February 05, 2015

Atheist Mama: Is it possible to teach kids right from wrong in a world with God?

How do you teach your kids right from wrong in a world with no God?

This is probably the question that we face most often when people find out that we are secular parents. The underlying assumption is that without a God, we all will do whatever the hell we please, no matter who it hurts or what damage it causes.

To address this assumption—because we’ve already talked about how I intend to teach my kids about morality—I find it helpful to rephrase the question.

Is it really possible to teach kids right from wrong in a world where there IS a God?

It’s a difficult way to frame the question, perhaps, but a necessary one. The underlying assumption that without God there is no morality is not only offensive, it’s just plain wrong.


Let’s take a look.

In this piece, I’m going to be drawing from thoughts by Elizabeth Anderson in an essay titled “If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?”. Anderson beautifully explains exactly why the idea that God is some moral arbitrator is so ridiculous. I am not going to cover every point, but will focus on the ones that are relevant to this conversation. Anderson’s piece appeared originally in Philosophers Without Gods, which was edited by L.M. Anthony , and was reprinted (with permission) in The Portable Atheist, compiled by Christopher Hitchens, which is the source that I encountered it in.

First you must establish WHY something is right:

This objection is as old as philosophy. Plato, the first systematic philosopher, raised it against divine command theories of morality in the fifth century BCE. He asked divine-command moralists: are actions right because God commands them, or does God command them because they are right?

Let’s look at the latter first. So we answer in the affirmative: Yes, God commands them because they are right. What does that mean?

Simply put, we are now in something of a conundrum because we have just stripped God of his moral authority. If the actions are independently and objectively right, then why do we need God to tell us so?

Anderson puts it like this:

If the latter is true, then actions are right independent of whether God commands them, and God is not needed to underwrite the authority of morality.

So, if you answer this affirmatively, you are saying that the question posed above—Can you teach your children right from wrong in a world without God?—is a moot point. In fact, it is a nonexistent point—in this instance, we don’t need a God to justify morality. Morality is an independent standard.

Let’s look at the first question: Yes, actions are right because God commands them.

Well, now we are in something of a real pickle, because if you read what God has commanded, there is quite a bit in there that we would say, objectively, is entirely immoral.

Anderson puts it like this:

But if the former is true, God could make any action right simply by willing it or by ordering others to do it. This establishes that, if the authority of morality depends on God’s will, then, in principle, anything is permitted.

God only asks us to do good things, though, right? God is good, so that would make sense.

But if we look at the bible as literal historical narrative, there’s quite a different story awaiting us. God is often petty, jealous. He punishes the innocent for the sins of someone else. He destroys humanity. He curses all of humanity for the sin of two individuals—before any other humans are even born.

There are many, many examples (and Anderson discusses so many!)

Anderson comes to this point:

I find it hard to resist the conclusion that the God of the Bible is cruel and unjust and commands and permits us to be cruel and unjust to others. Here are religious doctrines that on their face claim that it is all right to mercilessly punish people for the wrongs of others and for blameless error, that license or even command murder, plunder, rape, torture, slavery, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. We know such actions are wrong. So we should reject the doctrines that represent them as right.

If I teach my children to look to the Bible as moral authority, what am I really teaching them?

Today, we look at these passages and even the most strident believers tend to say, “It’s a different time today than it was then. This is a different world.” But such statements require us to realize that these actions are, in today’s world, absolutely immoral.

They require us to say that our morals today are different from what God’s morals were in the past.

This indicates a distinct disconnect from the idea of an objective morality straight from the authority of heaven. If what God did then was moral, and God is good, perfect, and just, then such actions should still be moral.

That they aren’t is a real stickler in the idea of teaching right and wrong with and without God.

So what is a secular parent to do?

It’s simple. The idea of morality in a secular world has to be cemented in empathy and respect. If you empathize with those around you, and respect their existence, and you respect your own existence, you are forced to deal with each other as equals. You can make requests of them, and they can make requests of you. You can each hold expectations of how the other will act—expectations that are shaped by your shared social environment.

Is that really such a bad thing?

My children will not learn that is wrong to kill because God said it; they will learn that it is wrong to kill because it deprives another being of life which we should respect. They will not learn that it is wrong to steal or harm because God said it; they will learn that it is wrong to steal or harm because it causes pain to other beings and they will empathize with that pain.  Are these ideas really so subpar to the idea of not doing things because some jealous celestial being decreed it?

Is the idea of reasoning out and coming to mutually beneficial ideas of morality so terrible?

I’d like to part with one more thought, specifically geared towards the believers that do believe that God is the only source of moral authority.

Anderson shares this thought near the end of her essay:

Far from bolstering the authority of morality, appeals to divine authority can undermine it. For divine command theories of morality may make believers feel entitled to look only to their idea of God to determine what they are justified in doing. It is all too easy under such a system to ignore the complaints of those injured by one’s actions, since they are not acknowledged as moral authorities in their own right.

This for a moment if you will about ISIL/S.

We hear a lot about their murder of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq, but in truth, the vast majority of their victims are other Muslims. And how do they justify this senseless killing and oppression?

By God’s morality.

The failure of these individuals to follow God’s morality means that these fundamental extremists are able to dehumanize them to the point where it is acceptable to slaughter them. They are not individuals, or moral agents, in their own rights; because they do not adhere to fundamental moral principles in the eyes of these murderers, they are open for torture, torment and homicide.

You may be appalled by that idea, but it’s not new. It’s the same idea that fueled the wars between Catholics and Protestants. It’s the same idea that underwrote the Crusades and the Inquisition. It’s the same idea that, waaaaaay back at the dawn of Christianity, led to the whole-scale slaughter of the Gnostics.

When we accept that God is the arbiter of morality, we accept that interpretation of morality we agree with is the only right morality. It’s the only right guide to moral actions.

Which means that when someone doesn’t agree with that interpretation of morality, they are immediately The Other. They can be demonized and debased, because they are not a part of the whole. They are not moral beings.

Today, the predominant religion in this American nation is Christianity, and its many centuries of growth have created a kinder beast. Today it is gentle rebuke to those that fail to abide by Christian moral standards, instead of persecution. But the fundamental consequence is the same.

God as moral author is a divisive social force.

Is that really such a good thing?

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