I have always lived my life by my sense of what is right and what is wrong. This sense accompanied by a collection of morals is what defines me and what, I believe, defines every person. It does not matter where one obtains these morals or how these beliefs developed, simply that they exist. Yet, whenever I hear someone referred to as a genuinely “good person”, whenever someone cites their reasons for a good deed, nearly every time religion is brought up. Do not misunderstand me, I am not against religion. I believe that religion is a powerful force which adds value and beauty to life. I mean, look at people like Gandhi and Mother Theresa whose faith sculpted countries, gave hope and inspired. But, I often wonder (perhaps in the end worry, because truthfully we all care what people think about us) when people discover I am not religious, it is also implied that I do not believe in anything.
I began to worry about this over a year ago when I was raising money and clothes for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. A few students, myself and a French teacher, who we refer to as Madame, headed the project. Madame and I were finishing up one afternoon, labeling and bagging clothes when she asked me something that had clearly been on her mind. She put down the pair of ripped jeans she was folding, touched my hand, looked at me and asked, as if it was the most casual thing in the world, “Emma, what is your religion?” I confess the question caught me off guard. I smiled and replied, “Well, I’m not actually religious.” I will never forget Madame’s reaction. She just stared at me for a moment and then asked,” Well then, why are you doing this?” I was stunned; surprised at the fact that Madame would make such a large assumption about the fact that I was religious and also surprised that I was so incredibly offended. I felt suddenly excluded, as if Madame had just slammed a door in my face that would never open up again. This sense of exclusion was soon accompanied by a feeling of exposure. Her reaction made me feel that not having a religion diminished what I was doing, that the desire to help and do good did not come from someplace real if it did not come from religion.
I could have misunderstood of course. Perhaps the comment did not infer any of this, perhaps I am paranoid, but nonetheless I would like people to know that I do have morals, I have a sense for what is right and what is wrong and above all I have beliefs. I believe in kindness, I believe in always telling the truth, in innocent until proven guilty, in tolerance and above all in the goodness of every single human being. I believe in everything that religion fosters except God.
I did not acquire my morals and beliefs from religion. I choose to believe that we are all born with an innate sense of what is right and what is wrong (just as many believe we have an intuitive sense of God). These values are then molded by society, family and culture, but somewhere, beneath our thick layers of skin and bone we hold those original truths and we ultimately know right from wrong. It is this belief, that inside every person there lies an understanding of goodness and compassion, that gives me faith in myself and in humanity. With this conviction I live everyday, not exposing flaws, but unearthing and celebrating goodness.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.