Where’s your moral GPS?

How you can be good without God

As you start raising questions and feeling doubts about your religious upbringing, you will inevitably begin to consider the issue of morals.  Many Christian apologists will ask questions ranging from, “How can an atheist be good without a moral compass?” to the more disturbing “If you don’t believe in God or the Bible, what’s to stop you from going on a murderous rampage?”  Essentially: how can one be good at all without God?

You see, Christians consult or reference the Bible as a sort of moral compass.  Well, who are we kidding?  No one uses a compass these days… so let’s use a more modern metaphor: for Christians, the Bible is like a moral GPS, which gives turn-by-turn instructions that one must follow to arrive at your destination of a good moral life.

As with a directional GPS, it does simplify things quite a bit.  It tells you what to do; you follow.  Don’t know how to get from point A to point B?  Don’t worry.  No need to know.  The GPS will spell it out for you.  Indeed, it is very helpful, but it comes at a price.  Ever seen someone try to find their way around a city when they’ve relied exclusively on their GPS to get them around?  They struggle.  They haven’t developed a sense of direction in that city because they’ve completely depended on the thing to lead their way, so without it, they are lost. You can understand how they might not comprehend how one could get along fine without one.

And it’s true; a sense of morality is a lot like a sense of direction.  It’s a skill.  One you develop through years of experience and social interaction.  Christians tend to say we are born wretched and are sinners from birth and in reality, it’s true that we are born with an undeveloped sense of morality.  But, aided by a good upbringing, it is our job to develop that sense or skill, as we would with our sense of direction in a new city.  People who follow their religious doctrine …well… religiously have little experience navigating around the nuanced map of morality independently, developing this skill, so they understandably have difficulty believing that there are those of us that are able.

As an example of an overdeveloped reliance on the moral GPS, I want to pose a question:  Without referencing a holy book or God, what is morally wrong about being gay?

It’s no secret that many religious groups have a big problem with homosexuality, with many expressly judging homosexuals or pushing strongly to deny them equal status of marriage, but why?  What is “wrong” about being gay?  Once again, without referencing your moral GPS…

The result should immediately resemble a situation like this:

The moral GPS leads the devoutly religious right off the path of being a good moral person and straight into a lake.  For people with a well-developed sense of morality that was cultivated independently from any scripture and for those young people that have yet to be made dependent on a moral GPS, it is understood that there is no sound reasoned argument to be made equating homosexuality with any moral “wrong”.

I don’t claim to speak for all atheists, but throughout my life experience navigating around the nuanced map of morality without following a moral GPS, I have come upon certain organizing principles that seem universal in establishing a moral “right” and are lacking when establishing a moral “wrong”.  For me, something that is “right” morally or “good” promotes peace and justice among the population and usually has the characteristic of being unselfish.  Conversely, a moral “wrong” denies a population peace and justice and is usually marked by selfishness.  Notice that none of these criteria make being gay “wrong”.

But I know there are many people that will still believe that following a moral GPS is the way to go…to follow without question.  But this mentality is dangerous for two reasons:  One is shown above.  To follow without question says very little about your own sense of morality, it merely establishes that you’re good at following orders.  When the orders lead you the wrong way (such as into the lake of judging and discriminating against gays or the ditch of subjugating women), that’s where you’ll end up: way off the beaten path of good moral behavior.  See studies such as the famous Milgram experiment for more on the dangers of this mentality.  Examples like this also highlight the problem of divorcing yourself from any kind of personal responsibility for this behavior, as discussed in my first post.

The second danger emerges from how most people follow rules when they don’t have an established sense of internal morality.  That is, they often do as much as they possibly can to bend the rule while still staying within the black-and-white written letter of the law, and consider themselves morally right while doing it.  A lack of independent understanding of what makes an act truly morally “right” or “wrong”, coupled with an overdeveloped insistence on following rules can absolutely lead to people committing immoral or “wrong” acts simply because it was never explicitly stated in the rules as being forbidden… therefore it’s fair game, right?

There is so much to say on the topic of morality that I’m sure I’ll revisit it in the future, but hopefully I’ve established some doubt on the assertion that it is impossible to be morally good without believing in God or following a holy text as a kind of moral GPS.  In fact, it is absolutely possible to be morally good without God.  We should always keep in mind that being good at following orders is not the same as being a good person.

12 thoughts on “Where’s your moral GPS?

  1. Alex Kennedy says:

    I think you are leaving out a major part of the argument here. I would posit that taking the bible alone as your “moral GPS” does not provide a good moral framework for anyone living in today’s world. Sure, you can go through and cherry pick a few choice verses about turning the other cheek, but good god man have you read Leviticus, Duet., Timothy? Rape, murder, slavery it is all A-OK as long as it is done for the right and moral reason. My point is that The Bronze/Iron Age sense of morality reflected in much of the bible is simply not very moral at all. It is barbaric and misogynistic by today’s standard. I find it agitating when those who claim to live by God’s word so casually dismiss the parts of the bible they find moraly repugnant with platitudes like “well that isn’t meant to be taken literally” or “ohhh, that’s just old testimate.” There are indeed some great leasons to be learned from the bible that are very much applicable today. You can take much of the Sermon on the Mount and find some other really good parables in the bible to assist in constructing your personal morality (which I found valuable) but by the same token I could cherry pick the Harry Potter books to do the same thing. Morality is a complex thing that evolves as we become older and hopefully wiser, leaving it all to religion (“taking orders” as Santiago said) and not using your mind to evaluate and critically think about what is really right and wrong is immoral.

    P.S.
    I realize religion/faith is about much much more to most than strict adherence to ancient religious texts. Religion is a very positive thing in many people’s lives and can help some to be better (moral) people. However, Belief in God/religion and being a moral person a certainly not mutually exclusive.

    • Dan Rosbach says:

      Alex, I understand where you are coming from. I am no Biblical scholar, but I can offer my point of view regarding current-day self-proclaimed “Bible believers” not following some of the same parts of the Bible that you would not want to follow.

      My understanding is that old testament law was the law for a very specific time, place, and people. It was highly specified for the exact people, culture, geography, and technology of the time period it was given to the Jews. It was also in place to establish an earthly kingdom of God and to give the people a way to atone for sins. The new testament, or very specifically the teachings of Jesus, sets laws, commandments, and morality that are universal to all peoples and cultures. It also provides an entirely different methodology for the atonement of sin.

      For Christians, the new testament literally replaced the old. In essence, the old testament is not “required reading”; we have been set free from the previous rules and have been given new instruction. The old testament is still a part of the Bible and still serves a purpose; however, it is not a Christian’s moral GPS.

      • sarchila says:

        Interesting take…. so just to give a little more food for thought…

        Do you suppose God made a mistake in allowing the Jews of that time period to keep their wives silent, beat their children, have slaves, stone women, etc? One that he later corrected through Jesus and the teachings of the New Testament?

        Or do you think that God still approves of those awful acts of the past (because it was okay in the culture, geography, technology of that time according to his law) and keeps those that committed such atrocities by his side in heaven?

        if it was a mistake, do you think he switched over all the people that committed those acts from heaven to hell because they wouldn’t have been let in by the new rules? Or do you think they were “grandfathered in” and allowed to stay?

        Also, If God made a mistake or changed his mind, who’s to say he won’t do it again? Maybe in another 2,000 years time, stoning women will be a perfectly acceptable moral act that is encouraged by God again.

        Actually… even if he didn’t make a mistake, but thinks that different time periods call for different morals, again: who’s to say he won’t switch it up on us again and we’ll be beating slaves in another 2,000 years?

      • Alex Kennedy says:

        My point was more that: 1.) One does not need to be religious to be moral, & 2.) Basing all moral judgements on a set of rules put down a couple millennia ago that has been changed who knows how many by those in power to suit their needs (i.e. The apocypha and other canonical texts that are now secondary canonical texts) is IMHO extremely flawed.

        Morality is not following a set of rules to avoid punishment, morality is loving and caring for your fellow man.

  2. Brandon R says:

    Interesting turn of metaphors… a GPS is much different than a compass. The Bible is not a set of moral orders to be followed – even an Orthodox Jew, who lives by the letter of the Torah, would call that grossly reductionistic. On the contrary, in a world where the moral ground is moving beneath our feet, consistent Christians, far from simply taking orders, take personally responsibility for discerning moral right and wrong in a number of situations, based on theological principles taught in the Bible.

    Certainly this is a challenge that is difficult to understate, as illustrated over and over through history. Having God for/against you certainly raises the stakes and acts as a powerful wedge – gray areas in the moral middle ground become warzones for religious zealots, as you never fail to point out.

    However, the kind of utilitarian altruism-based morality you describe fails spectacularly at the extremes. What do you do with Anders Behring Breivik without that moral compass? This is the question that Norway, the least religious country in Western Europe, faces as it attempts to avoid publicizing his ideology while assuring he gets the maximum 21 years in prison, 100 days/victim.

    • sarchila says:

      We’ll agree to disagree on the appropriateness of my analogy. If you substitute “based on theological principles taught in the Bible…. which you must follow” at the end of your paragraph, you’ll understand why I still think my analogy holds.

      I don’t know if you mean the “as you never fail to point out” as a jab, but there is a reason this point is brought up over and over again. This is the most dangerous outcome of staunch obedience to religion and truly the main reason anyone takes issue with the increasing presence of religion in schools, laws, etc around the world.

      You might have to restate your comment about the Norwegian guy, cause I don’t see what point you’re trying to make or how the morality that I and many other atheists have established would “fail spectacularly”…

      • Brandon R says:

        Sure, the point is this: Without referencing your GPS, can you say whether Mr. Breivik is evil? Or does he merely have an undeveloped sense of morality? Is he depraved or just unskilled?

      • sarchila says:

        Ahh okay. Well, of course I won’t reference my GPS, because as I hoped to make clear in my post…. I don’t have one. I would definitely categorize his actions as “wrong”, if that’s your question. As I wrote, I believe actions are wrong if they deny a population peace, and obviously going on a killing rampage fits the bill.

        Now your question does bring up an interesting point: what is evil? Is there such a thing? In my mind, there really is not. Nobody is evil. The more accurate description would probably be someone with undeveloped or abnormal brain function in their frontal lobe. Now, you ask, how do we deal with such people that have committed terrible acts? Well that depends… can they be rehabilitated through therapy? If so, they should be, until they can function in normal society. If not, then they still need to be kept away from society so they cannot do any further harm (put in jail). So yeah, I believe him to have an undeveloped sense of morality and to be unskilled in discerning what makes something right or wrong, but not evil or depraved. Those are just simplistic black and white terms. Now that you brought him up, I also don’t think it’s any coincidence that he is deeply religious…

    • Alex Kennedy says:

      I am confused as to what point you are trying to make by bringing up Anders Breivik. He killed all of those people because he thought the large influx of immigrants was undermining Norway’s traditional Christian values. Anders Breivik was deemed clinically insane by two court appointed psychologists so you can’t really lump him in with your typical religious extremists like those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. It’s funny you bring up Norway by the way, as according the most recent Human Development report from the UN, the most atheistic countries are the best in almost any category that matters.

      Sure, when you apply absolutes/extremism to any kind of morality it is going to turn out badly. However, I would argue that when religious morality is taken to the extreme that is when things really go pear shaped. Just look at, well, the history of human events. Here is an example just from yesterday http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/17/world/afghanistan-girls-poisoned/index.html
      (I thought we were getting a bit to christian-centric).

      Anywho, SANTIAGO (and anyone else who may be interested in this ongoing debate) read this article by my man Sam Harris:
      http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=sharris_26_3

      I think it boils down the morality issue we are discussing quite well.

  3. Diana says:

    Santiago!

    Thank you for writting this blog! I can actually relate to a lot of the things you write! I have always considered myself a Catholic by default. I grew up in Colombia religion it’s just part of everyday life and you just call yourself a Catholic whether you go to church every Sunday or not. I went to Catholic school and “Religion” was one of my subjects at school. Mind you, I have never read the Bible in my life. I should but I haven’t. So, with that said you can tell I am not religious at all but I still call myself Catholic (and I know I shouldn’t). I think that it is ok to use the Bible as a GPS. You can use a GPS to get around town and learn from it. Yes you shouldn’t always use the GPS or else you will grow dependent on it but you can use it to learn new routes and just to set guide lines. I agree that you should not follow what the Bible says to a T because in the end whatever you do in your life it’s ultimately your own decision. It bothers me when people use God, Religion or the Bible as an excuse to hurt others. But you cannot blame people’s behavior only on their decision to follow the Bible there are way too many other factors in a persons life that can influence their values and morals and ultimately everyone has a GPS. Your GPS can be your education, your parents’ advice, your friends etc… I think it is ok if some people choose the Bible to guide their moral beliefs and I also think it is ok to be selective when reading and following what the Bible says. Nothing in the world is perfect and the Bible is not an exception. As people we are all influenced by something it is inevitable, but there comes a time when it is our decision to see what is wrong and right whether you are following the Bible or not.

    Again very nice blog and very good points.

    your cousin Diana

    • sarchila says:

      Hi Diana,
      Thanks for commenting! Yeah, I know exactly what you mean about being a Catholic by default. I felt the exact same way for most of my life. Knowing deep down that I didn’t believe the story, but feeling nervous about admitting it to myself and to others. I’ve obviously overcome the fear, and while you’re right that there is nothing wrong with pulling stories from the Bible to use as a guide for your own personal morality, the main point I hope to emphasize is that there is also nothing wrong in learning to navigate around trying to be a good, morally upstanding person without God and the Bible (no matter what others will say). I know many people are nervous about admitting it to themselves and others that they are not, in fact, religious as they are supposed to be “by default”, but I hope for people to gain a little bit of confidence about it through some of these posts. I appreciate the kind words!! :)

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