There is a pervading idea among Christians that atheists do whatever they want. I can assure you this is not the case. If it were, some Christians I have met would no longer have all their teeth. Restraint is universally practiced by all people in a society, regardless of religious affiliation.
We all want to do bad things. We all want to take things without earning them, to hurt those who hurt us. We have all lied at one time or another. It is only natural to look for the easy way out, to let frustration overpower our logical understanding that it is best to be peaceful. Sometimes we just do horrible, nasty things to others – or even ourselves.
When I read the opinions of Christians regarding the ethics of atheists, my first impulse is usually a strong urge to punch them in the face, and I have to settle for writing a snarky comment (even if it’s in person, not on the internet).
First of all, there is no such thing as “atheist ethics.” Christians have a handy Bible full of ethical scenarios and explicit rules, so there are oodles of things to criticize about Christian morality. Sure, Christians all have different interpretations of the Bible, but atheists are individuals who claim so single source for ethical knowledge.
There is no point in criticizing atheists in general when it comes to ethics, especially since reality has proven that atheists commit less crime. A wise man that Christians ignore (unless it suits their needs) said to remove the plank of wood from your eye before troubling your neighbor with the speck of sawdust in theirs. However, for the purposes of this discussion, let us ignore that fact that atheists make better law-abiding citizens, because I have no interest in convincing the believer of the reality they wish to ignore.
I think the primary claim of theists can be a valid problem. If atheists do whatever they want, and simply deem their actions as acceptable, then clearly they are unethical. However, this sounds to me more like Christians, who ignore parts of the Bible they disagree with while holding dear to their hearts the parts they do agree with. It’s almost as if… people choose for themselves what is right and wrong, regardless of their religion.
This is true: atheist or theist, we all must decide our own moral code. There is nothing special about the ethics of theists versus atheists. Theists kill people despite the Bible being very explicit about murder. Theists steal, cheat, lie, ignore the poor, use their religion for profit… I have seen theists do absolutely everything the Bible preaches to be wrong and hell-worthy. Maybe if there were more atheists, they would do these things often enough for me to observe them doing it, as well. [Cue the Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot comments…]
Which begs the question… why be a Christian? Christians are no more ethical than atheists, especially by their own standards. Christians talk constantly about what an awful sinner they are, about how they need the grace and forgiveness of an Almighty father figure. They don’t explain what that need is about, but I sense it’s the need to get to sleep at night.
Atheists aren’t perfect. Atheists have sinned in all the same ways as theists. We construct our own systems of ethics from many different sources and life experiences. Like Christians, we cannot walk the path of perfection we have laid out for ourselves.
I have a very strict ethical code, and I break it all the time. I shouldn’t get angry, I shouldn’t get in verbal arguments, I shouldn’t do petty things for the sole purpose of annoying someone who has annoyed me. This particular atheist break his own rules, but I don’t redefine them to fit my behavior. I would imagine many atheists are in the same situation.
I need forgiveness, but I seek it from those I have hurt. I can find no solace in imagining a being who simply condones my immorality, even if I’m really sorry and try my best not to do it again. The people who I hurt are still hurt, the things I break are still broken, the lies I tell still float on the lips of others. But if I can take action to correct or compensate, the guilt can at least partially be appeased.
Guilt cannot be washed away by religion. When you let yourself and others down, you are supposed to feel awful. You are supposed to be driven to do something to correct it, and kneeling down to pray for forgiveness won’t do a goddamn thing.