Being a Good Person – The Young Atheist’s Handbook

Here’s another post inspired by the outstanding ‘Young Atheist’s Handbook’ by Alom Shaha.

I hope that these will help a few to consider donating to the campaign to get copies of the book in all English and Welsh secondary schools, the website for which can be found here: http://yah4schools.org.uk/.

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right-way-wrong-way1

“Despite not believing in God, and not believing in an afterlife where I might be rewarded or punished for my behaviour, I try to be a good person. That’s the most any of us can do.” – Alom Shaha, The Young Atheist’s Handbook.

It’s a favourite argument of the Theists: ‘How can you be good without God?’

Even supposedly ‘enlightened’ Theologians (mean?) like William Lane Craig stick by it, dragging the masses along with them. It’s a powerful argument, precisely because the assumption of moral superiority is not something with which people have much incentive to wrestle with, I suspect. After all, if you can claim to give black and white, definitive answers straight from the creator of the universe, why even bother to listen to those who can’t?

It’s funny then, that many once-steadfast believers leave religion behind precisely for moral reasons – and years can go by before they even encounter the ‘intellectual’ arguments for their non-belief. We’re emotional, social creatures, and the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is important to us, whatever it means.

While I have no trouble admitting that I feel that most scripture – be it the Bible, or Qur’an, or Torah etc – with it’s claims of moral certainties stuck millennia behind anything we know today regarding informed scientific opinion (such as the general consensus of psychology and neuroscience regarding mental illness, for example) is not very moral, I will admit that the vast majority of those subscribing to scriptural schools of thought are, in fact, nice people (despite the bits in their holy books that condone rape and slavery). It simply is true that the more secular a country is the more likely it is to accept homosexuality, gender equality, the rights of the child etc – but on the level of individuals, no complete assumptions of character should be made.

And this works both ways. Assumptions like ‘Atheists have no reason not to commit murder if they don’t believe there are consequences in the next life‘ for example, are, being kind, just plain wrong. They overlook the psychological damage of the act itself, the fact that many Atheists value life immensely (as everyone only gets one shot at it), and the reality of the statistics which seem to say that religious folk are just as likely to commit crimes, if not more.

On the ‘if not more’ speculation I will say this: religious criminals have the option of rationalising away the responsibility for their crimes, if they so choose. They may come out of prison ‘remade men’ (and women) through the help of chaplaincy services and the like, but there’s simply no good data on the effectiveness of religious rehabilitation programs, nowhere near enough to make the claim that it’s the only, or best way to help prisoners avoid re-offence and become productive members of society again. (In fact, prison-style punishment seems to be ineffective altogether anyway – a much better alternative being a ‘safe and secure home-like residential community, providing therapy, not ‘a lesson’‘.)

Also, as hinted at earlier, the more secular a society is, the lower its crime rates tend to be. What’s more, the increase of secularism across history and the world ties in with a decrease in violence – all driven by factors such as the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism (themes Steven Pinker explores in his wonderful book, The Better Angels of our Nature).

It seems that, not only can one be ‘good without God’, but it’s likely that the two come together… However, that’s no reason to brag about not believing, or to suppose that religious people can’t be nice; because that would make any who do so just as intellectually dishonest as those who scoff at the idea of someone being good without religiosity. Again, it works both ways.

Before I’m accused of being too light-handed though, I will add that – purely as a matter of opinion -  I feel that morality that’s good for goodness’ sake seems somewhat better than behaving in a certain way because of the allure of post-death reward or a fear of post-death punishment; not least because the value people place in this ‘certain way’ may be outdated itself.

Carnun :P

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The ‘Young Atheist’s Handbook 4 Schools’ campaign: http://yah4schools.org.uk/

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