You know how you might not hear a song for a long time, and then suddenly hear it three times in one week? Or you learn a new word and then you read or hear it all the time? This is how I came to the topic for this week’s post.
First, it started by watching the State of the Union address last week, and the President’s closing words were these:
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.
Notwithstanding my own personal (non) beliefs, from a purely separation of church and state standpoint, this refrain (and others like it) always makes my legs twitch. I do not believe statements like these belong in government.
Then, in my January 30, 2012, edition of Time magazine, I was reading the “10 Questions” interview with former President Jimmy Carter, who was asked and answered the following question:
Should voters care about the faith of candidates? I think moral values would be a better way, but I don’t see how you can separate faith from moral values. I also don’t maintain that you have to be a Christian to exhibit those characteristics in private life or public office. (emphasis mine)
When I read this, I gave Mr. Carter the (enormous) benefit of the doubt, thinking that maybe he had just never met any atheists before. But we’re out here.
And then, finally, yesterday I was reading the Boston Sunday Globe editorial article entitled “In godless we don’t trust”, written by Gareth Cook (the online version of the article is two pages, so make sure you click through to read both). In his article, Mr. Cook cites a 2002 poll statistic “that 47 percent of Americans believe that a belief in God is ‘necessary’ for moral behavior”, and that a 2007 poll found that only 45% of Americans would be willing to vote for a hypothetical atheist. As the article points out, the general reasoning for this is distrust, or, in other words “a general sense that an atheist may not be as trustworthy as a person of faith.” The article goes on to quote Will Gervais, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, who said “Our participants [in his investigation into the psychology of anti-atheism] seem to think that without a belief in God, atheists lack a moral compass. . . . One of the main drivers is the feeling that people can only be good if they think God is watching them.”
Wow. Did I really just read that correctly?
As an atheist, these assumptions enrage me at my core. Despite the fact that I do not believe in a god of any form, I consider myself to be a “moral” person. My morals are simple: try not to hurt other people or the planet, tell the truth, don’t break the law, help others less fortunate than myself, and don’t take things that aren’t mine. I try to live this way because of my desire to treat other human beings the way I wish to be treated, not because someone might be watching me (which I don’t believe). I try to live this way because of the “golden rule” philosophy that my parents taught us when we were growing up. I try to live this way out of a deep respect for our planet that we all must share, in increasingly close quarters. I try to live this way because I believe life is finite, and certainly far too short, so it is important to make it the best we can, while we’re here—not because of some elusive promise in or of another life.
This is how I strive to live, every day. Without a god.
Yet, despite an allegiance to some religion or faith, there are countless elected officials living well outside of their religiously guided moral codes. Granted, it’s a Wikipedia list (and some are appointed rather than elected officials), but even still, this list of “federal politicians convicted of crimes” is highly suggestive that, to the extent that religious background is a factor at the polls, this non-secular vetting process of the current U.S. majority is highly flawed. These are just the convicted crimes—which, for me, is a legitimate yardstick for measuring morality overall. It certainly does not encompass the gamut of unprosecuted criminal behavior, much less lawful yet seriously immoral behavior that undoubtedly takes place. And though it would be cliche (and an inordinate waste of my time and space) to spell out the laundry list, let’s not forget the politicians who have had extra-marital affairs, including one current presidential candidate. I do believe I’m correct in asserting that each one of them was a faithful person who believed in a god that frowns upon such infidelities. Still trust them?
As an atheist parent, though (and again, I don’t speak for my husband), hearing these statistics jars me at a deeper level. Much as I try to live my own life morally, I also am now responsible for imparting these values to my daughter, both through example and by talking about them with her. I’ve been able to do this without framing it in the context of a set of rules established by any “higher being” or because someone might be “watching” her. And despite her young age of just 4 years old, she appears to understand why it is important to act certain ways or why certain behaviors are just not right.
But in addition to helping to shape her into a moral, reasoned and empathetic person, I am simultaneously trying to impress upon her that she can do or be anything that she wants to when she grows up. What a let down it would be (though more for her than for me) if she wanted to someday pursue an elected position in politics, but was summarily eliminated from the running simply because of a lack of faith or belief in a god (assuming that’s ultimately how she turns out–maybe she will end up on another path, and that’s certainly up to her).
I do not fault, judge or criticize anyone who chooses to frame moral values in the context of a faith or religion. Each family must do what is best for them. And if it is another means to an end—that is, a legitimately morally centered person, not someone hiding behind a false coat of religious armor—then I can’t really argue with that. But what I do criticize are those individuals who wrongly believe that morals must be and can only be developed within the context of a god. It’s completely arbitrary and belies the truth that I see in many atheists I personally know. I hope that this eventually becomes the truth that the rest of the world comes to realize.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz. All rights reserved.