Many people associate morality with religion. I wasn’t brought up in a religion but I was often surrounded by religion. I grew up in Indonesia and, when we lived in Jakarta, our house was surrounded by 3 mosques. Every Friday morning the hauntingly beautiful call to prayer by the muezzin would ring out at 5am. When we traveled to other islands, I was aware of Buddhism and Hinduism as well. My parents taught us to respect religion and culture. In general, my Mum encouraged more modest clothes and I remember being reprimanded for showing the soles of my feet (if seated on the floor, for example) and scolded for taking food with my left hand. When we came back to Australia, all three of us kids attended high schools that were Anglican, in spirit at least. My high school had chapel every week and we had a religious class (which, by the way, only taught the Christian faith which I think is a real oversight). But my parents are not religious and Dad had trouble taking any of it terribly seriously. When I told him that I’d been taught that animals don’t have souls and therefore don’t go to heaven, he declared “If my dog isn’t going to heaven, then I don’t want to go there either.” Later, when I tried going to Fellowship at the local church, Dad would drop me at the door and bid me: “Say G’day to God from me.”
At University, I tried joining the Evangelical Christian Union. That was basically the end of my attempts at being Christian. I simply didn’t get it and I couldn’t take what I was being told on faith. I would ask questions and the answers did not satisfy me. What’s more, I didn’t like what I learned about the Bible.
Later, I expressed an interest in Buddhism to a Taiwanese friend. I was intrigued by mindfulness and meditation and I loved the non-violence approach to life. My friend gave me a book about all the levels of enlightenment and reincarnation. Like with the experience at Uni, I was overwhelmed at the level of faith required and was easily scared off.
Throughout my twenties and thirties I was not religious but even now there is a small part of me which instinctively looks for somebody to be grateful to when I am glad. And when something scary happens, I would love to be able to bargain with somebody. And there is a tiny, insistent part of me that still clings to the idea of a master plan – the idea that I don’t have to worry TOO much about what humans got up to because, in the end, there is a grand plan for us all. Consciously, I reject all these notions but these ideas pop up unexpectedly in the way I think about things and I logic them away again. I also used to have romantic ideas about magic and ghosts. I wanted to believe that it all might be possible.
When I met P, I found a true Atheist. P is scientist to the core and logic and evidence are his touchstones. I told him about my visit to Port Arthur in Tasmania and how I couldn’t logically explain the things I saw and heard on the Ghost Tour. He told me, without hesitation or doubt, that there are no ghosts. Fifteen years later, I finally believe him (indeed, I blush a little at my gullibility) and I think I am comfortable with calling myself an Atheist too. As Richard Dawkins points out, there are about 3000 Gods worshipped by humans around the world. Choosing to be an Atheist is just rejecting one more than the monotheistic religions have rejected.
But many people would ask: why should I believe P or Richard Dawkins?
Last night I watched a Dara O’Briain comedy show about technology. He points out that if we were able to go back in time and sit before a panel of some of the 16th Century’s most brilliant minds, we would think we had so much to share with them and to sell to them. But in fact, the vast majority of us wouldn’t get beyond the first 3 questions without running out of knowledge.
Q What can you bring us from the future?
A Computers – these amazing machines that sit in our homes and can communicate with other computers all over the world.
Q How do they work?
A Well, they’re plugged into the wall.
Q And what does that do?
A Ummm… well it has been explained to me but I’ve never quite grasped it. It makes the pictures change….
Oh oh! But we’ve also got fridges that keep our food cold so it doesn’t go off and it keeps us healthier.
Q And how do they work.
A Well… they hum.
Q What keeps them humming?
A Well… they’re plugged into the wall….
And now the wall begins to sound like magic.
This is what I have learned. Just because I can’t explain something, it doesn’t prove the supernatural. It only proves an extent of my ignorance. To recognise that doesn’t keep me feeling safe and it doesn’t keep me happy. God isn’t going to save me or my children from Climate Change. I accept that.
It is science that keeps me grounded firmly in reality. And reality keeps me accountable for my actions and accountable for my fellow creatures on Earth. If I want my children to have a good life, helping make the better world a better place is, at least to some degree, in my hands too. I think that’s Morality too.