Morality, yes. God, no.

It’s not necessary to believe in God in order to be moral

Matt McCormick encourages thoughtful views of religious matters.

Matt McCormick encourages thoughtful views of religious matters.

Photo By Anne Stokes

In the final stretch of this year’s election, Sen. Elizabeth Dole ran a pretty slimy ad that implied her opponent, Kay Hagan, was an atheist. It seemed like a desperate tactic, considering that the Constitution specifically bars religious tests to hold office. And even though it didn’t work—Hagan won the Senate seat handily—SN&R thought a bit of perspective was in order, so we spoke to Matt McCormick, an atheist and an associate professor of philosophy at Sacramento State. This is the second year McCormick has taught an upper-division seminar on atheism. He’s also the faculty adviser for the newly formed Atheist Student Organization.

Why teach a class on atheism? Is this a kind of evangelizing?

I don’t require that anybody be [atheist], nor do I press that that’s got to be the conclusion that people draw. I’m much more interested in and concerned that people have thoughtful, reflective mature views about religious matters.

Currently, atheists and nonbelievers are some of the most reviled, distrusted minority in the country. Polling data shows that when you ask people how they feel about atheists, they would rather have their son or daughter come home with a Muslim boyfriend or girlfriend than an atheist. They’d rather have their son or daughter come home gay than become an atheist. There’s this bastion of social resentment and prejudice on the culture.

But are atheists actually discriminated against in our society?

I don’t mean to suggest anything like what atheists are up against are what blacks were up against in the 1950s or what women were up against trying to get the right to vote. It’s not really like that. I don’t want to suggest that this is that kind of noble civil-rights movement. By and large, there’s a great deal of religious tolerance in our country. For the most part, this is just a matter of stigma, of criticism, of anger, of hatred. Americans aren’t too bad about it.

There’s been a resurgence of what has been labeled “New Atheism,” with writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Why is that happening now?

I think that the works of Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, [Daniel] Dennett and others are a lot like the important early works in the American civil-rights movements. These authors have shown great courage and fortitude in the face of massive resistance to make a lot of clear, reasonable arguments in favor of not believing. They have literally put themselves at great personal risk to express some unpopular ideas. That does a great service for all of us.

What do you think of the “godless” ad Sen. Elizabeth Dole ran against her opponent, Kay Hagan?

Dole capitalizes on people’s distrust of atheists here, and then Hagan falls all over herself to assure everyone that she is a Christian and that she teaches Sunday school, etc.

That’s a gross injustice, since there are so many thoughtful, responsible, moral Americans who don’t believe. Should we revile [Albert] Einstein, [Ernest] Hemingway, Carl Sagan and Mark Twain that way?

From where does an atheist draw his or her morality?

There’s a widespread view that somehow atheists are not able to be moral or they are less moral than others. It’s a really deeply confused prejudice. There are billions of people in China and India, for instance, who do not believe in any sort of western monotheistic God of the Bible, Quran or Talmud. Does the person who thinks nonbelievers are immoral want to say that out of all of those billions of people, not a single one of them is a decent, moral human being? Of course not.