Tuesday, 2 February 2010

A monopoly on moral behaviour?

It suprises me how often religions tend to claim a monopoly on moral behaviour. They imply that without God given rules for behaviour, we humans would lose our moral compass, and be subject to selfish "base instincts". Well known figures of hate in the Western World, including Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, are cited as classic examples of what happens when religion is displaced by atheism. But isn't this assertion yet another example of flawed logic? Rather like that old chestnut: My dog always has fleas. Therefore it must be true that all dogs have fleas.

I am a consciencious atheist, and yet I feel no different about these tyrants than those of a religious persuasion. Moreover, I try to live my life by a code of ethics and moral behaviour that works for me. I frely admit that my earliest exposure to morality was through Bible stories as a child. For a while I was "sold" on the idea that morality came from God, because I had no other measure by which to judge this assertion. It took a long time and much soul searching to discover not only that I could not believe in this God, but also that it was possible to lead a moral life without the external regulation of this God.

The moral codes and ethical behaviour expounded in the holy books are surely more reflections on human nature and desires. Dressing them up in religious texts just lends a false authority to the religion thus described. I do not need to be religious to believe that i should not kill my fellow humans. I do not need religion to tell me that I should not steal or lie under "normal circumstances. These are basic human instincts, which most of us find no difficulty in obeying without recourse to artificial aids.

There is often talk of a "Golden Rule", which is at the heart of a number of religions. The rule is broadly this: "Treat others as you would like them to treat you". Now what is so hard about that. It makes huge sense for humans to behave this way. I don't want to live in constant fear of my neighbour breaking into my house and stealing my belongings, and he feels the same way aboout me. This mutual desire is constantly reinforced as we gain each others trust. Over time our mutual circles of trust expand to embrace the community. Ultimately we learn that on balnce we all prosper more if we obey these basic unwritten rules, and we pass this idea onto our children. Eventually these ideas become codified and formalised, all without the aid of an external "guiding hand".

I could go on, with countless other examples, but I hope this simple example makes the point - that we don't need religion to behave morally. Arguably atheists are capable more moral behaviour than those who believe in a God, as atheists are purely driven by an internal moral compass, without the need for belief in eternal paradise or damnation.

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