Sunday, October 27, 2013

Atheist in a Moral Foxhole: The Conscience of an Atheist

Yep, this is now cross-posted at the Great Big Orange.

"There are no atheists in foxholes" is a fairly well-known saying that implies that non-believers, when confronted with "extreme stress or fear, such as in war" (according to Wikipedia—see link), will reach for a higher power or at least hope for one. As a non-believer, I would like to think that, even when confronted with the certainty of death when that time comes, I'd remain intellectually honest and consistent with my values and hold close to my family and friends, rather than a God I don't believe in, in my final hours—or days, or months, if I have the luxury to prepare for my death.

One aspect of life, however, does make me wonder, even briefly, if I should look toward a higher power—even if an unnamed life-force—for a higher truth and sense of meaning. That aspect is the temptation to do wrong, even when I know it is wrong—which I understand to be the definition of evil. I know in my heart and will defend to all ends the fact that atheists can be moral and benevolent human beings—I would like to think I'm one of them, or at least try my damned best to be—but at times, I'm so afraid of doing and being evil that I'd rather get on my knees and be a slave to the doctrine than be a faithless purist. Am I sick or what?

My mother-in-law (a fellow atheist and recovering Catholic) agreed one afternoon that some aspects of Catholicism "just never leave you." Case in point: when I went to Catholic school, one of our religious instructors (a long-time nun, not surprisingly) instructed my sixth-grade class that a mortal sin—in other words, a sin that is truly evil and not simply a normal human error or misjudgment—is knowing that the sin you're committing is wrong, but doing it anyway. Trust me, it is not often that I am tempted to do something wrong and feel good about it, but when I am, hoo-boy, I get afraid. Very afraid. Afraid enough to hide myself in a moral foxhole and pray to...something.

 I realize full well that there is a difference between being tempted and acting upon temptation. There is a difference between thinking and feeling things that are immoral, and acting upon and carrying out those thoughts and feelings. I can't always control the way I think or feel, but I damn straight can control the way I act and behave...or at least I hope I can. In the end, it's how we conduct our lives and treat other people that defines who we are as moral human beings.

Yesterday, my younger son's therapist touched upon Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development when he was discussing with my husband and I the motivations behind children's behaviors, and human behaviors in general. I remember Kohlberg's six stages well, from when my eleventh-grade English teacher brought them up and pondered openly with us whether she was a Stage Six or not. (Clearly, she didn't have much of an ego problem.) Anyway, the therapist made a brief distinction among the six, concluding that the highest stage was reserved for the rare Mahatma Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings of the planet.

Hopefully, I am not so egotistical as to believe that I could assign myself any moral ranking at all—my own actions in life, after all, speak louder than anything I'd like to think about myself. I would like to believe that I at least have an adult-level moral character, well past the "am I going to get in trouble if I do this?" mentality of Stage One or even the "will people like me if I do this?" moral insecurities of Stage Three. Having come from a family of World War II veterans, four police officers and a police chief, and also being a civic-minded liberal (to the point of occasional annoyance to others), I'd like to believe I fall somewhere between the law-respecting Stage Four and the social-justice-oriented Stage Five.

Nevertheless, I still run stoplights that have just turned red (calling them "pink!") and still exceed the highway speed limit by 15 miles an hour. I also despise Wal-Mart but have been known to violate my own principles against their dishonorable business practices and shop there in an emergency. Because, you know, where else besides the 24-hour big-box retailer can you buy a much-needed pair of kids' sneakers at 6:30 in the morning? "Morally inconsistent" would be an understatement, eh?

I believe that all of us think of doing bad things, whether it's clocking some asshole who said something mean to us at work or wanting to do something else that's mindless, cruel, and/or selfish. It's much easier to do things that make us feel better, if only for a few minutes or longer if we're lucky, long-range consequences and harm to others be damned. We're humans, after all. Fortunately, and especially as adults, we have built-in moral compasses that allow us to regulate what we say and do, as self-governance for behaving in a civil society so we won't all be crammed into an already-overpopulated prison system.

As an atheist, I get that old maxim that being and doing good is its only reward, and that character is what you do in the dark, when no one else is looking to hang a medal around your neck for simply doing the right thing. There's no Great Country Club in the Sky when we die; ashes to ashes and dust to dust is a reality, and not just a symbolic ritual done to mark the beginning of Lent. Ultimately, one doesn't need a sky-daddy to be a good person. In addition, being and doing good is a choice, which is something my husband and I try to instill in our kids as we raise them to be moral adults.

It is the occasional difficulty of making that choice in which I often doubt my capacity to be a moral human being, and to do the right thing even when doing otherwise is so damned tempting. It's those moments when I wonder if I really do need spiritual guidance of some sort, if only to pull me out of that mental immoral morass—the foxhole—to which I've confined myself. Maybe I can meet in the middle and attend a Unitarian Universalist church (atheists and agnostics welcome!), because sometimes, my own self-governor just doesn't seem to cut it.

Self-doubt. It's a pernicious thing, eh?

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