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An Atheist's Morality


Religion is not the sole source of morality.

Originally published in two parts, as a letter in the National Post (July, 1999) and an article in Canadian Lawyer magazine (Oct. 1999), combined here. Published with the permission of the author.


Karen Selick

 Author Notes

Libertarian (NOT conservative) lawyer practising in Belleville, Ontario and a columnist for Canadian Lawyer magazine.

Ms. Selick maintains her own web site at which others of her writings can be found.

 Essay - 10/1/1999

As an atheist since my late teens, Iíve always found it a minor irritant to be immersed in a culture where the overwhelming majority of people believe in something I regard as a myth. I sometimes wonder why people donít still worship Zeus or Woden, whom I consider just as plausible as the Judeo-Christian-Moslem God. The ancient Greeks and Vikings were certainly convinced in their time. Funny how one eraís strict dogma is another eraís mass heresy.

But Iíve never bothered to crusade for atheism. In part, itís because Iím used to ignoring the prevailing religiosity around me. Having grown up nominally Jewish in a predominantly Christian neighbourhood, I learned at an early age to stand silently and think about other things while my classmates mumbled the Lordís Prayer.

More importantly, though, Iíve always believed there were more urgent and more manageable goals to tackle.

So while the reference to God in Canadaís constitution rankles, petitioning Parliament to have it removed was never high on my priority list. Unlike the Humanist Association of Canada who presented such a petition via MP Svend Robinson in June, 1999, I donít consider the reference "offensive" to me. I think it says nothing whatsoever about me, but reflects rather unflatteringly on the gullibility and irrationality of religious people.

What I did find offensive was the outpouring of articles from the religious right suggesting that those who believe in God have a monopoly on morality, and implying, as a logical corollary, that those who donít are probably immoral.

One such offering, from Ian Hunter, Professor Emeritus at the University of Western Ontario Faculty of Law, actually predated the Svend Robinson petition. Professor Hunter was concerned about a proposal to abolish the oath to God for witnesses at trials. "Whence cometh morality but from religion?" he asked.

Post-Svend, writers Susan Martinuk and Ezra Levant both weighed in with similar sentiments.

As a practical matter, I agree that it makes no sense to abolish the existing form of oath. Atheists already have the option of declaring that the bible does not bind our consciences and simply affirming that we will tell the truth. If there are people who believe it is immoral to lie after uttering an oath to God, but perfectly okay to lie otherwise, then by all means, letís take advantage of their peculiar sense of morality and make them swear to God if thatís what it takes to get the truth out of them.

But to those who claim that religion is a superior source, or indeed the only source, of morality, let me tell you my perspective. I consider a moral code based on religion to be an immature morality, akin to the thought processes we expect from children. Lying is bad, children think, because daddy says so, not because I understand the reasons for not doing it. Or worse yet, lying is bad because daddy will spank me if he finds out, not because I really believe itís wrong.

Surely the individual who decides never to lie because he has grasped and internalized the fundamental principles that make it wrong is more virtuous than the one who doesnít lie because he thinks God told Moses he shouldnít, or because he fears God will punish him.

The religious right chooses God as its source of morality because theyíre looking for some immutable, uniform standard. They see only divergence and discord if morality is derived from any other root. They believe that, having rejected God, atheists have no choice but to pull their moral code out of thin air, and that every individualís version of morality would therefore be different and conflicting.

Levant, for instance, says: "Man needs to submit to absolute truths. Two plus two equals four, not five."

I agree, but it still doesnít follow that we must derive our morality from "Godís word." For one thing, those who claim to have received Godís word are lamentably lacking in uniformity as to its content. Who got it right: the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Pope, or Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker?

Besides, the fact that two plus two equals four is not an absolute truth because God said so. Itís the truth because that is the nature of reality.

This is where the religionists drop out. Theyíve never grasped that reality is the one uniform, immutable bedrock upon which morality can and should be founded.

In a moral code based upon reality, lying is bad because it impedes listeners from grasping accurate facts about reality. Human beings, by their nature, must use their intellects to survive. If they are given erroneous information by a liar, they are hampered from dealing with the demands of nature. Their survival is endangered. And since we all benefit from the trading thatís made possible from living in society rather than as isolated hermits, we all have a stake in ensuring that this tool of human survivalótruthóis made as widely available as possible.

All other human virtues -- rationality, productivity, non-violence, integrity -- can likewise be derived from the nature of reality. Itís that simple, and that immutable.

I am an atheist who leads a life that most devout Christians would consider exemplary. I donít drink, smoke, or use mind-altering drugs--I even avoid caffeine. I donít squander money on gambling or read kiddie porn. Iím not promiscuous. Iíve never had an abortion. I donít lie or steal. Iím never violent. I work hard. I donate money and time to worthwhile causes.

I behave this way not because some person in a pulpit tells me to every Sunday, or because I fear burning in hell if I donít. I do it because reality dictates that this is the surest way to achieve a happy, healthy life within a peaceful, prosperous society. To reach this conclusion, I applied my powers of observation and rational thought to the world around me.

Professor Hunter deplores the fact that people are unwilling to exercise judgment these days. I quite agree. However, I believe the religious mindset, far from promoting sound judgment in its adherents, actually hinders their ability to exercise it.

Religion, after all, tells its adherents that the universe is not as they perceive it. There are entities such as a deity and a host of angels who existence can be neither seen, heard, felt, smelled, tasted, or deduced from any other logical evidence. The faithful are supposed to abandon the evidence of their senses and their reason, and simply believe in these beings because someone else tells them to.

Whenever theists encounter an event that makes no sense according to their notion of a benevolent and merciful God (for instance, the murder of innocents at Columbine High School) their ready platitude is "God works in mysterious ways. Accept, donít question." In other words, abandon logic, accept contradictions, donít draw your own conclusions, wait until some "authorized" representative of God tells you what to think.

In these ways, religion continually undermines the ability of the faithful to draw rational conclusions and make independent moral decisions. Ultimately, this leaves both a moral gap and an impaired judgmental capacity in peopleís minds which the churches have traditionally filled with their own version of morality. Historically, their methods have included procuring the co-operation of the state to engage in such delights as torturing and burning infidels.

While religious leaders in modern Canada have, fortunately, abandoned such extremes, they should not be surprised that their perpetual denigration and rejection of reality, reason and the human mind has destroyed the average personís sense of intellectual responsibility and left a moral vacuum in his head.

The churches are merely reaping what they have sown. In this, at least, the bible is correct.

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