Last year, a Pew Research Center survey found that Americans have a significantly less favorable view of atheists than of Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus. Only Muslims were rated more negatively than atheists. That is consistent with another survey conducted by the same institute in the same year, which found that about every second American would not be happy with a family member marrying an atheist. In a 2012 Gallup poll among Americans, 43 percent of respondents said that they would not vote for a presidential candidate who is an atheist. Simply put, Americans do not like atheists. As everybody knows who knows anything about Bangladesh, neither do Bangladeshis.
It is hard to give a comprehensive explanation of why atheism is so unpopular in both the United States and Bangladesh, but part of the explanation surely lies in the common belief that, without religion, there is no morality. What shall we make of that belief? It is sometimes argued that, if one does not believe that there is a divinely revealed set of moral rules, and that there will be consequences for not abiding by these rules, then one has no reason to do what is right. That argument, however, is insulting and unfair not only towards atheists, but also towards religious people, as it suggests that the only thing that stops religious people from murdering and stealing is a selfish fear of punishment in the afterlife. If you are religious, I suspect you would take issue with that suggestion, and instead agree that your religion forbids murder and theft not arbitrarily, but for a reason, which lies in what murder and theft does to the victims. Then, however, you must recognize that atheists too have reason not to engage in immoral behavior. In fact, they have more or less the same reason. They too can understand that murdering and stealing are failures to show due respect for other people, and cause harm to the victims, their families and friends, and society. Just like believers, atheists can understand that, if we do not want certain things done to us, we should not do them to others. This is not to say that all atheists do in fact understand these principles, and act accordingly, but neither do all religious people. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the infamous leader of the barbaric ISIS/Daesh group, is a Muslim, but so was Begum Rokeya, the Bengali social activist and promoter of women’s education. Similarly, Joseph Stalin, the murderous Soviet dictator, was an atheist, but so was the South African anti-apartheid activist and writer Nadine Gordimer who, according to the committee that awarded her the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, has “been of very great benefit to humanity”. Whether someone is an atheist or a theist says nothing about that person’s character.
Another common misconception about atheists is that they hate religion. As is the case with many misconceptions, there is a grain of truth to that. There are in fact atheists who hate religion, and some of them go as far as to offend religious people just for the sake of causing offense, and no other purpose. But then there are also plenty of religious people who hate atheism, and are not shy to talk about their contempt for atheists. Neither behavior is nice, or civil, but it is one of those things we must tolerate in a free and open society. Free speech has no meaning if it is only the freedom to say nice things, which everybody finds agreeable. When the American author Sam Harris, for example, says that Islam is the “mother lode of bad ideas,” as he recently did in a heated exchange with Ben Affleck, the best we can make of it is to take it as an opportunity to have a public conversation that, ideally, benefits everybody. While there is no doubt that there are ideas in the history of Islamic thought, like in virtually every intellectual tradition, that are problematic and should be criticized, we have to look no further than the fundamentals of Islam to cast doubt on Harris’ assertion. Take the Third Pillar of Islam, zakat: one should give a portion of one’s income and wealth to the poor and needy – a great idea, one that atheists can wholeheartedly agree with, and surely not the only great idea in Islam. An atheist is a person who does not believe in the existence of any god, and being an atheist hence is perfectly consistent with recognizing and appreciating the beauty and wisdom which can be found in all religions.
A lack of belief in one or more gods neither entails moral corruption nor contempt for religion. Conversely, belief in one or more gods neither guarantees good character or moral behavior, nor proper appreciation for what is good in religion, as the current series of murders of bloggers in Bangladesh painfully demonstrates. Unfortunately, public perception of atheism and religion is too often shaped by people who are less than sophisticated, divisive, and – in the case of religious fanatics – even violent. Let us judge people on the basis of their actions and character, rather than their religious affiliation, or lack thereof, learn to see the diversity of thought as a treasure for all of humanity, and listen more to those for whom neither atheism, nor religion is a dirty word.
A version of this article was published under the following title:
“Atheism is not a dirty word,” Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh, 12 September 2015)