As an atheist, I have the luxury of choosing my own morals free from the constraints and fears associated with belief in supernatural beings or powers. I don’t believe that a Greek God will smite me with lighting bolts if talk back to my parents, nor do I believe that bad karma will follow me if I cut someone off in traffic or in line at the grocery store. At best, I believe in a psychological give and receive sort of karma: if I treat people well, people will tend to treat me well in return. For instance, if I remember someone’s birthday, this person is more likely to remember my own birthday. In a way, I guess, my atheist morality is far from altruistic. I behave well towards other people because it makes people behave well towards me and also because I feel better behaving well. Divine and supernatural powers and events aside, I feel in my gut that there is something good about behaving well toward other people.
One moral I have sometimes struggled with is the concept of fidelity. I was raised in a fairly conservative manner when it comes to relationships. My parents became engaged as teenagers and are still married, happily, to this day. I went to an all-girls high school and did not date until college. When I first started dating, I jumped into a serious, long-term relationship for nearly two years. Since then, I’ve dated much more and haven’t been as serious in my relationships, but I still hold a sort of ideal in my mind: I’m supposed to find one person and fall madly in love forever. Once I find “the one,” I’ll be so certain that I’ll never doubt our relationship, our love, and our marriage, which will last our whole lives.
As I grow up, though, I have to wonder if my ideal for relationships and fidelity really makes sense in the chaotic world which surrounds me. I’ve grown to realize that the initial passion of relationships fades with time and that novelty has an appeal. These days, break-ups and divorces are common. Infidelity is even more common, perhaps. Certainly, there are plenty of people in happy, healthful, committed relationships, but there’s a heck of a lot of infidelity going on, too.
Some people argue that biologically humans are not meant to be monogamists or, at best, are meant to be serial monogamists. Personally, that sort of argument annoys me. I feel this sort of argument was invented by horny sixteen-year-olds. Biology aside, people choose to be in open relationships and choose to cheat on their significant others. If all parties involved are okay with an open relationship, then I’m all for it. However, I think that using biology to justify infidelity doesn’t make much sense. Humans aren’t “meant” to be using the internet or living in warm houses any more than they are “meant” to be monogamous. Monogamy is a social construction, too, not just a biological one. Of course, there are many cultures in which, historically, monogamy is not the norm. However, I feel there has to be some reason why monogamy is an advantageous behavoir in many human socieites.
Personally, I feel strongly that at some point I am going to make a decision to be committed to one person for the rest of my life. I’m comfortable saying this even though I currently have three realistic crushes (i.e. they live in my zip code and are available) as well as half a dozen unrealistic crushes (i.e. yes, Jake Gyllenhaal, I will marry you). I feel that choosing a long-term relationship is somewhat analogous to choosing a college. When choosing a life partner, like choosing a college, I look for certain qualities (he cooks well and is good in bed) and criteria (he doesn’t live in Siberia). Inevitably, there will be several people who fit my standards for a long-term relationship. Like with college, however, at some point I’ll make a decision and not look back.
There were many colleges and majors that appealed to me when I was a senior in high school. After touring many schools (that’s sort of like dating, right?), I picked one college that matched my requirements and was also financially feasible, and I went there. I made a commitment, and I tried not to think about all the other schools I could have gone to. Of course, there was always the potential for me to drop out or transfer, but after a certain point those options didn’t make much sense. After a couple of years of hard work, I had enough invested in my undergraduate institution to make me very loyal to my college. I feel a relationship will be similar for me: eventually, I’ll make a decision and then have so much invested in the relationship that it won’t make sense for me to transfer, so to speak, even when I find myself attracted to others. Though, I am wondering if I might be able to work a Jake Gyllenhaal clause into my prenup if I ever get married… why, unless I marry Jake himself, of course…
Were I a Christian, I might feel more comfortable about my desire for a committed relationship. I could justify it in terms of God’s wishes and feel better about myself for behaving in a way that pleases God. As an atheist, I feel I have to work a little bit harder to justify my desire for a committed relationship. I have to think a little about why I feel that monogamy makes sense, for me, in the long run. Overall, I think atheist morality is more work than religious morality. I don’t feel there’s one moral code that fits all human beings. Instead, I try to live by a moral code that I am comfortable with, and I adapt this code for people around me. That is, I don’t hold others to the exact same morals to which I hold myself. Rather than swallowing doctrine, I have to look at the world around me and logically develop a moral code with which I am comfortable. Again, I have to think about what my morals are and how I can justify them. Of course, I am not starting from scratch. Social conventions, undoubtedly, shape my own ideas about morality. However, at least I am thinking about why I believe in certain morals rather than accepting a given set of morals associated with a particular religious doctrine.
I am a long way off from being married, at this point. Heck, I don’t even know that I ever want to get married. I’m too busy with my MIT classes and with planning geological expeditions to remote corners of the globe. However, I am happy to have come up with a sort of atheistic morality as far as relationships go.