Making a case for The Golden Rule
Children are amoral.
At least according to my Human Development class in college. I believe it. I’m crazy about textbooks. I saved most of mine and still pick through them. I paid to learn all that shit so those facts aren’t slipping away.
I was an amoral child.
I fought. Boys fight. Maybe girls fight too, but me and the boys beat the living shit out of each other. It was a game. We remained friends somehow, and it all made sense in our childish minds. When our bodies developed enough that we started actually hurting each other, most of us stopped. The amorality transformed, and the new moral principle transformed me.
Maybe morality is intrinsic, it just has to be brought online by experience.
It started for me the first time I really hurt someone. It was the same roughhousing as before, only this time the kid went down, doubled over, got up, ran home crying, and returned with his pissed off mother. I was scared of her, but I remember feeling horrible before she showed up. I’d caused my friend obvious, visibly-verifiable distress and it didn’t matter that I didn’t intend to do it. I hated the feeling and I never wanted to experience it again.
I think we learn compassion by being on both sides of something that sucks.
Most adults stick to throwing emotional punches. When we inflict the damage, it’s likely because we were hurt first. When we lash out at someone, we probably feel like crap afterwards.
I can think of a dozen jerks I’ve known over the years. I’m sure they’re probably still jerks, but I also don’t want them to suffer. What’s the point? I was in a hurry, the guy at the post office was obviously having a rough morning. If we were assholes to each other, we’d both be angrier and feel crappier for it.
There is a universal, demonstrable reality we share. It is simple and it is elegant, and what’s more, it is enough.
For intelligent creatures who can create language and get to the moon and cure diseases, treat everyone like you want to be treated is all the moral guidance we should need.
But it’s not enough.
For 70% of the world The Golden Rule is not enough. They need a divine being.
I don’t share this need. I used to. I remember being a passionate believer, but it didn’t stand up to experience. It didn’t stand up to even the most mundane facts.
There are recipes older than the religion I was brought up to believe.
Seriously. There’s a recipe for what amounts to Worcestershire sauce that dates back to the early days of the Roman Empire. How’s that for record-keeping? A list of ingredients and preparation instructions, all of which have been tried by several modern people, resulting in a sauce that predates the historical figure that would come to be known as Jesus several decades after his death.
I’m sharing this trivial fact because it was the one that squashed the last of my religious indoctrination. I’d already left the church, but I thought, let me get this straight- There are detailed instructions on something as insignificant as a condiment, but the records for the most important religious figures in the world are written well after their deaths and are filled with unverifiable, magical realism?
Religion is the only system developed in antiquity that isn’t re-evaluated as new data becomes available.
It’s a vestigial tail that just won’t drop off. It’s not provable. It’s not plausible. It’s a holdover from a time when much less of the natural world made sense to us. It does teach some excellent moral lessons, but always with the confusion of the supernatural and faith.
Faith, to many, is the most admirable trait a person can have.
But what is it? Faith is the ability to believe in something based solely on feeling. Why exactly is that a good thing?
Even without a divine argument, faith involves ignoring one’s own experience. Every human has life experiences that demonstrate the impurity of faith. You hear it all the time: I have complete faith in my parent/lover/employees/Senator/etc. People have faith in cars and coffeemakers, anything. At some point though, everything falters and fails, proves your faith was ill-placed.
If there’s a single person in your life who hasn’t let you down at least once, ask them about their faith. Ask that go-to, ever-reliable person if you’ve ever disappointed them. You have. You’ve fucked up. That person trusts you a little bit less for each time you did it, and it’s hard as hell, and in some cases impossible, to get that trust back. You failed them. You broke that relationship, maybe for good. So, you don’t get to score points off the halo you put over their head now.
At the most critical developmental period of our lives, childhood, religion prepares us to be at war with reality once we have grown into rational adults. It teaches us to blindly accept things that cannot be validated, to uphold something as true that fails all scientific requirements for truth, to pledge our obedience to an unseen power that can only be experienced in the mind, and to listen to those who claim to speak for this power more than we listen to our own direct experience.
It breaks my heart a little more every day.
We got out of mud huts on our own. We learned to domesticate animals, to hunt, to farm- first by applied observation, then trial and error. We explored and questioned and learned. We evolved. We still live, all these thousands of years later, in a corporeal world that we have to share. It isn’t faith that got us this far; it’s learning to work together on observable phenomena we can all agree is real.
I miss God sometimes, but wanting something doesn’t make it real. I’ve also watched a grandmother, a grandfather, die. Both deeply religious in life. It left them in the final weeks, because it wasn’t as real as the secrets they had to get out before it was all over. Stories of their own failings, neglect, pleas for forgiveness as if some stupid kid like me had a life-long lifeline to throw them now that they wanted something other than orange stars and purple horseshoes.
If I could will myself to believe again, I would. I tried. I tried Buddhism, other versions of Christianity. I read every major religious text in the world, and a lot of minor ones. Went on three separate 10-day silent retreats of physically and emotionally grueling meditation.
What did I find? There isn’t a single original idea in any of them. Virgin birth? Used in dozens of them before and after year 0. Resurrection? You betcha, huge concept. So many depictions of journeys to hell it’s hard to believe. Angels and devils, sacred bushes, it goes on.
It’s beautiful. It really is. All these humans for thousand of years, making up these stories to connect themselves to each other, their past and future. It’s admirable, but it’s not our shared truth. You don’t need a divine presence to connect to the people around you, and prayer is no substitute for empathy and decency, for free thinking and observation.
How could the world not be in a near-perpetual state of chaos when the bedrock for so many is based on something completely intangible, something that is incompatible with so many other’s intangible bedrocks?
Believe what you believe, by all means. I wouldn’t want to take religion away from anyone. For many, without it, they’d lose their connection to community and meaning. Fuck that. But one religion has never been and will never be the thing which unites all people.
The Golden Rule. It’s a good one. It will suffice for all people.
You can pray for me or my “troubled soul” if you must, just please don’t vote away my healthcare
or other’s rights to marry
or clean drinking water
or your own right to worship something I find totally absurd and offensive.