Christianity and the Moral Compass

by Al Serrato

Many of today’s “new atheists” make a moral claim against the God of Christianity. Drawing largely from the Old Testament, they claim that he is cruel and petty, and generally not worthy of worship. Not long ago, I discussed this issue with an atheist I know. I told him that his argument was using moral terms – making moral noises – but that only a transcendent God – like the one he rejects – can provide the kind of grounding adequate to support the claim. Otherwise, I concluded, his beliefs about right and wrong behavior – including some of the rules or actions attributed to God in the Old Testament – are not laws that must be followed but simply opinions and preferences. There can be no moral absolutes.

“No,” came the response, “a transcendent God really isn’t necessary. There are plenty of rules that we can unambiguously show to be moral. I’ll come up with one right off the cuff – only that which enhances the well being of conscious creatures is moral; therefore, enslavement or domination of the weak by the strong is always wrong, because it does not enhance the well-being of conscious creatures. So, you see, such behavior is always immoral.”

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No, I didn’t see. Indeed, on a bit of reflection, what I saw was that this approach is simply restating a definition. Enslavement and domination are not moral because they are not moral. Anyone can make up a rule, but you if want to have people actually be motivated to follow that rule, you have to attach a consequence to the violation of the rule. Imagine the chaos that would exist on the roadways if police were unable to stop or ticket drivers who violate the vehicle code’s provisions. Saying that people should drive safely because driving unsafely does not enhance the well being of drivers may sound enlightened, but it won’t have any impact. In the end, it is only the authority of the rule giver and the rule giver’s ability to actually attach a consequence that will provide grounding for the rule. The opinion about whether the driving in any particular circumstance was good or bad depends not on the opinion of the parties involved, but on the ability of the sovereign to delineate, and then enforce, its view of proper conduct.

The conversation quickly returned to the Old Testament. “The God of the Old Testament,” he argued, “discusses slavery without ever condemning it. Doesn’t that make the God of Abraham himself immoral? By his own definition?”

This was another interesting challenge, but again one that does not bear close scrutiny. What this challenger is assuming is that the Bible is a rule book written for the modern era. Slavery is obviously wrong, so any rule book for right behavior would list slavery as something to be prohibited. The only problem with this argument is that the Bible is not a rule book. It is an account of God’s interaction with us that contains rules, but much more than just rules…

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