Theism, the belief in a personal god who takes an interest in and possibly intervenes in human affairs, has at its core an inherent preoccupation with morals. The interest that such a god takes is first and foremost a moral interest, involving approval or disapproval of the behavior of various human beings or groups. Indeed, theists generally hold that their god is the origin of all moral principles. From this belief, it is a small step to the idea that moral behavior is impossible without belief in God—preferably the “correct” god (i.e., the particular god proclaimed by the brand of theism to which the believer adheres) or at least to some similar god.
Even deists of the Enlightenment era—who rejected the concept of a personal god, thus disavowing divine intervention and revelation—perpetuated these two ideas. Indeed, deism was born of the desire to abandon the revelation dogma of theism without adopting atheism, because the deists held that a divine system of rewards and punishments was necessary for civilized society. Thus, the deists maintained the cornerstone of the very religions that they ostensibly rejected.
Divine Origins of Morality
The belief that morals are of divine origin can be called “moralistic creationism” (MC). Generally the term creationism is used in the context of biology and reserved for the position that some divinity created the various species of living beings. Here, the expression moralistic creationism is used to indicate the belief that morals are divinely created and inspired. Like biological creationism, it is baseless and indeed antiscientific.
And like all variants of creationism, MC has no explanatory power whatsoever; indeed, it raises more questions than it answers. Having invoked the role of a divine creator, how does one then explain the origin of that creator or how he/she/it arrived at whatever moral principles he/she/it imposes? Two and a half millenia ago, Socrates summed up the futility of MC with a simple but insightful question that can be paraphrased thus: Is the “good” good because the gods say so, or is it good in and of itself? The first option undermines morality by reducing it to mere caprice; the second makes the gods irrelevant. Adolf Grünbaum, in his “The Poverty of Theistic Morality,” follows Socrates’ line of thought to the conclusion that “ethics must be extraneously imported or tacked on to theism on extra-theological, worldly grounds.”
Also, like creationism in general, MC is an utterly gratuitous idea with no basis in empirical observation, for there is no solid evidence to support the thesis (or rather, the prejudice) that nonbelievers are less moral than believers. Indeed, there is evidence tending to falsify this idea, in particular the inverse correlation between religiosity and societal health seen in various countries across the world. It should be emphasized that even if we ignore this falsifying evidence, the case for MC still remains essentially null. MC is an extraordinary theory, and the burden of proof lies upon those who promote it. They have not provided such proof.
The implications of MC are disturbing, because if “God” is the wellspring of all morality, then those who claim to speak in the name of that god arrogate to themselves part of the divinity’s absolute moral authority. Furthermore, those who do not believe in that god’s existence must be suspected of being devoid of morals. Thus, MC has a strong tendency to degenerate into moral arrogance and into mistrust and fear of—even hate propaganda against—atheists.
Despite their vacuity, moralistic creationism and atheophobia remain extremely widespread and are manifested in a variety of ways. These range from the commonplace—such as the attitude that attending religious services will, in some vague manner, make one a better person—to the hateful assertion that atheists are necessarily morally inferior to believers. Indeed, the association of morality with religion is so common, even among nonbelievers themselves, that many are barely conscious of having made it. The idea that somehow religion “owns” morals and ethics is an example—probably the most important and dangerous such example—of a metabelief, what Daniel Dennett calls “belief in belief,” widely held and rarely questioned even among those who have no remaining conscious religious beliefs.
What Is to Be Done?
Atheophobia dates back at least to Plato, who invented the concept of concentration camps and suggested filling them with atheists. It is a morally repugnant ideology, every bit as reprehensible as racism. When expressed explicitly—for example by Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus, who baldly claimed that atheists cannot be good citizens—atheophobia is hate propaganda. A religious spokesperson who publicly asserts that atheists are morally inferior to believers is on the same ethical level as an ideologue who asserts that Jews are morally inferior to Aryans.
Atheophobia is the template for all religious bigotry and intolerance. Even if atheists constitute a marginalized minority, atheism can be seen paradoxically as a universal value, because every person is an atheist with respect to the gods of others. To fight against this dirty old prejudice is to promote freedom of conscience not only for atheists and other nonbelievers but indeed for everyone.
Moralistic creationism is arguably the most widely held and dangerous of all religious beliefs. Fighting against MC’s proximate corollary, atheophobia, is an essential duty of secularists. This must be done first and foremost among nonbelievers by resisting the widespread and cowardly tendency to marginalize forthright atheism and to adopt euphemisms rather than to assume honestly one’s own atheism. And it must be done among believers by shaming the atheophobes, pointing out to them the destructive, irrational, and especially immoral nature of their prejudice and challenging them to jettison it. This means confronting the unpleasant fact that belief in god(s) leads almost inevitably to atheophobia. That word almost raises the following question.
Theism Without Atheophobia?
Is it possible to believe in a god-creator of moral principles and nevertheless not be atheophobic, i.e., not consider nonbelievers morally inferior? In theory, yes: one could adopt the view that all persons, regardless of their belief system or lack thereof, share the moral sensibilities whose origin one ascribes to a divinity. However, in practice this is not so easy. Theism slides almost inevitably into moral arrogance, at least in the pronouncements of religious authorities. Atheophobia is the default attitude of theists.
We secularists must therefore insist that theists make a clear and explicit break with atheophobia: they must not only admit that there is no case for the hypothetical immorality or amorality of atheists, but they must also recognize that there is similarly no basis for the thesis that a secular society is less moral than one with a higher level of religiosity (unless of course they can provide valid evidence for their case). Any theistic religious authority who fails to make such an explicit renunciation of atheophobia must be considered complicit in hatemongering.
As secularists, we also need to be more circumspect about whom we accept as allies. For example, Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project holds that a universal “moral law” of divine origin distinguishes humans from other animals. This is pure moralistic creationism from an individual who ostensibly rejects creationism. Does Collins reject the atheophobia that creationists vehemently propagate? The thesis of divine origins of morali
ty and ethics is a pillar of the discourse of biological creationists. Their propaganda is replete with specious claims that the acceptance of evolution leads to social decay. Ironically, evolutionary theory, as expressed through its subdiscipline evolutionary psychology, has begun to offer scientific explanations for the very behavior that creationists claim it undermines.
Freedom of Speech
To categorize explicit atheophobia as a form of hate propaganda does not necessarily imply that it should be subject to legal sanction (although in jurisdictions such as Canada where hate propaganda legislation exists, it is unacceptable that hatred based on atheophobia should be considered less objectionable than hatred based on other prejudices). Legal constraints would have serious consequences for freedom of speech. Indeed, legislation drafted with the intention of forbidding hate propaganda is a dangerous tool and can very easily be used to limit the freedom to criticize religious beliefs. Rather than stifling debate, what is proposed here is that public discourse on the subject of social prejudices be extended in order to expose and denounce atheophobia and its serious, harmful consequences.
The right to criticize religious beliefs is currently under serious theat. For example, the member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference have perverted the Human Rights Council of the United Nations by imposing the concept of “defamation of religion” as a limitation on freedom of expression. Yet religious spokespersons can with total impunity equate atheism with moral depravity and defame atheists. We must speak up very loudly and clearly and say to such bigots: “Your atheophobic declarations are every bit as hateful as the most extreme antireligious statements. But as long as you refrain from defaming persons (as opposed to ideas) then we have no desire to censor you. Our ideas and values can withstand the heat and light of untrammeled debate. Can yours?”
As atheists and freethinkers, we must do better than to ask “Can we be good without God?” Using that old rhetorical question to frame the debate is a weak strategy that puts us on the defensive, like asking “Can one be scientifically literate without flat-earth theory?” We urgently need to reframe the debate in our own terms. We need to turn the question on its head and instead challenge believers by asking, “Can you be good with God? Is it possible to believe in a god who metes out punishments and rewards without being a hatemonger?”