The Necessity of Secularism December 1, 2014

The Necessity of Secularism

Not every major conflict in the world is based in religion, but far too many of them are, and it’s time we realized the importance of secularism as a requirement for democracy, civil rights, and freedom of conscience. That’s the argument advanced by Center for Inquiry President Ron Lindsay in his new book The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do (Pitchstone Publishing, 2014):

In the excerpt below, Lindsay talks about the prejudice against atheists:

For my entire legal career, I worked in the Washington, DC office of a major national law firm. The law firm attracted graduates of the nation’s top law schools, in other words, people presumptively intelligent.

We didn’t discuss religion much at the firm, for the reasons most people don’t discuss religion at work — it has no relevance to their jobs. However, I didn’t hide the fact that I was an atheist, and this fact be- came known to some of the lawyers and staff at the firm.

A lawyer joined the firm about ten years after I did. Within a few months, we became friends for the best of reasons for lawyers — we both did good work and we could rely on each other for assistance with cases. Anyway, about two years later, around the time of the firm’s holiday party, my friend learned I was an atheist. She stopped in front of my office door with a dazed look. “Ron Lindsay is an atheist. Ron Lindsay is an atheist,” she repeated with astonishment.

As she explained, my friend initially had trouble processing the fact that I didn’t believe in God because I was “such a nice guy.” She didn’t think amiability and atheism were compatible. However, she admitted she had not been well-acquainted with many atheists, as she had been raised in a religious household and had attended parochial schools.

This is a highly intelligent person who had seven years of higher education, including three years of law school. She eventually became a partner in this firm.

I relate this incident because it illustrates that, at least in the United States, myths about nonbelievers are not confined to the uneducated or those who live in small-town America. Granted, higher education and living in a metropolitan area may make it more likely that you will not view atheists with suspicion, but that’s principally because in those circumstances, you’re more likely to come into contact with nonbelievers. To a large extent, prejudice toward nonbelievers is a function of two things: the extent to which one has been told that atheists are bad people and the level of one’s familiarity with open nonbelievers. If you are repeatedly told for most of your life that atheists are immoral and untrustworthy and you never have the opportunity to know an atheist personally, there is a strong likelihood that a negative image of atheists will continue to guide your outlook.

The irony is that many people who are prejudiced against atheists probably are acquainted with atheists — they are just not aware of this. One reason they are not aware of this is because many nonbelievers remain closeted. They have not revealed their skepticism to relatives, friends, or colleagues because they are concerned about the reaction they will receive, and with good reason.

This is the Catch-22 for nonbelievers. Prejudice against them persists in part because they do not let it be known they are nonbelievers, and this reluctance to come out of the closet persists in part because of the prejudice against nonbelievers.

In using the term “prejudice” to describe the attitude that some believers have toward atheists, I don’t mean to imply that these believers are evil or stupid. No, in using “prejudice” I am adhering to the original sense of the term, which connotes a judgment made without being aware of the relevant facts. I would not call believers who have a low regard for atheists stupid or evil, because I had a dim view of atheists once myself. I thought atheists were horrible people, based on … well, based on nothing. This belief was the product, not of evidence, but of the supposedly essential link between God and good behavior being drummed into my head for many years combined with my lack of acquaintance with atheists. Before I went to college, I knew exactly two atheists, a married couple. They were neighbors who, like my family, lived in the quarters provided to professional staff at the veteran’s medical center where my father worked. The couple was of mixed Dutch- Indonesian ancestry, which, of course, to my adolescent sensibilities complemented their professed atheism: they were weird outsiders. I was about thirteen when I learned of their strange beliefs by witnessing a conversation between them and my parents. I was shocked: it was like seeing the devil in the flesh. Anyway, it led to some prolonged praying on my part — praying that I can still recall with some shame decades later. The couple had a young daughter, so because I was aghast and alarmed at the prospect of this young child being raised by people with no moral values, I asked God to have her taken away from this couple. I don’t recall requesting that any specific plan of action be implemented. I left that to God’s discretion and infinite wisdom. Anyway, nothing happened. Their daughter remained with them, and no thunderbolts struck our neighborhood. One reason I recall this episode with some clarity is because after I became an atheist, I married and had two children myself. I sometimes wondered how many people thought I could not be a fit parent.

So I can understand why some believers look upon atheists with suspicion. They don’t know any better, just like I didn’t know any better. Of course, this doesn’t justify their attitude. To justify their attitude there would have to be some evidence that atheists behave badly more often than believers. There is no such evidence.

There is no reliable study showing nonbelievers are more likely to engage in dishonest, immoral, or criminal conduct. Do atheists lie or cheat? Of course they do, but no more frequently than believers. For example, a classic 1975 study of cheating among college students (“Faith Without Works: Jesus People, Resistance to Temptation, and Altruism”) determined that there was no difference in the “frequency or magnitude” of cheating between religious and nonreligious students. Subsequent studies have confirmed this result.

If atheists were more inclined to engage in bad behavior, they should be vastly overrepresented in prisons. As indicated in chapter 4, that is not true in the United States, at least based on some informal surveys. In fact, atheists are underrepresented in the prison population. Of course, if there are relatively few atheists in prisons, this implies the overwhelming majority of felons are theists. So not only does lack of belief not turn one into a criminal, but religious belief does not prevent one from becoming a criminal.

The notion that lack of belief in God is going to transform someone into an unscrupulous cheat or felon is based on a serious misunderstanding of human moral psychology. Our conduct has three primary determinants: our biology, the influences to which we are exposed as we are growing up, and the reinforcement certain desirable character traits receive through the praise/blame mechanisms of the moral community. Excepting psychopaths (who do account for a disproportionate share of the prison population), our evolutionary heritage has disposed us to feel empathy and to act benevolently. Moreover, if we are raised properly, we are habituated to act in accordance with the common morality. Parents have always worried about their children hanging out with “the wrong crowd” — and they have reason to worry, because in our early years our character is especially susceptible to being shaped by external forces. Once our character is formed, for better or worse, it’s not likely to change radically as we age. To be sure, even as adults we remain susceptible to good and bad influences. To ensure our habits of virtue are sustained after we become adults — and also to nudge those who may not have the best character — our good actions are praised and our bad actions are condemned or punished by the moral community. This combination of influences largely accounts for our conduct. What doesn’t seem to matter much is the nature of our metaphysical beliefs, for example, whether we believe in God. Ceasing to believe in God is unlikely to produce much change in our character or everyday conduct. We don’t need God to behave morally. We just need to keep doing what we have been doing as humans for thousands of years. We can have morality without a supernatural net.

The Necessity of Secularism is available online and in bookstores beginning today.

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