A common argument against atheism states that the atheist worldview can't determine moral absolutes. The apologist, Ravi Zacharias, in this podcast, Why I am Not an Atheist, argues that if atheism is true, then there is no moral law in this universe (15:25); without a higher moral standard – a law above our laws – there can be no point of reference on which we can anchor our value system. The idea of an 'objective morality' or 'ultimate standard' for human behaviour, which is determined by a universal law giver, is a common idea amongst theists.
But I’m always left wondering: do Christians know for certain what this ultimate law actually is? Can Christians know what is truly wrong and truly right in God's eyes? I don’t think they can. If you are a Christian, take some time to write down what you think what kind of precepts constitute God's objective morality. What will your list look like, and what is its source?
What about the Bible?
Some Christians might point me to the Bible as their source of objective morality, but when I page through the Bible, I'm struck by the contradictory moral views that are contained within its pages.
For example, some Christians might write down 'Thou shall not kill' on their list as a universal moral precept, but then those Christians should condemn, in the strongest terms, the Israelite killings of thousands of men, woman and children in the Old Testament. Moreover, the Old Testament, which contains that very commandment, also contains a range of commands that impose the death penalty for various victimless crimes, such as working on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15), blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16), or believing in other gods (Deuteronomy 13:6-10).
Various biblical teachings also seem to run counter to moral precepts that many Christians adhere to; it seems to condone misogyny, genocide, and the belief that individuals can be punished for the sins of their forefathers. In other words, whatever moral precept you write down on your list as an ultimate moral law – let it be from the Bible or from your own moral sense – there is often another part of the Bible that will probably contradict it.
The changing face of Christian morality
Of course, you might argue that I'm misinterpreting certain parts of the Bible, or that I don't fully understand the context in which certain texts were written. But I would ask the question: which moral precepts from the Bible are relevant, and what standards do you use to determine this? The moral ambiguity inherent in the Bible has enabled many Christians, throughout history, to argue for almost any moral view. At one point many Christians thought slavery was okay, and they appealed to the Bible as their source. After all, there are various verses that seem to condone slavery (e.g., Titus 2:9-10 and 1 Timothy 6:1).
The fact is that Christians, over the centuries, have changed their moral outlook on many topics, ranging from birth control, abortion, divorce, woman's rights, religious freedom, racial tolerance, and even homosexuality. For every ultimate rule that you write on your list, somewhere in the world, or sometime in history, another Christian believes, or has believed, otherwise. And these Christians with different views have appealed to their own interpretation of biblical text as proof that they are right.
When it comes to determining what is right and wrong, it seems that many Christians do not appeal to God's supposed objective moral code, but rather to their own, sometimes subjective, interpretations of biblical text. They pick the verses that support their view, and reinterpret or play down the importance of verses that don't ("well, that verse doesn't really mean what it says").
Basing God's moral code on our own
So what forms the basis of Christian objective morality? As we have seen, the Bible seems to contradict its own commandments, and even Christians can't agree with each other on what is actually right and wrong. Does God agree with homosexuality? Does he condone the use of condoms? Different Christians will give different answers. So I think Christians are overoptimistic when they claim to know the mind of God concerning such matters. I think that, if there is a God who holds onto some form of objective morality, we still know very little about what that morality is all about.
I wonder if this is a case where Christians are building an image of God based on their own values and beliefs. God doesn't inform humans of his perfect moral code. Rather, it seems that humans impose their own moral precepts on God.