Atheism and religious diversity IV: Values, morality and spirituality

The previous articles in this series discussed the attitudes towards religious diversity in New Zealand, a personal perspective of what atheism means and why it should not be separated from other beliefs when human rights are considered, and the conflicts between science and religion which often arise when we consider the relationship between atheism and theism. This final article deals with atheist attitudes towards values, morality and spirituality and argues that we all have common values which enable common action.

Values, morals, spirituality

Some theists claim their god, and their holy scriptures, as the source of all human values. This argument is often used to justify claiming New Zealand as a Christian country.[1] As a non-theist I find these claims insulting because they imply that personal values require a belief in a god; that atheists cannot be moral. Another common claim is that non-theists are somehow (unconsciously) adopting theist beliefs to produce their values. Christopher Hitchens points out that this attitude is an insult to humanity in his comment on the Old Testament Ten Commandments: “.. 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.[2]

Religions and religious teachings have served as a way of proclaiming and teaching values and morals. They have also done this with ideas of social arrangements, laws and myths of origin. This can explain why religion has been such a part of human social evolution. The stories, mythology, commandments and traditions of religious scriptures have helped to pass on and to gain compliance with these ideas when the advantages of modern education and mass communication were not available. However, religions were not the source of these ideas. They resulted from social and historical needs, from human interaction and from human evolution. The work of evolutionary psychologists is helping explain the real source of our values and morals.

So our values and morals have natural, rather than supernatural, origins and we proclaim and teach them using social and secular ways as well as religions. They are common to people of all beliefs. This viewpoint is important because it provides grounds for cooperation, despite our diversity. It also excludes any ground some religious believers have for thinking that cooperation with non-theists is impossible. There is no basis for theists to fear cooperation with non-theists.

“Interfaith” limits?

There are several “Interfaith” organisations in New Zealand, and groups in other countries use the same term. As these have been given a central role in consideration of New Zealand’s diversity I believe it is important to evaluate the fitness of these organisations for this role.

These are usually umbrella groups containing representatives of organised religions. But why should groups intending to promote cooperation between peoples of widely different beliefs limit themselves in this way? I guess they use the word “faith” as a synonym for “religion” which usually includes belief in a god. But this belief is not necessary for Buddhists, who the “Interfaith” groups include. So we may ask, if these groups already contain such a wide diversity of belief why exclude non-religious organisations? And how do we define religious or “faith” organisations, anyway?

So again we have this problem of ignoring a large section of the community. Why is religious plurality limited to plurality of religious organisations, or a plurality of ways in believing in a god? Too often diversity of belief is similarly restricted. Such limits are a major hindrance to developing true cooperation between people’s of different ethnicity and beliefs.

Surely religious diversity also includes those beliefs which are not religious. We could take a lesson from Norway where the Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities, equivalent to our “Interfaith” groups, includes Humanists in its organisation. Similarly, the United Nations Non-Governmental Organizations Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief includes people of different beliefs, including the President Matt Cherry who is a Humanist. This committee oversees international treaties on freedom of religion and belief. Such an inclusive approach to religious diversity would be more consistent with our own human rights legislation which recognises international treaties and is therefore careful not to raise religious belief over non-religious belief. In this sense the National Statement on Religious Diversity is not as inclusive as existing New Zealand legislation!

If we aim to build understanding, tolerance and respect for each other’s beliefs we have to move away from this current arbitrary and exclusive idea of belief and cooperation.

Common values – common action

Cooperation requires respect and tolerance. However, respect and tolerance shouldn’t violate the rights of others or prevents humanity’s search for understanding and knowledge.

In the following I quote dictionary definitions. We need tolerance in the sense of “acceptance of the differing views of other people …. in religious or political matters, and fairness towards the people who hold these different views.” But not tolerance in the sense of “putting up with something or somebody irritating or otherwise unpleasant” – this violates the rights of others. Similarly, respect in the sense of “consideration or thoughtfulness” to people is acceptable but not in the sense of “admiring or being deferential” to something we personally find absurd, or of preventing or limiting healthy debate.

With these understandings, “religious diversity” includes people with non-religious beliefs and freedom of religion must include freedom from religion. Non-religious people have the right to be free from interference by religious people and organisations, freedom from proselytising, and freedom from imposition of values, morality and practice. I don’t think religious people should see this as in any way violating their rights. If anything, it helps preserve the sacredness of their beliefs -imposition on others degrades a belief.

Fortunately, impositions of religious customs and traditions in New Zealand have declined with the increasing secularisation of society. There are still some residues such as the national anthem assuming a belief in a god, and Christian prayers in Parliament and some local body council. Similarly, Christians sometimes impose prayers inappropriately in work and other social situations. I believe this is insulting to people of different beliefs. Of course, removal of these residues is a continuing process, although the recent debates over parliamentary prayers and the concept of a Christian nation, and the current campaign to legislate this,[3] suggest that it is not irreversible. I think we should also challenge incorporation of Christian prayers into ceremonies based on Maori customs, such as powhiri and karakia, which we use today in secular situations. These can offend New Zealanders who otherwise accept these ceremonies. Yet objection is difficult because this can be taken as cultural intolerance rather than a request for respect of other beliefs.


As a nation our values morals and ethics precede any religious belief (theist, non-theist or atheist). This gives us common interests and enables us to act together to overcome any problems arising from our cultural and religious diversity.

1: See “Your Views” New Zealand Herald
2: Christopher Hitchens (2007): God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
3: See for example the Destiny Church’s Christian Nation website

Related Articles:
Atheism and religious diversity I: Diversity in New Zealand
Atheism and religious diversity II: A personal perspective
Atheism and religious diversity III: Conflict between science and religion
Religious Diversity Statement
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Trends in religious belief in New Zealand
Destiny of Christian privilege?
Helen Clark’s diplomacy
Common values, common action?
Religion and Schools
Atheism and religious diversity

4 responses to “Atheism and religious diversity IV: Values, morality and spirituality

  1. Pingback: From Around the Net « Café Philos: an internet café

  2. Pingback: Isn’t it funny atheists live as if moral laws exist while denying the moral law giver :-) : Christian News New Zealand

  3. It’s a shame that people like you have to go out of your way to say “Hi I’m an atheist but I’m moral too.” The whole world should be able to respond to a statement like that with a resounding DUH!

    The fact that many conservative believers profess to equate atheism with immorality is eloquent testimony to hypocrisy and disingenuousness. It simply isn’t possible to open the newspapers or rub elbows with other people in day to day life and fail to notice that believers are not, as a group, conspicuously more moral than others.

    Something I found surprising and encouraging: Last summer I was interviewed on Air America’s State of Belief radio program, a progressive show. I’d always assumed that “interfaith” excluded atheists just from the word itself, and always thought that was unfortunate. To my surprise, this program expressly invites and includes atheists – and not with an eye toward “converting” them. My sense is that their inclusion of atheism comes from the simple recognition that progressive Christians often hold more in common with atheists in their views on social and political issues than with far right Christians.


  4. Hi Paul.
    Thanks for the comments and information on the State of Belief programme. I had a look at their web site (Home) but couldn’t find anything specifically including the non-religious in their concept of interfaith. Are you aware of a relevant statement?

    However, I like this statement about the show:
    “Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.”

    I agree that many Christians and non-religious have common interests and we should cooperate in activity around such issues.
    Unfortunately, in New Zealand the “interfaith” concept is seen as restrictive to only religions. Mind you, I also believe we should be finding a different term which don’t include “faith” as that word does put a lot of people off. So I am always interested to see how people of different beliefs handle this issue in other countries.


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