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Religious position doesn’t order my morality

Sat., Jan. 29, 2011

I receive requests, from time to time, to write about a particular topic. If I had to sum up the general tone of these demands (as they often take that form), it’s this: serious, well-intentioned disagreement with my so-called atheistic views, plus a request to please offer a defense of morality without God.

Even if I’m uninterested I’ll explain, again, that my social position is secular; my ethical position, humanist; and my religious position, agnostic. None of which makes me either better or worse than anyone else.

That is, my morality has nothing to do with any of them. And if you do have a firm belief in God – yep, I’m talking right atcha – well, your own morality does not derive from your beliefs any more than mine does.

That’s an argumentative stance, intentionally so, and the reason is simple: Morality is either arrived at freely, or nonexistent. If the mere fact of being an agnostic secular humanist somehow made me behave “morally,” then I would not in fact be moral.

Say what?

It’s like this: Morality, if imposed, is neither moral nor ethical. That is, coerced morality is like being politely asked for money – by a person holding a gun. You may or may not have been inclined to open your wallet in the first place, but the gun sure does take away the element of choice, doesn’t it?

While ethics and morality are often used interchangeably, I’ll say that ethics is the set of principles that informs one’s morality, which itself is behavioral. That is, you think ethically but act morally. (Or not, of course.)

Now, what do you think of the ethics of an entity that coerces – which is to say, forces – moral behavior through the threat of punishment, said punishment ranging from a few, presumably nonfootball related Hail Mary’s to, say, eternal damnation?

That’s just not real Christian, now is it?

It’s just plain unimaginable to me to postulate a Supreme Moral Being which demands moral behavior, or else, as that behavior is itself immoral.

I’ll say it again: Morality is either free or nonexistent. You can do the right thing, of course, through chance or good luck, neither of which have the slightest thing to do with actually acting morally.

So, if you were to grant that I’m a reasonably moral person, from what ethical base do I derive it? Is it possible that morality is simply evolutionarily advantageous and that ethics is, so to speak, in the genes?

I doubt that my own morals have anything whatsoever to do with an outside source. I’ve read thousands of books, and I can’t say that any single one of them has fundamentally made me who I am, or even significantly impacted my behavior.

That’s not to say that many have not been influential, inspiring, uplifting, intellectually and emotionally stimulating, and of enormous value, so much so that there is nothing I value more than reading.

But I can’t see that they have made me who I am. If anything, I’d be a sadder person if my reading fundamentally changed my nature, because from what I can see, we’re well on our way toward, if not extinction, then greatly reduced numbers as we overwhelm the carrying capacity of the planet.

Why then, doesn’t that make me a nihilist?

I have no idea whatsoever, except to say that I’m behaviorally inclined not toward optimism exactly, but a relatively positive outlook even in dire circumstances. If I were a Christian, I’d certainly be a New Testament kind of guy.

But not because Jesus, or anyone else, told me so.

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


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