Consideration 2; Morality
A common argument presented by Christians to show that their faith is superior or even relevant is the idea that its teachings require good (moral) works and actions. Some even go so far as to say that without Christianity, morality as we know it would collapse. There are numerous problems with this line of reasoning and, because it is so pervasive, it is necessary to address it.
We must first put to rest the notion that without Christianity, morality is not possible. There are two arenas here. First we can talk about morality as being good works: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and so forth. This is what is meant by “moral works.” Then there is the standard of morality that includes the baser things: sexual behavior, for example. These are the “moral actions.”
Interestingly, Christianity feels like it has a monopoly on both of these markets. Not only do they feel they are uniquely qualified to help the unfortunate, but they also believe that their standard for moral actions is the only one to which mankind should adhere. This results in quite a lot of confusion, unlike that of moral works. For example, few people specifically argue that we should let people starve. However, the opining on homosexuality or extramarital sex rages hot and heavy in Christian circles.
In this article, we will work our way back, starting with moral actions, to see if Christianity can truly say that their standard is the right one. Then we will look at moral works to see if Christianity has that market cornered, including a very brief discussion of whether one needs god in order to be good.
Christianity certainly has a lot to say about moral actions. “Thou shalt nots” reign supreme, guiding the Christian’s life, particularly in the area of sexual behavior. This may be the place to start. For a religion that superficially appears to be repulsed by sex, it is perversely fascinated by the topic. There is no greater evidence for an entity’s fascination with a certain subject than that which is shown by that entity’s attempt to control that subject. In this area, Christianity excels. It dictates when during your life you can have sex, with whom you may have that sex, and in some cases which positions you may assume during sex. Presumably, Christianity holds these beliefs because they are the will of god, passed down to them through the teachings in the Holy Bible.
One interesting point to make is the division between the Old and New Testaments. There are many precepts taught in the Old Testament that Christians do not follow, such as not blending various kinds of cloth in their garments (King James Version, Leviticus 19.19). Yet there are other instructions to which Christians still tightly cling.
The common explanation for this is that when Jesus came he fulfilled the requirements for the law (Matthew 5.17). In that same verse, however, Jesus also makes it clear that he did not come to “destroy the law.” He says it twice in one sentence, in fact. So the law still remains. Yet we can afford the Christian perspective one small victory, because it is not necessary to win this one. Even if Jesus did abolish Old Testament law, we are still left with our original point: the control over morality, i.e. sex. For example, the Old Testament speaks against homosexuality. On the other hand, the New Testament has very little or, depending on your interpretation of the original Greek text, nothing at all to say about homosexuality. Jesus never mentions homosexuality. If Christians do not have to follow or defend Old Testament law and their teachings on homosexuality are markedly absent from the New Testament, then why the conflict?
This simply shows that attempts by Christianity to control moral actions are not so much motivated by a desire for others to have fulfilled lives, but more about the control itself. The desire and attempt to control others’ lives can be viewed as immoral itself. Therefore, even if Christianity was right about certain moral standards, the attempt to push people into rigid compliance may cancel it all out. Performing an immoral action in order to achieve a moral result is very shaky ground, indeed.
Now we can look at Christianity in the light of moral works. There is no doubt that Christian organizations do a lot of good things: feeding the hungry, etc. However, they do not have a monopoly on those works. Secular organizations do the same things, as do non-Christian religious groups.
The argument that is most often made is that Christianity, because of its focus on humanity and the idea that every human is “a child of God,” reinforces the drive the help suffering beings. I do not argue that this may be seen as a motivation, but this is not the point. In order to defend itself properly, Christianity needs to show that it is the only provider of such motivation or, at the very least, provides enough extra motivation to make all the religious baggage worthwhile.
Christianity is clearly not the only provider of motivation for moral work, so we can put that idea to rest altogether.
The claim that Christianity provides an extra layer of motivation for moral works is also shaky. Certainly Jesus talked about helping the poor. But so do many secular figures. Warren Buffett, who came in third on the Forbes list of billionaires, has given billions of dollars to charity. Buffett is a confessed agnostic and has affirmed this stance on several occasions (Singer).
It is also worth mentioning that Christianity has been responsible for an enormous list of evil works. Not simply deeds done by Christians, no! Deeds done because they were Christian and in the name of Christianity. Holy wars, the Inquisition, witch hunts, Manifest Destiny, and continuing bigotry and prejudice. To say that Christianity provides motivation for moral works may be true, but it also provides motivation for at least as many immoral works.
We can also ponder the question of moral works performed as a result of something else. In other words, is it truly moral to do a good thing because you feel that someone else has told you to do it? Or because you feel like you have to? If you believe god will be unhappy with you if you don’t do good works, then you may perform these works, but is it then truly moral? You only did it because you had to, after all. I would argue that a secular person who does good is exhibiting a more pure form of morality than a Christian who does the same good. A secular person has no other motivation, other than to help their fellow beings. A Christian may have motivation to do good, but doesn’t that simply mean that they need more encouragement to do those moral works?
In short, Christianity comes with a heavy price. Certainly, performing moral works is a good and decent thing to do. Yet we can get there without paying Christianity’s heavy toll. Why wouldn’t we?
King James Version. [Colorado Springs]: Biblica, 2011. BibleGateway.com. Web. 6 April 2012.
Singer, Peter. “Atheism and Altruism.” Skeptic.ca. JR’s Freethought Pages. Web. 6 April 2012.