Moral Authority without God

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Arrowhead Acres, Brush Prairie WA. I’m just going to use pictures of archery in this article, because they are totally awesome.

Sin is derived from a Hebrew archery term — missing the mark. To be immoral is to sin. What about being a-moral? Honestly, I chose to open with this loosely-related metaphor solely so I can use archery themed photographs. Thanks for understanding.

Growing up, I heard it constantly — You cannot be good without God. As I don’t believe in god quite like that anymore, how can I can make assertions about this?

The argument is that, beyond even Judeo-Christian morality being the right morality, without an external God-force prescribing a moral system, how can you even define what good is?

Without an overarching force to which a human submits to defining the good, there can not be goodness. Right and wrong become something which I wouldn’t quite define as relative — I would simply call it different. We feel it is wrong to eat dog in America, but Vietnam disagrees. We believe eating beef is fine, and certainly not wrong, (apologies to the vegan community — but I’m sure you hear my point), while many in India disagree, and consider it wrong.

Without God, that just leads human to define morality, right? One human may make a moral statement murder is wrong, but if another makes the moral statement murder is not wrong, who can say if one is good and one is not? We need a higher authority! Simply embracing what we intuit as murder being wrong! isn’t enough. What about cultures that embrace cannibalism? Is it not murder if we eat them? Is it not murder if it’s war? What if someone comes at my kid with an ax, and I kill them (with my bare fists of fury, of course)? I’m going off the rails here, because the definition of murder apparently becomes complicated, even within the moral framework that holds murder to be wrong. The point I’m getting at is that without some authority defining things, people can pretty much say whatever they want.

I don’t think the question really should be if you can be good without God. Let’s reframe

“Can you be good without God?”

to

“Where does your authority to define good come from?”

Religion (pretty much all the religions I’ve found, at least), seem to be human constructs to accomplish a goal. Usually, a goal is to get people to be good. A monumental task, for sure. Getting people to not kill each other, steal from each other, rape each other, steal possessions, etc. This also allows for progress — whether technological development, learning how to farm better through sharing knowledge — when we work together for a higher goal, we are submitting to something external to our individuality, which can be seen as the authority within which we build a moral framework.

We’re at point where we understand more about ourselves as human animals than we ever have before. This allows us to begin setting our own goals and building our own moral frameworks — apart from a moral framework descended from God, though I’d certainly be happy to be influenced by many of the teachings of many religious figures.

What are our goals? Generally speaking, humans have the same basic individual goal — To live in a state of relative comfort and safety for us and our loved ones. Other goals exist in larger groups — to get to the moon. To create and produce an opera. To build the world’s largest skyscraper, or the make the world’s largest pizza.

We can build a framework to help accomplish these goals. Not murdering each other is a great start, and a very solid foundation for accomplishing most goals. We don’t need god to tell us that building the worlds largest pizza 101 is to not murder each other in the course of pizzamaking. Let’s move to adopting good moral frameworks based on what we know of ourselves and humanity, and build structures that help accomplish particular goals, while fitting into our larger goals as well. We can understand structures like government to be a large structure we all agree to work within, while church, corporations, and family are small structures that dictate our moral and ethical norms within the broader society.

There are deep insights and truths from the moral frameworks built into religions — their purpose is to hold society together in a way we all want. Let’s learn what we can from religion, but wisely consider what is and is not healthy for a modern society to build in to their moral framework. I understand that many people want to throw away religious structures after recognizing they are man made, but it seems wiser to build on the foundation and massage it as necessary, sprinkling in liberally but wisely our modern knowledge than to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Interestingly, it does truly allow for a lot of relativity between moral frameworks. If one person builds a structure with the goal of not making a profit, but of bettering some aspect of society, we can formalize this as a structure and call it a 501(c)(3). If we want to make money, we can formalize that moral structure and call it a corporation. Each corporation can have its own bylaws, culture, and social norms. This is just a segment of a larger moral framework. If those frameworks have been corrupted within the current system is a topic for another day…

Religion, politics, family culture — these are all just different moral/ethic al frameworks, which come in a variety of flavors, sizes, and shapes. Some things may be different, but the base goals tend to be the same, which allows us to agree on the basic ways we want to live life. We can bicker and fight about what’s better or worse, or what goals are worth achieving. It seems clear either way— We constantly create moral systems which we call good without god. And as for the definition of good — that changes depending on the goal.

synthesizing buckminster fuller and alan watts

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