By Bob Ripley, Special to QMI Agency
I’m an atheist and that’s it. I believe there’s nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for each other.
— Katharine Hepburn
— — —
My son asked if I had any resolutions for this new year. The first and only thought that popped into my head was to shift last year’s resolution ahead 12 months — making a scrapbook of all the personal mementos I’ve saved so far. Here’s hoping.
Truth is, most new year’s resolutions are carry-overs from the previous year. Get fit. Lose weight. Eat better. Be better. But resolutions require plans. How can you be a better person, say, if there’s no ethical guide by which we can measure our thoughts and actions?
Many people assume that morality must be anchored in a higher power, a foundational source or document. Those who seek an absolute morality in a deity or scripture may feel that it is the key to keep us from spiralling into an amoral, chaotic morass of humanity. Theism, it is thought, gives us reason to cultivate the better angels of our nature (to borrow from Abraham Lincoln).
But is religion the only force to keep our behaviour in check? If, say, someone loses their religion or never picks it up in the first place, are they destined to become mass-murdering rapists? Human nature, after all, does make us capable of cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and a range of other less desirable traits.
But an honest peek at history shows that religion makes people bad at least as often as it makes them good.
Religion has inspired great acts of charity and selflessness, beautiful music, art and architecture, and countless examples of human kindness and compassion. It has also inspired horrific, bloody wars, brutal inquisitions, tyrannical theocracies, fanatical campaigns of terror, and countless incidents of discrimination, prejudice and bigotry.
So what foundational guide can help us keep our resolve to be a better person? The writer of Ecclesiastes said that there is nothing new under the sun (Eccles. 1:9). It’s true even in the case of morality. That’s why I continue to fall back on the ancient ethic of reciprocity. You know it as the Golden Rule. Not doing something you would not want done to you.
Didn’t Jesus give it to us? Well, yes, but it has roots in a wide range of cultures. Many prominent religious figures and philosophers have restated its reciprocal nature in various forms and it is a standard used by different civilizations to resolve conflicts.
Isn’t the Golden Rule subjective? Yes. But so is the decision to base morality on a particular book or religious figure.
Different people will still reach different decisions. Atheists disagree on many moral issues. But theists are just as conflicted. There is no consistent religious response to hot-button issues such a capital punishment or gun control.
The difference is this: I take full responsibility for my moral and ethical decisions. I can’t pass them off on a higher power. If you are a religious believer, you interpret the edicts of your god and wouldn’t dare challenge them. If god says it is right, it must be right. It is impossible to contemplate god telling you to do something immoral. Kill the infidel and all that.
My morals have not changed over the last year and I can’t see them changing in this new year. We should be kind to one another and treat everyone equally.
I may have to work hard to figure out exactly what that asks of me every day this year. My motive, however, is not eternal reward (or punishment) for doing something but because it is simply right.
After all, none of us needs a reason to be kind.
Bob Ripley is a former United Church minister.
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