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Teach kids that THEY, not spooks, should be held accountable

May 1, 2011

I recently had an email exchange with a Christian man who wrote, “I can see where one might [be atheist] when they don’t want to be held accountable for their actions.”

I don’t presume to speak for all atheists, but my lack of belief is not the product of a desire not to be held accountable for my actions, but is rather the product of an inquiring mind. If you were to meet me without knowing who I was, you’d likely think that I am a man of faith. I present rather conservatively, I don’t drink, swear, or sleep around. I’m married with three boys and I consider myself a family guy. I try to treat others with kindness. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who knows me who thinks I wish not to be held accountable for my actions.

On the contrary, many people use religion to avoid taking accountability for their actions. When things in life go sour, well, perhaps they weren’t worthy of blessings, or worse, perhaps they were being punished or were even cursed. When something in their life goes well, it’s because they were blessed. If they do something wrong, it’s because they gave into temptation. If they do something good, it’s because they were prompted to do so by the Holy Ghost.

For example, one of the stories from an LDS magazine that Roseli read recently to our boys describes a boy who felt prompted by the Holy Ghost to stand up to some kids who were bullying another boy at school.

But teaching children to give credit for their moral actions to some external, supernatural influence like a spirit sabotages any effort to help children to be accountable. Externalization of accountability in this way abolishes the concept of personal responsibility upon which all ethics and all morality must depend.

When I shared this perspective with my email correspondent, he simply responded, “I understand but don’t agree.”

Okaaaay…. If you disagree, then back it up. How do supernatural temptations to do bad, or promptings to do good, by beings supposedly infinitely more powerful than you not diminish personal accountability?

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  1. Carrie permalink

    I used to be so worried about how Satan was influencing me. The idea that some spiritual being was corrupting me without my knowledge really scared me. It’s a relief to know there is no such being. I only influence myself!

  2. A. Dad,

    Wouldn’t you agree that this is a bit of a straw man? Unless I am misunderstanding what you have written you seem to be indicating that there is a dichotomy between a belief in God (and all it entails such as angels, demons, Satan etc.) on one hand and personal responsibility on the other. This posits an either/or where a both/and is more appropos.



    • You’re right, BBG. One can believe in a God and still be an accountable person, and one can be atheist and still be accountable. Accountability is evidenced by one’s interactions with others, and not simply by one’s theological beliefs.

  3. You have a moment of self-reflection that strikes me as interesting. You mention the fact that you don’t drink and you don’t swear ergo you personify what most people would assume is the picture of a person of faith.

    I am a person of faith i.e. I am a Christian. I occasionally swear and enjoy a good beer. I guess I am curious what your point was as it relates to accountability. What does not drinking, swearing, etc. have to do with accountability?

    Just curious.

  4. Another good point, BBG. A person can certainly drink now and again and swear and still be accountable.

    My religious background includes Mormonism, where drinking is absolutely forbidden, and swearing is strongly frowned upon. Currently, most of my audience is Mormon. Unfortunately, many Mormons make the assumption that when a person loses the faith, not only do they wish not to be held accountable, as mentioned in this post, but that their lack of belief is the product of a desire to live a lifestyle incongruent with Mormonism, including doing all the things that Mormonism forbids.

    Maybe that little bit of background helps clarify.

  5. Carrie permalink

    If you watch the May 14th clip of “I am an Ex-Mormon” series on YouTube, about minute 20 the guy Chris talks about how when he realized that there was no Satan, no ‘bogeyman’ out to get him that he wanted to shout for joy. Suddenly there was a load of stress off his shoulders! It’s nice knowing that no one is out to get you.

  6. Jake permalink

    Hi AD
    I think that it is all about who you are accountable to. I always wonder why so many of us steadfastly express an opinion that there is nothing higher than us when it is logical to consider that we may have been created. After being brought up in a religious family & community I felt I had been hoodwinked as a child and expressed opinions like many atheists once I became an adult. Ultimately I realised that like all humans I wanted to make my own choices and live my life how I felt was right and best. If you accept as an individual that you were created then it opens up the possibility that something is higher than you and may expect something from you. AD you decided to live your life and raise yor children the way you wanted to (under the constraints of a western society). If you had to acknowledge that your way was definitely wrong because something higher than you said so then it would be a problem. Imagine if there were consequences for not obeying. I feel many people, me included, don’t want that kind of accountability. Whatever the issue is (lifestyle, sex, family, law, morals, behaviour etc) life appears much easier if we can decide for ourselves what we want to do. Accountability to something/someone that has dominion over us means we cannot even argue about being right when we are wrong and that is difficult to accept. We want to be top of the tree so we create a world that can exist without the need for a creator. What if we had to accept that none of us were good people? If good was defined as obedience to a higher being then perhaps we are all bad and deserving of punishment. Most of us don’t want to accept a concept like that whereas some embrace it when coupled with mercy (not giving us what we deserve) and grace (giving us what we don’t deserve). Deep down perhaps it’s not really a question of acceptance rather than belief. When we cannot explain how life begins why do we want believe so much that there cannot be something higher than us that started and sustains the process?

    • Jake permalink

      Sorry I mean ‘perhaps it is a question of acceptance rather than belief’. We blatantly want to decide what is good / bad / right / wrong!

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