Long time readers of this space will have long ago figured out that I don't subscribe to any particular religious faith. Perhaps equally important is to recognize that I am neither wholly theist or atheist. I do not reject the notion of a higher power that is unknowable in this life, but I do not accept that anyone on this world has a "correct" understanding of such a power either.
If you will, I do not accept that any religion "has it right" in our world. Frankly, I am suspicious of those who claim that they "got it" - as they almost inevitably don't "have" anything but a mass of what I perceive to be old legends which they are claiming has some higher truth value.
This morning, I was listening to The Sunday Edition, and I happened to catch a bit of listener feedback that made me absolutely furious. Last week's program had a group of professed atheists on discussing their views, so necessarily the religious had to respond.
Two arguments were put forth that were disturbing in the underlying falsehoods that they suppose to be true:
1. Since atheism has no "absolutes" outside of the knowable, an atheist cannot possibly know when they are being moral beings.
2. Look at what "atheist" regimes like the Soviet Union or Pol Pot's Cambodia did - they killed millions. Atheism is immoral!
First, the discussion of being a "moral person" is profoundly disturbing, as it assumes that because an atheist rejects the notion of a particular god (and therefore the truth value of scripture attributed to that god), that there is no foundation upon which to understand if one's acts are "good" or not.
The reasoning here is deeply flawed indeed. Moral reasoning is highly contextual, and the notion of "right and wrong" changes gradually over time. In historical terms, it was only relatively recently that our notions of right and wrong changed sufficiently to reject the notion of slavery. Few in the Western world today would argue that there is a moral case for enslavement today, and yet the scripture of the Christian Bible very much talks in terms of slavery and the trade in human beings as a social norm, and by its very words scripture asserts a certain moral validity to slavery. In other parts of the world, Slavery is still actively practiced - a thought that should make us all shudder.
How do I "know" that I am behaving in a "moral" fashion if I do not subscribe to a particular faith? Quite simply by asking if what I am doing seems "right". In other words, can I frame my behaviour within the framework I have learned over my life, and find that I am still doing "the right thing". I was born with a pretty good moral compass, and my parents encouraged me to use it. I feel no need to frame my own life and actions in the context of stories now old enough to qualify not merely as legend, but now ancient legend indeed. Conservatives often use the language of personal responsibility, and in this regard, I actually agree with them. I am personally responsible for my acts in this world, and I bear the consequences as best as I am able. I don't run around firebombing, or spray painting cats - I try my best to do what I believe is the "best" possible at the time.
Simply put, I believe that morality is a matter of a personal and social construct - it exists at a moment in time and space, and cannot reasonably be measured with respect to previous times or supposed futures.
When religionists argue that atheism is "bankrupt" based upon the despotic governments like that of Pol Pot's Cambodia, they are engaging in a strawman argument of a kind. They put forth something horrific, and then attempt to claim that it is representative of the whole. Frankly, it is little different than looking at one priest convicted of being a pedophile and claiming that all priests are pedophiles. Pol Pot was a despot. The fact that he was a despot that ran an "atheist" government tells us little about atheism in general - the same way that a single pedophile priest tells us little about the faith that priest belongs to.