It's a hollow opinion, especially since it completely ignores the existence of secular ethics - the idea that someone can do the right thing because it's the right thing, not because a messenger of some deity told the people to do this thing and that it is good, and also that if you don't do it you'll be punished for eternity in the afterlife.
The reason it worries me is because of what's implicit in that argument. After all, people don't tend to agree with things that they know are bullshit, right? When I hear of a person making that sort of statement, I see a person who honestly believes that faith and morality can't be decoupled. I can't help but conclude that if a person who held that kind of a view was somehow convinced that there was no god and no afterlife punishment for sins, they would act in exactly the manner they ascribe to atheists and live a thoroughly immoral life.
Now that I've laid that out, it's time to approach my actual point. Earlier this week, the story broke that TransLink, Metro Vancouver's regional transit provider, has no authority to enforce the payment of the $173 fine you'll be slapped with if you are caught riding on its transit system without the proper fare. For now, it's easy to ride the SkyTrain and the SeaBus without paying; they function on the honor system, much like GO Transit in Greater Toronto, and until those dozens of construction projects are finished there are no barriers to someone who wants to get on without paying. Fare inspections, which take the form of transit police officers inspecting tickets near the station platform, out of sight of the fare-paid area boundary, or boarding a train or bus in motion don't happen too often in my experience - even so, whenever the police come aboard, there's always at least one passenger who shuffles off with them at the next station.
Sure, they'll get a $173 ticket, but once they shuffle off there's nothing that obligates them to pay it, legally speaking. Despite what seems to be a popular belief, ICBC won't even prevent people from renewing their license or insurance if they have outstanding fines.
Faregates: coming soon to a SkyTrain station near you. Unless you don't live in Metro Vancouver, in which case they're pretty much all equally distant.
Nevertheless, ever since TransLink embarked on the faregate construction project, it's been taking flak over the cost. According to its own numbers, in 2010 the fare evasion rate was 4-6%, working out to $18 million per year in lost fares; meanwhile, the implementation cost for the faregates and the Compass system works out to somewhere in the neighborhood of $170 million. Given that criticism, I couldn't help but take this news a bit... conspiratorially. Especially this close to month end, it's certainly a convenient time.
Here's what I suspect: TransLink released this information to the media intentionally, making people aware that this loophole existed, to help determine the degree to which fare evasion might rise once people know they won't be punished for it after getting off the train. I've already encountered people celebrating the "honor system." If fare evasion goes up significantly for April 2012 in comparison to April 2011 or, more tellingly, if pass sales experience a drop, it'll be all the more ammunition for why the faregates and smartcards are necessary.
But it all comes back to that question of ethics and internal morality, I think. The question of who you are in the dark, when no one except yourself can pass judgement on your own actions, is something that people have been wrestling with for millennia. For many people, it's no doubt profoundly disturbing to consider the possibility that such a deep darkness really does exist. We all react to it in our own way.
Still, I can't help but feel there are a considerable chunk of people in Metro Vancouver now who aren't buying passes anymore, because they know there's no punishment for their transit sin. People who are taking up space without paying for the privilege of doing so, who aren't doing their share to help the system deal with the load.
Honest morality, whether it deals with social ethics or two-zone tickets, has to first come from within. If something that's imposed from above abruptly disappears, well... it's not necessarily the sort of world I'd want to live in.