In this post I examine some of the faults and flaws inherent to atheism and moral relativism, and I also examine the real reasons why Christians elect to do what they do. I wrote this post as a general response to many things that I have heard and seen concerning morality, moral relativism, and the respective immorality of atheism and Christianity as viewed by either side of the morality debate. More particularly, I wrote my post in direct response to a selection from Richard Dawkin's book The God Delusion. While I do attempt to refute some of his conclusions, I find that he raises several valid points which are worth considering by religious people, agnostics, and atheists alike.
I have deliberately avoided addressing the arguments of atheists in the past, as I do not consider it to be a productive use of my time, especially since I think that atheists and religious people should agree to disagree and get on with making the world a better place. I chose to address this quote from Mr. Dawkins in this post in part because I think that he promotes some false assumptions that even some Christians may think that they believe, but I wrote it mainly because I believe his argument opens the door for the discussion of an important Christian principle.
"If there is no God why be good? Posed like that, the question sounds positively ignoble. When a religious person puts it to me this way (and many of them do), my immediate temptation is to issue the following challenge: "Do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment? that's not morality, that's just sucking up, apple-polishing, looking over your shoulder at the great surveillance camera in the sky, or the still small wiretap in your head, monitoring your every move, even your every base thought. As Einstein said, "if people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.' Michael Shermer, in The Science of Good and Evil, calls it a debate stopper. If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would 'commit robbery, rape, and murder', you reveal yourself as an immoral person, 'and we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you'. If, on the other hand, you admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under divine surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good. I suspect that quite a lot of religious people do think religion is what motivates them to be good, especially if they belong to one of those faiths that systematically exploits personal guilt.
It seems to me to require quite a low self-regard to think that, should belief in God suddenly vanish from the world, we would all become callous and selfish hedonists, with no kindness, no charity, no generosity, nothing that would deserve the name of goodness." (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 259)
Richard Dawkins, in his book, The God Delusion, actually raises a good point when he says: "Do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment? that's not morality, that's just sucking up, apple-polishing, looking over your shoulder at the great surveillance camera in the sky, or the still small wiretap in your head, monitoring your every move, even your every base thought." It is true that obedience motivated out of fear and guilt is not obedience at all.
That said, he then carries that correct statement to some incorrect conclusions. He is, as he states, deliberately attempting to undermine the argument of those who would point out the frightening nihilism at the heart of atheism, and which constitutes one of its most fatal flaws as a philosophy. To his point though, while I do not deny that there are Christians who only conform to the rules out of fear of divine retribution, even a cursory examination of scripture would reveal that true Christians are to do good without requiring to be told, and do so out the motives of love and voluntary covenant. His assertion that his critics are suggesting that immorality must result from atheism is based on what seems to me to be a straw man argument. First, I don't think that anyone is suggesting that we should automatically resort to hedonism, immorality, and viciousness if in the theoretical instance it was discovered that there is no God. I think what critics of atheism are rightly pointing out is that if you carry atheism to its logical conclusion, then it fundamentally does not matter what you or I do. He is falsely arguing against supposed accusations of immorality, in order to distract from the AMORALITY inherent in the atheist philosophy. He then quotes Michael Shermer to cast moral aspersions on anyone who tries to point out this failing in his dogma. He essentially declares "if you point out that the emperor has no clothes, then YOU must not be wearing any clothes either!" It sounds good until you examine it closely, and under any scrutiny it collapses as the fallacious argument that it is. Just because you question the morality of a basically amoral philosophy does not mean that you automatically think that you would automatically 'commit robbery, rape, and murder’ in the moment you discover that you are free of divine surveillance.
As for his second charge, that Christians claim that God is necessary for us to be good, he is responding to arguments like the one made by C.S. Lewis (in his book "Mere Christianity") that God is the source of morality (in Lewis' effort to show that the existence of morality proves the existence of God). I myself am inclined to agree with him, as restoration scripture seems to largely support Lewis' claim.
2 Nephi 2:13-14 And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away. And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for there is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon.
Alma 42: 19-22 Now, if there was no law given—if a man murdered he should die—would he be afraid he would die if he should murder? And also, if there was no law given against sin men would not be afraid to sin. And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, or mercy either, for they would have no claim upon the creature? But there is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; otherwise, justice claimeth the creature and executeth the law, and the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God.
These passages would seem to support Dawkins argument that Christians think that without God we don't need to be good, but any Christian with even a modicum of understanding knows that the idea that without God we cannot be good is inherently false. Christians do not "fatally undermine [their] claim that God is necessary for us to be good" by admitting that "[they] would continue to be a good person even when not under divine surveillance", as they never made such a claim in the first place. A true Christian does not wait until after he has received an assurance of the existence of God before he elects to do a good deed, as that would contradict the whole point and principle of faith. To claim that Christians operate in this way is to demonstrate a basic ignorance of one of the simplest and most fundamental tenets of Christian belief.
Ether 12:6 And now, I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things; I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.
1 Peter 7-9 That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ: Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.
If we wait until we have a sure knowledge of God's existence, etc. before choosing to obey, we don't have faith at all, and without faith we cannot claim to be true Christians.
Alma 32:16-19, 21 Therefore, blessed are they who humble themselves without being compelled to be humble; or rather, in other words, blessed is he that believeth in the word of God, and is baptized without stubbornness of heart, yea, without being brought to know the word, or even compelled to know, before they will believe. Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe. Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it. And now, how much more cursed is he that knoweth the will of God and doeth it not, than he that only believeth, or only hath cause to believe, and falleth into transgression? And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.
All of the above quotes have dealt with the nature of faith itself, but how does this translate to good works independent of the existence of God?
James 2:19-20 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
James here makes a singular comparison: it is not enough merely to acknowledge the existence of God, for even the devils themselves do that much. However mere belief does no good unless it is also accompanied by works.
Now, after all this, we get to Dawkin's central misunderstanding of, or misconception about, Christianity. He seems to think that those who believe in God must only obey him out of fear of punishment, or out of some grudging sense of obligation. As I said before, I do not deny that there are those who claim to believe in God who only conform to the rules out of fear of divine retribution, but in my opinion such people are either ignorant, or are hypocrites, and in either case do not truly represent Christianity in its correct application.
C. S. Lewis understood that true Christians do not act out of fear of retribution, but rather they do so as an active and independent choice to turn one's life wholly over to God, and out of a sincere desire to live in harmony with God. He points out that as you do this you are making your own choice to change into something better than you are.
"People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.’ I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself." (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 92)
Obedience in and of itself is not enough. Good deeds, if they are performed according to the Christian ideal, must proceed out of pure motives. Obedience that comes grudgingly, out of fear or obligation, is not obedience at all.
"We might think that, provided you did the right thing, it did not matter how or why you did it -- whether you did it willingly or unwillingly, sulkily or cheerfully, through fear of public opinion or for its own sake. But the truth is that right actions done for the wrong reason do not help to build the internal quality or character called a 'virtue,' and it is this quality or character that really matters." (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 80)
So what are the pure motives that are supposed to motivate Christians?
The two greatest commandments in the Law are to love God, and to love your neighbor.
Matthew 22:36-40 Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Christ taught us that “all the law and the prophets” hang on these two commandments. This is true because, if we love God we will keep His commandments.
John 14:15 If ye love me, keep my commandments.
John 14:23; 18-20 Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.
If we love God, we will keep his commandments, and his greatest commandment (after the injunction to love Him) is to love His children, our neighbors:
1 John 5:2-3 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.
Paul elaborates on this and tells us that love should be our motive in all things because “love is the fulfilling of the law”. This is true because all of the other commandments fall under the two greatest ones, both of which concern love.
Romans 13:8-11 Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.
A man who truly loves God and his neighbor will naturally keep the commandments. “Love is the fulfilling of the law” because a man who loves in the way that Christ loves doesn’t need to be commanded in order that he might keep the commandments. If his love is sincerely that pure love which is called charity, he can do nothing else.
“‘Love is the fulfilling of the law.’ Did you ever think what [Paul] meant by that? In those days men were working their passage into heaven by keeping the Ten Commandments and the hundred and ten other commandments which they had manufactured out of them. Christ said, I will show you a more simple way. If you do one thing, you will do these hundred and ten things, without ever thinking about them. If you love, you will unconsciously fulfill the whole law. And you can readily see for yourselves how that must be so. Take any of the commandments. ‘Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.’ If a man love God, you will not require to tell him that. Love is the fulfilling of that law. ‘Take not His name in vain.’ Would he ever dream of taking His name in vain if he loved Him?…Love would fulfill all these laws regarding God.
[Just] so, if he loved Man you would never think of telling him to honor his father and mother. He could not do anything else. It would be preposterous to tell him not to kill. You could only insult him if you suggested he should not steal--how could he steal from those he loved[?] It would be superfluous to beg him not to bear false witness against his neighbor. If he loved him it would be the last thing he would do.
And you would never dream of urging him not to covet what his neighbor had. He would rather they possessed it than himself. In this way ‘Love is the fulfilling of the law.’ It is the rule for fulfilling all rules, the new commandment for keeping all the old commandments, Christ’s one secret of the Christian life.” (Henry Drummond, The Greatest Thing in the World, 11-12)
D&C 58:26-29 For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward. Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward. But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned.
Another name for this love which we are commanded to have for God and man is "charity". When we are motivated out of charity we do the right things for the right reasons, without needing to be told to do so.
"We are challenged to move through a process of conversion toward that status and condition called eternal life. This is achieved not just by doing what is right, but by doing it for the right reason—for the pure love of Christ. The Apostle Paul illustrated this in his famous teaching about the importance of charity (see 1 Cor. 13). The reason charity never fails and the reason charity is greater than even the most significant acts of goodness he cited is that charity, “the pure love of Christ” (Moro. 7:47), is not an act but a condition or state of being. Charity is attained through a succession of acts that result in a conversion. Charity is something one becomes." (Dallin H. Oaks, "The Challenge to Become", Conference report Oct 2000)
Christians do not do good deeds by compulsion or out of fear of divine surveillance or some kind of divine revenge, they obey because they, of their own free will, choose to obey. They choose to love a God whom they have never seen, and so their obedience does not depend on a knowledge of his existence.
|True Christians do not require divine surveillance in order to behave morally.|
For a true Christian the existence of God does not need to be certain in order for them to obey, and consequently God's existence (or failure to exist) has no bearing one way or another on their personal decision to lead a moral life.
In light of these facts, I believe that Dawkins chooses to set up a false conflict in order to score points over religious people, when in actual fact we do not strongly disagree on this point. Even Dawkins seems to implicitly acknowledge this, as he builds his whole argument on the fact that those who ask him "If there is no God, why be good?" will be forced to recognize that morality does not depend on the existence of God. In fact, I am inclined to (more or less) agree with atheistic philosopher Julian Baggini when he said that "Morality is more than possible without God, it is entirely independent of him. That means atheists are not only more than capable of leading moral lives, they may even be able to lead more moral lives than religious believers who confuse divine law and punishment with right and wrong." (Baggini, Julian (2003). Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280424-2.) While I could choose to dispute his (and Dawkins') assertion that we do not need God for morality to exist, I do agree that atheists are more than capable of leading what are essentially moral lives.
Despite what Dawkins seems to suggest, I don't think any reasonable person would suggest that atheists are incapable of leading moral lives. My main issue with Atheism, is not that it promotes immorality, or even necessarily that it promotes amorality. The problem with atheism is that by removing any objective standard of right and wrong it allows its followers to subjectively define what is moral and what is not in order to suit their own purposes and opinions. This is called "moral relativism" and it is very dangerous:
“A world without God, the living God who establishes moral laws to govern and perfect His children, is also a world without ultimate truth or justice. It is a world where moral relativism reigns supreme” (D. Todd Christofferson, “Free Forever, to Act for Themselves,” General Conference Address, October 4, 2014).
"Attempts to resolve ethical issues without God [can] only result in moral relativism where ethical standards [are] relative to a particular culture, individual, or time in history. Moral relativism is expressed in our culture where conduct once considered immoral or even perverse is now tolerated or has become the new norm. Tolerance is increasingly viewed as the highest ethic. This is not the traditional view of tolerance in which one tries to recognize and respect other people’s values without necessarily accepting those values as being correct. Instead, tolerance implies that all values, beliefs, and claims to truth and lifestyles are equal. However, if all of these things are equal, no one could claim that one person’s ethics are better than another’s” (Kim, D., Fisher, D., & McCalman, D., (2009), Modernism, christianity, and business ethics: A worldview approach. Journal of Business Ethics, 90, 115-121. DOI 10.1007/s10551-009-0031-2.)
“Relativism means each person is his or her own highest authority. Of course, it is not just those who deny God that subscribe to this philosophy. Some who believe in God still believe that they themselves, individually, decide what is right and wrong. One young adult expressed it this way: ‘I don’t think I could say that Hinduism is wrong or Catholicism is wrong or being Episcopalian is wrong—I think it just depends on what you believe. … I don’t think that there’s a right and wrong.’ Another, asked about the basis for his religious beliefs, replied, ‘Myself—it really comes down to that. I mean, how could there be authority to what you believe?’” (D. Todd Christofferson, “Free Forever, to Act for Themselves,” General Conference Address, October 4, 2014).
“A serious limitation of moral relativism, then, is the inability to determine an absolute standard of good or ethical behavior and the reasons behind it” (Kim, D., Fisher, D., & McCalman, D., (2009), Modernism, christianity, and business ethics: A worldview approach. Journal of Business Ethics, 90, 115-121. DOI 10.1007/s10551-009-0031-2.)
Such relative or situational "morality" is therefore highly fluid, and as such becomes extremely convenient when attempting to justify something that traditional Judeo-Christian values, or even just plain old societal laws and mores, declare to be wrong. "You think it is immoral that I am sleeping with your wife? Well that's your morality, but it isn't mine." And in their cosmology (or lack thereof) there is no objective standard by which another can judge their actions to be evil or good, so who is there to tell them that their interpretation of "morality" is incorrect? Anyone who tries is condemned as bigoted or close-minded, or simply told that they ought to mind their own business and stop imposing their values on other people. This allows great license for those who would choose to abuse their individual moral freedom.
I should point out that I am sure there are many atheists who are mature enough to recognize the dangers inherent in this opportunistic approach to morality. I have personally been acquainted with many people who self-identify as atheist or agnostic that are as moral or even more so than many so-called Christians that I have encountered. However I am led to ask such people: how do you determine what is moral and what is not once you recognize the inherent unreliability of subjective self-defined morality? Do you align your morality according to societal laws and accepted social norms? If so, then how do you compensate for the constant shifts in social standards, laws, and mores, especially when they do not align with your own internal morality?
"Collective worldviews change over time. What was once considered to be eminently true and right is no longer the case. Conduct and behavior once held as unacceptable or even perverse is now tolerated or has become the norm." (Kim, D., Fisher, D., & McCalman, D., (2009), Modernism, christianity, and business ethics: A worldview approach. Journal of Business Ethics, 90, 115-121. DOI 10.1007/s10551-009-0031-2.)
"Many who deny or doubt the existence of God would probably disclaim the philosophy of moral relativism. They would see themselves as having some external standards of right and wrong, though absolute standards not based on belief in God are difficult to explain." (Dallin H. Oaks, "Stand as Witnesses of God," Ensign, March 2015, 32).
The fact that societal laws and social norms are in a constant state of flux and change represents a major flaw in this approach to determining one's own code of ethics and morality. So what I am actually asking atheists is this: what do you use as an objective measuring stick when assessing your own subjective morality?
As I said before, I agree with Julian Baggini when he says "atheists are not only more than capable of leading moral lives, they may even be able to lead more moral lives than religious believers who confuse divine law and punishment with right and wrong." He is right when he says that atheists can lead lives that are more moral than those led by "religious believers who confuse divine law and punishment with right and wrong." However, I believe that because of the inherently subjective nature of self-defined "relative" morality, the atheist cannot live a life that is more moral than religious believers who, through the objective standard of divine law, come to their own understanding of right and wrong, and choose for themselves to act accordingly without requiring a certain knowledge of the existence of God. Such Christians are more than enabled to determine what is moral for themselves, because they have an eternal and unchanging standard by which they can measure their own choices.
"Christian ethics founded on Scripture gives moral standards or a common platform that allow us to judge between right and wrong. In business situations [as well as in everyday life] people must decide what they ought to do and what ethical principles to follow. They must know that these principles are right and that it is reliable....the very idea of right and wrong makes sense only if there is a final standard by which we can make moral judgements." (Kim, D., Fisher, D., & McCalman, D., (2009), Modernism, christianity, and business ethics: A worldview approach. Journal of Business Ethics, 90, 115-121. DOI 10.1007/s10551-009-0031-2.)
“To those who believe anything or everything could be true, the declaration of objective, fixed, and universal truth feels like coercion—“I shouldn’t be forced to believe something is true that I don’t like.” But that does not change reality. Resenting the law of gravity won’t keep a person from falling if he steps off a cliff. The same is true for eternal law and justice. Freedom comes not from resisting it but from applying it.” (D. Todd Christofferson, “Free Forever, to Act for Themselves,” General Conference Address, October 4, 2014).
Atheists, no matter how principled, must always derive their creed and measure their moral standard according to a source that is not their own, whether it be environmental or cultural, or else they would indeed revert to the unprincipled situational opportunism inherent to a creed which is wholly subject to their own relative whims and opinions.
Let me finish by saying that, just as some "Christians" only obey God outwardly out of fear of divine or religious retribution, some atheists similarly align themselves with the laws and morality of their environment out of nothing more than fear of legal or social punishment. My point is that immorality, or at least hypocritical cosmetic morality, is not unique to misguided religious people, and appears to be an affliction from which humans suffer generally. If Atheists and Christians could decide to stop arguing and mutually commit to the betterment of the world, this world might begin to approach that paradise that Christians seek, and for the atheists would it not begin to resemble their humanist ideal? Surely such a goal is a better one than to denigrate the beliefs of those who do not share your own (or your lack thereof, as the case may be.)