Acton Institute Powerblog

‘It’s Really Quite Simple’: Being Truthful About Atheism

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The Center For Inquiry has a new billboard up here in Grand Rapids, MI, touting happiness without religious belief. On one of their websites, they explain, “It’s really quite simple,” that is, being human is good and wondrous and we live in an amazing time and place. A video outlines their thoughts:

As I, a believer in God, watched this video, I found myself nodding: “I agree, yup, uh-huh.” We are here for only a brief period of time, we are trying to better our world, we do share in each others’ joys and sorrows. Christians are also just as fascinated and intrigued by the wonders of science: water found on Mars, the ability of scientists to find markers on our DNA that may make it possible to eradicate diseases and create healthier lives for us. It’s amazing how much we Christians and atheists have in common.

Of course, there is a “but.” The video says that those without religious faith seek to live lives based on honesty, dignity, compassion and…truth. There it is. The “but.” But what is “truth” when there is no moral foundation, when there is no guidance other than one’s own desires and wishes, when there is no restraint placed on the unfortunate human tendencies towards narcissism, self-satisfaction and selfishness? As a Christian, I hear the echo of Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

The “Living Without Religion” website attempts to tackle this question:

Do people really need a divine commandment to know it’s wrong to hurt people? No. Basic moral rules are common to all cultures.

We know we can choose on our own to be kind and compassionate. These virtues have intrinsic value, and showing kindness and compassion often leads to kindness and compassion by others. We recognize our responsibility for making the world a better place for everyone.

For more complex issues, especially ones that touch on public policy, we have science and reason to help guide us. We study different behaviors, and we use facts and data to help determine which behaviors are truly harmful and which ones are actually benign. We decide right and wrong based on real-world experience, not on tradition or what a god wants or doesn’t want.

Moral rules are indeed common to all cultures, but one can make the argument that they are rooted in religious beliefs. For instance, the idea of “do unto to others as you would have them do unto you” can be found in every major world religion. We certainly can choose to be kind and compassionate, but we often don’t. As people of faith, we have a way to re-orient ourselves, to find our way back to the right path, to the truth. And the truth we have is not one we decide upon for ourselves, but one that has been given to us by a loving, compassionate, creator God who knows us better than we know ourselves. Left to our own devices, devoid of “what a god wants or doesn’t want,” we are much more likely to behave as schoolchildren when the teacher is called out of the room: How much can we get away with?

I don’t mean to reduce atheism to immaturity. As I said, the video shows that believers and non-believers have a great deal in common. But that question of truth is one we cannot dismiss lightly. Is truth something we can each decide for ourselves, or is Truth a fundamental, unchanging, transcendent, objective reality that exists whether or not we acknowledge it?

I’m sure there will be much conversation about this billboard in Grand Rapids, and that’s a good thing. Believers and non-believers have much in common, and much to discuss. Perhaps a good place to start would be the question of Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?”

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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