Recently a pamphlet for Christian children made its way around Facebook. It warned God’s little lambs to avoid grumpy sad people called “atheists.” The pamphlet, as it turns out, was satire, but it poked fun at some real stereotypes about atheists. A private school curriculum called Accelerated Christian Education, which claims placement in 6000 schools, includes cartoons in which the atheist characters are rude, mean and drunk; and bad things happen to them.
Stereotypes like these get echoed sometimes even in Christian books and lectures that are targeted at adults. I once attended a successful megachurch on the Sunday before Easter. The pastor wanted his audience to be clear that the resurrection of Jesus wasn’t merely some spiritual metaphor. “If the resurrection didn’t literally happen,” he shouted, “there is no reason for us to be here! If the resurrection didn’t literally happen—there are parties to be had! There are women to be had! There are guns to shoot! There are people to shoot!”
You caught the subtext? Atheists (and even liberal Christians) have no basis for morality. Nothing—and I mean nothing!—stands between a godless person and debauchery or lechery or even violence.
Population demographics suggest otherwise, of course. Atheism is far more common among elite scientists than among imprisoned criminals, for example, and some of the most peaceful and equitable societies on earth are also the least religious. But believers persist in fearing that godless people are amoral, that unfettered by religion the world would descend into the anarchy and bloodbath depicted in the Left Behind movies.
In reality, when asked about their moral values or what motivates them in life, atheists use words that sound downright spiritual, very much like the words religious people use in fact, with a few noteworthy differences. To create his book, A Better Life, Photographer Chris Johnson asked 100 atheists about what gives their lives joy and meaning. To some Christians the question is equivalent to asking an elephant where he gets his chocolate ice cream. The answers might surprise them even more. Themes include love and connection, compassion and service, legacy (leaving the world a little better), creativity and discovery, gratitude, transcendence, and wonder—all heightened by a sense that this one life is fleetingly transient and precious.
Here are 20 short quotes from Johnson’s assemblage, each of which is crushingly at odds with the standard stereotype of the angry, selfish godless scrooge.
- Knowing there is a world that will outlive you, there are people whose well-being depends on how you live your life, affects the way you live your life, whether or not you directly experience those effects. You want to be the kind of person who has the larger view, who takes other people’s interests into account, who’s dedicated to the principles that you can justify, like justice, knowledge, truth, beauty and morality. – Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist
- In the theater you create a moment, but in that moment, there is a touch, a twinkle of eternity. And not just eternity, but community. . . . That connection is a sense of life for me. – Teller, illusionist
- We are all given a gift of existence and of being sentient beings, and I think true happiness lies in love and compassion. – Adam Pascal, musician and actor
- Being engaged in some way for the good of the community, whatever that community, is a factor in a meaningful life. We long to belong, and belonging and caring anchors our sense of place in the universe. – Patricia S. Churchland, neurophilosopher
- For me the meaning of life, or the meaning in life, is helping people and loving people . . . The real joy for me is when someone comes up to me and they want to just sit down and share their struggle. –Teresa MacBain, former minister
- Joy is human connection; the compassion put into every moment of humanitarian work; joy is using your time to bring peace, relief, or optimism to others. Joy gives without the expectation—or wish—of reciprocity or gratitude. . . . Joy immediately loves the individual in need and precedes any calculation of how much the giver can handle or whom the giver can help. – Erik Campano, emergency medicine
- Raising curious, compassionate, strong, and loving children—teaching them to love others and helping them to see the beauty of humanity—that is the most meaningful and joyful responsibility we have. – Joel Legawiec, pediatric nurse
- Anytime I hear someone say that only humans have a thoughtful mind, a loving heart, or a compassionate soul, I have to think that person has never owned a dog or known an elephant. – Aron Ra, Texas state director of American Atheists
- I find my joy in justice and equality: in all creatures having opportunities for enjoyment and being treated with fairness, as we all wish and deserve to be treated. . . . While I enjoy the positive feelings of self-improvement, this fire pales compared to the feeling of joy that comes from having contributed something to the greater good. – Lynnea Glasser, game developer
- You’re like this little blip of light that lasts for a very brief time and you can shine as brightly as you choose. – Sean Faircloth, author, lawyer, lobbyist
- Play hard, work hard, love hard. . . .The bottom line for me is to live life to the fullest in the here-and-now instead of a hoped-for hereafter, and make every day count in some meaningful way and do something—no matter how small it is—to make the world a better place. – Michael Shermer, founder and publisher, Skeptic Magazine
- I hope to dissuade the cruel parts of the world from their self-imposed exile and persuade their audiences to understand that freedom is synonymous with life and that the world is a place of safety and of refuge. – Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar, writer
- I look around the world and see so many wonderful things that I love and enjoy and benefit from, whether it’s art or music or clothing or food and all the rest. And I’d like to add a little to that goodness. – Daniel Dennett, philosopher and cognitive scientist
- I thrive on maintaining a simple awe about the universe. No matter what struggles we are going through the miracles of existence continue on, forming and reforming patterns like an unstoppable kaleidoscope. – Marlene Winell, human development consultant
- Math . . . music .. . starry nights . . . These are secular ways of achieving transcendence, of feeling lifted into a grand perspective. It’s a sense of being awed by existence that almost obliterates the self. Religious people think of it as an essentially religious experience but it’s not. It’s an essentially human experience. – Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, philosopher and novelist
- There is joy in the search for knowledge about the universe in all its manifestations. – Janet Asimov, psychiatrist
- Science and reason liberate us from the shackles of superstition by offering us a framework for understanding our shared humanity. Ultimately, we all have the capacity to treasure life and enrich the world in incalculable ways. – Gad Saad, professor of marketing
- If you trace back all those links in the chain that had to be in place for me to be here, the laws of probability maintain that my very existence is miraculous. But then after however many decades, less than a hundred years, they disburse and I cease to be. So while they’re all congregated and coordinated to make me, then—and I speak her on behalf of all those trillions of atoms—I should really make the most of things. – Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics
- Just the idea that we, these little collections of atoms and molecules, are part of the world, but a part that can look at the rest of the world and figure it out in a self-referential way, is kind of breathtaking. – Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist
- It doesn’t have to be the Grand Canyon, it could be a city street, it could be the face of another human being—Everything is full of wonder. – A. C. Grayling, philosopher and author
- I don’t think anything gives your life joy and meaning. I think your life simply has joy and meaning. The love for my children, the love for my parents and the love for my friends is the end in itself. The meaning is life. – Penn Jillette, illusionist
The differences between how atheists express such values and how theists express them are apparent—the emphasis on curiosity for example, on relishing the unknown and the process of discovery; the fact that mortality gives a special emphasis or urgency to the life well lived; the notion that our continuity with other species creates a special kinship and compassion toward them. But in the end, it is the similarities that are the most striking. As writer Nica Lalli put it, “All the terms that describe people’s beliefs are nothing more than labels. Once we determine someone ‘is’ some religion—or no religion—we move on, thinking we know all about them. But what do we ever know from one word, whether it is Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or atheist? We know nothing.”
The atheists who gave voice to their deepest values in their interviews with Chris Johnson included people from an array of professions and cultures, as does the community of life itself. Ironically, it may be the words of a comedienne that best tie it all together:
Stand-up comedy has immersed me in the soup of human diversity. I have met people from many cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, economic backgrounds, and houses (we can’t all be from Gryffindor, now can we?). And while our differences are way funnier than our similarities, it is the latter that are most important. – Leighann Lord
All quotes are taken with permission from A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy and Meaning in a World without God.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe to her articles at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.
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Valerie, yet another brilliant post. All of these quotes are wonderful. I especially resonated with “The meaning is life.” Personally, those quotes represent the vast majority of nonbelievers (from all walks of life) who’ve come across my path. One thing seems clear to me; people who’ve been indoctrinated to see atheists as immoral and unhealthy for society have been sorely misinformed.
“The meaning is life.” And I would add to that, the meaning of life is to survive. Searching for any meaning beyond that tends to result in dividing people, whereas survival requires cooperation. As Jillette says, just by being, surviving, life has meaning.
Thank you. I love that Sagan quote.
“By their fruits you shall know them.” No distinction is made between believers and non-believers.
The joy I experience every day is enhanced by your sharing these thoughts from others!
Great post, Valerie. For me, my sons give my life meaning, along with disappointments, but science, esp Evolutionary science, brings me awe, wonder, and joy. To look into a cat or dog’s face and see that some resemblance is not only awesome, but to know, there is DNA similar to humans- kidneys, thyroid, and heart to name a few. Then, we go to the zoo and see apes that truly resemble us, with extra fur, is even more awesome. Science shows that we are truly related to other animals, even have a distant ancestor to other apes, making us connected to every other species of animal on the earth. Then we find, everything found on the planet, even in the universe, is in us! We are truly connected and part of everything and everyone (includes other animals) on the earth and within the universe. This is better than anything a church service can do and even more awesome.
Recently, my 15 year old Hemi, Suga’Ray, developed an over-active thyroid and I related it to my mother’s Grave’s Disease concerning treatment, only without the goiter. The vet stated that she was glad I knew something about thyroid problems, because it helped her to know where she needed to start in educating me about helping Suga’Ray with his thyroid problem, which wasn’t at the beginning, thank goodness. Treatment is not much different really- medication for the rest of his life (just like my mother) and possibly (though due to cost and having a poor human mama, he won’t get it) radio-active iodine (just like my mother) and possibly (though same as the iodine, concerning affordability) surgery (unlike my mother, but some humans). The treatment is the same, but with or without radio-active iodine and/or surgery, the thyroid medication is for life. Ironically, even my mother is involved in this, not wanting him euthanized all because of a bad thyroid. Even though she’s a Xian, she seems to truly relate to Suga’Ray and has even helped one month in getting his medicine, which I find awesome, esp concerning the fact she finds it in her heart to relate to and even empathize with the old man. How often do you find Xians even empathizing with and relating to the similar ailments of other animals, even and esp after they find it’s basically the same thing?
That’s just one of many examples that shows we’re all connected and humans can surprise us in inspiring ways, despite their beliefs. I look at Suga’Ray, as well as Shiva, my other cat, and see my other “children”, even though they have fur and my human children are grown. I don’t see them as a lower or subspecies of mammals. They’re just anatomically different. According to Cloud Dancing, on “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”, the four-leggeds and the two leggeds are related and I could appreciate how he said it in the show, despite the American Indian (actual or not) religious undertones of it. I truly believe we are related and doing what I can to preserve nature and help other animals have a quality life also gives my life meaning. Thus, twice the meaning in my life- my sons and other animals, while science brings me awe and wonder concerning my environment, other animals, the earth, and the universe. Science is awesome!
Our lives can have purpose and purposes. But it is an individual thing, not some grand commandment doled out to everyone. The world is still immature as a whole. Lots of educating and learning to do. Thanks for the articles, Valerie!
I recently performed a counseling practicum in an extremely religious and conservative environment. I found a great deal of tribal posturing and an underlying pervasive sense of misery and desperation. My clinical supervisor lived in such an intellectual bubble that she actually believed that another theory had superseded the theory of evolution. She was not merely a creationist. She was profoundly ignorant of the state of science. It was not good enough to disbelieve evolution, she actually believed that evolution had been abandoned by the mainstream scientific community. This was a fully licensed master’s level practitioner. She said that she thought my reaction was one of anger or offense. In fact I was deeply shocked and dismayed to find that the rifts in society had become so deep, that mutual understanding had been so utterly occluded.
Wow. That just sounds painful.
I dropped out, to tell the truth. Not her fault. I realized that I don’t truly have the temperament. I can’t fight other people’s demons, one at a time. Not for 400 more hours anyway :-)
Hello Valerie: thank you for this article. I think you met or heard a minister who does not represent the majority of Christians. People of goodness come from all walks of life. Some believe in what the church teachers and many who do not. No religion has a monopoly over matters of faith or lack of. Man did well and ill before any of these organized religions appeared. We are fortunate and privileged to talk about our freedom to think and be good citizens. That preacher is not the spokesperson of Christians at all. Intellectuals, not clergy, are the ones who are able and willing to rank people as equal with no condemnation to go to hell. Hell is the ignorance that plagues so many especially those who have access to the massesand teach and preach division and wrong.
I agree Ibrahim. Well, I would say that preachers like him represent only a subset of Christians, and it is very important for other kinds of Christians to speak up and show the breadth of thinking and values among people who consider themselves Christian. Thank you for commenting.
Thank you, Valerie. I always enjoy your articles and I think this one was excellent.
Even though I am both an ex-christian and an ex-evangelical, I have trouble wrapping my head around the disparity between christians’ professions of what they consider a divine morality and their own behavior. Of course I understand intellectually some of the factors that play into the widespread hypocrisy: the world view that all humanity is born into utter depravity, atonement and grace, some “moral” teachings which are neither moral or attainable, and the generally held evangelical view that god is both completely just and completely moral, and cannot tolerate sin. They are primed for human frailty, as defined within their world view. They have their god to guide them, or so they believe, and because their sinful nature, they will inevitably sin, so they need to repent and be forgiven for all their sins with a little “s”, now that they have been redeemed from their Sin with a capital “S”. At least, in their minds, they are far better than we miserable, pathetic atheists who live in total depravity with no redemption. So they try to live up to god’s impossible standards and go through their cycles of “sin” and guilt… and repentance, and live under the deception that we atheists simply must embody any baser impulses that they struggle against and try to suppress, and therefore we must be more evil than they are. Meanwhile, we non believers do not have these neurotic cycles. We learn, apply, and refine our morality without the rigidity of an authoritarian father predefining what every detail of our morality is, or having to second guess what the wishes of that father would be whenever something is not clearly spelled out or there is a gray area. With their view of an absolute morality laid out by their god, they are actually stripped of the liberty to think things through and maybe make more compassionate moral decisions. Or, they may evade having to confront their own prejudices, embracing the idea that their prejudice is sanctioned by god, and in fact moral.
The funny thing is, I understand the population demographics as well as you do, and the metrics do indeed indicate that the religiosity and the divorce rate are inversely proportional, and that atheists are under-represented in prison populations. Here’s what I can’t grok, though: these people, to a large extent, are taught the same values I was, the same values children raised in secular families are, and share many of the same moral values I have and most other people have, christains, atheists, or otherwise. The golden rule. Don’t kill. Don’t cheat. Be honest. Even with the Law and the not quite so ready for prime time elements of New Testament morality, they always have their kinder, gentler, Jesus, whispering for them to not be jerks and not to go around doing what we all generally agree is bad stuff. And they have one thing that atheists don’t: the belief that a god who will judge them is watching and keeping track of their every move and their every thought. Just like motorists slow down to within the speed limit when they think that a radar trap lies ahead, one would think that christians really would tow the line if they thought that god was watching. You’d think that their claim that if there wasn’t a god, there would be no reason do be good, would better map to their behavior if they think they are being watched. But it doesn’t, on average. Recalling some of the contortions I went through in an attempt to follow what I thought were god’s guidelines when I was an evangelical christian, I just don’t understand the behavior of so many christians, even though I think I can go a long way towards explaining it. In that sense, it seems like what is SUPPOSED to keep them in line, really should, even though it doesn’t!
I just think that it is a really, really sad thing that they believe that they need their god and their Jesus in order to be good people, and that they think that WE need their god and their Jesus to be good people, too. Alas, I understand, but I don’t.
My suspicion is that most Christians would do fine morally without God looking over their shoulder. He just gets credit for what is there anyways, and innate sense of empathy, responsibility, fairness, etc. And then there are the ones who are just mean, no matter what they believe. And then there are the ones whose faith nudges them in one direction or another . . .
Here’s a Science Daily report on a fascinating study that says something about finding meaning or purpose:
“Belief in immortality hard-wired? Study examines development of children’s ‘prelife’ reasoning”
excerpt: “Why would humans have evolved this seemingly universal belief in the eternal existence of our emotions? Emmons said that this human trait might be a by-product of our highly developed social reasoning. “We’re really good at figuring out what people are thinking, what their emotions are, what their desires are,” she said. We tend to see people as the sum of their mental states, and desires and emotions may be particularly helpful when predicting their behavior. Because this ability is so useful and so powerful, it flows over into other parts of our thinking. We sometimes see connections where potentially none exist, we hope there’s a master plan for the universe, we see purpose when there is none, and we imagine that a soul survives without a body.
These ideas, while nonscientific, are natural and deep-seated.”
Lovely piece! Indeed it is all transient. And to that end there is no one belief system that has the monopoly.
And you READ all your responses, and respond. You deserve an Honorary, but real, Comic Book strip. Re your sympathetic response to Mr. P. Zumwalt: there’s got to be some way; to at least initially crack that nut. (Maybe in my Dreams!)