Sunday, March 16, 2008

Morality: are God's commandments really needed?

If you are a parent, and your child asks you why she/he should not steal, how do you respond? What would be your answer? I was listening to this interview with Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, a book for non-religious parents on how to raise ethical and caring children outside of religion. He presents the following example that outlines how parents teach their children about morality. If a child asks why it is bad to steal another child's lunch, parents will probably ask the child two questions:

  1. How would you feel if someone stole your lunch, son; and
  2. What would the world be like if everyone stole each other's lunch?

The first question relates to the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated; the second question emphasises the fact that no person is an island: the survival of each individual is dependent on a society that functions, and there are various types of behaviour - those that should be avoided - that threaten the well-being of society.

McGowan points out that he has never heard a religious parent tell her/his child the following: “I have no idea why you should not steal another child's lunch, but I do know that God commands us not to steal.” In other words, religious and non-religious parents always explain the reasons why a child should be good, but religious parents are the only ones who add the additional, and seemingly pointless, coda at the end: “. . . and God does not want us to steal.”

This raises an interesting point: if humans already know the reasons why we should be moral (reasons covered by the two questions above), then why do we need God's commandments at all?

14 comments:

Lorena said...

That sounds like a great book for parents!

I guess, perhaps, at some point in history, using God to dish out moral rules to your kids was necessary.

Such practice is now outdated, because the children of today are able to understand the "spirit of the law," the reasoning behind the commands.

The problem is that the religious, as with many other issues, are grossly outdated when it comes to parenting. Perhaps the reason is the patronizing of children in the Bible, where little ones are seen as property that parents SHOULD even spank as needed.

The Bible is truly keeping Christians in the dark ages.

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Ben Olson said...

Though I many ways I agree with what you've said, I think that your conclusion only comes from the very "easy," over-simplified examples. If a clear, objective set of moral “laws” (not legislative…but you know) could be determined from human reason alone, then there would be no discrepancy on what is moral or immoral at all. Different people value different things, and thus disagree on what is moral or not.

A magnified example of this (though it doesn’t quite relate to kind of moral choices you’re talking about) is the debate on abortion. Both sides of the argument have a completely valid perspective, they just value different things. On the one hand, pro-choicers believe that a woman has a right to protect herself from any troubles that might come from having to birth and raise an unwanted fetus. On the other hand, pro-lifers believe that a human’s right to live trumps the various circumstances a pro-choicer argues warrants a right to a abortion. And even within each of those sides, there are disagreements as to the extent a fetus has the right to live versus a mother having the right to stop its development.

I know that issue isn’t exactly the kind you’re talking about, but it nonetheless exemplifies the nature of people the disagree about morality. So unless you are of the opinion that morality is relative and is decided by the individual, then I don’t think you can argue that morality can be easily deduced by logic. If you do think morality is relative, then that is a whole debate altogether.

But it does make sense why having a strict set of unchallengeable moral laws is useful. The Old Testament, for instance, was really only written as the moral law of the nation of Israel, almost like their constitution (well not only written for that but that aspect of it was only for Israel or whatever). The only times there was ever peace and order in that country (in that time) was when the nation followed those moral laws. There is less practical application for having religious moral laws now, however, since most nations are not strictly one religion and most major religions span across the entire globe. But the theory of why to have them is still the same. It gives a unifying set of rules to its followers whenever there is a disagreement.

So I don’t think it is valid to say that we don’t need God’s commandments because we can logically deduce moral law on our own, but I do think it is valid to say that those commandments are no longer useful since most nations are composed of a mixture of many religions. It is impossible for a nation to come up with a unifying morality if its citizens are of different religions with different moral laws.

CyberKitten said...

Ben O said: If a clear, objective set of moral “laws” (not legislative…but you know) could be determined from human reason alone, then there would be no discrepancy on what is moral or immoral at all.

Unfortunately no such objective Moral Laws exist (or at least they do not appear to exist).

Ben O said: So unless you are of the opinion that morality is relative and is decided by the individual, then I don’t think you can argue that morality can be easily deduced by logic. If you do think morality is relative, then that is a whole debate altogether.

Morality is indeed relative and is decided by the individual (within an overall cultural context). For example my brother & I disagree on some aspects of morality and we grew up in the same household for 23 years! A standard set of moral rules will never be agreed upon by everyone. It's a waste of time even trying to develop one.

Ben O said: It is impossible for a nation to come up with a unifying morality if its citizens are of different religions with different moral laws.

Not forgetting those who do not hold any religious beliefs.... [grin]

Jessie said...

Hmmm . . . I'm curious as to why a post about why the ten commandments are self-evident and true is used as an argument AGAINST Christianity.

I just stumbled across your blog via your review of the His Dark Materials series, and after poking around on here a little bit, what I really want is to just sit down and have a series of conversation with you about the things you write about. I am a Christian college student, and I am learning so much about who God is and how He designed the world to be, and it's all very exciting for me . . . but I'm also very much a devil's advocate, and when I am taught these things, what I really want to do a lot of times is see how they hold up to argument. Unfortunately, most of the non-Christians I know don't really have ANY beliefs that they have actually thought about and analyzed, so it's hard for me to find a real person who can intelligently critique these ideas. (Books don't really count; you can't ask them questions.) Furthermore, on the rare occasions when I actually do get a chance to talk with someone who has a decent position against Christianity, since I disagree with them they generally take my questions as an offense, assuming I only want to "convert" them.

All this to say that I have a real appreciation for this blog and your thoughts, and I look forward to continued reading.

Wogan May said...

We need God's commandments because even morals can be bent by society. Since when was divorce an acceptable option for married couples? For reasons other than death?

Now that I'm done with the severely southern-sounding stuff...

While it's true that children these days might have more sensitivity to the Spirit, having some written material to fall back on will always be a blessing. Because if you look deep enough, you'll find that just about everything in the Bible is self-explained.

No, it doesn't keep us in the dark ages. People that think like that are often thinking only of the Old Testament, and they tend to forget Galatians.

And I doubt whether genetic morals will account for things like "keep the Sabbath holy". For things that the basic human nature cannot deduce, higher teachings are needed. A la the Bible.

~ Wogan

Anonymous said...

God said it, I believe it, that settles it. And because I believe, I act on what I believe, I trust what God says, and I find that my thoughts are deeper, my life has more joy, I have better friendships, I have more people to be with doing fun things with that do not harm my body, then I did before I chose to accept by faith, that which I did not understand by human reasoning.

CyberKitten said...

I can't help but wonder why the following of the 10 Commandments hasn't resulted in the production of Heaven on Earth. If they could produce something even approaching that then maybe they'd be worth following.

Personally I don't think that following a set of rules designed for a desert living people over 2000 years ago has much (if any) relevance today and across the many cultures of the world.

Jessie said...

cyberkitten: Do you really mean to say that you believe the 10 Commandments are being kept in our world?
Another question: does your second argument take into account the content of the 10 Commandments, or only what you consider to be the intended audience? Surely you don't want to throw out those principles altogether . . . even the basic ones like lying, stealing, murder, adultery, etc.?

CyberKitten said...

jessie asked: cyberkitten: Do you really mean to say that you believe the 10 Commandments are being kept in our world?

You mean being adhered to? No, not at all. Where they *ever* adhered to? Even by their original intended audience?

Should they be adhered to? Wouldn't the world be a better place without the constant killing.... That *would* be hard to argue against wouldn't it?

jessie asked: Surely you don't want to throw out those principles altogether . . . even the basic ones like lying, stealing, murder, adultery, etc.?

Rules such as those far pre-dated The Bible and existed/exists in other cultures without access to that book. They are human values - not Christian ones. Their interpretation also changes from place to place & over time. They may be basic in one sense but you'll always get local variations and exceptions.

Jessie said...

So you might say, then, that the absence of "heaven on earth" is at least in part due to the fact that people ignore the principles of the 10 Commandments. Your argument, then, is not with the content of the 10 Commandments, correct?

CyberKitten said...

jessie said: So you might say, then, that the absence of "heaven on earth" is at least in part due to the fact that people ignore the principles of the 10 Commandments.

The problem of course is that I doubt very much if 3 people could agree on what Heaven was - never mind the entire human population.

jessie said: Your argument, then, is not with the content of the 10 Commandments, correct?

Well, I couldn't probably name all 10 with a gun to my head. But I also think that life is just a *little* too complex to be handled by 10 short rules.

Cori said...

The Platinum Rule: Treat others as THEY want to be treated (which may be different for different people in different cultures!).

I think that in the time the 10 commandments were first introduced to the uniquely Monotheistic society of the Israelites (some 4000-6000 years ago?) it was perhaps highly relevant and ground breaking. Jesus then said (some 2000 years ago) that the law had been fulfilled in this one law: love one another. So I guess Jesus would be with you on this - don't do things because God said so, do things because of the law of love.

If Christianity was about morality, and bringing up children within the Christian faith was about do's and don't's, McGowan might have a point... My understanding of the Christian faith would place it in quite a different paradigm than do's and dont's and morality.

Anonymous said...

The issue is not so much *what* is moral but *why* can't we *be* moral. Jesus is the only religious teacher I have come across who takes this latter issue as seriously as it should be taken.