To me, it’s scary to think I live in the world with people who believe this way. To think only your belief in God is what keeps you from being a bad person? You have no human decency? You have no compassion? You only have your belief in a man in the sky to keep you from doing wrong?
That’s scary to the rest of us who live on secular humanism and empathy, based in something much stronger and much more sound.
This question got me thinking about the culture in which I grew up. I’ve mentioned before that we had a completely nonreligious household. My parents are not religious, particularly my father, who is (or at least was throughout my childhood) an atheist. He’s also one of the kindest, most deeply empathetic people I’ve ever met. I don’t recall ever hearing him say an unkind word to anyone, even people who wronged him. He has an acute sensitivity to the suffering of others and is always more than willing to help people in need.
My parents’ nonreligious friends were much the same way. They were all committed to doing the right thing, following the Golden Rule, and otherwise being good, moral people. I’d like to think that I was generally a good person as well.
In my late teens, I became curious about our moral code. I knew what we agreed upon as right and wrong, I just wasn’t sure about the why‘s behind it. I was challenged to better articulate it in college when I was exposed to some shocking ideas by self-proclaimed free thinkers. I heard some folks on campus saying that it would be more ethical to kill a newborn baby than to kill a pig since pigs are more intelligent and aware of their surroundings; or that it would be more acceptable to use the flesh of healthy deceased humans for food rather than eating animals; or that perhaps we shouldn’t give too much aid to certain groups of people since humanity would be better off without their genes in the gene pool.
Defending my stance against viewpoints like these made me take a hard look at my own understanding of what is right and what is wrong. I’d always assumed that the ultimate goal of any person’s life is to help the human species survive and thrive, and that our moral code is derived from that. But, upon closer inspection, that didn’t sit right for a lot of reasons, one of them being that it left too much room to justify those last two ideas I’d heard on campus.
At some point a friend and fellow atheist said that her moral code ultimately boiled down to: “be nice, seek happiness, don’t harm others.” This sounded good, but I didn’t see what that was founded on. With the species survival goal, at least I could see how we could derive that from the material world alone. But what in the material world would lead us to believe that any of these things are what humans are supposed to be doing?
Valuing other people’s lives, showing kindness and empathy to others, putting other people before yourself, seeking happiness — these things all sounded right, but I saw no evidence from looking at the evolution of our species or the way the chemistry of our brains worked that would clearly indicate that any of these things were objectively good. If someone were to argue that being completely selfish is fine, that killing other people is OK if they threaten to weaken the species, that the humans who have superior intelligence or skills are more valuable than those who don’t, that it’s a waste of precious time to empathize with others, I would have thought that they were seriously wrong…but it would have been hard to prove my case from looking at the natural world alone, and there was certainly no evidence I could offer that a person could not just as easily interpret another way. It started to seem to me that there was no such thing as an objectively true moral code, that rights and wrongs were all just a matter of opinion.
Yet something about that idea nagged at me. Some part of me, deep down inside, felt that there was something transcendent about concepts like “love” and “kindness” and “selflessness” and “empathy” and “charity, ” that they were good objectively, regardless of any person’s opinion, and they were extant and true regardless of anything that happened in the material world.
Little did I know, that realization was a brush with God.
At the time, when I heard religious people talk about their morals coming from God, it sounded not only preposterous but dangerous. I thought that they were basically saying, “we do the right thing because God tells us to, ” which begged the questions of why they couldn’t do the right thing without imagining they were receiving instructions from some unseen deity, and why so many nonbelievers were good people (often better people than the believers). Also, it seemed extremely dangerous to place too much stock in the opinions of some mysterious “Man in the Sky” that only some people seem to be able to see — it seemed obvious that that sort of situation would quickly lead to manipulation and abuse by those who were supposedly in the know with this deity.
What I didn’t know at the time was that that was not an accurate description of the believer’s understanding of God. Looking back, I don’t think that the believers and I were as far apart as it seemed.
What I discovered years later was that God is not some Man in the Sky who tells us to be good; he is all that is good. To quote the Cynical Christian, when we say that “God is good” we’re not describing what God is, we’re describing what good is. The reason we seek that which is good — the reason we yearn for a world of love, peace and harmony despite never having seen anything of the sort — is because our souls, which are not of this world, are aware that the closer we get to these things the closer we get to our true home. Some part of us is aware that the world around us, the only world our eyes have ever seen, is not where we belong. What I found is that the line between nonbelief and belief is thinner than it seemed, and that it is crossed when you take those yearnings for peace and harmony and love and all that is good and follow them to their source. It is there that you find God. And to dedicate your life to God is nothing more or less than to dedicate your life to the Source of all that is good.
I think of all the atheists I know who strive to be good, moral people. To use my father as an example, he is so dedicated to living a life of love, kindness and empathy that if it were scientifically proven tomorrow that these things were neither beneficial to the individual nor to society, my guess is that he would still live a life of love, kindness and empathy. If he explained his line of thinking he’d probably say that if these things are not good and true, then nothing is good and true; that, in some ways, they’re more real than reality. And in that sense, we both believe in God.