Not long ago I came across an old friend on Facebook, who I knew from church about 12-13 years ago (has it been that long?!). We exchanged a few emails and our conversation quickly turned to matters of faith and morality. I recounted my long journey away from church, and she talked about how her own faith had only grown since we were in youth group together. While she claimed to be an open-minded Christian, she found it absolutely shocking that I did not believe in her god. Her main contention boiled down to not understanding how I could be a moral individual without belief in a higher power.
I laid out my basic belief system for her as a way of demonstrating how I can have morality, even when it isn't enforced from the outside (or inside, depending on ones perspective). My moral code is built around: "If your behavior or action harms others or prevents them from pursuing happiness, it is likely immoral. If it does not, and it brings you happiness, then it is probably just fine." Not that this is exhaustive or absolute, but it has kept me out of trouble over the past decade, and perhaps more importantly afforded me to much more happiness than the stricter, more convoluted moral code I learned in church.
My old friend countered that all of this was for naught if I did not love her god. No matter how moral I tried to act, I couldn't truly be good without her god. This was a real bummer to hear. Not so much for me, but for her. Here was an old friend, who because of her belief system was forced to condemn me as evil despite all of the good things I do. How does she sleep at night with such a burden on her mind?
Anyway, I tried to persuade her that things weren't so bleak. I pointed out that I have two young sons who have a father who takes an active role in their lives. I mentioned my nearly 10-year marriage to my wife. I cited my public outreach in astronomy education. But none of this mattered according to her worldview.
I then challenged her by asking where she gets her morals. If picking and choosing and adapting one's morals based on experience and lessons from others is wrong, what is the alternative? Does she derive them solely from the Bible? She said, yes, in fact she did. Well, if so, how does she decide which laws to ignore, and which to follow? She didn't quite understand. Well, for instance, I'm sure she ignores most of the laws laid out in Leviticus. After all, she likely mixes fabric, ignores the occasional mildew in the bathroom, and certainly doesn't routinely kill children who disobey their parents.
To be clear: I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with using the Bible to shape ones moral code. After all, my core belief is something that Jesus taught, and is often referred to as the Bible's "Golden Rule." But I picked this gem while ignoring all the silly stuff about stoning your kids and the instructions for owning slaves. I'm a big fan of the Beatitudes, but I'm not so into Paul's instructions to women. At best, a bit too old fashioned for my tastes. At worst, totally chauvinistic.
She countered by pointing out all of the evil deeds carried out by atheists, ranging from Stalin to Pol Pot. I tried to point out that such arguments don't get us anywhere because there are many people who do heinous acts motivated by religion, which doesn't necessarily mean anything. Should we just add up a list of sins committed by either side and see who "wins"? If so, we'd only prove that people are capable of pretty messed up stuff no matter where they get their motivation.
No matter what your religion, or no religion at all, in order to make it through this world you have to browse around for a good set of morals. The best of us are flexible about what we select and what we ignore, and are willing to change if there is a contradiction. Others must follow a leader, which requires less thought, but in the end it can work just as well. The worst among us insist they know the best way, and insist on a set of absolutes (cf Proverbs 12:15). Based on my experiences, this can only lead to using a nuanced set of mental gymnastics just to get through the average day (my coworker is gay, and I'm instructed to kill her, but she's so nice to me...). Isn't it just better to manage your own pursuit of happiness while allowing others to do this same? If nothing else, I've found that this approach relieves me of the stress of damning otherwise good people to hell.
So what got me thinking of all this? I ran across a Youtube video by Christopher Hitchens. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a big fan of the Hitch (Man, did he ever get it wrong about Iraq! And he still can't admit it.). But I do appreciate unconventional wisdom when I encounter it. I adopted a few additions to my moral code after watching this very clear exposition on the Ten Commandments. Enjoy and let me know what you think!