Saturday, January 30, 2010

Personal Ethics: The Art of Letting Yourself Down

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.


  1. Here is some interesting stats for you. These stats are about ten years old, so the info may have changed.

    Breakdown, by faith, of the prison system in the US;

    Atheists, being a moderate proportion of the USA population (about 8-16%) are disproportionately less in the prison populations (0.21%).

    Here is the breakdown;

    Catholic 29267 39.164%
    Protestant 26162 35.008%
    Muslim 5435 7.273%
    American Indian 2408 3.222%
    Nation 1734 2.320%
    Rasta 1485 1.987%
    Jewish 1325 1.773%
    Church of Christ 1303 1.744%
    Pentecostal 1093 1.463%
    Moorish 1066 1.426%
    Buddhist 882 1.180%
    Jehovah Witness 665 0.890%
    Adventist 621 0.831%
    Orthodox 375 0.502%
    Mormon 298 0.399%
    Scientology 190 0.254%
    Atheist 156 0.209%
    Hindu 119 0.159%
    Santeria 117 0.157%
    Sikh 14 0.019%
    Bahai 9 0.012%
    Krishna 7 0.009%

    Doen't look to me like the Bible is such a source of moral structure does it?

  2. Part of the problem with those statistics is they aren't the faith of the person when they commit the crime. The numbers for Catholics will be particularly high, given their common presence in many prison counseling systems. You'll notice Christian groups that do not proselytize to prisons rank as low as atheism.

    The fact that Scientology would appear to discourage crime is what makes me immediately critical.

  3. Yes, that skew would be there. Nevertheless, I am so glad that I do not have to deal with the dirty business of being a sinner.

  4. I didn't even notice it, but the Muslim statistics confirm my cynicism. There's so few Muslims in the US, but they advocate in prison very heavily.

    It's interesting to note that I read prisoners who convert to Islam have lower rates of recidivism than those who convert to Christianity.

    Also: I don't think it's the simple act of saying, "I do not believe in God" that accounts for these statistics. There is also the matter of atheists having higher levels of education and affluence, which are important predictors for criminal behavior.

  5. Yes, I would totally agree with you about that. Higher levels of education could account for it. I think that they are just not there in the jails.... That is all.

    Yes, the Muslim thing rings true too. Malcolm X learned to read and write because of Islam. The transformation is more dramatic to an Islamic conversion.

    To be honest, because of the poverty and marginalization associated to this group, I am wondering about "The American Indian" aspect of this mess.

  6. Upon contemplation, I believe there are two things to consider regarding the Native American statistic:

    - poverty is rampant on reservations
    - drug use is more common

    If drug use were not criminal and if there were more economic options for young people on reservations, the rate would likely drop dramatically.


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