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What is Ethical Atheism?

Posted by on 08/07/2017

Although the words ‘ethical atheism’ seem self-explanatory, they are for some people a contradiction in terms. Many people of religion believe that there can be no such thing as ethical atheism because being an atheist makes a person evil. Without God, what can give us morals, rules to live by, incentive towards being good rather than evil. What is to stop a non-believer from stealing and murdering? With no rules given by a holy book to live by, surely an atheist can do whatever he or she wants without fear of consequences?

This belief in the evils of atheism is particularly prevalent in the United States, where it is almost impossible, for example, to get into public office as an atheist. What this means is that either a politician, judge, or other elected official has to express a belief in God, whether they believe in a deity or not. Almost every politician will end a speech with the words, ‘God bless you and God bless America.’

From Pew Research, Almost All Presidents have been Christians

Another recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows that many Americans care about their leaders’ faith. For instance, half of all American adults say it’s important for a president to share their religious beliefs. And more people now say there is too little religious discussion by their political leaders (40%) than say there is too much (27%). (By David Masci, a writer at the Pew Research Centre.)

What naturally follows from this is that in some way most Americans believe that not having religious belief, or at least belief in a deity, means that someone is unsuitable for public office. From Centerforenquiry.net, ‘Most polls still put atheists near or on the top of the list for Americans who donate.’

From the Centre for Enquiry there is a also a quote from Abraham Lincoln, who was probably a closet atheist, given his admiration for Thomas Paine and Voltaire: Lincoln was once asked by an opponent if he planned on going to heaven or hell. Lincoln replied, ‘I intend to go to Congress.’

Some researchers believe that there have been only four atheist or non-religiously affiliated US Presidents, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, William Howard Taft, and possibly Chester Alan Arthur, who according to the author Melanie Cornell at the Centre for Enquiry, quotes President Arthur as saying, ‘I may be president of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s damn business.’

There have probably been many more US Presidents who were secretly atheist, but needed the religious vote, so played their cards carefully, dutifully sending out ‘prayers’ to the victim of disasters, and putting in their fair share of ‘God Bless America’.

One can easily imagine political advisers to Presidents editing speeches to get more of the religious vote. As a thinking person, with a healthy degree of scepticism about what politicians think compared to what they actually say, my own view is that the two are often completely different, which is why I take the view that if you want the truth from a politician, listen to what they say, and assume the opposite is true. This practice has worked for me on many occasions.

But I digress. Back to the question, ‘What is Ethical Atheism?’.

This is not really a difficult question to answer. An ethical atheist is simply a person with no belief in any god, but is nevertheless ethical in both public and private life. And I think it is safe to say that atheists who have developed their own ethics based on compassion and human kindness, can be and often are more ethical than people of religion. By ethical, I mean kinder, more compassionate, less prone to hurt others including animals, less likely to go to war (although of course there have been some horrific atheist warmongers), but as I’ve said before in this blog, their atheism was not the cause of their wars, and their soldiers were as a rule, following orders rather than fuelled by religious fanaticism. And their political/military leaders were not ethical atheists.

So where do we atheists get or morals – our ethics – our sense of right and wrong from? For the main part, from the same place that most people of religion get their morals, and that is most definitely not from a holy book, unless they pick and choose the good bits and ignore all the horrors and commands to punish transgressions. Were people of religion to follow the codes effectively written in stone in their holy books, young women would still be stoned to death for having sex before marriage. Gay people and those considered to be witches would still be killed for their practices. And in fact, there is proof of this, because in countries where Sharia Law is the rule of law, as Roman Catholicism had the rule of law during the Spanish Inquisition, witches are still burned, and those who are found to be gay or have had sex before marriage, even if they are victims of rape, are often stoned to death or otherwise killed, often being tortured or whipped first.

Ethical Atheists like most moderate religious believers would never do such things. Atheists do not whip crowds of people into murderous frenzies to kill anyone who has burned or otherwise slandered Christopher Hitchens book, ‘God is Not Great’, or other books of a similar nature.

Yet even the mention of someone in some way misusing the Koran or slandering their ‘holy prophet’ can have whole villages tearing a person apart in some Islamic states. It is like witch burning in pre-enlightened Europe – even a whisper of a rumour, often wrong or instigated by an enemy, can mean the death of an innocent, (they are just assumed to be guilty) and the punishments are fully endorsed in the holy books of Islam – the so-called Religion of Peace, now sometimes being dubbed the Religion of Pieces, as more and more generally young, naive, and full of holy fire radicalised Islamists blow themselves and others to pieces in the name of Allah or the Prophet, with the promise of martyrdom and many virgins to do with as they choose, in the Paradise they imagine where their martyrdom will be rewarded.

The truth is that ethical atheists get their values from their own thoughts on what is right and wrong, what is the compassionate thing to do, and what it is, to quote Professor Anthony Grayling, ‘To live the good life’.

Atheists have as a rule, been shown to give more to (non-religious) charities, more help to the homeless and the poor, and be more compassionate towards animals (since for one thing, they do not believe God gave them dominion over animals).

In a fairly recent study (Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 22, p2951 – 2955, 16 November 2015) the authors reported that

  • Religiousness predicts parent-reported child sensitivity to injustices and empathy
  • Family religious identification decreases children’s altruistic behaviours
  • Children from religious households are harsher in their punitive tendencies

This is about what should be expected, since many of these children have been exposed to information about the religious punishments meted out by their supreme deity and its followers.

So to summarise what was a very easy question to answer, ethical atheists are simply good people doing what good people everywhere do. Using compassion, being kind and generally friendly, using their inbuilt morality and working for the common good of humanity. Religious people could and should learn a lot about kindness and humanity from ethical atheists, because people who think for themselves rather than believe what they have been told are less likely to be prejudiced by those who foster hatred for their political or financial agenda. Today especially is a dangerous time in the history of humanity. There is too much hatred being fostered in the name of religion, and that’s a bad thing about religion!

Finally, it’s worth watching this great video: Atheists On Religion, Science, And Morality (The Point)

I know that I’m preaching to the converted here. But please share this article on Facebook or other social media. We need to get the word out to the world, and to the USA in particular, that atheists are not evil by nature. You can use the links below to share on social media, or this short link when sharing anywhere: http://wp.me/p23b3p-Ly