There is quite of a bit of psychological and philosophical discourse devoted to the foundations of morality. I don’t want to dive too far down the rabbit hole in discussing all of the schools of thought that exist. They are legion and encompass a broad range of religious orthodoxies and secular beliefs.
It might be a disservice to all parties to characterize this discussion as binary, with religion in one corner and secularism in the other, but I’m going to do it for the purposes of this essay.
In very broad terms, the issue is typically viewed as a debate between religious people who derive their morality from God and his teachings, (or Allah, or Buddha, or whichever central religious figure), and the secularists who believe they can create a moral code based on austere principles such as equality and not harming others.
Practically speaking, these opposing worldviews tend to arrive at many of the same conclusions. No murder, no theft, take care of the poor, etc.
However, I posit that these two seemingly extreme opposites are less opposing than we might initially think. Consider the following.
(The faint of heart may want to sit down.)
I think the secularists are right.
I think it’s possible to construct a cohesive morality based on extra-biblical ideas that effectively mirrors God’s morality.
Upon inspection, that statement is almost tautologous.
As I have mentioned before, the Bible does not list specific rules for every situation we might encounter. I, personally, advocate that biblical precepts are intended not as laws but as guidelines to give us insight into God’s character and learn to emulate Him accordingly. That might sound radical to some, but even the most dogmatic theologians concede that there must be some room for interpretation and contextualization of biblical principles to modern circumstances.
The Bible is certainly helpful in answering moral questions, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient, except for this one passage which sums up the basis for all morality.
Matt. 22:39: Love your neighbor as yourself.
Most everybody would agree that, regardless of religious subtext, “Love your neighbor” is a solid guiding principle that leads to a moral life. If we constructed a set of moral laws based on that idea alone, practically everyone would get behind it.
However, as much as we might not like to admit it, Jesus doesn’t have a trademark on loving your neighbor. The so-called Golden Rule is found in many faiths. Siddhartha and Confucius both said similar things.
So, maybe based on that simple rule, Christianity, secularism, and even other faiths are reconciled in that they arrive at essentially the same morality. This might lead one to inquire why do we need to insert God into this discussion at all? Arguably, we can make all the same moral decisions without Him.
Finally, we have arrived at the crux of the matter.
We could construct a morality without God, but why would we? Morality is hard. Morality is inconvenient. Oftentimes it requires behavior that benefits others and hinders ourselves. If humanity is just a collection of chemically active space dust zipping about on a rock in the cold infinite void, why should we bother doing things that are moral? We will all return to the dust of the ground anyway.
God does not dictate a morality to us. He gave us a brain (Ecc. 3:11) and the ability to think for ourselves to determine how we should act. What God gives us is a reason to care. Consider the full context of what Jesus said about loving your neighbor.
Matt. 22: 36-40 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
People are made in God’s image and are his children. Jesus said that our greatest purpose is to love God and concomitantly, also the children made in His image, i.e., our neighbors. This is the reason we are concerned with moral behavior: the way we treat other people has significance because people matter to the heavenly Father.
Now then, an obvious criticism of my position here is that plenty of atheists and humanist philosophers adopt moral codeswithout the impetus of man being made in God’s image. That is true. However, I still say that it is a meaningless gesture.
These schools of thought tend to center on the idea that society is more peaceful, productive, and progressive when people behave morally. Furthermore they say, God is not needed to construct the requisite moral codes.
That might very well be feasible, but what difference does it make if society is more productive if there is no deeper meaning behind human behavior? Maybe we can produce more food and feed the poor, but if the poor have no value, why does that matter? We could just as easily let them starve, as we do with wild animals.
Human suffering is a tragedy only because we believe humans have inherent value above other animals, and that value comes from our relationship with the Creator. Attempts to place superficial value on humanity outside of the love of God are misguided. This is an important truth to realize if we are to fully appreciate our value in God’s plan for the universe, and we must also realize how hopeless our plight is without him. Outside of God’s love, nothing matters and all is vanity.
That is why I like my faith with side of nihilism.