Monthly Archives: September 2010

On the Sources of Morality

This little five minute snippet of what I assume is a much longer discussion manages to bring up questions that have dogged philosophers and theologians since the beginning of recorded history. Before I go any further I must note the first two things that passed through my brain when I started watching this: First I have no idea who the atheist is, and William Craig has a totally badass beard. If theology loses its luster for him, I imagine he would easily find work as a lumberjack or professional mountain climber or any other such masculine enterprise. Hopefully, we can all agree that he should seriously consider growing it back.

The main question that the rugged Mr. Craig seems to be asking (and answering) is, “Where does morality come from for an atheist?” The atheist guy give some common, but ultimately very weak answers that  Craig immediately uses to make the guy look like a Nazi apologist and possible child molester. Since none of the Atheist’s answers can provide us with an “objective morality,” Craig is able to label the guy with the dreaded term “moral relativist.” . Like I said earlier, I don’t know who the atheist guy is, but as far as I can tell he is terrible at debating. Prominent atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have both done a way better job of defending morality on humanistic grounds and I imagine I will end up using a lot of their arguments rather than atheist guy in the video.

So, first off I think we need to deconstruct this whole notion of “objective morality.” According to Craig, our morality must come from a divine, and therefore absolute, source to be of any real value. Otherwise, we are just following societal norms and our ideas about right and wrong are an illusion that we have concocted to make ourselves feel better. In Craig’s idea of an atheistic universe there is no difference between helping an old lady cross the street and shoving her into the path of an Hummer because we have no “absolute” source for why one would be preferable to the other.

I have to agree with Craig that without religion there is no “absolute” moral code. To be able to point to supposedly divine writing and judge somebody without having to think may seem like an attractive concept at first, but I believe the sort of intellectual laziness this type of thinking promotes is actually responsible for much of the evil in our world today. We live in a world of gray areas and I believe that reason and thoughtful contemplation are much better sources of morality that books written thousands of years ago by people who thought slaughtering livestock would appease the creator of the universe. I’ll try to defend humanistic morality later, but right now, I want to humbly put forth the idea that even with religion we still can’t have an absolute morality.

First, we have to ask ourselves where absolute morality comes from in a Christian universe. There are only two choices: 1) Morality is somehow woven into the fabric of the universe and is separate from God.  This being is perfectly moral and follows this mystical code without failure. 2) This absolute morality that Craig is so fond of is actually created by God and is absolute in so far as God is absolute.

The first situation does away with the need for religion as the source of morality because God is not the source and the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. Morality is separate from God and human beings could be moral by following this code. It would only be moral to follow God as long as God followed the absolute moral code perfectly. This scenario seems unlikely mainly because it undercuts God’s omnipotence and it doesn’t really offer the ultimate source of the absolute morality.

So the only other proposition we are left with is that God decides what is moral. Since I tend to view the God of the Bible as an individual moral actor this makes the absolute morality Craig talks about seem painfully arbitrary. God is making a personal decision that x is moral and y is immoral the same way that I would except that he/she/it is the creator of the universe (I hope that me comparing my decision making process to that of God’s doesn’t make me come off as vain.)

But maybe I’m being unfair. I suppose that a code of morals that comes from an absolute being would be absolutely moral. So what else would we expect from these absolute morals? I would expect that they are absolutely consistent. That God would confer the same moral judgments  upon people all throughout human history. Because if he didn’t, then his absolute moral judgments are in fact just decisions made on arbitrary whims.

The argument for absolute morality falls apart for me when you compare the Genocidal God of the Old Testament with the relatively dovish Triune God of the New Testament. I’m not a biblical scholar and I’ve barely studied the Bible at all since High School, but I don’t think it is really controversial to point out that Jesus emphasizes love and mercy over judgment and punishment. Why does God suddenly stop bringing horrid plagues and floods that drown the entire earth and command us to “judge not lest you be judged” and to “turn the other cheek”?

It seems most Christians don’t really take this absolute morality thing very seriously either, and thankfully so. Otherwise we would behave the way people did in the Old Testament (and the way that modern day theocracies like Iran behave now.) If God’s morality is absolute and unchanging then all good Christian women should immediately  renounce the evils or working outside the home, wearing makeup, and insisting on rights such as voting and owning property.

If I remember correctly, sex outside of marriage was also harshly punished.  If polls that claim a large majority of people have sex before marriage are to be believed, then why aren’t we facing a severe stone shortage in this country?

One of the great moral issue of our day is gay rights. Should they be able to get married and receive the same rights that society bestows upon heterosexual couples? If we turn to the perfect and unchanging word God we find that the answer is a resounding no; gays are an abomination and should be put to death (Leviticus 20:13 KJV). The Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t seem so crazy now, they’re just following the word of God!

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the greatest human rights struggle in our history, the fight against slavery. Modern secular societies that were influenced by the ideals of the enlightenment have all done away with the practice because they recognize that human being should not be able to own each other. The Bible has no problem with slavery, and in fact offers a helpful set of rules for how slaves should behave.

Westboro Baptist Church aside, I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the sort of absolute morality that is offered by the Bible. The Christian God appears to be on the wrong side of the moral issues I mentioned above. We have these rights not because they were sanctioned by some divine being but because of our capacity for empathy, because we could see a better world than the one we lived in, and because many have given their lives for the rights of others.

So what do you guys think?