In religions, morality is handed down to you through the generations, from whatever deity you believe in through that deity’s prophets to humanity and then to you. Now, I’m not going to quibble over the differences between morality and ethics. I’m going to use the term morality because I want to wrestle it away from the Religious Right, if only for one essay. No matter what term you prefer and in what situations, what you’re talking about is living a life of integrity.

Medicine is famous for its dictum “First, do no harm.” We humans would do well to take that phrase and incorporate it into our lives fully. Because we have banded together for our mutual protection from predators and our mutual aid through the division of labor, we must find ways to live together in harmony. Thus the fields of morality and ethics and philosophy and economics and so many others have sprung up.

As non-theists, it becomes incumbent upon us to develop morality for ourselves – and gives us great opportunity to fully understand and appreciate what that means in our lives. I’ve never banded together with other non-theists, never joined an association of atheists or agnostics, or anything like that. These associations may have moral teachings available, I don’t know. I’ve never even read a book about atheism. I didn’t want to trade one religion for another, per se. My loss of faith led me to contemplate matters of morality for myself.

In developing your own morality (or code of ethics), you have to start somewhere. So let’s start with stealing. Whether you live in a capitalist or communal societal structure, the taking of someone else’s property for your own use and pleasure without their consent is generally forbidden in some way.

Why is stealing wrong? I’m interested in what you have to say about that, and there’s a forum post called “Why is stealing wrong?” for that purpose. I spent an obscene amount of time contemplating that question long ago and decided that it is wrong, and have lived my life accordingly ever since.

The last item I stole was probably a Coca Cola from my first employer back in the mid-80s. Prior to that, my shoplifting career was pretty low rent. A handful of erasers, pens, and packs of gum found their ways into my pockets in the brief time I allowed myself to steal.

My parents live with a high degree of integrity, and always have to my knowledge. I consider them the most honest people I’ve ever known. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to understand just how important character and integrity are for a person. Anyone can be a lying, cheating, low-life thug. It’s easy to be untrustworthy.

Heck, our televisions pump dozens of shows glorifying outlaw lifestyles into our homes nightly. Even well done scripted shows like Burn Notice have you rooting for what are very dangerous people who commit crimes purely because that’s all they know how to do. And the so-called reality shows like Appalachian Outlaws are doing nothing but glorifying those who walk the shady side of the street.

Philosophically, we have a choice to make, and as non-theists the choice is purely up to us – we have no god to please and no fear for our immortal souls. Are we going to live lives of integrity, or not? To put a finer point on it, are we going to live with integrity rather than paying attention to what is legal or not? Because sometimes what’s legal to do isn’t in keeping with the choice not to steal.

For example, when you’re at a fast food restaurant and you face a series of compartments filled with plastic cutlery and packaged condiments, do you a) load up, or b) take only what you reasonably expect to use? When the clerk gives you a dollar too much in change, do you return it? What about ten dollars? Do you lie to your employer about being sick purely because they will pay you for missing work and you don’t feel like going in today?

Non-theism is not a license to do whatever we want. It’s an opportunity to examine ourselves closely and find out where we’re lacking (or succeeding) in leading a moral life, and just what morality means, not just for us as individuals, but for humanity as a whole. I phrase it as an opportunity, but it’s really a kind of bonus. When we make decisions based on our moral precepts, we really understand those precepts from the ground up. We’re not living and behaving ourselves because some invisible god is watching everything we do. We’re living and behaving ourselves because we’ve worked out for ourselves what’s right and wrong. Does that make non-theists morally superior? Nah. Just more invested in morality, perhaps.

For this week, watch yourself in action when you have opportunity to take something that doesn’t really belong to you, like ketchup packets or rubber bands at the office. Can you hold yourself up as an example of integrity? Would an outsider watching you be interested in learning more about how you live your life, about your beliefs?

Most importantly, if you were watching someone else acting as you are, would you admire or condemn that person?

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