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Morality is not rooted in religion, but humanity

Milam's Musings,

Not too long ago, I used to be one of those condescending and arrogant atheists that would look down upon religious people as stupid.

Fortunately, I grew out of that because it became clear to me that religious people, not surprisingly, had much to offer to the discourse. In particular, the book, "Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense," by N.T. Wright turned my mind around.

I completed the book in one sitting back in 2009 because it captured my attention that well. Here was someone that held an ideology I just don't, but he was making sound arguments for his ideology. I better grasped Christian theology after reading his book.

Then last winter, a reader of my Musings also recommended and loaned me Timothy Keller's, "The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism."

"The Christian Gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me," Keller said.

Keller's thinking overlaps with N.T. Wright in the overall idea that Christianity is not so much just about God forgiving one's sins, but about making the world and thereby, creation, right again. It's like a sort of restorative justice. And the impulse for wanting to right injustices makes sense. We all want that.

And whether one thinks Jesus is divine or not, there's still something powerful to take away from his life. I relate strongly to Jesus' mingling with the lepers and the prostitutes of his time, speaking up for the outcasts.

I understand why Christians are so drawn to the story of Jesus and more particularly, his sacrifice. It's viscerally powerful to imagine Jesus dying for all of mankind and as Wright believes, opening a connection between God and his creation. Then when he's on the cross, he cries out, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).

Even as an atheist, that gets me amped up because that's a paradigm I think, as humans, is worth aspiring to, i.e., being able to have such an abundance of forgiveness and understanding even in the face of unabashed human cruelty.

Applications for that in modern society are endless, whether it's giving empathy to so-called illegal immigrants, Syrian refugees, the people killed in the Doctors Without Borders bombing in Afghanistan and even brutal murderers facing the death penalty.

We could all do with a little more Jesus-like forgiveness, understanding and love.

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But I can already sense the more aggressive atheist types thinking, "Why would you, an atheist, even bother reading the case for Christian theology?"

The answer is obvious, is it not? The answer to why Connor Moriarty, in his piece, "Walking on eggshells: Being an atheist in a religious society," said he respects the beliefs of religious people is obvious, is it not?

Because a great many of our fellow human beings believe in Christianity and it's a strong part of their core being. That is reason enough to try to understand their beliefs and where they're coming from.

To dismiss that from the start, as I used to do, is showing a kind of anti-intellectualism I find rather repugnant. I most certainly have critiques of Wright, Keller and other Christians, but the critique isn't reduced to, "You're stupid." There is always something to be learned from those we disagree with.

I don't know about you, aggressive atheist reader, but I'm not willing to push aside the thoughts and opinions of 5.8 billion people.

Admittedly, I did have a strong reaction to Grace Moody's piece, "Being a Christian in an increasingly atheist society," but not because she's a Christian. Not because I don't think she genuinely feels she's walking on eggshells as a Christian in an ever-changing cultural milieu.

But because I disagree with the premise. There's a tendency to equate an abatement of privilege in society as persecution, when it's just that: a receding of a once upheld privilege. There's a sense of that, too, among males, as feminists continue to make in-roads with equality, hence the connotation of feminism with man-hating.

The milieu in the United States has changed slightly enough that the evangelical side (some would suggest fundamentalist is a more accurate term) of Christianity simply isn't as strong as it once was. But Christianity overall still remains the predominant force in the country, even as its share of the population declines. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew, the share of the Christian population dropped from 78.6 percent to 70.6 percent, but that 70.6 percent still qualifies my statement of "predominant."

I don't think legalizing same-sex marriage, marijuana and people having sex before marriage changes that dynamic much. If anything, I would make the theological argument that those are representative of Christianity and Christians getting closer to the Jesus paradigm.

Nonetheless, I would also add a bit of nuance to Connor's piece, too. Science most certainly has a lot to offer to society and I'm with him in that I, too, draw a sense of spirituality from realizing that we are quite literally made of stardust. That spirituality is a hard thing to articulate, but it's mostly that feeling of connectedness and shared experience one gets when gazing into the cosmos.

With that said, it's important to establish a moral identity, too. One of the charges atheists sometimes get is that without the theist framework, there is no morality. I want to reject that and add a third dimension to the discussion between Grace and Connor: one can be an atheist that believes in the spirituality and fact-based evidence of science while also having a strong sense of morality.

After all, science doesn't have anything to say about morality. Here's a simple example: science can help a coroner to figure out how someone was murdered, but science has nothing to say about whether it was wrong for that person to be murdered. Rightness and wrongness don't exist in the physical sense out in the world to be measured. You can't put rightness and wrongness in a test tube. It's something we have to get at with different tools than science can give us.

Likewise, though, I don't need God as a moral foundation to decide that murder is wrong. I believe there exists an objective Truth out there, in which humans have to figure out how to get to and decide what is right and what is wrong. And if there is a God, then this moral objective reality would have to exist separately.

Because if God is the determinant of right and wrong, then that moral framework seems hardly inseparable from subjectivity. For could not God decide tomorrow that murder is acceptable?

And subjectivity means no more morality because then I have no basis in which to say, "murder is wrong," because for the murderer, subjectively, it was clearly right.

Do people who hold to moral subjectivity really want to make the question of murder or rape tantamount to which flavor of ice cream one prefers?

I don't want to get too into the weeds here (as there's much more to say regarding the ontology of this objective morality), but my point is, there's wiggle room where one can present a strong moral foundation without the assistance of either science or God.

However, as we all try to figure out what is right and wrong and how to live the good life, there's much we can learn from each other, atheist or theist, or somewhere in between.