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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

2nd place: High school essay contest 2022 — Hannah Shiohara

Hannah Shiohara

FFRF awarded Hannah $3,000.

By Hannah Shiohara

Dear Charlotte,

I would like to offer my opinion on the myth that one cannot be “good without God.”

Morality refers to the principles that allow one to distinguish right from wrong and good from bad. The prejudice that atheists cannot be “good without God” stems from the assumption that practicing religion is the only way to develop morals. However, this is not the case. Yes, religion is a set of organized beliefs, practices and systems that will often heavily influence and determine the moral judgments of its members. However, religion is not the only factor that develops morality, and atheists can develop morals in several other ways, such as through influence from their culture, socialization, and, from a scientific perspective, evolution.

Psychological and neuroscientific research suggests that morality is a product of evolution, and that it has been passed on throughout generations. Since humans are social creatures, morality is crucial in order for them to interact with each other and survive. Research shows that “building blocks” of morality, such as empathy and fairness, can be observed in infancy, before factors such as religion can even influence the brain. And damage to certain parts of the brain can lead to dramatic changes in moral judgment and behavior, suggesting that morality is, to an extent, an instinct that humans naturally possess. 

Furthermore, there are no moral principles that are shared by all religious people but not with atheists. This suggests that atheists do not behave less morally than their religious counterparts. This is because other factors, such as culture and socialization, also aid the development of morals. It must be noted that culture and religion are not synonymous; one can identify as part of a culture without being religious. Therefore, religion is not necessary to know “good” from “evil.”

Consider the debate on abortion. In many Christian religions, abortion is considered to be a “sin against God” because a fetus is considered a “living but unborn person” and the Fifth Commandment states that one “shall not murder.” However, atheists may consider abortion as the correct choice because their morals state that giving birth to an unwanted child is wrong. The prejudice that atheists cannot be good is false because their opinions on abortion show qualities of goodness: selflessness, empathy and kindness.

With so many factors influencing the development of morality, it is understandable that there are varying definitions of right and wrong. Instead of attempting to reach an absolute agreement of what is moral and immoral, people should work to accept the fact that there are different beliefs. One does not have to understand or agree with another person’s beliefs in order to respect them. Instead of discriminating against people with unfamiliar beliefs, I believe that accepting everyone’s differences will be more effective in maintaining peace among communities.

Hannah, 18, is from Toronto, and now attends the University of California, Berkeley, where she plans to double major in economics and data science. “As a passionate advocate of social justice, I hope to study economics as a medium to stimulate positive social change,” she writes. “I have volunteered at my local public library as a tutor once a week all throughout high school, and have dedicated one month of every summer to volunteering full time. I have also won several economics competitions.”