Almost every time I get into a prolonged conversation with a fundamentalist Christian the issue of morality come up. The claim of the Christians is almost always the same, “without God there can be no moral grounding.” Personally, I find that to be a pretty arrogant and inaccurate statement. The way I see it, with God there is no moral grounding. The shear number of differing sects of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who have completely opposite opinions on so many moral issues certainly suggests that God hasn’t grounded morality at all. If he had, all believers in the Bible who have the same set of morals and quite obviously they don’t.
It seems that God was so clear about his moral grounding after all since so many Christians disagree about God’s moral grounding. We really need to ask, how do we know what God commands? That is the real problem with believing is deities, you never really know what they want. From what I can tell by talking to so many Christians, God seems to communicate by one of two ways, either by divine revelations or through divine texts.
When it comes to divine revelation things get pretty problematic pretty quickly. This was a big problem early on for the Mormons when Joseph Smith declared that any Mormon could have a divine revelation. Very quickly people were getting some pretty opposite commands from God. It seemed to be impossible to know what a real divine revelation was and what thoughts were just people’s imagination, desires, or random thoughts or beliefs. And then of course mental illness is an issue with divine revelations too. You will find that there are often stories in the news of someone murdering their child because they had a divine revelation. How can you tell if someone had a divine revelation or is just crazy?
Divine texts like the Bible have a whole new set of problems. The Bible was written a long time ago and we don’t even have the original verses of the text. Over the years, the texts have been recopied complete with people’s deliberate and accidental changes. People seem to have revised the texts to fit their own personal philosophies, beliefs, or situations as well as miscopies words or mistranslated words as the text moved from language to language. People’s religious framework has become entirely dependent on their interpretation of inaccurate “Holy Scriptures.” With so many changes and translations and interpretations of the divine holy book, it is impossible to really know what God truly desire.
Even if we could deal with those issues, the problem doesn’t get any better. According to Christianity, God defines morality and this causes a host of other problems. What if God changed his mind? Some Christians will argue that God wouldn’t change his mind because God is perfect or God is his character or something. But the Bible claims in numerous places that God does change his mind and the real issue isn’t whether he will change his mind, but rather whether he could change his mind if he so desired? If God did change his mind, then morality would change with God. This doesn’t seem like moral grounding to me. If God declared tomorrow that rape was now morally good, I really don’t think it would be so.
Many Christians will then typically argue that, “either all morality is absolute or all morality is subjective.” This line of thinking is a very problematic one which deals with a limiting of options and an absolutism all its own. When we look at the philosophy of ethics and morality, we see that some of the greatest minds in human history have been working on this problem and have come up with some very complicated solutions which still don’t fully make morality clear to us. Some of the greatest of moral thinkers include, Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, John Stewart Mill, and John Rawls. There are of course many more, but these thinkers in particular have helped to shape modern concepts of morality.
Morality just isn’t as simply as a rulebook of do’s and don’ts. Morality isn’t all absolute nor is it all subjective. Morality is part principle based and part situational based. Personally, I think Kant and Aristotle have helped me better understand morality in that morality is more about the means than the ends as Kant viewed it and it is more about following moral role models or “men of practical wisdom” as Aristotle had suggested.
Currently, work is being done in the field of neuroscience to explain mirroring synapses and how that relates to compassion and empathy, which may help to teach us more about human morality from a biological level. But until more study is done, we are left in the philosophical realm. And from what we can gather, morality is in no small part linked those two aspects of human life, empathy and compassion.
So what is our moral grounding? Right now, there isn’t any. Not for Christians and not for atheists or anyone else. Morality is not completely absolute nor is it completely subjective. There is a delicate balance and we are all trying our best to navigate these often-difficult moral paths. As human society has progressed, we have learned more and more about how best to treat each other in a moral way but our moral journey is far from over.
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