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!
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