Arguments for Atheism - Living without religion, with a clear conscience


Atheism stresses moral responsibility and the need to make moral decisions appropriate to the here and now, rather than just acting in accordance with religious scriptures and always with a view to a reward or punishment in some unproven after-life. Some of these ideas are addressed in more detail in the sections on the Moral Argument and the Argument from Justice.
An Atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An Atheist believes that deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An Atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death.
- Madalyn Murray O'Hair (1963) (often incorrectly attr. Justin Brown)

Religion tends to give people bad reasons to behave well (because a god wants you to do it, or will reward you for doing it, or will punish you for not doing it, because some ancient and anachronistic scripture dictates it, because it will increase your status in some potential but unproven after-life), when good reasons are actually available (out of concern for the suffering of others or for the need to tread lightly on the earth, because it is the “right thing to do”).

In Dostoevsky’s book “The Brothers Karamazov”, the leading character says at one point: “Without God, anything is permitted”. This suggests, though, that we only act ethically out of fear of divine punishment or the promise of divine reward. But a person who does not steal or murder only because they fear they will be caught (either by God or by the judicial system) is not a moral person at all, merely a prudent one. Real morality should not just be about self-interest, but about acting in the best interests of oneself and others.

Atheists understand that real morality cannot be mere obedience and, for a person to be morally responsible, they must be able to reason out their choices and decide for themselves. Furthermore, moral values do not arise from some divine edict, but from common-sense societal rules established over the millennia to safeguard communities and ensure their efficient continuation.

Because they have no reliance on a possible life after death, in which some putative cosmic balance of justice is to be maintained, atheists accept the responsibility to do all that they can in the here and now to ensure that justice is done. Life is manifestly “not fair” and often immoral behaviour does profit more than moral behaviour in practice. However, this does not mean, as Immanuel Kant maintained, that moral behaviour is only rational if there is more than just this life, and if justice is administered in the next life.

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