Christians often claim that their beliefs underpin their morality, and those who do not believe in God or the Bible must therefore lack a moral compass. They assume that values and morals are a consequence of holding the true doctrines. Well I have not become an axe-murderer since becoming an unbeliever, I have not suddenly become unfaithful to my wife, nor have I begun torturing kittens, I have not even started swearing. On the other hand, any kindness or generosity I showed when I was religious was not because of my beliefs at the time. I do not believe there is a nexus between belief and “morality” (except for a few specific behaviours discussed below). Giving up my religious beliefs has made little difference to my morals.
A strong case can be made for many so-called “Christian morals” to be universal values. The “golden rule” of Jesus (“treat others as you would want them to treat you” Matthew 7:12) has also been taught in almost every other ethical tradition1. All these other ethical traditions and religions did not copy from Jesus — some of them pre-dated Jesus. Rather, they all came up with the same basic principle because it makes sense: human societies generally work better when we treat each other in the way we wish to be treated ourselves.
It was not because Jesus told me to be nice to other people that I have always tried to treat them well. Rather, it is an obvious human value — my life is much more pleasant when people are nice to me, therefore it is a good idea if I am also nice to other people. Most of us learn this by trial and error in the first few years of our lives, regardless of the religious teaching we are exposed to.
Surely no Christian would claim that they refrain from murder and rape simply because the Bible tells them to. Every human society has discovered the value in respecting and protecting each other. In fact, it is not even a human value: herds of wildebeest do not need a holy book to tell them to look out for each other, yet they still do it.
So at least some aspects of what is often claimed as “Christian morality” or “biblical morality” are simply values that we have adopted because social groups work better that way.
When an occasional person refuses to cooperate in this social contract, the society develops tools for enforcing good behaviour. One such tool is religion. The wrath of God, or some kind of divine punishment, becomes a threat that can be used to keep people in line: behave or go to hell.
There are other aspects of what is usually accepted within the framework of Christian morality that are clearly not universally held, particularly around sexuality.
Post-Christian and non-Christian societies often have no objections to consensual sexual relations between unmarried people, or to homosexuality, or to other forms of sexuality that appear to be prohibited in the Bible. Yet only traditional sexual relations within marriage are allowed within the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Presumably God, or at least those people who invented him, thought that it was best that way. But why?
Part of the answer is probably associated with children. Early societies needed population growth for security and welfare, and they also needed those children to grow up in stable households where they would be cared for and educated. By restricting sexual relations to heterosexual married couples, the likelihood of a steady stream of children growing up in stable functional households is increased (although unfortunately not guaranteed). Making it a religious rule increases the pressure to conform.
The advent of cheap and accessible contraception means it is now possible for people to enjoy sexual relations with little chance of producing children, and consequently the social and economic need to restrict sex to married couples is diminished.23 In addition, we no longer need population growth for security and welfare, and so the need for children is reduced. As a result, traditional Christian restrictions on sexuality are being increasingly ignored, even amongst church-going youth.4
This is one of the few aspects of morality where my views have changed. The traditional Christian perspective is that homosexual practice is sin, and homosexuals should remain celibate (although the Bible passages are open to some dispute). Now I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I once shared this perspective. After I stopped believing that the Bible came from God, I no longer had any reason to object. I am sorry that my previous attitude must have hurt my homosexual friends and acquaintances.
Similarly, the Bible appears to state that pre-marital sexual relations are sinful. Again, the relevant passages can be disputed, and as usual the Bible is not as clear as it is made out to be. Nevertheless, I accepted the traditional Christian perspective, and actively taught young people to wait until marriage. While I would still encourage proceeding slowly, I have no reason to object to consensual sexual relations as part of a committed relationship.
On the other hand, I still think adultery is wrong, not because the Bible says so but because it breaks a promise to one’s spouse. I am faithful to Leanne because I love her, and I want to live with her for the rest of my life, and I promised that I would be faithful. Far better reasons than simply following the advice of an archaic book.
In general, people are happier, and society is more stable, if couples are in long-term sexual relationships5. Marriage is still the best way of achieving long-term committed partnerships between two people (of either sex).
What is biblical morality?
If a morality system was derived entirely and only from the Bible, it would look quite different from what are considered “Christian morals”. For example, in some places the Bible condones (or even instructs) genocide, slavery, rape, murder, lying, infanticide, and so on. Christians ignore, or explain away, these unpleasant parts of the Bible, and emphasise the nicer sections about love, mercy, kindness, and so on.
Throughout the Old Testament, God orders the killing of innocent people. For example:
He drowns almost every person and animal on earth (Genesis 6–9);
He kills a man for not impregnating his sister-in-law (Genesis 38:9–10)
He kills all the first-born children in Egypt because of Pharaoh’s stubbornness (Exodus 12:29–30);
He kills an entire family (men, women and children) when three men question Moses’ leadership (Numbers 16:20–35);
He kills 14,700 men with a plague because he was angry that the Israelites complained (Numbers 16:41–50);
He orders parents to kill their children for being stubborn and rebellious (Deuteronomy 21:18–21);
He orders the destruction of 60 Canaanite cities, including the death of all men, women and children, to make room for the Israelites (Deuteronomy 2:31–35; 3:6–7; 7:1–2; 20:16–17; Joshua 10:28–43);
He orders the genocide of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:2–3);
He kills 70,000 innocent people because David conducted a census (1 Chronicles 21:1–14);
He kills 42 children for mocking an old man (2 Kings 2:23–24).
He kills 70 men for looking into the ark of the covenant (1 Samuel 6:19).
Rape and sexual slavery is not only condoned, it is sometimes commanded, and rape victims are punished:
A man is allowed to sell his daughter to be a concubine (Exodus 21:7);
The towns of Canaan have a choice of slavery, or rape and pillage (Deteronomy 20:10–14);
Moses commands for all the virgin women of Midian to be raped (Numbers 31:14–18);
Female captives can be raped after one month of captivity (Deuteronomy 21:10–14);
Engaged rape victims are killed (Deuteronomy 22:23–24);
Other rape victims are forced to marry their attackers (Deuteronomy 22:28–29);
God promises to help with rape and plunder (Zechariah 14:1–2).
Clearly, what we regard as Christian morality is not derived from the Bible. Rather, the Bible is used to support a set of morals that are largely Victorian values, by selectively citing supporting passages and ignoring passages that support abhorrent behaviour.
Good without God
I hope that these lists of appalling Bible atrocities are enough to convince anyone that our morality is not derived from scripture. So where do our values come from? I think we all accept a set of values independent of our religious beliefs, although we may not realise it.
Long ago, Plato argued (in Euthyphro) that we cannot depend on a god to tell us what is good. He asked whether the commands of a god were good simply because a god commanded them, or whether the god recognized what was good and gave commands accordingly.
If something is good only because God commands it, then it is meaningless to assert that “God is good”, and anything can be considered good if it happens to take God’s fancy. If God has no reasons for his commands, then religious morality has no anchor; the resulting morality is arbitrary, capricious and irrational. Instead of commanding us to be merciful and kind, God could just have easily have commanded us to be nasty and cruel. On the other hand, if God makes commands because they are inherently good, then there is some other determination of goodness independent of God.
As a result of evolution, we are naturally social creatures. We have learned to survive through cooperative behaviour, and so we form communities. The same is true of other great apes and some other species. Young chimps do not need a Bible to tell them to honour their elders and refrain from killing their siblings. They even show altruistic behaviour. When leopards attack a troop of baboons, older males have been seen to engage the leopard in a suicidal fight while the younger members can escape. Acts of self-sacrifical love are not unique to Christians, or even to humans. Evolution has equipped us with the good sense to look after each other for the benefit of all.
The same evolutionary process makes us very sensitive to the emotional status of our companions. Therefore, our personal happiness is greatest when it is shared — nobody gets any real pleasure being happy in the midst of sad people. So we maximize our personal happiness when we seek the happiness of our companions.
In summary, a consistent and objective foundation of morality is this: Behaviour that contributes to total human happiness is right, while anything that diminishes total human happiness is wrong. As a result, I think we should seek, whenever possible, to increase the happiness and decrease the suffering of other human beings. I do not need a God, or a holy book, to tell me that. I can be good without God.6
- S. Blackburn (2009). Ethics: A very short introduction. New York, USA: Oxford University Press, p.101. [return]
- V. L. Elias, A. S. Fullerton and J. M. Simpson (2015). Long-term changes in attitudes toward premarital sex in the United States: Reexamining the role of cohort replacement. Journal of Sex Research 52 (2), 129–139 [return]
- J. Fernández-Villaverde, J. Greenwood and N. Guner (2014). From shame to game in one hundred years: An economic model of the rise in premarital sex and its de-stigmatization. Journal of the European Economic Association 12(1), 25–61. [return]
- L. B. Finer (2007). Trends in premarital sex in the United States, 1954–2003. Public Health Reports 122(1), 73–78. [return]
- S. Stack and J. R. Eshleman (1998). Marital status and happiness: A 17-nation study. Journal of Marriage and the Family 60(2), 527–536. [return]
- G. Epstein (2009). Good without God: What a billion nonreligious people do believe. New York, USA: William Morrow. [return]