Freethought Today · Vol. 25 No. 1 January/February 2008

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

High School Essay Contest--Honorable Mention

Original Morality

This is one of several honorable mention" essays in FFRF's 2007 contest for college-bound high school seniors. Ms. Smith received $100 for her essay.

By Dae Smith

Darwin wrote that man, without formal religion, "can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. . . . If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives." In other words, a sense of morality is within each of us to develop and follow. We each have the capacity, perhaps even the natural tendency, for it--regardless of our religious affiliation. Indeed, becoming and behaving morally is our personal responsibility, the way to our personal and collective fulfillment. We strengthen and enrich ourselves not by surrendering our lives to the commandments of organized faith but by making our own choices, deciding for ourselves and setting our own righteous paths. If we are each true to this, a communal state of grace is possible.

It is easier, one could even say lazier, to allow decisions to be made for us. Religion as "the opiate of the masses," according to Karl Marx, absolves us of interpreting for ourselves. It allows us to be passive, docile, to be followers only. We don't advance, we languish; we experience spiritual emptiness. It is our duty to fight against that--to remain thinking, conscious beings, to search within ourselves for the answers to right and wrong.

Our country was founded on the principles of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", i.e, secular, not religious properties. Thomas Jefferson said, "Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.'' Citizens must be free to determine for themselves what is worthy, to follow their own beliefs, to govern their own actions. Societies move forward with just such individual commitment.

Organized religions tend all too often to exhibit competitive, exclusive tendencies. Christians see themselves as the most God-like. Muslims feel Allah is supreme. Catholics fight Protestants. Orthodox Christians fight Serbian Muslims. Africa and the Middle East are a hotbed of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Kurds; Asia of Muslims, Tamils, Hindus, Sikhs, Sinhalese Buddhist, all of them feeling uniquely blessed and superior, all of them feeling the need to control. Each religion may be, at its foundation, humane and well-intentioned; individual believers may be good and honorable. Faith, as a force, however, seems to foster extremists driving for dominance and supremacy. Thomas Paine wrote in The Age of Reason, "The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries that have afflicted the human race have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion."

Against faith, we must position reason, as Darwin did. We are thinking creatures. We are at our best when we act rationally. In determining the influence of religion and its place in society, we need only ask thoughtfully:

How it is that through the ages, faith has instigated, tolerated or turned a blind eye toward cruelty on both a small and grand scale, including the Crusades, slavery, the Holocaust, wars in the Balkans, wars in the Middle East, pedophilia?

Why, with organized religion as strong as it is today, is the world sinking in misery? In the United States, as "Christian" as we are, we contend daily with poverty, violent crime, racial discrimination, thievery on a corporate scale, sexual promiscuity, and injustice. The Muslim world is rife with violence, sexual inequality and intolerance. It is the more secular countries, Japan and Scandinavia, for example, which seem comparatively balanced and composed.

In a letter in 1756, John Adams wrote, "Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, 'this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.' "

In the western world, the Church now attempts to direct us in an ever increasing number of social and scientific areas. These include birth control, stem cell research, homosexuality, suicide, abortion, religious instruction in school. In the East, we see faith dictating women's roles, education, alcohol, dress, childbirth.

These should all be issues we wrestle with individually. They require personal soul searching and evaluating. We do ourselves and the world a great disservice when we blindly accept what is handed down as doctrine. Such behavior constitutes subservience and detachment, both of which are anathema to a true moral code.

We must not let ourselves off easily. We can never improve the world unless we devote ourselves to seeking the answers, individually and as a population. They require reflection, investigation, discussion. It is our human responsibility and our road to enlightenment. Only when we know we have honorably applied ourselves to the questions and solutions can we feel we have done our moral duty. According to D.H. Lawrence, "It is a fine thing to establish one's own religion in one's heart, not to be dependent on tradition and second-hand ideals. Life will seem to you, later, not a lesser, but a greater thing.''

The more we accept what is dictated to us, the more we lose our initiative and our ability to judge for ourselves, the further we weaken and threaten civilization. When we stop questioning, we become passive. We do what we are told or do nothing. We lose any chance at a moral compass. "Man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind," wrote Thomas Jefferson.

Darwin maintained that humans naturally have social instincts that lead us to a moral sense, a conscience. Frans de Waal concurred in Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals: "Evolution has produced the requisites for morality: a tendency to develop social norms and enforce them, the capacities of empathy and sympathy, mutual aid and a sense of fairness, the mechanisms of conflict resolution, and so on.''

Ideally, religion would enhance these qualities. In actuality, it has its own agenda and works frequently in conflict with them. It is up to us to guard against its power and intrusiveness and to exercise our free will for our personal and the common good.

"I am attending Parsons, the New School of Design. I plan to study photography, fashion design and French. My senior year I lived in Cesson Sevigny, France, as an exchange student. Last year I worked as an assistant to a textile designer, donated various original artwork to charitable fundraisers and was a participating designer in the district fashion show. I was also on the swim team all of my high school years, and swam on a team in France, as well."


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