According to Christians and other True Believers, life does not have meaning unless that meaning is given from a Higher Power, and consequently that Higher Power has Laws. Without that Higher Power and a handy printed revelation it is, if not impossible, very difficult for us to determine right from wrong. And that’s mostly because we’re so messed up and broken. The Book and the revelations found therein are an absolute standard. It’s all just opinion if you don’t believe in a god, and in no way should belief in a temporal book be considered opinion. After all, the True Believer is just passing along what was written. It’s not like they wrote it. They just accept it and, in instances, feel obligated to enforce it upon the rest of us to save the country or whatever.
Given my libertarian leanings I take something of a live and let live approach to how most people want to live their lives. That is, the idea that so long as one doesn’t use force to hurt or defraud others, or otherwise interfere with the equal right of others to live as they see fit, do as you will. This can still lead to some interesting conundrums to complex issues like, say, whether people should be forced to vaccinate their children, where a very personal decision may have detrimental effects on others. But it seems like a good starting point, and it also seems to square up well with the United States Constitution as it was conceived. But it’s not the starting point of any holy book of which I am aware. In fact, it seems downright anathema to most of them going by rules as written (even if those rules are not in fact played out that way in life due to outside social pressures).
Not having a god to fall back on for justification brings up the inevitable, “Then why is it wrong to hurt or defraud others?” Our brains like to put things in definitive, nicely categorized and labeled bins with desktop shortcuts to absolute answers, and holy revelation is great at helping set those boundaries. As children, we were told a jolly elf was keeping track if we were naughty or nice, and that helped us be especially good for a few days out of the year–mostly in December. As adults it seems many are engaging in a similar trick, which is about as effective as the first at helping us be especially good. The promised punishment is usually worse, though.
I don’t find it necessary to believe in a higher power to justify the position that it is wrong to hurt or defraud others, or my desire to live in a free and open society of equals. Once one gets right down to it, free and open society isn’t what most interpretations of God are all about. We could delve into the philosophy of how God isn’t necessary to validate moral behavior, but it’s not strictly necessary here as the premise of the absolutist is flawed in regard to god(s).
The idea of liberty free from the interference of others isn’t good enough for believers who, despite many of their wranglings to the contrary, don’t really believe in living in a liberty minded open society. God doesn’t operate under the principles of liberal democracy, but is a monarch ruling from on high. And any attempt to suggest society might be able to find its way without an inspired book millennia old is dismissed as “it’s just your OPINION that hurting and defrauding others is wrong? So what? Why should I be concerned over your opinion?”
Why indeed? Me believing that something is wrong because I don’t think that’s best for the advancement of society and people’s lives, and reasoning with others to achieve mutual ends isn’t good enough because I’m not God and can’t unilaterally enforce my self-approved will across the universe. But, then again, I don’t see God coming down and doing much enforcing either. It all seems to be done by people. Most of whom can’t seem to agree on what He said, especially when it comes to the finer minutia. And somehow the statement, “Because God said so” is considered in no way an opinion by the faithful. It’s objective fact. And not just any god, but their particular Brand X of god, because each religion believes they have the inside scoop on what the divine really wants. Even though, by their own often admission, God’s ways are mysterious and can’t be understood by the human mind. That’s often in response to some horrific tragedy or when prayers aren’t answered.
This is coming from people who make statements to me like “One guy thinks it’s wrong to rape little girls and another thinks it’s acceptable. For you, that is simply a difference of opinion” presents a severe moral dilemma. It isn’t. And see how the word ‘simply’ is slipped in there? Remove that and it is quite easy to see upon reading again that yes, this is a difference of opinion. What else can it be? The word ‘simply’ is injected to suggest that some differences of opinion are not capable of being rightfully discerned without a Supreme Standard. But who gets to determine what that is? In my opinion, and under the society I want to live, rape is wrong. I don’t need heavenly verification. In other countries, women are oppressed and forced to live lives of servitude. People are slain for leaving their faith. I believe all that is wrong as well, and again I don’t need heavenly verification. But those countries proclaim to have their own heavenly verification, don’t they? In none of these instances is the Supreme Judge stepping forward to enforce his Law. It’s all carried out by people. Certainly our differences lead to many disagreements, but do we really require God to come together and reason out that, for a number of reasons, rape is a bad thing? But people still like to pull the Santa Claus argument, which appears to lend weight to opinions.
So God may see these things as wrong, but it seems he’s going to let it happen anyway. The belief is just that Evil Doers are gonna get theirs later when thrown into a fiery pit or some other punishment to balance the scales. This enables one to feel a little better about the fact Bad Things are allowed to happen. Although under most Christian doctrine, even if you were a rigtheous dude by most people’s standards but didn’t believe, you’ll get to join them in eternal torment, too. Yay.
The word ‘opinion’ is oft treated as if being “just opinion” robs it of any authority. But that’s an axiomatically unfair approach. Practical opinion (ideas, views, your doctor’s diagnosis) can be put to the test. Effects on society can be measured. Tag-teaming your God in as supporting your opinion does not make it any more authoritative than any other, or make it any less an opinion. Remember it was once the opinion of the church that the Inquisition and Crusades were okay, and that converting people at the point of a sword was okay, and burning people at the stake was okay. Church people are full of opinions. Where they err is in projecting those opinions outside of themselves and believing it comes from God instead of people.
Is the only thing holding believers in check their belief in a Law Giver? If they didn’t believe would they turn into Heathens Gone Wild, go about laying baseball bats up against people’s heads because, without God, that suddenly becomes optional? Is that how they acted before they became a believer? It’s a matter of the value you place on life–both yours and others. But it’s not good enough that it’s just society’s opinion that people shouldn’t go around loping heads off. No, for believers only God’s command stays their hand from the sound of it. But that’s a bit scary, too, because God has been known to say it’s okay to go slaughter people. Even your own people. And it’s not that God has become all savvy and grown past that because of a “new covenant.” Christians skewered each other left and right back in the day as well as the pagan opposition (polytheism is much more tolerant by nature than its monotheistic cousins). It wasn’t the Church that stamped out slavery, fascism, or led the way for women’s rights. It was always drug begrudgingly along. It had to change along with the culture it had so long permeated or perish. At least in the West. The Middle East is a whole other ugly story in many places. Loping off heads and stoning people there is still A-okay with God it seems. That is, in their opinion.
But here’s the deal, and why believers don’t want to admit that their views on right vs wrong is based on opinion. It’s not about murder or rape, these big issues modern communities generally all concede to be wrong whatever our moral reasoning. Those points aren’t in contention. No, it’s really about the smaller things. Because if you admit that your take on right and wrong is not based on an absolute Law Giver, but opinion, then you must also admit that it is only your opinion that God says gay marriage is wrong. It is only your opinion that a sexual business contract for profit between two people is wrong. It is only your opinion that children shouldn’t be able to read Harry Potter. Or for adults to buy beer on Sundays. The list goes on and on. And when it’s just your opinion interfering in the personal choices of other people who don’t harm anybody else, well, it just doesn’t seem to carry as much weight as opposed to it being delivered from On High.
And it would be nice here in America if our Christian friends and neighbors would be a bit more consistent in their application of scripture. For while there has been consistent outrage against gay marriage, think about how Christians treat divorce. Christians rail against moral relativism, but in practice they engage (or turn a blind eye to it) every day in regards to what the Good Book says.
First off, they shouldn’t get married at all and devote themselves entirely to the Lord as Paul did (1 Cor. 7:8) for “those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this” (1 Cor. 7:28). Paul believes time is very short, and Jesus would be coming back any moment. But, if you’re going to screw around, you should get married to make it official like in God’s eye. And then you are stuck. Forever. Paul is quite clear about this. Read all of 1 Corinthians chapter 7. The only loophole out of marriage is marital infidelity (according to Jesus, not Paul). And if you do get divorced, you aren’t allowed to remarry. You can let that unbeliever walk out of your life, but nowhere does it say it’s okay to remarry afterwards. And if you’re a woman, well, the bible doesn’t give you any outs. Clearly, not many Christians have taken Paul’s words about divorce to heart, and fewer still not to marry at all. There is plenty more that is ignored, including letting women speak (much less preach!) in church. Also, women are not to braid their hair, adorn themselves with gold or pearls, or wear expensive clothing (1 Tim. 2:9). And what about going into debt? But hey, that was all back then, and things are different now. Today’s Christian culture by and large ignores these New Testament teachings. But that homosexual marriage, well, we can’t tolerate that.
Perhaps our modern age Christian brethren are merely practicing a bit of Old Testament moral relativism as Jesus described in Matthew 19:8, when he says, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives [not to mention also having a whole bunch of them] because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” So, maybe today’s believers are just hard-hearted, and that’s why it’s okay for so many of them to get divorced without denominational banishment. But there, right there, Jesus says one of God’s main dudes allowed for moral relativism. So, hey, spread the joy.
I don’t know very many Christians who take divorce this seriously. And to all my Christian friends who have been divorced this is not to make you feel bad. But when it comes to marriage and debt, Christians are as bad as anyone. Kind of a ho-hum, the bible said it but god will forgive me kind of saucy stance. We just kind of look the other way when our Christian friends get divorced and ignore it. We don’t kick them out of church or anything. Lawrd, no. Why, now, even interracial marriage is okay. But gay marriage? No way are we allowing that. That crosses God’s line that I’ve magically determined is more noteworthy than my fellow believer breaking God’s immutable laws (that God sometimes allows to be mutable).
So my questions for thoughtful reflection on this matter are thus:
- If morality comes from god(s) and not people, how would one objectively demonstrate this?
- If you are a believer and stopped believing in god, would you stop being nice (moral) to others? Why?
- If we can be nice (moral) to others without belief, is God a necessary component of morality? (If your response is God built into us an innate sense of right/wrong or similar, please see question #1.)
A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death. ~Albert Einstein, “Religion and Science,” New York Times Magazine, 1930
For further excellent reading, check out Michael Shermer’s response essay (and other views) today at Cato Unbound here: http://www.cato-unbound.org/2014/10/13/michael-shermer/religion-politics-science