This I Believe

Gordon - Boulder, Colorado
Entered on April 9, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: atheism

I believe it is just as imperative for an atheist to live a moral, ethical life

as it for a religious believer. Perhaps even more so.

My father was a devout Methodist, and I went to Sunday school, and learned there

was one God who had created the Earth and given us a moral code to live by. My

mother was an agnostic, which she defined as believing in a supreme being but

not in any organized form of religion. She did not say the Lord’s Prayer, but

she lived her life according to the ten commandments.

Later, at school, I learned there were many different religions, each claiming

to have received their moral and ethical code from the One True God. But, which

of these gods was God with a capital G. If they were all just manifestations of

The One, then why were their codes of conduct and other beliefs different?

Then I learned about evolution- survival of the fittest. Here was an alternative

to the creation myth story I had heard in Sunday school. But the “fang and

claw”, food-chain survival of schoolboy Darwinism did not seem to jive with

anything like the ten commandments. Just the opposite- it seemed to indicate you

should strive to be top dog no matter the consequences to anyone around you.

That was the way to make sure your genes survived. No golden rule, just Darwin’s


I also learned about “memes”, a word parallel to “genes”, but describing ideas

that appear to want to preserve themselves, every bit as much as genes appear to

be using us to preserve themselves. Some memes can be good, some bad. But memes,

like genes, can persist for a very long time if they have a survival advantage.

Later I learned evolution is infiniteley more subtle and wide reaching than I

ever imagined. I came to believe that the best moral and ethical principles of

religion are distilled out of what people noticed made evolutionary sense. “Love

thy neighbor” can be read as “protect thy neighbors genes”. After all, our

nearest neighbors and relatives are nearly identical to us genetically- so

preserving their genes protects most of ours.

By collecting such observations, there arose a code of conduct, transmitted

verbally, but with a survival advantage, based on evolutionary underpinnings.

Inevitably this became entwined with one or another creation myth, giving rise

to a powerul meme, which we call a religion. The observation that religions that

appear to have risen indepenedently have some of the same codes of conduct could

just as easily indicate an evolutionary survival advantage for this behavior, as

it could indicate they came from one God.

So if you are an atheist, and believe in evolution, I believe you should live

your life morally and ethically pretty much according to the best of the codes

of conduct of religion. Because, in doing so, you are likely to participate in

behaviors advantageous to the survival of your genes. By explaining religion as

a meme, there is no need to invoke a supreme being. But, ironically, I believe

you should live your life as if there were one!