It is a popular argument in evangelism: without an absolute moral standard handed down from God, all we ever have is an ‘anything goes’ moral relativism. ‘Good’ is simply whatever seems right to each individual. People’s idea of what is right and wrong may be exact opposites. Here is an example of this sort of argument.
While it may sound like a great argument (it’s not1) it simply isn’t what the bible teaches. It’s also pretty insulting to non-Christians too, especially with American Christians voting in such large numbers for a racist, sexual predator like Trump, an irony that isn’t lost on non-Christians.
But the bible is much more positive about other people’s moral understanding. Paul tells us that even without the Mosaic Law, Gentiles who don’t know the bible, show they have God’s law written on their hearts Rom 2:14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires… 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.
More importantly, the bible doesn’t teach the commandments as the absolute basis of morality written in stone… well maybe written in stone, but not the absolute basis.
Paul describes the Old Testament Law as a child’s tutor Gal 3:24. There is a deeper moral principle the commandments themselves are founded on, a deeper magic as Aslan put it. Rom 13:9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Jesus himself said all of the Old Testament commandments are based on two great commandments, to love God and love your neighbour. Matt 22:37 NLT Jesus replied, “‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’e 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”.
Since we seem to find ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ so difficult to understand, Jesus explained it another way. Matt 7:12 So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them… Again Jesus tells us this principle sums up all of the commandments in the Old Testament …for this is the law and the prophets. But this principle, the Golden rule, or ‘do as you would be done by’ is found in one form or another throughout the world’s major religions and in a lot of our philosophies.
Does it somehow take from Christianity that ‘do unto others…’ is found in other religions?
It shouldn’t. We are all created in God’s image, remember how Paul tells us even Gentiles without the OT Law have God’s law written on their hearts.
Jesus didn’t have a problem with it either. When a Jewish theologian asked Jesus what loving you neighbour meant, Jesus picked an example from outside Judaism, a Samaritan, motivated not by the Jewish Law, but by the gut-wrenching empathy that he felt towards the man bleeding dying on the road to Jericho.
The Golden Rule isn’t based on divine revelation, it flows from our human capacity for empathy. It is how we are made, how we evolved, how God created us. We see someone being suffering or being mistreated, the empathy centres in our brain signal to us how we would feel in the other person’s place. And it’s not just a mental response in our brain. The sensations of deep emotion are sent down the vagus nerve telling our heart to beat faster, our stomach to tighten and our intestines to feel as though they were being tied up in a knot. The way we are built, seeing the pain of a fellow human resonates through our body.
We talk of our heart going out to someone, it may be a metaphor but it is based on the human physiological response when we empathise. The word Jesus used for the Samaritan’s compassion (the tongue twister splagchnizomai) comes from the Greek word for intestines. The Samaritan felt compassion for dying man deep in his very guts.
This is how we know we should treat others as we would have them treat us, to love the as we love ourselves. When we see their suffering, we feel it deep in our gut as though we were suffering it ourselves. We know in our hearts they are a person just like us with feelings like ours to be valued as we value our own life.
Which is why a compassionate humanist or atheist can have a much deeper, much more mature moral understanding than a Christian whose moral framework simply rule based. And as a friend pointed out to me when we were discussing this, that was Jesus’ point in the parable of the Good Samaritan talking about the religious people, the priest and the Levite, who walked by, while the Samaritan was the one who stopped and helped his fellow man.
Our understanding of justice and human rights is based on this. We recognise injustice because we wouldn’t want to be treated that way. We know treatment that is fair and just when we see it, and we recognise treatment we would cry out against ourselves. This understanding of justice and injustice is shared across all cultures by every religion and none. The only limit to our concept of justice and human rights is the limit of our empathy. For more on the limits of empathy and how it is manipulated by certain politicians to spread hate, see my blog Listening to right wing politicians can turn you psychopathic.
Another moral basis Christians use
This one is closer to the empathy-based loving your neighbour as yourself. We love and value our fellow man because they are made in God’s image. Martin Luther King used this as an argument for human rights. In fact, it is used in the bible to prod religious people who are less than perfect in the way they treat others. Prov 17:5 Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker. James 3:9 With (our tongues) we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. This is a pretty good basis for treating people decently, far better than simply following rules because God said so. But like rule following, this moral basis is limited to people who believe in God and believe he created and loves us.
But God wants us to go further than rule following, or loving people because God loves them. God wants us to love others as we love ourselves, because we recognise them as people like us, who have feelings like we do, and we feel it ourselves when they hurt or suffer injustice.
Is there anything that sets the bible and Christianity morality apart?
The Christian version of the Golden Rule is one of higher versions, teaching the positive side of ‘do unto others’. Most other versions only teach the negative side, don’t do what you wouldn’t like done to you. Basically, the higher version of the Golden rules say “help your neighbour when he falls because that what you’d want yourself” the lower version says “don’t kick him when he’s down, you wouldn’t like that yourself”. While the lower version is most common, the higher version can be found also in religions and philosophies like Taoism, Jainism and Islam.
One thing that sets Christianity apart is that God not only calls us to treat our neighbour with love and compassion, but he also demonstrated this love and compassion himself, by becoming human and laying down his life for us in the greatest act of sacrificial love and compassion.
Which of course leads into the biggest difference about Christianity, that our whole relationship with God is based what Christ has done, rather than our own, frankly terrible, efforts at doing the right thing. For a Christian learning to love others better and use our God-given empathy and compassion flows out of that as we walk in relationship with Jesus and are transformed by his Word and his Holy Spirit within us.
For those who don’t believe in God the evolution of morality and a sense of justice raises the disturbing suggestion that our material universe comes prewired for it. It is not just humans who evolved it either. Empathy and an understanding fairness keep emerging in social species once they develop sufficient brain capacity. We see it in animals as distantly related as birds, dogs and capuchin monkeys.
They could try to dismiss morality and justice as random side effect of evolution, instincts that are beneficial for group survival but of no intrinsic meaning. But to do that they would have to abandon the fundamental importance of compassion, justice and human rights that from the very centre of their being3 their own empathy and compassion is telling them is real.
Either that live with the cognitive dissonance that the basis for justice, morality and the rights of others seem to be written into the fabric of the materialistic universe as deeply as the laws of mathematics, just waiting for organisms sufficiently developed to recognise them.
1 A major problem with the argument for an absolute morality is, (as any well informed atheist will tell a Christian who tried to use it), it had a massive hole punched in it way back in the time of Plato. It is called the Euthyphro dilemma, where Plato pushed the problem of arbitrary morality one step further back. “Is goodness (piety) loved by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods?” If God really liked when we tortured kittens, would that make torturing kittens moral? Which spins off into further philosophical questions, but it is enough to show that this popular evangelistic argument doesn’t work.
3 Via the vagus nerve.