Friday, November 2, 2012

Is it possible for non-Christians to behave morally?

The answer to this question is very obviously yes, but I pose it anyway because it keeps coming up!  And as it does, I keep thinking of it from new angles!

Initially it sprang out of my reading on atheistic websites about how they are offended by the Christian assertion that as atheists they don't do moral good, and they cited examples of helping the homeless, etc, which illustrate that the idea is false.  Clearly, atheists (and other non-Christians, but I will focus on the atheists for today) have done and continue to do a lot of good things for the world.  They have done a lot of evil too-  they like to point to the Inquisition for Catholics, but we can point to Stalin, so we'll leave all that aside.

Some Christians, some protestants, do believe that non Christians cannot do anything truly good.  The Bible does say that apart from God we can do nothing, and that we cannot please God without faith.  But I think that interpretation is overstating it.  I believe that Gandhi was essentially good.  As was Socrates.  And millions of others.  I know a number of Non Christians who I admire for their virtue, especially since I think so much about it and work for it consciously, and they just seem to have it naturally!

(Interestingly, an Atheist the other day said he didn't think Christians could be truly moral, since we make decisions in order to attain Heaven and avoid Hell.  I agree that if we are good for selfish reasons, we are not truly good...)

The idea in some Protestant circles that non Christians cannot be good comes from the notion that we are totally depraved but for the grace of God, and that even the grace of God doesn't really sanctify us (make us Holy) but it does justify us (declare us Holy while not changing us really).   Catholics believe that by the grace of God we can be made holy, and further we believe that we are not totally depraved in the first place, but were created good and have a wounded nature which inclines us to sin.

Ok, so that aside, I think most people are essentially 'good'.  Then you get Jesus, who said "why do you call me good?  No one is good but God!"  Ok, so by that standard of good, no one is really good, we are all sinners in need of salvation.  But atheists and Christians are not really so far apart on the scale then!

But the question "Can an atheistic person be a moral person?" started to bug me.  The thing is, what if sexual ethics counts?  Obviously there are many Atheists who are pure, men and women of integrity, even by Catholic standards, but I began to wonder about what is the foundation of their ethic?

I gave a presentation a while ago to the grade 12 biology class at my High School, where I attempted to demonstrate from biology the foundations for Catholic Sexual ethics from Natural law.  One very intelligent student started debating me, showing that not everything that the Catholics hold to be moral necessarily follows from our natural tendencies.  That that is not exactly what moral law means will have to be expanded elsewhere.

He pointed out that we seem inclined as humans towards polygamy, and though he was not exactly advocating for that, he was saying that he could on the same grounds that I was advocating heterosexual life long unions.  And he had a point.  I quickly found myself bringing in logic from outside of natural law and biology, like the dignity of humans as created in the image and likeness of God.

And this is where the dialogue always breaks down in the secular realm.  As a Christian I have 2 foundations from which I build my ethics-  Love  (as in putting the other first, as opposed to the emotion) and the inherent dignity of humans.  I think, and would gladly be shown how I am wrong, that most secular people have as their foundation a form of the golden rule-  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  But from that they conclude that as long as it doesn't hurt anyone, we should be free to do it.

And this is precisely why debating homosexuality in the secular realm seems to fail so dramatically for Christians.  Because the seculars will just point out that nobody gets hurt, so we should not impede their freedom.  Some would, and I think Christians often mistakenly do, try to prove that homosexuality does hurt others, themselves, society... but it allows for the base assumption, which is all that matters is that no one gets hurt.

The difficulty is that in a society where policy decisions are not permitted to be informed by religious convictions, our sexual ethic does not stand!  So, it seems most people in our culture, increasingly so, conclude that Homosexual Marriage is permissible and even honourable, and so Christianity is wrong!  It is interesting that we are not permitted to have our views on Christianity inform our views on homosexuality, but people always let their views on homosexuality inform their views on Christianity.

And so, the secular or atheistic moral foundation "don't hurt anyone" allows them to draw very different conclusions about homosexuality, divorce, abortion (where they dispute that 'anyone' is hurt), pornography.... and I think inevitably even polygamy and incest!  I know why as a Christian I am opposed to those things, but I think if you follow the secular logic to it's end, provided everyone in the situation is a consenting adult, that what foundation do we have for opposing polygamy or incest? 

This, I think, explains the state of sexual morality in our times, and predicts it's direction. 

But what if we continue to follow that line of thinking?  Truth is that even the assumption that morality depends on 'nobody getting hurt' and 'freedom' needs a foundation, and what is it?  What if more important than that was "progress", as was the priority for Nazis and Planned Parenthood in it's eugenics days,  or "The good of the whole", as was the priority for the communist regimes?  We have seen where those break down!

I am informed by the same thing regarding sexual morality, that is human dignity, as I am when I make decisions regarding slavery, prostitution, prison conditions, respecting graves, etc.  I wonder for atheists at what point human dignity kicks in and matters?  Why are babies protected, while fetuses are not?  Why are babies protected while cows are not?  If we are merely highly evolved apes, who happen to be the most destructive force on the planet, doesn't a cow have more right to life than a human baby?  After all, it is more self aware!  (Peter Singer has made that argument.)   I see no reason why it is OK to farm cows for meat, but not to farm humans for meat-  provided you kill them before they become more self aware than cows.

A few years ago, I had an encounter with a prostitute, who hoped I would be a customer.  I had a respectful conversation with her, even took her off the street and paid her for her time, but refused her services... and she wondered why.  I told her that I thought she was worth more than that.  She was high, but she said "yeah, me too."

I don't think it is right to hire a prostitute or look at a porn star just because they are consenting.  I don't think polygamous incestuous marriages, even for consenting adults, is right.  I would suggest to you that if you have the same moral convictions, but are not a Christian, than ask yourself what are the foundations of that morality? 

My conclusion, I guess, is this... I do maintain that an Atheist can be good, and many of them are and are better than many Christians.  But their foundation for their ethic does not line up.  A complete ethic depends on the notion of human dignity, which I think depends on an objective standard, that is being created in the image of God.

1 comment:

  1. I would again repeat what I have said before. If God can change his law then it was not objective in the first place. If one day an eye for an eye is objectively okay for God then the next it is to love thy enemy, then the prior wasn't objective in the first place, for it could not be changed. Thus Gods morality is not objective.

    I'm sure you heard of Christopher Hitchens, I discovered him a week ago, been watching everything I can. I think you'd find this video interesting.