This weekend after watching one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies with me, my daughter turned to me and asked, “How does that compass work, anyway? I mean, what does it DO?” I explained to her that it works by leading you, not in a cardinal direction, but by showing you the way to whatever it is that you want most.
The fictitious compass represents a bit of delicious irony in that a compass is supposed to be nothing if not an objective guide to help you navigate the open sea. Devoid of landmarks or stars or sun under a cloudy sky, you can use a normal compass to discern which way is north, and by that heading, a seafaring crew can set their course toward whatever destination merits their weeks of perilous travel across often hostile waters.
But not this compass. No, this quirky little navigational tool takes you in a subjective direction, leading you toward whatever it is that you seek most.
“How can we sail to an island that nobody can find, with a compass that doesn’t work?”
“Aye, the compass doesn’t point north, but we’re not trying to find north, are we?” 1
I am persuaded this little instrument illustrates an irony that is not fictitious at all, namely that our moral systems of guidance are no more objective than the compass Jack Sparrow carries around with him on his many misadventures.2 And that furthermore, that is perfectly okay.
Defenders of the Abrahamic religions make much of the notion that “right vs. wrong” cannot be known apart from assuming the existence of, specifically, their particular deity. I believe they’re mistaken, and what’s more, I don’t think you even have to think very hard to figure that out.
As a side note, how natural theology argues for the existence of only one god rather than several competing ones is beyond me (nor have they ever explained that logic to my knowledge). But it is my conviction that they are only fooling themselves when they assert that their sense of morality is rooted in something transcendent, something timeless and not subject to the cultural conditioning of whichever historical settings produced the moral guidelines they are convinced are for all times and places.
When Up Is No Longer Up
Think about a normal compass for a moment. It points toward magnetic north, right? Is that an objective direction? Well, yes and no. I realize saying “head west on I-90” works better than saying “turn left” since that depends on which direction you were heading before you reached the turn. But that’s strictly a question of utility. It doesn’t get at the more philosophical question of whether or not there is such a thing as “true north.”
Did you know that our planet’s magnetic poles reverse direction every once in a while? We’re actually overdue for another reversal as we speak, and some argue that we may have already begun to see one. Every few hundred thousand years or so, north becomes south and vice versa, and during the in-between stages a number of weird things will likely occur—mostly a lot of birds and fish will get confused and the Aurora Borealis will spread farther to the lower latitudes for a while but nothing cataclysmic from what I’ve read.
But take a mental trip with me up to the moon for a moment. No…better yet…let’s go farther, to Proxima Centauri, to the closest star to our own sun, about 4.24 light years away from our own solar system. Which way is north, now? And is it distinguishable from south? It turns out that in space, which takes up a whole heck of a lot more, well, space…than our own planet does, there is no meaning to the words “north” or “south.”
In most of the universe, there is no such thing as “up” or “down.” Once you leave our planet, so many of our words for direction become utterly meaningless.
By the way, that’s kind of what it’s like when you outgrow the religion of your youth. It’s disorienting, to say the least. But I’m not convinced we’re doing ourselves a disservice when we raise our level of awareness by expanding our frame of reference to encompass more than our own tiny little kingdoms in which we grew up. Are our little reality bubbles so important that something is lost by stepping outside of them once in a while to look at the bigger picture?
It’s scary, I’ll grant that. Just as floating in space for the first time must be for those whose careers have shot them out of Earth’s atmosphere aboard a rocket exploding at 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit. I can imagine the loss of objective reference points is enough to make you lose your breakfast right there inside your space suit. Metaphorically speaking, I feel like I know something of that sensation as well. But back to my point.
I’ve written about this before. In fact “Let the Stars Be My Guide” was actually the first coherent thing I wrote as an atheist and it addressed this very idea: that even the constellations above us, while useful in providing reference points as we navigate the terrain far below where we actually live out our daily lives, are still constructs produced by our own vantage point. If we were to stand somewhere else, those familiar shapes would be gone and new ones would take their place.
For example, “The Big Dipper” doesn’t actually retain its shape if you travel to another part of the galaxy, nor will it retain its exact shape a million years from now. In fact, not everyone even recognizes a giant ladle when they look up at that same arrangement of unrelated stars. Some call it “The Plough,” and historically it has appeared to many as the tail end of a Great Bear, otherwise known as Ursa Major.
It doesn’t matter that this shape is made up by us. It’s still useful in helping us get to where we need to go.
And that’s how our moral values work as well. Theologians will argue that their particular system of beliefs is rooted in something transcendent, just as theologians of competing ideologies will argue that theirs invalidate all the others. If more of them could manage to step outside their tiny little epistemic enclosures to view the world from a wider viewpoint, they just might feel silly for having been so certain that their way of viewing the world was THE right way to see it.
Not So Objective After All
Christian apologists fancy their religion a bedrock reality rooted in something larger than life, and all other ideologies are like the shifting waves and sediment that crash against its ever-shifting shores. They call all non-theistic ideologies relativistic, which I find ironic for a number of reasons.
First, their own religion is as guilty of relativism as any other ideology, they just don’t realize it. At one point in their ancestral past, pork was bad, men could marry multiple women at once, and people could own other people as property, doing with them as they please and trading them for so many heads of cattle or whatever.
Killing entire villages of people to get their land was okay, too, under the right circumstances, and even on a rare occasion you may have to be willing to sacrifice your own child in order to appease an angry deity. Abraham was asked to do it, and while surviving accounts explain that he was ultimately freed from this obligation (a minority report in rabbinic literature says he actually went through with it and had to start over again with a new child), the New Testament lauds his willingness to kill his only child as a prototypical and exemplary act of the kind of faith God wants to see in each of us.
The Bible doesn’t praise Abraham because he didn’t kill his own child. It praises him because he was going to.— Neil Carter (@godlessindixie) February 23, 2016
Ultimately the entire Christian religion was predicated on the sacrifice of an only child—a firstborn, so to speak, which always seems to be God’s preference for some reason. Which means among other things that there are circumstances under which just about anything could be okay, provided it’s what God wants. This follows what some apologists call the Divine Command Theory of morality, and I cannot imagine a system more subjective and unreliable than that.
Suppose for a moment that we were debating morality and I told you that right and wrong ultimately depends on what my invisible rabbit friend Harvey likes and dislikes. Could we then have a rational discussion about what is and isn’t moral? What if Harvey changes his mind about something from time to time? Does that mean that right and wrong changes according to his moods? And how on earth could we reliably determine when that even happens? Who says when it has happened and when it hasn’t?
That, to me, sounds like the most relativistic morality imaginable. And yet that’s precisely what happens when we are told that “right vs. wrong” hinges on the contextually-conditioned feelings of an invisible deity who we are told speaks to representatives to communicate his will, and yet no one seems to be able to agree on which people that should be or on whether or not they are accurately perceiving his will.
And we humanists are the relativists?
I would argue that while humanists of every stripe can agree that human beings should never be treated as someone else’s property, theists of many kinds would argue that under the right circumstances it was okay. Furthermore, if we narrow our discussion to the Christian Bible, I would argue that one cannot assemble a clear and consistent case that humans shouldn’t be someone else’s property using that text because even in its later chapters it is still referring to human beings as “bought with a price” and “not their own.”
Even on a purely human level, the Bible never clearly denounces slavery as an institution. It assumes its cultural normalcy and never clearly states there is anything wrong with it. You would think that divine revelation wouldn’t be subject to social convention, but there you have it. Apparently God can only show people what the natural progress of social evolution has already shown them, and little more. One wonders, then, what the point of divine revelation really is.
Whenever Christian apologists want to demonstrate the superiority of their worldview to those which are nontheistic, they almost always accuse the rest of us of the very relativism which I’ve just argued plagues their own system.
In one sense I will have to agree with them that both of us are working from human constructs. In that sense, the difference between theirs and ours is that at least we are aware of the artificiality of our system, which makes us far more inclined to critically evaluate our own system in order to improve upon it as time goes on. They, on the other hand, have to keep doing hermeneutical gymnastics to constantly prove to themselves that whichever way they just changed their interpretation of God’s will was merely a rediscovery of what God was intending to communicate from the very beginning. This exercise can be incredibly exhausting, and frankly its not very intellectually honest. I see it as a monumental waste of energy and time.
More often than not, apologists misrepresent the humanistic perspective by portraying our system as individualistic, as if humanism were something that each of us personally reinvents on our own every day. I call this strawman version “you-manism,” and no one I know actually adheres to this system.
[Related: “Straw Skepticism in Tim Keller’s The Reason for God“]
Humanism represents an attempt to build a system of philosophy and ethics, artistic expression and societal norms around what’s in the best interests of the entire human race. It’s not about what I as an individual want. That’s an incorrect picture of humanism, but portraying it as such allows apologists to more easily knock down our philosophy, declaring their own superior without actually demonstrating how that is so.
This is the place where the analogy of Jack Sparrow’s enchanted compass breaks down. The compass from the film can only show one person at a time where he or she wants to go, and that is not like the value system I am advocating. Unlike that compass, humanism is about a collective effort to make the world a better place for everyone, not just for me individually.
Incidentally, I believe a mature humanism isn’t even just about bettering the human race, it’s about doing what’s in the best interests of our entire ecosystem, of which we are only a part. We are not islands unto ourselves, and our thriving is bound up in the thriving of the environment on which we depend for our very lives and sustenance.
All of this is to say: It’s okay to accept that our systems of values and beliefs are human constructs, including the ones we previously thought were not. Coming to grips with that is the only way we’ll learn to be free to question what we believe about how we live and how we treat one another. How else will we ever get any better?
[Image Source: YouTube]
1. Will Turner and Joshamee Gibbs in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.
2. Throughout this article when I use the word “objective” I mean to indicate something not subject to the values and goals of humans, as if handed down to us from “on high” by a divine source. When I say that our moral values are not objective I mean it primarily in that sense. This is not to say that we cannot settle on consistent values on which we can agree as a human race. I use the objective/subjective terminology to indicate that the ideas we are discussing are constructs created by us and for us, and are not rooted in something that stands over and above us, as if sourced in something transcendent.
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