...what’s to stop you...?

The Good Atheist

by William Hopper

Most atheists have heard some variant of the question: “If you don’t believe in God, what’s to stop you from killing or stealing?”

As simplistic as it sounds, the question goes to the heart of the modern atheist’s dilemma. If you live your life without the constant influence of preternatural beings, what is there to stop you from doing ‘evil’ things? How can anyone be trusted when their lives are not tempered by the hand of the Almighty, and a healthy fear of eternal damnation?

A common response to this question is to point out that religions often fail to stay the hands of their own devout followers. The history books are full of examples of pious men and women who have done horrible things, either for or despite their religious convictions. However, religious folk respond to this defense by explaining that the billions of humans who have not done harm are the true testament of the virtue of a religious life. The ‘evil’ people are the anomaly. We are told that without religion, the travesties of history would have been far, far worse. As this is a subjective claim, there really is no way to argue it. Nor should one try to do so.

The problem with this kind of debate is that it fails to address the question that is actually being posed: How can you be atheist and ‘good’ at the same time? The real answer can not be found by attacking the religious traditions The answer to how atheists can be both unbelievers and decent people is found in the common definition of ‘good’, and our society’s response to it.

Many people contend that our modern legal system is based on Mosaic Law. Even if we cede this point, theists and atheists alike recognize that Moses himself was not involved in the precedents, judgments, and interpretations of the law that form our modern legal system. Regardless of how the laws began, today’s legal system acts as a reflection of an ever-evolving sense of what is right and wrong; what works for our society, and what does not. We, as a society, agree that driving drunk is ‘bad’ because we have seen the cost of it in human lives. Bank fraud and stock manipulation are ‘bad’ because we understand the unfairness it creates within the system. Yet the laws created to govern these social ills are not mentioned in the bible or any other religious work. Still, theists or atheist alike recognize them as important reflections of what we, as a society, deem ‘bad’.

This moves us beyond our original question of How can you be atheist and ‘good’ at the same time? and presents a new, parallel question: Why do religious people abide by laws that are not a part of their religion?

The answer to both questions is the same: self interest.

To gain the advantages of living within a society, we trade freedoms for protections. All laws must serve, in some respect, to protect the people who live under them. We make assault illegal to protect the individual from harm. In exchange, we give up our freedom to assault people, no matter what our religious beliefs are (or are not). It is a trade off. We, as a society, give up our freedom to be antisocial (or evil) in order to live our lives free from the threat of others who might intend harm to us.

Herein lies the answer to why an atheist can be ‘good’, no matter what his or her disposition. All people, religious or not, understand and accept that the rules of society exist for the protection of all. One need not have a God to understand that by living in a non-violent society, you will be free from violence. By not allowing theft in your society, you protect yourself from being robbed.

This is why religious people obey laws that their God or gods did not instructed them to obey. Like the atheist, they too wish to be able to live in a society where they are not mugged, raped, or beaten. While the moral imperatives of their respective religions usually prohibit many of the same crimes, the codification of these morals into a legal system allows both religious and irreligious people to sleep comfortably at night. We as a society recognize that in order to negotiate the selfishness, greed, and hatreds that invariably arise when humans live together, we must abide by a common law that restricts and protects each person equally.

This is not to say that everyone is happy. Notably, advocates of religion often look to the law to enforce morals that are designed to appease their god, or get a person into Heaven. Atheists and others reject this idea, noting that if they do not ascribe to the existence of a Heaven, they should not be asked to surrender to a law that is designed to get them there. Herein lies the real difficulties between atheist and theist beliefs: the definition of ‘protection’ under the law.

In their perfect world, a theist would include religious observances within the legal code. If, as people like James Dobson maintain, a person’s eternal soul is at risk by allowing them to watch football on Sunday instead of going to church, then there is a perceived sense of risk to the individual. As the law exists to negate risk or harm to the citizens living under it, it seems logical (to a religious person) that the protection of the soul should be at least as valid a concern to the law as the protection of one’s body or livelihood. Here the definition of the law, and therefore the definition of ‘good’, becomes mired by the religious view. It is in this realm of pious, soul-saving laws that an atheist can be given the moniker of ‘bad’ or ‘evil’.

The atheist, like all members of our society, recognizes that in order to live a life that is full, prosperous, and safe, they must abide by the laws that protect everyone. In this regard atheists are as moral and ethical as any person in our society, and for the same reasons. It’s only when the definition of the law (and therefore the definition of what is ‘good’) is shifted to include a protection of religious-based claims of Heaven, God, and an afterlife that atheists will, by definition, fall short of a claim to ‘goodness’.

This article is written expressly for PositiveAtheism.org, for their exclusive use, by Wm. Hopper, www.heathensguide.com