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Good without God — Atheists and Others

Most atheists will readily admit that a lot of religious believers are good people. From Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Dalai Lama to Mr. Rogers people have no trouble coming up with countless examples of people who do their religion proud.

But many religious people to think that nonbelievers simply can’t be moral people. This idea found its way into a good number of the sermons. Not all religious people think it, of course, but many have, and many do, and that misconception has caused a good deal of personal pain among atheists and other nonbelievers.

When the philosopher Pierre Bayle said in 1681 that an atheist could be just as virtuous as a Christian, and that there’s no reason atheists couldn’t form a moral society of their own, Christian Europe fell off its chair. He eventually lost his teaching job in the Netherlands for saying such things.

Funny thing, though: Three centuries later, the Netherlands is majority nontheistic. And Bayle was right — it’s one of the most peaceful, orderly, nonviolent societies on Earth.

But the misconception that atheists can’t be good is a persistent one. So here are a few cameos from the history of goodness without God.

Confucianism is a philosophy that’s all about ethics, self-improvement, virtue, altruism, and compassionate action — and all without appealing to gods for help or clarification. Confucius articulated the earliest known version of the Golden Rule: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”

The philosopher Epicurus and his followers in ancient Greece, most of whom were atheist, agnostic, or deistic, were among the first to talk about justice as a social contract between people — an agreement not to do harm to each other.

Jainism is a nontheistic religion centered on peace and nonviolence. Jains have been at the forefront of social and moral issues in India for centuries, all without reference to gods.

Atheists and agnostics have done courageous work on major moral issues of their times, such as

  • Pioneers of women’s rights including Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Simone de Beauvoir, and Gloria Steinem

  • Slavery abolitionists including Frances Wright, Ernestine Rose, Frederick Douglass, and Lydia Maria Child

  • Advocates of social equality, prison reform, and fair labor practices including Jeremy Bentham, Robert Owen, J.S. Mill, Felix Adler, Emma Goldman, Gora, and Jane Addams

  • Advocates of reproductive rights including Margaret Sanger and Katha Pollitt

  • Protestors against war and militarism including Bertrand Russell, Kate Hudson, Jane Addams, Noam Chomsky, and Aldous Huxley

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