Watching the most recent installment of 30 Days, in which an atheist lives in a religious family and community for the requisite amount of time, I heard statements from Christians that I’ve heard many times before: if not the Bible or the Ten Commandments, what is the basis of your morality? To many Christians, there can be no other basis; without the morality given by God, a person can believe they have morality, but it is only an illusion. For example:
“It is true that some people who are irreligious can live seemingly decent lives, but when they do, they merely borrow from Christian ethics.”
I am not a Christian. I am agnostic, sometimes with leanings toward a personal spiritualism resembling Deism. But I most certainly did not derive my morality from Christianity. Am I fooling myself? Am I really an immoral person? I don’t think so. What, then, is my basis for morality? To understand this, I think it is important to understand what morality is.
I see there being two different kinds of morality: a general morality, and internal moralities. General morality is roughly the same as what many people see “morality” as being–be kind to others, don’t kill, steal, lie, cheat, etc. This morality, to me, is born from self-awareness. We are conscious and aware of our being, and as a consequence or extension of that, we realize that others are also conscious like we are. We can make the leap from knowing what we feel to understanding that others are capable of this as well. We know what is most important for ourselves and how we wish to be treated. We know that we do not want to be hurt or killed, lied to or cheated. Morality, or what I have called “general morality,” is the extension of that understanding to the treatment of others, possibly through nothing less than interpersonal negotiation. One might call this the expression of the “golden rule”: treat others as you would have them treat you.
However, this is an incomplete description of morality. The basic reason is that not all of us are the same, and not all of us want to be treated in the same way. Years ago, my brother pointed out to me a refinement of the golden rule: treat others as they want to be treated. This makes sense. If I love back rubs, but you hate them, I shouldn’t treat you the way I want to be treated. While most of our desires may overlap, not all of them do.
This leads me to the second type of morality I listed above: internal moralities. These are the rules or morality that do not derive from common desires and understandings, but from those particular to an individual or a group. An individual’s internal morality would be a rule or preference that applies to one person but not necessarily anyone else. This could include actions that you see as personally important, for example, specific rituals for exercise, language that is appropriate or not, or certain spending rules and habits. You violate these rules and you feel that you have done something wrong.
A community or group’s internal morality is more common, however, and applies to rules and preferences peculiar to a social group, such as a family, a congregation, a region, a religion, or a nation–any group with its own specific identity. This could include such things as saying the pledge of allegiance, going to church on Sundays, keeping your lawn free of kitschy ornaments, jury duty, not smoking, and so on.
The common quality of internal moralities is that they apply only to the individual or group that possesses them; they do not apply to those outside. It is immoral for Christians to take the Lord’s name in vain, for example; it is not for me. That is the most common source of non-immoral offense: breaking rules that belong to the internal morality of others.
The problem that naturally arises is when people impose their internal morality on others, not seeing the distinction between internal and general morality. As Shaw’s Caesar put it, “he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.” One believes that one’s internal morality is in fact part of the general morality.
Christians who believe that morality derives only from the Bible take this one step further, however–they not only assume their internal moralities are general, then cannot conceive of there even being any other basis for morality than their own religious doctrine. Therefore, to these extremists, non-Christians are immoral, or, at best, are simply poor imitations of true Christian morality.
To further rebut the claim that I am fooling myself and just “borrowing” their morality, I would point out that morality has to predate Christian morality, as well as the Judaic morality that gave birth to it. Before these religions, before the Ten Commandments, did people kill and steal and lie and cheat and think it was all fine? I think the obvious answer is “no.” So, where did they get their morality from?
The answer, of course, is that all general morality, including that part of Christian morality, derives from self-awareness and the resulting sympathetic understanding of the feelings of others. More specific internal moralities derive from group or individual customs, rules, ideas, and preferences. Now, specific internal Christian moral codes can be said to derive from Christianity; for example, the first five of the Ten Commandments are internal moral rules dealing with authority (with the possible exception of parental authority), while the last five are more general moral definitions. But to say that all morality derives from there is arrogant presumption and bias.
We found morality by ourselves; if it was God-given, it was because God built it into us, all of us. But morality has its roots in human awareness and experience, not scripture.