Morality and Atheism

By Irfan Hussain

Consider this demographic projection for the UK, and ponder its implications for a moment: within five years, the majority of babies will be born to unmarried parents.

 However, before you put this down to yet another example of Western immorality, just remember that all these babies will have the same legal rights as those born to married couples.

This trend is part of the wider decline of marriage as an institution. According to a recent study, the figures for people getting married in Britain is at its lowest ever since these statistics began to be compiled nearly 150 years ago.

 In 2008, only 21.8 per thousand adult men of marriageable age actually took the vow. At 19.6, the figure for women was even lower. And the average age for men getting married for the first time was 32, and for women it was nearly 30.

These figures reveal not so much disillusionment with the institution of marriage, as much as they do a widespread rejection of religion.

 Church marriages are still favoured by the middle classes, but more for the pomp and glamour of the wedding dress worn by the bride, and the finery sported by the guests. Indeed, attendance for church services has fallen steadily, and most Brits only go to church for weddings and funerals.

A glance at the European table reveals that the belief in a god is generally quite low in all the major countries.

 Sweden, with only 23 per cent of the population believing in a deity, is the least observant, with the UK at 38 per cent. Germany and France are similarly atheistic or agnostic. Interestingly, Catholic countries seem to be more staunchly Christian, with Poles, Spaniards and Italians being among the most fervent of believers.

Indeed, a lack of belief in a supreme being has long been the hallmark of Western intellectual thought since the Enlightenment of the 18th century.

 Hence, lawmakers have tried to separate religion form politics, few more so than the Founding Fathers of the United States. Both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were fiercely agnostic in their views.

 Scientists, too, have tended to question the belief system they were born into, as revealed by this quotation from Albert Einstein: “Science has been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man’s ethical behaviour should be based on sympathy, education and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”

Many have condemned modern Western civilization for its ‘godless’ ways, pointing to widespread cohabitation between men and women, men and men, and women and women. Alcoholism, nudity and drug-abuse are also frequently cited.

 All these lifestyle choices are mentioned in arguments over the superiority of Eastern religions and societies. Yet the firm belief in religion and an afterlife in our part of the world do not necessarily translate into better societies.

 In the Transparency International table for global perceptions of corruption for 2009, there is not a single Muslim country in the twenty most honest states. However, seven Muslim countries figure among the ten most corrupt states.

 Interestingly, Sweden, the most godless state in Europe, comes in at joint third with Singapore as the least corrupt country in the world.

There is an argument that corruption is a function of poverty, and once societies have acquired a measure of economic well-being, they tend to become more honest and accountable. While there is some truth to this assertion, how to explain the fact that Saudi Arabia, one of the richest countries in the world, is listed as 63rd by TI?

 And Kuwait comes in at 68. Clearly, then, there is little direct linkage between religion and morality.

Nevertheless, billions around the world continue to believe deeply in the faith they have grown up in. They derive comfort from following the belief system of their forefathers, and most of them have never felt the need to question it.

 Indeed, the poor obtain solace for their wretched condition with the promise of compensation in the afterlife. And the rich in our part of the world try and assuage their guilt by giving alms generously, thereby hoping to buy a place in heaven. If only they would pay their taxes with the same zeal, we might be able to make a better world in this life.

In religiously inclined societies like Pakistan, we are fond of criticising Western materialism, while holding up our supposed spirituality as being superior.

 Even the millions of Muslims who have chosen to migrate to the West make the same assertion. However, I have not noticed any of these people denying themselves the conveniences and the advantages of these same ‘materialistic’ societies. And frankly, I do not see too much evidence of our vaunted ‘spirituality’ in our behaviour or attitudes.

These differences have been sharpened after 9/11, with more and more people in the West now seeing Islam and Muslims as being behind the rise in extremist violence in much of the world. Muslims, for their part, see themselves as victims of a rising Islamophobia.

Interestingly, the trend towards atheism and agnosticism is far less marked in the United States than in Europe. Well below five per cent of Americans assert they do not believe in any god.

 Indeed, some Evangelical Christians in America think they have more in common with Muslims than the ‘godless Europeans’.

One reason it is so difficult for many Muslims to become assimilated into the societies they have chosen to live in is the huge cultural differences they encounter.

 Generally coming from deeply conservative backgrounds, they are shocked with the free and easy lifestyle they encounter.

 Rather than encouraging their children to integrate, they seek to insulate them from Western values, thus causing a state of mild schizophrenia in second- generation immigrants.

 Some of these young people become quickly radicalised, and seek clarity in the black-and-white world of religious extremism.

Unfortunately, too many of them lack the education to realise that ultimately, no set of beliefs or values is inherently inferior or superior to another.

 Morality, as we have seen, is not the monopoly of any faith: an atheist can be more ethical than a religious person. At the end of the day, what matters is that humans behave with consideration and decency, and avoid imposing their beliefs on others.

(couretsy Dawn 17th Feb ’10)


Filed under Europe, Islam, Religion, secular Pakistan, Society, World

17 responses to “Morality and Atheism

  1. tahir

    Irfan Hussain need not to be hypocrite and get rid of the word “Hussain” from his name.I don’t have any problem with whatever he thinks of religion but what irks me is his hypocrisy.

  2. Insight

    February 17, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    @Irfan Hussain need not to be hypocrite and get rid of the word “Hussain” from his name.I don’t have any problem with whatever he thinks of religion but what irks me is his hypocrisy.”

    –Why do you say Irfan Hussain is a hypocrite. This much is not enough to label him so.

  3. Mustafa Shaban

    What is said at the end of the article is very true, an atheist can be a bettter human being than a muslim. The primary thing is to be a good human being otherwise there is no use of religion. Even the Quran states it as so and so does the Hadith. All religions preach morality and humanity as the highest priority, unfortunately most dont understand.

  4. vajra

    @Mustafa Shaban

    I was astonished to read your comment. Do you really, seriously believe it? Are you being truthful?

  5. Yogesh

    In my humble opinion Corruption and other such immoral practices are neither linked with Religion or with poverty that tightly as the culture of that place. Poverty can be one of the reasons for corruption but i believe its the culture of that locality that brings forth such immoral practices. For instance islam doesn’t enforce the wearing of burqa but in arabian “culture” wearing burqa is mandatory.

  6. Yogesh

    sorry for the typo!!
    it should be
    “other such immoral practices are neither linked with Religion ‘nor’ with poverty that tightly as the culture of that place.”

  7. majid butt

    its truth universally acknowledged that poverty is a root cause of whole atrocities in the world but yet if we go back and look lives of early Muslims, what made them so faithful n moral, its deity but nothing else. they were wretched and abysmal but generous.

  8. Mustafa Shaban

    @varja: ofcourse I beleive it! Why wouldnt I believe it? Its true.

    The Prophet (SAWW) mentioned that he prefers a non muslim with good manners over a so called muslim with bad etiquette.

    Zaid Hamid also talks about how it is important to be a good human being before a good muslim. He also says ”99% of Islam is dealing with people, only 1% is rituals like namaaz and roza.” So yeah this is the correct belief. If you cannot treat people correctly, if you do curroption, or are rude, or hurt other people than your worship is useless.

  9. @ Irfan Hussain
    ‘god’ bless you.


    Indeed, some Evangelical Christians in America think they have more in common with Muslims than the ‘godless Europeans’. unquote.

    True,uncles Pat Robertson and Bin Laden believe in the same fire breathing ‘god’. Ameen

  10. rex minor

    Let us all become aetheists and keep ethics, back to Aristotledays?
    I have travelled a lot in this world but have not yet come across an aetheist who is a better human being than a muslim. Let me have his address! I shall visit him.
    I was also of the opinion that with the downfall of Communism in the Soviet Union and its decline in China, people tend to believe more than before about the divinity of the creator, also we are still mortals.

    . Can some one name a politician in your part of the world who is more corrupt than Silvio Berluconi, the Italian PM.
    . Do the Pakistani members of Parliment claim expenses for a phantom second residence( including an expesive TV set), the Brits have been doing it for several years and were recently caught.
    . We should not ignore the different standards of morality, corruption, religion practices etc. of indvidual societies. Simply comparing apples with pears under the banner of fruits tend to mislead.
    The liberals have made inroads but still the people in Europe are far more conservative than the impression on gets. In Germany, the christians are obliged to pay ten percent tax to their churches. Hence the affiliation with the church is on the decline but not the belief in God. In Ireland the abortion is punishable with life sentence, obliging women to travel to England for this act, if necessary.
    In view of the high divorce rate people are reluctant to marry. But this does not mean that the moral definitions have been altered. The clergy still does itsr preaching and the evil is fully engaged in increasing its followers. This has been the fate of human beings since ancient times.
    The author’s comments about the immigrant population are somewhat valid but is a diversion. The media has taken over the power, previously with the Church, and we all know who are the few media Icons. I suggest this shoud be given the due attention.

  11. Mustafa Shaban

    @rexminor: Agree with most of what you say except for the muslim being better person than the athiest. This is not necassary, there is good and bad in both.

  12. rex minor

    @Mustafa Shaban,
    Sorry, I did not say that a muslim is better than the aetheist. Equally, an aetheist is not better than a muslim. Both of them should be judged on their performance as a human!

  13. Mustafa Shaban


  14. B. Civilian

    Both of them should be judged on their performance as a human!


    in that case, why do we need god to “prescribe” morals?

    i take it that, by extension, no hindu is better than a christian, or vice versa, is also true. so morals prescribed by whose god(s) should we use to judge either’s “performance as a human”?

  15. ifti

    Morality can either be driven by faith or some set social constructs like humanity, no-harm priniciple etc. What needs to be seen is which would provide a more solid foundations for a person to follow any moral guidelines? The case for faith-driven morality in my opinion is stronger because it is only human nature to be submissive to any supereme power as opposed to any social construct which is the very creation of limited human understanding. The belief system that one adopts from faith which is beyond the realm of human intellect, inevitably has to be more intimidating and more overpowering. So morality stemming from any faith-based religion which is above and beyond human existance has to be stronger than one that is driven by a self-created belief system.

    However, it is crucial to bear in mind that there is a flip-side to the all over-powering faith which is again due to the very limitations of human intellect. There is an inherent disposition of misguidence in the very structure of any faith system that its wrong interpretation can lead a person to believe in falsehood since one doesnt always need to harmonize faith with rationality. This is exactly what drives these low-life scumbags who kill in the name of religion! The strength of faith can at the same time become its weakness and what becomes extremely significant under the circumstances is to be equipped with the understanding of basic human values in order to avoid the risk of being misguided by any religion or faith.

  16. rex minor

    The Jews raised a different question with Moses. Why does God need us? That was very difficult to answer!

    Your question is easy to answer, You do not need ‘God’ to prescribe morals. The christians and the hindus should sort it out themselves.

    Infact God has not prescribed morals but issued commandments for the mankind to follow. The three people of Ibrahim faith namely, Jewish, christians and muslims have scriptures for guidelines and they are more or less universally accepted though not fully in practice, eg., Though shall not kill is not universally followed by any country.
    I do not know about the hindu religion so I am not sure if they agree with the ten commandments?