One of the more common and frustrating questions atheists get is, “Where do you get your morals?” It’s frustrating because whether intentional or not, there’s an implied suggestion that atheists are incapable of being moral just because they don’t believe in god (and sometimes not so much implied as enthusiastically shouted).
This looks like a man who knows a lot about atheists.
In fact, this is so common of a question for us that Greta Christina made it her first entry in her brilliant post, 9 Questions Not To Ask Atheists — With Answers.
While Christina goes into greater detail, the short answer is that atheists get their morals from a many places, but mostly from their sense of empathy. It doesn’t take a belief in god to sense suffering in others and want to reduce it. In fact, there’s an entire ethical philosophy based on the simple idea of reducing suffering.
Which leads me to how we explore morals outside the Bible: Namely, fiction. We use all sorts of fiction to explore morality; from television shows to movies to comic books, we constantly tell stories to play out ethical dilemmas and examine the principles of integrity.
Admittedly, some are better than others.
“But what about the Bible!?” you ask, because you’re here only in my mind to pose the questions I feel like answering. Yes, the Bible is filled with stories that explore ethics. Some of them very well; others, not so much. But the Bible – or other sacred texts for that matter – hardly has a monopoly on morality tales.
In fact, sometimes even seemingly shallow entertainment can give surprisingly good ethical advice. I was watching an episode of Necessary Roughness, which is an interesting show, but not known for delving into deep moral quandaries.
Not exactly the perfect example of a moral life.
In one episode, a character was sharing ice cream with a girl. When she scoffed at his choice of flavor he says, “Hey! Don’t yuck my yum!” After her confused response, he explained that it was a family rule. While it’s okay to dislike something, it’s not okay to attack others for liking it. You shouldn’t disturb someone else’s enjoyment because you don’t agree with it.
I love this. What a simple way to improve the level of civility in the world. I can’t count the times I’ve mentioned something I enjoy only to be ridiculed for it. For the most part people do it in jest and with no intention of insult, but still I feel there’s some level of truth in the mocking… its kidding on the square.
I think the rule of don’t yuck my yum strikes a chord with me because I so often struggle with it. We as humans naturally feel our opinions are superior to everyone else’s. I would go as far as to say (without any evidence to back this statement up) that while we know intellectually that all opinions are equally valid, on an emotional we see our own opinions as facts. We don’t say we like something, we definitively state that it’s good. How many times have you heard someone say – jokingly or not – that someone else’s opinion is wrong. That’s absurd of course. The things you enjoy and the things I enjoy are never going to perfectly match. How much better would it be if we stopped mocking other people for their opinions, even if its tongue-in-cheek.
Of course, there might be limits to my restraint.
Just the other day, I was driving with my sister-in-law and she mentioned she enjoyed Fall Out Boy. My instantaneous reaction was a loud snort of derision, and I had to stop myself and apologize. I’ve similarly reacted with scorn when my wife mentions how she used to like Blink 182 when she was in high school. We’re not even talking about something she currently enjoys, but something she enjoyed years ago, and my automatic reaction is contempt.
And contempt for what? Because she had the temerity to listen to something once upon a time and find joy in it? How arrogant of me is it to mock that? And the real hypocrisy is that while I tend to sneer at other people’s favorite things, I also get fiercely protective about my favorite things. You don’t like the Lord of the Rings!? What could possibly be wrong with your brain!? How dare you not enjoy something I’ve decided is great!?
Reacting in this fashion serves no good purpose. It’s just pissing on someone else’s enjoyment to feel superior. Even in jest, that’s a douche move.
Even douchier than this guy… shit I’m doing it again.
So this show gave me a nice shorthand for a concept that I need to work on. Don’t yuck my yum. Letting everyone enjoy what they want and allowing people to dislike the things you enjoy I think is a great way to make the world just a touch more pleasant. And if that’s not a moral act, I don’t know what is.
“But wait!” you say (again only in my head). “Aren’t you the one writing an atheist blog? Isn’t your attacks on religion the ultimate in yucking someone else’s yum?” This is a fair point, though I don’t think quite entirely accurate. Part of don’t yuck my yum includes allowing other people to believe things you don’t believe, but that doesn’t mean you can’t criticize. There’s a difference between critiquing an idea and attacking a person who believes it. I may attack the beliefs, but I’ll do my best to not attack the person. Admittedly, this will be a tough line for me to walk, and I imagine from time to time I’ll cross it. I hereby grant you, dear reader, permission to call me out when I do cross that line. I’m not infallible, and don’t expect to ever completely get this right. But, hopefully with some help I can get better.