Q: Both my parents were atheists, and they taught me not to feel guilty over anything I did because there wasn’t any such thing as absolute right and wrong. But now that I’m older, I feel a vague sense of guilt anyway. I’m still not sure I believe in God, but why do I feel this way? — Mrs. C.L.
A: Your depiction of your atheist parents is not representative of atheists in general. In fact, the only thing that atheists have in common is their lack of a belief in a god. In the areas of politics, economics, social justice, etc. there are no unified positions. I am an atheist, and I certainly believe there are some things that are absolutely right (e.g., feeding the hungry, saving someone from drowning) or wrong (e.g., rape, torture). I believe your parents were wrong to teach you not to feel guilt about any of your actions. Everyone has a personal moral code, and for most of us that prevents us from harming others (physically, emotionally, financially) or breaking the law. Guilt is our way of analyzing our actions that violated our personal moral code. I often feel guilty after arguing with my wife, and this causes me to want to listen to her better and show her ideas more respect in the future. The sense of guilt you feel may be due to the development of your personal moral code. This may have been delayed due to the poor parenting you received. You can read more about my thoughts on developing a personal moral code here.
A vast majority of atheists lead very respectable, highly ethical lives. In fact, an argument can be made that atheists as a whole lead more upstanding lives that Christians as a whole. Compared to the general population, Christians comprise a disproportionately higher fraction of US prison populations, while the opposite is true for atheists. There is also evidence to suggest that divorce rates and teen pregnancies are higher among Christians than among atheists. (I am not one to judge divorce or teen pregnancy as being immoral, but I know that many Christian do.) I think that atheists are incarcerated, divorced, and become pregnant as teens at a lower rate than religious people for the same reasons they do not believe in supernatural beings: education, reason, and rational thinking. These attributes allow people to question the dogma of faith and see through the delusion of supernatural belief. These people are also much more likely to make decisions that enhance their life and cause fewer problems in the future.
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