One of the recurrent themes I encounter while discussing freedom of belief is the distress or anger that many non-religious people feel when Christians (principally in the US) suggest that “atheists can’t be moral”. This is at heart a very strange claim, although the confusion stems in part by what it means to root part of one’s identity in a negative claim, as atheists by definition do.
Any Christian who believes that atheists are inherently immoral is on very unstable ground. If, as Christians believe, humanity was made in God’s image, and God is a moral being (indeed, the supreme moral being on Christian metaphysics) then the moral nature of humanity must be inherent to humanity, not to Christianity. This is not to ignore the implications of the Christian concept of humanity as “fallen”, which concerns our weakness to temptation not our capacity for compassion or morality. Everyone, according to Christian belief, is vulnerable to sin – even Christians! – and everyone is equally capable of moral behaviour. Accepting Jesus, after all, is to be forgiven for sinfulness, not to be rendered immune to it.
It is helpful to recognise that the Christian faith in Christ as a saviour never entailed the belief that only the “saved” could be moral, although it may entail the belief that one can be a better (i.e. more moral) person by following the teachings of Jesus – that is to suggest that Christian ethics are moral, but it does not preclude virtues of other kinds. Expecting only Christians to be moral is the kind of tribal elitism Jesus argued against in the parable of the Good Samaritan, so to dismiss atheists as inherently immoral is profoundly un-Christian. The sort of lazy partisan cheerleading of ‘Christians’ found in parts of the United States and elsewhere is what Kierkegaard so gainfully critiqued more than a century ago – what he disparagingly called ‘Christendom’. Christians have to try much harder if they want to represent the best their religion has to offer.
The belief that morality can only be secured in God (as a supreme moral being) is, oddly, a view shared between certain Christians and certain Nihilists – since the latter perspective, following the kind of reasoning Jean-Paul Sartre explored, claims that if there is no supreme moral being there is no secure morality. These are both Law ethics positions. We don’t usually think of Nihilism as espousing a moral law, but logically this is what follows from this position – it just happens to be an empty moral law. The fact that some who identify as atheists espouse a form of nihilism only furthers the confusion about this issue, though, since the majority of non-believers are not nihilists and indeed there seem to be more Humanists than Nihilists among the atheists of the world.
I do frequently encounter odd claims about the connection between ethics and atheism, though, such as the idea that “being an atheist has made me more moral”. I’m at a loss to understand how not holding particular metaphysical beliefs leads to improved moral beliefs, to be honest, and suspect that claims like these are actually prejudice in disguise. What is perhaps being felt is that belief in God leads to worse moral beliefs, therefore it is more moral to reject God. Although it may be an innocent form of bigotry, this is nonetheless a form of racism – as indeed is Christian condemnation of “godless atheists”. However, we are all prejudiced in one way or another, and these trivial discriminations are perhaps best ignored.
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, a Catholic by faith, noted the following about our “secular age”:
I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives.
Christians today need to take this argument seriously – and also recognise that if atheists were inherently immoral this would be an indictment on God, in whose image (Christians believe) humanity is wrought. Conversely, atheists might want to ponder whether identifying their beliefs by the negative element of not having a workable God concept is productive: you do have faith in something, be it science, humanity or the sense of personal identity inherent in the word “I”. No-one gets through life without faith in something, however slender. Recognising this might be a positive step forward forward for the public face of non-belief.