No, Duck Dynasty guy, “atheist” does not mean “amoral”
This week, audio came out of the Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson graphically detailing the murder, rape, and castration of an atheist family, and why that atheist family wouldn’t be able to be upset about it. Here’s a little peak at it from Talking Points Memo:
I’m sure the atheist community will be briefly up in arms and outraged about this statement (before moving on to something else), but I for one am not particularly annoyed — I’ve been an atheist for around 10 years now, and I’ve had this conversation (sometimes with just as violent language coming from the other side) countless times. It’s a major part of discussing my beliefs, and it’s actually kinda fun to constantly rip this type of thinking apart.
That’s not how any of this works
It comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what atheism is, and it’s something that, for whatever reason, a lot of non-atheists refuse to be corrected on. The misunderstanding is this:
Atheism is not a philosophy, and it is not a replacement for religion.
That’s it. That’s all. Atheism is non-belief in the existence of a God or Gods. And every atheist defines what they are differently. Some are agnostics (they aren’t sure). Some are anti-theists (they are fairly certain the God of a certain definition doesn’t exist, they think that conception of God is objectively bad for humanity, and they are willing to fight against that idea). Some are agnostic-atheists (they aren’t certain about anything, but tend to think a human-oriented idea of God probably doesn’t exist).
Atheism is the lack of a single belief, and you cannot formulate an entire philosophy from so little. I was recently talking to a friend who is a Catholic, and we got onto the subject of the current Pope. “I really like him,” I said. “I don’t agree with everything he’s said, but for the most part, his beliefs are stuff I can get on board with.”
My friend asked, “So why aren’t you still Catholic?”
That requires a much longer answer, but I just said, “I just don’t believe in God.”
The Venn Diagram of beliefs between the Pope and myself would probably have a lot of overlap. But belief in God is not in that overlap. Visually, it would be a little sliver of circle just near the edge, a sliver that basically only includes “No God,” “Birth control is okay,” “homosexuality is not an aberration,” and “it’s okay to not have kids.”
Atheist does not equal amoral
I’m not mad at Robertson. He just doesn’t have any real sort of point to make, because he doesn’t understand that atheism isn’t a philosophy, but is a single belief (or non-belief) in an entire constellation of beliefs and non-beliefs that have to make up a person’s personal philosophy. And the look of that constellation changes from person to person.
Some atheists are nihilists, but they are pretty rare. Some, to an extent, believe that in some cases, morality is relative. Others have extremely rigid moral viewpoints, or adhere to elaborate and complex philosophies like humanism. I have yet to meet an amoral atheist, though, or, for that matter, an amoral believer. Amorality, it turns out, is pretty damn rare.
Recent research suggests that parents raising kids without God are doing just as well as parents who raise their kids to believe. For those of us who are atheists, this isn’t surprising: we’ve known for a while that compassion, forgiveness, kindness, and being fucking rad aren’t moral principles that require the existence of a God to make sense. So please, to Mr. Robertson and everyone else, let’s focus on what we have in common and not on the one tiny little thing we disagree on.
Featured photo by Gage Skidmore