Atheists Aren’t a Bad Lot

Dan Gardner

Can we be good without God? That’s a very old question believers like to ask because, I suspect, the answer is very pleasing to them.

No, they say, we cannot be good without believing in an invisible spirit who, like Santa Claus, knows when we’ve been bad or good. No invisible spirit, no reward or punishment. No reward or punishment and moral codes become empty words. Inevitably, atheists must conclude that morality is for suckers—and so believers are, ipso facto, better people than nonbelievers.

There was a time when there wasn’t more to say on the subject. Almost everyone believed in a god or gods, and those few who didn’t kept their mouths shut lest others conclude they were the sort of lying, thieving, murderous wretches people inevitably become when they stop genuflecting to invisible spirits.

Alas—some would say—faith has eroded over the centuries. Today, substantial numbers of people have decided that until such time as there is proof of the existence of Santa Claus, they will not believe Santa Claus exists. Ditto for God. And they’re open about their disbelief.

This has complicated the issue considerably, because now everyone knows a few atheists who are not lying, thieving, murderous wretches. They work. They pay taxes. They have kids and don’t beat them or sell them for medical experiments. How can this be?

An answer comes from the godless science of evolutionary psychology. “People have gut feelings that give them emphatic moral convictions,” writes Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, “and they struggle to rationalize the convictions after the fact.” Those “gut feelings” are not the result of what we learned in Sunday school. “They arise from the neurobiological and evolutionary design of the organs we call moral emotions.”

Physically, humans are pretty pathetic. We’re weak and slow and our fangs wouldn’t frighten a raccoon. We do, however, have really big brains and, by working together, our ancient ancestors could survive and thrive. But working together required humans to follow certain rules, even when doing so was contrary to their short-term interests.

Say you covet your neighbor’s cave. You could just smash his skull and move in. But you need your neighbor’s help in the mammoth hunt. And besides, if you smash his skull and take his cave, someone else might get the same idea. So in the long run, both your neighbor and you will be better off if everybody agrees it is wrong to smash thy neighbor’s skull.

Humans who learned to restrain themselves prospered. Those who didn’t vanished. Over time, the internalized rules we call morality became hardwired instinct.

That instinct remains no matter what we believe about invisible spirits. And its force is not diminished by recognizing its origins in biology: we can no more choose not to feel moral impulses than we can choose not to feel sexual desire.

So it’s no surprise to learn that atheists can be perfectly decent people. They are human, after all.

This has led believers to a subtler attack. “People who don’t believe in God can be good,” writes Reginald Bibby, a theist and University of Lethbridge sociologist. “But people who believe in God are more likely to value being good, enhancing the chances that they will be good.”

Mr. Bibby’s evidence is a widely reported poll he conducted in which higher percentages of believers than nonbelievers said values such as kindness, forgiveness, and patience were “very important.”

“To the extent that Canadians say goodbye to God,” Bibby concluded, “we may find that we pay a significant social price.” So occasional atheists may be fine people, but in general they’re not as nice as theists, and if their numbers rise society will go to hell in a handbasket.

One of the many problems with Bibby’s thesis is that his poll asks about qualities that religions typically present as dogmas. Kindness is good. Period. No discussion. It just is. The same goes for forgiveness and all the others.

So it’s no surprise that believers would simply say, yes, these are very important. That’s what their dogma says. But an atheist is less likely to approach morality dogmatically. She might feel, for example, that kindness is good but she can imagine circumstances in which it’s not appropriate. To reflect that, she may rate it “important” instead of “very important.” That wouldn’t mean she’s a less moral person. It would mean she’s more thoughtful.

Worse, Bibby simply assumes a link between what people casually say, what they feel, and how they behave—an assumption belied by heaps of academic research, not to mention plain old common sense. Televangelists would get boffo scores in Bibby’s poll. Does that mean they are models of moral behavior? Anyone who believes that is invited to send a contribution to the Church of Latter-day Skeptics at my Ottawa Citizen e-mail address.

To get around this, we have to look at how people behave. As it turns out, the lowest levels of religious belief and weekly church attendance in the world—possibly the lowest in history—are found in Northern European countries. These societies are not lacking in basic moral qualities. In fact, they may be the most tolerant, peaceful, compassionate, orderly societies that have ever existed.

If that’s the fate of countries that say goodbye to God, it will be a good day when we see the back of that old fraud.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2007

Dan Gardner

Dan Gardner is a columnist for The Ottawa Citizen (Canada), in which this article appeared on October 12, 2007. It is reprinted with permission.

Can we be good without God? That’s a very old question believers like to ask because, I suspect, the answer is very pleasing to them. No, they say, we cannot be good without believing in an invisible spirit who, like Santa Claus, knows when we’ve been bad or good. No invisible spirit, no reward or …

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