Where Do Christians Get Their Morality?
Ask a random Christian where his morality comes from, and you are likely to get one answer out of a few that are commonly given. Many fundamentalists believe that God is the source of all morality. Without God, they say, humans would not know right from wrong, and we would be living in total moral chaos. More moderate Christians often offer a more deistic explanation. God created humans with an innate sense of right and wrong, and even without his direct intervention, we know what we ought to do because he has placed his moral laws in our hearts.
Some Christians believe that morality is absolute. There are things that are always wrong, and things that are always right. The ends do not justify the means in any case, and we ought to trust God to work things out when it appears that we are doing something harmful by “doing the right thing.” Even outside of Christianity, there is a prevalent belief that morality exists on some kind of higher philosophical plane, and that it is proof of humanity’s separation from the animal world. We are different in kind from the animals because we have morality.
I’d like to examine these claims in light of both philosophy and science to see if any of them hold any water. In the end, I hope to convince you that not only do Christians not have any means to derive a system of morality from their faith, they have every justification in the world to act immorally with impunity based only on their personal goals.
Morality Comes From God
Let us suppose that God is the source of all morality. For now, we will take the most extreme Christian view – that morality is impossible to derive from human wisdom, and that we must rely solely on the word of God to know what is right and what is wrong. If this is true, then it must be true that there is no logical reason to do what is right other than fear of God’s punishment or desire for God’s reward. If this conclusion seems odd, just consider the alternative. If we can think of any reason to do the morally correct thing, then we are basing morality on something natural. If it is right for me to feed my infant child because otherwise the child will die and that would cause me grief, then there is a natural reason for me to feed my infant child.
It doesn’t take much thought to realize that morality doesn’t derive solely from God. Virtually every day of our lives, we are faced with moral choices, and we reason out the best course of action. Our thought processes involve causes and effects, not calling to memory a set prescription from the Bible. If morality does come from God, it is not solely dependent on arbitrary dicta. There are unmistakable real world consequences to our actions, and we can judge their relative value based on individual situations.
For emphasis, let’s think of it another way. If God truly was the only source of morality in existence, then we should not be able to distinguish right from wrong except when it was specifically mentioned by God himself. When presented with a unique moral dilemma, we should be at a complete loss for any means of deriving the correct answer. This is obviously not so. As human civilization has advanced and technology has increased, we have created moral dilemmas that couldn’t have been conceived when the Bible was written. In many cases, we have established very clear ideas of what is right and what is wrong. (It’s noteworthy that we’ve decided slavery is wrong despite the fact that the Bible condones it.)
There is only one thing we can do if we are to save the idea that God is the source of morality. We must admit that God has instilled in humans a conscience, and that man is able to reason out morality on his own without reference to an arbitrary set of rules. This is the position that most reasonably intelligent Christians take. The exercise of a modicum of intelligence pretty much necessitates it.
Unfortunately, this position fails on several levels. Straight out of the gate, we must ask a crucial question. If God has instilled in humans the ability to judge right from wrong, what is the Bible good for? This question isn’t as flippant as it may appear. Pastors all over the world thump the Bible on their podiums while decrying Godless heathens who don’t act as it dictates. In heated debates over moral hot button issues, the Bible is used as a final arbiter. God says it. I believe it. That settles it. Anytime the Bible disagrees with our innate sense of morality, we ought to believe the Bible over our own conscience.
We are forced now to ask the question. What is the final arbiter of human morality? Is it God’s word or our conscience? If it is God’s word, then we are headed back towards where we started, only now we are in a worse position. We’ve admitted that our conscience is a real, God-given tool for determining the morality of a given situation, but now we’re also admitting that God’s word trumps our conscience. This is another way of saying that when God wants us to do something, it is good, regardless of what our conscience says.
While many Christians would happily agree with this statement, it leaves us with a horrible dilemma. There are, at present, somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen thousand denominations of Christianity, worldwide. Each one of them has different views on morality, ranging from the insignificant to issues of global human existence. We have two choices. Either there is one correct version of Christianity or there are multiple correct versions. If there is only one correct version, how are we supposed to identify it? Every denomination claims that it is the correct one (or at the very least, that it is one of the correct ones!) so we can’t rely on these claims to make our decisions. Each denomination interprets the Absolutely True Word of God Which Trumps Conscience in a way that makes sense to them.
Let me reiterate that last sentence, because it’s really important. Every denomination that believes the Bible trumps our conscience interprets the Bible in a way that makes sense to them. Did you catch the trap in this sentence? They use their conscience to decide which interpretation of the Bible trumps the conscience! Again, we are faced with a nasty choice. Either there is a correct interpretation of the Bible that doesn’t rely on conscience or logic to find, or we are right back to conscience and logic being the ultimate guide for morality.
If we assume that there is, in fact, a perfect interpretation of the Bible, we are at something of an impasse. Since logic and conscience can’t be our criteria for making the decision, we must rely on something else, but what? Divine revelation? Again, every denomination makes some claim of divine revelation, so which one is correct? How will we decide? What if none of them are correct? What if, after reading the Bible, you come to the conclusion that everybody’s got it wrong, and that you have the perfect interpretation. God has spoken directly to you, and you are certain you are correct. This is fine for you, but how am I to judge whether or not I believe you? You are now in exactly the same situation as the other fifteen thousand denominations. You must ask people to use either logic, conscience, or divine revelation to decide to believe you.
The sad truth is that if there is a true interpretation of the Bible that does not rely on human logic or conscience, then it is unknowable beyond individual interpretation, which is the same as saying that it’s entirely subjective.
Did you catch that last sentence? If the Christians are right, then morality is completely subjective. What is it that Christians always say about atheists? Aren’t they the ones who accuse atheists of having no basis for morality? According to them, the world would be ruled by anarchy and there would be no way to know right from wrong. Civilization would descend into self serving madness. The irony is that their very own doctrine, if true, leads inevitably to the very state they attribute to naturalism!
Now, we must backtrack. We have reached an absurd conclusion when we followed one line of reasoning. The other line must now be scrutinized. Perhaps there are multiple correct interpretations of the Bible. Again, we’re faced with choices. Perhaps there are some things that are universally right and wrong, and some that are malleable according to individual situations. The other option is that all things are malleable and based on specific circumstances.
If we accept the former option, we are immediately forced to address the question of which things are universals, and which are subjective. Unfortunately, this is no easier than the dilemma we faced earlier. Either logic and reason can tell us the answer, or it must be found in the Bible, or through divine revelation. If it is found in the Bible, then where is it? Having read the bible myself, I can recall no such clear cut explanations of morality. Instead, I remember reading contradictory edicts from God himself. Don’t kill, unless God orders you to, or if it’s lawful to kill. Then again, turn the other cheek and repay evil with kindness. Then again, Jesus came to uphold the law. Then again, Jesus came to repeal the law. Then again, it is better to kill yourself than to cause a child to stray. Then again, suicide is an unpardonable sin. Then again, and again, and again, and again.(1) (Have you ever stopped to think how odd it is that the Bible never addresses any of these dilemmas directly? Other than appealing to authority, there is no mention of any philosophy of morality we are aware of today. Might it be that the authors were ignorant of them?)
The latter option leaves us in a real pickle. If all things are malleable and based on specific circumstances, then there is nothing set in stone. There are no absolutes, and God’s word is not the final arbiter over conscience. With no instance by instance definitive statement from God himself, there is no way to ascribe any absoluteness to any moral imperative, and we clearly have no such step by step guide.
If there are no absolutes, and God’s word is not the final judge of what is moral and immoral, how is a Christian to judge right from wrong? Either the Christian can continue to use the Bible, or church doctrine, or some other source as a basis for morality, or they can admit that morality is ultimately judged by humans on a case to case basis, without any arbitrary intervention by God.
If some theist source is used, then the Christian is right back where we ended up earlier – arbitrary subjective morality. If it is admitted that morality is ultimately judged by humans, we have relegated God to irrelevance. Whether or not God created man with a conscience or the conscience evolved is a pointless distinction. If the conscience, or logic, or any other natural method is used to determine morality, then man can determine morality without God. The foundation of one of religion’s most ardent claims collapses. Man does not need God to live morally.
Morality By Plato
Having extracted God from the process of arbitrating morality, we must now address the question of morality as an absolute. Is there some kind of platonic model of morality that is universal to all humans? Are some things absolutely right and some absolutely wrong, or is morality subjective and arbitrary? Perhaps God created man and instilled in him an instinctive knowledge of the perfect good, much like Plato’s perfect conceptualizations of imperfect reality. If this is true, perhaps humans are always striving towards perfection but always falling short. Maybe this is the true nature of the biblical “Fall of Man.” In fact, maybe this is the difference between Christians and non-Christians. Maybe God gives Christians an extra “morality boost” and allows them to see a clearer image of the cave wall.
As we did with all the previous claims, lets assume this to be true and see where it leads us. Let us suppose that for every human interaction conceivable, there is a “perfect” morally good action for every individual to take. The first question we must ask is what scale is being used to judge perfection. Is perfection based on the greatest good for the greatest number of people? What about reduction of suffering? Perhaps equality is the ultimate measure. (But, if it is equality, in what sense do we mean equal? Equality of opportunity, or resources, or happiness, or what?) To say that there is a perfect morality is to admit to a scale. Perfect must be judged in relation to something, or the word has no meaning.
Perhaps now is a good time to explore a hypothetical situation to see if we can gain some real world insight into the possibility that there is such a thing as perfect morality. Suppose that there is a man who has a wife and family. He has a good job, with enough time to spend with his children and his wife, enough free time to avoid getting overworked, and enough money to pay all the bills. (Talk about a hypothetical situation!) One day, this man discovers that his boss is involved in a large scale fraud that, if allowed to continue, will cheat hundreds of thousands of people out of large amounts of money. Unfortunately, the fraud is so pervasive throughout the company that if the whistle is blown, the company will surely fail, and all the employees will not only lose their jobs, but many of them will be pulled into years of lawsuits, whether they were knowingly involved or not.
If you are like most people, you have decided that despite the personal loss and the potential problems for other employees, the only moral thing for the man to do is blow the whistle on his company. There are other jobs, and it’s selfish of him to hold onto his perfect little life knowing that it will cause great harm to so many people. Furthermore, “shit happens,” as the saying goes, and it’s unfortunate that many of the employees will be caught in the mess, but it’s just a case of bad luck. It can’t be helped.
Does this situation tell us anything about the concept of perfect morality? Let’s look at it from the perspective of the greater good. It is true that more people will be helped by blowing the whistle than not. In terms of financial success, the greater good will be served. However, in order to achieve the greater good, there must be lesser bad. Some people, including the whistle blower, will have to suffer financially. Where there is financial gain, there is also financial loss.
Mathematically, there is almost certainly an optimum financial solution to this problem. Perhaps there is a course of action that could minimize financial losses to employees as much as mathematically possible while maximizing the financial gain of those who will benefit from having the fraud exposed. We can say that in terms of financial good, there is a perfect solution to this problem. Maybe it involves a different employee blowing the whistle, or the boss having a fit of conscience and admitting his fraud. What the action is is irrelevant. The broader point is that there is a perfect solution.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. When I began discussing the greater good, I assumed that good to be financial. If we use another measure, we might find completely different results from taking the “perfect” moral action. Supposing that the fraud comes to an end in the best possible way financially, what can we say about the solution based on equality? For instance, if the investors who were going to be defrauded were all upper class and wealthy, the huge financial losses they would take might lower their status to upper middle class, where they would still be quite comfortable. On the other hand, the employees of the company might all be in the lower middle class, and the setbacks from losing their jobs might throw them squarely into poverty, even though the financial losses were minimized as much as possible.
If this were the case, could we then say that a greater good had been achieved? What if there were a total of five hundred children of employees, and as a result of their parents losing their jobs, four hundred of them ended up having to go to lesser schools with poor standards? Knowing that these children will grow up and have children of their own, and knowing that poverty tends to breed more poverty, can we really say that blowing the whistle accomplished a greater good?
We haven’t even begun to look at the measures of individual happiness or minimization of suffering. I’m sure there are at least a dozen other measures by which a moral action can be judged, and it’s entirely likely that in this very situation, each measure comes out differently on the grand scale of moral correctness.
Even so, our idea of platonic morality is not dead. Perhaps there is a set number of measures by which morality can be judged, and in any given situation, there is an action which is the perfect balance of all of the measures, such that there is no way for a better outcome. To help you think of this concept more clearly, let’s say that there are one hundred moral measures, and let us assign a value of zero to one hundred for each of them in any given situation. Few, if any, situations will allow an outcome of one hundred one hundreds. Every dilemma will have a number of solutions, each of which is better by some measures and worse by others.
If this is true, then we’re left with a puzzle. How do we decide which way to weight the scale? In other words, do we always pick the solution that has the highest aggregate score – the highest total number when we add up the score from all hundred measures? If that’s true, what if the solution to a particular problem includes a zero (meaning morally awful) in the category of “Preserving Human Life”? Do we weight “Preserving Human Life” more than “Promoting Individual Happiness”? If so, how do we determine the system by which we will achieve our perfect mathematical formula?
By now, it should be painfully obvious that there is a problem with the notion of Platonic moral perfection. People have different goals, and different needs, and when morality involves multiple people (as it almost always does) what’s good for one person will be less good for another, and with no way to say definitively which person should take precedence, most moral decisions will be ambiguous in some sense.
The Danger of Christian Morality
Before we explore what science says about human morality, I want to take a slight detour and explore some of the consequences of morality as described by Christians. The main point I wish to hammer home is that not only is the Christian model of morality wrong, it is decidedly harmful as well. Imagine a discussion with a believer that goes something like this:
Skeptic: Is it wrong to kill your own child?
Skeptic: Is it always wrong?
Believer: Yes. God has told us that we shall not kill.
Skeptic: And this is absolute and universal. There is never any time when it is ok to kill your child?
Believer: (feeling a little twitchy… he suspects a trap.) Well, I suppose there are some instances. (Perhaps he remembers that God, in the Old Testament, demanded that disobedient children be stoned to death.) But except for really extraordinary circumstances, it’s wrong.
Skeptic: What if God told you to do it?
Believer: (Squirming noticeably in his seat.) God wouldn’t do that.
Skeptic: How do you know? He ordered people in the Old Testament to do it. He ordered Abraham to do it. Can God do anything he wants to do?
Believer: Erm… well… yes, he can, but he wouldn’t.
Skeptic: Well, you believe that he wouldn’t, but by your own admission, and by the words of the Holy Scriptures themselves, God has done it, and could very well do it again if it pleases him to do so. Stop squirming around this, and just answer the question. If God told you to kill your child, and you knew with 100% certainty that it was God telling you, would it be a good thing to kill your child?
Believer: Um… well… I don’t know if it would be good, exactly, but it would be God’s will, so um…
Skeptic: Wait a minute. You’re saying that God’s will can be evil?
Believer: No, that’s not what I said. I just said it wasn’t good.
Skeptic: So, it’s neutral? There are only three choices, right? Good, bad and neutral. Which is it?
Believer: Well, um… I don’t know, exactly…
Skeptic: Ok. Let’s get down to brass tacks. If you knew for certain that God wanted you to kill your own child, would you do it?
Believer: (scurries out of the room, making signs of the cross and genuflecting furiously)
From this little discussion, we can see that not only do Christians have nothing solid on which to hang their moral hats, they actually have a very dangerous excuse for doing vicious and horrible things and calling them good, or at worst, neutral. A brief look through history (some of it not particularly far in the past) shows us many examples of people doing horrible things in the name of religion and calling them good. I’m not suggesting that every evil act ever committed by a Christian has been because of this kind of justification, but surely there have been many people who have used it.
Lest I be accused of creating a strawman, I want to be clear on one thing. I’m not suggesting that people would not do evil except for Christianity, or that non-Christians haven’t done very horrible things. However, I want to make it perfectly clear that the Christian version of morality gives implicit and explicit permission for people to do evil and call it good. While it’s true that removing this system of morality from the public consciousness wouldn’t eradicate all evil in the world, it would most certainly eradicate some, and that, to me, seems a worthwhile endeavor.(2) In the words of the Nobel Prize winning physicist (and descendant of a holocaust survivor) Steven Weinberg, “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”
As I have hopefully made crystal clear, there simply is no basis for morality from God or scripture. At best we are left with a hopeless subjective conundrum and at worst, we have an excuse to do things that all sane people know to be wrong. Now that we have exposed Christian morality for what it really is, we can begin to delve into the questions from a more reasonable perspective. What does science say about morality? For that matter, what exactly is morality? If morality is not absolute, what is it? If it’s not completely subjective, how do we decide what is right and what is wrong?
These questions do not always have easy answers, but they do have answers. Science has shown us in recent decades that what we think of as morality is not unique to humans. Most — perhaps all — social animals have “forbidden actions” for which there is retribution, either from the group or the alpha. What separates humans from animals is not the concept of right and wrong, but rather the ability to think about the concept of right and wrong.
For more reading on the evolution of morality — and thus, the nature of morality itself, I recommend these books:
(1)When faced with this fact, many Christians fall back to the assertion that careful reading of the Bible with an open and honest heart will reveal the “true” intent of the author. Of course, this fails for the same reason that all claims of revelation fail. They are necessarily subjective!
(2) I should mention the other side of the Christian morality argument. It is often suggested that despite the problems with Christians sometimes doing evil in the name of God, Christianity encourages people to do good that they would not ordinarily do. It’s not within the scope of this entry, but psychology explains quite parsimoniously that this notion is bunk. People of all religions (and non-religions) have always been inspired to acts of charity. It is just divisive and exclusionary thinking to suggest otherwise.