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1/22/2007                                                                                       View Comments

An atheist has values that sound familiar

By DINA HAINES APPLEBY

Do you know any atheists? Polls show that 1 percent to 3 percent of Americans do not believe in God. If your circle of acquaintances is bigger than 100 people, chances are it contains an atheist, although you may not know it.

I never deny that I'm an atheist, but I don't always offer up that information. This is not because I am unsure or ashamed of my disbelief in God. I don't mind the questions or even occasional accusations that follow when I declare my atheism. I'm happy to discuss it.

But I hate thinking about the conversations that people have and the conclusions they draw when I'm not there to respond.

Living in America, this discussion usually plays out in terms of Judeo-Christian beliefs. The most common criticism about atheists is that without belief in God, we have no ethics or morals. A recent letter to the editor said, "No system of ethics ... can stand alone. To make [ethics] understandable to a child, it must be clothed in religious terms, such as having an omniscient, omnipotent father in Heaven." I completely disagree.

When a child hits another and the second child cries, the first one doesn't need to have read the Bible or gone to Sunday school to know his action was wrong. Nor does he need to fear eternal damnation to discourage him from doing it again.

I try to teach my children right from wrong with a simple principle that most Christians will recognize. "How would you like it if Johnny took all the toy trucks and wouldn't share them with you?" It's not as eloquent as "do unto others," but the message is the same and it gets the point across.

When it comes to solitary offenses, such as cheating on a test, I rely on my own honor and values. Truth and honesty are the values I try to teach my children, through words and example. I want others to see me as an honest person, and thus I make the decision not to cheat.

The guilt I feel when I go against my own values is probably not that different than the guilt a believer feels when she goes against her religious values. Although I don't fear God's judgment, I face the judgment of my friends and family, peers and professors, as well as my own conscience.

Since becoming an atheist several years ago, I haven't stopped giving money to charities or being friendly to my neighbors. However, I am part of the least tolerated group in America. Recent polls show that nearly half of Americans (47.6 percent) would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist.

When asked, "If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be an atheist, would you vote for that person?" Only 49 percent answered yes. For comparison, 59 percent said they'd be willing to vote for a homosexual. More than 90 percent were willing to vote for a woman, black or Jewish candidate.

Atheists don't believe in God, but that is the only generalization you can make about us. This doesn't mean that we are more immoral, uncaring or selfish than the rest of the population -- just as lack of belief in the divinity of Jesus doesn't make Jewish people more (insert your stereotype here) than others.

All of which brings me back to the question of whether you know any atheists. It's much easier to hate or distrust an abstract group of "others" than to hate or distrust the friendly woman in the next cubicle or the guy on your softball team who might not believe in God.

That is why I want people to know I'm an atheist. I encourage other atheists and agnostics to make their views known. This won't change our reputations overnight. But every time someone says, "Well, I have a friend who's an atheist ..." it's a step in the direction of tolerance, and that's a value I hold dear.

10 comments:

Carl Kaun said...

First of all, the polls I've seen suggest that somewhere around 10% of the U.S. population do not believe in a God. One in every ten. Rather more than the couple percent suggested.

I think that our values derive from three sources.

First, we are group (I won't say herd) animals, and as group animals we have evolved inherent mechanisms for surviving as part of a community. This includes such things as cooperation.

Second, we have empathy towards others. We are able to put ourselves in other people's situations and think how they must feel. This to the point of almost not being able to prevent it. Possibly a part of being an intelligent group animal.

Third, we have a self image that is important to us, that is built around the values acquired from our culture. My self-image, as that of most people, forces me to be honest and caring. This again is possibly part of being an intelligent group animal.

Our values and ethics derive from the above, and the ones that have worked are the ones that have survived. Religions take these very human values and incorporate them into the religions, because the religions wouldn't work without them. But religious values are derived from human values, not the other way around.

And you can understand this more fully by considering that religions have no original tenets against things like slavery. It is the human values of often religious people that have decided things like slavery, or stoning non-virgins are wrong, often reinterpreting religious tenets in the process.

Anonymous said...

Excellent essay, but I have to wonder where you got your statistics? Even the most conservative polls I have seen put those calling themselves atheists at around 15%. When you add in those who are essentially indifferent to the question, but are non-religious, it swells to around 25%. You don't have to know 100 people; around 4 will do it.

ryan said...

When I was serving at Ft Hood Texas, I knew a 1st Lt. named Carl Kaun. You might be him.

I appreciated you second point. Empathy is a power I have never been able to quite put away. Even when I am driving and I see road-kill, it hurts my feelings. Thus it is that moral response is located within me, not in some holy book.

But morals have no objective basis.
First, I have not evolved as a flatworm. I have evolved as me. I might be a serial killer.

Second, I have empathic responses,of course, but the death of a human being means no more than the death of a possum. We might have feelings, but without a god we are simply left confronting our feelings.

Third (and this is the hard part)may the gods forbid that I have values acquired from my culture. To this day I quake in terror at the very memory of my upbringing. My culture.......jesusfuckingxrist. I did not know what self-esteem was until I ditched my culture.

Nietzsche said that atheism makes a man innocent. I daresay that most atheists still wish to affirm an ethics of some sort--and that is fine--but there is no final scheme of things that provides a meaning for our actions. We leave the house in the morning, as innocent as a newborn kitten, and we choose what we are going to do. We choose what we are going to be. Whatever those choices may be, we are going to a 6 foot hole in the ground and it does not matter.


Good will, sir. All my respect.

spirula said...

In line with what Carl stated, you might find this book a rather fascinating perspective on the origins of religion/gods. It is written by a primatologist. The summary at the website below is sufficient to see how this fits into this comment thread.

http://www.randomhouse.com/doubleday/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780385511049&view=excerpt

Anonymous said...

Sorry to pile on, but more like 18-21% have either said that they don't believe or don't know whether God exists. Only 52% say that thay are certain God exists....

Anonymous said...

"Sorry to pile on, but more like 18-21% have either said that they don't believe or don't know whether God exists. Only 52% say that thay are certain God exists...."

If this continues, we'll be down to 5 Christians in the US and one of those is George W Bush...

LOL

Love

GH

Dave, not the WM said...

Here's a link to a Harris Poll that gives a decent breakdown of what percent believes in God.

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify, my Christian belief is that God places a morale inside of individuals. Therefore stating one has empathy but doesn't read the bible, I would not disagree with that.

JV said...

Anony: "Therefore stating one has empathy but doesn't read the bible, I would not disagree with that."

Me either, heck, I usually ask why one needs the bible at all :-)

Sarge said...

A fundy I used to perform with once told me that the non christian didn't know right from wrong. I invited her to find one, wrong them, and see what happened. She said, "that's different." Cognitive difference.