Christianity and the Moral Compass

Many of today’s “new aimagestheists” 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.

No, I didn’t see. In
deed, 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. Now, the Bible does include, in the Old Testament, a set of very detailed rules, but these rules were part of a covenant with an ancient people, for a set period of time and for a particular purpose. They were not intended for all people and all times, though some of the underlying principles do continue to apply. At the time of the Old Testament, slavery did not always involve the barbarity of the human bondage practiced in early America, which the writer no doubt has in mind, but was a part of the then-existing primitive economic system. Sometimes such “slavery” took milder forms that involved a form of indentured servitude and sometimes it actually benefited the recipient, whose other alternative may have been even worse. (This, by the way, is not an argument in favor os such slavery; simply an observation of the way the world operated at the time.) Slavery flourished in all parts of the ancient world, and continues on to this day in many non-Western societies, and also illegally in Western ones. This raises the question as to why the Christian West outlawed slavery. The answer, as exemplified by the actions of William Wilberforce in England was that the message of Christianity – that we are all brothers and that we each bear the sacred image of God, which confers dignity upon us which no man can violate – was the driving force. In short, the Bible does “stand against” slavery, as it stands against any behavior that would dehumanize a fellow child of God.

He remained unpersuaded There are many old books which state many things. Using them as your moral compass is silly. Especially when they stand neutral on slavery.”

Perhaps we agree on this much – using just any book as my moral compass would be silly. But no book, ancient or modern, can rival the Bible as both an historical document and a source of transcendent truth. This book, and the beliefs that it generated, changed for the better the course of human history. Many authors (such as Alvin Schmidt and Rodney Stark) have made the case for how Christianity transformed for the better Western society and the world. It’s worth spending a few minutes contemplating the case for the Christian worldview, something that a short blog post could never do.

For any compass to work, there must be a source of true north. So too with morality. To give it relevance beyond oneself – to make it more than simply one person’s opinion – that source must be strong enough to stop the needle from spinning and to point, clearly and steadily, the way home. 

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. John Moore says:

    You write, “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.” But what about natural consequences that follow naturally? The ultimate “rule giver” for driving is our desire to stay safe and not have a car crash.

    • Al says:

      John, I can stay plenty safe while making a nuisance of myself in a car. I don’t want to push the car analogy too far, but personal safety is only a part of the reason for the vehicle code. There are plenty of things short of hazardous that it regulates. The point here is stating a rule without any ability to enforce it prevents it from being a workable rule.

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