Atheists Can Be Trusted (believe me!)

The point:  An atheist’s finite life is as absolute to him as eternal life is to one who believes in his continuing existence after death and as-such, fear of wasted life by imprisonment or shortening of that life by execution negates the anti-atheist argument that atheists are inherently more untrustworthy than theists because they have no fear of eternal damnation.

The rant that goes with it:

In The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe episode #333, the rogues discuss how…

New research finds that anti-atheist sentiment among believers is based largely on distrust, with atheists being considered among the most UNTRUSTWORTHY, comparable to rapists (and politicians and used-car salesmen and lawyers and…).

Post-poll questioning and further research led the pollsters to conclude that the reason for this singling-out of atheists is because the majority of people believe that if one does NOT believe in…

(a) an afterlife and
(b) a supreme being who will judge their actions and
(c) that the superbeing will determine the quality of that afterlife (he knows when you’ve been bad or good so be good, for goodness sake!)

…then those people will do whatever pleases them – at the expense of others and with perceived impunity.  As such, most people believe that atheists are pre-conditioned to lying, cheating, stealing and killing in pursuit of those self-interests.  Although it may be proven true that people feel this way about atheists, those judgemental opinions are extremely misguided.  In fact, I will demonstrate how atheists might be considered more trustworthy than their theist counterparts, starting with a couple of thought-provoking quotes:

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. - Steven Weinberg

Try to think of a good act performed by a person in the name of FSM or religion that would not have been performed by a non-believer.  Now, try to think of an evil act carried out by a person (or group) solely in the name of FSM or religion that would not have been carried out by a non-believer. Christopher Hitchens (RIP)

If you are not convinced by these ideas (and you don’t have the time to read Sam Harris’s book, “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values”) I will illuminate the issue by looking at it from both perspectives:

Theists (belief in and/or call to a, b & c above)

  1. Our prisons are filled with theists who have done unspeakable crimes in spite of their fear of a final judgement.  The very material police and courts appear to have stepped in where fear of supernatural judgement has failed.
  2. Some of the most horrific acts in history were committed by theists in the name of their belief that the supreme being they worship was agreeable to what they had done.  The fundamentalist 9/11 hijackers is a good recent example:  They LIED about their intentions when they got on the planes, SMUGGLED weapons on board, MISLEAD the rest of the passengers into thinking the flight would be safe, COVETED the American’s airplanes, MURDERED over 3,000 people and DESTROYED $billions worth of other people’s property, all BECAUSE (not in spite of) of their theist beliefs – many of which are not supported by other readings of the same “infallible” texts.  These people committed their immoral crimes at top speed in anticipation of their eternal judgement.  And before you blame the Holocaust on an “atheist” Nazi party, remember that Hitler was a devout catholic having stated that he was acting in the interest of his church (a position that was encouraged by the support of the Pope), as was 25% of the SS and the only member of the SS to ever be excommunicated was over an issue of divorce.  I daresay that no significant destructive event was ever carried out in the name of atheism.  I daresay that any crime against humanity that has even been committed was done so with theism being at least an excuse for it…whether it be delusional or as a PR device.
  3. The vast majority of people (with maybe the exception of the sociopathic minority) believe they are good and that they do the right thing.   Nobody considers themselves to be the villain.  Even when people do things that go against the moral codes of the community, they tend to rationalize that their case is somehow special.  This ability to delude oneself in to believing what they are about to do (or more often…what they have done) is called “resolution of Cognitive Dissonance” and is a handy trick that we have evolved to make internal peace with the terrible things that we might do to others.  If your group is threatened by another group (or even at the individual level) and you cannot think of a way to justify doing away with them without having “bloodguilt”, then belief that your favorite supreme being is okay with it, if not insists upon it, provides the means to justify the terrible action as “to kill” and not “to murder”.  I elaborate on this in my post “The Monty Hall Problem 1/3”.

Atheists (non-belief in a, b and/or c above)

First, a note on the origins of fairness, co-operation, altruism and all that other good stuff that holds civilization together (imagine a plane flying over the Atlantic and instead of people in the seats, they are filled with chimpanzees…you get the idea).  We are a social species.  Not because of such supposedly divine influences as the Ten Commandments, but rather the other way around.  People had been co-operating for millennia before Moses came down from Mt Sinai and it is therefore far more likely that the Ten Commandments are no more than one society’s documenting the fundamental values they held at the time: values that evolved with the species as such co-operation was advantageous in context with the environment and fellow creatures.  Studies have demonstrated that even babies, who could not have possibly understood a word of any doctrinal texts, are born with many of these core values (ie – appreciation of fairness) and as such they are a product of nature more than nurture.  I daresay that if anything, adults often coax their children away from those inherent values.

Consider this thought-experiment:

First, I propose that most of the established laws in western society generally fall in line with a shared value system that is relatively comparable to the values of most world religions.  For example, stealing, cheating and murdering (even with the exceptions granted from self-defence et al) are each frowned upon by these religions, the various states and our inherent appreciation for right and wrong.  Also, all of these crimes are punishable by threat of damnation, imprisonment/execution/fines and the court of public opinion.

Regardless of your actual beliefs, imagine that you have become convinced (as atheists are) that…

  1. the life you are living is the ONLY one you are EVER going to have; that when you die, that’s it, it’s all over – and that the ~80 years that you will be lucky to have is all the existence that you are ever going to experience.
  2. In the planning of (or post-rationalizing) a crime, you are aware that you cannot justify the act by arguing that you are somehow privileged by carrying the favour of a supernatural being who will ultimately condone it even though the “ignorant” people in your community (not to mention the victim) who will despise you for your actions.

With these concepts established, we consider this fact: Chances are very high that if you were to commit a serious crime such as murder, you will likely be caught and punished by either the courts or the friends/family of the victim…and these punishments are often lifetime imprisonment of even death.  No such crime occurs without total material impunity, as even those who don’t get caught spend the rest of their natural lives evading capture or at least watching their backs.  As we live in a civilization where the punishment often matches the crime, it is fair to say that when one commits any crime, it is at the risk of losing an equal part of one’s natural life.  Stealing a car could cost you the years of seeing your child grow up.  Paying a speeding ticket could cost your family a week’s worth of food.  Killing someone could cost you everything you have…and everything you are ever going to have.  Even if you get “life” for murder, the prisons are such that the quality of that life will likely be far more miserable than the life one needs to live in order to stay out of them.

An atheist’s’ finite natural life is as absolute to him as eternal life is to one who believes in his continuing existence after death and as-such, fear of wasting that one short & precious life by way of imprisonment, execution, fear of retribution, nagged with guilt and/or living like a fugitive (all of which are clearly defined in our very real laws and social codes) negates the anti-atheist argument that atheists are inherently more untrustworthy than theists because they have no fear of eternal damnation that has no universal definition.  Rather, setting aside the fear of losing everything, the natural drive to adhere to biologically-inherent moral values without compromising those values with what are often immoral lessons from out-dated texts written by flawed individuals is enough to make atheists far more trustworthy than their theist counterparts.

Simply put, if you believe that the only thing preventing you from doing harm to others for self-gain is the fear of higher judgement (and likewise, you think I will do these things because I do not have that fear), then you are indeed a truly horrible person.

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