why ethics exist separate to christianity

The Ground of Morality  by rjohnson24.

I read this article a couple of days ago and to be honest it irritated me a tad. Its basic argument is that Christianity provides a satisfactory conclusion as to why we ‘should’ be ethical unlike any other rationale for ethical behavior. To quote:

“Christianity provides a grand narrative in which the chain of “whys” does reach a satisfactory end”.


I may be missing something but the only end in Christianity I can see is because god said so and you’ll burn if ya don’t obey. Maybe that’s why ethics and religions don’t match…why child abuse, torture, war etc are done in the name of religions.

Please don’t get me wrong here. I am not specifically knocking Christianity but I am saying that for me at least, intimidation has never been a convincing argument.

The final line though made me put fingers to keyboard:

“Those who disagree with Christian ethics, then, can present their arguments but only after they have a firm reason why we ought to be ethical at all.”

See that line really gets me. It’s as if Christians themselves are saying if we chuck out theology we may as well chuck out ethics too. Scary stuff!

Well personally I have a different view so how about this:

When I was a child I was hit very hard.

Hitting hurt.

Hurt felt bad.

I didn’t like feeling bad.

When I looked into the eyes of my fellow being I saw my own emotions reflected there.

So I knew that if I hit you, you too would feel bad.

Feeling bad sucked.

It would suck for you too.

So I wouldn’t do that.

 What I put out I’ll get back. This is the very essence of all life; human and non-human, in the very planet herself. Sow discord, violence, destruction get discord, violence and destruction.

  If I behave ethically and you behave ethically we will both flourish. For me that is a “satisfactory end”.

Of course someone might say this saying itself comes from Christianity and its there too isn’t it. What we sow we reap. It is in most theologies and existed pretty much before them all. Socrates had a beautiful way of reasoning through ethics

 I’ve raised my son with strong ethics, no specific religious dogma but with a strong base in the understanding of human psychology. And I am a humanist.  I suppose this conflict’s with Christianity because it starts on the perspective that the human is inherently good rather than born in sin. Even those Christians who seem to have dumped the ‘born in sin’ notion still hold to the sinfulness of man. I do not.

 So for example, when my son at four was mean to his cousin I showed him a cup of water. I explained this cup represented his cousin at birth, filled with the goodness and excitement of being alive. And each time he said something mean…whoops…a little water, a little of that good feeling would spill from the cup and next time a little more and next time…

And I asked him how would she feel, how would she cope when there was not much water left? He was only four but he got it and he gets it still.

 Do people truly need any religious dogma to be convinced of moral; of ethical behavior? I don’t think so. Not the ethics that count anyway…the same ones that Jesus himself talked of like many before and many after him in many different cultures.

We were all children once. We know that when we act unethically it harms as much inwards as it does outwards.

 It seems to me that people over the whole of history are drawn to ethical behavior because we inherently strive toward that which creates growth. We aim, like a new seedling to the light.

 Indeed I will go further and say that unethical behavior is the direct result of conditioning by others and the twists this can create in the human psyche (bar of course that tiny percentage). Religion can be a healing tool but it is one of many and certainly not the solution to unethical behaviour.

Nope, I don’t reckon we need Christianity to justify ethical behaviour. If there is one thing the majority of the human race have in common its the desire for love and the avoidance of pain neither of which are conducive to unethical behaviour. 

 Curious what ya think…cheers…Leesa

8 thoughts on “why ethics exist separate to christianity

  1. I agree. Do those people who say we are ethical because of Christianity mean to tell us that if there were no god, or if there were no bible, they would choose to be unethical? I don’t think that says much about their desire to do good. It kind of feels like they aren’t ethical for the sake of human rights or for the sake of others, but rather it sounds like they are ethical because they want to get to heaven. Though it says in the bible,”Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost. Titus 3:5″ and “The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith. Galatians 3:11-12”.

    I don’t know. I’m confused. But not by your post. You’re making sense to me. : )

    • Actually this has been on my mind a lot lately. I like to relate all concepts to the individaul level and I do think that if there were no beliefs about the hereafter then many rules would not apply. No I don’t think we’d turn into murdering maniacs but the ten commandments for example bought a morality to the community that did not exist previously, as did Muhummad as did Jesus etc etc. (What weve done with that morality is another question). Hmmm….i can feel an exploratry blog comming on 🙂

  2. I’m wondering whether the article was arguing at a “higher level” than “God says you have to be good or you’ll be punished.”? I haven’t read the article, but I’m basing that statement on other stuff I’ve read.

    Essentially, no, one doesn’t need to be religious to be a good person or to recognise good ethics. But I think they are saying that to be ethical AT ALL doesn’t ultimately make sense unless some kind of god exists.

    Certainly, if I am just atoms in a meaningless universe, why not act completely selfishly and enjoy the short time I have, even if that means hurting others? Sure, sometimes it benefits me to act ethically, but other times I will be able to be selfish and get away with it, and that benefits me.

    I don’t think I have time here to explain in detail. The best explanation of this kind of argument is a radio series that was collected into the first part of CS Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”. It’s fairly short (you don’t have to read the rest of the book), and fairly easy.

    Strangely enough, I started writing about this on my blog ages ago, but never finished that bit.

    • Ta for your comments Jon

      I have been thinking hard on this for sometime and are preparing a post that may be a tad challenging regarding this. Essentially though perhaps it comes down to how one percieves humanity as to how we think we’d do without religious ethics.

      Yes I have CS Lewis’ book…all of them actually. Whilst I disagree with his particular religous basis he is brilliant in his thought. Actually I’m processing his “The Problem of Pain’ now.

      • I haven’t read all of “The Problem of Pain”. I do think he’s a brilliant communicator, and at one point decided I was going to read all of his books in my lifetime. Got distracted, and haven’t done it yet 🙂

        Still, the first part of “Mere Christianity”, and also the more “technical” book “The Abolition of Man” are relevant to this topic.

  3. Thank you for writing this; I understand where you’re coming from and feel honored that my post caused you to reflect and write. I think much of what may seem like disagreement in our posts is due to the fact that we were writing in different tones; mine was very theoretical and yours was very everyday and down-to-earth. I’m a grad student and need constant reminding that it’s not all about -isms and -ologies; we live in a world with concrete things like children and pain.

    As Spritzophrenia noted, there is more to biblical Christianity than fear of God’s punishment. Though my brothers and sisters on street corners and in pulpits would certainly lead one to believe that’s the basis of Christian ethics, they find themselves starkly opposed to what the Bible teaches when one doesn’t chop it into pieces and only preach the convenient verses. Jesus taught that we were created to live in peace and harmony with reality. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes, going “with the grain of the universe.” This isn’t too different from what you wrote (very poetically, I may add) about how we all strive together for communal growth and aim like seedlings to the light. The shape of Christian ethics, much like the system you described (there I go using “system”… sorry about the over-theorization) is one in which the very fabric of reality is structured in such a way that certain behaviors will lead to flourishing and other behaviors, in dissonance with reality, will lead to anxiety, sorrow, fear, hatred, and pointlessness. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, you described the biblical ethic well: “This is the very essence of all life; human and non-human, in the very planet herself. Sow discord, violence, destruction get discord, violence and destruction.”

    The questions I would ask, then, are these:
    Why is the world that way? It seems to me that a naturalistic worldview (viz. one in which matter is all that exists) does not sit well with the idea of an “essence of all life.” You write of human flourishing, and I agree wholeheartedly with you, but I don’t see any congruence between a idea of human flourishing and the evolutionary “war of all against all” assumed by many atheists as the ground of morality (once we clear away the underbrush of our delusions). Flourishing, if it means anything other than mere surviving, seems to need metaphysical justification. This justification does not need to be explicitly Christian, but at the moment I can’t see how it can come from naturalistic atheism. I don’t know if that’s how you’d label your own beliefs, so I’m not objecting to your post, but merely inquiring where you believe this deep truth comes from and how we know about it. If we’re all striving for flourishing, who or what defines flourishing? If we’re aiming like seedlings to the light, what is the light? Animals can kill other animals without being “harm[ed] inwards,” so what is it about humans that makes us aware of this justice written into the very universe itself? If we still feel despair, worry, loneliness, or fear, how do we know that we have understood this morality properly?

    Those are genuine questions, and I’d love to hear your thoughts (when you have time). I would recommend the book “Making Christian Sense” by Paul Holmer, a hidden gem of a book. All the best!

  4. Thanks for your response and I love the questions.

    “Whether intentionally or unintentionally, you described the biblical ethic well”

    I would agree it is the Jesus ethic but not the biblical ethic.

    I am not an atheist so I can’t answer your questions very well. I’d refer you to a blog I’ve been commenting on to see what a bungle I make trying to explain my notions to an atheist and skeptic. http://yourskeptic.wordpress.com/2010/10/02/whats-the-point/
    I bungled it basically because I don’t have a defined theology after studying most :).

    “If we’re all striving for flourishing, who or what defines flourishing? If we’re aiming like seedlings to the light, what is the light?”

    You think I can answer that 🙂 ?

    Seriously this is the question isn’t it? After one more mental health article I am going to post about this. I have been trying to for some time (with avoidance) but your questions motivates me further.

    I am absolutely convinced there is a more powerful consciousness interrelated with humans (god) but so far I think we are miles from defining it. I think Jesus knew what he was on about but it is a rare theologian that’s followed his lead and I mean from the moment he died.

  5. You know that reminded me of a book I was reading some time ago about moral philisophy and the loopholes religion has in regard to ethics and morality, the author made a terribly educated and well put case which amazed me, and it resembled yours quite alot. I especially loved his argument about the absoluteness of good and bad and how is that defined. If good defines god in other words or if god defines good, and after extrapolating on both he concluded that in both cases good and god had absolutely nothing to do with one another after all. Maybe I’ll jot down some of his in my blog soon, it’s a worthy read.

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