How an atheist does ethics
A no-commitment-to-atheism-required guide
I can respect anyone’s beliefs, however different from my own. Even those of people who take horoscopes really-really seriously. I’m an avid advocate of tolerance and acceptance, in fact I’m downright fascinated with differing opinions, ideas, aspirations, and lifestyles. I show respectful curiosity for any world view.
Until someone starts rolling out the always-s and never-s. When the definitive statements start pouring in, that’s when I’m most tempted to turn into a real asshole.
Because definitive statements get used so much in debate as if that’s the end-all-be-all of all conversation on the matter, even though they so easily become unfair, unethical, or downright stupid when applied to real life.
My God said you shouldn’t be gay, ever. So stop being gay. Well, excuse me, but no, we were not done talking, that is not an argument.
We use definitive statements because they’re easy handles, comforting decision-making shortcuts. It’s easier to make decisions and live with yourself if you have a pre-determined guide to navigating the world. They’re useful generally speaking, especially when teaching little children how to cope in what we refer to as civilized society: never hit your friend with a toy car, always say hello please and thank you, never fart at the dinner table. But they become quite complicated with adult-shit.
Never kill is one definitive statement we’d be tempted to think most reasonable humans should agree on. And to a large extent, I’m totally behind that. But let’s have a little nerd fun and take this a little further along the ethics hole:
What if it’s kill or be killed? Is it okay to kill then, is it ethically acceptable to kill in self-defence? What if it’s the zombie apocalypse and my own mother just turned zombie? What about if I’m dying slowly and certainly in extreme pain and my own mother decides to help me end my own life? Is her desire to spare her only child of excruciating pain through the only means possible, unethical?
This is where most of those we consider reasonable start to look back on that never.
Yet there are times when we chose not to waver in the face of logic. I theorize that’s because we assign it to someone else. God, convention, status quo, the bias we inherited from our parents, organized religion — I could go on with the examples here. We all find our own Entity to pass on responsibility that isn’t theirs to, when we find said responsibility overwhelming.
It matters little what name we choose to give the Entity. What matters is, we’re ascribing the Entity responsibility for our own fucking decision-making. Instead of taking responsibility for that shit ourselves and understanding that we can’t be shielded from the consequences of our own actions by the Man in the Sky, we pass on responsibility to Someone or Something. My Man in the Sky, who holds the Supreme Truth that should be enforced upon all living things, said here in this yay book dating back approximatively 4000 years, that we shouldn’t do X. Therefore, nobody should ever do X. Not me, not anybody else.
My God said thou shalt not kill and that means abortion is unethical, always.
Well honey, I’m sorry to say, but your God is not a 16-year-old rape survivor from a low-income family, living in 2018. He doesn’t get a vote.
I get it though, okay. Some decisions are tough. They have fucking consequences and those consequences are fucking life-long and the ethical implications are downright crazy. I get that. It’s natural to feel like it would be awesome if we had some prewritten code or supreme authority or guide to look to when faced with decisions that have fucking consequences. Then, when the consequences get bad, we’d have something to fall back on when we look in the mirror and need to live with ourselves.
But what if we didn’t?
The Secular Ethics exercise
While I’m again 100% not here to convert you to atheism, I do propose this secular exercise: imagine, just for the sake of this thought-experiment, that you are the only one who can truly hold you accountable for your own decisions.
There is no life after this life. This is your only chance to anything. There is no grand outcome, there is no pre-ascribed meaning, there is only life and then there is not life — or, if you will, there is only life and then there is whatever you can remember there was before you were ever conceived, which is peaceful, not-scary, nothing.
Just like the ultimate, inevitable heat death of the Universe, there is certainty in the death of each human, as there is in the death of each and every living thing. An unimaginable number of years after you are gone, the entire universe will eventually succumb to complete, ultimate, perfect chaos: its own poetic death.
This is your one ride. There is only one meaning to it, that which you choose to assign to it yourself.
For the purpose of this 2-minute exercise, there is no pre-written Code of Conduct. No Authority is here to tell you what you should do or believe. No Gods, no parents’ opinions, no State, nothing. Just you.
What would you do? Who would you become?
Would you suddenly go around murdering people if you could get away with it just because nobody said you shouldn’t? How do you stick to a code of ethics and why?
What should even be in such a code, now that I’m suddenly responsible for making it up myself? What do I replace the Grand Plan with when making decisions with impact on myself and others?
Talk to yourself about this for a bit. It’s just an exercise. There is no need to offend any Religion here, it’s just a get-to-know-you thought-experiment. How would you make decisions? What would you be using as your guide? Is Faith or State all that is really, truly holding you back from turning into a child-abusing monster? Or is there something more to that, something you may be able to lay claim to from within yourself, a personal moral compass you may be able to build within your own mind?
Building your own ethical guidelines from the ground up
I hold no Truth, so I wouldn’t dare tell you what should be in your own personal decision-making code. What I can tell you, is what I’ve been using for myself as tools in making decisions that I can live with. This is something I’m getting better and better at every day and will probably die before having nailed to perfection. It is a beautiful journey of consistently applying two combined filters, to the best of my abilities:
Empathy + Logic
That’s it. That’s my magic formula, as an atheist, for not going around murdering people now that nobody is here to officially tell me I shouldn’t.
And while I, again, do not propose you turn to atheism unless you came here wanting to do so already, I do propose you try your best to stop passing on so much responsibility to your Figure of Authority. Because that’s not really nice, dude. It’s not their responsibility to make your decisions and to live with your consequences.
They were kind enough to offer a guideline. Not a set of all-encompassing scenarios, because you can’t fit that into a PowerPoint-worthy list of neat bullet-points. No, not even in a War and Peace length novel. Ethics is just subject to the evolution of society and to circumstance to the extent that it cannot possibly fit an easy to memorize set of steps. You have to use your own logic and, if you don’t want to be a jerk to others, your empathy.
The always-s and never-s can’t possibly account for circumstance. Or our evolution in the understanding of science. Or the growing population of the planet. Or climate change. Definitive statements can show neither empathy nor logic. They cannot carry that much responsibility.
If the following pisses you off, we need to talk about your ethics
You assign traits like kindness, tolerance, acceptance, love to your Authority Figure — and then you turn around and tell LGBT+ people they can’t and shouldn’t be who they are because then there is no kindness, tolerance, acceptance, or love for them in your world.
I don’t care who you are, you have no right to claim to speak for your All-knowing, All-powerful Entity when saying that Code he sent out a lot of human lifespans ago means that we cannot use modern medical science to painlessly prevent a human foetus from turning into a fully-grown baby with a functioning nervous system. Certain 2018-circumstances make it damn cruel to enforce motherhood on women and there is little that definitive statements can do to change the cruel nature of doing so.
Do you truly think your beloved, kind Father in the Sky would look upon his traumatized, raped, 16-year-old daughter and tell her that she has to abandon her hopes at a career in boxing to have that child, whether she wants to carry that foetus into a human baby or not? My Daddy would not do that to me, dude. He would be offended if you’d even imply that it was someone’s choice other than my own.
Because he’d show empathy and logic.
Empathy in understanding that his daughter is a human being with her own equally complex world of feelings and perceptions and aspirations. To enforce your own upon such a world would be morally unacceptable.
Logic in understanding that enforcing either choice on someone in the first place, is downright abusive and can turn against everyone involved, including and especially a hypothetical child born to such a hypothetical but tragically very real scenario.
Your Man in the Sky doesn’t buy that hypothetical child a college education. Doesn’t rush to the drug store at 2am when that child runs a fever. Doesn’t real-life-love that child and care for them when they’re being an impossible teenager. Doesn’t work 9 hours a day 5 days a week to support that child through at least 18 years of their life. You can’t enforce all this shit on someone who isn’t ready for it, man. This has to be something you fucking want. Otherwise, there will be resentment. There will be unlived lives and that child will too suffer for those unlived lives through drowning in tangible resentment and unreasonable expectations.
You can’t force motherhood on someone. Just because we forcefully impregnate the animals that we consume for food on the daily, doesn’t make it fucking okay to do in general. Since we hold the hypocrisy of considering ourselves much above said domesticated animals, we may as well not do to each other what we do to them.
We have the nerve to claim we’re anti-choice when it comes to abortions because we’re ‘pro-life’. We’re so pro-life that we care about each foetus not being fully incubated into a human child. Yet we’re oddly silent or at best delusional about what happens to that child once it comes out of its incubator. We’re oddly silent about the incubator being a complex human being in and of themselves. We’re oddly silent about what is to become of either of them in the 20-something years to follow, once the foetus turns into a human baby and enters two decades of dependency.
Unlike the animals we forcefully impregnate and later consume for food, we do not give birth to individuals living with the single purpose of dying to feed another species. We give birth to top of the food-chain, current estimated lifespan around 70 years, humans. To engage in this child endeavour, is to be both willing and able to dedicate 20-something years of your life to ensuring the survival of a decidedly-unendangered species that already has trouble caring for its existing young. To have become pregnant does sadly not always mean being willing and able to care for a child. Such is the life of a higher-cognitive-functions mammal.
There’s a lot of shit we presume to enforce on people: who to be attracted to; a gender to feel like; a religious identity to fit into. Yet we’re oddly silent about the day-to-day implications of our definitive statements. Our thou shall-s and our thou shall not-s can live independently of logic and empathy: blind, cold, unwavering, divorced eternally of either circumstance or implications. We’re on the winning side. We were born heterosexual, happy with the gender we were assigned by chance and the role that gender has ascribed in society, raised in unquestioned privilege. So we presume to enforce shit on people in the name of the Man in the Sky, The Code, etc. We do so immune to logic and devoid of any shred of empathy for those we presume to enforce upon.
So whether you’re a Believer or an atheist, let’s talk about our ethics
Dip your toes into the turbulent, cold waters of the free-range decision-making world. Ask questions. Be willing to challenge assumptions, especially your own. Get to know, rather than box and label. Not judging what does not directly impact me is something I fail and do better each time I make a conscious effort. Let’s do so together every day.
It does not have to invalidate your own decisions. If your God said and you choose to abide, that is not invalidated by other people’s independent decision to not do so.
Give people the option to read into your terms and conditions but log out and live their own life anyway — while understanding that it doesn’t have to change anything for you. It’s not your soul to save, not your life to live or damn. You cannot advocate for your beliefs by outlawing the alternative for the entirety of the human population. You don’t spread religion by ramming it forcefully down people’s throats and then telling them God loves them all and wants them to be happy.
You don’t raise your offspring into your Beliefs by denying them the alternative, that’s not how you get a child to cooperate — ask my Dad: throughout my teenage years, he tried extensively at that persuasion tactic in hopes of getting me into the applied exact sciences, without any notable success.
If you want to advocate for something, you have to make it an enriching, empathic, useful, and inclusive human experience. It needs to become aware of the diverse human life on a planet that has moved from some, say, few million people of which you could talk to about 5 on the daily back when Your Code was written, to the 7.7 billion of which over 55% have access to the Internet, living on earth today. Said Code needs to become aware of the right other cultures and human experiences have, to exist.
You don’t gain true belief into something by having it forced upon everyone around you. That’s not how true believing in shit works, that’s how oppression works.
An LGBT+ couple having their marriage recognized by the state has no impact on the value and sanctity of the marriage happening in your church of choice. There’s a totally different building for that. If you don’t want to welcome LGBT+ people getting married in your church of choice, that is fine. But you can’t demand everyone on a planet-earth radius of your church stop doing so because it invalidates something you believe in. The world does not exist to validate your beliefs.
So long as it doesn’t impact you directly and nobody involved is being coerced into anything, it’s not your business what people who choose to get married have in their pants.
In my belief system, it is considered fucking rude to be inquisitive about what people have in their pants. It is downright delusional to claim a genitals-check-at-the-entrance on two people who decide they want to legally have the right to help make decisions for one another in case of medical emergencies and acquire debt from a state-regulated institution on common wagers. The fuck’s any of that have to do with your religion?
You don’t raise a straight child by enforcing marriage to the opposite gender on them, you raise a straight child by having a child who happens to be born straight.
You don’t prevent underage pregnancy through outlawing sex, but through providing condoms, and education on using them responsibly.
You don’t save lives by banning abortions, that is how you damn countless women to death as they mutilate their bodies to illegally abort the children your ethics can’t force them into affording or being physically and mentally capable of raising.
Enforcing shit rarely works as good advertising for anything. Look at what happen to alcohol, we tried banning that. At least, unlike a home DIY abortion or a life of conformity spent in self-hatred and self-denial, you could usually walk off the hangover from that moonshine you had at the local underground jazz joint.
Talk to me about your ethics! Who writes your own personal ethics code? Is it co-written, or yours entirely? — I’m ever-curious to know.
As ever, thank you for debating with me, nerds.