A Family Portrait...
“The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.” (Psalm 19:7, King James Version)
In the argument from belief, the subject of morality inevitably arises. It is usually framed as a question about the validity of any morality that is subjectively formed (as human morality is theorized to have evolved — through natural means — as part of a suite of human social behaviors). From the religious believer’s point of view, such an “earth-based” morality has no valid claim on any individual because that morality is relative and subject to change over time. In contrast, a universal morality that is believed to exist beyond human consciousness and held to be eternal and unchanging can, in contrast, claim a certain ultimate authority over human behavior. Of course, the creator of this law is God himself and, as the bumper sticker says “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
The problems with this second view are numerous. For one it fails to answer the question it claims to: is the law the law because God created it, or does God endorse the law because it is (and has always been) the law? (This is similar to the problem with claiming that God is the answer to the question of eternity, which inevitably leads to the old “What existed before God?” or “Where, then, did God come from?” questions. God, it turns out, gets us no closer to penetrating the depths of time than anything else).
But the major problem with the idea of an unchanging morality is that it cannot be shown to exist in reality. There do appear to be some fairly universal features to human morality, and from this apologists for the divine draw confirmation of the Creator’s hand in human existence. On the other hand, however, is the ever-growing body of evidence that morality is not exclusively the domain of us humans, but exists on a graduated scale across a wide spectrum of biological life. And within that spectrum, not all that we would call “morality” requires any great level of animal consciousness for it to be useful in organism-to-organism interactions (cooperation, sacrifice, defense of blood kin, etc.). But among social primates (as well as the higher mammals) the roots of our human morality are clearly on display. This can mean that either God has given some sort of moral sense to soul-less animals, or that our morality is as naturally-derived as that of our ape cousins. The evidence speaks pretty clearly, I think, in support of the latter.
But the larger problem with claiming that one is an adherent to an eternal, ultimate morality is that there is no way around the reality that all morality is understood and applied in a relativistic manner: Exceptions are always made even for the harshest of laws. Therefore morality is never applied (nor employed) evenly.
The believer would argue that this is simply due to the weakness of humans as compared to the purity of God. Be that as it may, the upshot of this is that even the law of God, it turns out, is — in practice — relative.
Of course this makes complete sense if you take the more realistic (or materialistic) view that morality is a part of our suite of evolved human behaviors. Morality is, and always has been, part and parcel of the way in which profoundly social animals define both themselves and others within a group (be it a family, a town or a nation). Morality (and it’s relative, ethics) consists of certain innate (and learned) rules that are necessarily flexible. Tests have clearly shown that we apply rules more strictly to a stranger or someone outside of our own political or social group, and give those we know the benefit of the doubt. Our system of jury trials recognizes this, and therefore trusts a smaller (enforced) social unit (the jury) to speak for the larger community.
Why not simply pick one person to judge all of the cases all of the time? The answer to that question, I think, points to the recognition (by the wiser among us) of the flexibility of morality as practiced in our daily lives, as well as the danger of having a justice system that sees everything in an unreal “black and white” way. Of course, many people believe in their hearts that this is precisely how a righteous God wants us to see transgressions! And yet even within such rigid belief systems, there is (in the Christian tradition) Jesus, the Son of God who intercedes on behalf of us sinners, as well as the Holy Spirit that can enter into our sinful soul and guide us to a life more pleasing to God. (And we haven’t even touched upon the Angels that protect us and the saints that incline their ears toward our prayers).
The good news in all of this religious mythology is that the essence of humanity is still expressed, even as religion claims to be unsullied by such earthly influences.
One of my favorite examples is from the last presidential election. When Sarah Palin, a conservative with genuine evangelical street cred, revealed that her daughter Bristol was pregnant (and not married) Sarah was not taken to task by her religious brethren. Why not? This was sexual sin, pure and simple. But wait: the boy was going to marry the young pregnant girl (do the right thing), and mom Palin stood by her wayward daughter (which was instantly held to be an example of her own expression of God’s mercy). Because Sarah Palin was unquestionably part of the family of God, God’s family stood by her and her daughter and, hence, no impartial, unequivocal justice was demanded.
“Black and white” morality was, in this case, flexible.
Yet I somehow doubt that such understanding would have been granted to the opposing side had one of the Obama girls turned up pregnant.
Why not? Because morality is relative.
On one level, this event speaks to our enduring tribal nature (of which religion is a rather more expansive expression). But on another level, it reveals that even among the believers in Absolute Truth and God’s Avenging Justice, a basic humanity persists: exceptions were made for another member of the tribe, a member of the family. Mercy trumped Law.
I suppose one could argue that the process I’ve alluded to is not proof of the relativity of morality, but an affirmation of the strength of it. But let us look at one more thing.
We have a sliding (read: relative) social standard for what we call “generosity”. We expect those with more to be more generous. This is part of our unwritten social contract. But since generosity is not always universal, we have formed governments with tax structures and bureaucracies that enforce a sort of State generosity on both the willing and the unwilling alike. As Americans this social welfare system causes us to struggle with our Puritan impulse to be generous only with those that are worthy of our labors. Yet Jesus’ definition of generosity was not similarly proscribed. According to his aspirational vision, if you have a coat and see someone who doesn’t, you are supposed to give away your coat. No questions asked. That’s the deal. (Of course that now puts the other person in the position you were just in, so I suppose she should give the coat back, and you can keep trading it back and forth until Christ comes back).
For if we really took a view of generosity anything like Jesus, none of us would be driving cars and living in big houses. We’d be giving it all away so some naked, sick and sunburned soul in sub-Saharan Africa could have a sheet of tin over his head and a scrap of meat for dinner. But we don’t do that.
The reality of it is that we see to our own needs first, and define both those needs (and the need for expressions of generosity) within our immediate social situation. So a Hollywood star can spend an hour making a public service commercial and call it “giving back” for the millions they spend on their own lifestyle each year. But this is just an extreme example. We each navigate these tricky waters every day of our lives. Perhaps that is why part of the appeal of religious belief is the baldly impossible moral standard it sets for us money-earning apes.
And that is why it makes so much more sense to see ourselves as the selfish-yet-social evolved primates that we are. It is about the only way that our behavior (both good and bad) makes sense. I have long held that it is never God (nor the fear of God) that truly makes man moral, it is the practical need to get along with our tribe, our community, that exerts the most powerful influence on personal behavior. Compared to that pressure, the law — the morality — of God ranks as a far-distant second.