J.E. Keep is a historian and writer, an avid critical thinker and lover of dialogue. His writing, along with his partner, is available at The Keep.
I wish I could attribute it simply to the prominence of the GOP primaries, but I notice in American media with a startling degree of regularity that morality is tied to one’s religious values. That whatever ideology a group or individual represents must be the core of positive morality and others fall short. Christians in the media will declare they wouldn’t trust an atheist to behave morally; atheists point fingers back at the instances of immoral behaviour in the Bible and amongst its chief representatives in contemporary politics, while from all corners Muslims seem a target of accusations of having an inherently flawed moral system.
None of this, however, meshes with my own lifetime’s worth of observations. I have met people of all creeds who’ve displayed behaviour all over the spectrum from selfish and callous to compassionate and cooperative. I’ve encountered and known the ultra-religious who have a wellspring of compassion for others, and atheists who’ve fallen into silent tears at the suffering of those far removed from their own conditions.
My own experiences have taught me that compassion for others springs from an inner place, whatever you care to call it, however you think it got there. That empathy for others is something we’re all capable of, and though the belief systems we are taught and are surrounded with can help shape us, quite often it’s our own inner feelings that lead to our choice of ideologies. Or, at the very least, what parts of our belief systems we focus upon.
For the purposes of this post, let’s define a positive moral value as something that endorses helping other people consensually and thereby making the world a better place.
If we are to be honest with ourselves, we can find positive moral lessons from all the big ideologies, regardless of how many negatives we might see mixed in. There are plenty of religious people, Christian, Muslim, or all others, that use their faith to buoy them in the pursuit of charity. At the other end, even amongst the inherently (and proudly) greedy and selfish “Objectivist” reasoning of Ayn Rand there are kernels of positivity that one can cling to; Rand herself even managed to object to the discrimination against minorities of all sorts based upon the reasoning that the individual was the smallest minority of them all.
And just like how people who adhere to these values as a motivation to do good, others can cling to the negative.
In Christianity some cling to the lessons of Jesus as a compassionate man, always ready to turn the cheek, who implored those around him not to judge the sins of others. This was the man who threw over a money lender’s table in protest of their greed, who declared a rich man could not hope to enter heaven and who tended to the utterly destitute, the poorest and most loathed of society.
Then others of the same exact faith can ignore that, can zero in only on those parts of their faith that condemn the actions of others. They can protest, shame and insult homosexuals, young unwed mothers and others. They can go beyond judging lest they be judged, and seek to actively inhibit the rights and freedoms of other individuals.
Meanwhile, there are non-believers who can see a lack of religious faith as an excuse to live life as selfishly as possible without fear of eternal punishment. Then yet others who, because they understand mortality as finite without a great beyond, see life as the most precious thing we hold. That respect of that most precious thing, a fellow human life, must be held most dear above all others.
I don’t use these examples to shun or shame anyone, but as a case that morality seems, at least on some level, a personal choice. No matter our indoctrination or choice of belief system (or lack thereof), people choose to base their actions upon the positive or negative aspects before them.
True responsibility lies with us as individuals.
We can choose to focus our energies upon the positive messaging inherent in our creeds. Feel free to mould our own lives to whatever values we hold dear, but when it comes to others, only offer positivity and opportunity. Or, conversely, we can focus for ill, and seek to attack or inhibit those around us, making the world that much of a darker, less hospitable place.
For those of my fellow human beings who choose to put their energies towards the former, regardless of creed, you have nothing but my respect and fondness.