Are Atheists More Ethical than Theists?

“The non-religious, or Nones, hold the fastest-growing world view in the market,” says Kosmin. “In the past 20 years, their numbers in the United States have doubled to 15 percent.”  (Der Spiegel)

My friend pointed me to a recent article in Der Spiegel called Does Secularlism Make People more ethical? which quoted some who study secularism claiming that belief in God may actually lead to less ethical behavior, not more ethical behavior.  I’ve met a lot of outstandingly ethical atheists, and a lot of not-very ethical theists, so I tend to think that belief in God is not alone a great criteria for knowing if one is ethical or not.  I know some people only go to Christian mechanics, etc– because they think they can trust them more– but I haven’t found it to be true that Christian mechanics are always more ethical, or that my non-religious one’s cheated me. 

Now there is no doubt that belief in something Transcendent (God, for example) does provide a basis for certain moral courage that others who don’t have such a belief may not have.  A friend of mine recently was pointing out that perhaps just wars are only possible if you have a belief in God, since only something transcendent is worth dying for.  Now I think that even if you don’t believe in God it still can make sense to die for your heritage, family, country, way of life, etc in war– its not like secularists care about nothing more than their own skin necessarily– that just doesn’t accurately describe reality.   But the more interesting thing about this argument that only theists could have a just war is that on the flip side of that claim is the atheists claim that “belief in God leads to violence.”  In other words, only a belief in God would lead one to kill people at 911, in the Crusades, in Northern Ireland, in the Pakistan-India skirmishes, in the Iran-Iraq war, in Crete (Turkish Muslims and Greek Christians), Croatia, Kyrzykstan-Uzbekistan, 30 year war (Lutheran-Catholic) etc etc etc.  Now from most of these skirmishes you could just as well say “ethnicity leads to war” or “desire for wealth leads to war” or even simply “pride and arrogance leads to war”.    In other words, picking out religion as the cause simply because many wars ostensibly use religious arguments to justify their claims and get adherents to go sacrifice themselves (the many virgins (in heaven) promised to Martyrs in sects of Islam who are willing to die for the cause is one case in point) is not an entirely accurate picture of what is going on.

Now there are Christians who think that non-Christians can not do good, because to do good requires God’s grace.  They also think that anything done apart from God is sin, so since an atheist is certainly apart from God, and nothing they do is done for God’s glory, nothing they do can NOT be sin.  Now I do not agree with this viewpoint.  I understand the gist of it, and see why someone would argue that any act done not for the glory of God is sin in some sense.  But I do think that atheists can love their wives, be kind, honest, follow most of the 10 commandments, etc.  I see all people in God’s image, and see the vestiges of that, regardless of the current state of their relationship with God.  Some people are in better shape than others morally and soul-wise, but you can tell that all of them were made by God and for God and that beauty is there regardless of their current stage.  It doesn’t matter if they are a theif a murderer, or a terrorist– there is still some of the goodness of God left there which is redeemable and lovely.  Some think that is semipelagian.  I just think its Christian.

 One reason I think theists think secularists are less ethical is that secularists don’t tend to follow the same restrictions as theists.  One reason atheists think theists are unethical is because they push all their rules on everyone else!  So the theist biased against atheists may find atheists to be sexually loose, unsupportive of basic societal goals of marriage and family and fidelity, supportive of unnatural activities, likely to cheat or steal if they can get away with it, willing to kill the unborn, supporters of killing the elderly (euthanasia), focused on animals more than people (Peter Singer, case in point), etc.  Atheists biased against theists will see theists to be oppressive to women (no abortion), anit-homosexual, oppressive to those outside the norm (single moms, etc), prone to be divisive and retributive, argumentative, and generally pushy.  (Kosmin, at the Trinity College (CT) center for secular studies said, “For example, many believe that the US population is steadily becoming more religious — but this is an optical illusion. Many evangelicals have simply become more aggressive and more political.”)

The article also points out that secularism increases as ‘the church’ generally is decreasing:

This heightened public profile may be contributing to the shrinking numbers of religious believers. Churches in the US are losing up to 1 million members every year. In Europe, secularization has advanced even further. The number of non-religious people, those who do not believe in God or any higher power, has reached approximately 40 percent in France and about 27 percent in Germany.

 But even though they may have increased in numbers, they still generally are not trusted, and the article points out that “since secularists rank among the least-liked groups of people in the US, falling behind even Muslims and homosexuals.”

The other problem, apparently, that secularists have is that they don’t have anything around which to organize themselves.  Kosmin mentioned a  ‘secularist demonstration’ planned in Washington last year, “But they couldn’t even agree on a motto,” he says. “It was like herding cats, straight out of a Monty Python sketch.” In the end, the march was called off. 

I have read a lot of Christian arguments claiming that if one doesn’t believe in God, then you don’t have a strong basis for morality, because you don’t have a metaphysical structure deep enough to really prescribe behaviors to others.  In other words, if there is no designer to plan how we are supposed to live, then there isn’t really a right way and a wrong way to do things. 

This argument is generally meant to show people that if they want to hold to a moral standard, then not believing in God is inconsistent.  Now I am not too interested in such arguments for the simple reason that I have never known people to believe in God after hearing this argument: “Oh you are right, I am inconsistent, I’d better believe in God right now then!…” 

But I also have a very practical and selfish reason I’m not too interested in the argument.  I tell my friends who try to use this argument to think about what they are doing: They are using it on Atheists who are acting morally– not murdering, not cheating, not stealing, being honest– and they are saying to them: “Look, you are really being inconsistent.  If you were a consistent atheist you would start cheating and stealing and lying and killing…”  My response is– DON’T TELL THEM THAT!  I mean, even if you are right, and the atheist has no good reason to not kill me unless he believes in God, why in the world would you want him to realize that?  Let sleeping dogs lie! 🙂  So I do not use that argument, and highly discourage its use.   

In the end, we obviously must take seriously the gradual increase of secularism and the gradual decline of theism.  There is no doubt that Europe is in most respects a post-Christian culture, and the US is slowly going that direction.  I’m not sure what the answer is to that.  I tend to think that it is not necessarily to become more politically antagonistic.  In a conversation I was having last night with a good friend, I asked him why he thought some high level Evangelical academics were becoming Catholic.  He said he wondered if it might not be because evangelicalism has become so identified with particular political outlooks, and the less they liked being identified with the tea party the less they liked being identified as evangelical.  I don’t know if that is acurate or not, but it was an interesting consideration. 

One might say, “well if we don’t do something and stand up, what will happen?” and I understand and appreciate that sentiment.    But we don’t want to let the vocal minority dominate the discussion and the perception of what it is to be evangelical.  Those who speak loudest are usually considered to be the spokespeople, unfortunately. 

Now there are Christians who think that non-Christians can not do good, because to do good requires God’s grace.  They also think that anything done apart from God is sin, so since an atheist is certainly apart from God, and nothing they do is done for God’s glory, nothing they do can NOT be sin.  Now I do not agree with this viewpoint.  I understand the gist of it, and see why someone would argue that any act done not for the glory of God is sin in some sense.  But I do think that atheists can love their wives, be kind, honest, follow most of the 10 commandments, etc.  I see all people in God’s image, and see the vestiges of that, regardless of the current state of their relationship with God.  Some people are in better shape than others morally and soul-wise, but you can tell that all of them were made by God and for God and that beauty is there regardless of their current stage.  It doesn’t matter if they are a theif a murderer, or a terrorist– there is still some of the goodness of God left there which is redeemable and lovely.  Some think that is semipelagian.  I just think its Christian.

As for secularists being more ethical– I doubt it.  As for theists always being more ethical– I doubt that too.  Fortunately, people who do not believe in God can still in many cases act as ethically or even more ethically than Christians, in my experience.  And though they don’t mean to, this in itself is something which glorifies God. 

May God have mercy on us all…

the article from der spiegel was at: http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,777281,00.html

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2 responses to “Are Atheists More Ethical than Theists?

  1. Becky Nuesken

    Throughout history man has pursued God, because it was always understood that being with God is where anyone would want to be. For centuries the faithful had to visit God by proxy in the temple but Jesus opened up access to the Most Holy, accepting and perfecting us in his image. How on Earth did man decide that the presence of God was not the greatest place in the universe?

    The Church is now the place here where God dwells. He lives in us and his presence is the best place to be still. Evangelicalism celebrates and emphasizes the salvation, understanding and fruit of the individual. Atheism is also focused on the understanding and place of the individual. If it could be reworked so that the Atheist must instead measure his “ethics” in light of the potential inclusion in God’s Church on Earth, living new, filled with the Spirit and drinking living water with brothers and sisters who together provide God’s habitation, together collectively await his return as an anxious bride, the concern over which individual is more ethical can be quickly eclipsed.

    I think the challenge is to the church to be what it should, so that people will once again know instinctively that being with God is the best place to be.

  2. ndizeye jackson

    > From: jackson ndizeye
    > Subject: Greetings and appreciation
    > To:simple free church
    > Date: Monday, april 2, 2012
    > Hullo brethren
    > Many greetings. You sacrificed
    > alot and so much happiness to correspond with us. Many
    > Thanks for standing and believing with us we are a good
    > fellow, and cooperative and working with most of
    > believers for being the light in their lives, the star in
    > their midst
    > and our prayer warrior. You are so loving, friendly, and
    > caring more especially to uganda and our
    > organization at large which is the evangelical free church. we see what you doing and told that you have
    > special gift for Evangelism and making
    > partnership in order to bring up the lost people
    > to the brighter gospel. We are interested for
    > sharing our
    > hopes and making our burdens lighter of the lost
    > people. You are so close to heart and very
    > special to kisoro and our organization and believers. We are cherished in the Lord for
    > glorious times I see in the correspondence with
    > uganda informing your love and her request for the Bibles,
    > the good news . Always
    > shall be remembered by efc Uganda from the time I heard
    > about you . You are wonderful, given your best
    > in life for the work . We love
    > you for the tender love, support you do to our organization
    > and nurturing, inspiration and caring.
    > You always show love. I appreciate the
    > way you do it I am grateful but to wish you a
    > nice and memorable message. I am applying for Partnership
    > which is enjoyable but
    > timing venture. We love you
    > because we know what partnership .
    > Despite your busy program me you are the most
    > precious loveliest of all people known by us, a shining star
    > in our hearts.
    > We
    > love and treasure you with sunshine, molding your heart of
    > pure gold (world of God).
    > You shall give single candle which can
    > illuminate an entire mission. A
    > true gospel father light up child’s life time. For
    > all your love, kindness, determination, hard work,
    > faithfulness, you
    > shall become granary of whole village and Uganda at large
    > You
    > are
    > strong hand is a blessing to many & people
    > what else we can
    > do than thanking God only knows how thankful, wondrous
    > combination of
    > mind, brain and pure heart we are for having
    > considered.
    >
    > Hoping to hear from you
    > May God bless you
    >
    > Thank you
    > for all Love Jackson
    > Director of efc
    > Uganda
    >
    >
    >
    >
    >
    >

    Dele

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