03 August 2011
I’m going to Oslo for the launch of the International Association of Freethought next week. With others, I’ll be speaking under the topic “Atheism in the 21st Century”. I’m looking forward to being with hundreds of rational people and hearing their thoughts. But “Oslo” has a terrible resonance in people’s minds at the moment, because approximately 76 people were killed by Behring Breivik in Oslo on 22 July.
Breivik has been described as a Christian fundamentalist. He is also Norwegian, male, anti-Muslim, anti-multiculturalism, anti-womens’ rights and anti-socialism. We may never know what exactly motivated Breivik but it seems to be a deranged mix of factors. For atheists it may be tempting to at least partially blame the Christian influence for Breivik’s rampage. Maybe religious influence is partly to blame, as I discuss further below, but atheists should be wary of playing the illogical “body count” game that sees some religious people point to Hitler (actually a Catholic) and Stalin (a dictator who was educated in a seminary) as examples of the negatives of atheism. Even if it was possible to measure accurately, a count of deaths caused by religious people relative to atheists is unlikely to tell you more than who happened to be the most effective at perpetuating evil. There are good and bad religious people, good and bad atheists, good and bad people across the political spectrum as well as good and bad left-handed people. The critical issue is why people commit atrocious acts, their underlying motivation.
The Bible is a book that has been interpreted to justify a broad range of actions, across a spectrum that would generally be considered to include “good” or “bad” designations by most people. If a Christian is looking for guidance on being a good person they could find it in the Bible – so long as they conveniently ignore all the non-good-person bits. They could also probably find such guidance in the fairytale Cinderella if they wanted to. It’s a sad situation if someone needs to rely on a book (or the promise of heaven / the threat of hell) to be a good person, but it’s conceivable that someone might. However, most people, religious or otherwise, are “nice” people. Humans have evolved to be cooperative because it benefited our genes to live within a supportive social structure. It’s good marketing for religion to claim some credit for humans’ evolved cooperative behaviour and basic “niceness”, but it isn’t accurate. If all the Christians found out tomorrow that the Hindus were actually right and there is no God, the vast majority of them would still be nice people. While maybe well-intentioned, those who advocate that “religious faith makes people do good things” are implying that faith is a reasonable basis for actions. It is not. It’s just that the outcome is less harmful than bad actions motivated by religious faith.
Similarly, if someone is looking to justify harmful actions then they can find relevant guidance in the Bible. Unfortunately the Bible also alleges authority and a final judgement. Intellectually this is highly dubious, but at least not particularly dangerous for others in the context of good actions. However, it is very dangerous in the context of harmful actions. If there is a higher power that can trump any inconvenient human laws or social attitudes, if there is some kind of reckoning and afterlife of reward and punishment based on a religious system of right and wrong, then that facilitates an abdication of responsibility for living within the laws and attitudes of our society. Some people who have committed atrocious acts – the 9/11 hijackers, people who kill doctors who perform abortions in the US – have explicitly religious motivations, and proudly proclaim them. For others – probably including Brevik – the motivations appear varied.
In contrast to seeking guidance in old books, atheists think for themselves. If I do good things it is not because I’m an atheist. It is because logic tells me that the world will be a better place if people do good things; I am one person among many; I should do good things if I want others to do the same. And if I do bad things it won’t be because atheism encouraged me to do them, it will be because I’m selfish or thoughtless. My actions, my responsibility.
No doubt some of the horrific crimes committed by humans over time have been perpetrated by atheists. One day there will be a high-profile killer who happens to be an atheist. Someone religious will probably try to claim that this killer lacked a good moral grounding because they didn’t accept the teachings of [insert their preferred god/prophet/holy person here]. But they are missing the point of atheism. The absence of a belief (in a god or anything else) is not a foundation for any kind of action or inaction. There is no holy book for atheists to interpret, no one to preach that certain actions are right or wrong. Atheism doesn’t tell you what to think, it just tells you to think. To use reason and logic. To base decisions and views on evidence. Some day some twisted person could construct a path from “I don’t believe in any god” to “killing people is a good idea” – maybe someone already has – but atheism will not provide a rationale, excuse or absolution. Religion cannot claim the same.