Some people think morality comes from religion. What their religion tells them to do, that is what is moral. Others think religion can be proved from morality – conscience is innate, and its universal existence proves the existence of God.
The first one for certain I don't believe. If my morals came from my religion, why do I periodically get morally offended by God's actions in the Bible? Shouldn't I instead base my view of morality on those actions? If we really derived morality from religion, there wouldn't be so many explanations for why God was justified in doing this or that, by showing how he didn't really violate this or that law. A person's belief in the law must be prior to their attempt to fit God inside it; otherwise the attempt is not really necessary.
The second, I spent a long time attempting to disprove on somebody else's blog. Not because I wouldn't like to believe it, but because there is plenty of evidence that people's morality does have a naturalistic explanation – from pro-social instincts which favored the survival of the tribal unit, to early conditioning in childhood to fit a certain culture's standards.
And the trouble is that conscience is not so universal as all that. Psychopaths, for instance, don't appear to have any. Ours today is quite different from what seemed right to, say, Vikings. And apparently I myself am missing one thing that I recently read is near-universal – the desire to see evildoers punished. I simply don't have any strong emotion about it. I am utterly repelled by cruelty, for instance, harm to the innocent, and so forth, and yet the idea of letting a murderer off the hook only raises an intellectual question, “How shall we keep society safe?” If you could throw all the murderers onto a rocket and send them to a lunar colony, where they would live quite happily far from all the innocent people they might harm, I'd really be fine with that. And yet most people I meet seem to disagree strongly with me.
I think this difference is innate because I have had an upbringing that should have taught me the opposite, and in addition most of my influences have been conservative and religious. It first became clear to me when I found out about the utter depravity of Father Maciel. I learned that he had abused dozens of boys, that he'd cheated donors (including my own parents) out of millions, and that the psychological damage I myself suffered was only to fuel his own megalomania. I was repelled to think that I had been taught to see him as a hero, that I had kissed his hand. But when I heard that he had died refusing the sacraments, I thought, “Oh dear, I hope he doesn't end up in hell.” I don't mean I forced myself to say that. I mean it was my first, reflexive thought.
However, I can see why we would, in general, have that instinct. Morality is always just a bit tenuous; there will always people with too weak of a grasp on it, or too strong a motive to disobey. We need anyone who is tempted to act immorally to realize that the risk is too great, that something bad will happen to them if they transgress. And for that to happen, we need to have people want to punish them. Is that where people's strong belief comes from that the whole world functions in some sort of cosmic math, x suffering for y sin? Rationally I can't see any necessity that suffering pays for sin or that sin deserves suffering – though, of course, I can see that sin causes suffering, that's a rather different question. But if the vast majority of humans have an instinct that sin does deserve suffering, no wonder they have taken it as an axiom. From there you can postulate that perhaps this is why human cultures have come up with symbolic ways to expiate guilt with sacrifices of various kinds. It is possible that religion comes from morality.
If I assume, as I do, that my moral intuition doesn't come from my religion, then it follows that I would struggle morally with religion. I think this is what people don't understand about my struggle. They say, “Well, it doesn't hurt you to do the harder thing, so why not assume the faith is true? It doesn't hurt anything.” In fact, I myself said that a few months ago! But it carries the assumption that Catholicism is morally more demanding than reason or instinct alone, which in my case is not necessarily so. There are some things that the Catholic Church expects which demand a moral struggle of me. Gay marriage, for instance. I have never heard a nonreligious argument against it that convinced me, despite a great deal of study on the topic. What if the Catholic Church's beliefs about homosexuality are wrong? Are we denying people something that could make them happy while not actually harming anyone or anything? If the Catholic Church is true, I am morally obligated to oppose gay marriage; if not, the moral obligation runs the other way.
The Catholic Church's history is not very pretty to the modern eye: you all know the stuff I could dredge up, and if you're Catholic you probably have some answers to those. (For instance, the other week I had the pleasure of informing someone that no, the Inquisition did NOT actually cut off Galileo's finger! The things they think of!) But I'm thinking more of its philosophical condoning of slavery, for instance, or the teaching on the marriage debt which seems to condone (and surely throughout history was often used to condone) marital rape. How can God have been guiding the Church so carefully that he made sure we got the word “homoousion” right but he couldn't be bothered to tell us to free all the slaves? If he really inspired Scripture, why all the “bad bits”? I used to think these were a few isolated passages, but I tried to read parts of the Bible that didn't have them, only to find they were everywhere!
Did God actually command that innocent boys should all have part of their genitals severed, without anesthesia, at eight days old? If he didn't, he clearly has no control over what we say about him, because that's kind of a big thing to get wrong; but if he did, he's directly responsible for the suffering of millions of innocent infants. I can't really get around this. Did God command the slaughter of the Canaanites, or the Amalekites? Did he say we should stone our own family members if they suggest worshipping strange gods? Did he make his prophets lie and send people delusions? Does he send people to hell???
And at that point my moral sense rebels, and I find myself saying, “If God is really like this, it would be immoral for me to worship him.”
True, God is infinite and I am very finite. I know my moral feelings aren't shared by everyone. I have read Job and I know I have no right to even ask why. I know that my feeling of what is good is not the standard; that what is good for humans to do may not be the same as what is good for God to do, and that I ought to be grateful he cares for humans at all. I mean, where was the rule that ever said that universe couldn't be ruled by an arbitrary, possibly evil being?
And yet, my moral intuition is something I cannot explain away. Should not explain away. It's my prime directive; if God created me with this programming, he can hardly object to my following it. And so in my heart of hearts, I had to declare: those things are wrong. And if God will damn me for pointing out that those things are wrong, let him do so. I don't want to spend an eternity with a being who does what God is said to do.
What I want is to spend an eternity with the sort of being I thought and hoped God was. One I don't have to make excuses for. One whose actions can easily be seen to be good, and don't have to be reinterpreted for every age to make them okay. You see, I do have a God-shaped hole in my heart. It just does not appear to be the shape and size of the God of Abraham.
I suppose everyone has a God-shaped hole in their heart; and the wildly varying shapes of these holes can be taken as proof that they are self-created and not any evidence of God at all. Or they can be taken to show that we can never possibly understand what God is, that perhaps all the contradictions between different books of the Bible and even different religious are just humans' clumsy attempt to capture him in words.
I don't really believe in the God I want to exist. That is, I don't have any reason to believe he is out there. But I want there to be. Perhaps in God's eyes I am a child having a tantrum, stamping my foot because I want him to be better than he is. But perhaps even that makes him smile – the way I smile when Marko says, “I will NEVER go sit in my room, NEVER EVER.” Because I know that in his childish way he is being brave. He's the stuff of which heroes and martyrs are made. And maybe God knows that in being true to my conscience and demanding he be true to it too, I am being exactly what he created me to be.
Well, that's the hope anyway.