Stepping into the world of Social Work
I often encounter the statement from devout Christians that it is not possible to be moral without a supreme being and some eternal reward or punishment hanging over our heads. Such a view of agnosticism or atheism includes the expectation that no deity equals permission to do anything you please – such as the chaos that ensued when your second grade teacher left the room for a moment.
As an agnostic who considers myself an ethical/moral individual, I strongly disagree with that belief. I also believe I have pretty good psychological theory to back my statement up. While non-theists might not share every bit of the “moral” code in a particular religion, there is no reason to expect that an individual who does not expect heaven or hell would not be as ethical as his religious neighbor.
First of all, looking at Christian doctrine specifically, it stresses that everyone sins, and the importance of faith in Jesus is for his forgiveness. Different denominations place different values on faith vs. works, but the primary message that Jesus died for “our” forgiveness remains constant among most, if not all Christian sects.
This was always a bit confusing to me, growing up in a Christian household. I was pretty comfortable that God would forgive my childish errors, or minor “sins” as an adult, but I also know that there are some rather nasty acts committed in this world, some by professing Christians at the time of the act, others are converted to Christianity in prison. Will God forgive assault? Rape? Murder? Where is the line? And most importantly, if I know I’m forgiven, does that really help me avoid sin? If I know, for example, that my husband does not want me to spend money on a particular item, I also know that the item is small and he will forgive me. I might use the principle that it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission and buy it anyway.
Psychological theorists, particularly Kohlberg, have also illustrated stages of moral development. Toddlers care only about avoiding punishment, while slightly older children might also start caring about rewards. To me, this is clearly the level of moral thinking expected by those who assume atheists/agnostics cannot act as moral/ethical individuals.
Later, children begin caring about how they are perceived and how their actions affect their relationships. This would be demonstrated by how different children would respond to their teacher leaving the room – some would begin acting out and others would not. Children who had progressed morally would care about their relationship with their teacher and how s/he would feel on coming back to a chaotic classroom.
Developing beyond that, we grow into understanding that rules and laws, even if not visibly enforced, are necessary for people to live together. Most of us will not intentionally run a red light, for example, not because we might get caught, but because we know that the cars coming the other direction are relying on our observance of the rules.
While an enforcer (a parent) has been an integral part of teaching all of us morality and ethics, we move beyond responsibility to an enforcer and towards responsibility to our community and others. This same process happens whether we go to church and are taught about heaven and hell or not.
Recently, in a parking lot, I misjudged a turn and slightly damaged the car I was parking next to. I didn’t believe anyone had seen it, and could have left without doing anything. But this agnostic, despite the lack of punishment, left a note on the other car and provided insurance information. Why? Because that is how I want my community, my world to be. To have slipped away would have been to diminish my community by some small amount.