Black and White

May 11, 2015

There was a time - back in college - when I could see the world in black and white. Things people did could be unilaterally classified as “good” or “bad, and anyone doing even a single bad thing was equivocally bad. A friend of mine rebuked me for taking such a hard stance; she insisted that one could not look at the world in monochrome, that things only exist in shades of grey. She had close to her several people I believed were bad, and I could not reconcile that with the kind of person she was. To me, she was good beyond a doubt, and I could not understand how she could be friends with people who had done some terrible things. And I kid you not, they did do some very bad things like bribing college professors, embezzling money from the students’ mess and beating up their competitors in the presidential elections; but that’s beside the point.

A lot of atheists don’t see the point to religion. They believe that people who believe in a higher power are dumb and weak-willed, that giving up control of your life to something whose existence cannot be proved is short-sighted and just plain idiotic. I disagree with this point of view. I believe that since its inception religion has served a very clear and obvious purpose: it helps people differentiate between right and wrong. Now, one might argue that it’s really not that hard to know that theft and murder are wrong, and that one doesn’t need religion to teach people that. While that might be true for the extremes, it’s the shades of grey that tend to trip people up. Stealing is bad, yes; but is stealing food to survive wrong? Lying is bad, true; but lying to save someone heartache? To spare someone’s life? I tend to look at religion as a set of moral guidelines that exists to guide people onto a path that will allow them to coexist peacefully in a community and to live full lives. For most people, that is enough; they pray to their God(s) and they live their lives following the code laid down by their religion, expecting that at the end of their journey they will be justly rewarded with a seat in heaven. For people who are inherently evil in nature but are weak-willed in their convictions, religion wields the stick rather than the carrot, promising wrongdoers an eternity of torment and suffering in hell. These two facets to religion serve to control probably 3/4ths of the religious populace, leaving the rest to instead spend their lives trying to dodge the long arm of the law.

But what of atheists? We, who do not believe in God or a higher power, what of us? Are we inherently immoral?

My take - and this is solely my own uninformed opinion - is that people who are inquisitive enough to question the blind faith other people have towards God, are naturally also inquisitive enough to take a close look at what makes society work. Any functional society is founded on the belief that its members will find a way to coexist amicably and with a minimum of discord. The law can only do so much when it comes to maintaining the peace; in the end, it is the responsibility of each and every member of society to do their own part in upholding the law. Having realized this, any sane atheist would then also recognize that anyone who is not bound by either a yearning for heaven or a fear of hell needs some sort of a moral compass to help guide their actions. And finally, my hope is that these individuals will arrive at a set of guidelines that are aligned closely with the overall commandments of any non-fanatic religion. Because following the law isn’t enough for a well-functioning community. There’s no law that tells you to be nice to your neighbour and to lock their front door if you see them leave the house in hurry with the door open. There’s no law that requires you to help cover for a colleague because she has to pop out in the middle of the day to pick up her kids from school. And there’s no law commanding you to call up a friend to enquire about their health when they take a sick day. These are things that are usually learnt from religions - well, technically from your parents, but the roots can be traced back to religions - and atheists usually end up at a similar-enough set of principles that they live by. They decide where to draw the line between good and bad, and they decide which side of the line they wish to stand on.

And just as the position of this line on the X-axis varies across religions, so does it vary across atheists. Some people might consider as acceptable the things that others look down upon as being bad. And even for the same individual, the line might move a bit based on the time of day or the cycle of the moon. This is a lesson I learnt slightly too late in my life. Who knows how my life might have turned out if I’d been able to see my friend’s point of view back when it actually mattered.