my peers chose me as graduation speaker out of a class of two hundred. While their so-called “piety” rejected me as an immoral, unenlightened idiot, their reason couldn’t ignore my 3.9 GPA and skills as a speaker. Perhaps for the first time in years, religion was never mentioned at the graduation ceremony.

This victory was short-lived. When I enrolled at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, I expected an environment that encouraged scientific skepticism and rationality. What I found, however, was a campus saturated with Christian a cappella groups and dogmatic frat boys who had no qualms about putting date-rape pills in girls’ beers, yet called me “blasphemous” and “immoral” when I argued against prayer in school. During more than one evening study session, I was interrupted by the cries of “I love Jesus, yes I do! I love Jesus, how ’bout you!” coming from the common room in my dorm; evidently, no one else had a problem with religious meetings taking place in the dorm during study hours.

After a few weeks at school, I decided to fight back. I began writing opinion columns for our college newspaper, the Flat Hat. One article, which argued against an a cappella group’s impromptu sermon in the middle of a secular event, elicited threatening e-mails and phone calls from over-zealous students. Once again, I had people telling me that I was “going to hell,” and that I was a “selfish” and “shameful” human being.

Unfortunately, such reactions are almost universal. On the Citizens for Ten Commandments website, an anonymous author claims that “atheists think they live morally, since they don’t end up in prisons, but this is simply because atheists have made laws which exclude most criminal acts of atheists from the penalty of incarceration.” Religious followers also declare that atheists lack a set moral code; thus, their behavior vacillates according to social mores and self-indulgent whims. Such claims about the immorality of atheism make sense when you consider the religious mentality, which treats man as an eternal child. Because all religions paint people as incapable of self-governance, they assume that we need rules imposed by a parental god-figure. Anyone who rejects the god-figure must reject those rules, and is therefore evil.

What such claims fail to recognize is that morality is not the product of divine decree, but of logical reasoning. The ultimate goal is to live life to the fullest. Human cooperation and interaction are, of course, necessary for the realization of this goal. It follows naturally that we have developed a code of conduct that balances self-preservation with preservation of and respect for others. Because religious people adhere to the notion of their own intellectual infancy, they maintain that such basic ideas as “Thou shalt not kill” have to come from an exterior source. An atheist, however, understands that these morals are the natural products of the human mind. In fact, I make the claim that atheists are more moral than religious adherents because, for us, justice is its own end. Religious people, however, see justice as a means to a blessed and eternal end.

Preaching the immorality of atheists is destructive not only because it creates a misrepresentation of our views, but also because it prevents potential nonbelievers from straying away from their religion and investigating reality. Instead of exploring their world empirically, they write off reality as “unknowable” and attribute all its mechanisms to the “mysterious ways of God.” Just as the Greeks tried to explain natural phenomenon with omnipotent deities, so present-day believers use the complexity and wonder of the physical world as proof of God’s existence.

Human inability to understand everything about the way our world works does not mean that God exists; it simply means that we still have a lot to learn. Religion, in its purest and earliest forms, was one of humankind’s attempts to understand the world. In this respect, it is born of the same vein that fathered science. The sad irony here is that religion, outdated and crude in its attempts to make sense of the universe, now handicaps scientific progress. Where reason and science try to advance, faith and religion try to stagnate.

This is frighteningly evident in school systems, even today. Half a century after the Scopes trial, some schools still forbid teaching evolution. Even at my high school, a relatively forward-thinking public institution, students were given the option of independent study during lectures pertaining to the history of our origins. It horrified me that someone would be allowed to graduate after blatantly evading such a vital part of modern science. Had I refused to participate in the “Bible as Literature” section of my ninth grade English class, I would have been laughed at, ostracized, and probably failed the course. How is teaching evolution any different?

As inappropriate as it is to bring religion into the classroom, I recognized that the bible plays an unfortunately important role in human history, therefore becoming acquainted with it in a secular sense is not out of the question. No one forces science students to accept evolution; they simply need to acknowledge it as an option. The church’s insistence that evolution remain out of our textbooks is born of a fear that, once people begin employing their logic, the system will crumble.

Another one of the church’s most effective vehicles for enforcing this stagnation is our own government. Enter yet another sad irony: our democracy, founded by men who were primarily rationalists, is very much influenced by religion. The Christian Coalition is one of the most potent forces in politics today. In our last presidential race, both candidates scrambled to appear as pious and brimstone-fearing as possible before the cameras, often conjuring up God in speeches.

Although organized spirituality is supposed to be restricted to the private sector in America, the destructive potency of religion in political, educational and social spheres is staggering. This power is reinforced by the delusion that religion is necessary for social order. As long as humans doubt their own reason and the capability of non-believers to be responsible, moral individuals, this system will not change. Religion will stay entrenched in all sectors of our society, and everyone who does not buy into the mythology will be discredited by claims against our characters. As a second-generation atheist, I am confident that humanity will not reach its full potential until we accept responsibility for our actions, recognize our ability to hold ideals based on reason not threats of damnation, and commit ourselves not to preparation for an invented afterlife, but to lives as human beings, here and now.

Freedom From Religion Foundation