First published 28 September 2011
When non-religious people talk with Christians about morality they normally do so with the belief that there is common ground that can form the basis of discussion. But there ultimately isn’t! In terms of the ultimate principles that underpin and guide what we feel is right and wrong, we are in completely different belief systems. I’m going to try to illustrate this over what is currently planned as a series of twelve articles, by looking at several questions where Christians come from a completely different basis of belief than the non-religious person.
Ok, let’s pin this down with real brutally honest examples before we start on the philosophical reflections:
Christians believe that abortion is wrong. It is killing a child. It is murder. Killing other people is wrong, except by accident, in war or in self-defence. It is sin. We are given a hard time for saying that by the non-religious masses. Not only do they think that abortion is not wrong, they believe that Christian opposition to abortion is wrong. Christian opposition is a sin against their freedom.
Christians believe that sexual intercourse outside heterosexual marriage is wrong. That means, of course, that we believe that ‘living together’ is a sin, one-night stands are sinful, adultery is sinful and that homosexual sex is also sinful. We are frowned upon big time for saying that too. Not only does the modern non-religious person think that homosexuality and sex outside marriage is not wrong, they believe that Christian morality is wrong. Christian sexual standards are a sin, in their view, against their freedom. And they find that offensive.
So it’s not the case that Christians believe in sin and the non-religious person doesn’t. The non-religious person clearly believes in sin, but their definitions are different.
(And when I talk about the ‘non-religious person’, as I outlined in my article about the riots in England in August 2011, I intend to talk about the majority of people in the UK, Western Europe and other English-speaking nations. Some of these people are confident enough to call themselves atheists or agnostics. Others still want to call themselves Christians, Anglicans, Catholics or Jews, but what they are really saying is that they don’t want the hassle of arguing about the existence of God, but they still just want to get on with living life without religion intruding on it.)
Where views differ so radically it is normally because we have different basic assumptions. But many of us fail to recognise this, and we continue to argue as if we were agreed on certain principles and are only arguing about the particular details. This is the case when non-religious people in the West argue about moral standards with Christians.
You see, for the 21st century non-religious person there are two things that annoy them. The first is when someone transgresses their own standards and does something that they believe is wrong – for example when someone sexually abuses children or defrauds the state benefits system. The second is when someone tells them that their standards are wrong – i.e. when someone says something is wrong that they think is not wrong. And these opinions may be different from one person to another.
Why is that? I believe it’s because both scenarios are a challenge to their authority and autonomy (control) in the world. When other people do things they don’t like that is an implicit challenge to their authority. When other people tell them that they are wrong in their moral statements, that is an explicit challenge to their authority. Either way they are confronted with the brutal fact that they cannot control what goes on in the world, because other people have different views of right and wrong. Normally so long as these other views do not impinge directly on their freedom to live in the way they want they just get on with life, with a slightly uneasy feeling. But when crimes are very bad, in close proximity, or their freedom to do what they want is at risk they become very unhappy.
To put it bluntly, effectively 21st Century non-religious people take it personally when someone does something they believe is wrong, or tells them their morals are wrong. And it is personal according to their basic assumptions, because they believe that they have the final authority to set the rules in their lives. Even law-abiding citizens only agree to be bound by the law of the land because it has their seal of approval, their vote, because they recognise that their own peace and prosperity depends on everyone limiting their behaviour by agreeing to go with the majority. To get political about things, in a democracy this clearly only works when people have similar basic assumptions and similar moral codes. The wider the divergence of opinion, the more likely factions will occur, as one or more group starts to feel their power for self-determination unacceptably limited by the majority, without apparent benefit to them. And when the benefits of self-control cease to outweigh the cost to their freedom there is often resentment and then occasionally violence.
In summary, for the 21st Century non-religious person their moral authority is ultimately themselves alone.
Christians, on the other hand, put moral authority wholly outside of themselves, in the hands of the One who created us all – the Almighty God. When we say something is wrong it is not on our say-so, it is on the basis of higher authority, the ultimate authority of God.
This has several implications for the way that we approach each other:
The non-religious person often feels that Christians are acting ‘superior’ when they point out things they think are wrong. However, this is often because they think Christians are arguing on the same basic assumptions as themselves – i.e. that they have final authority in their own lives. Actually when a Christian says something is wrong it is not because we are trying to force our own personal opinions on everyone else. It is because we are trying to help our friends, families and culture avoid the anger of the Almighty God, whose rules have been broken. So I’d urge our non-religious friends not to take offense, taking it personally when we talk about sin and morality. We believe we are under the same rules, and have also transgressed those rules. We are equally sinners.
Christians have, I tentatively suggest, also allowed that misunderstanding to go unchecked. Realising that we live in a culture that does not accept God’s Word as a sufficient reason for restraining behaviour, we have tried to find common ground on which to argue for traditional moral standards (that we believe God requires). For example, when arguing against abortion or assisted suicide, we tend not to say that God forbids it because it involves killing someone. Instead we try to persuade people on the basis of science and psychology. In general terms public opinion is divided on these issues, so the success of these arguments is mixed. But the point is that in an attempt to lead society to behave in ways that do not openly displease God we have tried to use worldly arguments, and ended up giving the impression that our motives are the same as the non-religious people we argue with.
So when we say, “abortion is wrong” or “euthanasia is wrong”, what most people hear is, “we are better than you, we have better standards than you and we want you to join our party”.
What I am urging is that we allow the argument to go deeper. We should recognise that we have different morals because we have different principles and beliefs, and discuss those as well. Then we may find we both understand each other better, but hopefully also start to see the firm rationality of Christianity compared to the irrationality of non-Christian principles. That’s what I hope to drive into in the next few articles.