A Bloody Kick To The Face And What It Says About Secular Morality

A Bloody Kick To The Face And What It Says About Secular Morality May 25, 2018

I had this neighbour once. Ollie. He was a bit of an underdog, the sort of awkward teenager for whom everything just seemed to go wrong all the time. But he was kind, adorable, generous and hilarious. Despite the fact that he was everyone’s favourite punchline, my best friend, Carrie, and I took a liking to him. We knew we’d be drawn into the crosshairs of all the local bullies by hanging out with him, but we did anyway. He seemed worth it.

There was never much to do in Steveston, BC as a teenager. We were too young to go to bars and too old to enjoy playgrounds. So, we mostly just sat around and talked until our moms called us in. One summer evening, the three of us were sat on the sidewalk, chatting away in the balmy oceanside air. The sun was setting and we were clinging to the last of the day, trying to milk it for every last bit of enjoyment possible. I don’t recall what we were talking about, but I recall we were laughing. We were always laughing when we were with Ollie.

We were so immersed in our conversation, we didn’t notice someone approach. All three of us were startled when we heard,

“Nice life.”

We all looked up to see Ryan, the neighbourhood douchebag. Of course, back then, sitting around thoroughly enjoying the company of your friends was simply not cool enough to be considered a “life”. You had to be high or drunk or both, maybe even while driving to and from parties that would eventually be shut down by the cops. You didn’t really have a “life” unless you were risking a permanent criminal record and liver damage.

Normally, Carrie and I would just ignore Ryan. Normally, we’d just shrug it off and go about our day. Ollie, on the other hand, was subjected to this sort of antagonizing all day long, every day, from nearly everyone. He absorbed constant hatred from everyone around him and still managed to be nice. Even the nicest of nice people crack though, if you push one too many times and Ryan, it would appear, gave that final push that made Ollie break character. In a moment that seemed to stretch forever, we watched Ollie turn, still sitting on the sidewalk, look up at Ryan and calmy retort,

“Nice face.”

It was probably the best comeback I’d heard in the sixteen years I’d been alive. I was in awe of Ollie at that moment. I looked at him with an approving grin, discovered I’d begun clapping without realizing it and burst out laughing. Carrie couldn’t help it either. Ollie had only a few seconds to enjoy the admiration of his friends, though, because almost instantly, we saw his head violently jerk back after Ryan’s Doc Marten boot connected with his nose. We heard the crack and blood began gushing from Ollie’s face instantly.

I stared at my bleeding friend in shock, barely noticing the sound of Ryan’s footsteps running away. In that moment, my gaze connected with Ollie’s. The whites of his eyes were now pink and glistening and the corners of his mouth had dropped uncharacteristically low. My heart instantly ached and the air left my lungs. It was as if Ollie had reached out with an invisible hand and twisted me into a painful knot. His shoulders drooped and I could hear him trying to swallow his desire to cry. Before I even had the time to react physically, I could feel, down to my bones, just how deeply sad he was.

We quickly got Ollie home, helped his mom clean him up and said goodnight. It was over, Ollie was fine and we could start the day fresh in the morning. The thing is, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I lay in bed that night, unable to sleep, trying to stop my chest from feeling like it was caving in. I felt so desperately sad for Ollie. The scene played over and over in my mind and each time that boot hit Ollie’s nose with a crack, it was like someone tightened an invisible elastic around my heart. I skipped breaths, choked back tears and fantasized about getting revenge on Ryan.

It’s still something that causes a deep cringe when I think about it 25 years later. The memory will flash through my mind, triggered by something loosely related in my present life and then it’ll be there, haunting my thoughts for a day or so all over again.

There aren’t a whole lot of people on the planet who don’t have similar memories. Perhaps not as shocking or bloody, but we all have memories of someone getting hurt. Whether it’s emotional hurt or physical hurt, it’s the sort of hurt you saw, you recognized, and you felt by proxy. This memory of Ollie’s bloody nose is one of countless like it. Some are as simple as stepping on my dog’s paw by accident and hearing her yelp in pain; others are as life-altering as a boot to the face. Whatever they are, however, you have those memories just like everyone else because you have empathy.

You, just like me, can recognize pain in other human beings. Because you’ve experienced pain before, you know it doesn’t feel good. You can look into another human’s eyes and see sadness, anger, hurt. You know it’s not a good thing and you know that generally speaking, trying to avoid that which causes these bad feelings should be avoided.

So, when theists ask me, “why is good good and bad bad if there is no god?”, I can’t help but wonder if maybe they just lack empathy? I was raised without a god, never believed in one a day in my life, and yet I’ve never wondered what the answer to this question is.

Good is good because we can observe the effects of good – we recognize joy, happiness and gratitude in other people and because we’ve experienced these emotions before, we know they feel good. Bad is bad because we can also observe the effects of bad – we recognize anger, sadness and fear in other people and because we’ve experienced these emotions ourselves, we know they feel bad.

When a theist asks me how do we know good is good and bad is bad without a god, I often think back to that night with Ollie. I often wonder if the theist had been there with us, would he have witnessed Ollie get brutally kicked in the face and genuinely not known if it was bad or good without his god? If he’d found out that afternoon his god was not real, would he have actually felt indifferent about the boot connecting with Ollie’s nose? Would he have had no way to determine whether it was a good thing to do or an awful thing to do?

Then I think, maybe a theist was there with us that day. Maybe the theist was Ryan and he just hadn’t learned from his god yet that kicking people in the face is generally a bad idea. Perhaps he skipped Sunday School the day they taught that Doc Martens could do a fair bit of damage to a nose. Maybe god had failed to successfully write what is good and what is bad on Ryan’s heart. Worse yet, maybe his god told him to do it, like Robert Picton’s told him to kill sex workers and the Yorkshire Ripper’s god told him to do the same.

When I think about it that way, it makes me feel thankful that I’ve never been a theist and always been a human being who relies on her empathy and conscience to determine that good is good and bad is bad. I’m proud to be a humanist who would prefer, every time, to see right from wrong using my own compassion over an outdated old storybook. I’m proud to be the sort of person who would never be so morally vacant as to ask how we know right from wrong without a god.

Most of all though, I’m proud that I can trust myself to know I’d never put my boot in someone else’s face… even if God told me to.

This post is part of a series called Things The Godly Say. To read other entries in the series, click here

Image: Licensed to Courtney Heard by Adobe Stock.

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  • MystiqueLady

    I have a T-Shirt that reads: Don’t wonder at those who are good without God. Pity those who need God to be good. And, yes, I do wear it in public — especially at Walmart’s on Sunday. I’ve even had strangers stop me and tell me the like my shirt. 🙂 (And had more than a few shocked looks — priceless!)

  • igotbanned999

    When I tried to explain this to a Christian fundamentalist, he distorted it into ‘so if it feels good, do it? You might as well go and snort a bunch of heroin then or have sex with a 12-year-old’.

  • Anders Ryndel

    They have some disturbing urges, those folks.

  • crden

    Personally, as another who’s grown up as an atheist, the people who say they need instructions from God to determine what constitutes good and bad behavior scare me. I think they lack a moral compass (really, you would rape someone if that book didn’t tell you it was bad to do it?), and it’s an arbitrary basis for determining good and bad, because you assume God wouldn’t tell you to do something bad. How do you know God is good? Because this book says so. That’s not reassuring.

  • My Catholic father in law asked why we would follow rules of morality without a god, and my atheist husband replied because it was the right thing to do, and what does it say about a person if they need fear of a god in order to do what is right.

  • I need that shirt

  • Martin Penwald

    Like Penn Jillette said, I murder and I rape all I want every day. And so far, my count is zero on both crime.

  • sushisnake

    Wow! That was a powerful story, beautifully told. I was on the steps with you, Carrie and Ollie, Courtney- you took me there. Thank you for sharing it.

    (And I know I’d never put my boot in someone else’s face, too.)

  • Brian Curtis

    Where can this wondrous shirt be found, and what sizes are available?

  • Brian Curtis

    “You say you need the promise of a reward to be good? And the threat of punishment to stop doing bad things? That’s not morality, that’s training a puppy.”

  • Brian Curtis

    The atheist is often MORE moral than the theist, because the atheist does good without expectation of a halo and wings, and without the threat of Hell hanging over his head for doing wrong. We need neither carrot nor stick.

  • wolfypuppy

    This is brilliant and exactly the point. The Bible asks you to override your own conscience many, many times.

  • wolfypuppy

    Ditto! About where to buy the shirt, I mean.

  • wolfypuppy

    I think one of the problems is that the Bible does NOT say rape is bad.

  • Peter Damian

    Here is what gets me when theists spew this crap to me. I can show them hundreds of examples of Christians, who supposedly have gawd, and they are not good, they are not moral, they are disgusting.

    Christians love to ignore and deny all the crap that Christianity has done to their fellow human beings. All the persecutions of Pagans, Jews, Native Americans, lgbt’s, witches, etc. They forget all the wars, the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the mass genocides committed by Christians. They ignore all the Christians busted, for rape, pedophilia, murder, drug dealing, fraud, and all kinds of other crimes, and when YOU bring that up? Why then they play that damn No True Scotsman line of apologetic bs and denialism.

    But hey, if you don’t have their gawd in your life? Why that makes you an immoral, hell bound demon, who eats babies and drink blood.

  • Peter Damian

    And yet? If you have read the buybull? Their gawd commands rapes of women, it commands the ripping out of fetuses of the bellies of women, it commands them to smash the bodies of children against rocks, it made them eat their own children and said he was going to do it again, it approves of slavery, it approves of murder of women who are not virgins on their wedding nights, but not men who are not virgins on their wedding night for some reason. It commands that if a virgin is raped in a field and it is discovered? Her rapist must pay her father 50 shekels and then she must be married to him for life, or if a married woman is being raped in a field and she does not scream loud enough to be heard? She must be put to death for adultery. And I could go on, and on, and on.

    But if you tell this to a Christian buybull thumper? They will excuse and justify their gawd in doing this and tell you, that YOU should never judge their gawd.


  • crden

    Oh, I agree that there’s not much good for morality to be found in the Bible. I kind of love when missionaries come to my door and start with “Do you believe the Bible has answers to today’s moral dilemmas?” because I tend to answer that yes, I believe there are some answers in the Bible but that they’re generally wrong. I get to see shocked stammering before I shut the door.

    Using the Bible to determine morality makes about as much sense as using strange women lying in ponds distributing swords as a basis for your system of government.

  • Peter Damian

    I stopped those freak shows cold from coming and knocking on my door at 7 am on Saturday mornings to preach their bull crap. I would answer the door buck ass naked. And tell them, sure you can come in and talk to me about your sky daddy, but this is the house of a nudist, and if you come in? You gotta get nekkid. For some reason they never come back, or they will call the cops and the cops know me real well and like me and they tell them, well did he come outside naked? No,.Was he inside of his apartment when he was naked? Yes, then he has every right to be naked inside his apartment. And then they hang up on them.

    But once I saw this meme? I have always wanted to get me a set of these door knockers. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/95a2751a74c8e08c4c0fc9e0ff09dcd2b6f8fcb7ae86e5e6d83f9361b42987c7.png

  • Peter Damian

    I would respond to that jerk…having gawd and Jeebus in you certainly does not stop all your Christian priests and pastors raping kids now does it?

  • crden

    Most of the time they don’t come bother me, and I didn’t have to get naked (more effort than it’s worth, and as a woman I’m not particularly keen on getting naked for strange young men and inviting them into my house). Really, saying the Bible has the wrong answers was enough to get me stricken from the list for several different denominations.

  • Peter Damian

    See as a man? I have no such problems, nor qualms. And I love shocking the crap out of those freak show Christians who think it is perfectly alright for them to come banging on my door early on Saturday mornings to spew their crap.

  • MystiqueLady

    Shirt is available in all sizes at CafePress

  • MystiqueLady

    Shirt is available at CafePress — All Sizes