Does Atheism Promote Kindness?
In doing a little research for a post that I am working on, I came across a blog post by Austin Cline of the Atheism and Agnosticism page of About.com. The page, which was entitled, “Pleasures of Atheism: Why Atheists, Agnostics, and Skeptics Find Joy in a Godless Existence,” lists seven reasons for believing that Atheism brings more pleasure than theism (and more particularly, conservative faith in Christianity). One of the reasons he states is that an Atheist is free to be kinder. Here’s what Cline wrote:
A common misconception that many theists labor under is the belief that the only kind people are those who follow a particular god or religion. To this, any atheist or freethinker with common sense will no doubt reply ‘rubbish.’ British philosopher Bertrand Russell, a well-known secularist himself, made the following statement in his essay ‘The Faith of a Rationalist:’ “Men tend to have the beliefs that suit their passions. Cruel men believe in a cruel god and use their belief to excuse cruelty. Only kindly men believe in a kindly god, and they would be kindly in any case.” In other words, one doesn’t have to believe in a god to be a kind person. Many atrocities in past history have clearly demonstrated that religion and kindness were worlds apart.
Cruel People Choose a Cruel Religion?
If I understand this argument (which isn’t really so much an argument as an assertion), Cline believes that non-belief in God allows the Atheist to be kind. Yet, his paragraph on kindness does not really support this idea. He apparently agrees with Bertrand Russell’s statement (which I believe to be nonsense) that, “Men tend to have the beliefs that suit their passions. Cruel men believe in a cruel god and use their belief to excuse cruelty. Only kindly men believe in a kindly god, and they would be kindly in any case.”
This is so obviously rubbish (to use his own word) I am surprised that Cline (and more importantly, Russell) actually contends that it’s true. One need spend only a moment perusing the Internet or any Christian bookstore to find a plethora of testimonies by or about individuals who were once unquestionably cruel individuals who, upon encountering Jesus, totally changed their ways. Just one example can be found here. It’s the story of a convicted murderer who later converted to Christianity in prison. He was definitely a cruel man. According to his own statement,
We began to persuade prisoners to [the Brown Power movement] and when Christians would try to witness to me I would threaten them or beat them up. I remember beating up one Christian and banging his head against the prison cell bars until blood was flowing from his head and he was hollering for the guards to rescue him simply for speaking to me about Christ.
Obviously, Christianity changes people – it has turned (and will continue to turn) cruel people into kindly people.
Why would being Atheistic Lead People to be Kind?
Still, even if Russell’s statement were true, it doesn’t mean that kindness is part of the freedom of atheism. After all if Russell is accurate, the cruel man will be cruel and the kindly man will be kindly regardless of his belief or non-belief in God. So, exactly what motivates the Atheist to be kind? It cannot be his Atheism because nothing in Atheism promotes kindness. Starting with its evolutionary base, Atheism necessarily accepts the notion of survival of the fittest. Does that attitude better promote kindness or a winner-take-all mentality?
Having said that, I understand how Atheism allows for kindness if the religion in vogue is a cruel religion. The Atheist, not being beholden to the god being preached by that cruel religion, can certainly reject the cruelty and be kind. But that is not unique to Atheism. A Christian, who is taught directly that they are to love their neighbors and love their enemies and that God is love, is also free to reject the cruelty of the cruel god of the cruel religion. In fact, unlike the Atheist, kindness, gentleness and humility are all part and parcel of being a Christian since these are all gifts of the Spirit that come as the Christian grows in his faith. The Atheist, however, is not under any compulsion to be kind. Just as the Atheist can certainly reject the cruelty of the cruel religion and be kind, so too can an Atheist, not being beholden to the God being preached by the kind religion, can certainly reject the kindness and be cruel. Each of these choices are equally valid moves in the Atheistic universe. No moral judgments are involved.
So, it is certainly true that a Atheist can be kind, and it is equally true that Atheism allows people the freedom to be kind. But that is not the important question. The important question to ask is whether Atheism promotes kindness over cruelty. I see nothing in Atheistic philosophy that requires or even promotes the Atheist to be kind. (Please don’t tell me about the Humanist Manifesto – Atheists are obviously free to reject that as well.) Meanwhile, Christians are told to be kind and are told that as they advance in God’s kingdom, kindness is one of the fruits of the Spirit that follows from following Jesus. So, if you want to be kind, want a belief system that teaches kindness, and want the tools to become kind, Christianity is clearly the path to follow.