I had a visit from a Jehovah’s Witness the other day. He invited me to a meeting. I told him that although I am interested in the general question of religion his specific meeting didn’t interest me as I am an atheist. His response:
“I am sure that, despite that, you are a very good person.”
Although he said that with a smile on his face I told him that it was an insult. He was just revealing his own prejudices.
Recently, I also received an email from someone at Christian News NZ telling me that the
“atheist has to enter the Christian worldview to steal our values, all the while denying the God from whom the values originated.”
“The problem I have, however, with the atheists and their goodness and their morality claims is that all your ethical codes of conduct sound strangely similar to the principles inherent to the Judeo-Christian traditions. As a matter of fact, it seems as if you have bellied up to the Bible and are treating it like a buffet . . . passing up on the worship of the person and work of God, while taking second helpings of His moral principles, you duplicitous, little, evolved monkey, you.”
An insulting attitude
All these comments are insulting yet they represent a common illusion about the source of our morals. Many people believe that our values are derived from religion. They will even argue that we derive our institutions and laws from religion. This view is commonly given as a reason for somehow declaring New Zealand to be a “Christian nation” or to have a “Christian heritage”.
But this argument is hardly objective. It insults the other religions which taught human values and morals long before Christ. And it ignores the fact that humanity had values and morals long before Christ or Moses (or any other religious leader). As Christopher Hitchens says about the Ten Commandments in his book God Is Not Great:
“But however, little one thinks of the Jewish tradition, it is surely insulting to the people of Moses to imagine that they had come this far under the impression that murder, adultery, theft, and perjury were permissible.”
Humanity’s values and morals evolved during the development of human society and history – they were not “god-given.” Religion developed as a way of teaching and enforcing these values, amongst other things. It was not the source of these values. Today, it is only one of a number of social institutions involved in promoting and enforcing human values. As Hitchens says:
“Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.”
To the extent that Christianity claims for itself a special role in the area of morals and values they are the ones doing the stealing!
Divine carrot and stick
One particularly demeaning claim Christians and adherents of some other religions sometimes make is that people cannot be good without believing in a god who will reward the do-gooders and punish those who are not good. In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon Daniel C. Dennett expresses it this way:
“Without the divine carrot and stick, goes the reasoning, people would loll about aimlessly or indulge their basest desires, break their promises, cheat on the spouses, neglect their duties, and so on. There are two well-known problems with this reasoning; 1): It doesn’t seem to be true, which is good news, since 2): it is such a demeaning view of human nature.”
Religious people who persist in these insulting attitudes ignore an important fact – human values and morals are common to all humanity independent of religious (theist and non-theist) belief. This means that we all have common interests and aspirations which enable us to cooperate in solving our problems and building a better future.