The Moral Atheist: Religion Isn’t the Only Motivator to Be a Good Person

Photo William Farlow by on UnSplash

There are 500 million identified atheists in the world, and these numbers are only increasing. Yet, people, especially in America, remain distrustful of this growing group — viewing them as immoral, suspected of evil deeds, and dangerous. As a self-proclaimed atheist, I’m here to share my ideological journey with you. It’s a moral journey and it’s not disconnected from religion. I was raised as a Born-Again-Christian, the daughter of a father who often led sermons in our home church, and someone who used to pray daily. This is not a post vilifying religion. I did not come to adopt atheism in my life by rejecting religion. And as someone who personally understands the important role that faith has in people’s lives, I didn’t walk away from religion admonishing it or the people that subscribe to this practice. Instead, I took a personal journey to discover what morality meant to me, my life’s purpose, and what values/ principles most resonated with me. That journey led me to atheism. Let me explain why.

As a young teenager I was always critical of the world around me. When it was time to get baptized and be “born again,” at the age of 12, that was the moment I started being critical of the Bible. I couldn’t help noting my surroundings in the church I attended: women did not lead sermons, women did not have a say in church decisions, and women were subservient to the men — which seemed to have all the power and influence in both the church and the home. When I turned to the Bible, which I read regularly, I couldn’t help but be troubled by how some women were depicted in the Bible. I remember reading the Old Testament, Judges 16, the story of Samson and Delilah — where Delilah entraps and manipulates Samson to reveal the secret to his strength — his long hair. She betrays him and is viewed as a treacherous woman. As a young girl about to become a teenager, I wanted to feel good about myself as a woman. But these types of stories of women in the Bible and the ways that women in my church were being treated made me feel ashamed and confused about my identity as a woman. As an outspoken, natural leader, critical thinker — I felt like I didn’t fit in this environment, that women like me didn’t belong here. That was the moment I started to distance myself from the church. I want to be clear; this isn’t the experience everyone has — there are many types of religions and churches, and they each have unique values, cultures, and environments. I tell this story not to make a judgement about all religions and churches — but to demonstrate how my personal experience was rooted in my own sense of morality: believing in gender equality, and the idea that as a woman who didn’t fit the particular norms within the church I grew up with — that I should still be accepted and valued by society.

When I left the church, I didn’t immediately become an atheist. I still very much had my faith. I prayed every single day and I still believed in God. These beliefs went away slowly as I adopted a new way of understanding the world around me. As a college student, I enrolled in a political science course called “Foundations of Political Thought.” I didn’t realize the foundations of political thought meant reading dozens of books by dead, white, male philosophers. I also didn’t realize these philosophers would teach me something about morality. But they did. One in particular: Emanual Kant. Emanual Kant writes about something called “categorical imperatives” which are supreme principles of morality. With these baseline principles, he believed that individuals could “seek out” “a priori” a “metaphysics of morals” which is just philosophical jargon used to argue the point: that people actually have the capacity to build their own moral codes by consistently asking themselves “What ought I do?” Kant argues that this process is the best shot human beings have at consistently engaging in moral behavior. Why? Because he recognized early on (it took psychologists a few decades to catch up with him) that how we understand and act on our morals — isn’t an external phenomenon — it occurs in our brains. Even if you believe in God, God can’t make you engage in moral behavior — humans with free will have to make these decisions themselves. Kant makes us aware of this cognitive process and proposes that we should take a more active role in determining how we make these decisions. Adopting a Kantian moral philosophy means constantly striving to make our behaviors morally consistent by using our brains to ask ourselves is this behavior moral? If so, why? Does it fit with my other values and principles? If not, why? And if not, does my moral principle need to change so that I’m consistent?

For me, this philosophy changed how I thought about morality. My morals were no longer a set of values that were determined by a Bible, a church, my parents, the media, or my social networks. It meant that my moral values are personal, they are housed in my brain, and they are unique to my experiences of how I view the world. So, does that mean that killing people is now part of this moral code? No. Let me explain why. Because this is the number one misconception of atheists — that without religion or faith — we can create “moral” codes that are selfish, harmful or self-serving. That’s where Kant comes back in — because in his version of morality, we have to strive for consistency. That means that if I’m ok with killing someone for hurting my feelings, then if I hurt their feelings, they can also kill me. I would prefer to live, to not harm others, and not have others harm me. Kant encourages us to develop consistent moral codes — that we apply to ourselves and to others. That doesn’t mean we force our moral codes onto other people (we can’t and shouldn’t try). It means that as we decide what our morals are that we aim for them to be consistent and universal.

Sounds easy right? It’s not. Let me give an example of when this becomes hard to do. Let’s say I decide my moral is “not to lie.” Let me explain how this moral code didn’t serve me, because I couldn’t apply it universally to my life. For example, in a real situation in my life, I was in a dangerous situation where I was fleeing a border unexpectedly. My mother texted me asking if I was boarding my flight the next day. If I followed the moral code “not to lie” I would have told her the truth in that moment — that I wasn’t getting on a plane because flights were canceled and I was fleeing across a dangerous border and wasn’t sure I was going to be safe afterwards. The truth would have caused her more harm. My mother was incapable of helping me cross the border and getting to safety. She was far away and unable to help. Telling her the truth would have caused distress, anxiety, and fear. And telling her the truth might have forced me to comfort her instead of being alert and attentive to my dangerous situation — increasingly the likelihood that something bad might happen to me — adding more harm to my mother. So here is where I ask myself Kant’s question of “what ought I do?” In this moment, I realize that my moral code isn’t “not to lie.” I can’t consistently follow that code. My moral code here is actually “to not harm people to the best of my ability.” I realize that telling my mother the truth would only harm her — and so I lie. I tell her yes, I’ll be on the plane tomorrow, and I tell her the actual truth when I reach safety the next day. Recognizing that my moral code is in my head and taking a Kantian approach to seek a consistent application of this code encourages me to go deeper into my morals and consistently determine the underlying principles (i.e., not harming people) that define them.

I’m one of the most moral people I know, and I do not make that statement lightly. I constantly think about what is “right” or “wrong” and I do so often in the context of what will help or hurt other human beings. I constantly reevaluate this code, when I behave in ways that are inconsistent, I ask myself why? And I correct my behaviors in the future, especially when I learn from others that I have unintentionally caused harm. I’ve also been in many situations where others are pressuring me to behave a certain way, for example gossiping about another person or behaving in “petty” ways to get back at person for harming me. In these moments, I think about my moral code to not hurt others, and it encourages me to make difficult choices — to not gossip, to let others “get away” with hurting me, or not being socially accepted because I took a stance that others didn’t agree with. This is the power of consistency when it comes to making moral decisions — you constantly consider if you are being consistent about your beliefs and values — and this consistency can help you make tough decisions, because in that moment being true to your morals is more important than getting revenge, social accolades, or receiving personal gains. And in those moments where you slip up — where you give in to these desires or pressures — actively thinking about these decisions helps you change these behaviors in the future, because you want to be consistent and true to these morals. Not because there are consequences from the law or God — but because you are trying to consistently be a moral and good person.

I take the time to explain this moral code because this is what guides me in making everyday choices and how I interact with others. Over time, religion became an ideology that was inconsistent with what I believed in. That doesn’t mean that will happen to you, but it’s what happened to me. In its place, are these philosophical values and practices. Not all atheists subscribe to a Kantian philosophy, but I guarantee you that they are all human beings like me — trying to do the right thing, trying to understand the world around them, and they’re doing the best they can. They have the same cognitive capacity to determine their values, principles, and morals. We don’t have to believe in God to not want to harm others. We don’t have to believe in God to make this world a better place. We don’t have to believe in God to celebrate and value the earth. There are many moral beings walking amongst you, just because they do not subscribe to the same religion, principles, or values that you do — doesn’t mean they won’t save you from a burning building, advocate for your rights, join a cause you care about, or support you when you need them. We have more in common with each other than we realize, and just like I won’t hold it against someone who is religious — I hope someone won’t hold it against me that I’m not. Kind, good, moral, loving, caring, generous, and considerate people come in all different forms — even in the form of atheists.

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