First place: Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Contest by Sara Schwabe

Challenge misconceptions about atheism, morality

FFRF awarded Sara $3,000.

By Sara Schwabe

Recent American social movements have increased acceptance of many oppressed groups. But studies show that atheists are still regarded with aversion and distrust. In a 2014 survey, the Pew Research Center found that atheists and Muslims were the most negatively viewed groups in the U.S. A study by the American Psychological Association found that, among communities with a religious majority, atheists are viewed with as much distrust as rapists!

Are these views justified? If atheists are so immoral and untrustworthy, they should be more likely to commit crimes. But according to recent studies, atheists make up as little as 0.07% of federal prisoners. When compared to the estimated 2.4% of Americans who are atheist, nonbelievers in prison are very underrepresented.

Studies have also found that violent crime rates are lower in secular nations and that life expectancy, economic stability, health care quality, education and standards of living are higher. Even divorce rates seem to be lower among nonreligious couples. Apparently, atheism does not lead to the ruined societies that many believers expect.
What then leads to these stereotypes? As part of a religious family that attended the Church of Christ, I was raised assuming that atheists must be selfish and immoral. But this idea changed rapidly when I began to lose faith myself. Ironically, it happened when my family tried to come closer to God.

We studied the bible together diligently and I began to find many inconsistencies. I became more open to associating with people I would have previously avoided, including several atheist families. I was shocked to find that they were more polite, intelligent, compassionate and moral than many Christians I knew.

Many believers would argue that morality only exists because of God. Without God’s commandments, how are we to know right from wrong? The problem with this is that it ignores human well-being and suffering; unless it is in relation to God and his apparent plan for humankind, the welfare of the individual and of society as a whole is irrelevant.
This belief can be dangerous. If one believes that his or her God commands something that may harm another human being, the fact that this order comes from God negates the fact that it will cause human suffering. This can lead to persecution of all sorts, from the mistreatment of women and gays to religious wars and terrorism.

How is this perspective, which is based on expectations of eternal punishments or rewards, more “moral” than the belief that our actions should be judged in accordance with how they impact others?

Religious believers argue that God’s commandments are absolute and eternal, but nonbelievers’ “morality” changes with the whims of society. But this argument collapses on closer inspection. Few Christians today would argue that slavery is moral, but many in the past used the bible to argue for slavery. Some Christian denominations today argue that men and women are equal, or that God is accepting of homosexuals, although the bible directly disagrees on both points and Christians historically have never approved of either.

In contrast, an atheist’s view of morality is based on living “right” for oneself and for others, as the consequences they must live with are here and now. This idea does not change with the times.

‘Protecting’ children

A common accusation against atheists is that they are undermining the morals and foundation of society, determined to destroy religious liberty and force secular ideas on everyone. America was built on the idea of questioning and criticizing powerful institutions and traditions. This should be encouraged, not demonized. If people are willing to examine something as powerfully established as religion, then they are certainly more willing to question practices and traditions that may be harmful to the rest of society.

Why should children be “protected” from this type of intellectual reasoning? If religion is as infallible as believers claim, then they should not be wary of those teaching their children to analyze it themselves.

Sadly, these arguments are unlikely to change the minds of many believers, since the belief that atheists are harmful to society is very deeply ingrained in their minds. What then can be done? From experience, I know that the only thing that convinced me that atheists could be compassionate and moral was personal observation. Until I saw nonbelievers behaving benevolently toward me and others, such arguments would not have changed my preconceptions.

Nonbelievers need to prove that they are behaving morally without a god; they can help the poor, treat others with respect, demonstrate honesty and work for the betterment of society without the promise of eternal reward or the threat of never-ending punishment. They need to behave in a way that believers would consider “Christ-like,” until they realize that such conduct does not require a “Christ” at all.

Sarah Schwabe, 23, is a sophomore psychology major at Indiana University in Bloomington, where she’s involved with the Secular Alliance. She’s interested in research in neuropsychology involving autism and other learning disabilities. “During my first semester in college, I had certainly walked away from my faith but was still hesitant to use the term ‘atheist.’ It had too many negative connotations due to my upbringing. It was only after meeting and befriending other self-proclaimed atheists that I was able to use the title myself.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation