Someone once said to me, “I don’t think you’re really an atheist, ’cause if you were, you’d be going around raping and murdering people.” This is a common thought expressed in various ways by believers of all sorts, the presumption being that morality can only come from devotion to a higher entity. This erroneous belief is the basis of all the animosity with which atheists are constantly faced.
Though this accusation is most frequently directed at atheists, the truth is that for the entire history of faith it has been directed at all those whose beliefs and values have differed from those of others. Jews, not being believers in Christ’s ultimate authority, were to be reviled, or at the very least mistrusted. Christians, being infidel deniers of Muhammad’s divinity, were to be purged of this immorality. The Buddhist doctrine of karma has ever been used to defend systems and policies, the faith in general often meting violence and other atrocities to its opposition or even variants, no matter how peaceful. The list is almost inexhaustible, and though religions are never the sole force behind governmental policies, wars, and other sanctioned injustices, what they all have in common is the moral backing of their belief systems.
Throughout history, atheists have struggled with a public defence, as we have no tablets of sacred stone, or fanciful tales of holy visitations to which we may point in justification of our values, let alone our whims. We have only the decency of our characters which may ever be impugned so long as charlatans are allowed to pretend their chosen vehicle for control holds the monopoly on what is right. If any one belief system is allowed to be the sole judge of what is wrong, no individual will be of any more value than the manipulations of these confidence men and hucksters. It is precisely this fact that drove the founding of the colonies which grew into our nation. This was called the New World, not for the newness of the land, which was in no way new to the world’s knowledge, but for the singular approach our founders took to its constitution.
Two of our presidents, Adams and Pierce, who chose not to take their oath of office on the Bible, or any other article of faith, but on a book of law. These men were not atheists, yet they understood that what is moral in us all comes from and must always answer to something greater than our personal beliefs. Our constitution was based on this principle, and it was this principle which these presidents rightly elected to honour foremost. We do not all share the same gods, and atheists share none whatsoever; but we all share in the fact that no matter our faith or lack thereof, we occupy the same space, and what hurts you may just as easily hurt me. Justice and goodness must then be derived simply from our respect for ourselves and others.
There are non-believers who do things as awful as those done by believers, and the one thing which could be said for them is they have no faith behind which they can hide. I do not choose to not rape and commit wanton murder because I fear some deity, or even the law. I do not do these things simply because I do not wish to be that person. Moreover, I do not wish to contribute to the violation of anyone, or to condone those who do. I understand that it ultimately benefits all of humanity to live unviolated. While many faiths do teach some good, all theisms also provide clear defences, many even encouragement for countless atrocities.
To suggest that man cannot be good without God(s) is to admit that they are not in fact moral, but simply fearful. There is a difference between honest morality and simple obedience to avoid punishment, or in hope of reward, and only without faith is this distinction always clear.