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There is a common argument used against atheists by theists of various types that concerns the supposed inability of an atheist to do the right thing without the belief in some sort of deity that is looking down and keeping watch over all of us. It is so common, in fact, that it seems to me that the people who use it do so without being aware of the consequences of such an argument, that they themselves would be doing all sorts of awful things if they didn’t think that some god were somewhere keeping track of all they do. Or maybe they do get it, but, if this is the case, that, to me, makes those making such an argument simply terrifying individuals.
Though examples of this argument are ubiquitous, one such example, via Pharyngula, comes from an interview of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels on the site wane.com, a website for Channel 15 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The relevant portion reads thus:
People who reject the idea of a God -who think that we’re just accidental protoplasm- have always been with us. What bothers me is the implications -which not all such folks have thought through- because really, if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.
And atheism leads to brutality. All the horrific crimes of the last century were committed by atheists -Stalin and Hitler and Mao and so forth- because it flows very naturally from an idea that there is no judgment and there is nothing other than the brief time we spend on this Earth.
I don’t want to venture too far into the idea that Stalin’s, Hitler’s, or Mao’s actions were the result of their atheism. Certainly, the idea that Hitler was an atheist has been refuted countless times along with his supposed commitment to Darwinian evolution. Further, the assertion that any of these individuals’ actions were the result of some lack of a belief in gods just strikes me as bizarre. But, really, the important point here is that the argument that these people represent atheists in general, as if there is some necessary connection between those actions and atheism, is clearly fallacious and patently wrong. This can be easily demonstrated by the fact that these individuals are rare, but atheists are abundant. Even the idea that these men are the solely responsible for “[a]ll the horrific crimes of the last century” is so obviously demonstrably wrong as to be laughable. All that said, we can set that aside, because that’s not the main point I want to address here.
Daniels suggests that “if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.” I cannot begin to imagine what the justification for such an assertion might be. After all, if it is true, as Daniels clearly implies, that without some “eternal standard” there is no meaning, nothing that “matters,” then why would power matter? Why is power the one thing that is valuable in the valueless world of the atheist that exists in Daniels’ imagination? Surely it is not because there is something intrinsically valuable to power, for, according to Daniels, without some god there is no intrinsic value to anything. So whence the value of power?
I’m guessing that Daniels would say that power is valuable to people, and that’s where the source of this value lies, in the subjective tastes of the individuals. But then this entire argument falls apart. People value all sorts of things besides power. Most of all they value the relationships they have with others. If there is one thing we know about our species, it is that we are groupish. We are desperate for those relationships with others that are called things like family, friendship, and love. We definitely value that stuff. But, if that’s true (and it is), then this idea that we are all going to become tyrannical despots if we don’t believe that God (Allah, Zeus, whatever) is looking down from Heaven (wherever) is just bullshit. It just turns out that it’s incredibly difficult to maintain any sort of close relationships when you’re trying to control everyone around you. Just look at Daniels’ own examples. Man, was anyone more paranoid than those guys? Was anyone more lacking in some sort of genuine friendship than Stalin and Hitler? Those guys saw betrayal all around them both in the faces of betrayers and those most loyal to them. Since most atheists are normal people with families and friends, it seems a safe bet that what they find valuable is the same thing as most all other humans: relationships with others. Power is simply further down the line in their interests.
Having said that, most atheists aren’t governors, either, a position for which “powerful” seems an apt description. It might be that Daniels himself would be some maniacal dictator if he lacked a fear of God’s Wrath, that fear keeping him from merely seeking positions like governor and, potentially, president (Daniels’ name is one that is thrown around when considering future presidential candidates). It might be a good thing that Daniels believes the way he does. Or, better yet, it might be that we shouldn’t vote people obsessed with despotism into positions of great power.
And that leads me to my big point. The people who say that we cannot be good if we do not believe in some god are suggesting that the only reason we don’t rape babies, stab mothers, commit genocide, etc is because of some kind of supernatural influence. My response to these people is simple: what kind of psychos are you hanging around?! You are certainly hanging around some crazy psychos if your impression of people is that their belief in God is the only thing preventing them from killing you in your sleep. If you make this argument without seeing this implication, then you should stop making it since you’ve now been explicitly shown the absurd position you’re taking. If you already saw this, if you believe about yourself that you’d be a baby-raping, mommy-stabbing, genocide-committing monster if your god weren’t around, then, for your god’s sake, don’t move next door to me! I don’t want you around my kids and mom when you happen to have a bad day and slip. And if you are that kind of monster, I’m telling you in no uncertain terms that you’re the freak, the one who is unusual, not those of us who don’t sit frustratingly fantasizing about all the horrible things we would do if only God weren’t around to stop us.
If the only thing preventing you from committing acts of tremendous horror is your belief in some deity, seek help, please, for all our sakes. Regardless, I can tell you that while you might be teetering on the edge of committing acts of atrocity, most of us just don’t have some strong desire to put people in ovens, and, hence, just don’t need the Fear of God in us to prevent us from doing such things.