It is a well-known trope, at least in the circles I travel in, that one of the most frequent questions or accusations faced by atheists is one of morality.
“Where do atheists get their morality?”
“Without God, what’s to stop you from raping and killing?”
There are many people who have written brilliant responses to this question. There is a lot to say on the subject of morality, empathy, the fact that most religious people do not get their morality from the Bible as they claim to since they pick and choose. Many of these things have already been said by very talented people.
When I first came to terms with, and was honest with myself, that I was an atheist I spent a lot of time thinking about morality. I did this before coming out, but this time there was a major difference.
In the past, thoughts surrounding morality were tinged with fear of hell. Whenever I would examine a teaching of the church for its validity and morality, I would always have some worry about what would happen if it turned out I was wrong. After all, although reason and evidence would tell me that something wasn’t actually unethical, maybe God would disagree and everlasting burning seemed like a very tough way for someone to say “I disagree”.
When I accept the fact that I didn’t actually believe in any god there was a dramatic shift in the way I started thinking about morality. While evidence and empathy always played a huge role, all of a sudden I had to deal with the absence of heaven in the scale.
This may not seem like a big deal. After all, heaven is supposed to be a reward for living a life of good, and a life of good is its own reward right?
And yet the absence of heaven serves to underscore the immorality or horror of certain actions/situations.
Take war for example.
In the last several years, Canada and the US have been involved in several ongoing conflicts. Throughout the war, several lives were lost. Although people were upset about the deaths, there was always some comfort gained from the fact that since they fought so bravely for their country that they would be in heaven. They are, as the cliché goes, “in a better place”. However, if you take heaven out of the equation, then there is no compensation for the loss of life. This makes the sacrifice so much more severe. Men and women, as young as 18, are giving up their entire lives for a conflict that is deemed important enough by their governments to be worthy of the sacrifice. But are they? Consider the failure to find any WMDs in Iraq. Consider the overall lack of success in that conflict. Was the death or one corrupt dictator worth several thousand young people completely ceasing to exist? If there is no heaven, then the last experience, the last feeling of each of those individuals was fear and pain. There is no reward. Their sacrifice means so much more. If governments, if politicians and leaders, were faced with the reality that there was no afterlife, no reward for that sacrifice, would perhaps the decision to send people into battle be more difficult to face? Would we as a people expect more from our governments, before we let them send our mothers, fathers, children, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends to a conflict that could potentially end their ability to grow older or experience the myriad of joys that life has to offer?
When religious leaders and religiously motivated politicians say that there are no atheists in foxholes, do they really believe that, or are they unable to face the extreme courage that it must take for someone who knows that there is no afterlife to come, no reward awaiting them, to give up this one life that they have for the glory of their country. To acknowledge that there are atheists in foxholes, is to come to terms with the fact that there are men and women out there who hold you accountable for their decisions because they are making the ultimate sacrifice.
Or take another example. What about children who die because their parents’ fundamentalist beliefs say there is something sinful about medical intervention?
While liberals and moderate religious people are reasonably upset about it, most religions have a concept that the innocent go straight to heaven. There is permission in that concept not to have to do anything. In many ways, the concept of heaven is the ultimate bystander effect: You don’t have to do anything, because the poor children are clasped to the bosom of the lord.
But if there is no heaven, if there is no god, then it is even more of a pointless needless death.
We talk about the child abuse inherent in teaching children about hell and taking away their will, however, we rarely stop and consider the damage done by the concept of heaven. It lets us as a species take the sting out of tragedies and injustices. It allows us not to care. But tragedy, injustice, sacrifice, all of that should sting. Because when it stings it drives us as a species to improve, to do better, and to stop those things from happening again. It encourages progress rather than complacency.
Read more of Alex and Ania at Scribbles and Rants.