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Moral Compass

It was hot, unpleasant work in the middle of of a muggy upstate New York summer. My missionary companion and I had volunteered to help a family in the ward take down some old plaster. The plaster dust and real horsehair made the job even more unpleasant. The mother of the family introduced us to her daughter, a blue-eyed beauty just a few years older than we were.

I sensed instinctively that she had been one of the cool kids in high school. In all the strange circles I haunted in high school, I never got much respect from the cool kids. They relegated me to the periphery of social life. So when this woman was kind and friendly to me, it caught me off guard. It wasn’t long before I was smitten by her beauty and attention.

We learned that she had two sons and had been excommunicated from the Mormon church for giving birth to the first outside of marriage. She had wanted to remain a member of the church, but she found herself on the wrong end of a branch president who demanded too many details about her sexual experiences. Disgusted, she didn’t show up to her church court and the church leaders tried and excommunicated her in absentia. She had hard feelings because her father had maintained a temple recommend while sexually abusing his daughters. The inequity between the two situations pushed her farther from the church.

She became our project, to get her rebaptized.

We spent a lot of time with her and her family. We ate a lot of dinners there, mowed their huge back lawn, fixed problems with their house. I even bought the kids the Sonic and Knuckles expansion cartridge for their Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the Sega Genesis.

Things started to get a little weird after a couple of months. She and my companion sat next to each other on the couch one night, sharing a blanket. “It’s cold.” I wasn’t sure, but I thought they might be holding hands underneath the blanket. Then there was the time they accidentally watched a movie which showed a topless woman. “Oops!” Or how often we sat next to her in church with him next to her.

It became more and more obvious—even to me, Captain Oblivious—that there was something going on between them. This has to stop, I thought. It should have been me that she liked.

Jealously, I contacted my mission president and told him what I thought was happening. He reassigned my companion elsewhere, she was heartbroken, I got a new companion, and we were banned from the home that we had spent so much time in. That was how our six month companionship ended.

The mission president gave me a pat on the back for doing the right thing. He told me my companion had confessed to sneaking out in the middle of the night to meet with her and make out. My former companion later thanked me for getting him back on the straight and narrow. I felt like a punk. I didn’t turn informant because it was the right thing to do. I did it because I wanted to get my companion out of the way, to take revenge on him for stealing her away from me.


How often have I done the right thing simply because it is the right thing? As I look back on my life, the answer I come to is never. The reason I do things is because I want to do them. It only happens that most of the time what I want coincides with the moral thing to do, as it did in this story.

Even when I do something primarily because its right to do it, I am really motivated because I want to feel good about myself; I want to avoid a guilty conscience, or I can’t bear feeling empathy for the suffering of another. It all comes down to what I want, mostly irrespective of any moral law.

If God came down tomorrow and told everyone that he rescinded his moral law, that we could sin as much as we want with no consequence in heaven or hell, would human civilization descend into perdition? Would we break the hearts of our family by abandoning them? Would we take advantage of children and the mentally retarded? Would we kill babies for the fun of it? What sins would we commit that we aren’t committing already?

I can’t think of any.

I behave the way I do largely for reasons other than the moral law as taught in our houses of worship. I always have. Becoming an atheist has freed me from all religious constraints of heaven or hell, yet my behavior is mostly the same. I don’t cheat on my wife because I don’t want to hurt her. I don’t take advantage of people because I hate injustice. I don’t kill babies because that is repugnant to me.

I’m beginning to live my life according to the Law of Thelema: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law… Love is the law, love under will. I do what I want, like I always have. The only difference is that I am now unashamed of the actions that the pious would label as sin. I don’t sin more, just with a free conscience. My mental energies are now focused on real problems in my behavior, not petty stuff like drinking tea, or working on Sunday.

The moral law that I live didn’t come from above. I comes from within. It is the product of my true desires. I don’t need a fictitious deity to bully me into acting morally. It’s what I already want. You might want to give credit to God for creating me that way, for writing his law in my heart, but then he must also take the blame for all the sinning that I’ve done.

I prefer to take all the responsibility to myself.

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  1. mel said,

    August 8, 2007 @ 3:21 pm

    I prefer to take all the responsibility to myself.

    The god-indoctrinated mind has been prepared to see this as the very words of Lucifer.

    I had a similar though more abbreviated experience on my mission. One where I had no attraction to my companion’s object of desire. I shut it down and turned him in. My motivation was simple fear, as was the entirety of my sexual repression. Fear of rejection. Fear of shame. Fear of inconformity with authority. Fear of failing in my stewardship. Fear of failing in my hopes for promotion/exaltation. Or perhaps simply fear of not being worthy to save souls … of having power removed from me.

    We can argue about the virtues of time and place in human sexuality with it’s moral implications but this was not a fear of poor timing … this was a fear of being. From the perspective of a moral compass, I’d say it was overkill. This is first and foremost about controlling human minds as are most if not all of the “moral laws of god.”

    Jonathan, I admire your reasons for their closer ties to natural human motivations as opposed to delusions of the mind.

  2. Paul Sunstone said,

    August 8, 2007 @ 6:27 pm

    Someone once said something along the lines of “When a man finally decides to be a good man, rather than merely a moral man, he sets himself upon a course of rectitude compared to which all his former moral behavior is mere licentiousness.” I think it was Forester who said it, but I could be wrong about that. At any rate, I admire the honesty you show not only in this post but through-out what I’ve read of your blog. I’m curious whether today you see your action in coming between the two lovers to be a “sin” or a wrong?

  3. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 8, 2007 @ 7:52 pm


    The god-indoctrinated mind has been prepared to see this as the very words of Lucifer.

    To some, it probably sounds like I’m rejecting the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. Probably because I am. I don’t see myself as fallen. From where? I don’t feel estranged. From whom? My former views were full of self-loathing taught in the guise of healing words of wisdom.

    Paul Sunstone,

    I’m curious whether today you see your action in coming between the two lovers to be a “sin” or a wrong?

    I don’t recognize a real significance to sin other than what we give it. Sin, to me, is just something that we discourage through our religious institutions. So, no, I don’t consider what I did to be a sin or morally wrong in some absolute sense.

    Aside from that consideration, it’s hard to say if I wronged them. She would say that I had. He might not. He had a girlfriend waiting at home, so he may have been grateful for my intervention in the long run (as he confided to me later).

    I disagree with the grounds for reporting them (the ones I allowed the public to assume). I don’t think religious service should come at the expense of human love. I’ve known many couples who met while one or both were missionaries. They lead happy lives the last I checked.

    I am unequivocally regretful for the private reasons that I turned them in. I acted childishly and defensively. I wish I had been bigger than feeling spurned by her. At the same time, I understand why I felt that way.

  4. Paul Sunstone said,

    August 8, 2007 @ 8:35 pm

    Even if you did act childishly and defensively back then, that was all part of the learning curve we all have to go through in life. One of the things I find so distasteful about some religions is they teach regret, guilt and penance as the proper ways to atone for a mistake. Yet, it seems to me, the way to make good on a mistake is to learn from it. On the other hand, if you’re always apologizing to God for what you’ve done, you’re quite often too busy apologizing to figure out just how you could have done any better. At least that’s how it seems to me.

  5. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 9, 2007 @ 7:41 am

    Paul Sunstone,

    Well said. I probably spent too much of my time attempting to feel “godly sorrow” that I missed the opportunity to actually learn from my mistakes.

    I forgot to mention that I really like the paraphrased quote you gave a couple comments back. I can really feel that dynamic working in my life. I feel much more motivated to do good things now that it is a matter of what I want rather than an arbitrary moral code.

  6. paranoidfr33k said,

    August 9, 2007 @ 8:24 am

    Paul, you hit it right on the head. Most times, we are too worried about what our religious institutions want us to repent for, and worry about not committing, to actually make a change in our lives. There is a lot of talk about allowing Christ to enter our hearts so that we can have a change of heart, but allowing for that to take place doesn’t take our own accountability into view, making people think that change comes from outside ourselves.

    I agree that we need to take an accounting of our actions and make real change in our lives.

    Jonathan, I’ll agree that I also do the right thing for selfish reasons most of the time. I find solice in that idea as I also take into account the effects my actions may have on others and not because a church says so.

    Even though our reasoning for doing the right may not coincide with the religious dogma of a overbearing church, we still end up doing whats right in the end, and thats the main thing. Its nice to know what doing the right thing doesn’t have to come from the church as that fact makes it easier for me to leave the religious mindset behind without worrying that I’m going to go out and kill babies. I’m not built that way either.

    Great post. I’m really enjoying your posts and how they hit at the core of many of thoughts. I also like how you get them down on paper in such a way that I can understand my own thoughts a little better. Thank you for that.


  7. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 9, 2007 @ 9:06 am


    I’ll agree that I also do the right thing for selfish reasons most of the time.

    And I think that has to be enough, because there really is no other reason we do things. I see the moral code like a set of training wheels: they show you how to ride but eventually you have to give them up. We have to trust ourselves that our desires are good, and recognize that we can have conflicting desires.

    “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Cor. 13: 11)

  8. paranoidfr33k said,

    August 9, 2007 @ 10:14 am


    Well said.

    In the case of my religious upbringing, I’ve now put away the church as a childish thing. I’m thinking for myself now that that is invigorating. Its nice to know that I have it in me to do the right thing regardless of whether I read the scriptures daily or pay my tithing, being obedient to the endless commandments and teachings of the prophets.


  9. Paul Sunstone said,

    August 9, 2007 @ 10:36 pm


    “I see the moral code like a set of training wheels: they show you how to ride but eventually you have to give them up.”

    I was floored to read that because I have used exactly the same metaphor when discussing morality with young people — yet, I frequently get uncomprehending looks in response to it. How wonderful to find someone I share this view of moral codes with!

  10. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 10, 2007 @ 9:26 am

    Interesting convergence of like minds. :)

    I also like the analogy of the crossing a river on a ferry. Once the river is crossed, you leave the ferry behind.

  11. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 10, 2007 @ 10:02 am

    I just read some very topical lyrics by Rush. You can also listen.

  12. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 10, 2007 @ 11:37 am

    I must be in tune with the zeitgeist: Jesus and Mo ask the barmaid about her moral compass.

  13. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 11, 2007 @ 9:12 am

    Ebonmuse has a good post on humanist morality. He made me think about the difference between practical relativism (i.e. accepting any behavior) and theoretical relativism (i.e. believing that all moral systems are based on arbitrary axioms). This distinction is important. The first is dangerous. The second is honest.

  14. Stephen Merino said,

    January 15, 2008 @ 11:02 am

    This was a really interesting post. I applaud you for your brutal honesty.

    I also basically second what you say about where your moral compass comes from and what guides your behavior.

    Very nice post.

  15. Jonathan Blake said,

    January 15, 2008 @ 11:19 am

    Careful, Stephen, or you might force me to do a retrospective, and I don’t want to do it. ;)

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