I believe that treating people well is important. I also believe this value is, in the end, arbitrary, and that’s okay.
I grew up in a strong and kind religion that believes it has the answers to the purpose of life. If you can accept god’s existence, and the truth of that church, everything else follows. It is a wonderfully systematic set of beliefs, each doctrine supporting the others. It provides clear ideas about what life is for and how we should live it. Unfortunately for my sense of security, I eventually had to accept that I didn’t believe it.
This meant that all the things I grew up believing were no longer sure. So I had to decide: what did I still believe in? What did I want to keep, and what did I want to leave behind? And how could I keep some ideas if I rejected the doctrines they were based on?
Over time, I’ve given up many of the restrictions I used to follow, and I’ve let go of many doctrines. But I’ve also kept some of the beliefs I learned. I still don’t steal, I still avoid lying. And I still believe that people are more precious than I can imagine, and I should treat them well. It’s probably what I believe in most strongly.
The thing is, I don’t have a reason for believing it anymore. I don’t have faith in a revealed religion, and I’ve never found a compelling alternative in philosophy. Why do I think people are so worthy of respect? Well, because. I don’t know.
Until recently, I worried about this. If I don’t have a system guiding my beliefs, who knows where they might get to? What if I wake up one day, years from now, and realize that I’ve lost my belief in treating people with kindness?
But then I found myself contemplating protestors outside a women’s health clinic. They stayed outside the clinic until the last person entered, but didn’t wait to see how the women were when they left. The former Christian in me couldn’t reconcile their actions with the Bible’s message of charity, which I had always seen as one of the New Testament’s central teachings. They had traveled with their beliefs to a place I would never have gone. Seeing this, I realized that belonging to a church isn’t a guarantee of consistency — different people can start with the same set of doctrines and end up going very different places with them.
So, I don’t have an eternal principle to guide me. And I don’t have a guarantee that I’ll always believe in the values I hold now. But, arbitrary as it may be, at some point I became a person who decided to believe that people are precious, and it’s important to treat them well. I suppose if I want to keep on believing it, I’ll just have to keep on deciding it.
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