One criticism I see lobbed at atheists is that we spend a lot of time calling attention to Christians who do immoral things, such as Catholic priests who sexually molest children. Why can’t we ever point out the good things that Christians are doing? Well, in the United States, we live in a country that equates Christianity with goodness. Christian and good morals are synonymous. It’s one of those things that goes without saying. Further, atheism is equated with being evil and is extremely disliked. As an atheist who grew up with a very ethical, atheistic family, it was painful to hear people calling atheists “immoral” and “evil” and to use the word “atheist” as a slur, all while beefing up their own moral creds.
One thing I want to make clear from the start is that I don’t see the world in terms of good people or bad people, but just people, who are capable of doing good things and bad things. I firmly believe that it is vital to morality to realize that everyone is capable of doing bad things. If you want to know why, look up Stanley Milgram. The only way I know to combat such weaknesses in our human nature is through education and awareness of how easy it is to convince people to do horrible things. This also includes calling people out when they cross boundaries and cause harm and asking people to be responsible for the harm they have caused.
Because of this, I don’t think any religious, or non-religious group, holds a monopoly on morality (or evil for that matter). All groups are composed of flawed people, and all of those people have done good things and bad things to varying degrees. For instance, the Nazis are a good example of a group that has caused tremendous harm, while the American Shakers, to my knowledge, have done very little harm.
And people can belong to overlapping groups. I am a European American, and I have had to grapple with the fact that my ancestors have caused harm to the native population. And the reason this matters? It is still happening. It is unacceptable, it needs to stop, and only if European Americans stand with Native Americans and say “NO MORE!” will this stop.
It won’t if people like me listen to the experiences of Native people and say, “not all white people!” or “you just want to make us look bad and kill us!” or other statements that dodge responsibility (and sadly, many white people do this).
Do I think European Americans are all bad? No. As a group, though, we are composed of different people who do bad and good things to varying degrees.
Where the problem comes in, however, is when members of a group see their group as incapable of doing bad things because they have the moral high ground, all while slandering a different group as immoral. And Christians tend to have this problem, big time. Hence when a prominent Christian is found to have raped little children, people say, “well, he wasn’t a real Christian.”
Bull. That person believe he was a Christian. And it didn’t stop him from harming others. And I do feel this belief that real Christians can’t do bad things because of their morality is dangerous and prevents them from looking into systemic structures in their organizations that permit these abuses to occur.
There are valid reasons to call out Christians (and people of other faiths) when they harm others. Without awareness nothing is going to change. But I’m not immune to the fact that more often than not, this tends to make religious people defensive.
And my question to them is, when you feel defensive when atheists legitimately call out religious people who have abused and harmed others, how do you think it feels to be an atheist and to be accused of being immoral when you haven’t done anything to harm others? I’ve never raped, murdered, or abused another person, yet I am treated as though I have!
Growing up I heard classmates, teachers, friends, acquaintances talk about atheists and how evil they are. I would always get so uncomfortable. They would expect me to join in on the atheist bashing, not knowing I was an atheist (because how could I be? I was so nice!) and wonder about my silence. I would wonder if they actually knew any atheists who were open about it.
When I would come out to people, the response would be, “but you’re so nice! You can’t be an atheist!” Or something along those lines.
While I want to be open as possible about my atheism to show people that atheists can live moral lives, the truth of the matter is, that Christians who view atheists as immoral tend to find that threatening and target me for their vitriol because I am proving their beliefs (that it is impossible to live a moral, fulfilling life without god) wrong.
I guess they didn’t catch the moral of the story of the good Samaritan.
Trying to convince people that you can be moral and an atheist is extremely hard (and not to mention scary because of harassment that Christians will dole out), because as every maligned group has found out, no matter what you do or say, it will never be enough. For instance, look at this Christian who came onto my page and accused me of wanting to beat, humiliate, and kill Christians despite my “beautiful words.”
I challenge anyone to find me threatening harm to anyone on my blog. The point is, it doesn’t matter what I say or do. Christians will presume they can read my mind and tell me what I want (which is condescending and insulting. And further, you can’t read my mind).
And, to be clear, this is not just online, this happens in day to day real life interactions. And once again to be clear, people think I am a very moral person…until they find out I don’t believe in a god. In short, they are judging me by my beliefs, not my actions.
Now, Christians, try and think about how infuriating it may feel to be called immoral, told that you want to beat and kill people (when you don’t want any such thing, you just want Christians to own up to the fact that they have harmed people and to stop), told that your life is empty and meaningless when you find your life fulfilled and purposeful. Try to imagine being worried about losing your job, about having your client base scared off, about having your children being threatened, not because of your actions, but because of your beliefs. Meanwhile, the people who are slandering (and this is slander) you, are assumed to have the moral high ground.
Try to think of how infuriating that may be.
So yes, there is something very personal to the reason atheists point out the abuses of Christians. It’s because we’re fed up with being so maligned, with being the most distrusted, hated minority while the people who are hurting us claim the moral high ground.
Here is where a Christian may point out that atheists have done bad things.
Yes, they have. However, this misses out on the context that Christians are presumed good until proven bad while atheists are presumed evil until proven good (which, as I’ve pointed out, is an impossible bar to meet). This further ignores the fact that in the US, Christians have elected officials protecting and advancing their interests and trying to give them the right to discriminate against others. Atheists don’t.
This also ignores the fact that a Christian won’t lose their job for being a Christian and a Christian in business tends to advertise the fact that they are Christian because people associate it with being good.
Further, going back to the European American to Native American dynamic, considering the abuses white people have inflicted on Indian Americans, they have every right to distrust us. And is one of them lashes out at me, I will do my best to understand where they are coming from, not accuse them of not getting their message across in a polite enough way.
People can be Christian and they can be good. This is a given in our culture. People can be atheist and they can be good. This is not a given in our culture even though it is true. And it is not too much to ask Christians to come off their moral high horse and acknowledge it. And I wish that they would try to understand where we are coming from when we point out the abuses Christians have committed. This isn’t going to end until Christians decide that people who aren’t Christian can be moral and judge people by their actions, not their beliefs.