"Athiests Need to Just Shut Up", part II

Becuase it is a firmly believed misunderstanding among an unfortunately large number of theists (and even a deist or two based on comments posted to this board) that morality only arises from religion. This fundamental misundersatanding is one of the direct causes of the fear that many theists express about atheism: that its adoption by any large number of the population will result in a breeakdown of morality and ethics in society. It is probably the single biggest reason (IMO) why atheists are hated more in the U.S. than even Islamist militants. Uninformed theists fear that a lack of a god will result in the dissolution of society.

(Note, also, that in teh TV discussion, the issue was raised by a theist, not the atheists.)

Well, for me at least, it’s because I’m sick of people assuming I must be a monster because I don’t believe in God. Most theists don’t bother me. I really don’t care what people believe. But when people make asinine unfounded judgements about me I’m going to be pissed off, even if my being pissed off only takes the form of posting on an atheist-friendly message board where I’m really only killing time.

Well, obviously the “Now” format is stupidly prohibitive of discussion with any depth. Given that, this was clearly a vast improvement on the previous effort.

I agree Johnson reacted poorly to the morality question. However, it seems to me it is legitimately difficult to answer the question in a concise, snappy way without inviting bad repercussions.

For instance, “the same place you do,” is snappy and true, but it’s going to confuse people and elicit the follow up, “So you get your morals from the Bible?”

I don’t have to describe the baggage, “From evolution” would bring to the discussion.

I personally like the “not from the Bible, so I don’t have slaves, etc.,” but it’s going to come off as really hostile, and it also sidesteps the question.

So what would be a good, non-inflammatory, 15-second reply to the question?

No, I think “from evolution” serves quite nicely. After all, there are very few if not no creationist atheists.

In addition one might submit that there are plenty of atheist and theist (and loads of deist) people who do random things “out of the principle of the thing”, without that specific action being influenced by the ontological status of deities (they’re mostly French ;)). If one admits that one can make a given decision entirely based on raw principles, it makes sense to conclude that one can form an ethos based on them.

I don’t want to put words in the mouths of any atheist posters, but one could do worse than to say that a person “gets” one’s morality and ethics from the same concept of the Social Contract explored by Hobbes, Locke, rousseau, and others who provided the philosophical underpinnings for much that we implemented in the U.S. Constitution.

“So you’re telling me that if your [insert name of religious text here] didn’t forbid it you’d be a murderer and a rapist?”


I’m totally with you and Larry. And, I didn’t mean to come off sounding like “atheists should shut up,” as the original CNN program aparently did (being an atheist myself, that’d be a bit counter productive).

Consider my post a general bemoaning that anyone feels the need or that they have the ability to “win” a debate about theism/atheism. There is no way to win, and never will the heart of the matter be gotten at. In this case it sounds like the “debate” was started at CNN by theists with little knowledge of or respect for atheists. Shame on them.

It has been done to death. We can probably polish the debate off right here in a few quick posts. How about we start with this:

Murder is wrong (I presume we can agree on this). Is it wrong only because God said it was wrong? If so, then morality is based purely on the whim of God. God could just as easily have said that murder is wholesome family fun, and it would be so, because God said it was so.

Some would say, “But, God would never say that!” Well, why not? If what makes right things right is God’s edict, and if there’s nothing compelling him to prefer not-murder over murder as the right action, God can say anything he wants. Nothing is right or wrong until God says so.

If, on the other hand, there’s some underlying reason that murder is wrong, and God was just passing along the information, can we not figure out what that reason is, without bringing God into it?

Every culture has some version of the “treat others the way you would want to be treated” rule. Empathy is totally natural, and should be and is the basis of all morality. It doesn’t take the revelation of a god to figure out we’d all be better off if we were nice to each other.

I don’t feel the need to see atheists “score points” in any sense of denting theistic beliefs or religious institutions but the one thing I’d like someone representing atheists be able to do is at least be able to dissuade some people from the all too common misapprehension that people who don’t believe in God are amoral or dangerous. That’s the most pernicious canard that atheists face and it’s a question that an atheist activist needs to be locked and loaded for.

My short, CNN answer to “where do you get your morality?”

“From my biology, my culture and my common sense…just like you.”

Max Torque, I’ll buy that as an excellent answer, but it wouldn’t fly in CNN’s format. You’d get interrupted by the time you got to your parenthetical remark.

How about this?: “Empathy and common sense lead me to most of the same conclusions that the Bible reaches.”

Even if you get cut off at the knees, you can probably get the first four words out.

That, and the notion that pledging to a piece of cloth or putting small prayers on pocket change will somehow keep our daughters from running amuck.


Yeah, you’d have to figure out a way to walk 'em down the path, sort of coax them into helping you get it all out. Say, when they ask where you get your morals from, respond with, “Well, let me ask you: why is murder wrong?” If they respond with, “Because God said so! Ten commandments blah blah!”, you follow with, “Is that the only reason? If God said murder was okay, would it be okay?” And kinda follow up with the rest.

Or maybe just armwrestle them for it.

For me, a win would be to be able to say I am an atheist with the same lack of apprehension about negative treatment that will come my way in the community and at work as my neighbors and coworkers have when they proclaim publicly that they go to church on Sunday, that they are in the chior, that they lead a church youth group, etc.

A win would be knowing that I never had any reason to fear what might happen if my boss found out I was an atheist.

Unfortunately I still live in a world where not too many people think there is nothing wrong with the question ‘Can America trust atheists?’ or ‘Are atheists morally compromised?’ or ‘Do atheists bring intolerance on themselves?’.

I agree with you completely- the pedophile route is hackneyed. But the media has focuses on it relentlessly and everyone is familiar with the scandals. I think that people use it as a shortcut to the argument “Both atheists and theists are equally guilty of moral failings; so prove to me how Christians are morally superior.” The topic is just a handy jumping off point. It is a cop out, but I can see why someone supporting the opposing view would slip it in as a soundbite when pressed for time.

Not really a matter of scoring points, though a lot of these threads deteriorate into that sort of match. Emotions run high and both sides make jabs at one another to prove a point. Why is it important? Because atheists often have to prove that they can be ethical, moral, and kind citizens without religious conviction. I can give you an example from my private life- I have felt the need to express an alternative moral perspective to a friend who is a Jehovah’s Witness when the subject of shunning has come up. He feels that the Bible provides ultimate authority in matters of human relations, and I feel that some of the practices and principles espoused by that text leave something to be desired. My chief complaint about conservative Christianity (and most conservative religions) is the practice of discrimination and exclusion. I feel that these two traits are unkind, and when taken to extremes- inhuman. How else do I express disagreement without pressing the point of individual ethics?

Thank you, tomndebb. Since you come from a theist perspective that was a very fair point to make. I would have said the same thing, albeit less eloquently. I appreciate that.

Empathy would be my primary response as well. Empathy, observation, and personal experience. Atheists can pick and choose verse from religious texts as well- here are a few of my favorites: Do unto others… (you know); hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful (Buddhism); do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you (Hinduism); what is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man (Judaism); respect for all life is the foundation (Native American) etc. Every religion that I am familiar with has a version of the Golden Rule- to me that means that empathy is a biological trait and not derived from religious teachings or any governing body, nor does can it be said that feelings of kindness and respect arose from a particular geographic region.

No one religion, philosophy, or governing document has the market cornered on condoning empathy for all living beings. When conditions permit: empathy and kindness are inherent.

(The versions of the Golden Rule that I referred to came from religioustolerance.org)

“Sin lies only in hurting others unnecessarily. All other ‘sins’ are invented nonsense.” - Robert A. Heinlein

And in that vein, “Love, and do what you like.” — Saint Augustine

Well, I personally prefer the single commandment from the New Testament. Which I believe is one that even an atheist can get behind: Love your neighbor as yourself.

Nothing in there about God, either. Just, as others have said, common sense and applications of the golden rule.

I think this is my favorite, thanks!