What Atheists & Agnostics Have Taught Me About My Morality

A few atheist and agnostic quotes, and things said by atheist and agnostic friends and acquaintances, got me thinking about my motivations for doing what I do to make the world a better place. I will share a couple of quotes that significantly impacted me.

“The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And the answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine.” – Penn Jillette an atheist (from his book ‘God, NO!’ IIRC).

Whoa! And not only whoa, but he’s right. How incredibly self-damning. Now, I personally do not believe that if I stopped being a Mormon Variety Christian or stop being a Christian at all, that I would turn into some savage beast. No, it’s not that I believe in a God so that I’m stopped from doing evil. I believe in a God because of certain spiritual experiences I have had.

After getting that part of myself cleared up, which didn’t take long, I began to wonder, do I espouse any beliefs that are self-damning? Am I afraid of the parts of myself I do not like? Not liking something about myself and being afraid of the things I don’t like about me are two very different things. If I’m afraid of those parts I don’t like about me I give those pieces of myself undue power. Have I effectively damned myself by letting some measure of fear or dislike regarding myself dictate my actions? It’s a lot to think about. I’m still mulling it over.

I do know that there is only one use for fear and beyond that it is a damning thing indeed. Fear gives you a message, a warning that you need to prepare for something. Once you make a game plan and start putting it into place than any fear you have regarding that something is no longer useful. It is not useful to believe in God out of fear. Fear destroys faith. Fear is what stunts growth, both spiritually and temporally. Fear certainly makes it harder to make a positive difference in the world too. “A life lived in fear is a life half lived”*, and I’ll be damned if I live only half a life (pun intended).

“A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.” – Albert Einstein an agnostic (from ‘Religion and Science,’ New York Times Magazine, 9 November 1930)

Effectively it amounts to this, if you’re being a good person because you’re afraid of punishment, or to obtain a reward, then you’re doing it wrong. It may be a good start, but it’s only a start. This got me thinking. Why am I trying to become more Christ-like? Well, I certainly don’t want to go to hell, or go to a lesser Heaven**. Yes, I want to go the highest Heaven. The very idea of going anywhere else after this life is anathema to me because I believe, and this is my personal belief, that to be anywhere else I would have an eternal learning disability. No thank you. I had an experience once where I read a paragraph seven times and I did not comprehend what I read. I knew what every individual word meant, but put together I did not understand it. I asked my husband. He explained it. I read the paragraph again and understood it. That was a frightening experience. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before, and there were NO mitigating factors (such as sleep deprivation or migraine) to explain why I could not understand that paragraph. It was only later that I realized that *that* was what being damned meant. Not eternal hell, but an eternal learning disability, an impediment of growth. Oh hell no.

But if my motivation stops there, then what? Then I’m being good, being Christ-like, for myself only, and thus I’m doing it wrong. I got to thinking, why did Christ do what He did? What motivated Him? Looking at His life as recorded in the four Gospels, Jesus did what He did – miracles, suffering the pains and sins of humankind, uplifting others – because it was right. That’s it. It was simply the right thing to do. He was the one capable of doing what He did and he did it simply because it was right. He also loved us. Unconditionally, without guile. He loved us. And still does. All of us. Just the way we are, as we are now, no matter how low, and sees the great potential that we all have. He wants us to let Him help foster the best in us. He wishes for our good, not only out of love, but because it is right. Essentially, the Savior loves us because it is right.

I’m no Christ but I can be a mini-Savior by speaking up for those who can’t or won’t speak up for themselves the way Dr Martin Luther King Jr did. I can find where I need to be in life to do the most good with what I can offer. Wishing for the good in others and fostering that goodness when the opportunity arises is the path toward building a better world. What one can offer and how to find it will be different for every person.

Me? I’m a Christian so to me, the answer is relying on the Savior. I can work on allowing Him to work through me even when it means doing something else when I’d rather be re-watching the X-files. I never regret the times I do allow it – it’s how I know that going into the teaching profession is the right thing for me to do – so why not allow it more often? And why not work on following Him out of love for Him, and for others, and because it is right, and for no other reason?

In the words of C.S. Lewis, “…handing everything over to Christ does not, of course, mean that you stop trying. To trust Him means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.” (from the book Mere Christianity)

A less worried way. That’s good. I need that. I have a tendency to get far to anxious about these things. A first faint gleam of Heaven. Yes, via spiritual experiences. I had one teacher call them aesthetic experiences.

What I find interesting is that C.S. Lewis, a Christian man, was once an atheist and here he is talking about what atheists and agnostics have been saying all along. Do the right thing, be nice anyway, help others, be honest, forgive others, in other words be virtuous, be moral, because it is the right thing to do and for no other reason.

Yeah, that’s what I want, right there. Once I figured that out, I started becoming a little more like the Savior. Atheists and Agnostics have essentially helped me become a better Christian, a better Mormon. If I keep working on it, minute by minute, day by day, then by the time I die (at a 120 years old I hope), I’ll be much better at this Christian thing than I am now.

To all the atheists and agnostics in my life, directly or indirectly, thank you for your words of wisdom.

*Spanish proverb
**Mormons believe that there are different levels of Heaven and which one you go to is dependent upon your level of righteousness.