The journey from atheism to theism is different for each person who makes it. My journey began with science, then made a turn onto the path of ethics and morality. Webster’s Dictionary defines ethics as “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.” Webster’s defines morality as “a moral discourse, statement, or lesson, a doctrine or system of moral conduct.” Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary defines morality as “beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior, the degree to which something is right and good, the moral goodness or badness of something.”
As an atheist I would have argued that I was an ethical person. For example, I believed strongly in journalistic ethics and in ethical behavior as it impacted news coverage and the First Amendment. But what was the source of my ethics and ethical behavior? Did that source of ethics affect my personal life? No. I bent personal ethics to suit my selfish interests. What was the source of that behavior? same source? different source? no source?
Was it ethical to lie, cheat, steal, murder? Maybe, I thought, depending on the “situation.” Situation ethics became a mantra for me as an atheist. It fit my belief system well and allowed me to do whatever I wanted to do, without a sense of guilt. I didn’t believe in an absolute moral law or a moral law “giver,” so there was no penalty unless someone imposed their morality on me through some system of penalties that were too big for me to overcome (e.g. traffic laws, state and federal laws).
Having been an atheist and knowing many atheists through the years, I recognize that all atheists are not alike – even as all theists are not alike. I’ve known atheists who were more ethical in their thinking and behavior than I was and some who were less ethical. The issue is not quantity, but quality. What is the quality or source of one’s morality? Is it objective or subjective? situational? relational? revelational? Is there a “right” and “wrong” in every situation in life? any situation? If so, is it an absolute? a law that must be followed? If so, who says? or can it be different from one person to another, one couple to another, one family to another, one tribe to another, one nation to another? Can we differ in our definition of what is moral and immoral? right and wrong? Is what is right for you necessarily right for me? Should I have to bow to your ethical will? or am I free to determine my own moral course and follow that path to its eventual end?
I was not comfortable discussing morality with Christians. I didn’t like their brand of ethics. I liked mine much better. Christian ethics with their absolutism of “God’s Law” did not fit my lifestyle nor way of thinking. My “wanter” wanted to do whatever I wanted to do. I didn’t want to check my desires at anybody’s door. I was an atheist, a free thinker, a free man – or so I thought.
I was a moral relativist – all truth was relative. Ethical subjectivism best described my beliefs and lifestyle. There were no objective moral truths or values. Morality changed based on my interests, needs and circumstances. I didn’t want anyone questioning me about my morals. Nobody had the right to judge me. I could think what I wanted to think, believe what I wanted to believe, and do what I wanted to do.
However, a couple of Christians I got to know challenged my thinking about moral relativism by saying it was “self-defeating” (self-refuting). I said that all truth was relative, but they asked me if that was true. I said it was, but they then asked me how I could make a true statement if all truth was relative. How could I know truth is everyone had their own truth? What if my truth was not THE truth? What if I was wrong? What if my belief system was really false? They pointed out that my belief system about truth and morality was flawed by its inconsistency.
My new Christian friends had the ability to challenge my thinking without challenging me as a person. Instead of making me defensive, their friendly challenges got me thinking. How could I make the absolute claim that all truth is relative if I didn’t believe in absolutes? Good question. If there is no truth, how can I know if what I believe is true? What is truth?
People often don’t think much about what they think. I was like that. I thought right and wrong were what I said they were, but how could that be true if millions of other people thought the opposite was true? Who gets to choose what’s right or wrong? Is anybody right or does “might” make right? Is it the strongest person, group of people or military power who wins the right to decide what’s right until a stronger opponent rips that right away from them? How does that make anything right? If there is no right, then what right do we have to demand any rights?
Civilized people are thought to be civilized because they advance in areas of social development. That includes believing in the rights of a people to have rights. But if there is no absolute right or wrong, how can we know if we’re civilized? Is civilization even possible if nothing is right or wrong? good or evil? moral or immoral? Situational ethics quickly becomes a slippery slope.
Children don’t need to be taught that they have rights. That seems to be inborn. Wanting what we want when we want it is a natural response to our environment. What seems to be unnatural (i.e. against our nature) is bowing to the rights of others (e.g. sharing). If you have children or are around children, you understand how that works. Children want what they have and they want what you or another child has. They will scream and cry if someone takes away what they believe is theirs, but have no problem taking what another child believes is theirs. If you tell them to stop, they go. If you tell them to go, they stop. If you tell them to come, they leave. If you tell them not to touch something, they touch it. We are born with a selfish nature. If there are no absolutes, no moral law, how does a family work? If everyone is selfish and does what is right in their own eyes, how can any group of people be civilized?
Parents are the first moral law children face in their lives. Parents teach their boys and girls the rules of the household. If a child breaks house rules, they learn something about penalties for breaking the law. My generation remembers spankings and loss of privileges. Though spankings have gone out of style for many modern parents, moms and dads are still finding ways to impose their will on their little ones. Most parents believe it’s important for their children to learn how to follow a system of social rules. What rules can vary from family to family, but most still see the need for some rules – especially when multiple children are in a family. Rules can protect life and limb of younger siblings.
Understanding how a family works, or should work, gives us some insight into how a society works. We don’t want our children purposely hurting other members of the family. We don’t want our neighbors purposely hurting us. We don’t want our children stealing from each other. We don’t want our neighbors stealing from us. Our desire for personal safety becomes a desire for family safety when we marry and have children. Our desire for family safety becomes a desire for societal safety as we understand that families are members of a larger community. If I want to be safe and secure in my life and the life of my family, I need to support laws of behavior that bring safety and security to the community. Over time that desire translates into laws for regions, states and nations.
I viewed morality as someone’s opinion. You have an opinion and so do I. I have as much right to my opinion as you do to your opinion. If our opinions disagree, well, that’s your opinion.
My new friends shared a different view of morality. They believed that morals are not personal opinions, but behavior responding to objective truth. We talked about that for hours, day after day, week after week. I did not move from subjective morality to objective morality quickly or easily, but I did move.
I began to see that my core belief was based on objective morality and that I could not hold to relativism as a viable way of living. Relativism, whether played out culturally or conventionally, or as I did subjectively, could not work in the real world. If everyone did whatever they wanted to do based on their definition of right or wrong, it would lead to chaos. In fact, relativism had already accomplished that throughout the history of the world.
The big question, then, became “who” would decide objective morality? Who? If God did not exist, then who would decide the difference between right and wrong? We’ll look into that question in the next part of this story about how and why an atheist became a theist.