Where have all the good atheists gone?

A friend of mine posted an interesting question on his blog. He writes that many atheists argue that religion is responsible for “almost every atrocity in history,” and that they think ethical systems formed without a divine backing are “by definition more humane.” If, then, atheist ethics are as good or better than religious ones, he asks, “why is it that we see no atheist Mother Teresa’s, Gandhi’s, or the like?”

It’s an interesting question, and for those who self-identify as atheists, it is likely to get a defensive response. The question is framed so that the easiest response would be to make a list of great atheists. (See the comments on his post for an example.) As I’ve mentioned, I’m not comfortable with atheism as any sort of system to set alongside other religious institutions, and I don’t identify as an atheist, but there are a few points to consider in the question nonetheless. Though it seems to invite such a response, I don’t think the best way to respond is by creating a tally of religious and atheist “good people” and seeing who comes out on top.

I have heard the arguments that religion is responsible for all or most of the atrocities in the world. These arguments, just like the ones that atheists are all immoral antichrists, are used largely for rhetorical effect. (What bothers me about both sides in that debate is that if such vacuous maxims get repeated enough, they begin to be believed.) I have made the claim in the past that Christianity is responsible for as much bad as good in the world, and I do think that the quantity of the “good” should prompt the question of whether it is worth the “bad.” I think of the idea of responsibility differently, though. Religion is not responsible for atrocity in the sense that it sets out intended for bad things to happen to good people. “Religion” itself doesn’t intend to exploit, though it is certainly used to. In that sense, religion is not responsible, but it’s not responsible like the bystander who watches a woman get assaulted by someone else and does nothing to stop it. It then approaches the woman and offers to pray with her that such a thing never happens again. There are certainly many cases in which religion is directly responsible for exploitation, violence, and death, but it is just as often a passive observer that exposes its guilt in not acting from the convictions it promotes. It, or more precisely those who live it, are irresponsible.

I also understand, and sympathize with, the line of argument that suggests that any ethical system said to be predicated on the commands of a divine god whom one obeys out of fear of punishment is immoral because of the lack of value it places on humanity. This argument is not for insiders, though, who already believe “that’s the way it is.” And indeed, if the Christian system is correct, then our accusation of God’s capriciousness is moot.

The assumption in the question of why there aren’t as many famous atheists is that those well-known  folks were people who helped an extremely large number of others because of their religion. Had they not been religious, this understanding seems to suggest, they would not have cared so much. At this explicit level, though, the argument falls apart. The much greater testimony is that for the vast majority of people, religion inspires them to change very little about their everyday lives. In other words, the argument shows me that the greatness of Mother Teresa, Gandhi, MLK, and others was not due just to their religion, but due to them. Why would we suggest that religion is the dominant factor when it has no such effect on the vast majority of the population? The overwhelming effect of contemporary religion is to produce an internal change, invisible and unverifiable, despite all external circumstance. It is more often a removal from the world rather than a commitment to it.

This is not to say that religion has no effect, because one could turn the argument around and say that religion doesn’t make people bad, either. In fact, that is the typical Christian and/or liberal response to religious violations. “Well, they’re not practicing correctly. That’s not my religion, my God.” That’s where my assessment of religious responsibility comes in. The reason that religion is problematic is not primarily because it creates bad people. There is a nexus of environment and choice such that it is not possible to lay blame cleanly. A bigger problem is in the passivity it allows for many religious folk to take in the face of “atrocity” that directly contradicts their purported identity and understanding of the world.

I didn’t discuss the practical responses to the question, such as if atheism is an absence of religious belief, it would make little sense to trumpet such an absence as the reason for the good one does in the world. Thus a good many great people were such without explicit reliance on any institutional ethical system. We tend to self-identify positively, and it is only recently that the epithet atheism has taken on the role of a positive entity. In addition, the Western past is one filtered through a Christian lens, and thus it would be difficult to overestimate the effect this has had on historical interpretation and social development. The question I would ask in response: Why, if religion provides a superior ethical system, has it not delivered on any verifiable scale a change in the way we live, act and treat one another? My preliminary answer would be because requires more than religion, than religious ethics, than belief, to make change.

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