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.