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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…

Humanity: are we an empathic civilisation???

Something many of us probably do not know is that connected to our drive to survive, is an empathic disposition driving the evolution of “civilisation”. Humans have a long history of empathy that unfortunately our history books tend to forget about. The book The Empathic Civilisation – The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, by Jeremy Rifkin, tells another story.

As a commenter on Peace: How Do We Find It? said, “so now all we need to change, is the minds of the entire human population.” That sounds darn right impossible, doesn’t it. It doesn’t sound very promising, nor ethical, BUT if humans are empathic at their core then maybe we don’t have to change people minds – maybe we just have to REMEMBER a part of ourselves we often forget.

Rifkin writes about the change in people’s minds that led to the spread of Christianity around 1500 years ago.

“Cast adrift from their tribal bonds and thrown together with people of different cultures form around the empire, large numbers of individuals suddenly found themselves alone in dense urban environments and without a sense of identity… what was missing was a powerful new narrative that could put every single individual at the center of a compelling cosmic story of creation, tribulation, judgement, and redemption, and, by doing so, recast the very meaning of human existence… it would be a young sect calling itself Christians that would take Rome and the empire by storm with their story.” [1]

This video is not a replacement but it is a brilliant summary of the book:


Oh and this interview with the Rifkin is pretty cool too:


It seems to me that while conflict and competition play important (and positive) roles in life processes, if we have an empathic disposition then conflicts don’t need to have violent and destructive consequences.

Could small shift in the way we frame our story? Could books and clips such as this one contain the butterfly effect strong enough to realise our empathy and better the world for each other and future generations?

Or will it be a new cosmic narrative that addresses our own distorted sense of identity?

Rifkin describes three Industrial Revolutions, each based on a developments in energy/communications technologies:

1. coal/print

2. oil/radio-television

3. (maybe) the Internet/alternative energy

In order to avoid “planetary collapse” in the face of “a rapidly accelerating juggernaut” of climate change and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, (or, if you’re a climate change skeptic, then just exchange those two words for human population which is undeniably ridiculous and out of control) a revolution is necessary.

If this third revolution happens, Ruskin writes that it ‘will be marked by a “distributed” model of energy production (and use) that will rely on the new assumption that human nature is not inherently selfish, but rather that people ‘want to collaborate with others, often freely, for the sheer joy of contributing to the common good.‘[2]

How’s your empathic disposition as we come up to Christmas?

Do you think such a revolution is possible?

I do, but that might be summer and the fact that I just got my first scooter, bringing back my pre-India incurable optimism…


[1] The Empathic Civilization – The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, by Jeremy Rifkin.

[2] As summed in a review in ONE COUNTRY, Bahai Internationa Community New York, Ed. Brad Pokorny.