Thou Shalt Not Confuse Religion With Morality: Olga Galchenko

Olga Galchenko received $500 as one of three high school seniors who tied for third place.

“I was born in Penza, Russia, where I spent most of my life. Coming from a somewhat religious family, I naturally embraced Christianity and tried hard to keep my faith until about the age of 12, when I decided to finally stop trying, and gradually became an atheist. When I was 6, my older brother and I learned to juggle, which later became a major part of our lives. I became serious about it at 9. My determination was fueled at the time by a local juggling coach, who felt neither my brother nor I would ever be any good. When I was 12, my brother and I broke our first juggling world record and moved to America, leaving the rest of our family behind. I have since become a world champion juggler, winning numerous world juggling competitions, both as a team with my brother and individually. I have been featured in TIME magazine, and on numerous nationally and internationally aired TV shows, including The Today Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Oprah Winfrey Show.

“The United States government has recently granted me legal residence, based on their determination of my extraordinary abilities in the field of juggling. This fall, I am looking forward to being a freshman at Moorpark College in the Los Angeles area. My major is currently undeclared, but at this time the two fields I am considering are electrical engineering and computer science.”

By Olga Galchenko

“If there’s no god, then why be moral? No god, no morality!” Does that sound familiar? Virtually all secular thinkers have heard some variation of the argument. The implication is that morality is a god-created and enforced set of rules, and not believing in god leaves one with no reason to treat others kindly and with respect. The myth stems from the notion that people of all different upbringings and backgrounds agree on what is right and what is wrong, which makes it seem like morality is something every human is granted at birth by god.

Now that I presented their side of the argument, let me explain my point of view. It is fair to say that morality is equally dependent on god, religion and . . . fruit salad.

Ethics are subjective. We all have our own ideas of what is right and what is wrong. In some circumstances, even things that seem as undoubtedly evil as theft and murder are controversial. Is it moral to loot food during a natural disaster? Is euthanasia ethical? Though the acts in question boil down to something as black and white as stealing and killing, we all have our own thoughts on whether the acts are moral or not. Take it a little further on the controversy scale and inquire about something like abortion, and you will encounter an even wider range of opinions.

Consider the following quote: “As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice. . . I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.” Now I know what you are thinking. These must be words of a religious leader who dedicated his life to saving people and overall furthering humankind, right? Yeah. . . Adolf Hitler. Not only did he feel that what he was doing was moral, he went so far as to say he was “under the special protection of God.” And it’s not just Hitler who felt his actions were ethical. I would venture to say that most people in prison right now feel their crimes, be it something as minor as shoplifting or something as major as murder, are fully justifiable. Although most of us have regrets, we all see ourselves as generally ethical people, thus a moral code is individual.


Olga performing on
The Today Show

Morality is something each of us develops through experiences with other human beings. As we live our lives, on some level we learn to understand that how we are treated is largely dependent on how we treat others. It is the ethic of reciprocity, and we are all familiar with the concept. If you help somebody today, they will likely return the favor in the future. If you hurt their feelings, there will likely be some sort of a negative reaction from them to follow. It is a fundamental moral principle found in virtually all major religions, but there is no religious prerequisite to understanding it. It is easy to see how natural selection favors mutually beneficial behaviors. Good treatment of others results in being treated well. Poor treatment of others, on the other hand, results in being treated poorly. Quite simple, isn’t it? However, religion throws fog over the subject. Here is the Christian version of the ethic of reciprocity: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Religion suggests artificial reasons to be moral, such as “the Law and the Prophets” in this passage.

True to its trademark condescending and paternalistic traditions, religion attempts to threaten you into being ethical because god will punish you, not because you take into consideration the well-being of others. The way this god determines what is good and what is bad seems very arbitrary. Actions physically or mentally destructive to individual human beings or the society as a whole are things that make it harder for us to live our lives. Those are the actions we consider unethical. Religion, however, uses no logic to distinguish between moral and immoral. Essentially harmless activities like premarital sex, birth control and homosexuality are on the list of immoral things, while hurtful misogyny, homophobia and bigotry are deemed by many religions to be perfectly moral.

There is absolutely no need to look to god for morality. I feel that this notion of god being the source of ethics is so insulting to humankind that it is embarrassing. Are we really so unbelievably ruthless and selfish that an invisible man living in the sky is the only thing that’s stopping us from murdering and robbing everyone in sight? Further, there is evidence of religion being a source of immorality. According to 1997 Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics, over 83% of the U.S. prison population is Judeo-Christian, while atheists are highly underrepresented in the prison populations (0.2%), compared to the U.S. population (10-13%). In the words of Blaise Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” From the crusades and the inquisition to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, religion has proven to be the cause of unbelievable amounts of torture, death and destruction.

There is one huge reason to be moral and treat others well, and it has absolutely nothing to do with god–it simply makes life better. . . like yummy fruit salad! Moral treatment of others yields significant benefits to all humanity, and oneself in particular. No one needs religion to force them to be ethical–it is in everyone’s best interest. Although I don’t believe anyone will have to justify their actions to god, we all answer to something much more real, immediate and important–our society.

Freedom From Religion Foundation