Why Care About Right and Wrong?

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When I was an evangelical Christian, I thought that God was at the center of every sound reason for doing the right thing. For example, Jesus encouraged us, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). It was all about bringing glory to God, showing gratitude to God, respecting God, fearing God, etc..

I thought that when unbelievers did good, it was in spite of their philosophies of life, not because of them. Selfishness was the only consistent result of any “worldly philosophy.” The Bible told me that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9), and that’s what I believed.

In my final years of wrestling with my faith, someone close to me said, “You’re too afraid of yourself.” I did not believe her, but her comment stuck with me.

Imagine my surprise after my deconversion when I discovered she was right. Even without God, I still wanted to do the right thing.

How could that be?

Evangelicals themselves tell us the answer, perhaps unwittingly. Google God’s commands for our good and you’ll find statements like these.

Some of God’s commandments may require self-denial on our part. But in the long run we will discover that they are for our very best. A father doesn’t give commands to his children to burden them or harm them – but only to help them. This is how we need to see the commands that God gives us too. — Zac Poonen

In other words, if we follow biblical precepts, we will be happier in the long run.

Jesus, too, gave very pragmatic reasons for following his teaching, as in this famous verse from the Sermon on the Mount.

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1-2)

Even God’s so-called ceremonial laws, such as the prohibition on eating pork, are for our own good, say believers:

Pigs are known to carry up to 200 diseases and 18 different parasites and worms. — Eating Pork Can be Hazardous to Your Health, at OnlineTruth.org

It does not require a belief in God to stay away from unhealthy food, or to realize that what goes around comes around. For the most part, God’s commands in the Bible do make sense, even to an unbeliever. I find that I still want to obey them.

I will admit to one huge difference. As a Christian, I took the Bible as God’s Word. If it commanded something, then it must be right. For reasons that I cover elsewhere on this blog, I can no longer believe that. Today, I base my moral judgments on how actions affect other people.

Although my ways of appraising right and wrong have changed, I still care about morality and ethics. There are sound, obvious, pragmatic reasons for doing so.

What Christians say is true: people are generally happier when they follow the Golden Rule and other universal principles that are in the Bible. A life of immorality and dissipation is usually an unhappy one. It’s far more fulfilling to devote oneself to improving the world and serving others. Christian, you and I disagree about a lot of things. Will you let me agree with you on this?

10 responses to “Why Care About Right and Wrong?

  1. This is an interesting post. I used to be Christian, too, and it’s a hard thing to let go of. There’s loss involved; a lot of structure is gone.
    I blog about honesty, and I’m wondering if you think the Golden Rule applies to that–that we should be honest with people at times when we would want honesty, and dishonest at times when, really, we would prefer dishonesty?

    • Does the Golden Rule apply to honesty? Now THERE’s a show-stopper of a question! I never thought of it that way, but my first reaction is Yes.

      I used to think that it was never, ever right to tell a lie. It was OK to keep quiet, but never to lie. I brushed aside the obvious counter-examples like if you’re in Nazi Germany and concealing Jews in your house and the SS asks you if you are harboring any Jews. Not to mention the classic “Do you think this dress makes me look fat?” Your application of the Golden Rule clears that all up, without giving up the basic idea that telling the truth is generally the right thing to do.

  2. I’m sure you and your readers are aware that the Bible reflects the morals of ancient Israel. Along with the “good” morals you mention are other not-so-good ones that don’t need enumeration here. Unfortunately, all these morals, good and bad, were permanently incorporated into the Bible.

    As humanity progressed, we recognized undesirable moral teachings in the Bible and simply quit practicing them. Even the most devout Christians became “scripturally selective” about teachings they practiced.

    Biblical morality is set in stone, like an ancient statue, forever unchanging, because it is God’s word. But the actual morality of both adherents and infidels is decided by social norms. And there’s really not that much difference between the morality of adherents and infidels.

    So WE decide what is moral. WE decide what biblical teachings to follow. We decide what is truly religious.

    So why do we even need or have religions? Whatever the reason, it’s DEFINITELY not for moral guidance. Although Jesus preached love, forgiveness and humility, he accepted slavery as a normal part of society and apparently felt no compunction to speak out against it. Neither did anybody else in the new Testament. In fact, Jesus advocated punishing servants severely for purposely shirking their responsibilities and punishing them less severely if they “are not aware that they are doing wrong” (Luke 12:47-48 NLT). There are many verses in the New Testament advising on the treatment of slaves . . . and none of it is very Christ-like; none of it is loving, forgiving, or humble. So even Jesus is morally overruled by adherents and infidels alike.

    So if morality isn’t, in reality, the reason for religion, what is? That pretty much leaves salvation and the reward of heaven. In other words, control and fear. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, “Morality is the best of all devices for leading mankind by the nose.” As long as religions can convince people they have a monopoly on morality, they can continue to disguise their true motivations: control and fear.

    • Jim, you might enjoy my recent series on The Selfish Gene. I echo many of the points you made so well, especially toward the end when I discuss memes. Also my post titled What Did Jesus Say About Slavery?, where you and I are again on the same wavelength, even quoting the same passage from Luke. 🙂

  3. Great post. 😉

  4. Just wanted to say I’ve been thinking a lot about our discussion about applying the Golden Rule to honesty–so thanks for your thoughts!

  5. For a guy that doesn’t believe in God, you sure do a lot of preaching about Him. Perhaps dear Sir, you only need to react to the world as a genuine being, not some drone in a church pew…. In my mind, that is why God gave us free will. To act on our own, when those actions mimic our Maker, it can often be like our friends catching our catch-phrases. My husband loves to add, “I’m not going to lie, I really ….” then he waits, within the conversation someone else will use the line, “I’m not going to lie….”
    We may become more like a benevolent being, because we’ve basked in His kindness so much,
    Best Regards Just The Same, KL

    • Thanks for your thoughts, KL. You’re right: For a guy that doesn’t believe in God, I do do a lot of preaching about Him. My next post explains why.

      • Hey, I wish you the best, but I’ve seen the Hand of God too many times to “go to the dark side” ha ha. And I mean that, I wish you the very best. And it’s okay that we disagree. I went through a phase of trying to deny God, but it nearly tore my heart out. If you have peace dear sir, I am very happy for you.

  6. Pingback: What If Everyone Will Go to Heaven? | Path of the Beagle

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