© 1999  Karen Selick
An Atheistís Morality
An edited version of this article first appeared in the October, 1999 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.



An Atheistís Morality

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 back in June, 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, mostly in The National Post, 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 of the earliest such offerings, from Ian Hunter, Professor Emeritus at the University of Western Ontario Faculty of Law, actually predated the Svend Robinson episode.   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 virtuesórationality, productivity, non-violence, integrityócan likewise be derived from the nature of reality.  Itís that simple, and that immutable. 

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June 20, 2000