How to be Good?

A Chat with an Atheist

November 15, 2021 Sarah Buckmaster Season 1 Episode 17
A Chat with an Atheist
How to be Good?
More Info
How to be Good?
A Chat with an Atheist
Nov 15, 2021 Season 1 Episode 17
Sarah Buckmaster

What does it mean to be a good person according to an atheist?

We ask Andy Phillips, Board Member of Atheism UK, to share his opinion on being good according to atheistic thought.

Andy hosts the Atheism UK podcast, facilitating conversations about atheism and shining a light on some of the misconceptions that often come along with the term. In this conversation, Andy talks about some of the differences between theists (those who believe in God) and atheists (those who don’t).

If you enjoy this podcast, please consider supporting it at It is researched, produced, edited and hosted by one person (in every minute of her spare time) so any support is appreciated!

If, after listening, you'd like to learn more about atheism, you can visit Atheism UK and listen to the podcast here. You can also visit the Atheist Alliance.

Show Notes Transcript

What does it mean to be a good person according to an atheist?

We ask Andy Phillips, Board Member of Atheism UK, to share his opinion on being good according to atheistic thought.

Andy hosts the Atheism UK podcast, facilitating conversations about atheism and shining a light on some of the misconceptions that often come along with the term. In this conversation, Andy talks about some of the differences between theists (those who believe in God) and atheists (those who don’t).

If you enjoy this podcast, please consider supporting it at It is researched, produced, edited and hosted by one person (in every minute of her spare time) so any support is appreciated!

If, after listening, you'd like to learn more about atheism, you can visit Atheism UK and listen to the podcast here. You can also visit the Atheist Alliance.

[Podcast Theme Music: upbeat electro/beats]

Sarah Buckmaster  0:03 
Hi everyone. I'm Sarah and this is 'How to be Good?' - the podcast that explores what it means to be a good person in today's world. Today I'm talking with atheist Andy Phillips.

Andy Phillips  0:17 
Atheism is simply an absence of belief in God or Gods based on the evidence of reality.

Sarah Buckmaster  0:23 
Andy is a board member of Atheism UK, which is Britain's only distinctively atheist organisation. Hosting the organization's podcast, which I'll link to in the show notes, Andy facilitates conversations about atheism, shining a light on some of the misconceptions that often come along with the term.

Andy Phillips  0:42 
So the idea that religion provides a moral grounding is demonstrably unsound.

Sarah Buckmaster  0:47 
I learned so much from this conversation with Andy. Even though I'm familiar with the concept of atheism, there was so much I hadn't thought about when considering the discussions between theists (those who believe in God) and atheists (those who don't). So it is my absolute pleasure to introduce you all to Andy Phillips.

[Podcast Theme Music enters... then fades out]

Andy Phillips  1:11 
The thing to make clear is an atheist has no dedicated worldview. We don't follow any leaders, we don't have a book of laws to follow. Atheism is simply an absence of belief in God or Gods based on the evidence of reality, which by definition, means being atheist, you can have any political view, any philosophical or socially cultural worldview, despite being an atheist, atheist is a non-belief.

So theists and religious apologists can willfully decide what you think. But we don't have a worldview. They often straw man us with an atheist position. So they say, well, atheists all believe in X. It's not true. Stating a specific worldview they can argue against is the straw man that we we often get when we're talking to theist apologists. But atheists don't have a codified or constructed worldview.

Having said that, there is a common trait of atheists. They are normally sceptical of extraordinary claims, such as whether a god exists, whether the earth is flat, UFOs, abducted people, that sort of thing. So we're probably sceptical people. As Carl Sagan once said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And there is no evidence for any supernatural force, which created the universe and answers personal prayers. So these claims and assertions, none of these can be backed up with any evidence whatsoever. Only faith can do that. So a belief on what you've been told is what theists tend to go with. We're just a little bit more sceptical than that.

So to answer your question, our lack of belief in a supernatural has no bearing on the philosophical worldview, or viewpoint on things like good and evil or what makes people good. Hence, no code dictates what a good person is, according to atheistic thought.

Sarah Buckmaster  3:16 
With the atheist community, for example, would there be anything - any common traits - you think would come up that would make you all agree on what would make a bad person?

Andy Phillips  3:26 
Well, atheism and atheists really have no position on such things. And in reality, there is no atheist community.

There are supportive communities that are atheist, and may work towards certain goals or provide support to atheists who have been threatened or, because of their atheism, have been ostracised from their families, their friends work or their social community. We've seen some pretty horrific things. I used to work with an international atheist organisation and some of the people have come to us for help - they have literally just sort of moved out of atheism, and their families ostracise them. There's some pretty appalling things that have happened to people who come out of these as atheist. And, you know, we try and help people as much as we possibly can.

I think Steven Weinberg, who was a theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate in physics,  said that without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil but for good people to do evil, it takes religion. And it's mainly because of the way the indoctrination of religion colours the way they think. You know, with religion, you can do evil even if you're a good person. Atheists are only atheists because of one thing - a lack of belief in God. Like most people on the planet, we instinctively know what's right and wrong and good and bad. But then, as I say, there is no worldview. There is no actual community. As such. As I say, there are communities who are atheists who do things, who are activists. They're the sort of people that will shout about things that they think are wrong, which is exactly what we do in Atheism UK. We don't really fight and fight and fight. But if we see something which is unjustified or injust, then we will say something. We'll start to talk about it, maybe in our podcasts or on the website and things like that. And it does help people.

Sarah Buckmaster  5:37 
What does it mean to you personally to be a good person?

Andy Phillips  5:41 
Personally, empathy is the, the key. I'd like to say love and understanding, but you know, it sounds a bit tacky. But I think empathy. The world is a harsh place. When we talk about the concept of good, we often line that with morals, or the philosophical concept of morals, which I have never been able to find in religious morality. And when we talk about things like blasphemy, you know, which is a thought crime in the eyes of religion, and can be harshly dealt with in lots of places around the world. I mean, even in the UK, we had blasphemy laws. We don't have them anymore. But you have also things like apostasy, which is a harsh punishment for someone for simply leaving a religion. Religious law which subjugates women, second class citizens in a lot of holy books. The sanctioning of slavery in the Bible. I mean, they actually sanctioned slavery in the Bible! And these are the things that we have looked at, in our sort of 21st century eyes, and we look at it, and we just think this is absolutely wrong.

I mean, you've also got things like divine reward and punishment, indoctrinated into the young, such as heaven and hell. And we know, by talking to people who look at this subject - psychologists that look at this - the concept of hell stays with people. It really does make life a lot more difficult when you've got these psychological things that are going on in your head, which don't exist. And so the concept of hell, for instance, you know, I've got a good friend of mine, who is ex Jehovah's Witness. And, you know, we've had long long talks about this concept of hell, because even though he is now an atheist, he doesn't believe in God, the concept of end of world and hell are up in his head, they are things that play in his mind. And it's just through the indoctrination when he was a kid.

And it's quite sad that we do this. I don't think people realise what they're doing to their children when they indoctrinate them into these religious cults. It can damage children for a very, very long time, especially when they get to the point of "I suddenly don't believe in this", but they've got all these things in their head, and it really does does damage people.

The idea that religion provides a moral grounding is demonstrably unsound. My morals come from my upbringing, and are based on the basic human instinct of what is right and wrong coupled with communal wellbeing, and human rights. That's where I get my morals from. So what does it mean to me personally, to be a good person? Empathy is the biggest thing for me.

Sarah Buckmaster  8:50 
And you mentioned there a bit about your upbringing, I'd love to hear a bit more about how you came to be an atheist and what your background and upbringing within faith and religion was.

Andy Phillips  9:00 
It's very, very simple. I mean, I've discovered that I'm incredibly lucky. I was born in London, into the Church of England. My mother was a believer, and I discovered when I was about 12 that my dad wasn't, although he went to church, because that's what you do. I went to church when I was a kid. But around about 12 or 13, I started just really, really questioning this. I started talking to my vicar, who got really upset with me, because I was asking difficult questions. I just didn't believe. And I decided, probably at 15, after reading the Bible - because I wanted to find out exactly why people believe in this, because it just didn't make any sense to me. And so I read the Bible at 15 and was horrified by what I read. We talk about so many things that have happened - you know, blasphemy, apostasy, subjugation of women, all those sort of things, sanctioning of slavery, reading things like the story of the flood, where God seems to have messed up, got everything wrong, and then just decides to kill everybody. That can't be morally right. It doesn't make any sense to me. So, you know, at 15, I decided that I wasn't going to go to church, I don't believe in God. And I discovered the word atheist. And at 15, I said, I'm an atheist because I don't believe in God. That's really where it all came down to. So I didn't approach it as a contrarian. I just had to labour myself at something. Or if someone says to me, "Do you believe in God?" I say no, I'm an atheist.

Sarah Buckmaster  10:55 
With your values, do you find that your values are more aligned with the atheists you meet - more than with the theists that you meet?

Andy Phillips  11:03 
Absolutely, yes, yes. When I discovered I was an atheist as a child, I didn't realise that atheism was actually something that was out there. I didn't know that many people talked about it. Because most people just went to church. They just, you know, it's cultural. Church is cultural.

I've spoken to so many people... again, I've got a very good friend who's Catholic, sends his children to Catholic school, goes to church every Sunday... but if you talk to them, which I have done for the last 40 years, you know - in pub conversation - and I said to him once, do you actually believe in God? I mean, do you actually believe that there is an entity that exists outside of the universe and answers prayers? And he said, no, no. I asked - why do you go to church? And he said: I'm sending my kid to a great school.

And you'll find this again, and again, and again, whenever you talk to people who are what I call the norm, just very, very normal people. Many of them don't actually believe in God. But they'll say they do. Because it's cultural, it's part of their family, it's part of what they do. So it's incredibly interesting, because, you know, when you look at the numbers of people in the census, it's going up every year, "nons" (non-believers), as they call them, that number goes up every year - people who don't believe don't believe in a God.

But what we've found is that many people who say they believe in God, actually don't believe in God. That's just what they've grown up with. And that goes across the religious groups. Again, I've got a very good friend who's a Muslim, who goes to the mosque, but doesn't really believe. But it's only when you can talk to them on a one-to-one, friendship basis that you find this sort of information out. And it does, it does hit you quite hard. Sometimes you sort of think well, why? Why is this carrying on? Why do we need this god character in our lives? And some people have a very, very good reason for it. But it's a psychological reason. There is no evidence for it. And I think this is the the biggest problem.

This is where the problems lie between atheists and theists. Because, you know, I've had conversations with theist apologists, and every single thing that they've ever come up with, you can see the holes in it. It's full of flaws.But to them, it doesn't really matter. It doesn't really matter if they can't prove something or it doesn't actually make sense what they're saying. They believe it anyway. It's all based on faith. And I think, you know, I do feel more connected with people who are atheist, purely because they come from a position of scepticism, I guess. As I say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and an extraordinary claim is that a God, living outside the universe, created everything. That's a pretty extraordinary claim. And you have to have some sort of basis to believe that to be true, but there is no evidence for it. So the basis can only be faith. You've got to just choose to believe it. Atheists just choose not to believe it.

Sarah Buckmaster  14:42 
You mentioned you do have friendships with people of faith. I'm curious as to how easy it is to maintain those friendships when you're with your organisation (Atheism UK), and when you're asking those questions?

Andy Phillips  14:58 
Well, the friendships are possible because I like people. Just because they believe in God doesn't mean I don't like them. They're good friends and these sort of conversations only really happen, you know, with friends over time. And it's normally sort of, you know, the late nights, going down the pub, having a drink talking about it, you suddenly realise that this concept of faith isn't really belief in God. It's belief in the religion. It's a belief in the culture. And that really sort of opened my eyes up to the whole concept of being an atheist. Atheism is probably the norm in life. I mean, a lot of people listening to your podcast, that go to church, or even if they don't go to church, but they, they believe there's something out there, there's some god out there. You'll find a lot of people who are listening to this who have no belief in God, but still go to church, they still do those things. They do the cultural norms around their society, but they don't really have a true belief, and they can't justify their belief.

Faith is a very, very strange, psychological thing. If you actually think about the big questions of life: Where do we come from? Why are we here? What happens when we die? These these are huge questions. And I think it's easier to have answers to this, because science doesn't really have answers to some of these things. Where did we come from? well, we don't actually quite know exactly how life came about. We have the concept of a biogenesis, but we don't really understand what actually happened. But they've got a lot of really good ideas, exactly how it could have happened. And as science moves on, as time goes by, these things are getting filled in, we're beginning to understand more and more about, you know, the nature of our lives, the nature of human beings and nature of this world and the universe. And so the gap that God fits into is getting smaller and smaller and smaller. And consequently, religions are getting harsher and harsher and harsher, because it's becoming much more difficult to convince young people that there is such a concept as God, because there's so much information out there nowadays that makes so much more sense.

Science makes so much more sense. Even if they can't answer all of those big questions. You know, the question of, you know, what's our purpose in life? You know, I don't actually believe we have a purpose. There's no god given purpose. That doesn't mean our lives don't have purpose. Because another straw man that theist apologists will do is say that if you're an atheist, you have no purpose in life. If you're an atheist, what's stopping you killing and raping people? Very simple. Empathy, and love for the human spirit. These straw man arguments that theists come up with - they never really work it all the way through. They have to denounce atheism, because if atheism became the norm, then their religions would die, they'd lose their power. And this is what really religion is all about.

Because there's two questions here, there's does God exist? And then there's the other one - is religion a path to truth? And religions are falling away, they're dying. And there's going to come a time when there will be no religion. Now, whether there will still be belief in God, I don't know. I think probably there will be because people need to have answers. People hate not having answers to things. Things like where do we come from

Atheism can't give you an answer. Science can't give you an answer, not a full answer. We've got a very, very good idea. But what happens when we die? We had a podcast when we're talking about near death experience just recently, and again, the theists point to things like the near death experience as proof of an afterlife. But there's so much science involved in that. We're understanding that the brain is incredible. And there is a sort of last hurrah, the last curtain call, where the brain on or near death gets flooded with chemicals and can give those same sort of experiences as the near death experience. So we don't know what happens. Quite. But there's a lot of a lot of ideas and hypotheses about exactly what happens when people reach that point. You have to look at the way people who believe in God will look at that. Because, you know, it's again, it's another thing that this could be a pointer, it could be a piece of proof.

It's called God of the gaps. Anything we don't know about. God did it. And that gap is getting smaller and smaller and smaller over time.

Sarah Buckmaster  20:25 
Many people that follow a specific religion or faith will go to their Bible or their scriptures or their faith leader, if they have moments of self doubt, or they're unsure of what to do. Have you had moments of self doubt in your journey? And can you just talk to us a bit about how that felt to you and where you go in those moments?

Andy Phillips  20:45 
I know there are situations in my life I look back on, I think I could have handled things differently. But I've always tried to live a good life and be there for people, you know, friends and family and to treat people fairly. It comes back to empathy, again, seeing the intrinsic of good in people.

The truth is, it's a lot easier to be a good person if you're well fed and secure. You know, first world problems. This is what we're talking about. It's much easier to be a good person if your life's good. This world is a harsh place. And there's a lot of people on this planet that don't have the things that we do. So we have to be very, very careful how we judge the good in others.

You have self doubts, about, you know, whether you're a good person or a bad person. Is it something I question a lot? - not particularly. I just try and be as good as I can to people, you know, friends and family, people I meet in the street. But I honestly think that is is a human trait. You see this everywhere. And to look at religion or to God, as moral guidance, I think, is wrong. It doesn't work.

You know, I read the book, the Bible, when I was 15. There is not a lot of moral good in the Bible. And what happens, quite interestingly, is when we talk to atheists, especially atheists that have just come out as atheists, you ask them what tipped them over - and it's normally reading the Bible: "I read the Bible, not interested". Same with the Quran. I've got a friend who's on the podcast, who is ex-Muslim, and they grew up not even considering that people didn't believe in God. They were completely indoctrinated into the religious society. But at some point in her life, she just read the Quran and just went, this is not for me. This is not the religion I want to follow. And that happens quite often, when people actually look into the religion, they suddenly discover that it's not what they think.

See, most people, if you think about it, they go to church, or they go to the mosque, and they get preached to, and they are told all the lovely bits about the Bible, talk all the great things about Jesus, Muhammad, God and all those sort of things. It's when you actually do some of your own research, and it's just read the Bible, read the Quran, do whatever you need to do to try and find out what that truth is. And you suddenly realise that this is probably not the path that I want to go down. It's not the path. Religion is not the path the truth. That's when a lot of atheists come out is when they actually read the Bible, read the Quran, and they just go, it's not for me.

Sarah Buckmaster  23:37 
If you could give our listeners one piece of advice that they could go out tomorrow and live a life of goodness or feel good or be good, what would be that one piece of advice that you'd like to share with them?

Andy Phillips  23:47 
I sometimes find it very difficult to put myself in a position of giving people advice, but I think that the thing for me is just don't let others dictate how you approach your own life or blindly follow what others impose on you through their ideas of morality. Think for yourself. There's nothing wrong with being sceptical, being sceptical of claims, being sceptical of people's attitude, you know, if you think about the sort of things that we've talked about - blasphemy and apostasy, those sorts of things are not moral.

So for me, it's just think for yourself. Ask yourself what sort of world you want to live in. You've spoken to humanists and I think a lot of atheists are very much aligned with that concept of being a humanist. I think that's a much better way.A secular world is a much better way to go. We need secularism within our politics, we need secularism within our society. So think for yourself. Research. Try and understand what religion actually means because as I say, if you pull away from religion, you can still believe in God if you want. But religion is pretty poisonous. It's the sort of political arm of God. And that can't be a good thing to follow. You know, especially if you read about things like - for instance - apostasy or blasphemy and what happens to people when they suffer from those things. That's not morally good. So just think for yourself, don't let others decide on how you approach your life.

[Podcast Theme Music comes in, and then gently fades so it's quietly playing in background as Sarah begins talking...]

Sarah Buckmaster  25:32 
My hugest thanks go to Andy for taking the time to talk with me. If after listening to that conversation you'd like to learn more about atheism, you can visit Atheism UK or look up the Atheist Alliance, which is the global organisation for atheism.

Andy Phillips  25:47 
There's lots of books about the struggle between science and religion. For instance, there's lots of books about whether God exists - try and read some of those. If people want to really find the path to absolute truth, what is true in this world? what is the good things in this world?, just do as much research as you possibly can.

Sarah Buckmaster  26:15 
If you've enjoyed this episode, and would like to hear more episodes and interviews exploring the question of what it means to be a good person in today's world, then please consider hitting the subscribe button. And if you have time and liked what you heard, then I would love you to leave a review and share with your friends. Thank you for listening. And if you have any questions or suggestions, please email me at any time. It's and I would love to hear from you. Thank you!

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Transcribed by and Sarah Buckmaster