Why I Am No Longer a Christian
Ruminations on a spiritual journey out of and into the material world

Part 5: Building a New World

But what do I do next? Where do I go from here? What do I replace my previous religious beliefs with? Uncle Nick and many others showed me that it is possible to live well without a god. But how?

Before my born-again experience, I was without an overarching theme for my life, a general understanding that could encompass my life and experiences and make sense of it as a whole. Christianity gave me a reason for it all, a way to understand it all, not just something specific in life but the whole thing. As a young child, however, my lack of an overarching worldview was not a great concern. The thought of having an overarching worldview had never occurred to me, so the lack of one did not bother me. But it sure was a powerful feeling to acquire one. As my Christian worldview was crumbling, I was once again without a worldview. This time, though, it was a painful experience. And once again it was a very powerful feeling when the framework for a new worldview came together. Ironically, for those who learned how to interpret their conversion, or commitment, to Christianity as a “born-again” experience, that experience is the best analogy I can think of to convey what I felt when I was born a third time as a “naturalist” (to attempt to give it a label). I was no longer lost in a sea of confusion, unable to make heads or tails of life, the universe, anything. I had a theme, an understanding, a coherent perspective. And it certainly was a powerfully positive feeling.

Like my conversion/commitment to Christianity, though, it was just the framework of a coherent worldview. There were still many details to work out. For me, the two biggest questions were morality and meaning. Without God, what basis is there for either of them?

After my deconversion, I was still moral and I took morality seriously, and I knew atheists who lived admirable lives. So there was obviously something making that possible. But I had always understood morality in terms of God. Was there a secular, a naturalistic, basis for morality? I was finding it much more difficult to come up with an account of morality than when I could just appeal to “God said so.”

Yet, in retrospect, just how good was that account? “God” said so? Or, God’s followers say God said so? As I noted earlier, in matters of morality God seems always invariably to agree with his followers, even when they so vehemently disagree with one another. It’s as if they have all taken their own preferences, opinions, and prejudices and granted them divine status, believing them to be from God. I cannot recall having ever found a believer who claims to disagree with God on a moral position. They always say God disagrees with others, but not with themselves. Or perhaps that God told me I was wrong on a point previously, but he changed my mind and now we are in agreement. But look at the other guy’s life: he’s all messed up, so God must disagree with him. But the other guy will say no, God agrees with me, and that is why Satan is attacking me and not you: Satan sees that I am doing God’s real work, and doing it effectively, so he is trying to impede me. Or, God is allowing it (as he did with the righteous Job) to develop my Christian character, or to teach me to depend on Him more, or whatever. So, anything can be interpreted as being in accordance with God’s will or blessing. And God can justify anything. Even killing your own children. Abraham was willing to kill his son at God’s command, and, according to James 2:21, he was considered righteous for doing so. In Judges 11, Jephthah was actually allowed to go through with killing his daughter for God. How could, for example, Andrea Yeats really have known it was not God telling her to kill her children? According to the Bible, God did it before, and counted it as righteousness to be willing to do so. “To obey is better than sacrifice,” even if the command is to commit genocide (1 Samuel 15).

What, then is really behind a Christian’s, or any theist’s, morality? What, if anything, is behind God’s morality, for that matter? Does he have reasons for the moral commands he gives us, or are they just groundless, arbitrary whims on his part? If he had reasons, then what are those reasons? To what did he appeal to justify saying that X is good or right and Y is bad or wrong? And, if he had reasons, then why can’t we just bypass God and appeal to the reasons ourselves? If he had no reasons, if X is right or wrong merely because he says so, if his moral rules are just his arbitrary subjective whims, then what makes them any better than our arbitrary subjective whims, besides his superior power to enforce them? Does might make right? If not, what does?

Before you answer that the standards are derived from, or emanate from, or are a part of his character or his being, keep in mind that the same sort of thing can be asked of his character. Could his character, or his being, have been different? If not, what constrains his character, and why couldn't we just bypass God and appeal to whatever standards he must live up to? If so, if his being could have been any way at all and whatever emanated from it would be 'good' and 'right' by definition, what makes this any better, or any less arbitrary, a ground for morality than anything else? If you are familiar with Plato’s Euthyphro, you probably recognize that these questions are from that dialog, which, as I mentioned earlier, was one of the first books I read in a philosophy class. When I first read it, I was still very much a Christian, and one who believed that God and goodness are in some way fundamentally related. I was so wedded to that view that I did not really get the full significance of Plato’s argument. But now I was able to see it in a very different light.

The way I see it, morality must be independent of God and his commands and character, or it is just a case of might makes right. Either there are real standards for a real morality which even God must meet, or God's rules become the real, objective, absolute morality only because he's the biggest, baddest mutha on the block and thus he can enforce his morality the way he wants to. I agree that morality is independent of our unconstrained choice: I cannot arbitrarily choose for raping my neighbors' wives to be good. But I also have to conclude that morality, if it is real, must also be independent of God's choice, for the same reasons. Or, do you think that God could make raping my neighbors' wives a good thing? If not, why not, what constrains him and his character? If so, then how are his arbitrary and unconstrained moral choices any better than mine?

But what, then, underlies morality? Is morality objective or subjective? Typically, evangelical theists argue, and I used to believe, that morality is objective, otherwise it is just based on arbitrary, groundless whims, and I could not argue that, for example, the Nazis were bad and wrong. It would be a matter of opinion, i.e. arbitrary whim. That obviously is not the case. Thus, morality must be objective. And ‘objective’, according to this view, means ‘absolute’, true at all times for all beings. This, however, is a false dichotomy. It is pointing out two extremes on a long continuum of possibilities and pretending that the extremes are the only possibilities. Typically, such views also conflate ideas that are separate: ‘real’, ‘objective’, and ‘absolute’ are often used interchangeably in explicating this view. But these ideas are quite different. Something can be real without being objective, and something can be objective without being absolute. It is not difficult to show that morality is real. But you cannot then jump immediately to saying that it is therefore objective, and thus also absolute, and thus dependent on God.

Morality, as I understand it, is real, and it does have objective elements in it. ‘Objective’, however, does not mean ‘absolute’. The word 'objective' in other contexts means something along the lines of "of or having to do with a material object as distinguished from a mental concept, idea, or belief." But when the term 'morality' is tacked onto it, 'objective' often switches to mean something along the lines of 'absolute'. But by the standard definition of 'objective', a divine command ethicist is actually arguing for a thoroughly subjective notion of ethics: it is dependent on the mind, or the personality, of God, based on his decisions or his character. By the standard definition of 'objective', this makes morality not objective, as it is entirely a mental concept, even if the mind in question is the mind of God. What 'objective moralists' tend to mean by 'objective' would be better labeled as 'absolute', i.e. applying to everyone at all times and circumstances. A thoroughly subjective morality backed by an omnipotent god would be absolute, but it would not be objective.

Morality, as I understand it, also has subjective elements in it, and those elements are no less real for being subjective. ‘Subjective’ refers to something having to do with mental concepts, ideas, or beliefs. ‘Subjective’ does not mean arbitrary or groundless or frivolous. Something subjective may be frivolous, but it can also be quite serious. My love for my son is subjective, but it is far from frivolous. ‘Subjective’ also does not mean that it is open to our choice. I could not possibly choose not to love my son. A friend’s betrayal of my trust may not objectively, materially, harm me at all, but I will certainly feel bad, I will experience negative emotions, I will be subjectively hurt. And my ability to trust this friend, and perhaps even to trust others, will be harmed. That harm I experience, though purely subjective, is real, it is not frivolous, and it is not a matter of choice.

Morality, as I understand it, is also relative, i.e. it is not independent of who the moral agent is, nor of the situation in which the moral agent is acting. An act such as killing someone or rebelling against the government may be good or bad, depending on the circumstances. Killing in self-defense is justifiable. Killing, performing the same act, in other circumstances, may be unjustified, i.e. murder. To appeal to circumstances to justify or condemn an act is to say that the morality of the act is relative to the situation. But, relative to that particular situation, an act may be clearly right or wrong. Its relativity does not diminish the reality of its rightness or wrongness.

Morality, as I understand it, is also not a matter of black and white. Black and white do exist in the moral realm, but they are on a spectrum with a gradation of grays between. An act may indeed be clearly right or wrong, but it may also be a case where the different circumstances involved point in different directions. What, for example, constitutes self-defense? Do I, or someone else, have to be in immediate danger of being killed? Or can, say, a battered wife pre-emptively kill her husband whom she legitimately fears will kill her later if she does not take the opportunity to kill him first? Can a nation justifiably pre-emptively attack another nation which it perceives as a threat? What if it is only possible that the attacker might kill me, but I am not sure? How sure do I have to be that killing is the only way to defend my life before I am justified in killing an attacker? Can I kill in self-defense if my life is not in danger and I am only in danger of being raped? How about if I am only in danger of being beaten up? Can I kill to defend my property, if for example a thief does not stop trying to drive off with my car when I point a gun at him and tell him to stop? The reality of black or white cases, cases where the rightness or wrongness of an action is clear, does not mean that there are not also cases where the rightness or wrongness of an action is really, legitimately, unclear and debatable. To pretend that dark gray is black and that light gray is white is to make poor and inaccurate moral judgments in those cases, and it would make your decisions in cases of medium gray completely arbitrary as well as inappropriate.

In other words, I am claiming that morality has both objective and subjective elements, that it is relative, and often unclear, and yet it is real and it is not arbitrary, there are standards for making better or worse moral choices, and, most importantly, that it is not dependent at all on God. To explain how this can be the case, let’s start with a thought experiment:

Whatever the reason for its wrongness, rape is wrong. I think those who argue for a God-dependent morality would agree with me on that. I think they could also agree at least in general to a definition of rape as forcing someone to have sex against one’s will. A typical God-based moralist would claim that rape is wrong because of an absolute unchanging moral standard that is based or dependent somehow on God and not based or dependent on humans. This, however, would mean that its wrongness is independent of what happens to be beneficial or harmful, i.e. good or bad, for humans. I claim that rape is wrong because it causes all sorts of real, actual harm to everyone, including the rapist, while providing no benefit to anyone other than a minor, short term feeling of power or experience of sex for the rapist. Certainly the victim suffers much harm, possibly physical (objective) harm and definitely lots of mental (subjective) harm. And the subjective harm is no less real for being subjective. Other women, who now know that there is a rapist on the loose, suffer because of the fear that it could happen to them. Men suffer, too: the victim’s husband, father, sons, brothers, etc., are all hurt and angered that someone they love and care for has suffered so much. Other men realize that their wives, daughters, etc., are in danger. Even the rapist probably has family members who could be victims of another rapist. The rapist has at least harmed himself in that by acting on such impulses, he becomes, or reveals himself to be, so dangerous. He thus cuts himself off from the society on which he depends for his own well being.

But suppose we were a very different sort of animal. Suppose that if they wanted to have children, women had to be raped, i.e. suppose that for some physiological reason women could not get pregnant if they had sex willingly. Suppose further that women never wanted to have sex initially, but once forced to start they enjoyed it and were glad they were forced to begin. In this, it would be like exercising is for me: I hate to start, but once I get going I enjoy it and I’m glad I did it. Suppose that, because of the awareness that once one is forced to start sex it will soon be enjoyable, that women suffered no fear or other psychological harm worrying about whether they will become a victim. Suppose it did not matter who initiated the sex, they would still find it enjoyable, and that it did not matter to anyone if one’s spouse had sex with someone else. And that only a woman’s husband could cause her to get pregnant, and only when they both wanted her to become pregnant. And there were no such thing as sexually transmitted diseases. Add a supposition that, like exercise, forced sex greatly increased one’s physical well being and made one healthier and happier, and in fact a lack of forced sex resulted in a serious deterioration of one's health. And suppose that for some other physiological reason men could not properly perform sexually unless they started by forcing a woman to have sex, i.e. men could not respond to a willing partner. Suppose, in other words, we were a very different sort of animal such that rape actually had a long list of beneficial effects and few or no bad ones.

If all this were the case, wouldn’t rape, i.e. forcing someone to have sex against one’s will, be something good? Kind of like forcing a smoker to quit smoking? If we were this type of animal, whether God created us this way or we evolved this way (this view of morality is independent of whether God exists, and many theists agree on these or similar grounds that morality is independent of God, i.e. that the divine command theory of morality is wrong), would God have to declare that rape is good, perhaps even obligatory, since the benefits are so much greater than the harms? If so, that would mean that morality depends on what happens to be good or bad, beneficial or harmful, for humans, on what promotes or hinders human flourishing, and that we determine the morality of an act based on its cumulative good or bad effects. Or, would God still have to say that rape is bad because it is bad according to an unchanging absolute principle which is independent of humans and what sort of creatures we are? In which case we would have to do things that are ultimately bad for us just because they happen to be in accordance with some absolute standard which is independent of us and which has nothing essential to do with us, a standard which is, from our perspective, entirely arbitrary.

Yes, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are real. And yes, morality is real. And there are at least some objective elements to morality, there is an at least partially objective basis for moral decisions. There are real standards of behavior, there is at least some agreement to what these standards are, and we recognize these facts. But this does not mean that morality is absolute, unchanging, and dependent on God. It is due to the fact that we are one sort of being and not another. Correspondingly, there are some things that are good for us, that benefit us and contribute to our well being, and other things that harm us. In this, we are like trees. A certain amount of sunlight and rain benefits trees: they can thrive and grow as healthy trees. Too little water, however, or temperatures too cold or too hot, will harm and even kill them. Also like us, there is a rather wide range of amounts of sunlight, rain, and warmth in which trees can thrive, and a very wide and fuzzy border between beneficial and harmful conditions. Further, like us, that range and those borders are different for different trees and in different environments. This means that good and bad consequences are both real (the trees, and we, really are benefited by some things and harmed by others) and relative (what things cause benefit and harm depend on the individuals and the overall situation they are in).

The significant difference between trees and us is that we can think, we are consciously aware of what is going on, and we can also act, we can move around and do things. When we act, our actions have consequences. Since we can think, we are consciously aware of our responsibility for the consequences of our actions. I use ‘responsible’ here in a morally neutral sense, in the sense that a bolt of lightning can be said to be responsible for, i.e. the cause of, a forest fire. Combine thinking and acting, and we can imagine doing different acts and at least roughly approximate the probable results of those acts. This is what allows us to choose to do one thing rather than another. So, in addition to this awareness of responsibility for the consequences of our actions, we are aware of our responsibility for the consequences of how we choose to act. We are not just aware of consequences, we can choose those consequences. This is where responsibility in the moral sense comes in. We can hold ourselves and others morally responsible for our actions.

But where does the morality itself come from? Not from just what naturally is, I’ll grant that. I am not trying to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, i.e. trying to say that because something is a certain way that it therefore should be that way. Rather, morality comes (in part) from what could be. That is, I can imagine taking different actions in a particular situation, and I can, with a more or less reliable degree of accuracy, calculate the probable consequences of those actions. Certain actions will result in beneficial consequences for myself, other individuals, and the society on which we all depend for our well being, i.e. certain actions will be more likely to promote human flourishing. Certain other actions will likely result in harm. But which of those results we try for, i.e. what could be, is up to us. Benefit or harm: it’s our choice. Right actions are those which result in beneficial consequences, wrong acts result in bad consequences.

Or, rather, it would be more accurate to say ‘better’ or ‘worse’ actions than ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ actions. As I pointed out, there is a wide range of consequences that can to varying degrees promote human flourishing, and that range is contingent on the individuals and situations involved. What really does benefit some people in some situations really would cause harm to others in that situation, or even to those some in a different situation. Real standards for real moral decisions, but they are relative to the situations. But that undercuts a significant pillar on which God-based morality stands.

Further, with humans, good or bad consequences can be subjective, too. I can be emotionally harmed as well as physically harmed by another’s actions. And the harm is no less real for being subjective. To say that if morality is subjective then it is arbitrary, groundless, or frivolous is to deny the reality and significance of subjectivity, of the mental or emotional or “spiritual” side of humans. Ironically, though, as I pointed out earlier, theists often fault “materialists” for denying precisely this, yet they do so themselves if they say that a subjective morality, a morality of and dependent on mind, is frivolous. Subjectivity is real, and it is far from frivolous. So, from the reality of morality it does not necessarily follow that morality is objective. It can be subjective (or at least have subjective elements) and still be real. But that undercuts another significant pillar on which God-based morality stands.

Another problem is that ‘good’ is not fully commensurable. In other words, things that are good are not always compatible with one another. What is good for some may at the same time be harmful to others; do you sacrifice the good of some to prevent harm to others, or do you allow harm to others to achieve the good for some? It is good to uphold justice, to mete out rewards and punishments as they are deserved. But it is also good to be merciful, to grant an undeserved reprieve to someone who seems to have learned his lesson and desires to reform. So mercy, a good, is impossible to achieve without violating justice, another good. It is good to tell a negative truth to someone if a lack of awareness of that truth would cause harm, but it is bad to hurt someone’s feelings by telling that truth. Moral dilemmas are not about good versus evil. That is not a moral dilemma, that is a dilemma of will, of choosing what you know is right. A moral dilemma is when you have to choose between two competing goods, or when you have to choose between two unavoidable evils, or when it is unclear whether a certain set of consequences is good or bad, or when it is clear that a particular consequence is both good and bad. So, goodness is not unified, either. Nor is ‘good’ always obvious. We cannot accurately predict all the probable consequences of an action or the precise probability of those consequences, and even when we can it is often difficult to judge how good or bad, how beneficial or harmful, those consequences are. Sometimes we do not and cannot with confidence know what is definitively right even if there is a definitive right. Other times we can know with confidence that there is no definitive right. And this undercuts yet another significant pillar on which God-based morality stands.

But what of the ‘oughtness’ of morality, i.e. that which is generally taken to be the essence, or at least a significant part of the essence, of morality? C.S. Lewis (in Mere Christianity) says of this ‘oughtness’ that it is something “urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong. I think we have to assume it is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know … “ All right, so it comes, as he admits, from mind. In other words, the ‘oughtness’ of morality, that which is at the essence of morality, is subjective. Even if, as Lewis goes on to claim, that mind is the mind of God. By definition, mind is subjectivity. But does it need to come from the mind of God? Why couldn’t it come from our own minds? After all, if what is “moral” is what promotes human flourishing, then being moral is to function well as a human. It is just a description of how humans function well. Given our evolved abilities to act and to think and to think about acting, it would make perfect sense from an evolutionary standpoint for us to have also evolved a capacity to care about all this, that we would want to do the sorts of things that would likely tend to promote our well-being, and the well-being of the other individuals and the society we depend on for our own well-being. Oughtness comes from caring. All the above about beneficial and harmful consequences, about acts promoting or hindering human flourishing, about choices being better or worse, all may be true, but it does not matter if you do not care. But if you care, it matters to you. And the more you care, the more deeply it matters. You feel strongly that you should act in ways to benefit whatever you care about. In other words, you feel you ought to do some things and ought not to do others.

But, one may ask, why should I care in the first place? Well, if ‘should’ is a form of ‘ought’, and ‘ought’ is dependent on care, then without care, there is no ‘ought’ or ‘should’. You will in fact be much more likely to live a better, healthier, happier life if you care than if you do not. But that does not matter if you do not care. If you do not care, there really is nothing to force you to care; even if there were a ‘should’, it could not have an effect on you. ‘Should’ presupposes caring. But this is not a problem just for this nontheistic, naturalistic account of morality. Without caring, not even God, not even the threat of hell, could provide you with an effective ‘should’. If I do not care whether I wind up in heaven or hell, if I do not care about even my own fate, if I can sit there rotting in hell and not care, even those ultimate rewards or punishments will not give me a reason to be moral.

So how do we start to care? Where does caring come from? As far as I can tell, it is a natural capacity, a natural potentiality that is not too difficult to activate. At least, it is not difficult to begin to activate it. To continue to grow that capacity, to cultivate it such that it will effectively serve more productive ends more conducive to the flourishing of life, is another, more difficult matter, a matter of moral training. But the initial leverage appears to be relatively easy to activate. Again, this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective as well as from the perspective that God created us: a natural capacity to care about our own well being and the well being of others is a fundamental necessity for intelligent social animals to achieve that well being. We care, and so, based on our beliefs about what acts will lead to what consequences, we feel we ought to do some things and not to do other things.

All this, I think, does a much better job of explaining and accounting for the differences people feel in how this oughtness is compelling us to act than does the God-based view of morality. It also does a much better job of explaining the incommensurability of good, and the difficulty and disagreements we often have of determining what really would be good in a certain situation. In addition, it can account for being able to say that some moral choices and standards really are better than others: some really do tend to result in more real benefit and less real harm than others. Further, we really can be mistaken in our calculations of what actions will lead to benefit or harm, and in what consequences would actually be beneficial or harmful in the first place. I do have real grounds, objective and subjective, for saying that the Nazis got a few things wrong in their moral calculations. And all this without appealing to any gods.

But why, then, would we ever be immoral? If morality is doing that which promotes our well being, why would we go against it? To answer that, I’ll start by saying that I think there is something to the Christian doctrine of original sin. It does point to something real about us, though its account of that something is, I believe, off the mark. We are born ignorant. We enter the world ignorant of causes and effects, and unaware of the reality of others’ subjectivity. We arrive viewing the world from a narrow, short sighted, self-centered perspective, not caring or even thinking to care about others. We must learn what acts lead to what consequences, and which consequences are beneficial or harmful. We must learn that our own well being is dependent on the well being of others and of the society we live in. Further, since benefit and harm are to some extent relative to individuals and situations, what constitutes better or worse choices can change in changing circumstances. So intending to do good by doing what used to be beneficial may result in harm. Thus we must learn to adjust our behavior to fit changing circumstances. And we must also learn to care for others and their well being. We are born with a capacity to learn to care for others, but that capacity must be activated. To the extent that we actualize our potential to view the world from a broad perspective, to take a long view, to take others’ well being into account, and to care for others enough to want to take their well being into account, to that extent we activate our capacity for morality. To the extent that this development is thwarted or bent, we are immoral. This depends in large part on the training we receive when young, and then on the actual results of our actions as we try to make our way through life.

It also depends on the type of person we want to be. Since you can make reasonably good estimations of the probable consequences of your actions, and since some of those consequences include the effects on your own character and how your character develops and grows, you can to a large extent choose the kind of person you want to be, then put yourself in situations in which you can act in ways to become that kind of person. An athlete will train not just for sports in general or even just for a particular sport, but also for a particular narrow ability in that sport. Athletes put themselves in situations where they have to exercise the general and specific skills they will need for games, to become better players. With enough practice, the skills become habits and performing them is second nature. Likewise, you can train yourself morally, in both general and very specific ways, by placing yourself in situations in which you can practice acting in certain ways (or, correspondingly, keeping yourself out of situations in which you would likely act in harmful ways). With practice, acting in those ways becomes habit. In other words, though much of your moral character depends on how others trained you and treated you when you were young, your moral character also depends on how you train yourself. Thus you are not a passive beneficiary or victim of the circumstances which created the you that you are; you are also an active creator of those circumstances. And even to the extent you are not responsible for the situation you find yourself in, you are, as an active agent, responsible for what you make of the situation you find yourself in. You are responsible for you, and you cannot avoid that responsibility. You are, then, responsible for your condition of “original sin.” The human condition is essentially and inescapably a moral condition.

And this morality is not either objective or subjective. Even less is it either absolute and universal or merely groundless preferences and arbitrary choices. If a rape victim is not physically harmed, then the only harm is psychological, i.e. subjective. But that does not mean the harm is any less real than if it were physical, i.e. objective. And the fact that it is subjective certainly does not mean that it is a matter of arbitrary choice: the victim does not choose to be traumatized by the experience. The fact that harshly punishing one criminal would be much more effective than showing leniency in reforming that person does not mean that such harshness would not ruin, either by hardening or crushing, another criminal who would have reformed much more easily if shown mercy. And the fact that the same standard does not work the same in different cases does not negate the fact that one standard really does work better than the alternatives in some of those cases. Values do not have to be objective in order to be real; subjective values are also real. Values do not have to be absolute to be real; relative values are also real.

It may sound contradictory to say that morality is both objective and subjective, that it has both objective and subjective elements in it. But, if you think about it, this should be expected. We are, after all, both objects and subjects: we are bodies (objects) which house minds (subjects). So naturally some values are objective while some are subjective. Nourishing food is objectively valuable to me. Friendship is subjectively valuable to me, and its subjectivity does not make it any less real or valuable. Honesty is valuable in a number of ways, because being able to trust one another’s statements allows us to act far more efficiently and effectively in our social environment (in some situations, dishonesty may give one a short term advantage, but a reputation for being dishonest harms one in the long run; moral maturity is the ability to distinguish and pursue long-term general benefits over short-term narrow benefits). My valuing such things is a conscious awareness that they are valuable, and so is subjective. My values could be wrong, or misguided: I could value something that is not in fact valuable to me, or I could fail to recognize that something else really is valuable to me. Again, real standards for real judgments about subjective values. So, again, from the reality of morality it does not follow that morality is objective, nor that it is universal, nor that it is absolute.

Morality does not, nor does it need to, derive its authority from a lawgiver. In fact, the situation is precisely the opposite: moral laws, moral rules and precepts, derive their authority from the real and inescapable moral condition we find ourselves in. Actions and consequences are better or worse, they are more or less beneficial or harmful to our flourishing. Our sense of morality is merely a recognition of this reality and seriously caring about it. This recognition, this sense of morality, being a product of our minds, is subjective. The moral rules and precepts we come up with are our attempts to achieve the beneficial results and avoid the harmful ones, they are our hypotheses about the ways to live good human lives, how to flourish as humans. These moral rules and precepts, again being products of our minds, are subjective. But this subjective awareness is an accurate recognition of our real condition, and our subjectively determined rules and precepts are subject to real judgments based on the real results that follow from putting them into practice. Our moral rules are not judged by some absolute standard of law given to us by a god, nor do they receive their power or their claim on us from some absolute standard. Rather, they (including any alleged standard given to us by any alleged deity) are judged by and derive their power from reality, the real world in which we (including any alleged deity) live and act. Just as reason is subject to reality, morality is also subject to reality, not vice-versa.

One possible objection to all this is to ask, this may be all well and good, maybe we can have morality without God, but, so what? Without someone (i.e. God) to be accountable to, how can anyone be trusted? If there is no heaven to reward or hell to punish, then why not go out and rape and pillage the world? Why not lie, cheat, steal, and kill whenever you can get away with it?

I have to wonder about anyone who would ask such a question. I have to wonder if I can trust anyone who thinks like this. Is it revealing your own character? Is this really what you would do if you could get away with it? Is the only reason you are good because you fear the punishment that would result from being bad? Is your own capacity for morality so underdeveloped or warped that you cannot even imagine someone doing what is good simply because it is good? Can you not even imagine caring? If this is how you feel, then you are why we need police and prisons, and the rest of us need to figure out better ways to help you and others like you develop or reform your thwarted moral capacities.

Another more serious objection is to ask: So what? So morality can be real without God and without being absolute and eternal. But what does it matter if we are not eternal? What difference does it make if we die and that’s that? What if there is no heaven, regardless of whether there is no hell? Why not just eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow we die and then nothing else matters?

For one thing, it is almost never the case that tomorrow we die. Almost always, if we eat and drink to excess, tomorrow we live, and we live with extra weight and a hangover. There is only one day (out of an average approaching 30,000 days) in each person’s life for which it is true that tomorrow we die. And we almost never know which day that is. On most days, we can count on the probability of having months, years, even decades to live with the consequences of what we do today. So I’ll turn the question back on the theist: so nothing we do will ever matter to the universe at the end of time. So what? We are not the universe at the end of time. We are us, here and now, and for some number of years from now, and our children and at least some other people we care about for even longer. And what we do now does matter to us now, and for the amount of time we have left, and it does matter to other people who matter to us. What we do now can make an enormous difference for us over the rest of those however many years. To claim otherwise, to say that it makes no difference whether I am a merry prince or a miserable pauper (or a miserable prince or a merry pauper), is to deny any significance to this life. Do you think that this life matters? Does it not matter to you? It matters to me, and that is enough for me.

But, still, you may ask, what’s the point? Why does it matter? How does it matter? If we’re all just gonna die anyway and that’s the end, why bother at all? What meaning is there to any of this? How, in the absence of God, can life have any meaning? What is the point of our existence?

This is the other big question I had to face to rebuild a world after my Christian worldview collapsed. Does life in a godless universe have any meaning? Can this life matter to me? From the example of Uncle Nick and others, I knew people can live meaningful, fulfilling, happy lives without God. But how?

It had been so easy to answer this question by appealing to God: God provides the meaning, like he provides morality. Yet on closer examination, this too fell short, and did not really deliver what it promised. I found two problems with this answer. First, did this life ever really mean all that much to me when I was a Christian focused on the next life? Or did all its meaning derive from that alleged next life? Is this world, and living here, just a way station on the journey to the real world that really matters? Is there nothing in this life that really matters except for whether you accept Jesus as your savior? What life does Christianity really provide meaning for? This one that we know we are living here in this world, or a possible next life we hope some day to be living in an alleged other world? A second problem is that meaning, like a sense of obligation in morality, is subjective. Meaning is radically subjective: it is not something that can be shared. Even if my life means something to God, it does not necessarily follow that it means anything to me. That would only be the case if I care about what matters to God.

There are two senses of meaning: meaning for and meaning to. For a tree, a lack of rain means it will suffer, and with a long enough drought it will die. That does not, and cannot, mean anything to a tree, because it has no ability even to be aware of that fact, much less to care about it. “Meaning for,” then, as I am using it here, is an objective sense of the term. “Meaning to” is meaning in a subjective sense, an experienced meaning, a meaning we are aware of, that we can feel, it is a personal meaning. The source of “meaning for” is external, such as cause and effect in the physical world, stuff in motion bumping into other stuff resulting in a set of consequences. God, then, would be another source of “meaning for”: God’s meaning for our lives, what our lives mean to God, would be something externally given to us. His plan for our lives would mean that this and that are the case and this and that are not. But “meaning to” is the meaning that matters to us, that we care about. It is our meaning. And care is the source of that meaning, our caring is that meaning. If I care about my own life, what happens in my life matters to me, it means something to me as well as for me. And if I care about others, then what happens to them matters to me. To an extent, meaning is just a natural consequence of being aware, of having subjectivity, of recognizing the reality of “meaning for,” of realizing the fact that, for example, eating moldy bread means we will get sick. Meaning, to some degree, just comes to us merely because we are aware. But that is only the beginning. There are many levels and depths of meaning, and to get beyond that basic level we must do something to cultivate meaning, we must actively create meaning, meaning to us.

Meaning, and a meaningful, fulfilling life, is, I have found, something we are capable of, something we can create, and we can create it in a number of ways. But that is no guarantee that any of us will succeed. We may never learn how, we may never succeed in achieving fulfillment. Perhaps we try in ways that are not compatible with our characters or capabilities, such as accomplishing goals that are out of our reach or that are shallow and unfulfilling even if attained. Perhaps circumstances beyond our control thwart our efforts which would otherwise have succeeded. Many people have not succeeded in finding, or creating, a meaningful, fulfilling life. But obviously many people have succeeded, and obviously they have succeeded in many different ways, including different religious ways and ways not involving religion. But from the fact that some people have found meaning and fulfillment in one or another version of God, and even if those people are unable to find meaning and fulfillment in any other way, it does not follow either that everyone else can do the same, or that no one else can find meaning and fulfillment any other way. You are not the measure of all things, you and your experiences and your understanding of those experiences are not the standard by which all meaning is measured. Merely because you found meaning in your version of Jesus, or Allah, or Zeus or whomever/whatever, and you were not able to find meaning any other way, it does not follow that this holds for everyone else or even anyone else. Just a few examples of people who have found meaning and fulfillment in other ways demonstrates that one does not necessarily have to follow your path to find meaning.

Likewise, just a few examples are enough to demonstrate that one does not need to be, nor even believe oneself to be, a significant character in a grand, cosmic role to lead a meaningful, fulfilling life. If you do need that, if you say that this life in all its mundane everydayness is not enough, perhaps you have not learned enough or grown enough to find satisfying abundance in the everyday and mundane. It is not that the abundance comes from the mundane, but that you can create it out of yourself in the mundane. You do not need to look beyond yourself. If you need to look beyond yourself, then probably the mundane is and never will be enough. You will probably need, or at least need to believe in, a grand cosmic scheme and a role for yourself in it. If this is the way you feel, perhaps you need to ask yourself what you think it is that your life is missing such that you feel you need a God to fill it.

I have found from the examples of others, and I am finding from my own experience, that, with a little help from ones friends, one can create satisfying meaning and fulfillment from oneself, and it can be done in a variety of ways. Many people have found meaning in various forms of Christianity, or Islam or Buddhism or nonreligious sources. So a fulfilling life is achievable, and it can be achieved in a variety of ways. On the other hand, it is obvious that many people have failed to find meaning in one or another of the various forms of Christianity, or Islam or Buddhism or nonreligious means. Many have failed to find meaning from any source they have tried. I agree with theists who stress the impossibility of finding deep and satisfying meaning solely by achieving a high status in one’s career or making a lot of money or having a lot of sex or some other external, usually competitive or comparative, standard of that sort. But the problem may be one of trying to get meaning out of religion or a fancy car or whatever, rather than bringing meaning to it. Meaning is not given to us from anything, we give meaning to it. Meaning is not created for us; we create meaning for ourselves. I have found that, for me anyway, internal and cooperative standards provide a very rich soil for growing a meaningful and fulfilling life. It is in building caring relationships with myself and with others that this meaning comes.

I once found a source of meaning in a relationship with God, or at least in what I thought was a relationship with God. Then I realized that “God” was a label I had been taught to place on certain subjective experiences, a misunderstanding of those experiences. I realized that “God” was not really “out there” existing objectively and independently of my, or anyone else’s, thoughts about him. But the meaning, the fulfillment I experienced, when I experienced it, was real. I felt kind of like Dumbo the flying elephant when he discovered that the magic feather which he thought made him capable of flying really was not magic, and he had really been flying on his own. On the other hand, that analogy does not quite work, because Dumbo just held the feather, he did not flap it around or do anything with the feather to actually help him fly. My belief in God, on the other hand, was not just something that I passively held to make me believe I could create meaning by doing something else; rather, that belief was precisely what I used to create meaning and fulfillment for myself. So I could not just keep “flapping my ears” as Dumbo did. I was “using the feather,” so I still had to find a way, or ways, to replace the belief I had been using to create meaning.

The fact that we have the capacity, the potential, for creating meaning and achieving fulfillment in life, does not guarantee that we will get there. Actually, there is no “there” in the sense of a final destination or finished product anyway. It is not a case of either experiencing “abundance” of some sort or not; abundance admits of degrees. Wherever you are, there is always more growth possible. I am not, and would not claim to be, a sage or a guru who has “arrived.” I’ve just found ways to be satisfied by my journey. Nor would I claim that I am always feeling happy at all times and delighted at all that happens. Far from it. But I’m not really talking about feeling happy all the time, or even trying to do so. What I mean by finding meaning and fulfillment is that even in the down times, I still feel that it is worth it. I would not claim to be where Anne Frank was when, in the midst of the madness of World War II and the Holocaust, she was able to say that “in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart,” but I think I can at least understand how one could find even a life like hers to be worthwhile (even if I might not be able to do it myself). Nor would I claim to be a sage or a guru who can teach anyone else how to achieve any of this; I think that this is something each of us has to learn on our own.

I can say that I have found that I am capable of happiness, joy, and abundance right here in this life, regardless of whether or not there is a god. In terms of having a meaningful life, the existence of God has become, for me, an irrelevant question. His actual existence, were I to discover it, probably would result in me making changes in myself and my actions, it may well make a difference in how I go about pursuing meaning and fulfillment, but it would not make a difference as to whether I could do so, nor in the source of that meaning and fulfillment. By my differentiation of ‘meaning for’ and ‘meaning to’, God’s existence would provide more meaning for me, but it could not provide more meaning to me; only I can do that for myself. My life’s meaning and abundance, any fulfillment I achieve in it, is derived from life itself, from the life I am living. It is sufficient for itself. Our existence is its own point. If it turns out that this is all there is, then it is more than worth the effort.

As a born-again Christian, I believed that I had arrived, that I was “there,” that there was no “beyond” where I was. Continued growth, certainly yes, the spiritual growth of becoming increasingly Christlike. But that growth was just to be more of the same; there was no being born-again again. Now, I see that there is a “beyond” all that, and as far as I can see there is and will always be further “beyonds.” But there being no ultimate destination given to us from outside for us to finally achieve does not mean that the journey is pointless. Rather it is the journey itself that is the point. Life is its own meaning. Again, what I thought of as the “there must be more to it than that” when I looked at this life was, I eventually realized, already in the “that,” at least potentially, anyway. And it is up to each of us to actualize that potential for ourselves.

As a Christian, I felt that I had an abundant life. But life is even more abundant for me now. From my present perspective, the abundance I felt I had as a Christian seems rather shallow and could not match what I have achieved now. It would be easy for me to say that this is a result of me “moving beyond” Christianity, just as I’ve heard so many evangelists say that their current abundance as Christians is so much deeper and more fulfilling than anything they experienced before committing their lives to Christ. They found greater fulfillment after they became Christians. I, and other former Christians I know, found greater fulfillment after dropping Christianity. So I don’t think that picking up or dropping Christianity necessarily has much to do with living a fulfilling life. But the one thing we have in common is that we are all older, so I suspect it has more to do with age and maturity than with picking up or dropping Christianity.

Yet, I think there are ways in which giving up Christianity, moving beyond Christianity, has helped me to find more and deeper meaning and satisfaction in life than I could as a Christian. As a Christian, I wondered how people without God could really appreciate life and the world and all its beauty, and I doubted that they could do so to the extent I as a Christian could. Without a relationship with the Creator, how could one really appreciate creation? But, much to my surprise, I have found life, the universe, everything to be much more wondrous and beautiful without God. When I was a Christian, I considered this world to be just a sign of the next world, the really real world. The beauty of this world was merely a reflection of some other world. The beauty I experienced in this world was derivative. Now, however, I see that this is the real world, this is the source of all the beauty, as well as all the misery, the joy and the sorrow, the fulfillment and the frustration. It is not derivative. It is all here. That allows me to appreciate this world in ways I could not as a Christian.

In addition to this, there is also the recognition that I am no longer merely the passive recipient of meaning given to me by God. I am actively creating it. I am responsible for it. If I am to find meaning and fulfillment in life, it is up to me to do it. And I can do it. I’m not always successful, and I have, and always will have, more to learn, but I am increasingly successful the more I work at it. And it is me working at it and accomplishing it. That realization in itself is profoundly fulfilling. And it is a fulfillment I do not think is possible for one who understands meaning to be something passively received from the outside, granted from a god or some other source. At least, it is not one I ever experienced when I depended on God to be the source of meaning and fulfillment in my life. Life is its own meaning. The journey is the destination.

Looking back at some of this last section, from one angle it looks to me like a series of shallow, trite platitudes, and I’m embarrassed to have written it. We’ve all heard it all before: “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” all that sort of thing. But from another angle, I am able to see what, to me anyway, is quite profound. Perhaps the fact that I can find that sort of tripe to be profound says something negative about me. Or, maybe there is a point to the claim that abundance, fulfillment, a deeply satisfying joy, can be found right here in the mundaneness of everyday life. Maybe the point is to learn how to see life from that angle.

 

 

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