Morality, Atheism, Wonder

On the heels of my post about what being Jewish means to me, I thought I might want to talk about what I believe, and don’t believe.

A debate began on a friend’s Facebook status over a comment the pope is purported to have made about how atheists “pick and choose” their morals. Like the impetuous fool I am, I decided to weigh in. Usually I don’t, especially in Facedebates, especially about religion. But I found I had things to say. I’ve been discussing religion a lot lately, and thinking about it more than usual. Someone I know referred to me as one of the least spiritual people he knows, and I was shocked and hurt by that assessment. I consider myself a spiritual person. I’m just not traditionally religious.

I am a macro-agnostic and a micro-atheist. My sense of wonder does not allow me to rule out the possibility that somewhere in the universe there are gods, or godlike beings, but I do not live my life as though, even if they do exist, they are terribly interested in me. Yet, my moral and ethical code is fairly restrictive in terms of how I live my life. I don’t believe in a supreme higher power of the Judeo-Christian stripe, and yet I don’t steal, murder, dishonor my parents, covet my neighbors’ anything, or any number of other forbidden activities in the Bible. I do my best at being a good person. I try to be considerate, honest, and thoughtful. Perhaps the Pope might have been more specific to say he believes that atheists pick and choose their morals as they go, suggesting that because we have no relationship with a higher power and are not accountable to a higher power, that we can allow our morals to slide when convenient. I think this, unsurprisingly, is complete and utter rot.

Never mind the convenient moral slidings of people who profess belief in these higher powers. I’m not interested in discussing hypocrisy. People will do what is in their best interests to do, especially if they can somehow explain it away, or cast it in religious terms. A religion is bigger than the acts of one person, and as many people hide behind that as live joyfully within it.

The atheists and agnostics I know are some of the best, most thoughtful, most careful people I have ever met. We do not live knowing that we will be redeemed at some later point. We have to think in terms of how our actions are going to affect us and the people we interact with, because those actions and those people are all we have. We are the sum of what we do on this earth, and this earth is, simply, it. There is no afterlife. No forgiving saviors. Only ourselves, and it’s harder by far to live with myself when I know I’ve done something wrong.

The notion of a personal and loving God is appealing. We are human beings, with all the flaws and all-too-often-realized capacity to injure others. The ideas of an entity that will always forgive, that some good-byes are not forever, that I will always have another chance to right a wrong or be forgiven for a slight, no matter how minor, are incredibly appealing. But in the end, it’s not for me. I am answerable to my own conscience and the web of people around me. Harsher critics and with more direct consequences by far than a deity and an afterlife. I believe, anyway.

I’ve had the fortune to know some intensely good and thoughtful people who believed in a god, in the more traditional form. They have loved me and welcomed me into their homes and their families without a second thought, it seemed at the time. I have also known people who were wrapped up in how good they thought they were because of what they believed. They weren’t shy about expressing opinions that would, I hope, have made them feel very embarrassed if they knew just how much I disagreed with them, and just how much they were offending me. And, without shame, I have misrepresented my beliefs to some of those people, because I was afraid of the consequences to my relationships with them if I were honest.

I don’t have a problem with people I know believing in a god, or ten gods. It matters to me how I act. How I behave. My frustrations over these issues are many, and they run deep. I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, but I also don’t want to be bullied into hiding how I feel. We should all be adult enough to prepare for the possibility that everybody isn’t just going to believe what we believe. To open our minds and try to see everyone’s point of view without being dismissive. And our faiths should be able to stand up to questioning, debate, and other points of view. My faith is. I’ve thought about it for a long time, and I finally have some conclusions I’m proud of.

I don’t say any of this to claim that I am better than people who have a more traditional belief system, just to put forth that I am no worse. I have faith, and belief, in many things. I feel that I stand on firm ethical ground, taught by good, strong people. The ways I come to spirituality are many and varied, they happen in churches and at concerts and in stands of trees and on beaches looking out at the ocean and in libraries and staring out at the lights of the skyline of New York, marveling at all the things people have managed to do. Because of, or in spite of, the beliefs and stories that we have carried around with us for a couple thousand years, now.

Thank you for reading.

2 thoughts on “Morality, Atheism, Wonder

  1. “The atheists and agnostics I know are some of the best, most thoughtful, most careful people I have ever met. We do not live knowing that we will be redeemed at some later point. We have to think in terms of how our actions are going to affect us and the people we interact with, because those actions and those people are all we have. We are the sum of what we do on this earth, and this earth is, simply, it. There is no afterlife. No forgiving saviors. Only ourselves, and it’s harder by far to live with myself when I know I’ve done something wrong.”

    We don’t tend to be especially harsh critics of ourselves. We can rationalize pretty easily. Religious people have the advantage that they share a common morality so they can very easily make judgements about a new person. If someone is similar to you you know you can trust them.

    You seem to have a similar group mentality with atheists and agnostics. They are all the best, most careful, most thoughtful people you have ever met? There’s no douchebags or impulsive people among them? Possible but unlikely.

    You do, I presume, have jewish morals from your jewish upbringing. That’s a more likely source of morals. What we learn as a child sticks with us forever. A humourous way to get that across would be to say something like “You had god watching over you. I had my mother. She was a lot more personal and sharp when I did something wrong.”

    “Never mind the convenient moral slidings of people who profess belief in these higher powers.”

    Had to get a dig in though.

    “But in the end, it’s not for me. I am answerable to my own conscience and the web of people around me. Harsher critics and with more direct consequences by far than a deity and an afterlife. I believe, anyway.”

    They don’t have especially strong consequences once you get out of site. You can be as polite as you want while face to face and then gossip about how she’s such a slag once you’re away. That’s part of why parents have such a huge impact on you. You live in their house, you can’t avoid their stare. They see all. They can instill a strong morality in you.

    “I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, but I also don’t want to be bullied into hiding how I feel. We should all be adult enough to prepare for the possibility that everybody isn’t just going to believe what we believe. To open our minds and try to see everyone’s point of view without being dismissive.”

    People do as they will. There’s little getting around it. I live in a majority atheist area in britain and face the reverse. I once had someone question if I could drive a car because all religious people are mentally ill. Many atheists and religious people have open minds, they just open away from those they hate. Empathy only functions for those we love.

  2. I loved this. It is one of the few things I have read on this subject and felt genuinely thankful that you are in no way stating that you ‘should’ behave/think like this or you’re right and everyone else is wrong. It is a breath of fresh air in a subject area where people tend to impose their arguments on others far too much, without as you said, seeing things from other points of view- its a shame that this happens all too often. It is a balanced and healthy perspective to take, thanks for sharing!

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