Famous Atheists Including Richard Dawkins, David Baddiel And Dan Snow Reveal Where They Get Their Values From

Famous Atheists Tell Us Where They Get Their Values From

Throughout November, The Huffington Post UK is featuring its Beyond Belief series, chronicling the remarkable lives of Britons who've taken on their faith to create a force for change.

This month, The Huffington Post UK has been uncovering the stories of people whose religious beliefs drive them to change society.

One in eight Britons also said atheists tend to be more moral than religious people, compared to just 6% who say atheists are less moral.

We asked nine notable atheists, all members of the British Humanist Association, to tell us where they draw their values from in modern life. Answers varied from parents, to science, to human rights law, school teachers, Socrates and Dickens novels...

David Baddiel, comedian, novelist and television presenter

What are the values and morals that guide your life?

I have only one principle, not even a moral one, really. Which is: to be as true as possible, both to myself and to some notion of objective reality, all the time. I say some notion, because a subsection of my only principle is: the truth is always complex.

How do they affect how you act?

Sometimes badly. I tend to be uninhibited, perhaps tactless, in my addiction to the truth.

"I'm a humanist because I don't believe in God. Therefore the only place to look for life lessons is people."

Is there a particular book, person or something else that gives you your values?

Not really. John Updike's Rabbit books maybe, as they are the best rendering we have in writing of the complexity of personal truth.

Did you have any sort or religious upbringing?

Yes. I went to an orthodox Jewish primary school. But my parents were split - my mum fairly religious, my dad not at all. So it was confused, as religion tends to be. I rejected it when I realised it wasn't true.

Many people in top jobs in fields like politics are religious - what makes you think that they are wrong?

The encrustation of power - and the thinking that sustains that power over many centuries - has nothing at all do with truth.

Are there good things about religion?

Religion is full of poetry and magic and was key to all the great art humans created in the West up until the Enlightenment. I don't think you can understand what it means to be human without understanding religion.

I would say my absolute security of belief about the non-existence of God makes me moved, often, by religion. I understand the visceral yearnings that lead to belief in him. Omid Djalili, who was in my film The Infidel - which as a movie, and also in its present incarnation as a musical, is somewhat reverential towards faith, if not towards fundamentalists - once said to me "But don't you WANT to believe in God?" I said: "Of course: that's why I know he doesn't exist."

Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and writer

What are the values and morals that guide your life?

The values of a typical twenty first century person, whether religious or not.

Where did your values originate?

They originated from a complicated and ever-changing mixture of conversations, writings, personal reflections, moral philosophy, legal transactions, parliamentary enactments, “climate of opinion”. Almost nobody today gets their morals from religious scripture, nor should they: just read the Bible or Quran and you’ll see what I mean.

Can you give us an example of when you took a decision based on them?

Every time I give to charity, or take care of another sentient being.

Is there a particular person/book/idea/school of thought that you draw morals from?

Consequentialist moral philosophy, in which acts are moral or immoral depending on their consequences, for example whether they cause pain or bring happiness. As opposed to absolutist morality in which certain things are deemed fundamentally and unarguably wrong and others right.

"I appreciate religious art in the same way as I appreciate fiction."

What do you believe happens after death, and whether life has a 'purpose'?

What happens after death depends on whether we choose to be buried or cremated or leave our body to science. In any case, we may leave a legacy in the minds of others, or in the form of books or other creative achievements. In the scientific sense of “purpose” the purpose of life is to preserve and propagate the genes that program the embryonic development of living organisms. But there is another, human sense of purpose. In this sense we each of us make our own purposes and tend to be happier if we achieve them.

Our research found most people think atheists can be just as moral as religious people - what is your view?

I agree. Atheists can be just as moral as religious people. And I think there is some reason to expect a statistical tendency for atheists to be more moral.

What atheists in public life do you admire?

It would be invidious to name names, and would give the impression that atheists are rare in public life. In fact they are extremely common and include most of today’s great novelists, playwrights, scientists, scholars and intellectuals of all kinds.

Do you look at religious artwork or appreciate religious buildings?

I appreciate religious art and architecture without believing in the mythology that it depicts, in the same way as I appreciate fiction and the feelings of fictional characters, even though I know the characters never existed.

Polly Toynbee, Guardian columnist and writer

“Everyone is born with an inbuilt moral purpose. It springs from mankind's evolution as a social being, acting collaboratively, with altruism and good of the community hard-wired.

It needs no orders from elsewhere to tell people to be good - they know it already as a part of the human condition. Conflicting selfish impulses tug in the other direction, a life-long tussle that the religious would call "God and Satan".

"But placing moral laws and rules in the hands of a book written by some external creator, judge, father, law-maker, infantilises us and makes us less responsible for creating a society around us that benefits everyone.

Goodness is a social value, the effect you have on all around you and the wider society, not a secret personal matter for the sinner to be privately weighed in the scales by a God after death. Humanism is not a mere absence of religion but a positive value that puts people and their societies at the heart of life."

Dan Snow, history television presenter

Did you have any sort or religious upbringing?

Yes, a gently Anglican upbringing. I rejected it because it was silly. The idea that God the creator of the universe particularly wanted us all to go and praise his name, sing songs about him and be led in worship by a particularly holy man wearing a robe struck me as absurd.

Have people ever challenged you or disagreed with your beliefs?

Constantly. In the Middle East I've been harangued, I've burnt the midnight oil with friends and family, I've spent too many hours discussing other people's superstitions.

What do you believe happens after death, and whether life has a 'purpose'?

We return to the same state of nothingness that we 'existed' in before we were born. The only purpose life has is one we give it.

I am humanist because none of the faiths have produced any reliable evidence for me to be anything else. My study of history has convinced me that man has invented God, not the other way around.

Are atheists just as moral as religious people?

Of course they are. A brisk study of historical attitudes will show acts of unspeakable barbarism carried out by people of all faiths, or none.

Are there good things about religion?

It is a comfort to people wrestling with the imminence of death, loneliness, deeply traumatic events, or personal loss. It must be nice to think there is a sky father who loves you unconditionally and will welcome you at his side for eternal life. It's just not true.

Peter Tatchell, political and LGBT campaigner

"As an atheist, secularist and humanist I believe that reason, science and ethics - not religious superstition and ancient holy texts - are the best way to understand the world and promote human rights and welfare.

"Human rights law is the embodiment of these principles. It is man-made, not god-given; being the end result of rational and moral thought and debate. Unlike inflexible religious dogmas, it has evolved over time from basic principles to the inclusion of new rights such as those of disabled and LGBT people.

"Reason, science and ethics are the best way to understand the world"

"While defending persecuted religious minorities, I oppose religious privilege and intolerance - and defend the right of people to criticise and reject faith and all other belief systems, including my own. I am a strong supporter of secularism - the separation of the state and religion. It creates a level playing field where all faiths and none are equal before the law.

"This affirms freedom of expression for all and protects religious minorities from persecution by religious majorities. It safeguards both non-believers and religious freedom."

Lord Desai, Indian-born, British economist and Labour politician

"I was born into a Hindu family in Baroda India in 1940. My parents were religious but not orthodox. My mother was openly devout with prayers every day and my father observed the big festival days where some ritual performance was required. They also believed in rational thought and discussion.

"We were encouraged to discuss everything openly. But what we discussed mainly were political issues not personal ones. During the Fifties which were my teen years, the Left movements were influential especially the Communist Party. Its influence was much more as a critic of superstitions and exaggerated claims about India’s ancient culture and religion.

Two significant influences were the weekly column Life and Letters by Shamlal (under the pen name Adib) in the Times of India every Wednesday, and the books of D.D.Kosambi, who was a polymath and wrote a brilliant book on the culture and history of ancient India, plus many others which I followed through the rest of my life.

"Around the age of 14 or 15 I resolved not to believe in the existence of God and waited for the consequences of that disbelief. When no harm came to me, I realised it was alright to be a non-believer.

"My credo is about honesty to one self in ethical issues and rational thinking about the world and the self. In interpersonal relations one needs honesty and consideration for other people’s feelings."

Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP For Cambridge

"I’ve never had any sort of religious beliefs - and never seen the need for them. I grew up in a very reform Jewish family, with an agnostic rabbi - it was more cultural than religious. I always knew I was an atheist, but it wasn’t until quite a lot later I discovered that the term humanist was a more useful description - it’s odd to describe yourself by what you’re not.

This belief in people underpins a lot of what I believe in and stand for - I’d also consider myself a Rawlsian [after the American philosopher John Bordley Rawls], which to me fits perfectly with humanism.

The Rawlsian approach, the idea that you should try to set a set of societal rules without knowing who you would be in society, fits perfectly with my liberalism and commitment to social justice. I don’t want everyone to be the same, but I do want people to have the freedom to achieve what it is they wish to achieve.

I’m always perplexed by those who believe that in order to have a moral code it is necessary to have a religious belief - it seems to me astonishing that people would have to look up what is morally right and wrong."

Professor A C Grayling, philosopher and master of New College of the Humanities

Why are you atheist?

Because there are no rational grounds for asserting the existence of supernatural or non-natural beings or entities in the universe; religious beliefs about the existence of such things stem from the ancient ignorances of our forebears in the human story.

What are the values and morals that guide your life?

The humanistic outlook, which asks us to base our thinking about what lives are worth living, and how best to relate to our fellows in society, is premised on the idea that we should start from our most generous and sympathetic understanding of human nature and the human condition. This is the approach to ethical questions that I take.

Where did they originate?

The humanistic tradition of thought - a non-religious basis for ethics - originates in the debates about ethics in classical Greek philosophy, principally with Socrates, Aristotle and the Stoics.

Have people ever challenged you or disagreed with your beliefs?

Yes very often: as an author of books promoting a non-religious outlook - and indeed as criticising religious beliefs, and the impact of religion on society, I've often been engaged in public controversy about religious beliefs and my own beliefs.

Do you think your views will ever change?

No, my views will not change; I am confident in the rationalist tradition which has evaluated the metaphysical and ethical claims of non-naturalistic theories, and definitively shown them to be vacuous in all respects other than the psychological effect they have on those credulous enough to accept them.

What atheists in public life do you admire?

Every atheist in public life takes a principled stand to declare himself or herself an atheist. In contemporary society I would include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Derren Brown, David Silverman, and many others.

Do you look at religious artwork or appreciate religious buildings?

I appreciate many ecclesiastical buildings and much devotional art and art with religious (as well as mythological) themes - themes from all the different religions, even though they compete with each other and indeed blaspheme each other - for the qualities in them which human genius is responsible for.

Religion is a man-made thing, and the buildings and artworks associated with religion likewise are wholly the invention, often wonderful and inspiring, of human creativity.

Lord Warner, Labour member of the House of Lords and minister for health from 2005 to 2007

What are your beliefs?

Do unto others as you would be done unto; be on side of individuals and underdogs, not big organisations; challenge elites; have a small set of ethical red lines not prepared to cross; forget about the afterlife and concentrate on the now.

Where did they come from?

Mainly my father and a couple of secondary school teachers. I was sent to Sunday school and won prizes but abandoned religious belief at 14, when I could no longer earn money singing in choir at weddings!

Give us an example of when you have applied them?

As Minister of Health I was always on side of patient/user choice, not the position of professional, I didn't pretend the NHS better than it is.

Are there any books that have inspired your morals?

Most Dickens novels and Etzioni’s writings on communitarianism.

As part of the Huffington Post Beyond Belief series we want to know how your religion goes beyond just a faith in a God or Gods, or a cultural association. How do you incorporate or use faith in modern life? Tweet us with the hashtag #HPBeyondBelief to tell us in 140 characters and we'll feature the best contributions.


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