I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked, “If you don’t believe in God? What’s stopping you from killing, stealing, and such likes?” This question, or any variation of it, irritates me somewhat. It shows how apparent the prejudice against nonbelievers is, how my kind are seen as amoral creatures with no fear or respect for what many call ‘sins.’ We don’t believe in gods nor do we believe in sins, that much is true. However, these disbelieves do not necessarily mean that we are not afraid of the repercussions from our fellow man, or that we would somehow find the well-being and lives of others to be of no value. Our belief, or lack of it, makes us exactly the opposite of the boogeyman conjured up by religious zealots fearful of Secularists, Humanists, and of course Atheists. I.e., any party that can challenge their current superiority.
Let me further elaborate on my previous statements. For some, it may be hard to believe that a nonbeliever would harbor some sense of decency within themselves, hence requiring an opinion piece such as this to be produced. To understand how we Atheists kept our moral compasses without the assistance of, and pressure from, gods, a quick review of the evolution of humanity as a species is necessary.
“Humans are social creatures,” said my Communication Studies lecturers repeatedly. We drink, eat, breathe, and—perhaps rarer than the other activities—sleep in the company of others, throughout our days. As a species, we have become so dependent on one another’s presence that prolonged periods of isolation could damage our psyche considerably, and at times permanently. Why is this? Why did we not evolve to be independent individuals, capable of defending ourselves against the worst Mother Nature can offer? Frankly speaking, when compared to other animals, our natural weaponry is quite lacking. We have no claws, no fangs, not even a hide worthy of mention. The most we can do, physically speaking, is grow our muscles—which would still be laughable to bears, lions, and tigers. What we have though, are our brains, and the people around us.
Alone we are vulnerable, but together, we have grown to be the apex predator of the planet. Achieving this position did not come easily. Early humans, and our evolutionary ancestors needed to somehow unite themselves, enough to challenge the predators that stalked them. Thus we created social structures, nomadic clans that revolved around a charismatic leader, common rituals, and obviously primitive religions. These groups invented their own unique systems for rewarding the just and punishing the unjust. A ‘government,’ if you will, which can still be observed in the isolated tribes of today’s world; the ones found in the most rural regions of Africa, Asia, and so on. Cooperation was essential for the survival of the individual, the clan, and the species as a whole. Therefore, through the selfish motive of self-preservation, were borne the noble traits of altruism, trust, and so forth. This is what we Atheists believe in.
A symbiotic, positive-sum relationship amongst ourselves is necessary to maintain us: be it only our own bodies, that of our kin, or that of strangers we’d never see. We need to help each other and to trust that they would help us in turn, to simply survive. This is something quite undebatable, as we can very easily observe how outmatched we are in our natural weaponries; in the seas, the skies, and the ground that we call home. Cooperation is key to our development, that much is certain. Even the most zealous of believers can see that without their brethren, their sect would not survive for so long in a world as competitive as ours.
To return to the topic of an atheist’s morality, we have evolved the same way as believers. Our sense of morality is the same as yours. Equal to that of the most devious of criminals and to the holiest of saints. We can be both good and bad, but that diversity in the moral spectrum is certainly as similar to that of God’s children—look at our DNAs, and find that there is nothing as diverse enough to cause us to be more cruel and apathetic than yours does. Like it or not, whatever creed we subscribe to, we are almost exactly the same. Some of us are dumber, smarter, weaker, and tougher. But as we have been conditioned as a species by nature or by the God you believe in, our morals have been aligned. We favor cooperation as much as you do. And we despise those who sow hate between ourselves and the religious, as much as the true and just Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, all of you believers, spite those who carry your banners in storms of violence.
I ask you—whatever belief you may subscribe to—to believe that we Atheists are not the monsters many accuse us to be. We are not even organized. Each of us are independent, believing whatever it is we wish to believe; similar to that of the various branches that have emerged from one faith of origin. I personally do not wish to see religions eradicated. They have helped my parents, and the people I care about, rationalize the sufferings they have for so long, and for prices to high, endured. I do not wish to take away a gift as wonderful as that away from anyone. Other Atheists may not feel the same way, and I will do what I can to prevent them from assaulting your beliefs—a task that may consume my entire lifetime, which I’m not yet capable of. In this moment though, I shall beg, to have your perception of us changed, to accept us as equally human, as noble and corrupt as any you’d find.
We Atheists do not have a singular scripture to absorb. What we have are our own views, the opinions of scholars, the ideas that emerge as much from your lips as they do from ours. We are you: human. And if that assertion offends you in anyway then I apologize. But the things I’ve read, the ideas that pop up in my mind, have all led me to the conclusion that we are one and the same. As a species, of course. One with the same guides for our behaviors, with differences here and there, though none of which suggests that we could never coexist peacefully.
Our moral compasses were constructed in the same ways as yours were. Believe it or not, that is true. Perhaps a reiteration of an argument I heard from Richard Dawkins would convince you. This is a paraphrase, as I’ve sadly lost my copy of The God Delusion: “Would you shoplift if there were no security cameras around? If yes, then your belief in a god is hypocritical and selfish. If not, then you have the morality that makes us who we are.” The assertion more or less goes the same way. Essentially, if you would steal—commit a crime—as long as there is no god for you to believe in, you would be the same as those you call “sinners.” We are not such beings. A few of us might be, but they would not be respected by the majority of Atheists. Atheists believe that our lives are confined here on this earth, and that after death there is nothing. This might sound bleak and an excuse to be unjust, but the reasoning is not meant to be interpreted in such a way.
The heaven and hell of Atheists exist in the here and now. In the world that we live in. What we do with it, and how it reacts to our presence, is entirely up to us. None of us wish for suffering, for discrimination and persecution, and we are hence made aware of how heavy each of our decisions are. We will not have an afterlife, the lovely or torturous one. What we do have is this—all that you can see around you—it is permanence, as we can never seek for forgiveness after we’ve died. Our sins will die in this world as our bodies will. A sufficient motive to care for others and not be a general nuisance to our species.
We can never repent, we can never ask for peace. What we’ve done will stay with us until our deaths, and be remembered in the records made about us. No one sane would want to be remembered as a ruthless convict. The same goes for us. We’ll do our best as humans, to bring joy to as many as we could, because there is no other time in our lives than now. And to be late in doing so, would amount to having done nothing at all. A permanent death enforces us to be good, alongside the evolutionary conditions that have birthed us. Not exactly the same, but similar enough to the conditions you believers are subjected to.
Dawkins, Richard. (2006). The God Delusion. New York City: Bantam Books
Marr, Andrew. (2012). A History of the World. London: Pan Macmillan
Pinker, Steven. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York City: Viking Press