My parents were both atheists, but, like all state school kids in those days, I had religion rammed down my throat from an early age – and certainly whenever I put anything down my throat. My primary school was not a faith school, but we had to pray when we arrived in the morning, before and after milk break, before and after lunch, and before we went home in the evening. There were times when I wondered whether there might really be a God, but as soon as I became capable of some degree of independent thought I began to judge that religion was about as plausible as the Easter Bunny story.
Although, since childhood, I have never wavered from this position, I have, as a rational “atheist”, to concede that I am really a flying-teapot-agnostic sort of atheist (If you have no idea what I’m talking about here, you need to read Bertrand Russell . or listen to Gong). I have to admit, therefore, that, when I die, it is just about possible (sort of) that I shall be confronted by a man with a long white beard who will announce:
“See! Jerry Falwell, Cliff Richard, Ian Paisley, and that Bin Liner chap were all right. I really do exist.”
If this happens, I shall be forced to eat my hat and concede that I have been wrong all my life.
But let’s suppose the chap in the white beard continues as follows:
“And not only do I really exist, I really do hold the view the protecting yourself from getting AIDs by using a condom is a sin; and I really do think that a woman should only ever walk about outside with a bag over her head, and that all homosexuals should be drowned at birth; oh and that it is immoral to use electric toothbrushes on Tuesdays – though I note that none of my followers down there on earth seem to have picked up on that last one.”
Shall I be forced to concede that I have been wrong all my life on these points too? Of course not! I shall say:
“Well I’m sorry God, but I disagree with all your views; moreover, you seem like a complete fruitcake to me.”
(Actually, I shan’t say this because he will then cast me straight into the fiery pits of Hell and I’m quite a coward when it comes to the choice between enduring extreme pain and standing up for what’s right; but I shall think this.)
In other words, while the mere existence of a deity is irreconcilable with my ontological viewpoint and forces me to change my views; the existence of a deity with different ethical opinions does not force me to change my views at all.
Belief in a deity is, therefore, neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for ethical beliefs. And I should go even further, ethical beliefs - views not about what is the case but about what ought to be the case – are not at all like a set of rules that someone (or some deity) has commanded us to observe. Ethical beliefs are beliefs we hold dear in spite of whatever the laws (of whatever type) force us to do or not do.
The so called “morality” that religions impose is not morality at all.