You Can Teach Values and Ethics Without Religion

Elizebeth Joy isn’t raising her children in any religious faith, but she’s teaching them a set of values that rivals anything you’ll ever find in a holy book:

Be Kind and Gentle to everyone and everything. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Have love for humanity and the universe.

Enjoy this life as much as you can. Assume this is all you are going to get (there may not be an afterlife).

Search for beauty and good in everything. Everything has a positive side. If you don’t see it, create it.

You are an animal, and you have a place in the world as all animals do. Try not to abuse your position.

Learn as much as you can and pass on your knowledge.

No person is better than you, and you are not better than any person. Mutual respect is the key for the survival of the human race.

Did I say “rivals”? I meant “tops.” This tops anything you’ll find in a holy book. In fact, just toss out your Bible. If it can’t even teach positive values in a clear, unambiguous way, it just lost its biggest redeeming quality.

The items I mentioned above are only a few of the items on Elizebeth Joy’s list, by the way. Check out the rest. And feel free to suggest your own additions in the comments.

(via Mary Ellen)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.j.jordan Scott James Jordan

    That’s an excellent set of values.  It’s a lot better than what you’d find in a holy book.

    A nitpick, though: “Treat others the way you want to be treated” can actually be found in the Bible (the golden rule).And it isn’t perfect – it assumes that everyone likes to be treated exactly the same.  For example, there are some ways others can treat me that scare or upset me, even though they enjoy others treating them the same way.This rule can be improved on by changing it to something like “Treat others the way you believe they’d want to be treated”.

    • Wikkid

      The Golden Rule existed in the form of the Silver Rule dating back to Babylonian times. The Silver Rule states “Do not do unto others and you would not want them to do unto you.”

      I find the Silver Rule more powerful. However, if applying the Golden Rule, the only proper way to practice this is to treat everyone with love, compassion, understanding, and empathy.

      Many interpret this as not defending yourself from harm, and such but this is not true. You avoid that which is a threat to your life out of love and respect for your own life, but without condemning or hating it. This also means you may have to subdue others who are dangerous to society.

      • Rieux

        Of course, even the “Silver Rule” can cause problems if you’re a police officer, prosecutor, judge, juror, or prison guard. Presumably no one wants to be arrested, prosecuted, convicted, sentenced, or imprisoned–but we all need duly elected/appointed people to do those things notwithstanding their desire not to have it done to them.

      • Anonymous

        “Do not do unto others and you would not want them to do unto you.”

        What?  That doesn’t even make sense as a moral rule.   It’s not even true as a stand alone statement.   I do not “do unto” Selma Hayek but I sure would want her to do unto me.

  • Susan Creamer

    I would include the importance of not taking yourself too seriously. Having a sense of humor can get you through many rough times in life. Making others laugh can be pure joy, as long as it’s not spiteful or hurtful in its intent.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

            The Two Commandments

            1. Don’t harm anyone.

            2. Be Productive.
    —————————————————–
    (Nitpick)
     
    There “may not be” (or “probably isn’t”) an afterlife?

    • Anonymous

      To simplistic and absolutist.  It assumes the world is so simple you will never be in a position where you have no choice but to harm someone.    The reality is that you do have to make choices which harm others.   

      Paying your taxes is an example.    Don’t pay them and you harm those the government helps.  Pay them and you harm those it harms.

  • Drakk

    Some of it reads a little too accomodationist for me to get behind.

    “What they have NOT heard is that any of these beliefs or practices is
    “wrong.”  Just different.”

    Actually, it’s quite easy for practices and beliefs to be objectively wrong, like young-earth creationism or “practicing” magic.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_4VYQXMYJ3MGO74VD6Q7VZIYOQA Bonnie

      I agree, Drakk. It’s way too absolutist, too. If I can’t harm anything, how will I eat, or defend myself? If everyone is equally good then how do we determine our leaders, our criminals, our heroes, our enemies?

      And really – there is NOT beauty and affirmation in everything. The Universe has no sense of right and wrong, good and evil, ugly and pretty. My son died right before he was born. How is that good or beautiful? I’m sure everyone can share similar events from their own lives that cannot be translated into new-age gobbledygook.

      • 59 norris

        Bonnie, I’m truely sorry to read of your loss.  You are quite right that there are things that defy beauty and affirmation.  This brings me to a question.
         
        How do atheists deal with tragic loss, pain, suffering, and all the other things classically refered to as “The Problem of Pain” or “The Problem of Evil”?
         
        Traditional Christian doctrine sought to join suffering to higher good.  Of course atheists reject Christian doctrine in general, though it is true that both Christians and Atheists have an appreciation for The Golden Rule, as has been shown here.
         
        I’ve read here numerous times that if God did exist, he would be an evil asshole for…well many things.  Things like children who die from cancer, or untold numbers of deaths due to earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.
         
        Yet, in the athiests viewpoint, these things happen from the necessity of nature.  Though nature is the cause, there is no rational agent involved that wills for these things to happen.  That seems straightforward enough.
         
        Yet, the atheist heart still grieves.  The atheist still hurts.  Most Christians turn to their faith in such times.
         
        To what does the atheist turn?  And please, I’m not trying to be snarky or anything like that.  I’m genuinely curious.

        The principles offered by Elizabeth Joy of fine, but they don’t seem to offer any method of dealing with the problem of pain.
         
        How does an atheist grieve?  What are the principles to which one turns?  What are the methods of healing?  Perhaps I should have emailed these questions to Richard.

        PS
        Having trouble getting this to post.  If it posts more than once, sorry.

        • Joyeuse
        • Wndydawn

          norris, your question to Bonnie really stopped me in my tracks.  It’s the first sensible question I have come across to an atheist in a long time.  I am sure all humans grieve in their own way.  But my experience has been, I hold on even tighter to my friends and family. Not all my friends and family are atheists like myself , but they are part of my support group in times of trouble and sorrow.  I consider myself fortunate to have them in my life, no matter what their beliefs are.  Because I don’t believe in a supernatural being or an after life I try very hard to let my loved ones know how much they mean to me here and now.  And when someone that I know dies I find that I have many thoughts come to mind, even years after they are gone, of how they made my life better by their presence.  As long as I am alive they live on in my memory and the memories of others they shared themselves with.  This comforts me greatly and helps with the healing process.  Of course I cry for and miss them all greatly when the loss is still fresh.  But as time goes by there are less tears and more gratefulness for them being a part of my life.  I often share stories of my mother and my grandparents with my children and grandchildren   For me it is not about escaping pain because the reality is we can’t.  But this is my own way to deal with loss and sorrow and honor their lives and memories.  Thank you for asking this thought provoking question.

      • Drakk

        An ethical person these values might make, but not a rationalist. My main problem is the lack of anything to do with scientific inquiry in the article.

        “My kids know about Christianity.  They have heard stories about Jesus
        and what he did while on Earth.  They know that there is a book called
        the Bible where you can read about him and his religion.”

        No mention of how these stories may not  actually be objectively true? Nothing on how we have a method for determining what is factually correct? Maybe it’s implied and I’m not seeing it, but that seems like a major point that should be made explicit.

        “Choose your ethics and stick to them.  Do not let
        another person tell you that your beliefs are wrong, and learn to
        tolerate differences in opinions.”

        So easily might the first part swing in the direction of fundamentalism. The second is self contradictory: if you are not open to the idea you may be wrong, how can you tolerate someone who thinks differently from you?

        • Anonymous

          I’m not even sure these rules could make an ethical person.  Much of it sounds like a recipe for condoning evil to me.

  • Lkumle

    Platinum Rule:
    Treat others the way they would want to be treated – Mary Kay Ash

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

    I particularly like “Do what you will; Harm none.” It’s actually harder than it sounds.

    Although, I do think there is a grey area of “harm”, where no harm is intended, but occurs anyway. It’s… a little fuzzy, but I think that the best one can do in that kind of situation is to apologize and offer to help fix/pay for the damage (if it’s physical or property damage).

    • Anonymous

      “It’s actually harder than it sounds.”

      Yeah, because it is impossible in the world we live in.    Ones actions are always bound to effect someone negatively, which is the definition of harm.  

      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

        See my reference to the moral gray area.

        Yeah, sometimes harm is inevitable, but it’s my duty to minimize that harm to the best of my ability.

        • Anonymous

          No, I think that there are dilemmas in life where you cannot help but justly harm someone intentionally, and no compensation is required.   They happen much more frequentlyh that most people are aware of.

          The mere fact that you win out over someone else for a job harms them., and sometimes quite severely if they need the job way more than you do.

          “The point is, it makes you stop and consider your actions. ”

          Well then it should be reworded.   Because it said something completely different that made me reject it as absurd.

          “Am I going about this or that in such a way that causes the least harm? ”

          That’s not what it asks you to do.   You are not following the rule as stated.  “Do what you will; Harm none.”   is certainly not meant to be “Do what you will, or Harm none” which would be equivalent to “Do what you will” a totally amoral rule.   

          The only moral interpretation is “Do what you will, and harm none.”     This can be abbreviated to “Harm none” since there is little point to an ethical rule that says, “Do what you will”.

          A rule saying “Harm none” is much more restrictive and less reasonable than the longer rule you proposed.   “Harm none” is the kind of rule a Jain might follow (up to the point where they run up against reality and are thus hypocrites).  

          Your rule is much more reasonable and doesn’t seem be a in complete violation of reality.     It’s something to aspire to at least.   I can’t aspire to break the laws of nature as with the “harm none” rule.

          In reality we don’t consider the ethical implications of each action and instead operate on habit.     It is however a reasonable rule to apply for uniquely new situations in ones life.

          I’m not sure I actually have a moral duty to determine what would cause the “least” harm.    How much effort do you think it is your duty to expend on that consideration?

          I tend to operate in my own enlightened self interest which bounds me by my rights and the rights of others.   I do follow a good Samaritan rule also.   I don’t merely seek not to harm, but actually try to help were the cost is little compared to the benefit and I feel a potential I might be on the receiving end. 

          I feel more obligation to help someone by holding the door open, or pulling a baby away from the top of the stairs, than giving a wino some change.   I don’t see myself ever begging for booze.  I once was a baby,  have had babies, and expect grandchildren some day.    I also expect to arrive at a door immediately after someone else.

  • Anonymous

     A little over a year ago my niece and eight year old great nephew were murdered by the boy’s stepfather. Telling me there is good in a beautiful little boy being hacked to death with a machete is the same as a Christian telling me it’s all part of God’s plan.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

      I certainly wouldn’t say there was good in everything. I’m so sorry to hear your pain. There is nothing good there.

      • Anonymous

        He’s objecting to this: “Search for beauty and good in everything. Everything has a positive side. If you don’t see it, create it.”

        There is plenty of other bullshit on the list too.

        Like these:
        “You are an animal, and you have a place in the world as all animals do.”

        Not the dodo, and not any of the other species that went extinct.  Somewhere approaching 99.9% of all species went extinct before man even existed so what place do they have?    Obviously all animals don’t have a place in the world, including scruffy who finally managed to catch one of those cars he used to chase.

        “No person is better than you, and you are not better than any person.”

        Not true.    Most people are better than Hitler and that’s not saying much.

        “Choose your ethics and stick to them.”

        That’s dogmatic and prone to error.    This directive is supposed to be for children?   It’s likely any ethics a child chooses would be full of errors due to lack of experience. 

        “Do not let
        another person tell you that your beliefs are wrong, and learn to
        tolerate differences in opinions.”

        Huh?   That’s contradictory.   If I’m not going to let them tell me something is wrong then how am I going to learn.  Exactly what methods can I use to prevent them from telling me so?  How can I tolerate their difference of opinion if I don’t even let them tell me I am wrong?

        “Live without fear.  Most fear is unhealthy and unhelpful. ”

        Obviously the advice of someone who hasn’t every been in a dangerous situations.    Fear will save your life, and that is why natural selection rewarded its existence.

        “Follow the rules of the place where you are.  Sometimes
        they don’t make sense to you, but do your best to follow them. ”

        Hope her kids never stay over at their pedophile uncles house.

        ” If you
        really don’t like the rules, or believe that they are hurtful, then find
        a new place to be.”

        Wait, what if I don’t like rules that don’t make sense to me?  What if the rules don’t make sense to me because they are hurtful?   You just got done telling me to do my best to follow them, yet you tell me to find a new place to be.   

        What if one of the rules is I don’t get to leave?

  • nina
    • Anonymous

      I gave my comments there.

  • Aruban34

    So many gods, so many creeds,So many paths that wind and windWhile just the art of being kindIs all the (old) world needs.
    Ella Wheeler Cox, 1850 – 1919

  • Themiddleme

    How about not bitching about Christians all the time? How about donating to the poor, being active in helping the suffering, not being selfish, greedy and driven to prove your own sense of importance to everyone else? Atheists come over as being so proud of being atheists that they don’t DO ANYTHING ELSE. Except bitch and complain about Christians. I can do the same (til the cows come home, I’ve got so much fodder) but really, is constantly insisting that Christians are “stupid” and atheists are “smart” really all that HELPFUL? Nope. So yeah all this being “good without God” just makes me wonder what the freak atheists mean when they say “good.”

  • Ethical

    Religion is around us weather we like it or not. We don’t need to force it down each others throats but we should be able to stand what we believe in weather or not it can be proved through a science laboratory experiment. We need to realize there is religion and learn to discuss it intelligently.  Ignoring it is just as stupid and yelling that it is true with out any facts. 


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