Are atheists more moral than those of us who do not classify ourselves that way? I often think they are. Perhaps this is why they aren't unnerved about the long-term effects of atheism; they are doing fine, and they assume everyone else will, too.
The 'new atheists' are basically moral and well-behaved, so they don't realize that some of us are moral and well-behaved simply to keep from burning in hell for all eternity.
If there was no God or no law or no karma, we would SETTLE SOME SCORES.
I started thinking about this after participating on an atheist blog some years ago, when I was still identifying as Christian. I was struck by the fact that one of my serious questions was thought to be a joke, or at the least, a sarcastic rejoinder. It wasn't. I was dead serious. But the atheists didn't think I was serious, and that is what I found alarming: this means they do not understand what a serious matter it is.
Once again, I felt we were trying to communicate across a huge abyss.
I asked, "What about the fact that believing there is a God, keeps lots of people from killing each other?"
HAHAHA, they all responded, virtually as one unit. Well, they sneered back, one can learn not to kill someone without God. They acted like it was a simple decision, not a seductive thought that one consciously wrestles with (as in Woody Allen's great movie Crimes and Misdemeanors); an act that you eventually logically decide is... not nice. And so, you don't do it.
But why not, in that case? I asked what would be the deterrent, if there is no hell-fire? No bad karma and/or no punishment? Again, they sneered and thought I was joking or being a wise-ass. (It is also notable that they apparently assumed I was talking about someone else, i.e. The Bad People, rather than myself and other regular people like me.)
I wasn't. I was being rational. Belief systems (various kinds) have kept a lot of us from going off on people and committing violence. If there is no divine retribution, no holy justice, no guarantee the evil will be punished... do you understand how dangerous such an idea is?
Let me be very clear: Do the privileged understand that if the poor stop believing in God, they will no longer be safe? Are they ready for that world? Because I don't mind telling you, I'm not.
"Are you saying God is the only reason people act morally? What does that say about you and your view of humanity?"
My view of humanity is utterly realistic: humans have enslaved each other, pillaged, raped, and committed mass genocide. There have been Final Solutions, prison camps and Gulags. People have killed each other for insurance policies, parking places, brand-name shoes and having the wrong tattoos. And this has been possible even though the perpetrators DID believe in divine retribution and everlasting hell-fire. What if they stopped? What if all that matters is only what we see right in front of us: what you can get away with?
Will that be a better world? Doesn't it frighten you?
I don't think it frightens the atheists, because they are intrinsically moral people. This is why they can do without Gods, while the rest of us have floundered, made serious moral errors, became addicted or went to jail ... we have messed up again and again. We have had to pray late into the night, to be delivered from soul-devouring anger, envy or desires for revenge. We have suddenly left crowded parties because if we didn't, we were going to grab someone by the hair and throw them into the wall, before they even knew what hit them. We can taste the blood; we want to HURT people. We want to make them PAY.
And then, we tell ourselves, wait, that isn't up to me: Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. (This phrase has the effect of deflating my anger immediately.) Karma, we assure ourselves, will deal with that individual. It isn't up to me. "What goes around comes around"--we remind ourselves and everyone around us. The overriding concept, of course, is that there WILL be justice. Therefore, I do not have to be the one to administer it.
But you atheists are telling me--it IS something I should administer myself, or it won't get done? You tell me justice will not inevitably happen?
This is something I wrote about in an old post, first quoting bell hooks:
[Quote from bell hooks]: my grandfather [was a black] sharecropper, and definitely the white man was on his back, but what I remember about that, when this man would walk through his fields and see his vegetables that he grew, he’d say, “See these vegetables. White men cannot make the sun shine. They cannot control..”What do the atheists intend for us losers who use religion and sky-fairies to feel better? (If religion is indeed the opiate of the masses, do atheists think believers will happily greet the people who propose to take away our opiates?) What do they have to put in its place? Will it serve the same purpose(s) and properly spur us to leave the party when we see the person we want to throw headlong into the wall? Or will we think, hey, fuck it, NO GOD, NO MASTERS, and follow them into the restroom where there are no surveillance cameras and dunk their head into the toilet repeatedly, as in LA Confidential?
I mean here’s a black man who did not go to school, who did not have an education. But he found a sense of self that transcended the idea of him as a victim. Because he could say “yes white men have power over my life. They exploit and terrorize me, but at the end of the day, there’s a power higher than white men that I can lend my imagination to.”
[my comment]: And I would add, this is one reason why belief in god(s) has such a hold on people. To some, it is a synonym for a higher justice, a higher truth, a higher law--above and beyond unjust earthly authorities that dominate us on a daily basis.
When the atheists sneer at that, it can be experienced by non-privileged believers as endorsing the material world as it is (with oppressive powers intact) and negating the self-preservationist experiences of the oppressed.
For some of us, morality has not been easy. We have had to work at it, think about it, study it and dedicate our lives to it. We study theology and religion, because we are obsessed with morals. If you rip the rug of theology/religion/rules/myth out from under us, it would leave us empty, since this is where we initially got our morality from (in a way that we could understand) and how we learned to integrate it into our being. Some of us really do need the rules... because if there aren't any, we will go hog-wild. We know this, since we already have. We have to engage in continuous remedial education about the rules, and the reasons for them, to keep us from breaking them again and again.
I think the 'new atheists' underestimate the importance of God/belief systems in keeping us moral. Is it possible that the atheists are more moral than the rest of us, and do not need rules to govern their behavior? How can we impress upon them, that for some of us, it is in the interests of society that we adhere to these beliefs, or there could be unbridled chaos, Lord of the Flies?
And why have so few believers made this argument? Probably because believers like to think they are moral. This is likely because we think about morality a good deal; I think this is because WE HAVE TO, TO STAY MORAL.
The reason so many religious adherents believe atheists could not be moral, is because WE cannot imagine ourselves moral in the same existential circumstances.
At the end of Flannery O'Connor's short story, Good Country People, the simple country man posing as an innocent Bible salesman is suddenly uncovered as a freaky, abusive sociopath. The educated, atheist PhD in the story, has accepted him at face value ... right up to the end of the story, when he unexpectedly and cruelly humiliates her. "You ain't so smart," he schools her, "I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!"
The end of this story, and those words, have always chilled me to the bone. Because whenever I read all the highly-educated atheist discussions on the net; whenever I read ultra-smart authors like Steven Pinker; whenever I admire the smart, self-sufficient, rational atheists who know where they are going and how to get there... I suddenly remember the sociopathic Bible salesman. And I worry that the 'new atheism' may be more successful than it should be. It might branch out from the moral, rational, educated people like Steven Pinker and Dan Fincke... to sociopaths-in-training, like O'Connor's Bible salesman... and to morally-struggling (and/or morally-confused) people like me. I think I am a fairly average person in many ways, and I know that the overall message we take away from the New Atheism, may not be the fresh-faced utopian vision of ideological and intellectual freedom, that the new atheists obviously wish for us. The atheists believe that their cleansing experience of rationality would also be ours, but our experience might not be anything remotely like that.
It may be the experience of finally doing those things that we have always held back... because... well, why not?
And I wish they would start taking that idea seriously.