Living a Value-Driven Life
Can an atheist live a moral, value-driven life disconnected from religion and the spiritual anchor it provides so many?
Two developments this last week have raised that question and led to some important self-reflection.
First, I received some mild blowback from last week’s column in which I argued against civil dialogue with racists and other hate mongers. My critics do not dispute for a second that hate is a despicable form of evil. But they do believe, sincerely, that spiritual love, Christian or otherwise, can be shared and effectively transform individuals and masses. As an atheist and student of history, I see that as naïve. But I respect the belief and commitment behind the idea.
Second, facilitating further self-reflection was a 70th birthday gift from my son, a year’s membership in a digital organization that helps participants craft a sort of biography by asking probing questions, one each week. The answered questions and accompanying photos can be published as a book at the end of that year.
It may come across as an exercise in self-absorption, but the weekly exercise has given me the chance to write about important people in my life, family, friends, work colleagues, former students, teachers and mentors.
Last week’s question was that hoary old cliché, “If you could talk to your 20-year-old self, what advice would you give?”
The combination of column feedback and assigned self-reflection led me to wonder again how it is possible to live a moral life without religion. That is not an idle question. It is likely the most asked question posed atheists by people of faith. Absent religion, they argue, a person has no moral foundation on which to build a moral life.
Of course, other than those who believe fully in pre-destination, we are all free agents. And frequent churchgoers can choose to be as morally bankrupt as any atheist.
I like to think I have lived a value-driven life without the benefit of religious belief. Not believing in an after-life, I know I must make the best of the life I have, live the best life I can. That was what my mother, a very spiritual woman, taught me.
In considering the advice I would give my 20-year-old self, I was struck by how rooted that advice was in basic values that any person of faith could likely recognize and accept.
What would I advise?
- First, it is always good to plan your life. But life rarely works out as planned and you must remain flexible and adaptable. Your life plans must be value-based in some way and not focused strictly on career advancement, salary, and prestige. You need to know what you stand for.
- Second, love is something more than lust and passion, and understanding that comes with age and experience. Love is a choice you make in any relationship, not a choice made for you by others. Love is not selfless devotion to another person, which is obsession. Love is a mutual understanding and acceptance and can be both peaceful and volatile and probably should be a bit of both. It should be honest. I would tell myself you will not necessarily recognize it when it comes your way. As you will suffer the occasional broken heart you will surely break the heart of others. Be kind in love.
- Third, keep your close friends close. You will have countless friends-of-the-moment. But true friends, those who would come to your aid in a crisis, no questions asked, are rare. You will have three or four such friends in your life and they cannot be replaced. Value their loyalty and be loyal in return.
- Fourth, listen to your mother. She is wise and will always be there for you. More important, do not wait until the end of his life to respect your father. His life may not have worked out according to his plan. But he was a good man and as he lays dying you will realize how important he has been to your life, how he has sacrificed for you, and how much wisdom he could have shared had you only listened.
- Fifth, be kind and generous to others. Your mother taught you that and she was right. You do not have to like people to be kind to them. Talk less, listen more. Do not patronize. Respect those who see the world in ways different from you. But do not suffer purveyors of hate or other morally bankrupt fools.
- Sixth, do not be embarrassed to show emotion. It is OK to cry now and then, to be vulnerable. Old notions of macho fortitude deny an important piece of your humanity. Empathy may be the most important human emotion.
- Seventh, it is OK to retain one or two minor vices as you strive to avoid the big ones. You will drink coffee by the bucket, smoke an occasional cigar, and enjoy a fine single-malt Scotch. Do not let anyone make you feel guilty. If you want to live like a monk, join a monastery.
- Eighth, be morally courageous. You will be tested in life. Your beliefs and values will be challenged. Know who you are and what you believe and when the test comes, stand up for yourself. Take the heat.
I should add, in talking to my 20-year-old self, that you will never stop learning. FāVS has been a remarkable learning experience for this old man. In recent weeks, I have been struggling with concepts of radical forgiveness, of spiritual love that heals divisions, of “calling in” instead of “calling out.” FāVS has exposed me to religious concepts I find both challenging and provocative, including those aforementioned challenges to my atheism.
We all tend to live in our own bubbles, especially in the age of social media. FāVS breaks the bubble. There is enormous value in that.
What final thought would I share with my 20-year-old self? You will have a good life. You will experience love and loss, triumph and tragedy. You will have children you adore and their spouses and grandchildren to enjoy. But it will go by so quickly.
You think you know all there is to know, but you don’t. You think the world revolves around you and your passions. But it doesn’t. There are issues bigger than you and you need to pay attention to them.
You think you are invulnerable now, a lifetime ahead of you. But it is only a blink in time and no moment of it will come by twice. Enjoy it. Appreciate it.
There is no second act.
Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020. His columns reflect his progressive political views. Smith was raised in a Jewish home and is culturally Jewish. However, he considers himself an atheist, which is reflected in his writing. Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms until his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an M.A. in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a B.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon. Smith currently serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board of Trustees.
[…] Yes, the sacred texts of the world’s great religions speak to the qualities of a moral life, although those qualities are too often practiced in the breach. Atheists lead moral lives, too. It is not necessary to read the Bible or the Quran to lead a value-drive life. […]