A commonly held belief among theists I’ve met is that morality comes from God, through the bible. Christians like to call this “absolute morality”- Something conceived and dictated directly by God. Essentially, we believe things are wrong or immoral because God tells us they are. That these things which are morally “right”, or morally “wrong”, always have been, and always will be. That God has given us these rules to abide by, and they won’t change, because God himself doesn’t change.
I always find it a bit puzzling that this is such a common belief by theists. If you give it more than a moment’s consideration, you can see how impossible, and downright ridiculous, this idea is.
Consider, for just a moment, the bible. God’s inerrant, holy word. Of course, anyone who has actually read the bible knows it is chock full of acts we would consider incredibly immoral by today’s standards. The Old Testament has countless passages describing how to properly treat your slaves, or rules for how to sell your daughter into slavery. Of course, slavery has been fairly common through human history, and was only relatively recently abolished as being immoral and a gross violation of human rights. I think the vast majority of today’s population would agree that slavery is wrong, immoral, and should not be practiced. When I bring this point up with theists- that their inerrant holy book is full of rules about slavery, the answer I typically get is that “times were different” back then- that slavery was more of a social contract, and the people needed rules for how to conduct these activities appropriately. Now, I’m not even going to attempt to describe how much of an issue I have with anyone who tries to justify slavery as a “social contract”. But, as I’m sure you’re aware, theists will go to great, and ridiculous, lengths to make their “holy” book seem less evil than it is.
Now, from my perspective, what we have here is a classic and perfect example of how morality is in no way absolute. We are well aware that slavery was at one time considered a perfectly reasonable way to treat other human beings; that the spoils of war included not only land and riches but people, as well- women and children to be taken and used as the victors’ wish. This is all outlined quite clearly in the bible as being completely acceptable in that time. Today, we know that slavery is abhorrent. We’re embarrassed that our ancestors ever practiced it. This is because our morality has evolved. Society has changed, our opinions and ideas have changed, to the point that we know that treating fellow human beings in such a deplorable manner is completely unacceptable. Our morality now says that slavery is unacceptable, when, at one point, it WAS acceptable.
Theists will sometimes take this, and explain that slavery was ALWAYS immoral- but simply that it was a way of LIFE in biblical times, so, apparently, God decided to cut his losses and just give the people rules with which to deal with it. Now… as far as I know, I am not God. But if I were, I think I could come up with a better plan than that. Such as, perhaps- telling people NOT to enslave each other? Maybe even sparing a passage in my holy book, somewhere between all the stories of rape and murder, to say “Hey, assholes- don’t treat each other like property!” But, apparently, God figured it was easier to just let people be people, and wait a few thousand years until they figured it out on their own. Of course, slavery is just one of many atrocities peppered through the bible. Murder, rape, forced marriages, public stonings for working on the sabbath or talking back to your parents…. That anyone could actually read these things, commanded or allowed by God, and think that morality is absolute, mystifies me. I’ve come to the conclusion that most theists who argue this point must not have actually read their own book. Let’s not even mention the fact that this essentially means that these people could foresee themselves raping, pillaging, and murdering, if it hadn’t been for God saying not to!
So, if we do not believe that morality is derived from God, through the bible, then where does it come from? Theists ask this in such an accusatory way, as if I, or anyone else, had never considered it before. I think the answer is really quite simple. Morality, in my mind, can be easily derived from a combination of empathy, compassion, and experience. Empathy allows us to understand and even feel when another person is suffering or in distress; for most people, this is an unpleasant experience that often leads to compassion, or a desire to help alleviate some of that suffering. This is why we send money to starving children in Africa, or feel the desire to comfort someone who is crying, even if they’re a complete stranger. This is something ingrained, that has evolved with us, maybe in an effort to protect the weak and encourage co-operation among us. Our life experiences, in dealing with people through our compassion and empathy, serve as a means to guide and shape our own personal version of what is moral. These things work together and allow us to decide as a society, together, what we think is right and wrong. This is why laws change. Why slavery was once legal, and now is not.
The conclusion I’ve arrived at when considering this idea of morality and the likelihood that it is from God, is that it couldn’t possibly be. There was a time in humanity when our morality and our ideals lined up directly with the God of the Old Testament. At that time it would have made sense for people to believe morality came from God. But it seems quite clear to me that, if such a God existed, our morality is certainly not derived from him- because at this point, our morality has evolved past that God. We have become too good for God.