Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Morality Tale

For most of my life, my sense of morality, of “right living”, of “how and why to be a good person” has been embedded in, explained by, and supported through my Christian faith. It always seemed important to understand and explain the foundations of this moral sensibility: we model our lives after Jesus, and we do it out of love for, and in response to, God’s love for us. I think I took for granted that there was a (seemingly) coherent story about where my morals came from and on what basis I can/should lead my daily life.

Okay. So now I am in this agnostic place, unsure of God’s existence in the first place, and definitely questioning the theologies, the foundations, I have based my life on for decades. And it feels really unsettling to no longer feel like I can rely on the Christian story as the underpinnings of my morality.

But then I think, do I really need a coherent back story (a la Christianity) to help me choose between right and wrong? My boyfriend said the other day that he thinks true morality is something you don’t need to discuss: we inherently know what’s right and wrong to do in any given circumstance, and we learn it through life experience.

And another atheist friend once said that he chooses to do good not to gain some heavenly reward, and not to avoid punishment in hell, but simply because it’s the right thing to do. I thought that was pretty powerful: choosing to do good as its own reward, not to please God and not out of fear of God’s wrath.

But the main point is this: neither of them feels a need to have an elaborate back story of why something is right and wrong; they both seem to think that we simply know and can make moral choices without a specific or articulated philosophy/theology.

I’m not sure what I think about this – is it just my introspective, reflective personality that craves a story I can latch on to and be inspired by? Is it dangerous not to have one? Does it matter?

I think I am still trying to get my head around these morality questions, so if any of you can help me clarify what I’m even trying to sort out, I’m all ears...


Heather said...

**And another atheist friend once said that he chooses to do good not to gain some heavenly reward, and not to avoid punishment in hell, but simply because it’s the right thing to do.**

And I think it makes the atheist the most moral of the group -- s/he's not doing it to "get" something out of it. If a good act is done to please God, then the person has received an almost selfish benefit -- to make God pleased with you. It comes across as though if helping one's neighbor didn't please God, the person wouldn't do it. Whereas the atheist would, regardless.

**Is it dangerous not to have one? Does it matter?**

My understanding of the type of Christianity you used to follow is that it presented morality as something that was impossible without God. God was the source of all morals, God determined the morals, and set the objective standard. If you weren't following that, then you'd immediatly go kill your next door neighbor, set fire to the dog and sell poison to children (I may be stretching here, but I've read a lot of de-conversion stories where the still-Christians were shocked that the now non-Christian didn't suddenly go all immoral, but behaved the same).

Under this system, all non-Christians are immoral, basically. And right now, your journey has you outside this system, in the "non-moral" category. That might be where a lot of your questions are coming from: you still behave the same, and yet you were raised to believe that you couldn't really behave this way without God.

bjk said...

I gots a big old Moral Compass from my upbringing.....

My journey on the otherhand different....I don't know if that is any answer to your question but I lived with only the moral compass for 40 years and still something was missing...

lowendaction said...

hey slap,

This is probably more along the lines of "the silent God" and less the morality subject of your post, but I thought you might enjoy this:

Go to the first podcast titled: Thoughts on Esther - Lauren Winner.

I'd be curious what you take away from her journey.

Oh, and here are my two shillings regarding morality. Right and wrong aren't things we should do because God, our parents, or Barney said so, they fall under the characteristics of love. And since (IMO) God IS love... Know love, know God. Know God, know love. Live love, and the rest takes care of itself.

See, it's less about following rules, and more about living according to our original design. I like to think of this concept, as us having been built with "love software" already pre-installed. The question is, have we taken the time to familiarize ourselfs with this key application (yeah, I'm a nerd. Just be happy I didn't bust out a Star Trek or Force reference!!!)


jennypo said...

You don't need to acknowledge God in order to be moral. Morality is not Christianity, nor is it conservatism.

People who reject God as the ultimate Good don't always (don't often!) reject morality as the set of laws necessitated by the nature of the Good, just as those who reject God as the creator of the earth and its inhabitants don't often deny that the earth and humans exist.

Rather, with no God to define what is moral, they are left with only themselves and their own sense of right and wrong to define morality. This doesn't make them immoral. It doesn't even make them amoral. What it does is leave a lot of questions about why different people can have such different ideas about right and wrong. I have to disagree with your boyfriend, Slapdash. Although we all have a sense of right and wrong, we don't necessarily agree on what that is, or, more importantly, how it ought to play out in reality. For example, is my freedom more important than the stability of my family? In Western culture, it is. In a Confucian society, it never can be.

God offers us not only answers, but also the power to act morally, which each of us lack in different ways. God says that only Love is truly moral. The "right thing" is not enough - only what springs out of a heart that loves and offers itself in love - is enough to satisfy his morality. This kind of morality is applicable in every culture, for every personality. I'm not saying that people who don't know God don't love. What I'm saying is that they have no business tellling other people what is moral and what is not. They have no authority other than the innate morality we can agree on, which, in our culture, boils down to "don't kill" (except in some circumstances - majority decides which) and "don't hate" (which we do anyway).

I, though a thoroughly imperfect person who fails to meet the standard of morality that I recognize, am able to state what is moral not because I have the right in myself, but because I appeal to One who does have that right; One who is far greater than me. Otherwise, it would be the height of arrogance for me to even state what morality is. I could tell my sense of things - but that is shaped by my personality and my culture.

My innate knowledge of morality is strong enough, but I have learned not to trust it. I have spent a significant amount of time in a culture not my own. When I first travelled to my "new" country, I was both shocked and appalled at a number of things. Freedom is something that is very high on my priority list as a human being. In addition, I am firmly convinced of the morality of gender equality. I was deeply disturbed at some of the practices of the culture I found myself in - things which seemed to fly in the face of my sense of morality.
What I learned from that experience is that many of the practices I found so repulsive didn't have the meaning they would have had in my own culture. They weren't as immoral as I had supposed. Moreover, I soon found things in my own culture that hadn't disturbed me at all before, revealed as immoral by my own standard!

Right and wrong is a very difficult thing to judge. We have no right to judge it for anyone but ourselves, unless it has been specifically revealed by a God. Every one of us - Christian, agnostic, atheist, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Wiccan, Mormon, pagan, Hare Krishna - has a moral sense, but few of us truly agree on what is moral. Even amongst convicted murderers, there is a definite sense of right and wrong. Trouble is, what is it, exactly?

The Bible says that each of us will be judged, not according to the Ten Commandments, but according to our own conscience. If you can fully satisfy your own conscience, then you don't need Jesus.

I need him, not to give me a list of do's and don'ts; but to cover me when I don't do what I already know, and to give me a power over my own self. He does. I have experienced it.

Do live as morally as you can - with your education, intelligence, and upbringing, it ought to be more than many Christians do. To do less than we can is not human - it is evil.

But morality alone is a cold, poor meal. Others may admire the way we live - but we know ourselves even in our proudest moments to be caught in the death-grip of selfishness. Habits, self-discipline, education - all these may serve to set us free from immoral action. But Jesus alone can set us free from the selfishness that chokes the motivations behind our best acts.

Sorry for being so long-winded. Wish I could be more to-the-point.

Jonathan Blake said...

The only thing that God does for morality is give it the appearance of having an absolute foundation. What God says is supposedly the absolute truth.

The problem is that God doesn't provide such an absolute foundation. Consider the Euthyphro dilemma: "Is what is good commanded by God because it is good, or is it good because it is commanded by God?"

In other words, would good still be good even if God hated it? Or is the good defined by the arbitrary will of God? It doesn't seem that morality should be defined by an arbitrary will.

If instead a moral act is inherently good with or without God, then God is not the foundation of morality.

SocietyVs said...

"But then I think, do I really need a coherent back story (a la Christianity) to help me choose between right and wrong?" (Slapdash)

I would say it doesn't hurt. I think it is better to have an appeal to morality that is outside of us (not biased by us) - a type of value system to make our paradigm for life off of. I see Jesus' teachings that way for my life - a place where I look to find discuss my value system and see if it is meeting a certain standard (ex: love, mercy, hope, forgiveness, integrity, etc). I have found it to be a very good exercise for me (at the least).

"My boyfriend said the other day that he thinks true morality is something you don’t need to discuss: we inherently know what’s right and wrong" (Slapdash)

I would raise some concern with the statement 'we inherently know right and wrong'. This just does not seem the case - it would seem we may have some initial seed of morality but we have to raise that seed (via knowledge) or else it does not grow/mature.

Look at the suicide bombers willing to kill themselves for their perception of god? Is this inherent morality or is this learned? What about gang-bangers in the hood who kill for and deal drugs to their own community? Is this inherent morality or something learned? Even Jim Jones' situation which resulted in a mass suicide - seemed to be based on ideologies he learned, then warped into some control mechanism for his gain (ex: sexual and absolute power).

This idea about morality is not so 'cut and dry'. I can say honestly I am not a good person because I ignored the idea of values/ethics for any old way of living...vice versa actually. Had I not studied to know humanity better or myself better - and compare this to a system of values I could bounce that off - I would not be the same person typing at present - I might not even care to make these dialogues being lost in ignorance or worse, non-ethics.

Just throwing that out there - no disrespect to your boyfriend.