On godless heathens.

Remember Lovely Friend? The friend with whom I had a lovely lunch and discussed hunger in America?

Well, she is not only lovely, in ways of both the mind and the flesh, she is also a deeply moral person, a person who knows her wrong from her right and acts on this knowledge in a multitude of ways in the course of any given day. I mean, come on: She feeds the hungry! How much more moral can you get?

Well, one more fact about Lovely Friend: She’s an atheist.

I know! Almost impossible to believe, what with all that moral behavior and whatnot!

No, seriously, apparently many, many Americans still have a really hard time believing that you can be literally godless, and a good person. Many, many Americans still believe that if you are the latter, you cannot — truly — be the former. You might think you don’t believe in God, but — you believe in God.

She and I, and a smattering of our equally lovely and equally godless (or nearly so) friends (some of my best friends are atheists! etc.) were discussing this just the other day, and I thought I might write about it — only to remember that I already have! It was a couple of years ago, but little appears to have changed* in that time, so I thought: What the hey! I’ll run that piece. It appeared in the Dallas Morning News on April 1, 2007.

*Actually, in his inauguration speech, President Obama said this: “We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth” — and when he said “nonbelievers,” this believing Jew teared up (well, I was probably crying already. I cried through the whole damn speech, I seem to recall. But I know I cried harder!). Because he was recognizing some people who I happen to love very deeply,  and I was more grateful than I can say.


‘Godless’ people deserve tolerance, too

America shouldn’t rush to judge atheists, says EMILY HAUSER

12:28 PM CDT on Sunday, April 1, 2007

Congressman Pete Stark of California made national news earlier this month simply by confessing his atheism.

I’m sorry. What? The fact that a man doesn’t believe in God is news? Well, in a country where 55 percent of the people wouldn’t vote for such a man (according to a recent Gallup poll), I suppose it is.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m Jewish, and personally, I’m all for God. I pray, I keep kosher, I’m a believer born. My relationship with the Divine plays an enormous role in my life.

But my husband – not so much. Eran is an unwavering atheist. He’s also Jewish, though, and because Jews do a lot that can really just be about heritage, we’ve found a fairly easy middle ground. For me, lighting Shabbat candles consecrates the day; for Eran, it’s a nice thing to do with the kids. Tomato, tomahto.

Yet I will be the first to admit that the margins of the middle ground are broad, what with me seeking guidance from a Creator whom Eran believes is all in my head. Furthermore, I’ve begun to realize is that as broad as the margin is on my side, Eran’s is equally wide.

He’s argued with me for 14 years that there’s little room in Western culture for nonbelievers – and I say “argued” because, through he’s never been anything but supportive of me, I’ve mostly not taken him seriously. No room? Please. I have spiritual struggle; he gets to eat bacon.

Like a constant drip on rock, however, his comments have begun to wear away my ignorance, and I’ve had to take notice. Americans hold to an unspoken understanding that is so deeply ingrained, it appears to be natural law. A belief in God, we think, is the well from which all morality springs.

Consider, if you will, the word “godless.”

The cadences of Scripture run through American thought. We read that “the fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile” (Psalms 14:1), and our highest officials regularly make clear that they believe it.

At our dawn, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “While I claim a right to believe in one God, I yield as freely to others that of believing in three. Both religions, I find, make honest men. …” Much later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower echoed Jefferson, saying that belief in God generates “honesty, decency, fairness.” More recently, Sen. Barack Obama, seeking to reassure nervous Red Staters, declared that we in the Blue States “believe in a mighty God.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the seminal When Bad Things Happen to Good People, took this approach to its logical conclusion in his 1995 book When Children Ask about God: “The person who is good because he believes that certain things are right … need not take literally the image of a divine person in Heaven,” he wrote. “[He] believes in God and is acting on that belief.”

That is, even if my husband, a real peach of a guy, doesn’t believe in God – he believes in God. He’s good, isn’t he? In the words of one member of my synagogue: “Oh, don’t worry. He’ll come around. They always do.”

Living with Eran – one of the most truly ethical people I know – I find I can no longer accept these things at face value. Our beloved American respect for all creeds is revealed as just that: for the creed-ed only. The creed-less need not apply. Even the separation of church and state becomes suspect, as it presupposes, by definition, a church.

When pressed, Eran will grudgingly admit a vague possibility that Something created the universe, but he can’t accept that said Something has anything to do with history or humanity’s ability to reach its highest ground. We live, we die, certain things are right, others are wrong, and we can find them without being told.

This approach to ethics is supported, in fact, by recent discoveries in evolutionary biology suggesting that the faculty for developing a moral sense is a genetically designed feature of the human brain. Now I might argue that God created that faculty in humanity, but I can’t know, in any verifiable sense, that Eran is wrong when he disagrees with me. That’s why we call it faith.

Like most Americans, I live my life in the belief that I’m guided and comforted by a being outside me and all human experience – but the bald truth is that on this side of death, I can’t know for sure.

I can, however, look to Eran’s works and see his goodness, look to his heart and see his honesty, and concede the point: There might not be a God. And my husband is no more prone to corruption and vile deeds than the next guy for thinking so.

What I do know is this: If there’s a heaven, Eran’s a shoo-in. The mighty God in whom I believe is far too great to care if my husband’s righteousness was born in Torah study or his own precious soul.

As a country, we would do better to leave matters of faith to the recesses of private hearts and measure the integrity of our leaders by their deeds, rather than their affiliations. Take it from the wife of a godless man. I’ll bet Pete Stark isn’t all that bad, either.

Emily L. Hauser is a freelance writer living in Oak Park, Ill. Her e-mail address is elhauser@hotmail.com.

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  1. Michele

     /  September 9, 2009

    OMG! Emily, you outed me! (And I’m not even going to retract my OMG, which, being an atheist, is technically not mine to say.) But I loved your Dallas Morning News piece when it ran and I love it still.

    People frequently look askance at me when they find I do not believe in god. They wonder how I teach my kids to be morally responsible people. I think they skip over the essential word there—teach. I TEACH my kids to think about right and wrong when making ethical choices. I bet most religious folks do a lot of teaching like that, too. My kids make moral decisions not because they fear some god’s wrath or hope for heavan. They do it because they know it is the right thing to do. And the fact that we have wonderful friends like Emily who think we are “lovely” must mean we’re doing something right. For godless heathens.

    • Sin Nombre

       /  September 9, 2009

      With all due respect Emily I think you are fooling yourself. I’m an atheist too (or at least 99% one, so as to be reasonable), but without some divine (supernatural) source I just don’t see any basis to say what’s “right” or “wrong” other than pointing to what some other people consider same to be. (Perhaps a majority of other people even, but still just other people, and thus just as subject to change.)

      Seems to me the best that can be said is that one’s view of “right” and “wrong” are essentially aesthetic judgments, just as derived from culture and the times and etc. as any other ones. And in terms of what, in the main, those judgments are in the West today, I also think you have to concede they are very *very* strongly derived from and rooted in the precepts of Christianity.

      Not totally satisfactory to feel that one’s moral compass is indeed only aesthetically determined, but there it is. And indeed can be downright disturbing for some who consciously rejected this or that formal Christian religion in favor of atheism or etc. to recognize how close their own judgments still resemble same. (And even worse for those who came from some *other* religious background such as judaism!) But there it is as well I think, and, for what it’s worth, good enough for me I’ve come to accept.

      In a way then I think that you are not so much teaching your kids “right” and “wrong” as you are teaching them what is … beautiful or not.

  2. I am not a believer. Others being concerned about where my morals or my childrens come from doesn’t trouble me is the slightest. We are what we are.

  3. I have no belief in a reasoning/conscious deity, but I’m also a great believer in civilizations billions of years older than ours, wherin the organisms within may seem completly godlike to our infantile brains.

    I believe a sense of right and wrong has nothing to do with a belief in a deity. Perhaps, for some, the belief in the deity and an afterlife frightens them into more morale behavior, but I have not seen any evidence of this in the real world. More people have died in the name of “God” than any other identifiable element.

    Unlike most people with strong religious beliefs, I do not think more or less of people (or peoples) because of their professed spirituality and beliefs. I find this to be a central theme in people with atheistic or agnostic belief systems. They make their judgements based on actions, not on professed belief in a specific god.

  4. “That is, even if my husband, a real peach of a guy, doesn’t believe in God – he believes in God. He’s good, isn’t he?”

    “When pressed, Eran will grudgingly admit a vague possibility that Something created the universe, but he can’t accept that said Something has anything to do with history or humanity’s ability to reach its highest ground.”

    This is an impassioned defense? Seems to me that it’s saying that anyone who professes to be a nonbeliever is actually a believer of some sort or other, which is a pretty common non-defense defense of atheism.

    • Normally, I don’t reply in my own comments section, and normally I don’t approve comments from commenters whose goal is to insult. As a courtesy to you, as you are technically not a stranger to me, I let this one through, but will then break my normal non-commenting rule to reply:

      You clearly didn’t actually read the piece, or didn’t read it carefully, or were so convinced that I would piss you off that you couldn’t see what I was saying.

      Your first quote was me taking someone else’s comment to its logical conclusion – in order to disagree with it.

      The second quote was me simply spelling out where my husband stands, in order to then say that whatever his thoughts are on the Divine — it doesn’t matter, because “As a country, we would do better to leave matters of faith to the recesses of private hearts and measure the integrity of our leaders by their deeds, rather than their affiliations. Take it from the wife of a godless man.”

      I won’t be engaging with you on this again.

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