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Conversation on Morality

It started with some punk Christian asserting that without God there can be no moral grounding. We have all heard that one before and so I responded with my Atheism 101 article on the subject (which is now out of date, but still useful).

Then the Christian responded with this:

“As far as your argument that Christians do not, that is simply not true. We base our morality on what is revealed in the Scripture. The fact that people interpret the Bible differently does not necessarily discount the fact that (a) there are prescribed moral rules and (b) that Christians generally believe the same about MOST things.”

So I responded with a lengthy response which I will try to shorten here:

That is just not true. Different Christians have different ideas about some of the biggest moral issues of the day. On topics like abortion, stem cell research, gay rights, condom use, giving to the poor, capital punishment, corporal punishment, torture, etc., Christians disagree. In the past they even disagreed on slavery and women’s rights. I think I made the case pretty strongly that there is no moral grounding to be had in “scripture.” I asked this question in the article and I will ask it again here. If God said that rape was morally good, do you believe it would be so? Now for me that is a no brainer. No, rape is morally wrong. Why you ask? Because we can empathize with the person being raped and we can understand that it isn’t a compassionate thing to do. For you however, that question gets tricky. What does God say about rape in the Bible? What are the relevant passages? What context are they in? Have you taken into account other passages which might alter that view or put in into some other context? Are you sure you have the right translation? Do you know if the Original Bible (which doesn’t actually exist anymore) said the same thing? Has there been an alteration to the text? Could there have been a mistranslation somewhere? There seems to be a lot of calculations you have to go through before you can claim that rape is immoral and even then, other Christians could interpret the Bible in a different way and come to a very different conclusion. So I ask you again, where is the moral grounding here? Can you really tell me that the Bible is absolutely clear that rape is immoral? I don’t think you can. In fact, I can come up with verses that actually justify rape as being the moral thing to do. Yet we all know that rape is immoral. How do we know that? Because we can empathize with the person being raped and see that it is not a compassionate thing to do. That realization has nothing to do with your God or any other god. It is a realization born out of secular thinking.

This is where another Christian jumped into the conversation:

“What about the guy that sells drugs to an elementary or middle school kid who ends up doing something stupid that hurts himself or others around him? Immoral, right? We punish the drug dealer for stuff like that, right? But what if we look at the fact that the drug dealer is only doing what he needs to do to survive? The sole bread-winner in the house just got laid off; they already didn’t have enough food to feed the kids, and can’t get a job anywhere else… so he’s only doing what he needs to do in order to survive. Empathy for his situation would let him off the hook, right? But this is a situation that I’ve struggled with as it relates to moral relativism”

So here is my response:

I didn’t say that was immoral. Like I said in the article, some issues of morality are principle based (i.e. rape) and others are more situational based (i.e. lying… and perhaps this situation depending on how the drug dealer is dealing). But taking a situation into account does not equal moral relativism. Morality is complicated and the Ten Commandments just doesn’t cut it. Moral choices are just that, choices. Some of those choices are easier than others, but it really pisses me off when religious believers claim to know it all when they obviously don’t. There is a whole field of study within Philosophy called Ethics. Like I said in the article, I advise people to go to a bookstore or library and find a good intro to ethics book before they make ridiculously absurd statements like, “only religion has the basis for a moral system.” Such statements are not only arrogant and ill-informed, but they also show a surprising ignorance about both religion and ethics.

Now, getting to the drug dealer situation; is the drug dealing merely providing drugs to those who want them or is he or she actively pushing drugs on those who don’t? If he or she is actively pushing drugs (especially to minors) then he or she is doing something immoral. Now, that doesn’t mean it is all the drug dealer’s fault but he or she is morally responsible. It goes back to the idea that people don’t do immoral things because they are evil, but rather they do immoral things because sadly it is all they know. This is a slap in the face to Christianity which claims that people do in fact do immoral things because we are all evil sinners. I take issue with that view and see the world somewhat differently. The way I see it, we are all trying to be heroes in our own story and get sidetracked along the way.

Your example supports my point or view. The drug dealer isn’t trying to be immoral because he or she is evil, but rather because he or she is trying to help out the family the only way they know how. The trick is to teach the drug dealer a new way to help their family without acting immorally. People don’t exist in a vacuum. We are all in this together. We live in an interconnected world and that is my atheistic view of spirituality and humanistic ethics.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/andrewtheatheist Andrew Garber

    Alright!! It’s good to see the conversations on Empire Avenue turn into blogs for you, too!!

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    - The trick is to teach the drug dealer a new way to help their family without acting immorally.

    I would repsectfully counter that we should work to end the drug war, then the hypothetical criminal would be turned into an honest citizen.

    • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch

      I agree that we ought to end the drug war, but legal and moral are still two different things.

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  • http://twitter.com/JeremyLundmark Jeremy Lundmark

    The proposition that you won this argument is wrong. The basis for your moral code is still your opinion, your society, and the time in which you live.

    A culture tomorrow may find rape to be quite pleasing and deem you some awful prude for thinking otherwise. Further, they may also deem propagating moral codes through public reading as wrong and deem you wrong on both counts.

    You’ll be dead by then, and you’re moral code will be long since sacrificed for the newly accepted one for their time and their society.

    This has happened time and again in history. When the basis of a moral code is on the opinions of men… they are not Laws but opinions.

    In other words no ACTUAL moral law exists outside of the societies majority determination (ie what they feel, or sense, or empathize with.)

    • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch

      Sam Harris has made the case pretty clearly that morality isn’t mere opinion. I have done my best to summarize his point, but your attempt at a straw man fails miserably since your Bible based morality has been proven to have changed over time.

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