Skip to main content

Narrative as Ethics

After yesterday’s encounter with Mr Moron, I mean, Mr Maroon, a religious fanatic arguing that Atheist’s have no code for morality, I want to take a deeper look at ethics and morality from both a religious and secular perspective.

Given my research into the role of narratives in peace studies, I ask: What is the role of narrative in our ethics?

Mr Maroon was holding up his ethical code – the Christian bible – and asking for Atheists to hold up theirs.

“I have the Bible. Atheists have nothing. Atheists have no moral code. I win. You lose.”

A black and white question like that is hard to respond to. Is it A or B? Well what if there’s also a C, D, E or Z?

It’s like the argument “Jesus must have been a liar, a lunatic or Lord” – it starts from a base full of assumptions, and posits three options that ignore the grey. It ignores the humanity of the writers of the Bible, the contradictions between gospels, the hundreds of books left out of the bible. It ignores the option that Jesus could have also been a great teacher, that the stories are part legend, at times drawing on myth to make points that are more true than literal truth. It ignores the historical context that the stories were told, that the chapters were recorded, and the book was edited and translated and interpreted today. I digress.

No, Atheists do not have a book of absolute, unquestionable and unchanging ethical codes. That’s why they put an end to slavery. That’s why women and children are now treated like people. That’s why philosophers are continue to asking and re-ask: what is the “good life” we are aspiring to? and how can we live the good life with others, in just institutions?

For Mr Maroon, not having one book of unchanging ethics (whether they are cherry-picked from or not) is a sign of weakness, a sign of lacking morality, when in fact it is the opposite.

Ethics are not fixed, and the second they seem fixed then we really must be on guard!

Ethics come from culture, and return to culture, as a result of human evaluation and human mediation. We inherit their gifts, and their debts.

Of course Atheists, in rejecting the narrative of a separate “God” watching over us, haven’t thrown the baby out with the bath water. No matter one’s theological understanding, the cultural heritage (for better or worse) remains with us. In fact, critiques of environmental destruction point the finger at secular ethics being too rooted in biblical ethics. That is, the notion of us being separate individuals that will one day die was seeded in certain religious narratives (pre-dating Christianity, mind you), that have caused us to think ourselves separate from the ecological systems we cannot live without. But again, I digress.

The culturally-based notions of ethics and our entire ways of being, were evolving long before the Old Testament and long after the writing of the New Testament, are (lucky for us) still evolving today.

What is ethical and what is not is something we must constantly question, evaluate, adjust and re-evaluate.

The stories that were transmitted orally then recorded in text – histories, myths and fictions – have been, and still are, the basis of our morality, and deeper than that, our ethics. From these stories have sprung some of the most rotten and some of the most ripe fruits humanity has bore. The Dark Ages, the Inquisitions, the Crusades, slavery, war, extreme injustices and destruction, can be attributed to stories gone wrong, that have caused actions with horrible consequences – be they intended or not. Religious, political, fictional narratives contain power to bring pleasures and power to bring pain.

Narratives in books, films, songs, and conversation, allow us to imagine ourselves in different situations and imagine how we would like to be treated if that were us. Narratives of history allow us to see the devastation that not questioning certain narratives can be.

Let’s refer to Mr Maroon’s example of the killing of Jews in WW2: those living in Europe who accepted the narratives of their time and obeyed the law as if it were ethical, played a role in the destruction. Those who conformed rather than caused conflict about them, are the reason that such a horrible things were allowed to occur.


Others, like my Opa who (working in Holland at the time) said “no, it is NOT ethical to give Jews an identification with a big J on it as this will increase their chances of being taken away” and proceeded to work for the underground producing fake-IDs for Jews – was acting far more ethically than had he followed the moral of obeying the law.

As a side-note, given the common misconception, it is worth mentioning that Hitler’s religious views are a matter of dispute. While it is common to think of Hitler as an Atheist, given that before WW2 he was promoting “Positive Christianity” – was a Nazi brand of Christianity purged of Jewish elements – and that his book and public speeches often affirmed his Christian faith… maybe that’s a judgement worth rethinking.[2]

Ok, given all my tangents, let me sum up the above:

1. Ethics are not fixed – they should always be questioned or else bad things can be done in the name of ethics (slavery, murder, …) This requires a learning to think critically, and conflict rather than conform when it is necessary.

2. Atheists, theists, panentheists – people following any theology or lack of – require this constant re-evaluation of ethics and their moral application and implications.

3. Narratives are a useful way for this evaluation via imaginative variations to occur.



Paul Ricoeur’s book Oneself as Another among other books and podcasts on philosophy I’m into atm.

[1] Picture taken from


Debating the Ethics of Atheists at Sydney’s Speakers’ Corner

“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…

Stories, Boxes, and Things that Don’t Fit

Christmas is full of stories and boxes, as are our lives. Every day, in every interaction, and in almost every thought, we seek to put the things we see, hear, smell, taste or feel in categorical boxes, and attach stories to them.

For a simple example think about the smells when your mum is cooking dinner – attached to that smell might be a story about the future taste and the soon-to-come experience of eating it at a table with loved ones.

We tell stories about people based on their race, religion, jobs, level of education, style of clothes, and even the suburb they live.

Why do we feel a need to box everything?

Are these boxes useful? How much truth is contained in the stories attached?

Boxes and their attached stories might give us an indication about the future, a story with a certain probability of manifestation, but a nice smelling dinner doesn’t guarantee it’s taste.

Even our life stories tend to fall into boxes. Our psyche is basically programmed to choose from the available cultural myths and live out one of them – the only difference between us is that our stories are acted out by a different set of characters and slightly varied themes and plots.

What kind of life myth boxes am I talking about? Well, for example,

TheThe White Picket Fence” box is probably the most prominent myth of Western culture – where one desires to find a man/woman, get married, get a mortgage, and make babies to start a new White Picket cycle.

Then there’s the “Career-Ladder Climber”, the person dedicated to getting approval of those above them and slowly moving up corporate hierarchy.

And then there’s “The Religious Devotee” who spends their lives hoping for the approval of the divine, and eternal rewards that come with it.

There’sThe Wanderer”, the vagabonds, travellers, life-long bachelors, job-hoppers – people who commit to nothing other than their strong commitment not to commit.

And the “The Artist”, the writers, musicans, painters, etc., who spends their lives making creative statements about the actions and consequences of the boxes above.

I don’t define any of these boxes with judgment attached. Of course there are many more life-story boxes than these ones. And many people probably fit into more than one box.

Boxes – categories – come naturally to our minds. Almost without thinking we put people into one box or another, depending where we view the way they prioritise their life – on whether they seem to place a higher value in Security, Money, Success, Experience, or Art.

I feel I have, at different times in my life, experienced all of these boxes. In my teens I was a Religious Devotee; studying and working in Business I was a Career Ladder Climber; when I fell in love for the first time I aspired to the White Picket Fence (I even owned soccer mum Ralph Lauren Chinos dear oh dear); then I became a Traveller, and now I’m an aspiring Writer. Hm, I’m almost a cat – five lives down, four to go…

I don’t think these boxes are tickboxes, where you can only experience one at one time. I still carry different degrees of the other boxes with me – far more Traveller, a very different interest in religion, and almost zero interest in climbing any bureaucratic hierarchies or obtaining a white picket fence.

I’m trying to remember the point I wanted to make here…

Coming back to the Christmas gift analogy, some gifts do not fit inside a box. Maybe because they are an odd shape or size or nature. For whatever reason, not every gift should be put in a box, and I think the same for people’s life myths – our lives simply don’t always fit these molds.

McAdams believes ‘Human lives are too complex for a typological approach, and too socially inflected to support any argument that says the truth resides solely within… We do not discover ourselves in myth; we make ourselves through myth.’ [1]

In more recent times I think more and more people are jumping between boxes, creating a custom-made box combining a snippets of stories as we please.

Some women Climb the Career Ladder, skip the marriage, have a kid and continue their climb.

Some Travellers give up their roaming for a White Picket while some White Pickets bulldoze the fence to become Travellers or Artists.

Most of my school friends are married but never want to have kids.

And with today’s high rates of divorce it is normal to ask “is it your first?” when one hears another is getting married.

The Postmodern era has somewhat introduced an eclectic “Pick and Mix” approach to almost everything, including our live-stories. There are many combination of boxes one’s life story might fit. And people create new boxes all the time. We no longer have to choose one and live out the whole myth.

We can now sit and look at our lives from a hypothetical vantage point outside ourselves, see at all the available stories and combine them as we please.

Are you aware of the boxes you get put in, and the boxes you put others in? How do you box and add stories to things and experiences? What does your custom-made life-story box look like?


I bet you can’t find me in there. I’m there though… it was taken at a Church Youth Camp in 1996.

The camp’s motto “Let God Out Of The Box” is kinda ironic considering I don’t remember the camp considering the box they were putting “God” inside.

Theists (and atheists) seem to box God in the image of a Divine King on a thrown in the sky that will punish you if you are bad and reward you if you are good. Yet, at the same time, theists tend to conceive of “Him” more abstractly as the personification of an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient power… could God need to be let out of the Santa-Claus-like judge medieval box?

If religious and non-religious allowed their minds space to reflect on the boxes they put “God” inside, and to consider the question: “What is this thing we call God?” I wonder what we might discover. Could “God” not be something that you either believe in, or you don’t – could “God” simply be everything that is? When we die could we return to our the “oneness with God” where we came from, that is oneness with the universe, with heaven and hell states of being here on earth? Could the boxes we have created with our language (and history’s misinterpretations and manipulations) be distracting us from an underlying truth? I digress.

As we come up to the new year I wonder: is there anything we might like to let out of the box?


[1] Dan P. McAdams, The Stories We Live By : Personal Myths and the Making of the Self (New York: Guilford Press, 1996). P12-13

God and fundamentalisms

This may sound strange but I LOVE our universe. I love that we are conscious of our selves, that we understand so much about our location in space and time, and I love that there is so much we don’t know – the mystery and intrigue keeps life exciting. It reminds you of the importance of the process, not the result. Dreaming and working to achieve your dreams so that when you make it you can dream a new dream. There’s always more to learn. There’s always new ways to create. The universe has infinite creative potential. This is God.

I love capturing beauty with my camera. I love thinking about the beautiful things I can see, hear, smell, taste – thinking about why I can see, hear, smell and taste them, and what gives me the ability to think about these things. The language that allows me to put feelings into thoughts and into words.

I love contemplating what this process of creation tells us  about the nature “God”, about the nature of our expanding universe and the nature of ourselves and our role in this ongoing evolution. I love learning about religions and I try to keep an open and empathetic attitude to ideas and perspectives different to my own. Each perspective has come from somewhere, every person has a story, and every idea has its purpose and its place. Like people, perspectives and ideas, and like our universe and our understanding of God – CONSTANTLY CHANGE. We constantly know more. We will never know everything. And that in itself is what makes life so fantastic.

Today I went to St Matthews Church in Manly to listen to Ken Duncan, the famous landscape photographer, speak about Life’s Adventure, and the process of capturing the beauty and glory of God in these landscapes. I enjoyed this very much, until the end.

What I enjoyed was hearing the story behind the amazing panoramas. Each photo took patience and intuition – listening to that voice inside of you that Ken attributed to God. I do that too. And I find that listening to this voice is how I get my shots. It’s how I find the words. It’s how I live my life. Connecting myself with the all-power energy that surrounds us and connects all of life. To say no

Confronted with images from Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion – with the blood and guts of an Anglo-Saxon Jesus suffering “for me” on the cross – juxtaposed with his amazingly beautiful panoramas. I felt sick to the stomach.

“The only way to God is through Jesus Christ”

I’m sorry. I do not agree. I can not.

Why not?

a) People of other religions also connect with “God” (even if they speak another language and call this great force by another name like Allah or Jehovah – all the same MONOTHEISTIC god…) Who the heck would I be to say they are all deceived while the Western religion has magically got it right?

b) The power behind life I call “God” is more powerful than what this simple narrative makes out. What kind of God would REQUIRE a human incarnation of itself to suffer and die in order to have a relationship with me? Couldn’t an all-powerful God conquer death without requiring a death?

I’m still searching for answers. I’ll share more of my Christian journey when I get time to read through the writings I have done over the past few years. But there are just some times I have to speak up. This was one of those times, and I had to communicate these few points with Ken Duncan… so I wrote the above little essay on a feedback form and hope he gets in touch with me to discuss. If you are going to go out and tell everyone about Jesus, then maybe he has some answers. Those with exclusive perspectives of their own religion have a lot to answer for – not least the Clash of Civilisations predicted as a consequence of identities mixed up in such opposing exclusive views.

I do have to say though I was really impressed with Ken’s talk and I absolutely LOVE his work. And i loved his wonderful example of faith and listening to “God”. I relate to that. But when I see something that seems to me to be at the roots of world violence I can’t just sit back and watch. I have to say something.

Yes, a Jewish revolutionary was crucified 2000 years ago. Yes, this man changed the lives of many people – telling them to forget the church’s bureaucratic rules and instead follow his example and discover a personal direct relationship the divine power behind creation. He told them to be pacifists – to let your enemy slap the other cheek. The earliest Christians did this. Shame we don’t do it anymore, instead ignoring the Sermon on the Mount and focusing on the human theological interpretations of a narrative, mis-interpreting premodern writings in our modern paradigms. Focusing on rules, on separation, and on literal interpretations of myths.

Jesus said to forget the bullshit – life is not about obedience to autocratic rules. It’s about two things:

1. Love “God”.

2. Love your neighbour as yourself.

I find myself seeking the divine power behind our existence, connecting with it and allowing that connection to guide my life and help me pursue my unique role in the unveiling of the universe’s expansion. I am still debating whether or not I want to personify this power – it seems to have benefits of comfort and communication, but at the danger of tricking the mind to really think this power is actually a person. I don’t think anybody really believes God is a person, which is why I find the THEIST / ATHEIST debate so strange.

It seems to me it’s not a question of “is there a God?” but is actually question of “what is this power we call God?” and how can we best understand and connect with this power? Should we seek it through a deeper understanding quantum physics? Through looking at the major religions and identifying common elements – separating human-designed theologies from the original messages of the prophets? Or through seeking a deeper understanding of ourselves and our own potential to have a prophetic-like relationship with the divine.

Sometimes I find myself truly seeing other people and other forms of life as other expressions of myself. If i was born into their situation, I would be living and responding just as they do. This is why the concept of “sin” seems so foreign – most of the time these actions are derived from their life’s experience, and when you seek the cause of destructive behaviour, it is not something that the person had control over.

I love those moments where my separate identity disappears and I feel at one with the universe. Floating in the ocean allowing waves to carry your body up and down is one of the most meditative states that make me realise my separateness is a temporary condition – one I must enjoy each moment without fear of it’s inevitable end.

“But what do I know, I’m just a model”

And it’s late, I’m running on 5 hours sleep, my eyes are heavy so I’m going to post this, have a shower and go to bed.


The picture I used for this post is a meditation poster called Supreme Light from the Brahma Kumaris, a spiritual university –