Why This Atheist Has A "Right" To Criticize Christian Morality
Why, Christians ask occasionally, do I care about what they believe? Why don’t I just get on with my life as a non-Christian and be happy with that? And, for that matter, why do I care about morality at all (including the Christian’s) if I don’t believe in God?
Which best applies to you?
The Nature Of The Question
The questioners seem to ask from different perspectives. Some think that my dissatisfaction with what they believe is proof that I believe what they believe. Thus, when I am critical of concepts of hell, God, the Bible, and Christianity in general, they tend to claim that the criticism arises out of my own fear that these concepts are true. On a related note, questioners also often seem to assume that people leave Christianity in order to be free of the constraints within Christian morality. This assumption is interesting, as it communicates to me, as an atheist, that many see Christianity as a prison as opposed to freedom. These people think that God’s rules are necessary for morality – sure, these rules may be difficult to follow, they think, but it’s a necessary tradeoff. So they distrust people who don’t sacrifice themselves to God and yet claim morality; it seems as if they aren’t “paying their dues.” And it’s confusing – God’s morality is so restricting to them, at times, that they can’t really see why people would have a moral compass at all if God wasn’t so threatening or didn’t exist. So, they wonder, why don’t I, as an atheist, live a more carefree life? Why don’t I fly away, like a bird in a cage? Why do some many atheists seem to love people and care about people and what they believe? Why do we make such a racket against a view we rejected? Why do we seem to have a strong moral structure (albeit a drastically different one from Christians in some respects), and why do so many of us atheists feel that Christianity violates it?
Let me first say that if Christians were people who thought God was 100% in control – people who just kinda lived and let live and kept to themselves – I wouldn’t really have an issue with Christianity. I would resent the fact that I dedicated myself to a lie, and I would feel sorry for those trapped in it, but I would make, I think, fewer angry attacks. But the very act of them asking this question (as they do frequently) shows that they aren't interested in keeping to themselves -- as do their frequent attempts to legislate morality and judge others by their sense of Christian morality.
Second, the reason why I as an atheist have a moral system is that Christianity (or religion in general, for that matter) does not have a monopoly on a sense of morality. No, it’s NOT (at least in our view) because there is some innate God-given divine sense of right and wrong; senses of right and wrong seem to vary so widely due to cultural and environmental influences in ways that run counter to Christian morality in many instances that to say there is one innate sense of right and wrong is extremely problematic. Rather, it's because having a sense of morality is part of our sense of humanity and, more concretely, it provides us with many individual and communal benefits that we want. More simply -- we have a sense of morality because we prefer to have one (more on preferences in a moment).
Now, if you have any familiarity with Christian apologetics, you’ll know that many Christians will come in here and say that the problem is not that atheist's can't act morally, but they can't have a right to morality. Christians seem to think this is a gracious move, because they are assenting that atheists can act like nice people. However, by denying us a right to our sense of morality, they are actually asserting their own in its stead and judging us by it. Saying atheists don't have a right to their sense of morality is an extremely offensive power move and, sadly, most Christians don't realize this.
Christians tend to attack atheistic morality by attacking the very mechanism of relativism that constructs morality in the first place. They seem to assume the concept that there is an objective moral code set up by a God's supposed Divine Command that is not merely "relative," but is perfect and ideal -- thus making it the supreme moral system and dismissing all other views as "relativism-based." Let’s take a look at the concept of ideal forms to further draw this concept out.
The Misunderstanding Illustrated by Frank Turek
Plato postulated that there were ideal forms. Here’s the rationale: I can show you three hundred different kinds of chairs, and you would be able to identify them all as “chairs” because they all would have a certain “chairness” to them. Plato had the theory that the concept of “chairness” came from the reality that there is, in a conceptual reality, an ideal chair. That ideal was what everything was being measured up against.
Now, I’ve always found Plato a bit problematic here, because he seems to think that the chair exists in some objective realm. But this ideal chair exists, I would argue, ONLY in our minds. We made up the concept of a chair. Our definition of an object corresponds to our USE of that object, not necessarily to the object in itself. A screwdriver is a piece of metal – we use it to perform a function and through our use we call it a screwdriver. The screwdriver does not know it is a screwdriver. The materials are just there -- we construct concepts so that we can use materials to fulfill our preferences.
Now, to be sure, most Christian apologists don't really buy into Plato's ideal forms as such, because to accept it lock, stock, and barrel makes God unnecessary. Rather, they say that God has a perfect, or ideal, nature, and from this comes a perfect, ideal reality. So, by extension, many Christians do actually seem to look for the "ideal form" of morality in the Bible – the Bible is just there, and Christians try to come up with the “ideal form” of an interpretation. My guess is that you have seen this phenomenon, as well. (At times, people seem to treat the Bible like they would most works of fiction – you match it up to your own life, your own experiences, your own fears and desires, and you create a deeply meaningful theology from that. In Christian circles, this phenomenon is often called “owning your faith.”)
The I Am Second Campaign -- An Example of "Owning Your Faith"
Thus, I would like to first propose – as a description of what morality is in practice, not as a prescription of what it should be – that morality does not seem to be an abstract ideal but, rather, seems to be an attempt to reconcile your life, your experiences, your fears and desires and your preferences with the world you find yourself in – and in the Christian’s case, this world comes with certain “presuppositions” that create the environment in which you pursue your preferences.
All animals have a sense of morality. And we are no exception – morality is the technique, the strategy, the concepts that we use to help us as a species and as individuals survive as well as possible as a species. No strategy is guaranteed to work (although we can find out some that have a greater probability than others through experimentation) – but the ones that don’t eventually die out.
- Finding Morality in Animals | Greater Good
Two new books explore research on animals to better understand the roots of human morality and challenge human specialness.
Let me introduce a concept that should add some clarity to this problem: David Hume famously (and, by many accounts, correctly) stated that you cannot pull an OUGHT from an IS. That is, no account of the way things ARE can, by itself, prescribe the way things SHOULD BE. I think, for many reasons, this is true – which is, incidentally, part of why I have such an issue with a God-themed morality. Let me explain.
If a Christian says “this is the way things are, therefore you should do XYZ,” they are inviting the question of “Why?” It is not enough to say “because that is the way things are,” because no account of the way things are – as far as the external facts of the matter – is sufficient for determining what I should or shouldn’t do. “The way things are” is just that. It’s a landscape. It contains no compass in and of itself without taking our own individual preferences into account.
Morality, then, is not object that is completely external to our preferences, and an ideal morality is no more real than the ideal chair. We made up the concept of a chair to suit our desire to recline and be comfortable. The concept of a chair is a tool applied to a world that, by all appearances from where I’m sitting (no pun intended), doesn’t care about our comfort. Morality, I’d argue, is similar. We made up morality because we saw, from our perspective, that there were several problems. Morality is a tool we use to solve these “problems” – which are, again, only problems to us because of the type of creatures we are and the ways we tend to look at and interact with the world.
If morality is, indeed, a tool, then the next question is, “What is it a tool for?” Notice that we are not yet in the prescriptive mode – we are not yet asking what the tool SHOULD be for. We are not necessarily describing yet what the tool should look like. We are just seeking to describe its present function – outlining helpful principles in drawing maps of morality, which seems useful before we seek out which moral system to pursue.
Our definition of this present function of morality, ideally, would be one that could be applied to a great many contexts and cover many meanings of the word “morality.” One that seems to do fairly well is this: Morality is the tool human beings use to negotiate their preferences with entities within their environments.
I mean “negotiate” here in the broad sense. I’m not talking merely about people sitting at a table discussing their agreements or disagreements, although this phenomenon is included in my use of the word. I’m also talking about wars, fury, concentration camps, peaceful mosques, bible-believing churches, workplace guidelines, the Hippocratic oath, family decisions, political contests, and so on. In my use of the term, negotiation can take many different forms.
(It may be objected here that I have not determined the terms of this negotiation or spelled out a concrete morality. This is true, because at this point it seems too early to do so – we are still in description, not prescription, mode.)
Although I can somewhat understand those who object and say that this definition is not what morality SHOULD be, I cannot understand those who will refuse to admit that this is what morality IS in practice. Even if God is the major entity in this negotiation – if He is the entity who says what goes and what doesn’t—God’s morality is still dependent on your assent. Hold on, let me explain.
What I mean is this: God may have a moral code that is good to HIM, but possibly--perhaps when you were commanded to love your enemy or be patient, for example-- it has, at times, not seemed good to you. You knew that God preferred for you to have a moral code in which you loved your enemies, but you, at least for a time (I suspect a bit longer than that) may have preferred at some point not to do so. So what’s next? Well, if you’re an earnest Christian, you strove to bring your preference to NOT love your enemy into reconciliation with God’s supposed preference TO love your enemy. Now, if your preferences were truly God’s preferences (indicating that when you became a Christian, you gave up ALL your preferences to God), you would have no problem here. But people do have a problem that seems explained by the assertion that different preferences are warring against each other than.
When you don’t believe in God, the negotiation doesn’t go away. In fact, in many cases, it gets even more difficult. Whereas before you had a concrete moral code given to you by God, and you didn’t have to worry about the preferences of anyone else in the light of that concrete moral code, now you have to join other human beings in constructing a moral code – you have to listen to them and consider what they actually want as opposed to what some higher being says that they SHOULD want. Human-centered morality is more complicated than God-centered morality, but it seems more realistic and down to earth, too, because it actually focuses on navigating and negotiating the preferences of people here on the ground of existence.
This focus on humankind in morality is part of why many Christians and non-Christians are so different from each other on issues like lgbt marriage. Christians believe that God is the main entity they have to negotiate with, and non-Christians believe that people are the main entity they have to negotiate with. The reason many atheists speak up for lgbt rights isn’t because they lack a moral code – they speak up for lgbt rights because they DO have a moral code that exhibits itself in the negotiation of preferences, a negotiation that doesn’t have a homosexuality-hating God as its focal point.
OK, so, moving on – when we say, “You should do x,” in a moral sense, what we usually mean is “You should do x if you want to accomplish preference y.” We usually leave off the “if you want to accomplish y” when it is assumed that the person will want to accomplish “y.” “Y” can mean anything from something as warm and fuzzy as “love” to something as unromantic as “avoiding life in prison.”
So, how does this work in practice, many Christians will ask. What if someone’s preference is to murder someone? How does this system show this decision to be morally wrong?
A Christian is probably wondering this because most Christians states that murder is wrong because God says so and they ascribe to God’s law (what’s interesting here, as a side point, is that the question indicates that the Christian thinks that the atheist also believes murder is wrong – that it is a value they have in common. So it seems strange for the Christian to think that showing how God supports a value that both the non-Christian and Christian hold will convince the non-Christian to believe in God’s necessity and existence).
In response, the primary reason I am not in favor of murder is because I don’t want to die, and the primary reason I don’t want to die is because it is an evolutionary characteristic – most people who really preferred death over life exited the gene pool for obvious reasons, so I am primarily descended from those who chose to stick it out. Notice here that I am NOT saying that I OUGHT to prefer survival over death, only that I do for fairly logical reasons (I know that a straw man is made of this sentiment COUNTLESS times, so it’s really important for you to read that last sentence).
Also, for many of us, a satisfied life comes with a community -- because many of the loners didn’t pass on their genes or ways of functioning in the world, NOT because living in community is innately superior. Several of them didn’t reproduce, for obvious reasons. Others didn’t get the benefits those who were part of groups received. So they died out. But there also seems to be a necessity for the strongest individuals in a group to contribute, and competition, it seems, is a characteristic that partially won out in the drive to be part of this group. Competition is a human being’s way of saying that they belong and that they’re essential to the group. Love is, as well. And there is violence in human beings because violence trumps weakness – although it can also rally up the weak and turns them into a powerful force that can trump violence. At least, that’s the way human beings seem to operate.
The Science of Loneliness (2012)
- An Interview with John Cacioppo: The Science of Loneliness | Being Human
"Loneliness has a lot in common with pain, hunger, and thirst....each has evolved as an aversive biological signal that motivates us to do something that’s good for us as as individuals and as a species."
So I myself don’t want to die because I want to belong to an influential group and because I want to survive -- and at the same time, I am a bit independent and competitive because those are characteristics that have given humankind an edge. None of these aspects are externally high moral aims; they are a consequence of an evolutionary process that has formed some of my basic preferences.
So, these preferences are why I’m uncomfortable with murder..
But, it might be asked, do I have a RIGHT to be uncomfortable with murder? I mean, I might not be OK with murder, but how does that give me any authority to have the right of saying YOU should be uncomfortable with murder?
It’s hard, here, to figure out what the Christian means by “right” when asking these questions, and how they think God solves the problem – although Christians seem to think the connection is obvious and believe people who disagree are exhibiting profound intellectual dishonesty. Let me explain: either God is right because – well, he’s just right. Or He’s right because of some greater knowledge or power he has. If He’s right because he’s just right – well, that’s a redundancy. God could command anything, or do anything, and it would be “right” simply because He said so. The word “right” seems to lose it’s meaning; it could simply be replaced with “everything God does.”
More On Why This Question Of "Rights" From Christian Apologists Doesn't Make Sense
If He’s right because some greater knowledge or power that he has – there are a few things to consider. First, as to his greater knowledge – how do you know KNOW He has greater knowledge? For that matter how does HE know He has greater knowledge? “Faith” doesn’t seem like a sufficient answer here, and I’ve noticed it’s the one people seem to rely on most (second places seems to be personal anecdotes). Second, as to power – isn’t this mostly a case of “might makes right”? Certainly don’t need God to follow that principle. Third, even if God did have knowledge and power – you still need to determine what “right” is in regards to. Here, you’re still saying, “If you want to accomplish, x, God has the knowledge for you to do it,” or, “If you’re making this decision, you should know that God has the power to influence this way.” I mean, knowledge and power are qualities that build maps of and affect the world. They build maps, and they can change the landscape of maps, but they don’t change where the individual’s preferences. So this “right” to say what another should do comes from, even here, greater knowledge of the consequences for performing a deed, and power to keep unsavory deeds from being performed – as well as a preference that things go a certain way.
So, even here, morality is relative to knowledge, power, and preferences.
Thus, in answer to whether I have the right to say that murder is wrong, I’d say, “yes” – because of my knowledge of murder’s consequences and my preference to live in a murder-free culture. I might further convince someone that it’s wrong by using power (of, say, voting) to threaten the person with prison if they do murder. No God required.
“But,” the argument comes back, “that would mean that the murder can be “right” for the murderer!”
Well, sure. But it wouldn’t be right for me and for those who preferred to avoid murder, so we would change culture so that people didn’t get murdered. That may make one uncomfortable, but those are the cold facts of the case – whether you are a Christian or not.
But there is something about this whole thing that makes things interesting. It keeps us from simply dismissing people because they didn’t do what we thought was right. It can lead us to actually trying to figure out the motivations and preferences of others, and using that knowledge towards rehabilitation instead of a seeking out a punishment that avoids any attempts to understand the other individual’s place in society or simply labels their acts as “sin.” If I want to improve morality, and if morality is the basically the negotiation of preferences in society, then those preferences are very important to me, and by studying these and looking at them we can start doing the work of creating moral codes that reconcile them. We don’t have to, but many of us want to, and I’m interested in joining that enterprise.
This desire to craft such a moral code is a major part of why I dislike Christianity; there are so many stories behind people’s actions you have to somehow dismiss by calling them “evil” (which seems, to me, a word we mainly give to actions we do not or refuse to understand). I’d like to have access to as many viewpoints as possible, and I’d like to unite them and recognize them and make them valuable where they are not seen as valuable – not just as objects, but as people I laugh and cry fully and wholeheartedly with.
This is also why I am fairly liberal, why I defend gay marriage, “entitlements” for the poor, and so on. I prefer to survive, and I prefer to survive by shining a flashlight on the stories that are lying in the darkness, and to discover new ways to negotiate between human preferences, revealing win-win situations. And these ways are the kinds of “moral truths” that I am looking for.
In a way, Christians, even as I am significantly opposed to your position, I want what you want. I want to know the truth, and I want the truth to set us free. The truth is not in an imaginary God that bars you from realizing your real hopes and desires in the real world as opposed to a made-up world that you dedicate your life to. The truth is in an honest you and an honest me and an honest, careful look at the “Bible” of the universe surrounding us.