The old Arabic saying goes, “As long as you conserve my rights, you are my brother, whether you worship God or a rock.”
“Or nothing at all”—an extra clause should be added to the proverb.
Recently, I was attempting to defend secular humanism by putting this saying in simpler clichéd words to a coworker. “It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, Jewish, Arab, gay, straight or atheist as long as you are a good person,” I said.
To my astonishment, she replied, “I know, but not atheist,” as if “atheist” was overstretching the boundaries of humanity.
The anecdote could be added to the research of Will Gervais, a Canadian doctoral student in the University of British Columbia, who revealed last December that atheists are as distrusted as rapists in societies where there are religious majorities— that is most societies.1
Grevais concludes that theists distrust atheists because they believe “people behave better if they feel God is watching them.” One can verify this conclusion on a daily basis in Arab societies as “criminal” is used interchangeably with someone who “doesn’t fear god.”
Fear it is. Religious morality is based on fear. God and his representatives on this planet keep the masses in check by fear of eternal suffering that is described vividly in religious texts. And of course, those who behave well get eternal happiness.
Divine ethics are not real ethics; they are merely a reward- punishment motivation technique that is often used to get kids to do well in school. It’s surprising that most adults in this world believe in them.
Morality is simply the standards of right and wrong, which can only be determined by human reasoning and judgment. And some moral standards, especially those that relate to harming others–killing, stealing, cheating – are so basic, one needs no god and half a brain to know that they are wrong.
Non-religious morality stems from figuring out what’s right and following it because it is right. Righteousness to secularists is good because of its nature. It’s an intrinsic good that is an end in itself. Religious morality is an instrumental good, a tool that people use and follow to get to the supposed good place and avoid hell after death.
To atheist right is a fundamental principle, not just a cab ride to heaven. Religious people often break their moral codes deliberately, harming others, in the hope that they would repent to the merciful god some day. But atheists don’t have a god to repent to, and giving up on their morality would be giving up on what they stand for, which is difficult on the personal level. Perhaps that’s why some mostly atheist societies like Japan and Scandinavian countries have significantly low crime rates.
To believers, God serves as a 24/7 security camera that is recording our actions. But shouldn’t you not steal from the super market even if there isn’t a security camera?
Here’s a difficult quiz for our religious friends. Ask those who claim that there’s no morality outside religion if they would go ahead and kill a person to steal a million dollars from him if God granted them a special permission to do so, given that they wouldn’t be caught by the state.
I have asked this question to five religious people, and they all said they wouldn’t, refusing a million bucks to uphold moral standards outside their religion. Not only can we be moral without God, but sometimes the good of godless morality outweighs massive personal gains.
Some religious people would answer the question positively, and indeed would kill and steal if God isn’t watching. This category of people can be rightly described as potential murderers and thieves.
Believing and praying is another weak value of religious ethics. To many religious people, believing in God– an entity with no confirmed evidence whatsoever for its existence—is essential to being a good person. And after believing comes praying; you have to remind the all-knowing, all- powerful God how much you need him, how great he is and how insignificant you are.
The other day, I read a bumper sticker that says, “God is only a prayer away.” I say, goodness is a good deed away.
Be good. You don’t have to pray.
And even if you do, “as long as you conserve my rights, you are my brother, whether you worship God, the rock or nothing at all.”