The ethical nature of atheism

Atheism. The word is so negative, so loaded, so fraught with social disapproval. Although I have been a non-believer for many years, I have usually avoided using the word "atheist," preferring instead to say, "I'm not very religious."

I was raised in the Lutheran Church by parents who were regular churchgoers. My father, especially, was quietly religious. Lutherans are not very expressive in this regard, but Dad was a man of strong moral opinions that I always assumed came from his religious convictions.

When the time came, my parents encouraged me to choose a Lutheran college, and I chose Muhlenberg in Allentown, Pennsylvania. At the time, chapel attendance was required--forty-eight times per semester; you could be prevented from graduating if you were deficient. As for most college students, for me those years were a time of questioning and testing. On any given day, I could be either very religious or completely skeptical.

In the years immediately following my graduation from Muhlenberg, religion was mostly a nonissue. I didn't think about it. Then, my child was born, and I began to consider what I should teach him and why. Having failed to develop a rational philosophy of my own, I concluded that it was better to indoctrinate my son--to provide him with knowledge of a religion from which he could then deviate if he later so chose. Some would say this was a hypocritical thing to do, and I suppose there is merit in that criticism. But religion, religious belief, and religious history are so much a part of our culture that I think it's a disservice to a child to shield him or her from it. So we went to church, sent him to a Lutheran elementary school and Catholic high school (we were living in Louisville, Kentucky, and there were reasons other than religious ones for choosing this route), and celebrated the religious holidays. All the while, I knew I didn't believe in God, although I did hold ethical values and principles.

In 1988, I heard a public-radio broadcast from the Commonwealth Club of California. The speaker was Paul Kurtz, a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo and author of twenty-six books, including Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism. His talk, based on this book, was called "Ethics and Morality without God." I realized then a central reason why I was uncomfortable proclaiming myself an atheist. To do so is to declare what I do not believe rather than what I do believe, what underlies my moral and ethical philosophy.

So what do I believe? I am a secular humanist, and I believe that all ethical systems are derived from the materials of human desires and purposes, that men and women themselves see the immorality or harm of stealing or killing or other anti-social behaviors without the requirement of having these acts condemned by a divine being.

At least two main sources of morality have developed historically: transcendental theistic systems, based on the commandments of faith and established by custom, and normative principles and values grounded in critical ethical inquiry. Kurtz characterizes this in terms of the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible. God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and when they disobeyed Him, He expelled them from the garden lest they eat the fruit of the tree of life.

For the secular humanist, it is precisely the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil that one needs most to sample in order to develop one's moral conscience.

The ethics of humanism draws from a long history of philosophical wisdom--of Greece andRome, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment--and modern scientific learning. It is through critical ethical inquiry into this philosophical wisdom that we derive meaningful guidelines for ethical choice.

Over humankind's long history, common moral decencies have been embedded in cultures, the collective heritage of civilization, in order to facilitate our living together in communities. As social beings, life would be intolerable without these decencies--among them benevolence, fairness, integrity, and trustworthiness. Our autonomous moral conscience grows out of our nature as social beings.

In addition to the common decencies, which are about how we relate to others, humanists recognize certain other values and standards that relate to how we live our personal lives. Kurtz calls these the standards of excellence; Aristotle called them the virtues. These are autonomy, or control of--and acceptance of responsibility for--one's life; intelligence, that is the reason and cognitive skills necessary to make value judgments; self-discipline with respect to one's needs and desires; self-respect; creativity; motivation; affirmation, or optimism; joie de vivre, or appreciation for bodily and aesthetic pleasures; and a rational concern for one's health.

From this, it is clear that humanism recognizes that individuals have responsibilities to themselves and to others in society, that we need to develop character, to instill compassion and empathy in our children, and to bring forth their capacity for ethical cognition. It is appropriate that these things be taught at an early age, in our schools as well as in our homes. That they are not taught in schools, under pressure from religionists, is a serious failing of our culture.

Theists propose that without God life has no meaning and that humankind is condemned to a life of pessimism or despair. However, humanists believe that by embracing the standards of excellence we can live full and significant lives here and now. Eating of the fruit of the tree of life, we discover that intrinsic meanings emerge in the creative processes of living. Whether a person is able to enhance the good life depends upon him or her and what he or she does. Each person is responsible in large measure for his or her own destiny. Each person can tap the joys of life.

There is--in my opinion--another, larger reason for espousing a more rational and humanistic moral point of view. Theistic systems of morality are unable to cope adequately with the conflicts of the modern world. They attempt to hold men and women in bondage to the limited moral visions developed during a pre-industrial, pre-technologically sophisticated time. They advise or imply retreat into a cocoon in an elusive quest for salvation. The old verities are not fully applicable to the new realities of a world in which there is rapid cultural, economic, political, social, and, most especially, technological change.

New sources of ethical wisdom can be discovered, but only by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Since being cast out of Eden, human beings have had the exciting opportunity of becoming responsible ethical persons, helping to solve the challenges of the future by the use of critical intelligence.

But the ethical conceptions of tomorrow must transcend the limits of the narrow loyalties and parochial chauvinisms of the past and recognize that basic human rights are universal in scope, for all persons are part of a community of humankind. In the final analysis, I believe it is only by developing new principles relevant to the modern age that reason will best serve us all.


Back to Top