I Don’t Need Faith to Have Ethics

A few months ago, I watched an interesting conversation with Elon James unfold on Twitter—his Twitter feed is well-worth adding if you haven’t already—as he started talking with followers about religion and morals. Like me, Elon James is a nonbeliever; I specifically identify as an atheist. I do not believe in G-d or another higher power, I do not believe there’s anything after this life. I do believe that people of faith should be respected and I observe religious courtesies including not trashing religion for no reason, abiding by conventions of various religions when I’m invited into religious spaces, and being sensitive to the needs of religious friends and colleagues.

This to me seems natural as part of my responsibility as a human being to treat other human beings with respect. The fact that many atheists can’t grasp this, and that the mainstream face of what calls itself the atheist movement almost seems to get off on being cruel and deliberately obtuse about religious faith, is very frustrating; because while I don’t consider myself a part of the ‘movement,’ I am nonetheless an atheist and I dislike the actions of my colleagues.

But I’m digressing. One thing important came up on Elon’s feed. “People say ‘How do you know that murder is bad if you don’t believe in G-d?’ These types of questions are annoying,” he said. I get similar questions a lot from believers; they want to know how I can have morals without faith to guide me, when they aren’t asking me how it is that I can’t believe in G-d, that is.

I find such questions annoying, but more than that, they’re actively offensive, even when asked with the best of intentions. It is in fact possible to have a personal code of values shaped by experiences, the ability to use your brain, social convention, and respect for other human beings, without the intervention of a higher power. I believe that murder is bad because taking the life of another human being feels intrinsically wrong to me; I am interfering with another person’s right to live her life free of obstructions and oppression. Murdering someone is pretty much the ultimate deprivation of autonomy and choice, which goes against everything I believe in.

Likewise, I’m opposed to physical and sexual assault, because they are violations of the person, the body, of autonomy. I believe that theft of property that someone is actively using is wrong, although not on the same level as personal assaults. (I have a lot more thoughts about property and morality, but those are a little too lengthy for this post.) I believe that colonisation is wrong, I believe that exploitation of people is wrong. There are a lot of things that happen in this world that I not only believe but know to be wrong, and I don’t need to be told so or provided with guidance about them by someone else.

I would hope that the same is true for all of us; that Christians believe murder is wrong because it is wrong, not just because G-d says so, for example. Because it is our fundamental commonality as human beings that draws us together and makes the world a better place for everyone, and if we cannot be human beings together, I fear the consequences for all of us. We shouldn’t need religious faith to tell us that causing harm to other living beings is wrong, and we also shouldn’t need religious faith to tell us to treat other people with respect.

People of some faiths genuinely believe that those who do not follow their faith are doomed to hell, which is undoubtedly a very scary thought for them, especially when it comes to people they love. Some of those people believe that it’s their job to evangelise, to convert the rest of us in order to save us from a horrible fate. Others believe that people of other faiths, along with atheists and agnostics, must be respected on our own terms; that if we want information and we’re considering conversion, guidance will always be there, but it’s not their job to pressure us into faith, to put us in the position of potentially bearing false witness (another thing I think is wrong, because lying causes harm).

Everyone needs to make their own decisions about morals and ethics in their lives, how they are going to treat other human beings and what kind of people they want to be. That’s a huge part of what growing up is, after all, all of us muddling our way through hormones and the complexity of stepping into adult life to see what happens when the chrysalis falls away. Some of us may find help and guidance in faith, both as a set of directives for behaviour and as something to anchor to in times of hardship and strife. I totally respect that, and support my friends of faith in their quests for truth, enlightenment, and greater understanding of themselves and their faith.

But I also respect those who don’t need or don’t have faith in their lives; and I’m tired of being asked whether I’m some kind of depraved monster without the influence of religious forces in my life. I grew up in an atheist household, I live an atheist life, and these things are my choice; I don’t feel a lack or sadness in my life without G-d though I know others are enriched by faith. Nor do I feel as though I’m struggling on ethical quicksand, unable to determine how I should treat people because I can’t figure out basic things like ‘hey, don’t murder people.’