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Atheist can hold high standard of morality without faith

Sat., Feb. 13, 2010

I’ve got a word in mind, a maiden with whom you’ve probably had a long relationship. You’d probably be surprised to learn that she has an identical twin, though, that you’ve never met.

I like looking at words that appear to have assigned duties, no further inquiry needed, and then take the dubious course of championing a new way of looking at them.

A waste of time? Maybe. But those who look for immutable meaning will always be wrong, never mind the apparent contradiction.

Language, and therefore meaning, is always changing. Let’s just look at that sturdy little word “individual.” You know what it means as well as I do. But only about 500 years ago, it had the exact opposite definition: member of a group.

How can that happen? The short answer is, “No one knows.” Social evolution, including language, is never easy to see when it’s right in front of you. It takes some time to notice what changes have happened while you thought everything was standing still.

That maiden is called Faith, of whom I’ve written before, but with a different purpose. I just want to take a quick look at her sibling, Fidelity.

Faith and Fidelity have the same Latin mother, with the odd name Fides. But they left home some time ago now.

Fidelity means to hold true, to have allegiance, to be steadfast. More simply, to be loyal. One can have faith without fidelity – e.g., the myriad New Age religious carpetbaggers, who flit from one nest to another in search of the best spiritual high.

But one can also easily show fidelity without the least interest in faith or belief of any kind.

Does anyone really think that the abandonment of a faith or belief in God, for instance, suddenly causes a person to lose all moral conviction, to become rootless, without principle? Fidelity is simply what remains after faith (in its conventional sense) is abandoned.

This is the shortest defense of pure atheism I can offer, one which I think is sufficient to the task, as it’s not my main concern.

One can easily hold true, for instance, to a high standard of morality – and more important, nobility – without the least belief in a higher governing power of any kind whatsoever. Nobility itself is the act of not passing on harms done to oneself to others, which is certainly an allegiance to a high moral standard.

I do want to make very clear, however, that atheism as such has no more to do with who and what one is as a person than does religiosity; people of all stripes do all manner of things, both good and bad, no matter what they’re faithful to, no matter what standard of fidelity, no matter what they believe.

Well-meaning individuals can acquiesce to mass murder with all the enthusiasm of a tailgate party, if it’s for the right cause – or, I might say, the right team. Go America squad! Shock and awe me, dude!

Social evolution, unfortunately, is not necessarily upward, as new cultural norms can allow and even reinforce group behavior that ordinarily would be intolerable. Once enough people get on board ordinary standards of decency need not apply.

So it seems to me that, for some, it might be nice if Faith and Fidelity move back home. It’s clear enough that Faith cannot always ward off acts of evil. And Fidelity, by herself, can be lonely.

Faith and Fidelity together, in allegiance with our best nature, are noble sisters.

Donald Clegg, a longtime Spokane resident, is an author and professional watercolor artist. Contact him via e-mail at info@donaldclegg.com.

 

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