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As a left-leaning atheist living in the most religious state in America, I stay keenly aware that those around me judge me on a value scale very different from my own.
People around me see faith as a virtue, and many of them put it above all other values. They believe in the power of belief itself, and they have been taught that all other virtues flow out of that one. To their minds, people without faith are devoid of any morals at all. We are what C.S. Lewis called “men without chests.”
But why should believing things readily be a virtue at all? Is that really something you should try to do more of rather than less? Why don’t people rather value critical thinking skills above the ability to believe what they are told?
People prioritize trusting authority over skepticism both because it’s easier and because their surrounding subculture rewards the former and punishes the latter. It’s not hard to figure out why, either: Institutions naturally value cohesion, conformity, and obedience because if they didn’t they would soon fall apart. Evangelical churches epitomize this trait because their entire enterprise depends on the acceptance of authority, either of the Bible or of the people in charge of teaching them how to understand it. Trust is an essential ingredient.
But imagine how the world would change if these values were inverted. What if people were looked down upon for failing to use critical thinking skills more than for failing to believe what they were told to believe? Can you imagine how that would reshape the heroes we emulate and the careers we adequately compensate?
Teachers would make more money than ministers, not less, and in some cases even their housing would be provided. Voters would regularly flood the polls demanding their schools devote entire courses to critiquing our sources of information and detecting logical fallacies rather than trying to make Bible classes mandatory. Traditions and institutions would routinely be checked against their core functions and would regularly adapt to new discoveries and developments because nothing would be done simply because that’s the way it’s always been done.

A Better Moral Foundation

I would argue that skepticism and critical thinking are far more essential to morality than faith because they enable us to examine why our values are worthy of passing on the next generation. Perhaps more importantly they empower our children to take what we have taught them a step further, questioning our own values and deciding for themselves if they can be improved upon.
Can you explain why the things you believe are wrong are bad? I mean without reverting to one authority figure or another? Don’t you think that if something is truly virtuous you should be able to explain why it’s better than the alternatives? Shouldn’t you be able to show how something actually causes harm?
Take the issue of same-sex marriage and adoption for example. If you believe those things are bad, can you explain why? What is it about having two members of the same sex raising a family together that’s so bad it’s worth fighting tooth-and-nail in the public sphere? Every time I’ve asked that question of someone who opposes same sex relations they’ve either pivoted back to their religious tradition or else they’ve ignorantly demonstrated they don’t really understand how it works. That’s not very compelling.
Some have even tried to locate research that supports their view, but given how long our culture has resisted LGBT relations, that data has been difficult to put together. The institutions which examine our social dynamics have scarcely had the time or the resources to do the in-depth longitudinal studies we would need in order to determine conclusively who is right and who is wrong.
Read: “Will Evangelicals Finally Drop Their Crusade Against Marriage Equality?
But the truth is that people who strongly resist same-sex relations don’t really need studies to tell them what they believe. Their source of moral authority lies in something other than empirical observation or critical reasoning. They believe it’s wrong because they believe it’s wrong—it’s what they were taught to believe by someone else.
Many will protest that secular culture employs its own indoctrination for its alternative values, but I see a key difference here. I know dozens of people who were raised in heteronormative environments who changed their minds because of empirical observation and personal life experience. But I can’t think of anyone raised in an LGBT affirming environment who then decided it’s wrong without significant influence from a religious authority of some kind or another. Do you see the difference?

Obsessed with Sex

The same can be said for other moral issues like cohabitation. I would argue that living together before getting married is the best way to make sure that two people are suited for sharing life together. But in my world, people are told you should enter into a binding, lifelong contract with another person first, before you’ve even slept under the same roof. I think that is terribly ill-advised, and religious indoctrination is the primary reason my surrounding culture insists on it.
Read: “The Church Doesn’t Get to Make the Rules About Sex Anymore
For some reason, churches have decided the most important thing about you is what you do with your genitals. They are obsessed with controlling how you use them, and even their speech codes revolve largely around avoiding any mention of them in conversation.
How does an evangelical Christian decide whether or not a movie or a TV series is okay to watch? If you look closely you will find it primarily has to do with sex. They watch movies filled with violence all the time (Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Passion of the Christ), but at least there aren’t any curse words in them. They can watch movies like that without becoming unclean because no one even mentions sex.
If a local businessman were found to have lied on his taxes or to have made some underhanded deals in his career, he would likely be forgiven and might even resume leadership in his church at some point. The same could not be said for someone caught cheating on their spouse. That could even get you kicked out of the church entirely. Which isn’t to say cheating is okay, because it’s not. My point is that the church’s value system ranks transgressions disproportionately, and when asked why one thing is worse than another, the answer ultimately boils down to trusting an authority.

Parenting Ourselves

The biggest problem with rooting morality in divine authority is that it cannot be questioned. Once you’ve been told something is wrong because God said so, you’ve placed it inside a glass case so it cannot be touched. The hidden assumption in this formula is that you’ve correctly interpreted the divine will, or even that it’s possible to know what God would want in the first place, and that he/she/it even cares. There’s a lot of presumption in this line of reasoning, like a house of cards you can’t look at too closely for fear of breathing on it and making it collapse.
But every moral belief should be subject to scrutiny. That’s the only way to ensure we haven’t simply internalized someone else’s value system as our own. I would argue that is a primitive, less mature way of approaching life. Maybe it’s okay for very small children, but a good parent tries as early as possible to teach their children why something is good or bad. That’s the only way to equip your child to make their own decisions when presented with newer, more complicated moral questions as they grow older. There will come a day when you won’t be around to tell them what to do, and they will likely face complex situations you could never have anticipated so many years before.
Read: “Where Do Morals Come From?
I feel like the human race as a whole is at this very juncture. We’ve spent many years being told what to think about everything simply because it’s the way things are done. But there comes a point at which we must learn to think for ourselves, questioning what we were told to believe in order to retire those ideas which have long since lost their relevance. For example, we no longer sell our daughters to the highest bidder because, contrary to the way most of the Bible speaks, we’ve decided women shouldn’t be seen as property. That was a cultural artifact we’ve since realized we should put in a museum to remember but not perpetuate in our day.
I’m suggesting we should do that with everything, rejecting those things which look different in the light of mature moral reasoning. Again it was Lewis who cautioned us against what he called “chronological snobbery,” but that’s a knife that cuts both ways. It’s no more irresponsible to disparage an idea simply because it is old than it is to do so simply because it is new. The age of a belief is beside the point.
It’s high time we learn to parent ourselves, as all grown-ups must learn to do if they ever want to carry on what their parents did for them. It means building on what they have taught us, yes. But it also means taking steps forward, taking us beyond where they left off. Anything less would be irresponsible of us.
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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...