April 6th 2009
By Marie Alena Castle
David Lebedoff’s April 5 Opinion Exchange piece was strikingly uninformed in its assumption that those who do not believe in a heaven and hell necessarily have no moral constraints and live only for pleasure and to accumulate material things. He claims the new phenomenon of widespread disbelief in heaven and hell is at the root of the predatory behavior that brought on our economic crisis and is making this a secular nation. Lebedoff cites no data on the religious beliefs of Wall Street traders and corporate CEOs or for his assertion that people with heaven-hell beliefs tend to treat each other better. He gives no evidence that he knows what he’s talking about.
Reprehensible actions are nothing new. They were rampant when society was saturated with belief in heaven and hell, often because of that belief. All bad actors can rationalize their behavior, including convincing themselves they’re doing the will of God or that God is rewarding them. It takes a legal system of enforced laws and regulations to control them. God is believed to forgive even a heinous crime at the drop of a prayer, but a judge and jury are not so easily persuaded.
Lebedoff admits reluctantly that this nation is becoming increasingly secular as mainstream churches empty, and hopes some other belief will arise to replace heaven-hell to keep us in check. We have good news for Lebedoff. That other belief is here and has been around a long time. It’s embodied in the non-dogmatic, non-hedonistic, atheistic worldview that our natural world and our one short life are all we have or ever will have. Reason and consequences teach us (however slowly) that we should make this world and this life the best we can for as many as we can. Our evolved human compassion and the need to survive drive this view. We are all on this unstable little rock together and we need each other’s support, not divisive beliefs, greed, and turf wars.
Most atheists share this worldview and live worthy lives, contrary to the slander about our supposed moral deficiency. Over the centuries, we have worked to encourage people to think critically, to ask for evidence, to get the facts. We have sought to unite humanity while believers in heaven and hell divided people endlessly along religious, racial and ethnic lines — and still do. Our secular ideas informed the creation of a Constitution that, for the first time in history, separated religion and government to give us freedom of conscience.
We were among the leaders in abolishing slavery, working for civil rights, and achieving equality for women. We lead today in supporting reproductive freedom for women. We have been in the forefront of support for stem cell research that promises treatment and cure for many illnesses and disabling conditions. Unlike some churches, you will not find atheist groups in conflict over same-sex marriage. We support it as simply reflective of a harmless natural variation in sexuality. As social issues go, it’s a no-brainer.
In all these efforts and more, we have never needed the promise of heaven or the threat of hell to try to right the wrongs of this world and reduce its unconscionable level of suffering. There is nothing in the atheistic worldview that can be used to justify mistreatment of our fellow humans — no holy book to quote, no religious leader to obey. If Lebedoff’s hope for a moral, secular society is realized, it will be because we atheists have been working for that as hard as we can. If we have a purpose in life, that’s it.
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