Never Mind Offensive, Is It True?

There is an interesting comment on the letters page of the New York Times Science section.

The conversation with David Sloan Wilson quotes him as saying, “I tell people I’m an atheist, but a nice atheist” (“The Origins of Religion, From a Distinctly Darwinian View”). The idea that atheists, secular humanists, agnostics and other free thinkers are not “nice” or, as is often more bluntly put, “cannot be moral without a belief in God” is highly offensive to the millions of Americans who are nonbelievers.

I entirely agree with the basic thought, but I would have phrased it a little differently. (Plus, in Wilson’s defense, I think he is reacting to the prejudices of other people, not expressing his own.) For one thing, why specify Americans? But that is a minor point, and probably just a habit picked up from political rhetoric. But more to the point, I think offensive is the wrong word here. Even though the implication is offensive, the point is surely that it’s inaccurate and a non sequitur. There are good reasons for de-linking religion and ethics, and good reasons for saying the link is not necessary. John Stuart Mill is incisive on the subject in his Autobiography, for example, describing his father’s contempt for the bribe-taking view of morality religion purveys: be good and you’ll go to heaven, be bad and you won’t. I think such issues are both more interesting and more useful than crying “offense”.

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