In the wake of the shooting of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook elementary school yesterday, I have seen a flurry of people in the news and on social media blaming non-religion for the tragedy. Some have said that the existence of moral monsters among us would be solved if everyone were Christian, and others have said that somehow violence wouldn’t happen in a school where organized Christian prayer was required. It’s showing it’s face right now more than usual, but ever since my childhood, I’ve been aware of a widespread falsehood: that like a unicorn, a chupacabra, or bigfoot, there is no such thing as a person with a strong sense of morality and absolutely no fear of God.
I didn’t come to secularism partway through life after being raised in a religion the way some people do. My parents gave me a moral education that taught me about right and wrong and cruelty and kindness based on the observable world. I have never looked to the teachings of any god to know right from wrong, and I’ve never been morally motivated by the fear of hell or aspirations toward eternal life in heaven. I don’t believe in it, I don’t need it, and it’s hard to imagine being inside the mind of someone who does.
I try to be kind because I don’t want to live in a world where everyone hurts because we hurt each other. I try to be mindful of the fact that as a middle-class person born in the USA, I have more power in this world than average, and that that comes with a responsibility to act when I’m able to make things better, even a little bit, even for just one person, even for someone far away. I try to be fair in my own actions toward others and to take responsibility where I can.
It’s especially important to me to do the right thing in this world because I’m not betting on there being another life after this one where divine reckoning somehow rights every wrong. I can’t pray to a god for forgiveness and be granted a clean moral slate. I can’t let myself off the hook for making things right by saying “God has a plan” or “they’ll be rewarded in heaven.” I’m just accountable to my own conscience, always.
Being raised how I was, the idea that strict religion is the only possible source of strong morality has always been strange to me. And it’s strange that it isn’t more obviously false to everyone else. How can anyone think that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is the only thing standing between an average person and opening fire on a kindergarten class? How can anyone believe that the same commandment is enough to stop a disturbed person with murderous intent?
So when people declare that public religion could have saved those children and that non-religion is to blame for this monstrous violence, it is not only insulting to people like me, but also obviously, laughably false. Morality without religion is everywhere.