Can Good Be Good if Nobody Knows It?

Thousands of years ago Socrates asked the question: Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? Put in more ethical terms, is something moral because God says it is, or is it moral in and of itself? As humanists we would surely answer B: something is moral separate of any supposed supernatural edict. However, the journal Nature Human Behaviour (NHB) recently published a study entitled, “Global evidence of extreme intuitive moral prejudice against atheists.” The results seem to suggest that the majority of us still aren’t sure that good is good for goodness’ sake.

The NHB study spans thirteen nations, including the United States, and includes data from 3,256 participants between the ages of sixteen and seventy years old. Participants came from diverse societies and included both student and general population samples. They were given a series of immoral scenarios of varying degrees of immorality and given three possible perpetrators to choose from: someone without a belief description provided, someone who does believe in a god, and someone who does not believe in “any gods.” Sixty percent of participants, including both believers and nonbelievers, choose a perpetrator who did not believe in any gods.

Clearly, the profound effect religion has had on our political/social development remains invasive. Historically, we would be hard-pressed to separate the beginnings of human development from the parallel development of religious dogma. The first historical evidence of human religion dates back to 38,000 BCE and the Aurignacian Löwenmensch figurine, which is an anthropomorphic animal-shaped sculpture. The oldest religious text, a collection called the Pyramid Texts, date back to 2494 BCE. If the morality of humanity has been connected to religious belief since prehistoric times, there is little wonder that even as we become less religious across cultures, we remain hesitant to attribute our morality to ourselves alone. We have, however, come a long way in the last several hundred years. So, how do we overcome the final barriers of our own moral prejudices so that nontheism can flourish?

The authors of this study point to the power of what they term a “general disbelief bias.” They propose that institutional prejudice may not be wholly driven by an association between religion and moral restraint, but may also reflect the uncertainty that comes with choosing a person who lacks a specified belief system; this is what they term a general disbelief bias. For example, if all we know about someone is what she doesn’t believe, we feel unable to infer what she does believe. If I am a Christian, for example, I believe in Christ. If I am a nontheist, I don’t believe in a divinity. This is not new; religious identification offers a basic set of known moral tenets. Most of us would agree that religious identification is often misleading, but it nevertheless offers a common-knowledge definition of that person’s supposed moral belief system. Nontheism, on the other hand, by definition offers only a lack of belief bereft of any ethical system. The prejudice against nontheists hinges on this lack of a commonly known specified value system, which is problematic in several ways.

In an informal poll answered by 870 American Humanist Association Twitter followers, 65 percent primarily identified as atheists. One-quarter identified as humanists and the other 12 percent were split between agnostic and nontheist. Of these four terms, three stand as negative terms, meaning the label either means “no knowledge of” or “no belief in.” Only the term humanist offers an ethical value system within its definition. This moves us to a version of George Berkeley’s famous “if a tree falls” question: If someone who doesn’t happen to believe in god is good but nobody knows it, are they still good?

As nontheists and humanists, this answer is all-important. If we agree that good is good for goodness’ sake but do not address the larger social assumption that nontheists are considered a moral wild card within the world, then we will continue to be persecuted and feared by society. We may be good in intention and action, but we will continue to be judged and labeled (and treated) as amoral.

According to the study, in order to counteract a disbelief bias, a positive value must be associated with a term; it can’t only mean a lack of something. Humanism, by definition, provides an ethical system of values and moral philosophy in addition to a statement of disbelief. Promoting the term humanism rather than the term nontheist could help decrease prejudice against the nontheist community.

But even more interesting than the prejudice against nontheists from the faithful is our own prejudice against ourselves. “Even atheists…intuitively associate serial murder more with atheists than with believers…Indeed, only in Finland and to a lesser extent New Zealand is the evidence of intuitive anti-atheist prejudice among atheists less conclusive.” So, as Chuck Palahniuk says in Invisible Monsters, when we don’t know who to hate, we hate ourselves. Apparently atheists, too, struggle with a disbelief bias.

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. Not all nontheists are humanists. So does it matter to humanists that nontheists are perceived as immoral, if those of us who identify as both can stand under the label of humanism? If it does matter, which I propose it does, how do we improve the nontheist reputation, not only within the theist community but also among ourselves?

And what about those nontheists who are not humanists and do not espouse any organized moral value code? Can the nontheist-not-humanist overcome the disbelief bias without adding an ethical system or are they destined to represent a moral wildcard within both theistic and nontheistic communities? As Thomas Edison said:

Moral teaching is the thing we need most in this world, and many…could be great moral teachers if they would but give their whole time to it…instead of wasting it upon expounding theories of theology which are not in the first place firmly based. What we need is search for fundamentals, not reiteration of traditions born in days when men knew even less than we do now.

Our history is riddled with great thinkers and scientists who were imprisoned or killed for heresy. And, unfortunately, international blasphemy laws still threaten nontheists worldwide. Changing society’s perception of us will take time, but unlike hundreds of years ago, we now have the tools we need to educate and create a new, better understanding of morality. The American Humanist Association (AHA) and similar humanist organizations around the globe offer national platforms from which to teach our communities that humanists strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The more nontheists actively participate in political and moral dialogues, work to change blasphemy laws, speak out to protect the separation of church and state, and openly educate theists about our value system, the quicker not believing in gods will shed its negative moral assumptions and be associated with a positive moral code. So, let’s both be good for goodness’ sake and make sure that when we are, the world is watching.