Right, Wrong, and the Universe

There is almost endless debate about the worth of a god in the process of teaching ethics. One side of that discussion argues that without an almighty god, and the twin concepts of heaven and hell to use as reward and punishment, all people would instantly succumb to every temptation to rape, murder, pillage, and steal pencils from the cabinet at work.

As an atheist, I do not blame god for anything, since I do not believe that god exists; she cannot, therefore, be at fault. The only things left to blame are people and the randomness of the universe. I do firmly believe that all people are born neutral on the good vs. evil scale, and then are taught both bad and good by the people around them. Occasionally there is some instruction via a random act of the universe, which does not care one way or the other.

I have also always found the argument that we needed an invisible being in the sky, complete with carrot and whip, to keep us in line, to be specious. Generally speaking, we start to learn what is right and wrong very early, whether we are taught about a god or not. Sweden, for example, has the highest atheism rate and the lowest crime rate in Europe. I am not saying that the two things go naturally hand in hand; I am just saying that it is most apparent that god is not necessary in the good vs. bad equation.

Nor do I think that the god of the various holy books is a good role model. Further, I am not all that thrilled by his children, when there are children. If we wish to keep ourselves on the good side of ethics, we would do better to look almost anywhere but at the current gods or at the gods of history. We would do better even by looking at the current roster of the Cincinnati Bengals, whose taste for crime and acting out has become legendary. Historically, the gods of the Norse, the Greeks, the Romans, the Indians, and all the rest are no better role models than the gods that are worshipped today.

On a positive note, I find them all to be excellent myths and worthwhile as teaching tools, as long as they are treated as myths. It is only when persons of bad intent, usually including a hunger for power and greed, get hold of gods that problems ensue. That is simply because those people tend to grind their own axes with the myths, and to form powerful religions around them in order to consolidate power and riches. The Greeks did it when they used the actions of the gods to go to war, the Pope got the Crusades started the same way, and the prosecutors of the Spanish Inquisition used the chapter and verse of their holy book to their own peculiar and nefarious ends. It is for these and other similar reasons that I do not favor the edifices of centralized power built by either religion or secularism, yet I am perfectly content to co-exist with the people inside them, at least in many cases.

I therefore feel strongly that when bad things are done by human beings, they are done without the need for a god. We do not need to find recourse in a god to solve the problems caused by poor ethics. Rather, it is up to all of us to lead by example, and to teach better ways. When our children see our leaders and role models committing crimes, and otherwise acting against the grain of society, they begin to believe that those actions are acceptable, and they emulate them. Even adults get caught in that trap. Rather, we need to punish leaders and role models that act in unethical ways.

However, we need to do so without reference to a god, who we are always told will forgive any crime or act, no matter how heinous, if the perpetrator will simply come into the fold of god and renounce her actions. I believe firmly in prevention, not forgiveness, and in the instruction of ethical behavior both before and after the fact. Forgiveness helps nothing in and of itself. It is only corrective action, and ethical leadership, that teaches right from wrong in a convincing manner.

We are generally less animalistic than we were a few million years ago, or even a few thousand years ago. I believe that one of the roads to improvement lies down a path with less reliance on a god or gods, and more reliance on ourselves. I try to live my life in that manner, because it is by my deeds that I will be remembered after I have returned my atoms to the universe. It is only in the thoughts of the people that knew me that I will live past my death, and I want their thoughts to be good ones.

About Michael W. Jones

Michael has been an Atheist since an epiphany in a Baptist church at age 12, was a Unitarian until they became a christian denomination, spent most of his life developing software, and is now earning almost no living at all as a writer. :) He lives in Williams Township, PA and is contemplating what's next after Tucker the Weird Dawg. Michael is a co-founder and the managing editor of The Eloquent Atheist on-line magazine.

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