I like to think I behaved pretty much impeccably today. Not that I did anything praiseworthy, you understand; it’s just I didn’t get up to anything particularly reprehensible either. True, I drove my car, ate meat, and drank caffeinated tea—all of which would no doubt mark me down as a bad person in some people’s books—but they’re not the sort of actions society as a whole would admonish. Not like robbing a bank, say, or setting fire to an orphanage.
All of which is astonishing, when you think about it: a person without a religious bone in his body behaving like a ordinary, decent human being. How did that happen? I mean, without religion to guide me, what chance do I have of distinguishing right from wrong?
In addition to not robbing any banks, and not setting fire to any orphanages, the particularly reprehensible acts I didn’t get up to today included killing. I didn’t kill a single person. Not one. The idea never entered my mind. Killing people just doesn’t seem right. Nor, come to think of it, did I commit adultery, bear false witness, or covet my neighbour’s ox—even though there was absolutely nobody there to tell me I shouldn’t.
Perhaps it was blind luck. In the same way a broken watch tells the right time twice a day, perhaps an atheist’s misaligned moral compass just happens to point in the right direction once in a while. But managing not to kill or steal felt like more than mere oversight; it was almost as if I was consciously doing the right thing—even though, most of the time, I wasn’t giving it much thought. As far as I can work out, I happened to do the right thing because that’s generally what I do by default. In which case, well done, me!
On a less self-congratulatory note, among the many religiously praiseworthy acts I didn’t get up to today was honouring the Lord my God. In my defence, for an atheist, that pretty much goes with the territory. I never gave Him a second’s thought. Nor, while I wasn’t at it, did I utterly destroy any Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, or Jebusites dwelling in any of the cities of my inheritance. Not a single one. Not least because, as I say, killing people doesn’t seem right—no matter Who might be commandething me to do so.
To be honest, I’m kicking myself. To think of all the deliciously immoral acts I could have been getting up to today, if only it had occurred to me I needn’t be impeded by any sense of right or wrong. I mean, I had the perfect excuse: I can’t help myself, I’m an atheist, I don’t know any better!
But that’s the problem, you see: I do happen to think I have a sense of right and wrong. It might not always agree with everyone else’s sense of right or wrong, but I suspect it does a lot of the time; and I like to think I’m fairly consistent about what I think is right, and what I think is wrong—even though I recognise there are one or two grey areas that occasionally do my head in.
It’s the grey areas I find interesting. I’m sure a lot of religious people—other than the most barking of fundamentalists—recognise moral grey areas of their own: areas where their religious doctrines offer no, or even conflicting, guidance. So what do they do in such situations, these religious people? I’m sure they must think long and hard about the dilemma in the hope of coming to some sort of conclusion about the right stance to take. In thinking about the problem, they no doubt try to factor in how it impinges on other moral positions they already hold. These existing moral positions might inform their stance on the new moral dilemma, or, conversely (and more interestingly), the new moral dilemma might lead them to question their existing moral positions in other areas. Which is exactly what I, as an atheist and, I like to think, fairly decent human being, do too.
So, well done, us!
“…wonderfully droll, witty and entertaining… At their best Carter’s moorland walks and his meandering intellectual talk are part of a single, deeply coherent enterprise: a restless inquiry into the meaning of place and the nature of self.”
—Mark Cocker, author and naturalist
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