Human beings are intrinsically motivated by meaning. There is a constant drive for humans to be actively involved in an emotionally charged pilgrimage to find meaning in their lives and in the world around them. As a result, many people “find” religion or cling to a set of moral or religious beliefs in an effort to extract such meaning. Otherwise, why bother living? What’s the point and the purpose? How can we find structure in our lives without a clear set of rules that seems to be adequately aligned with the notion of morality. This leads to the ultimate quest and subsequent search for meaning. Can one be considered a moral human being without the wholehearted belief in God? Additionally, is it possible for morality to be only anchored in religion? Maybe there are other internal factors that strive to push us to be better human beings and act with integrity and kindness.
Many believe that atheism, as Cameron Jackson constructively points out may be actually “dulling the knife blade of intellectual thought.” This leads to an interesting notion that individuals would rather believe that there is no God, Higher Power or Supreme Being in order to lessen the mental or emotional struggle of trying to understand something so beyond human touch. It is quite difficult to understand something on a deep level, let alone explain it without the tangible set of molecules that ultimately make it up. That said, it is much more convenient to be an atheist. In fact, atheism is the fastest growing "religious" demographic in the country with almost 40% of Americans under the age of 30 proclaiming to be “non-religious.” It’s important to remember that atheism is not a religion.
What is Atheism Exactly?
It is essential, while pondering this question, to truly understand what atheism is from a common definitive perspective. Atheism, as defined by Merriam-Webster as “a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods.” Atheism is essentially a rejection of the assertion that there are gods; additionally, atheism is not considered a religion which can make for a confusing debate at times. For example, atheism is protected by many of the same rights within our Constitution that protect Americans’ freedom of religious choice.
In a perfect world we could all live together in blissful, polyana-type harmony. Utopian values would permeate all cultures and in a way that fostered tolerance, kindness, and trust. Since we are unable to truly exist in a world painted with perfection, the reality is that there exists the concepts of right versus wrong and good versus evil. These ideals are rooted in the concept of morality, yet atheists are thought to lack these grounding ideals due the idea that because they abide by no “religious” code. As a result, they are seen as immoral beings. This begs the question, does one require a set of religious principles to anchor one’s morality?
In a recent study that was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, findings revealed that “atheists are broadly perceived as potentially morally depraved and dangerous.” The most interesting, and slightly shocking, fact reported as part of this study is that even atheists themselves believed that when it came to other atheists, they are likely to commit to behaving immorally unless they fear punishment from a religious deity.
Interestingly, another study published in the journal, Science, in 2014 found that both religious and nonreligious people actually commit similar numbers of moral acts regardless of political beliefs, agendas, or religious backgrounds. However, when it came to concept of “moral phenomena,” there were some differences in how people in different groups responded from an emotional perspective. Those people who identified as more religious reported experiencing more intense guilt and disgust after committing an immoral act than those who identified as nonreligious. This demonstrates an interesting finding that people often feel more likely to commit moral acts as it aligns within religious and moral structures.
Perhaps Religion Is Anchored by Morality...So Where Does That Leave Atheism
Morality is not only anchored, but structured, by the institution of religious doctrines. These studies indicate a strong relationship between having something potentially punishing and accountable to answer to with regards to the commission of a potential act of evil. Now, let’s play devil’s advocate (no pun intended!), what if morality was actually based more in nature, a view atheists take? Perhaps, our biology and values are strongly influenced by our actual brain chemistry? This is just a thought as there appear to be people who identify as atheist who are able to abide by the law in a humanistic, organized way and follow societal rules. But what keeps an atheist from not doing what’s right in terms of Judeo-Christian teachings?
If we come from nothing and will die to nothing, then what is the point? Why have morality at all? Why not kill for the sake of killing? Why not make someone suffer for the sake of suffering? A true atheist should take no issue with any of these suggestions.
What About Biology and Free Will
Free will allows us to choose an action, any action that we see fit. This is simply put, however, many believe that if atheists have free will with no consequences from a God or Creator of the Universe, then that free will instantaneously transforms into self-will run riot and a lack of boundaries. Everyone, even those who are religious, has free will. The rules of morality and religion may serve as a guide for those who believe in a particular religious doctrine, however that does not provide a reason why an atheist may decide to also follow rules and seek pleasure from positive behaviors and intrinsic rewards. Although we are all in search of meaning and structure in our lives, it could be the case that not all structures must be based upon either an external or internal process or a set of dogmas that set out to provide a moral road map.
Biologically a person may be predisposed to impulsivity or depression, for example. Does that mean that if a person is predisposed to acting out immorally in a way that demonstrates his free will? Is that because he does not believe in God? Maybe he believes that God failed him. God can definitely bring a certain sense of constraint to atheists where they may feel the constrained need to follow certain religious structures and abandon their “own way” of conducting themselves. Perhaps they fear a loss of identity, an inability to be “authentic”. This lends the question of how often a person’s immoral actions are directly related to feeling constrained or not wanting to explore something deeper. Additionally, physiologically there may be other challenges that have altered an individual’s brain chemistry that has nothing to do with a psychologically-based perspective regarding atheism and morality.
Simple, Lazy, and Somewhat Obedient
There is no doubt that it is much easier to not believe in a Power greater than oneself. It saves the intellectual debates that most of us have within ourselves on a fairly consistent basis. It keeps things much simpler and easier to navigate. It also allows those intellectually elite individuals to keep the facts straight in their own minds in a way to help construct their own internal and external worlds. These worlds suit their needs and desires, whether for good or evil. Atheists can make things up as they go when they are not tethered to religious constraints. Essentially, atheists can alternatively be grounded in laziness and a belief in their own will within the status quo.
In conclusion, atheism may in fact be an excuse for immoral behavior, but could also be a poorly constructed brain chemistry. In that case we can blame immoral actions on bad biology. Atheism can definitely shine in pointless debates where intellectual and scholarly points are absent. It’s easier and much less complicated to succumb to a belief system with no accountability. Immorality is always accountable, though, regardless of whether it stems from a structureless belief system or brain chemistry. Whereas morality built upon 2000 years of Judeo-Christian is rooted in something tangible, even though it’s the mystery of faith.