In the first part of this series, we look at how it’s possible to live a good life without referring to religious ideals.
One of the biggest arguments I hear from people of faith about why I should believe in god, is that we get all our morality from the bible. To be honest, I find this somewhat disturbing, given how many instances in the bible there are where people are told to kill their own children, to stone people, to have slaves, etc, etc. I’ve never found the morality of the bible particularly enlightening – but there’s another layer to this claim: if all of our morals originated from the bible, then there can’t be any other source, can there?
To be honest, although I have read the bible (and a few other religious texts as well), I can’t recall too many of the commandments other than ‘Though Shalt Not Kill’, but I guess that’s a pretty important one. So yes, I agree, thou shouldn’t kill. But it’s interesting, don’t you think, the number of times the people in the bible actually do go out and kill – sometimes at god’s insistence, sometimes just because they have nothing better to do. What is a commandment if it can be waved or ignored so often?
But the real question is – did I decide I was against killing before or after I read the bible? I was 16 when I read the bible from cover to cover (Old and New Testaments), and although I was a precocious child, I hadn’t managed to kill anybody by then (although my mother constantly complained that I was going to give her a heart attack one day, but I’m not sure if that was related). I do recall that I was very much against violence of any kind, and had been all my life, so reading that commandment had no real impact on me as news. Of course, my own experience alone can’t make or break the argument. But it doesn’t need to.
A recent study from Yale University shows that children as young as 6 months are able to distinguish ‘helpful’ from ‘unhelpful’ characters in a game. In being able to choose between one or the other, the babies showed not what we would recognise as a moral compass, but rather, an early, possibly biologically produced, ability to distinguish things that would harm them from things that wouldn’t. This is clearly an evolutionary response, and something we see develop as we get older, into what’s known as the standard response to danger: fight or flight. Despite being pre-language and having few other skills, babies are either born with, or have somehow learned early on how to choose between something that is good for them and something that isn’t.
Which brings me to the question of good and evil. How do we define good? Something that’s good for us? Or good for the group? Or simply something that complies with an arbitrary measure that has no reflection in the real world? There are a large number of amazing (and infinitely more qualified than I) philosophers out there who can discuss this subject at length, so I’m not going to launch into my feeble attempt here. I have no desire to embarrass myself. Well, any more than normal, I mean.
What these – and probably other – babies have shown, is that by at least the age of 6 months, they are already capable of judging which things will help them survive and those that won’t. Now I ask you – do we need a better explanation of good and evil than that?
What is good if not things that help us, our family and our communities to continue to survive? Evil is that which does not help us to survive (actually, the entire concept of ‘evil’ is more aligned to the concept of ‘sin’ as opposed to something that is merely bad – and sin, of course, is all about breaking god’s laws, no matter what they are). By this definition, good behaviours are those that ask us to respect those around us, take care of each other, help the poor and less fortunate than ourselves, work hard to feed, clothe and shelter our families, and stand up to those who would, by their own behaviour, endanger our families and communities.
Is there anything in that definition that isn’t what a good Christian or good Muslim or good Hindu or Jew say they’re all about? The one thing that’s missing from my definition is the mention of obeying god’s laws. Since I don’t believe in a god, I don’t recognise that those laws came from a divine source, but rather the hand of several village elders close to 2,000 years ago. Probably very handy at the time for regulating behaviour within their communities in order to encourage survival, but in this day and age, largely ignored.
But the thing is, that definition of good is exactly what I am all about – and I’ve never needed a law – god’s or otherwise – to force me to behave like that. For instance, if I was to obey the bible, I’d support slavery. But I believe slavery is an abomination – which the bible doesn’t agree with. This is a clear instance of how I didn’t get my morality, my sense of right and wrong, from the bible. And there are many, many others out there just like me.
The morality we all live by in this day and age – at least in the West – bears little resemblance to that mentioned in the bible. But that’s a good thing. We’ve grown and developed, learned from our mistakes and become much more civilized human beings.
Alas, despite the centuries, bible morality, and those who use it as a weapon, have not.
In Part 2, I’ll discuss what led me to my disbelief – or rather, what cleared the fog so I could see the truth.