A major argument that my Christian friends make is that Christianity is responsible for the moral and ethical standards we have in place. They often admit that it is sometimes difficult to reconcile much of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament vision of a jealous and at times vindictive God, with the Good News of the New Testament. Instead, they focus on Christ’s teaching, his vision of love, forgiveness, respect, and acceptance, and argue that our system of ethics and morality is in large part the consequence of that vision. I disagree.
More generally, my friends’ argument goes, Christianity (or at least the Judeo-Christian tradition) is responsible for the societal moral code that we enjoy today. And, even though we in America our zealous in our protection of religious freedoms, the basis for our societal standards really stems from the Christian roots of our founding fathers, or at least the traditions out of which they sprang. Because Christian moral and ethical standards constitute the foundation for our cultural norms, even if we do not tie our personal standards directly to a religious belief, those religious foundations nevertheless underlie our cultural norms. They would argue that I am a case in point.
I am an atheist, not a Christian. Just like everyone else, I have faults--lots of them. But I do believe that I am basically a good person, despite my lack of religious beliefs. I am law-abiding. I care about and am respectful of others. The welfare of my family means everything to me, and I would do all I could to make sure they are well provided for and that they have every opportunity for happiness and success. I enjoy doing small kindnesses. Since I have retired, I have been spending time doing volunteer work and find it very rewarding.
My friends reply that, though I am no longer a Christian, I was raised in a Christian environment and my moral code stems from those Christian roots. And frankly it would be hard for me to argue that my personal moral views were not influenced by my upbringing in a Christian environment. It would be too difficult to separate out the various influences on my character, if you will.
But I think one need only look to nonChristian societies to see that this argument actually has the relationship reversed. Societies that have had long-term success are the ones that have adopted standards that promote a strong moral code of conduct emphasizing cooperation, fairness, respect, and a sense of caring for others. The moral standards of such enduring societies were not created by religion. Rather, they have simply been fashioned by socio-evolutionary forces from the fabric of the human condition. The function of religion has been to rationalize those standards and to make it easier to teach--and in some cases enforce--them.
Most people are not Christians, but they still have moral standards. In some cases the standards include a religious rationalization; in some cases not. Different societies have different standards, but those societies that have longevity have generally adopted very similar codes, at least as they relate to interpersonal relationships and the conduct and regulation of the society generally. Consider, for example, Buddhist and Hindu cultures which have developed largely independently of any influence from Western culture.
There certainly have been societies that have had grossly defective moral codes, but these have generally been totalitarian dictatorships, such as Nazi Germany or North Korea, or run by cult leaders like David Koresh or Jim Jones. And they have generally been very short-lived as a result.
A portion of the Secular Humanist Declaration (See https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php/11) helps, I believe, to support this point of view and is worth quoting:
Morality that is not God-based need not be antisocial, subjective, or promiscuous, nor need it lead to the breakdown of moral standards. Although we believe in tolerating diverse lifestyles and social manners, we do not think they are immune to criticism. Nor do we believe that any one church should impose its views of moral virtue and sin, sexual conduct, marriage, divorce, birth control, or abortion, or legislate them for the rest of society. As secular humanists we believe in the central importance of the value of human happiness here and now. We are opposed to absolutist morality, yet we maintain that objective standards emerge, and ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation. Secular humanist ethics maintains that it is possible for human beings to lead meaningful and wholesome lives for themselves and in service to their fellow human beings without the need of religious commandments . . . .
© 2013 John M. Phillips