In my post on how sin is an unhealthy concept, I had a lengthy discussion with John Branyan, the author of a post that I linked to. During that discussion, this idea came up:
“If there is no sort of ‘universal standard of conduct’ then none of us need worry about how our behavior affects others.”
(Coincidentally, JB wrote this post expanding upon the thought).
I wanted to write a more complete set of thoughts on this, especially after I received this thought from Shawna, a new reader:
“It appears that [her moral landscape] is consistent with the perspective there truly is no universal standard and I’m further grieved by the thought that such meaningless suffering is experienced in the world, including that of children and I have no assurance there will never be any cosmic remedy for those who suffer so intensely, so needlessly and die without healing. I’m a sensitive person and it hurts.”
What am I talking about here?
JB’s commentary aside, the idea is that morality is completely ineffective and meaningless without religion. Anything becomes possible, and any moral value can become justified. To its fullest extent, the ideas behind this cause the concerns raised by Shawna. What we’ve got is this idea that religion is a necessary component of treating people morally.
When I was a Christian, this idea got reinforced. A lot of Christians believe this, and they genuinely can become afraid of a world that doesn’t pledge allegiance to its deity. In effect, it keeps people believing for no other reason than they don’t feel secure without it. Cosmic justice – the kind that religious morality provides – must exist, lest nothing make sense at all.
After deconverting, I realized that it’s not necessary at all.
To date, I’ve yet to come across data which suggests that Christians have a monopoly on empathy, compassion, caring, guilt, ethics, and morality. Non-Christian societies get along with the same institutions to enforce social morality, justice, and fairness as Christian ones. Even more damning is the existence of such institutions before Judeo-Christian religious thinking existed.
All of this suggests that people have always decided what moral values they have. Couching it in religious terms doesn’t make it real; it just explains it in a way that doesn’t require explanation if you share the same religion as someone. That’s really what we’re talking about here: a shortcut for people in the same subgroup. We can see that because while it works just fine in Christian circles, it makes no sense going outside of them.
The easiest way to show this is that you can’t find non-Christians who advocate for banning entire social rules and laws simply because they can. Deconverts don’t go running naked in the streets, trying to steal everything from everyone and then setting the neighborhood on fire. Five out of seven people on this planet are not Christians, and the world keeps spinning around the Sun just fine. It will keep spinning no matter what size that number gets.
If anything, not being religious creates more urgency to be a moral agent.
Not having that intellectual safety blanket means that morality is a duty and a responsibility. I can’t just steal money from someone and then beg forgiveness from the church congregation afterwards. I can’t just overlook it when church leaders get caught covering up the pastor’s illegal sexual misconduct. I can’t just forgive a famous church member for molesting his sisters and their friends and be safe with letting kids be alone with him. No, morality requires more than just pretending somebody else will handle it.
This can be scary to someone who relies on a deity for their well-being. Understandably, I get that many Christians will vehemently disagree with my position. But to those who read what I write, please know that secular morality doesn’t mean that everyone gets to act without consequence. While everyone does get to decide how they will treat others, if they go too far away from what their community wants them to do, there will be consequences.
Most importantly, because I don’t believe in getting a cosmic excuse, I have more reason to uphold the sanctity of human life, of property rights, and bodily integrity. Since I won’t get my body back in a perfected form, the last thing I’ll want to do is go out and lose a limb for nothing. Consequently, if jumping in front of a train means saving a school bus filled with children, I have no choice but to make that sacrifice. The difference is that before I would have thought what my deity would have wanted, and now I ask what people would want of me.
Which one is more comforting?
Different people will come up with different answers, but it’s always consensus that drives how we all enforce morality. In that regard, no cosmic justice is actually needed to have a safe and productive society. Instead, it’s a process we all go through, one that hopefully is improved in our lives and improved further by future generations.