In the United States, most people believe that you must be religious to be moral, and further that atheists are not only amoral but also arrogant.
Religion has a set of rules to follow; without adhering to a religion, you have nothing but yourself to guide you. Often, religions teach that people are inherently sinful—inherently bad. Following your own moral inclinations would therefore create a selfish, malicious ideology. This is where the idea that religion is a prerequisite to morality comes from. When you reject the guidelines of religion, you’re either choosing to follow your own ideas or you’re outright rejecting any restrictions on your behavior. Either way, you’ve rejected any oversight. The only reason to reject guidance, the logic goes, is that you’ve decided you know best, in which case you must think yourself perfect. Believing oneself perfect is the result of an arrogant personality, which confirms the idea that nothing good results from rejecting religion.
The fault in this logic is the assumption that rejecting one type of oversight—religion—means rejecting all restrictions on your behavior.
What’s interesting is that the people who believe that atheists are arrogant for believing they need nobody but themselves are also the people who uphold the self-made man credo (at least in America). That credo claims that a single person did everything required to achieve success, that no one helped—as if instructions for a business empire were encoded in their infant brains from conception. Nobody taught them the principles of law; nobody taught them how to socialize, nobody taught them language or sent them to school; nobody funded those schools and nobody wrote the books they learned from. They’d have you believe that all their knowledge was of their own original invention, from the principles of gravity to the philosophies of tax law.
Sound absurd? It is. Those obvious inputs from other people don’t count as “help” to people who believe in the self-made man. They’re considered baseline assumptions that everyone gets for being alive; self-made men believe that they make more of these basics than the average person does. When that same logic is applied to learning ethics, though, those inputs suddenly must be counted; you did nothing yourself even if you gained your knowledge of ethics in the same way that a self-made man gained his business empire. You must have gotten there only by studying the Christian religion, because you can’t possibly come up with all of these ideas on your own. Yet the self-made man can build a successful business all on his own without acknowledging those inputs and acquiring that same copycat stigma.
The two shouldn’t be treated any differently. The self-made man is still self-made, even considering all the help he had along the way. The key is that he was in control of the process, not just a cog in a larger machine following orders. A random worker can’t set rules, only follow them. The atheist has the same approach to ethics: they’re not rejecting all restrictions in the same way that the self-made man isn’t rejecting all help. The atheist has control of the process, has a voice in the system, the same way that a CEO has a voice in his company.
If we can claim that a self-made man gained his success on his own, then a nonreligious person can gain knowledge of ethics on their own too. Neither is arrogant unless both are; neither are copycats unless both are. Both put in the same kind of work and use the same basic tools that everyone else has access to. The difference is in how they use those tools. Instead of only consuming, the self-made man thinks about the economy and then changes it; instead of only obeying, the atheist thinks about ethics and then changes it.
Do religious people change ethics too? Yes. You don’t have to be an atheist to think about your morals and behavior. The difference is that a religious person is given a core set of rules they can’t question or change, while everything is open season for the atheist. Religiously, you couldn’t question whether eating pork was permissible. You couldn’t question whether a woman having her period was dirty. Whether you consider those things a religious edict or a cultural taboo, they were historically accepted fact—and still are in some parts of the world. An ardent devotee is unlikely to question tradition; in fact, devotees are most likely to fight against any changes to the status quo. It’s the freethinkers who will ask those questions. Sure, you’ll get some nutty ideas in there too, but asking the question is the important bit. Telling the difference between good ideas and bad ones is a step farther down the line, and one that can’t be taken if the question is never asked.
It’s not arrogance to question whether we can do better.