What Makes Something Wrong? (Whose Rules Rule 2)
First published 10 October 2011
I made a big assertion in my last article. I said that the non-religious people of the West basically see themselves as the final authority when it comes to deciding what is right and wrong. I see that as the primary reason for conflict between Christian moral standards and the norms of the non-religious West, because if people are their own final authority then they tend to define right and wrong in a way that suits their self-interest. They tend to define things as right that make them feel good. And therefore the Judeo-Christian moral code is seen as oppressive, because it limits their enjoyment of things they have given themselves the right to enjoy.
It’s a big assertion and it masks a lot of variety and complexity in the presentation of those beliefs. But don’t worry. I’m not going to leave that assertion ungrounded. I may not explore absolutely every angle of the issue, but I hope that I’ll talk about enough for you to see the direction of the argument and the logic of it.
I think having shown that both Christians and non-religious people have standards of right and wrong, the next place to go is some discussion of how we decide what makes something wrong. That’s obvious for the Christian, or the Jew or Muslim for that matter. Something is wrong if God the Creator, the King of the Universe, says it is wrong. For the non-religious person it’s more complex. Of course, the application of God’s law to different situations is not always clear-cut, and therefore there is legitimate debate amongst Christians. But at least we all agree that God is the final authority and we turn to His Word for guidance.
For the non-religious, the source and rationale for their morality varies from person to person. A couple of brief examples will hopefully suffice in the limited space we have.
Let’s ask an imaginary atheist why it would be wrong of me to kill them. What would they say? Because it is wrong to hurt other people, they might say. To which we would say, why is it wrong to hurt other people? We may point out that doctors often hurt people in the process of helping them to get well.
The atheist may reply that doctors hurt people in order to benefit them in the long term, so the principle is that we must do things that benefit other people. Why, we should ask again, should we benefit other people?
Because the survival of our species depends on us helping each other to survive – that could be the answer. One of the things which separates human beings from other species, and which has made us the dominant species after millions of years of evolution, they may say, is our ability and urge to help each other. But why is the survival of our species important? After all, evolutionary theory suggests that all species are the result of random chance mutations and changes. Why shouldn’t we expect to be superseded in the evolutionary process?
They may respond that it may not be important or meaningful for our species to survive, but it is a natural urge to survive. It is what living things do, they may say. And caring for each other is the human way of living out the collective urge to survive. But, we could answer, why then do we see human beings who like to kill people – cannibals, serial killers? They obviously don’t feel the same way about the wrongfulness of killing. Why is my atheist friend’s principles and arguments any better than the cannibal’s? What right has my atheist friend to say that the cannibal is wrong to kill people, or that Ted Bundy was wrong to kill all his victims?
At this point the atheist is in a really sticky place, because he cannot say that killing is absolutely wrong for everyone. To say that he must have some absolute authority to appeal to. But he denies the existence of absolute authority. So all he can say is that the majority of people in our culture have decided that killing in certain circumstances is unacceptable. In fact, he can’t really talk about things being right and wrong at all. All he can say is that he doesn’t like people murdering other people, and so on. If he can get enough like-minded people on his side then together they can enforce that as a rule.
But notice the final authority is nothing absolute. The authority is the individual. Collectively the majority view is forced onto the minority, who are supposed to either accept it or they suffer the consequences. So the atheist’s final authority is himself. He decides what is right and wrong, and seeks to be in the majority to promote those views in democratic systems.
What of the non-religious person who claims some church background? It seems still fairly normal in England for people to say that they are Anglican when it comes to filling in surveys or school application forms. And yet much less than 5% of the population is in church every Sunday. So there are some people for whom the Christian church is a badge or part of their heritage, but means nothing more to them on a day-to-day basis. They too are practically non-religious.
It is not unusual for people such as these to be sexually promiscuous, or to have sex before getting married – they simply fit in with whatever the fashion of the day happens to be. If most couples live together and enjoy sexual relations before they get married, then so do they.
If they were asked why they don’t see that as wrong even though they call themselves Christians, a high proportion might just reply simply that they think parts of the Bible are old fashioned and out of date.
And there again we see the final authority is not God, but themselves. They give themselves the authority to pick and choose which parts of the Bible they accept as having influence in their lives and other parts they choose to ignore. But if they do that they fall over the same problem as the atheist. They have no grounds on which to say any particular thing is right or wrong for all people – if they are the final authority for determining right and wrong in their lives, then there is no absolute right and wrong.
They may or may not find this perturbing. I do. You see, when people start to accept that there is no absolute right and wrong, and they start to see themselves as the ultimate authority over their own moral standards, then they start to act in increasingly selfish ways. If they can decide what is right and wrong for them, why not make up rules that make them rich and happy? If I’m a bloke and I can’t get a girl, then why not see if I like sex with other blokes? And if I don’t like sex with adults, then why not get thrills with children? If I am a girl who gets pregnant from casual sex, why not kill the baby to save the hassle? If I am brought up in a poor family and have a rubbish education, why not rob rich people to get money? If I have a depressing life, why not take drugs or drink to excess at the weekend to block out reality and get at least some thrills in life? If I see rioters attacking police, why not take advantage of the situation and steal from an electrical store? If a rival gang is threatening my neighbourhood, why not teach them a lesson with a gun? Why not? Why not? Without an absolute standard of morality that we all appeal to, we have nowhere to get the answer.
The fact that every non-religious person does not act so selfishly is a blessing, but is ultimately only due to the fact that we are in reality all made by God and have a conscience. But as that conscience is increasingly and collectively ignored, we will descend further and further into anarchy.
There is so much more to be said, but there is not enough space left today. I have sketched very faintly the contrast between the firm source of Christian morality and the crumbling foundations of non-religious Western morality. I have not laid out positively the Christian position, or made any calls for change at this stage. Those will come, but there are more areas to cover.