What Stops Atheists from Violence?

This was originally supposed to be a Daily Dot piece (hence the un-blog-like format), but that didn’t work out. So instead, here’s a post in which I interviewed a bunch of cool atheists about how it is that we manage to have morals. Yay!

Phil Robertson, controversial star of A&E’s Duck Dynasty, recently chose a bizarre way to try to prove that atheists have no morals. He concocted a brutally violent rape scenario and shared it in a speech at a prayer breakfast:

Two guys break into an atheist’s home….they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot ’em and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

While many have criticized Robertson’s graphic speech, plenty of his fans defended him, even starting an #isupportphil hashtag on Twitter. But whether you believe in god or not, there is nevertheless something bone-chilling about the apparent glee with which Robertson relays his story, especially considering that the group he targets is still subject to social marginalization, legal discrimination, and even physical violence, especially outside of the United States. How can we be trusted as members of society if Christians, who are the majority, expect us to rape and murder whenever we can get away with it?

Let’s indulge Robertson’s claims. While it’s easy to dismiss him as being on the fringe — and many do — atheists are often asked by religious believers what could possibly stop us from being violent. At a workshop that I once facilitated, I asked a room packed with atheist students how many of them have ever heard this question from a religious person. Almost every hand in the room went up.

Clearly, whether through willful ignorance or in-group isolation, many people don’t understand what secular morality is. Dan Linford, an adjunct professor of philosophy, does not believe that morality requires religion. He says, “Most ethical theories are (a) objective and (b) do not involve God.” He explains that some things, like being healthy and having control over your body, are intrinsically good. Other things, such as pain, are intrinsically bad. Forcing people to experience bad things and denying them good things is wrong, and rape denies autonomy and causes suffering.

Sarah Jones, a writer and church/state separation activist, draws her morality directly from her secular beliefs. “I believe that rape is a significant moral evil because I’m a secular humanist, not in spite of it,” she says, adding that her humanist views emphasize respecting the dignity of others. Blogger Niki M. says, “The concept of bodily autonomy doesn’t require religion. That is why rape (and murder and kidnapping) are wrong all the livelong day.”

Further, according to author and blogger Greta Christina, Robertson’s comments deny the fact that it is in our nature to try to treat each other well. “Compassion and a sense of justice are a fundamental part of what makes us human, part of how we evolved as a social species,” she says. “To deny our ethics is to treat us as less than human.”

Most people feel a sense of empathy, which includes not only being happy when others are happy, but also feeling pain when they are in pain. In fact, research shows that watching someone experience something activates some of the same brain cells as experiencing that thing ourselves. These mirror neurons, as they are known, may be the source of our capacity for empathy.

Maybe this can help confused people like Robertson understand how it is that atheists are no more violent than anyone else. “It has never occurred to me to go out into the world and rape or murder people because I’m an atheist,” says Kelley Freeman, Communications Associate for the Secular Student Alliance. “I don’t want to murder people because I am capable of basic human empathy.”

Some atheists would like to flip the question and ask Robertson how he knows that rape is wrong. “It’s interesting that someone would use the Bible as a source of morality, especially when it comes to treatment of women,” says Amy Monsky, Executive Director of the Atheist Alliance of America. “This is a book that says victims of rape should be stoned to death, after all.”

Yet it is atheists who are accused of condoning rape and expected to defend their morality–a hypocrisy that is keenly felt by those who have survived sexual assault. “I’m curious what Mr. Robertson would say to the man who sexually assaulted me,” says Courtney Caldwell, a blogger for Skepchick. “My assailant was a good ol’ boy, a Christian, an avid hunter. He was someone who would probably really enjoy Mr. Robertson’s show.”

Sarah Jones adds that, as a survivor of sexual violence, she knows quite well that rape is wrong. “I lived it,” she says. “I don’t need a sermon to tell me how to think about it.”

Perhaps some religious believers, who have grown up learning about the Ten Commandments and other faith-based morals, haven’t given much thought to where morality comes from if not god. It can be difficult to relate to and trust people when you have no idea what motivates their behavior, and it doesn’t help that vocal atheists are fairly rare when it comes to positions of power in America.

But atheists and believers aren’t as different as we think. Most people feel at least a little bad when they hurt someone, and most people feel good when they help others or give back to their communities. I trust people when I can feel pretty confident that they’ll avoid hurting me if they can.

That’s why statements like Robertson’s worry me and many others. Religious belief can wane or even disappear; many atheists were once believers. If belief in god is all that’s stopping people like Robertson from heinous acts of violence, that’s concerning, to say the least. “This is the kind of speech you would expect from a serial killer, not an educator or TV role model to tens of millions of impressionable Americans,” says Danielle Muscato, Communications Manager for American Atheists.

On the other hand, I doubt that Robertson and all the other religious believers who echo his sentiments would actually commit violence if they lost their faith. More likely, they are convinced that their religion is what keeps them acting morally because that’s what they were taught. People who conflate religion and morality may feel pain and guilt when they do something unethical, but may attribute those feelings purely to their religious beliefs and not to the fact that they are human.

But if ignorant people like Robertson really do believe that atheists are all potential rapists and murderers, so what? Unfortunately, that has consequences. Melanie Elyse Brewster, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, believes that opinions like Robertson’s have measurable, harmful impact on atheists in the United States. Citing research that suggests that atheists are highly mistrusted in our society, she says, “How are we supposed to be accepted in our communities, hold positions of power, raise families, collaborate with coworkers when some of them genuinely believe that we would rape or murder if it benefited us?”

I am an atheist whose stomach turned when I read Robertson’s speech. The atheists profiled here, who are all activists and leaders in the secular community, feel the same way. The only reason we are still constantly asked to prove that we oppose senseless violence — and the only reason I am writing this now — is because Christian worldviews are privileged in our society, and because the few atheist voices that get heard, such as that of Richard Dawkins, speak more about why religion is wrong than about why secular ethics are right.

Without a god telling us what to do, what’s left? Grappling with ethical questions on our own. But between the rich tradition of secular philosophy and our own neurobiological capacity to feel pain at the pain of another living creature, atheists have plenty of solid reasons not to commit violence. What we lack is the trust and respect we deserve as members of a society still dominated by Christianity.

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What Stops Atheists from Violence?
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9 thoughts on “What Stops Atheists from Violence?

  1. 1

    Once in the NYC subway, a proselytizer asked my then boyfriend and I, “If you don’t believe in God, what keeps you from going out and murdering people?” His response: “I don’t want to be murdered!” I’m Pagan rather than atheist, but we get the same kind of stuff from Christians all the time, and it scares the shit out of me. If fear of their god is the only thing keeping them from heinous acts, what happens when their god condones those acts? Oh, right: the Crusades. Hopefully you’re correct in thinking evangelicals like Robertson do have the capacity for human empathy. But I fear their religion allows them to define those who believe differently as less than human, and so on a practical level it won’t matter.

    PS I also know some devout evangelicals who are amazing and compassionate people.

  2. 2

    …atheists are often asked by religious believers what could possibly stop us from being violent.

    I don’t even have to check my moral barometer regarding violence. I physically couldn’t do it. I don’t even like hearing about it. Listening to that Phil Robertson nearly made me sick!

    These days If the TV headlines mentions ISIS or Boko Haram I don’t watch the news that night because I can guess what’s coming and I can’t bear to see the videos that will surely accompany the report.

  3. 3

    The people who ask this question are the frightening ones. The ones who – apparently – seem to think there’s something inherently attractive about going on a killing spree, such that only a book and a priest/pastor/whatever-the-flavour is holding them back.
    They never seem to stop and think that, oddly enough, most people have absolutely no desire or inclination to go on killing sprees. And that those who do tend to share the predominant belief-system – such as, for example, religion – of the society around them.

  4. 5

    Religion has its benefits and harms. One of the major harms that it does is to teach a false theory of ethics.

    Religious folk misunderstand morality at its roots. Religion teaches a child’s view of ethics, that “being good” means “obeying your parent”. Just as religious faith is believing what you are told, so religious morality is doing what you are told. Religious morality consists of obeying the alleged will of God, an invisible “Cosmic Parent”, as reported by your chosen authority. But obedience is not morality, and morality is not obedience. We can all think of famous people who did good things while rebelling against authority, and others who did evil things while obeying authority.

    Religious folk may be Good Samaritans or suicide bombers, it depends entirely on what their chosen authority orders them to do. If a believer, or a community of same, wishes to make war or keep slaves or oppress women, all they have to do is persuade themselves that their god approves. This seems not to be hard, and no god has ever popped up to tell believers that they were wrong. They do not have a code of morality except by the convenience of the priesthood. What they have is a code of obedience, which is not the same thing.

    Adult morality is a means of maintaining peaceful and cooperative relations with your neighbors. If you want peaceful relations, don’t kill, steal, lie, or break agreements. As Shakespeare wrote: “It needs no ghost, Milord, come from the grave, to tell us this.”

    Living beings evolved by natural selection are going to value the health of their families, “inclusive fitness”, where “health” is the ABILITY to survive, and “family” is “all who share your genes, to the degree that they share your genes.” Their desires are shaped by natural selection, and inclusive fitness is what natural selection selects for.

    Social animals, who survive by cooperating in groups, have a “natural” standard of ethics: The Good is that which leads to health, The Right is that which leads to peace. A “good person” is a desirable neighbor, from the point of view of people who seek to live in peace and raise families.

  5. 6

    I’m not sure that comments like Robertson’s really have that much to do with actually making a case that a god is necessary for morality. It’s more religious tribalism – Robertson is part of a tribe which believes that only one god is correct, and he comes pretty close to expressing the belief that those who don’t believe in his god don’t deserve any sort of protection from violence . No surprise his example uses rape, as victims are said to be *asking for it* by stepping outside of what certain people deem appropriate behavior (even when it’s totally irrelevant to increasing or reducing the danger of being raped.)

  6. 7

    I really do not understand any of this palaver. The whole idea of “god” – the many thousands of meanings of the word, the many thousands of imputed responsibilities and teachings – are all inventions of Humans, so it immediately follows that morality and ethics are equally Human inventions. I think Robertson et al are confusing “Atheist” with “Sociopathic”. And, and this is scary, projecting their own inner selves.

  7. 8

    I identify as Christian and I agree with most of what you are saying. Although I believe that I will ultimately have a Judgement Day where I will have to account for my actions in this life, that isn’t what primarily motivates me to avoid causing others harm. There is enough here, right in front of me, to stop me from hurting people. Guilt, empathy, sympathy, compassion – those emotions are what mostly influences my interactions with others on a day to day basis.

    However, I’ll admit that sometimes, when I’ve been wronged, there isn’t enough right here is front of me to not.. Seek revenge, I guess. It isn’t every time I feel aggrieved with someone, but those times when I feel they’ve been especially vindictive to me or perhaps someone else. It’s those times that I depend on religious guidance to encourage me to be the bigger person and not do what feels right in that circumstance. There are occasions when there isn’t anything right here in front of me that condemns what I know will give me short term satisfaction, ie vengeance; revenge is sweet. And sometimes what would give you the feeling vengeance could also be in the interests of others in terms of preventing the aggressor from doing it again so that reinforces the belief that it’s right to strike back. Metaphorically, at least. It seems as if it really is for the Greater Good.

    So yeah, it’s those times that I depend on my faith as a moral compass. I remember that it’s not really my place to dish out punishment, because that’s what revenge really is and hope that I can stick to that. Doesn’t always work, sometimes I do the wrong thing anyway.

    Of course it’s problematic if someone thinks they are only answerable to God but I don’t think the majority of believers or whatever you want to call us do think that. Most of us are aware that any unpleasant consequences for harmful behaviour to others are likely to begin in this life because horrible people tend to have unhealthy relationships and end up alone regardless of how many people seem to be around them. We are answerable to God in addition to being accountable to the people we interact with in this life. It isn’t an either/or situation.

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