Monday, February 12, 2007

Where do I get my ethics from?

Well, I watched the CNN Paula Zahn that re-visited the atheists in America issue. (Soon as I see it on youtube, I'll have to post it here.)

I was glad to see their panel was more expansive, but Reverend Peterson brought up a question that I was already thinking about today:

Where do I get my ethics from?

Or, to put it a different way: Why do deists insist that there are no morals without god?

The U.S. started it's war on the "godless" with the cold-war because the Communist countries didn't allow religion, and our government put "under god" in the pledge and "in god we trust" as our motto in order to re-enforce the idea of freedoms in this country, especially the freedom of religion. And at this time, many people were being accused of being communists and this lead to much unpleasantness for the accused, so many people tried to conform as best they could to the capitalistic and christian in order distance themselves as far from the communistic and godless as possible. It wasn't really all that long ago that the wall fell, so this association of atheism and evil-communism is still somewhat prevelent in our society. (There is quite a thought provoking article on the Regan Doctrine by Isaac Asimov.)

So, while some deists claim that they have a view of atheists as "militant" from their insistence that all mention of god be removed from government doctrine, it really wasn't all that long ago that militant Christians pushed for god to be included. In a country where god and state are supposed to be separate by law, deists prevail only because they are in the majority, not because they are in the right. Those of us in the minority only shout so loud because it is so hard for us to get our voices heard in the crowed.

But I digress.

Where do we get our ethics from?

The easiest answer to this question is; from our parents and from our society. Ethics can be culturally specific, the purist definition of the word has no reference to any religious works that provide for all ethics. We learn what is good and bad from our parents and our introduction to these concepts is not our parents sitting down with a copy of the bible or any other book, as explaining good and bad in such complex terms would never really work for a two year old. All we really need to know about life, we really did learn in kindergarten (see Robert Fulghum), and so we really acquire our sense of what is ethical, what is right and wrong, through trial and error as children. Ethics help us get along in society, they don't come from above, but from the human collective, perhaps from human instinct, and what is ethical depends on what collective you were born into.

I acknowledge that the words "good" and "bad" can be subjective, but somehow, most of us know what we are talking about when we say "good" or "bad," and people without a sense of these concepts can often be labeled with a mental or psychotic disorder. It can often be a fine line, for while many of us think it is unethical to murder, what if your own life is in danger? What if you are at war? Many what-if's can blur that line of right and wrong for most people.

So why is it so hard to believe that mankind can be good without god looming overhead to punish them in the afterlife? I often find the answer to be that people who hold this point of view are actually expressing a belief that they are superior to the rest of humanity. I have no doubt if you asked most people if they would be good without the bible telling them to be good, most people would say "yes." But those people who are saying the bible is the source of all ethics are essentially saying they don't believe any of you would be good enough to be ethical without it having been spelt out for you.

As I research it, the only Christian sect to have it's doctrine that man is saved through works and faith is Catholicism, all of Protestantism rejects this idea. So, if Protestants believe that faith in Christ alone is enough for eternal salvation, why should they have any need for ethics? Perhaps they think through their faith, god makes them good? But if only god can give one the grace to believe or not, why would one who doesn't believe need fear punishment from god for something god never gave them?

In the end, I don't believe that ethics and morals are ever crystal clear, and while the 10 commandments may be a good guideline, it's not the only guideline in this world. I will try my best to live by the Golden Rule, it is not where I get my ethics, but instead it best sums them up. It has been repeatedly discovered throughout history as a simplistic way to emphasise how essential it is for us to love one another to our own best ability.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I worry about anyone who has no ethics without orders from God.

Do these "Christians" only refrain from killing and lying (if they indeed do refrain from it) ONLY because they think God will punish them? Do they have no feeling for other human beings?

Ethics comes from EMPATHY. Anything that is used to trump empathy——nationalism, religion, whatever——poses a danger to ethics.

5:09 PM  
Blogger beepbeepitsme said...

Christians, muslims etc like to claim that they get their morality from their holy books. If they really did get their morality from there, they would be stoning their disobedient children to death.

Muslims probably still are. The reason some christians aren't is because secular law won't allow them to.

12:48 AM  

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