Without religion, what are the standards?
We all have the same source of morality as theists do, and it is not something written in any “holy” book. Our morality develops out of our emotional life and rational thinking, shaped by the empathy that almost all of us have inherited to some degree. It is certainly possible to work out reasonable guidelines for living a good life, without reference to gods or a universal consciousness.
Let us begin with the one law common to all respectable religious groups: Be a decent human being. To develop that idea further, we can start with these eleven principles:
- Respect life. Your life is worthy of respect, as is the life of all sentient beings. Even animals that are used for food must be treated as humanely as possible.
- Respect the rights and dignity of others. Others have a right to their own lives, to reasonable privacy, and to things and a place they can call their own.
- Respect the beliefs and customs of others. Be tolerant of differences, and allow others freedom to do as they wish, as long as they are not harming others.
- Base your beliefs on reality. Use your senses and rationality to analyze the evidence you encounter. Do not rely on wishful thinking, unreliable authorities, or imagination to determine what is true.
- Be kind and compassionate. Show mercy, even to those who don’t deserve it. Forgive those who have wronged you.
- Be honest and fair. Be who you really are. Avoid conflicts of interest.
- Be faithful to those who trust you. Respect confidentiality. Keep your promises. Do not misuse your position of authority.
- Be fearless. Seek the truth, acknowledge the wonder of your world. Defend those who need help.
- Be creative and diligent in what you do. Be fruitful, contributing your best work to society. Be a responsible caretaker of the environment we share.
- Be temperate and balanced. Enjoy life, play. Be content with what you have.
- Care for all children, respect them and teach them well. Guide them as needed and encourage them to grow and become independent They are the future.
These principles cannot be said to be absolute or all-encompassing. Our morality is necessarily anthropocentric and temporal, limited to our own limited perception of time and space. This will have to be the case, even after we start having encounters with aliens.
In the mean time, we can make our world a better place for all beings to live in. Always aim to treat others a little better than they treat you. Remember this: life is not fair, and the cosmos does not care. Do not expect any special reward for living well. Life is the reward.