Secular vs. Christian reasons for being moral

A recent post by Bruce Charlton asks why atheists behave better than they need to. Since he still hasn’t enabled comments on his blog, I again respond here.

Morality, Charlton says, is based on evolved instincts which are largely the same for everyone, which is why most of the core principles of morality are the same in every religion and philosophy. Atheists also have these moral instincts and therefore tend to behave just as morally as anyone else. There’s still a problem, though, says Charlton (following quote proofread slightly):

But the problem is that even when we know (or think we know) the evolutionary reason for altruism, this is not a moral argument. To say that humans have evolved to be this way is not an argument with any force against those who say they do not feel this way; or those who say they aim to overcome their evolved instincts so as to be happier or suffer less. . . .Is this a problem? Yes — because atheists can never draw a line on rational grounds. Look around, isn’t this what we find in mainstream culture? Secular people who are individually good, but who cannot provide any reason why other people should be good. So bad people get free reign, and the rules change, progressively, in a less and less moral direction.

Atheists can philosophize about fine points of morality just as well as any Christian, but when it comes to the larger question of why one should bother to be moral at all, most of the answers are pretty weak. Fortunately most people have a natural desire to be moral and therefore don’t need to be convinced, but that desire is stronger in some than in others, and some people seem to lack it altogether. What do you say to a sociopath — or even to an ordinary person who, in the throes of temptation, is finding that his natural desire to sin is a bit stronger than his natural desire to be moral?

There are a lot of things you could say, of course — you might get caught; what goes around comes around; other people will treat you the way you treat them; if you break Hillel’s silver rule and do “that which is hateful to you,” you’ll hate yourself and won’t really be happy; crime doesn’t pay — all true statements as far as they go. But they’re also all generalizations with many exceptions. They’re not absolutes. It would be perfectly rational for a person to say, “Yes, I agree that immorality usually leads to negative consequences, but in this particular situation I can be quite sure that no one will ever know what I’ve done; and while some degree of guilt may be inevitable, in this case I can be pretty sure that it will be outweighed by the pleasure of the deed.”

In contrast, belief in a just God offers absolute reasons to be moral. If God exists and is just, then there is a 100% chance that every sin will be seen and punished, every good deed acknowledged and rewarded. In fact, such a belief effectively eliminates the whole field of morality by making moral behavior identical with self-interested behavior. If they could be sure of the existence of a just God, saint and sociopath would behave in exactly the same way.

In practice, though, Christianity doesn’t really mean belief in an absolutely just God. God is merciful, he forgives. Many Protestants would even say that any believer who has “accepted Jesus as his personal savior” (or whatever the correct term is) is already “saved” and needn’t worry about being punished for any sins he may commit. Works won’t save or damn a Christian — but of course a saved person will naturally love God and want to please him by living morally. But that’s not really a moral argument, is it? Christianity is in the same boat as secular morality, assuming a natural desire to do the right thing but unable to convince anyone who happens to lack such a desire.

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