Pastor's Blog

Let’s say that years ago you planted an apple tree in your back yard that now produces apples.  You pick an apple from your tree and head back to the house with your healthy snack. 

Your apple.  Your tree.  Your yard. 

What makes you think these things are yours?

The concept of private property is not a natural law built into a godless universe.  Somewhere in history a group of friends shared a common opinion that “private property” makes life better.  They agreed on the conditions that constitute ownership – e.g. paying for a thing, investing labor in it – and since you fulfilled those conditions with respect to the apple tree, both the tree and the apples picked from it are yours – at least in the opinion of your circle of friends.

But what if I don’t agree with you and your friends? 

What if, like the ancient native Americans, I don’t believe anyone “owns” land, that the earth belongs to everyone and must be shared?  And what if, like those on the political left, I believe the concept of private property is selfish and greedy and that everything should be equally shared among everyone? 

For me, the yard, the tree, and the apple are not yours.  So as you walk by I take the apple out of your hand and walk off, happily munching on the crisp, delicious fruit.

What just happened?

You say that I have done wrong and stolen your apple.

I say that you had no more right to the apple than I did and that you have done wrong by not sharing with me.  I simply helped you do the right thing you should have done in the first place.

Our opinions are diametrically opposed.  But it is not possible to determine which is right and which is wrong.  They are simply differing but equal opinions.  This is one small example of the irrational dilemma of living in a godless world.  It applies to nearly every moral issue we can raise for discussion.

In The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky asks “If there is no God, is everything permitted?”  If nothing can be judged wrong and therefore impermissible, then everything must be permitted.  But even the most committed atheist, after insisting God doesn’t exist, will go on to insist that a world in which everything is permitted simply cannot be permitted!  It would make life painfully intolerable.

If there is no God, living as though there is no God should make perfectly good sense.  But it doesn’t.  All of us find it not only terribly uncomfortable, but wrong.  We may say there is no God – but we find it extremely difficult if not impossible to live as though there is no God.

When I was considering abandoning the Christian faith to embrace secular atheism I found I could not escape wrestling with this dilemma.

In a world without a God there is only subjective morality.  You exist with your opinions on right and wrong and I exist with my opinions on right and wrong.  You and I are equal and therefore our opinions are equal.  Your opinions hold for you and my opinions hold for me.  Both of us are right;  neither of us is wrong.  This is subjective morality.

If you want to judge between us and determine which of us is right and which of us is wrong there must be a judge of some sort that is able to sit over us and judge based on a universal standard of some sort which of us is right and which of us is wrong.  That judge and that standard would be objective morality.

In a world of equals there is no one worthy to sit on that judgment seat and so there is no objective morality.

In a world without God all morality must be relative.  There is no universal evil and no universal good.  There are just individual perceptions of good and evil.  What I like and enjoy is good and what I dislike and find unpleasant, uncomfortable, harmful is evil – to me.  Another person with diametrically opposed likes and dislikes says my good is his evil.

If this is how reality really is, why be incensed, indignant, or outraged about anything?  Should we be outraged because another human being – equal to ourselves – holds an opinion different from our own on a moral matter?  We are two equals – and therefore our opinions, even if diametrically opposed, are of equal weight.  We are both right;  neither of us is wrong. 

Why be outraged because I believe bombs ought not be strapped to children and the radical Islamic jihadi believes it is right to do so?

Why be outraged because my culture accepts eighteen as the age of consent and an oriental culture accepts twelve as the age of consent?

Why be outraged because your culture allows infanticide when mine allows abortion?

Why be outraged because I like dogs as pets and you believe in dog-fighting as a form of entertainment?

Why be outraged because your culture allows women to be completely dominated by men while my society grants women complete freedom?

In a world without God there are no absolute universal laws violated in any of these examples.  There are just different but equal opinions about how life ought to be lived.  And yet secularists in the West are outraged about matters like these.  Why??? 

When I was considering abandoning Christianity to embrace secular atheism this seemed to me behavior that was terribly inconsistent with the nature of reality.  A godless reality leads to subjective and relative morality.  Yet committed secularists couldn’t bring themselves to live that way. 

If that sort of inconsistency doesn’t bother you, you won’t see my point.  All I can say is that it did bother me – and it made me rethink abandoning the Christian faith. 

Some cultures find it virtuous to protect children while others, without any conscience, strap bombs to children and send them into public places to carry out mass murder.  These perspectives are diametrically opposed to each other, but in a world in which there is no referee over them and no standard by which to judge between them, there is no way to determine which perspective is truly right and which is truly wrong.  They are merely equal and opposing opinions.

This is how values must work in a godless world.  In a godless world the first phrase that must disappear from every vocabulary is “You should [not]”.  Each person may determine his own morality;  “I should [not] strap bombs to children” is a perfectly reasonable statement.  But I can never say with any substance to one of the opposite persuasion:  “YOU ought not strap bombs to children.”  In a godless world there is no substantial basis for one person to prescribe an “ought [not]” for another.

When I was considering abandoning Christianity to embrace secular atheism nothing seemed plainer to me than these points about the nature of a godless reality.  In a godless world there can be no substantial right and wrong.  There is no standard above everyone, judging between all equal but differing opinions.  Opinions differ, but everyone is right and no one is wrong.  To say you can objectively judge between differing but equal opinions is to assert that you are God.

These ideas about the nature of a godless world certainly seem self-evident.  Yet I found that secular people struggled with these very ideas.  Secularists deny with the right hand that right and wrong exist only to assert with the left hand that they do indeed exist. 

For example, it is inconsistent for people who believe that there is no God to assert that jihadis are wrong to strap bombs to children.  So they explain why jihadis feel it is right to strap bombs to children, i.e. it is the fault of the imperial West, oppressing these people to the point of such frustration that they are willing to go to extreme measures to throw off their oppressors, including sacrificing their own children.  In other words, the West has done wrong things and that is why the radical jihadis have good reasons to do wrong things

But this is sleight of hand.  It is cheating because it is affirming that the moral value of the West (protection of children) is right and the value of the jihadis (strapping bombs to children) is wrong.  This is inconsistent with reality as it must be in a godless world.  You can say that you disagree with the jihadi perspective.  But on what basis can you say that they are wrong?  Your personal opinion is insufficient to establish that case.

You cannot eat your cake and have it too.  You cannot affirm that there is no such thing as right and wrong and then turn around and insist that someone is doing wrong because she didn’t follow your moral code.  And yet that is what secular people in the West do on a regular basis.

This inability – refusal? -- to accept the nature of a godless reality as it must be gave me pause about abandoning Christianity.  Why would atheists deny the existence of God and then turn around and act as though some sort of “God” existed by affirming one moral code over another?

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