If you asked me when I was an atheist what I thought about serial killers, I would have said they were terrible people. If you asked me what I thought about child abusers, same answer – terrible people. If you asked me what I thought about my doing whatever I wanted to do even if other people thought it was wrong, different answer. What I did was my business. However, that came with a built-in problem.
One of the Christians I was talking with at the time called my thinking “every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes.” That sounded good to me on the surface, but he asked me what I thought about a man doing whatever was right in his own eyes if doing that meant hurting me or someone I loved? I didn’t like that, but how could I argue against it if the other person had the same attitude I did about right and wrong? What happens when what’s right for me bumps into what’s right for you?
As an atheist I was beginning to see a problem with “my way” morality. I wanted what I wanted, but so did most everyone else. What if other people wanted something I didn’t want and what they wanted affected me negatively? I didn’t care that what I wanted affected them negatively, but I did care about what they did to me and mine. That’s a problem if morality is “relative.” What I believe is right for me may be wrong for someone else and what they believe is right for them may be wrong for me. So, who wins that argument?
Back to serial killers and child abusers … if someone asked me as an atheist why I thought they were terrible people, how would I answer and what would be the basis of my answer? If morality is subjective and relative, who’s to say that killing lots of people is a bad thing to do or that abusing children is wrong? Good question. But what’s the answer?
I knew some things were wrong and some things were right without even thinking about it. It was right to help someone in need. It was wrong to take advantage of someone in need. Where did that come from? As a journalist I knew that someone convicted of murder should receive an appropriate sentence, but why did I think that? Was it just because I had grown up in a culture that believed murder was wrong and that murderers should be punished? If I had been raised in another culture that believed murder was right and that murderers should be rewarded, would I have thought differently?
Some people would say, yes, morality is cultural. But how does that work if someone murders me? Should they be rewarded for doing that? Is that right? What happens when cultures clash? One culture believes murder is wrong and the other culture believes murder is right. Which culture is right and which is wrong? Or can there be a “right” and “wrong” in a culturally “relative” world? Relativism believes that cultures/societies decide what’s right and wrong within their culture. There is no such thing as a “universal” truth. Everything is relative. So, how does that work for everyone?
What about sub-cultures? I covered gangs as a reporter and some gang cultures believe that murder is honorable. Some even include murder as part of initiation rights to become a member of the gang. Since their culture believes murder is right, are they wrong to kill someone from another gang sub-culture that believes it’s wrong for anyone to kill them? Which sub-culture is right? What happens when gang sub-cultures collide within a larger, general culture that believes gang sub-cultures are wrong? Is the general culture wrong to force their morality on the sub-culture?
I began to see a crack in relativism because of its perspective of ethical subjectivism; where morality was nothing more than personal opinion. Cultural relativism leads to sub-cultural relativism and finally individual relativism. Where does that end? Nihilism?
Another problem was with moral neutrality; the belief that no one should force anyone to believe any particular thing. Everyone has the right to do what’s right in their own eyes. I still didn’t believe in God, but I could see that the relativism I held so dear was a two-edged sword and could easily turn on me.
The Christians I was talking with presented morality as objective. They believed morality was universal and came from an authority greater than human opinions and personal and cultural desires. They believed true morality came from a moral authority greater than any human mechanism. They believed that authority could only be God; a Being with perfect knowledge and wisdom about the human condition who could determine the best way for people to live successfully. They also believed that the best way God could impact the human race for morality was with commandments rather than suggestions, because humanity would choose poorly unless directed by God’s wisdom because of their tendency toward doing what they wanted (selfishness) rather than what was right.
They went on to explain that when God created humans He placed in their hearts and minds a knowledge of His law so that even their conscience was a witness to what was right and wrong. They said that even people who had never heard about God had this moral sense within them; thus making morality universal. They also said that because of humanity’s tendency toward sinning, God’s ultimate answer to our problem was to send His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins and to be raised for our “justification” (being placed in a right relationship with a merciful and forgiving God).
All of that had the sound of “religion” to me, so I needed to back away and think about it for awhile. I could see their point about moral relativism being “self-defeating.” Moral relativists, like myself, said there was no absolute or objective moral truth. However, that statement was a “truth” statement which was not necessarily true if there was no absolute truth. So, what was true? Objective morality or subjective morality? How could we ever know truth if truth is relative? I began to see problems with that method of thinking. I was a journalist and believed in “finding the truth” in every story, but if there was no absolute truth how could I report “the truth?”
Where do you go with that kind of thinking? The more I thought about it, the worse it got. What do you do when that happens? Stop thinking about it? But the problem for me was that for some reason I believed truth existed. Somewhere deep inside me I believed there were things that were true and things that were false – things that were right and things that were wrong. That collided with my desire to live my life any way I wanted to live it.
What if the way I was living my life was wrong? What if there was a right way to live and I wasn’t living that way? What if these Christians were right and what I was feeling inside was a universal sense of morality put there by a Being who was older, bigger and wiser than humans? What if that Being expected me to live my life according to a particular moral command?
If I really believed in moral relativism, that there is no objective morality, why did I hide some of my actions from people in my life? Why should it matter what someone thought if there were no absolutes? Where did my feelings of guilt come from? Atheists weren’t supposed to feel guilty about anything, so why was I having those feelings? Was it because of what these Christians were saying or because what they were saying was stirring up something real inside of me?
I had lots of questions and concerns about these issues of morality, a moral law and a moral lawgiver. These were questions and concerns I had not experienced before as an atheist. I was definitely uncomfortable talking about morality because I was seeing major flaws in relativism. Self-defeating, circular thinking, a system that didn’t work in a real world of real people with real differences of opinion and beliefs. I had a lot more thinking to do about the question of morality.
What came next was a big surprise because I had no idea that scientific investigation had already proven many things revealed in the Bible. Insights from archaeology coming up next time as we look into what convinced an atheist to become a Christian.