“Atheists have no reason not to kill other people,” said the man in a maroon sweater who had been quacking too loud for the dude on the podium at the “Speakers’ Corner” at Sydney’s Hyde Park to be heard.

“Excuse me!” I butted in, having excused myself from our mother’s day picnic to see what all the commotion was about. Suddenly all eyes were on me. “What does belief or disbelief in God have to do with killing other people???” I asked, noticing my tone rising to the bellowing nature of his.

“Well tell, me,” Mr Maroon Sweater got louder. “On what basis can Atheists place their understand of right and wrong?”

There are many reactions one might have to such a question. When put on the spot it’s hard to immediately articulate one.

“Well for a start they don’t base it on a book that condones slavery.” I said strongly, feeling my legs feel a teeny bit shaky. I’m not used to confrontation. “Just look at history and the way our ethics and morals have evolved.”

“Evolution is about survival of the fittest. Answer me this: if one Atheist tells you it’s ok to kill Jews, on what basis can another Atheist say that is wrong?” he said.

“WTF?” another three people around me jumped in. “What kind of question is that? …. You arrogant peacock!” That almost scarred him away.

While they conducted their own shouting match, I thought about how I might put into words my more philosophical understanding of ethics – which is not based on religion.

“The basis of most ethics, for atheists, Christians and other religions, comes from the simple fact that when I look at you, I see my self in you.” I started at his tone and slowly lowered my voice. It felt a more civilized to speak rather than shout. “It’s called empathy: if I can imagine what it’s like to be in your shoes, and if I know how I want to be treated, then I have a basis for ethics. And that has nothing to do with religion. You don’t have to be religious to see we share a common humanity.” I answered. Onlookers nodded.

“The Golden Rule, yeah yeah,” Mr Maroon continued. “But… blah blah blahbadidadada blah… blah?”

I could see my family, while entertained by the situation, were wondering when I might return.

“Look, I have to go, but I have to say that rather than generalizing a group of people and attributing their non-religious belief to causing a lack of basis of ethics, maybe you should look learn about where the ethics inside your book have come from and the role that non-religious people and outside influences have played in this process.” Ok, maybe my last comment wasn’t quite so articulated.

This little episode made me feel like I’d gone back two thousand years to where this is how prophets and philosopher communicated with others. We’re all on a journey to ask questions and find out the answers for ourselves, and I suppose we always will be. I guess some things never change.

The exercise left me with three thoughts:

1) the importance of thinking through these things, and knowing what one thinks

2) the importance of learning to communicate with fanatics like Mr Maroon

3) the importance of knowing when to walk away

I’m sure there were hundreds of ways I could have handled it better, but I did alright. It was fun, and so was returning to drink wine in the sun. Mid-May in Sydney – gotta love it.

Hopefully the dude on the podium eventually got to speak his thoughts on global happiness…