A broken compass
Updated: Apr 27
God-given morality or human projection?
A. Finding north
A question theists often ask in conversations or debates with atheists or agnostics, is where they get their morality from. Without (a) god, what compass does an atheist have to morally guide him?
The question is asked as many times by Christians as by Muslims or other theists, which already says something about the underlying assumptions; for if god is the moral compass alluded to, then which god? Is the morality originating from Allah better than the morality derived from the three-headed Christian god? Both religions make claims about the existence of an absolute morality. If both are right that there is such a thing as absolute morality, then this is independent of which god one worships or believes in or even the belief whether a god exists or not. In other words, your religion is completely irrelevant with regards to absolute morality.
Most Christian apologists will readily admit that non-Christians can be just as “good people” as Christians but that the latter have no foundation to justify their moral actions or judgments by. This is covertly saying that both a Christian and a non-Christian can be good, but that a Christian is better good because of a justifying framework the latter can operate in. If we compare the absolute morality of [the Christian] god to the compass to guide us, then we can compare “being [morally] good with ‘North’.
The next assumption we’d have to agree on is whether we want to head north. I can only speak for myself when I say that I genuinely try to be a good person or ‘head north’. I think it’s also a fair assumption that most people share this intention and try to find north. The question then arises: how do we get there?
One means can indeed be to use the compass of ‘god’s absolute morality’. But you don’t need it. There are other ways to find north. Aside from relying on the technology of the compass, you can use nature directly, both in the literal as in the analogical sense. You can use the stars or the sun and it is how people used to navigate for thousands of years prior to the existence of any compass, Christianity’s morality included. The reality is that the vast majority of people use the naturally present guidance systems for their moral behavior, whether you call those systems genetic disposition, self-interest within the group’s interest, societal norms or simply being good because it feels good.
In itself there is nothing wrong with relying on the compass to find north, but it comes with a very important condition: you have to trust the compass to work. If you are only looking at the compass and nothing else, then how do you know that it does? Different compasses may come with a lot of nuances and gadgets according to the denomination you like, but the basic function should be the same none the less. To get an idea of a basic compass, let’s look at what the Catholic Church has to say about morality. After all, this institution represents (or claims to represent) the vast majority of Christians. By parallel, its moral compass is the most widely used. Let’s hope therefore that it works.
B. The Catholic Compass Model 101
Below citation is from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops webpage on morality. The numbers are my addition.
It is clear that the above citation is but a basic summary of the divine ‘compass’ used by the Catholic church. Surprisingly enough however, it does not seem to point at the existence of an absolute morality derived from a divine being. It may seem like it at first glance, but when you examine the text a bit closer, you may notice the contradiction within it.
For an act to be good (1.), it must be objectively good (2.a). Some acts are always wrong because they go against a basic human good.
Conversely, some acts are always good because they support or improve a basic human good (2.b.)
In other words, objective moral good or objective moral evil is defined by its impact on or relation to the basic human good or evil. But what defines a basic human good? Isn’t that dependent on what humans experience, interpret or consider ‘good’, whether as a society or as an individual? You can undoubtedly give hundreds of examples but most of them will eventually lead to the subjectivity of morality. Even the staunchest supporters of the idea of an independently existing absolute morality will have a hard time finding examples of acts that are always wrong.
This leads to point 3. where the highest Catholic authority of the USA gives a few examples of acts that are always wrong (morally evil):
Example 1: The direct killing of the innocent is always wrong.
How many examples can you find in the bible where god himself directly kills people that are in no way guilty of any evil act? Off the top of my head, I can give you this one: god kills every firstborn child in Egypt, regardless of age, social standing or whether they were in any way responsible or not for the Israelites being kept in slavery. God committed an evil act.
Example 2: Torture is always wrong.
God tortures Job by killing his animals, his sons, his daughters and striking him with sores, all because… well, because why not? God committed an evil act.
If there is indeed such a thing as absolute morality, it could only exist independent of this god and not flow from the nature of god, as this being is not always absolutely good; not when held against the always morally evil acts of the direct killing or torture of innocents. Do we humans really need to build our moral framework on the morality of a murderer and torturer?
Even if god would have given us a perfectly working compass, we should not forget that it is dependent on nature's magnetism to point north and more importantly, that it will indicate magnetic north rather than true north. Not only does magnetic north deviate from true north, it also shifts over time, just like the alleged absolute morality displayed in the so-called word of god the bible.
None of the Abrahamic religions have been able to sufficiently deal with the problem of evil. They none the less keep asserting that morality can only be grounded in god’s existence. Providing this god exists, the moral compass he leaves us with only seems to be working some of the time. But especially when it should work at its best, when societies or people are faced with moral dilemmas, it seems to take a vacation from its duties. I have no use for a compass that I cannot trust.
Charles Dalet PHD, 28 March 2022
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, "Morality", Beliefs and teachings, https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/morality
Is the US prison population any indication of morally good or morally evil people? IF it is, atheists seem to be the better ones.
User:Bios~commonswiki, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, file:Kompas Sofia.JPG, created: 26 September 2005 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Bios~commonswiki