An atheist lives his own moral code

by Guest Blogger David Ehrhart

I had my “Atheism” tested today. I use quotations for that descriptor, because I don’t enjoy how the name of my belief system basically means “rejecting someone else’s belief system.” I should probably choose another word for it, but I’m getting ahead of myself …

Today, while driving home from work, I had a thought-provoking experience. As I found myself in the passing lane, gaining on a semi in the right lane, I suddenly beheld another car approaching incredibly fast behind the truck. As the space between my car and the semi quickly diminished, the third driver accelerated even more, dangerously cutting across in front of me to zip up and beyond the truck. He then merged back into the right lane almost immediately, but found whatever his next assuredly reckless driving stunt would have been to be blocked by traffic further up the road. As I found myself gaining on him in the passing lane, I looked over into his driver’s side window and entertained a few ideas. I thought I might give him the finger. I thought I might curse at him loudly enough that my voice would somehow magically project through my music, my passenger side window, the wind, his driver side window, and his potential music as well. I thought about doing both at the same time. I didn’t do any of that, but as I looked over at the man, who I believe was roughly my age, give or take a few years, I saw something dangling from his rear view mirror: a large, clearly visible crucifix.

Moments later my off-cutter zipped up an exit ramp and out of my view, and in his absence I found myself pondering a simple question with a potentially profound meaning: “What if he had killed us?”

I was raised as a Lutheran, attended church regularly in my youth, was baptized, confirmed, took Communion, served as the Crucifer in many a service, and even stood as the Pastor’s assistant in a few others. Yet somewhere in my college years I began to part with faith, calling myself an “Agnostic” for a few years until I became brave enough to accept the fact that I truly was what many would describe as an “Atheist.” My thinking became more scientific in nature. For more reasons than I can count, I came to “believe” that if it couldn’t be proven, I couldn’t accept it, whatever it was. Blame my psychology coursework if you will, but I have come to believe that it is easier for Man to have created God, than for God to have created Man. I in no way mean to offend others who do have faith when I say these things, because I believe that it is every human’s right to believe whatever they want to believe. But over the years, being the helping professional that I am, I have developed my own code and my own principles. It was taught to me by my professors, my supervisors, and those whom I continue to serve. The core of my belief system is to ”do no harm.”

So as I drove and pondered, I asked myself a variety of questions, trying my best to weigh the differences of my beliefs and the beliefs which were being announced by the other driver’s crucifix, assuming that the car wasn’t borrowed or stolen. If he had misjudged the distance between my car and the semi, if he hadn’t gone fast enough, if he was momentarily blinded by the afternoon sun’s reflection off of, say, anything, what might have happened differently? If we crashed and both of us died, and I was “wrong” in my Atheism, would I go to Hell? Being a Christian, would he go to Heaven? Would he need to ask his God for forgiveness before he drew his final breath to be absolved of his sin? Would he have needed to go to confession instead? Which version of Christianity would need to hold true for him to ascend? Would my good works mean nothing at the Pearly Gates, since I didn’t believe until beholding them “in person”? Would I be stuck in some kind of Purgatory or Limbo? Would the Christian God be a vengeful God and smite my spirit, or simply wave his omnipotent hand at my mortal transgressions if I apologized to Him? Would I be damned to an eternity of suffering because I refused to stop asking questions about the truth of life and the Universe? Would we blink out of existence altogether, turn into fertilizer, or reincarnate into cats?

Not being a Christian, I still live a life filled with acts that might resemble those of a Christian. I follow the majority of the Ten Commandments, without even needing to think about them, or how they are connected to the belief in a God. I spend the majority of my waking hours working with people in their darkest hours of mental instability. I volunteer to raise dogs to assist blind people in living fuller lives. I carry heavy things for weaker people and hold doors for the elderly. I speak respectfully, wait my turn, and enjoy teaching children about goodness. I love my fellow humans, and I love my world. I attempt to do the most good I can, and the least harm I can. I do these things because they are right to do, and while they may have been influenced by a Christian perspective in my upbringing, I don’t need to believe in a God to know that they are the right things to do. Plenty of other religious and other systems of thought and belief promote the same thing. We are a people who need each other. We exist because of each other. We exist for each other.

The Sixth Commandment, as I understand it, is “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Allow me to be so bold as to broaden my interpretation of it to “Thou Shalt Not (Willfully Engage in Seriously Dangerous Behavior That Will Increase The Probability For You To) Kill (Others).” I hope it’s not too big of a stretch. What upsets me is that people too often wear or otherwise display symbols of faith, and then behave in a manner contradictory to the principles of said faith. This is one of the greatest reasons I find myself not adhering to any specific religious beliefs or doctrines, Christian or otherwise. If a “believer” isn’t required to be a living testament of their beliefs, why believe in the first place? And I’m sorry, but if asking for forgiveness from your God after you might have killed me is enough to secure your place in Heaven, only one of us is really making out on the deal.

Do no harm. It’s something I strive for daily, and something I encourage in others, and it isn’t terribly different from the aforementioned Commandment. All of us make mistakes, certainly, but I think no matter what an individual believes, he or she has the responsibility to not purposefully enter into situations in which they can seriously harm or kill another person, lest it be in the defense of their own mortality of the mortality of someone who, in that moment, is unable to defend their own life. Willful recklessness can end so many things, because it clouds other, more rational thoughts.

As I write this, I don’t find myself clinging to anger over the dangerous situation I survived. I find myself wishing for other opportunities. What would it have been like to have spoken to that man, and to have told him of the life he endangered? I could tell him about my crazy dog Jack, the patients I help, and the wedding I want to celebrate. I could have told him about something as significant as my whole family coming together soon to commit my father’s ashes to the sea, or as trivial as what I was going to make for dinner tonight (nothing exciting, it was a Bertolli frozen meal for two). I could have shared coffee with him, and even debated over our differing belief systems. I could have shown him that another’s life matters more than potentially getting to his exit ramp just a second or two earlier. I could have learned about his life, and its significance, too.

Whatever you believe, do no harm. Whether you believe in a Christian God, a Goddess, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or something else entirely, hold yourself accountable for the principles which you claim to follow. If you believe in something that condones the disregard for or outright abuse of the rights and well-being of others, well, we have a different conversation to conduct. As best as I can tell, we only have the present, and the choices we can make within it. Consider that you have an impact on the world around you, and the people within it, and while sometimes that impact is small, other times it may just be profound. Do no harm.

David Ehrhart is a Licensed Professional Counselor, a martial artist, and an otherwise quirky human. His goals are to marry his fiancé, raise a bunch of dogs, and one day write a witty bestseller for people who want to learn new ways to improve their own mental health.

(NOTE: This is a guest blog from David Ehrhart. If you would like to submit a guest blog that fits in with the theme of “Ventrella Quest,” please contact me).

3 thoughts on “An atheist lives his own moral code

  1. Great post. A couple of thoughts as I was reading your article: Man did create God, at least the the one that he prays to; and a vengeful god would, by definition, have to be an evil being. By the way, I once crossed paths on the road with a “relative” of your guy. Same result.

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  2. Great Blog posting David! And I have to admit that I really understand where your coming from on several points. I’ve had similar experiences, including a Lutheran upbringing similar to yours, and somewhere in my college years, I started having feelings of questioning where I stood with respect to religion and eventually wound up calling myself an “Agnostic” as I found I disagreed with a large number of religious tenements/morals and so on, coming to my own sense of morality and beliefs.

    And I too concluded that you don’t need religious teachings in order to understand what is right, what you should do. Particularly about doing the least amount of harm. But I kept seeing act committed by individuals who claimed to be devotedly religious and slowly came to heartily dislike organized religion for what it has become in my mind. Something that seems to have more to do with controlling, rather than doing the right thing at most times. 😦

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  3. Really interesting post. I too am an atheist (and I too am not a fan of the term) and I find myself in complete agreeance with you. I would probably have pondered in a similar manner if I was in that situation.

    In my experience, I have found that the majority of Christians tend to believe that faith alone will grant them passage into heaven. Because of this, the belief in eternal existence degrades the meaning of this life, which people like us hold so dear. A philosopher I really like once said when talking of those who hold the belief in eternity, that when we bicker with a loved one over meaningless things, when we drive like we are immortal, when we fail to appreciate the wonder of this life’s experience… We better have eternity if we are going to waste our time like that.

    Again, great post!

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