The day morality died

There’s been a very interesting debate raging online this week. It was all kicked off by a wonderful article written by Johann Go in which he argued that we don’t need religion to teach morality.

He’s entirely right, of course. No Christian in their right mind would argue we need religion to teach morality. Us Christians don’t believe in religion. We believe in God, and that’s a very important distinction. It means morality can actually exist.

Let me explain. Go says something very strange at the bottom of his article. He concludes that true morality is teaching children to be good for the sake of being good.

“True” is a horrible word to have thrown in, but one we would have come across at some point in this argument anyway, so let’s deal with it.

True. How did he decide that his take on morality was “true”? What if my take is different? If, for example, Go tells me murder in cold blood is wrong, I might say it isn’t. I might say it helps me get rid of enemies, ensure my survival, and I get a kick out it, so it’s right. How do we decide which view is true? One, or the other, or both views must be false. But they cannot both be true.

The truth must, as it happens, be something beyond both Go and I to work out the answer. It must be some standard that exists independently of either of us, next to which we can roll out our definitions and see which one measures up right. It must, in other words, exist separately from human life and experience. It must have its own being, and that thrusts us right to the heart of the Christian definition of God. After all, Jesus claimed to be the truth.

Of course, Go might say he didn’t mean “truth” in that way. He meant truth was something generally agreed by society. In other words, he would tell me, absolute truth does not exist. But now he’s in real trouble, because he’s just claimed it is absolutely true that no truth absolute truth exists. So we are back to where we started.

And that’s a good thing, because without an absolute truth, we cannot make any claims about morality. We need truth to be able to say which claims about good or evil are true, and which are false. Merely relying on the “it’s a social construct” line won’t get us far, because very soon we come up against competing claims about what is good and what is evil. Is, for example, the white supremacist definition of “good” a true definition? Or is the average person’s definition a little closer? The truth matters.

Perhaps now Go sees why some of us get very confused at the suggestion of teaching morality – the idea that some things are truly wrong and some truly right – without the religion he confuses with God. Go can only say “be good because”. The Christian can say “be good because it is right”.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

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