In early June, HAAM received an email from a senior high school student living in a Christian family and community who was eager to learn about atheism for a school project they were preparing on the topic. Details of that email will remain confidential to protect the student’s identity. Here is the response that was sent.
Thanks for writing to us with your questions! We’re glad you’re curious.
I’ve been a member of HAAM for about 10 years now. I will answer your questions the best way that I can, knowing that you have limited time before the end of the school term, so there’s not much point in suggesting whole books. That said, thousands of books, blogs, and videos have been created to address these questions, so I hope that you will continue your educational journey after graduation, and explore the topic further.
I am only one person, and I cannot possibly represent all atheists in Manitoba or the wider world. If you were to ask these same questions of multiple non-believers, I am certain you would receive different responses from each; with some of the differences being minor and others more significant. There are also a multitude of ways to approach each question. So here are my answers, and I’ll try to stick to the questions you asked.
Where do atheists get their morals from, and how do they know right from wrong? As a Christian, I have always gotten my morals from the Bible, but I have always wondered how non-religious people know what is right, and what is wrong.
Everyone, regardless of their religion, gets their morals from the family, culture, and community in which they are raised. It really does take a village to raise a child. You mention that you get your morals from the Bible, and I’m sure that’s true, because you are part of a Christian family. But supposing you weren’t? Supposing you had been born into a family of Jews, or Muslims, or atheists – would that mean that you would grow up to be an immoral person? A liar/cheat/thief/rapist? Do crime statistics show that non-Christians are more problematic to society than Christians? No.
Since you are part of a Christian family and attend a Christian school, and presumably a Christian church, your family, culture, friends, and community all practice Christianity – so it’s easy to see that that’s where your morals come from. But children raised in other families, communities, and religions also learn morals – most of which are remarkably similar to those of Christians. I was raised Christian, but when I was a teenager (many years ago), I took a summer babysitting job for a Jewish family and spent two months at the beach cottage with them looking after the 3 young children. It was the first time I had really gotten to know anyone who wasn’t Christian. They were just normal people like everyone else, and they treated me well. The children asked me about celebrating Christmas, because no one they knew did; and I had lots of questions for the parents about Jews – similar to the ones you are asking me now. It started me questioning my own beliefs and where they came from… this family didn’t believe in Jesus, yet they were decent people – where did they get their morals from?
Most Christians and Jews would say that the Ten Commandments offer a guide to morality. But how good is that guide really? There’s nothing in the Ten Commandments (or anywhere in the Bible) prohibiting rape or slavery. In fact, there are guidelines for how to beat your slave (Exodus 21) and instructions that if a man rapes a virgin, he must pay her father a penalty and marry her (Deuteronomy 22).
I’m sure you and your family don’t follow these guidelines for morality. You follow the ‘good stuff’ like Honor your father and mother, and Thou shalt not murder. You probably also follow the Golden Rule (Leviticus 19 and Matthew 7). But did you know that the Golden Rule didn’t originate in the Bible? It dates way back to ancient Egypt, and versions of it are found in multiple cultures and religions (see Wikipedia). Some of the instructions in the Bible are simply the product of a bygone age. We’ve learned better, so now we do better. When you think about it this way, you really have learned your morality from your family and community, which doesn’t always include a Bible.
Think about societies in which the Bible is not the first and foremost book of instruction for morality. The fastest-growing religious group in North America in the last 20-30 years is none/nothing in particular/no religion/atheist/Humanist. People who identify by these labels may or may not believe in some kind of god or higher being, but what they have in common is that church and Bible-reading are not priorities in their lives. And yet, the crime rate has not gone up. We are not seeing major daily headlines in the news about atheists committing fraud or assault or whatever else. In fact, some of the least religious societies in the world – like the countries of Scandinavia and Europe (and even Canada) have low crime rates and lower rates of social ills like divorce, teen pregnancy, homelessness, drug addiction, etc than many other states or countries with higher religiosity. So definitely, there is more influencing morality than just following the Bible.
This is not to say that all atheists are more moral than all Christians – far from it. Members of both groups can act morally or immorally. The point is just that being Christian does not necessarily make someone more moral, and being a non-believer doesn’t necessarily make someone less moral.
I believe in a higher power/god, mostly because I see intelligence in nature I don’t believe can happen with science alone. What would it take for an Atheist (in general) to believe in a higher power, or someone in charge of creation on earth?
I, too, see a lot of beauty in nature, but beauty doesn’t imply intelligence. The beauty – and the ugliness – of nature can be explained by what scientists have learned about evolution and natural selection. All life on earth has adapted to its surroundings in order to survive – and species which failed to adapt (like dinosaurs and dodos) simply died out.
Roses are beautiful, and so are newborn babies. But Guinea worms and cancer are not. If a creator is responsible for Guinea worms and cancer in babies, that creator is not worthy of worship. It makes much more sense to explain these cruelties by science – the evolution of the parasite, and the abnormal growth of the cancer cells. Evolution is a complex topic that I cannot adequately address in this short correspondence, and I am not a scientist and so cannot do it justice. Instead I will refer you to outside expert sources which I hope you will take the time to listen to. The YouTube channel Stated Clearly has a series of short videos explaining evolution. If you have time for more detail, I recommend this presentation by Kenneth Miller, a practicing Christian who also teaches evolutionary science at the university level, or Basic Evolution for Creationists by paleontologist Dr Donald Prothero.
What would it take for me to believe in a higher power, or someone in charge of creation? Evidence. There just is no evidence for a creator, since almost everything we see in biological sciences can be explained by evolution. Some mysteries have not been solved yet, but that doesn’t mean that the answers lie in something supernatural; it just means that scientists haven’t yet figured them out. Only a couple of hundred years ago, germ theory wasn’t yet understood. Nor was epilepsy – which is why people with the condition were considered to be possessed by demons or devils. Now we know better, and science has developed medications to treat it.
Would you consider Atheism a faith? Obviously there are some aspects of life that haven’t completely been proven yet through science. For example, how the earth came into being. So would you consider believing the hypothesis of the unknowns of science to be faith?
There’s a saying that ‘atheism is a faith like bald is a hair color’. It’s crude, but it gets the point across. Atheism cannot be a faith because the very definition of atheism is the absence of faith. (The prefix ‘a’ means none or no; ‘theo’ is the Greek word for god; and the suffix ‘ism’ refers to belief in something.)
That said, the term atheist or atheism says absolutely nothing about what a person believes or how they act. There are atheists who are warm and generous, and there are atheists who are horrible people. (And the same could be said of members of any other religion or group.) Most of us who identify as atheist also use an additional label that describes what we do believe (it’s incorrect to say that atheists believe in nothing). Many of us identify as Humanists – and there is lots written about what Humanists believe, but basically it boils down to being ‘good without a god’. I put together some resources about Humanism for our website a couple of years back, so I would encourage you to take a look at them (if you haven’t already).
In the answer to the previous question, I mentioned that science has not solved every problem in the world yet – and maybe it never will. Nevertheless, just because something is not currently explainable doesn’t mean there is no explanation or that a supernatural being is responsible – it just means there is no explanation yet. I don’t know how the earth came into being… I’m somewhat familiar with the Big Bang Theory, but I’m not an astrophysicist and wouldn’t even begin to try to explain it in my own words. But I see no evidence for a supernatural explanation either.
When you ask if I would view my belief in science as ‘faith’, we need to define faith more clearly. Faith literally means believing in something without evidence (Merriam-Webster says “firm belief in something for which there is no proof”). Given that definition, science isn’t something I have faith in; it’s something I have trust in (trust: “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something”). I trust science because it is based on sound practice, reason, and evidence. Scientists don’t always get the answer right the first time, but when they are wrong, they are soon corrected, and so new bodies of knowledge develop bit by bit. And as scientific knowledge accumulates, we are able to cure diseases, fly to the moon, and develop smart phones. Religion has not advanced knowledge in any of these areas, which is why the Bible still contains lines about the use of pigeon blood to cure leprosy (Leviticus 14) – a disease which scientists have since figured out is caused by Mycobacterium leprae, and subsequently developed antibiotics to cure it.
I could keep writing – or talking – for a long time, but I’ll hope that this is enough to answer your three questions and get your assignment in before graduation. There are lots more answers and resources on our website, so browse around the menu bar if you have time to do a bit more reading or watch a couple more videos. In particular, the Exploring Non-belief page has some further resources on Morality, Evolution, and Inspirational material about what Humanists and atheists believe.
Question everything – if your beliefs are true, they will stand up to scrutiny. Curiosity leads to learning, and learning is a life-long process. Congratulations on your graduation, and I wish you all the best for the future.