Skip to main content

Moral Browsing

by John

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!


Leah Bennett said…
Great post, John! I agree with you on all points. The contradictions are astounding and to ignore them is delusional.

I love the video, too. I'm glad he mentioned animals and nature because I'm a strong believer in nature and natural law. I've been thinking about it a lot lately because I just read two disturbing novels (Lucky & Push) about lives (nearly) destroyed by the awful things human beings are capable of doing to each other. I thought... we're all just animals, then I thought... no, we're worse than animals. Animals don't torture and abuse each other the way we do. I think that's one of the worst things religion has done to us... make us think we are better and more moral than animals when we're clearly not.
Amy Pousson said…
Contradictions are a bitch, right? Someone once told me that I was trying to be a "Cafeteria Catholic" by picking and choosing what to believe (to them, Cafeteria Catholic = bad). In their eyes, I had compromised morals because I didn't believe in original sin, I believed in a woman's right to chose and that I thought it was bullshit that I needed a priest or pope to really be able to talk to god. And just like you describe, this person didn't strictly follow Leviticus. So it was OK for them to pick and chose, but not me? I didn't get it.

I've never had a very succinct way to describe my own morals, so I hope you are OK with me co-opting your couple of sentences there. Because that's what it boils down to: if what I am doing in my own pursuit of happiness does not harm others, doesn't prevent them from their pursuit of happiness, then I think I am doing OK. And that it is OK if someone's views are different than mine, and that neither is better than the other.

One of the things that really gets me is the idea of mission trips and missionary work. "Hi, we'll build a well and a school in your remote Amazon village, but you have to listen to what we say about god and your eternal salvation." It's like the ultimate time-share sales pitch trip, right? You get a free flat screen TV if you listen to me tell you why you should vacation in my golf resort community.

Oh, and any set of commandments that has the F-bomb in it is A-OK by me.
mama mia said…
After reading that book you once recommended, The Lamb, by Christopher Moore, I really began looking at why I liked part of my life long faith and why I hated many parts of it, and tried to rationalize things in my mind. You have hit the nail on the head by realizing mankind's social need to have some moral code for existing in community. I like these new commandments, will always love the Beatitudes, and the verdict is still out on why I go to communion at mass with my mom. I like the act of self forgiveness right before it, when I say the words, "and my soul shall be healed"...I don't like confession and yet like the idea of reflection on deeds done and attitude adjustment, but don't feel I need a priest to perform some miraculous cleaning of my soul. I like The Lamb's version of where Jesus got his ideas for "the kingdom of heaven is within you". Thanks for the provactive posting, and sharing so openly. LMAO at some of the Hitch's stuff.
mama mia said…
LMAO at the video, yet found those commandments a great model for morality. I applaud your open-minded look at what mankind has done since the beginning of social community, and that is developing a moral code by which to live, and live with others. From this is where religions derived. Where they have gone wrong is in dogmatic commandments to do this or that. Where religions go right is when they inspire greatness. However, like you, I think one doesn't necessarily need to belong to an organization to achieve actualization and a fine moral compass. My reading, at your recommendation, of The Lamb, by Christopher Moore, answered many of my own ambiguous moral questioning as a lapsed and lax catholic. Things like self reflection and self forgiveness as opposed to going to confession. I do love the Beatitudes the best from the new testament, and like the chapters in The Lamb about the influence in Christianity from Eastern religions, that the "kingdom of heaven is within you". I think I still attend mass and receive communion with my mom (cause she's mom) but also because of the prayer before (which I call meditation)stating "and my soul shall be healed", which to me is a way of starting off with my own clean slate and attitude adjustment for doing better in some area of my "walking my own walk". I could be branded a blasphemer, heretic for my corrupted view of the faith in which I was raised, and while my verdict is still that my higher power may be the cosmos, the force, the mysterious and infinite energy that I like to call the connectedness of all....this may very well be my god? I dunno...or maybe we're just all here trying to survive like any other creature on the planet. I love you John, because you always make me think hard about the universe. Thanks for making me smile tonight.
Misspudding said…
Is it wrong to say, "AMEN!"?

Seriously, it doesn't matter your religion. If you choose to do things in a way such that others suffer, you're doing it wrong.
JohnJohn said…
Thanks for the good, honest comments so far everyone. I should have mentioned at the end of the post: Remember to keep things respectful, as there are people with a variety of beliefs that check in on this blog, and I'm hoping for a diverse set of views to be expressed in here. Not that you should censor yourself, but be sure to write your comment the same way you would say it in a room full of strangers.

I'm looking at you, Potty-Mouth Pousson, all bringin' back the memories of UMR Student Council. "It's not about funding allocations, it's about PEOPLE!"
Cory said…
thanks john. growing up atheist wasn't as hard as being a grown up atheist. Thanks for the words.
blissful_e said…
You hit on some great points here, John, ones that anyone who considers Christianity must face.

It sounds like you're thinking along the lines that Jennifer did before her conversion:

"When I was an atheist, I thought I was more liberated than the people who believed in God. After all, I didn't have all their bizarre rules and regulations to bog me down." (Read the rest of her article here:

Many of the rules you cited come from the Old Testament, and I guess that is where you get the idea that Christ followers are supposed to kill gay people. Personally, I love gay people and couldn't contemplate killing them. Here's another article written by Jennifer, a former atheist, on understanding what God says about homosexuality:

As for damning people to hell, I'm so glad I don't make that decision. Every person makes that choice for herself.
JohnJohn said…
Thank you E for weighing in from the Christian point of view!

Your point about choosing not to damn people is exactly what I'm talking about. No matter your religion, or non-religion, you have to make personal choices about whether to judge someone as "evil", or love people for who they are, or hold racist sentiments, or choose which verses of your holy book to follow or ignore, or who to listen to for good advice.

This is my big revelation. There's no real difference in the way in which people go about building their moral code. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheist or agnostic, we all have to pick and choose from the lessons and sources around us.

It looks like you and Jennifer are making great choices and I commend your thoughtfulness in constructing your moral codes! I'm sure you are finding your life enriched as a result.

As for my implying that Christians believe that gays need to be killed, perhaps I could have been more nuanced with that sentence! Of course most Christians don't believe this. But they don't believe this because they've found a way of explaining away much of the Old Testament.
JohnJohn said…
Oh! And Amy, of course you can co-opt my couple of sentences. That's the beauty of moral browsing. You can think of it of survival of the fittest morals. I stole mine from whoever stole it (or attributed it to) Jesus. Not a bad lineage there, eh? :)

Leah: I've been thinking a lot about your thoughts on the morals of animals. We humans have done a lot of damage to our planet and to nature around us by making the assumption that we are not a part of nature, that we're not just another animal living on this planet. This is part of the Bible that not enough people have browsed and properly adopted, in my opinion. You know, that part about being good stewards of the Earth. If steward = "responsible inhabitant" then I totally agree!
Amy Pousson said…
But JohnJohn, I would say the F-word in front of a room full of strangers!
Leah Bennett said…
John, you're right. Environmental stewardship is often overlooked in the Bible. I think I heard once that there is a small movement of Christians who highlight this in their doctrine, but I think it's an extremely small minority.

I totally relate to the feelings of sadness regarding missionary work. As a person who relishes the idea of all these colorful, diverse, beautiful, interesting cultures out there in the world, the thought of trying to change them and make them all believe the same thing sounds pretty awful to me.

I love the discussion about allowing others to have their own beliefs without interfering with others'. I'm on this Kerouac kick lately and last night I read a passage which reminded me of this discussion, "If there is any quality that I have noticed more strongly than anything else in this generation, it is the spirit of non-interference with the lives of others. I had a dream that I didn't want the lion to eat the lamb and the lion came up and lapped my face like a big puppy dog and then I picked up the lamb and it kissed me. This is the dream of the Beat Generation."

What a wonderful world it would be if we could just allow others to be happy! (The "Pursuit of Happiness," as we put it in terms of our American ideals)

And, Amy... I agree with you, too. I have also said the F-bomb in a crowd of strangers... it totally happens, and I'm sorry if I've offended anyone.

mama mia said…
This is why I absolutely love my family....I am thrilled, tearful almost. Reading these latest mahalo postings and comments leave me able to go to bed tonight knowing, despite my fallible nature as a parent and a human, I can rest easy. Knowing that those I care dearly about, and those whom they care about, are questioning and concerned about all the important issues. I am an optimist in general, but with all the crazy crapola being thrown around in the media today, masquerading as morality, I feel the future is safe because of the rational nature of much of the generation to follow mine. Sweet dreams to me because I know those of you posting here, are exhibiting wisdom and love for humanity, by the very words you share. I wish we were all at a coffee shop or wine bar together right now!

Popular posts from this blog

On the Height of J.J. Barea

Dallas Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea standing between two very tall people (from: Picassa user photoasisphoto).

Congrats to the Dallas Mavericks, who beat the Miami Heat tonight in game six to win the NBA championship.

Okay, with that out of the way, just how tall is the busy-footed Maverick point guard J.J. Barea? He's listed as 6-foot on, but no one, not even the sports casters, believes that he can possibly be that tall. He looks like a super-fast Hobbit out there. But could that just be relative scaling, with him standing next to a bunch of extremely tall people? People on Yahoo! Answers think so---I know because I've been Google searching "J.J. Barea Height" for the past 15 minutes.

So I decided to find a photo and settle the issue once and for all.

I started by downloading a stock photo of J.J. from, which I then loaded into OpenOffice Draw:

I then used the basketball as my metric. Wikipedia states that an NBA basketball is 29.5 inches in circumfe…

Finding Blissful Clarity by Tuning Out

It's been a minute since I've posted here. My last post was back in April, so it has actually been something like 193,000 minutes, but I like how the kids say "it's been a minute," so I'll stick with that.
As I've said before, I use this space to work out the truths in my life. Writing is a valuable way of taking the non-linear jumble of thoughts in my head and linearizing them by putting them down on the page. In short, writing helps me figure things out. However, logical thinking is not the only way of knowing the world. Another way is to recognize, listen to, and trust one's emotions. Yes, emotions are important for figuring things out.
Back in April, when I last posted here, my emotions were largely characterized by fear, sadness, anger, frustration, confusion and despair. I say largely, because this is what I was feeling on large scales; the world outside of my immediate influence. On smaller scales, where my wife, children and friends reside, I…

The Force is strong with this one...

Last night we were reviewing multiplication tables with Owen. The family fired off doublets of numbers and Owen confidently multiplied away. In the middle of the review Owen stopped and said, "I noticed something. 2 times 2 is 4. If you subtract 1 it's 3. That's equal to taking 2 and adding 1, and then taking 2 and subtracting 1, and multiplying. So 1 times 3 is 2 times 2 minus 1."

I have to admit, that I didn't quite get it at first. I asked him to repeat with another number and he did with six: "6 times 6 is 36. 36 minus 1 is 35. That's the same as 6-1 times 6+1, which is 35."

Ummmmm....wait. Huh? Lemme see...oh. OH! WOW! Owen figured out

x^2 - 1 = (x - 1) (x +1)

So $6 \times 8 = 7 \times 7 - 1 = (7-1) (7+1) = 48$. That's actually pretty handy!

You can see it in the image above. Look at the elements perpendicular to the diagonal. There's 48 bracketing 49, 35 bracketing 36, etc... After a bit more thought we…