Monday, August 26, 2013

"Without Hell there is No Justice; No Morality without God"

When I first encountered the sprawling debate between skeptics and Christians on the internet, I found the oft-repeated comment that without God there is no reason to do good and without hell there would be no reason to do evil. Some people went so far as to say that if God were somehow proven to be nonexistent, the only reasonable course of action for them would be an amoral rampage wherein they indulged whatever appetites they had been starving for the sake of their faith. If one were so inclined, one could find thousands of posts on the internet stating that life would be meaningless without God - and thousands of skeptical responses mocking this notion and asking if those people really consider their romances, children, careers, and masturbatory habits to be completely meaningless.

I am, of course, speaking as an observer at the moment. But I have also been on both sides of this concept. There was a time where I too could not conceive of justice and morality without heaven and hell, immortality, and a supreme ethical judge who wrote moral truths into the universe. And, as should be obvious by now, that is not my present position. However, based on both observation and experience, I have come to the conclusion that the people who say that their morals are rooted in immortality and God are indeed speaking the truth, and that they are being perfectly logical when they say that without God their is no right and wrong. This is one of the best illustrations of concept definition.

Take two people from completely different cultures. If they agree that something is 'wrong,' what do they mean? It may take the form of a command, 'drinking from the green fountain is wrong' may just mean, 'do not drink from the green fountain.' It may also be the recognition of a conclusion from a certain method of thought, 'drinking from the green fountain is wrong,' may mean, 'according to the sign posted next to the green fountain, and assuming that what the sign says is correct, we may not drink of it.' In these cases, the word 'wrong' should have a fairly simple meaning requiring minimal shared context - the concept of 'do not' or the concept 'believe what signs tell you' for example.

However, take two people from the same culture, a culture that has grown and evolved over millenniums to reach whatever height or depth it happens to be at at the present moment. Suppose that these two people say that something is wrong. What they mean by the word 'wrong' may be something completely different to what someone from another cultural context means by the word - although it may seem superficially similar to an outside observer. Two Christians living in a Christian community may have grown up to see the word 'wrong' as meaning, 'forbidden by God.' 'Drinking from the green fountain is wrong,' would then mean, 'drinking from the green fountain draws one away from God,' or perhaps, 'drinking from the green fountain is contrary to the absolute law of God.' In this case, if one negates the concept 'God,' then one necessarily negates all moral statements for such people as well, because their definition of morality relies on the concept of God. Negating God leaves them with mountains of useless sentences - sentences that become empty words because of their reliance on a presupposition.

Perhaps someone asks what the substance of this belief is. What is the actual difference between different beliefs on the nature of 'wrong?' The substance lies in this: what things are forbidden, and the degree to which they arouse disgust or use of force or anger. No doubt it is baffling to many the way that some Christians seem so enraged by, say, homosexuality relative to more commonly held moral offenses like theft. One must look at the concept of 'wrong' that is being used to understand how homosexuality could arouse that degree of moral outrage.

For those who are disheartened by this, simply remember that the way we define our concepts relies heavily on the situations we are in and the needs we have. If a devout Christian has a concept of the meaning of life and a concept of morality that relies on the existence of God, and that devout Christian then comes to lose faith, they will fall into nihilism but there is nothing that demands that they stay there. They have an opportunity to define new concepts, and in most cases they will probably do so. Who has not defined a concept later in life in a way that is different from what they were initially taught?

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