Growing up in Texas, I was intimately familiar with “country life” and all that comes with it: good food, colorful characters, pervasive religiosity, fishing, hunting, and a suspicious attitude towards the government and “outsiders.” This is not to say that all Southerners share the same experience, but for many of us, we feel a common thread running through our lives leading to distinctions between our type of living and the lives led by people on the coasts or up north.
So I wasn’t surprised to see a show like Duck Dynasty pop up a few years ago and to see that it was popular in my hometown. The show tended to overemphasize common stereotypes about Southerners (close-mindedness, an overreliance on tradition, etc.) that aren’t necessarily untrue but are often exaggerated. Still, it was a fun show meant to take an entertaining but loving look at the South and the people who call it home.
Unfortunately, some of the stars of the show started living up to some of the worst stereotypes about their place of birth. One of the main stars, Phil Robertson, got in trouble in 2013 after he did an interview with GQ in which he seemed to compare same-sex marriage with bestiality and polygamy. It’s true that some people in the South have a difficult time accepting the idea of same-sex marriage, but Robertson’s statement seemed to be less about a lack of understanding and more about an attack on a “lifestyle” he didn’t agree with.
Robertson was eventually suspended from the show but rejoined it soon after and seemed eager to return to America’s most popular reality TV show. That is until this week when, in a speech before a prayer breakfast, Robertson went on a hysterical rant against atheists and our sense of morality.
Envisioning a scenario in which an atheist family, including the atheist children, are raped and murdered by intruders, Robertson attempted to prove that a lack of belief in god corresponds with a total lack of morality. The scenario begins with two males breaking into the home of the nonbelievers, tying them up, and as narrated by Robertson, “then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot ’em and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’”
The brutality of this statement aside, Robertson is simply wrong in thinking that nontheists are amoral because they do not believe in a god. Nontheists subscribe to numerous philosophies and ethical traditions like humanism which establish a moral foundation for human behavior without basing such a foundation in the divine or supernatural. Even without these important systems of thought, human beings are not monsters who believe that they can do whatever they want simply because there is no metaphysical being telling them not to. The late Christopher Hitchens was known for disputing this point, claiming that humanity would be fundamentally unable to survive if we thought murder and other crimes were fine until God told us otherwise on Mount Sinai through the Ten Commandments.
Robertson isn’t the only popular TV figure who has questioned the apparent amorality of nontheists. Steve Harvey, the popular game and TV host, has said that religious people shouldn’t date atheists because they have no place from which to derive their morality. While such ignorant statements are hurtful to our community and reflect badly on those who have made them, it doesn’t change the fact that most atheists, just like most religious people, are good human beings that simply want the best for themselves and their fellow man.
Some in the humanist community want to see Robertson fired or suspended, but I don’t think that those actions will actually do much beyond giving us some momentary satisfaction. What is really required if we want to show religious Americans just how ethical humanists can be is to first come out as a nontheist to family and friends and then to show by positive example that nontheists are capable of the same moral behavior that certain religious Americans claim to have a monopoly on.