Below is a close transcription of this podcast.
Hello, I’m Dave, the webmaster of ExChristian.Net and you’re listening to the Ex-Christian Monologues for April 3, 2006.
The topic for this podcast is “Good and Evil.”
What is good and what is evil? Where do we get our definition of good and evil? What is the source of our understanding of morality, and how do we decide what is moral vs. what is immoral?
Christians claim that without the commandments of God, there is no standard to determine good from evil – morality from immorality. Without the Bible, Christians say, everyone would do what was right in their own eyes, meaning there would be moral anarchy. Supposedly, without God’s mind on the subjects of good and evil, Hitler can be considered every bit as moral as Gandhi. Morality apart from God, it is insisted, would be subject to being decided by majority opinion. And, as we all know, majority opinion frequently changes.
Disobeying God’s commands, according to the writer of 1 John, chapter 3, verse 4, is the definition of sin, the definition of evil.
Okay, if disobeying God’s commands defines evil, then suppose God commanded that lying, stealing and murder were now moral obligations? Would lying, stealing and murder then become good? Would the failure to lie, steal, and murder then become sin? Suppose God ordered slaughter, genocide, and bloodshed – would those actions become good and the disobedience of His order be considered evil?
It’s immaterial to this discussion as to whether God would ever, or has ever, ordered lying, stealing, murder, or genocide. The point is, if He ordered these things, would these actions become moral, and would the failure to obey the commands be immoral? If God commanded genocide, would genocide be good? Is genocide, under any circumstances, the right thing to do?
Christians insist that good is defined by what God commands, whereas my premise is that good is defined independently from any god. If there is no definition of good apart from God’s commands, then we have a real problem. How can we be sure that God, or what He commands, is good?
We have to have an idea of what defines “good” before we can point out that quality in God, or decide that God even fits the definition of good. If God is the definition of good, then we have no information on what good means. If God does not answer to any standard, and whatever he does or commands defines good, then the word good, when applied to God, is meaningless. Everything is potentially good, or potentially evil, depending on the whims of God.
To identify “God’s goodness” we need to have some standard outside of God in order to differentiate his goodness from his other attributes. Without some way to segregate his goodness from his other qualities, we might confuse his power, or possibly his omniscience, with his goodness. Example: If I am trying to purchase white paint, I need to know what white means. I need a point of reference, a way to compare between things. Without a prior understanding of the color white, there would be no way for me to identify the correct color – I might come home with blue paint. I think we’d all agree that the word paint does not in any way define the meaning of the word white.
How about this example: If every time you see me, I tell you I am fat, yet each time you see me my weight has fluctuated up or down by 100 or more pounds, then the word fat, when I use it to describe myself, has no meaning. If I weigh 150lbs, or 300lbs, and I always call myself fat, then if I’m on the phone and tell you I’m fat, the word gives you no information. If good has no definition outside of “God’s commands” then the word good has no meaning when used to describe God, because good is whatever God commands, regardless of what those commands might be.
Nearly everyone agrees that genocide, murder, theft, lying, etc. are wrong, but they are either immoral because God says so they are inherently immoral independent of God’s commands. If those things are immoral, independent of God’s commands, then moral standards do not originate from God, and God himself finds he must answer to a standard.
If someone insists that God wouldn’t command atrocities, or murder, etc., because of his nature, his justice, or his love, we still run into the same problem. We still have a god answering to a standard outside of Him, something defined as justice or love. If God defines love and justice, then again, we have more meaningless words.
Another argument is that our own moral judgment is fallen and therefore inadequate to determine right from wrong without God. But if our moral judgment is so unreliable, then how can we rely on it to determine that what God commands is good?
I am convinced that the foundational definition and understanding of good and evil – morality, if you will – is independent of the commands of any god. For the most part, people throughout history, regardless of culture or religion, have agreed that lying, stealing, murder, and so on, are generally wrong.
However, the finer details of what defines moral vs. immoral behavior does change with the times. Just a few years ago, many good Christians didn’t dance, play cards, wear shorts, or show bare skin at the beach. Now, few Christians see these things as sin. Not long ago in America, slavery was defined as moral by a huge block of Christians. It required a war to decide the issue, and now few would consider a return to slavery as morally desirable. Interestingly, the Bible has been used to support the positions of both sides of these, and many other discussions.
I don’t believe basic foundational morality is defined by majority opinion, but neither do I believe that morality is defined by the commands of a god. When I was a Christian I believed that turning the other cheek was a command of God. Yet, even then I knew that if someone threatened the physical wellbeing of my family, I’d have no compunction in defending their safety. If someone entered my home uninvited, brandishing a weapon, I’d feel no guilt in putting a bullet through the invader’s heart, and society would likely have judged me guiltless.
I believe that a better explanation of the origins of our moral sense is rooted in the primal needs of our species. We are social creatures, who band together in family, tribes, and nations. We crave security and safety. We desire survival for ourselves and for our children. The societal rules and laws we’ve developed over the centuries, the ones that have stood the test of time, find their originations in fulfilling these basic human needs.
Good must be identifiable apart from the commands of a god, or good has no meaning. Therefore, a god is not necessary for defining good and evil.
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