Millions of godless people in this country, and billions worldwide, are raising their kids to be moral, ethical people without religion. And, yet, the following questions are often posed by believers:
If there isn’t a God, what makes people “good”? How are “right” and “wrong” defined? And why should children feel compelled to do good?
My initial reaction to these questions is annoyance. It’s like, really? Are we still talking about this? I mean, I honestly find it a little painful to explain it because it seems so obvious to me and others like me. But that, in a nutshell, is why I would make a terrible teacher.
So I am going to try really hard right now — to the best of my abilities — to answer this question with kindness and patience. (And without detailing all the instances in which Christian college students have gotten wasted-drunk, raped their dates and then blamed their dates for getting raped. See how nice I am?)
1. What is morality?
Morality is a set of principles that people use to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong.
2. How do we form our morals?
Practically speaking, a person’s sense of right and wrong may come from any number of places:
- Personal experience: “I was molested when I was a kid and it was awful; I would never do that to another human being.”
- Religious beliefs: “The Bible says that homosexuality is wrong, so it must be wrong.”
- Authority figures: “My mom says it’s not okay to lie, and I believe her.”
- Reason: “I don’t need to be told not to kill people. I can think of a whole bunch of reasons on my own for why killing is wrong.”
- Gut feelings: “My friends are telling me to have sex with this really drunk girl, but that just doesn’t feel right to me.”
3. Where do morals come from?
Now we are stepping outside the practical realm and into philisophical territory. Because the thing is, no one knows “where morals come from.” Some people believe they know, but they don’t. Here are some beliefs and theories:
- God: Some people believe morality comes directly from a creator god. We “know” what is good because God has told us what is good. According to this belief, you can’t untie morality from religion because a supreme deity is what gives society its moral compass.
- Society: Some people believe morality was instilled in humans by humans — that it was a trial-and-error system that took place over millions of years. Maybe, for example, stealing was once considered totally acceptable — but over time, societies of people decided that stealing was causing too many problems and started to shun those who did it. Eventually, societies drew up standards of conduct — reinforced by stories and myths — for how to spread morality. (Jail cells soon followed.)
- Evolution: Some people believe that morality has a biological nature. They believe that certain behavior evolved as “right” or “wrong” based on each behavior’s possible survival and/or reproductive benefits. For instance, some evolutionary biologists contend, humans may have evolved “pro-social” emotions — such as feelings of empathy or guilt — in response to moral behaviors.
4. If morals aren’t divinely ordained, then how can you tell a child what is right and wrong?
First of all, don’t create problems where none exist. I can’t imagine any parent who doesn’t see it as her mission and duty to show her child right from wrong. We all want our kids to be safe and to be kind and to be happy; morality is an essential part of that. And the vast majority of us have very clear ideas of morality and no problem instilling those morals in our kids. For most of us — Christians, Muslims, secularists — it comes down to the ethic of reciprocity; Christians like the ethic because that’s what Jesus said to do (The Golden Rule). I like it because that’s what makes sense to me, intellectually and emotionally.
That said, when you divorce morality from divinity, you must acknowledge that each of us has the ability to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. The standards of morality might change over time. And what I think is immoral may not match up with was you think is immoral. There are lots (and lots and lots) of moral gray areas.
Now, that may not be a conversation you can have with a 3-year-old who has just hit his sister in the head, but it makes for fantastic fodder for people between the ages of, say, 10 and 100.
First off, moral relativity has two different meanings.
- It refers to the belief that people can have different opinions about what is moral, and that no one person is objectively right or wrong.
- Second, it refers to the belief that because no one is right or wrong, we should tolerate the behavior of others even when we disagree about the morality of it.
I strongly agree with the first notion and strongly oppose the second.
I do believe that people can have different opinions about what is moral — they often do! — and I do believe that no one is objectively right or wrong. That’s precisely why there is so much talk about it. That’s why so many of history’s most brilliant philosophers dedicated their lives to the study of it. That’s why I’m writing about it now.
But that does not mean that societies shouldn’t stand together and decide, as a group, what should be tolerated and what shouldn’t. It does not mean there shouldn’t be laws in place to prevent people from doing terrible things (i.e. things that we collectively deem to be terrible). Or that we shouldn’t speak out against moral atrocities being committed by foreign governments. Or that we shouldn’t try to hash out moral ambiguities when we see them.
6. How can you say that children should feel free to make up their own minds about their beliefs and still expect them to be good?
I don’t care to focus on whether my kid believes in gods or angels or heaven and focus instead on whether she understands that being a kind, ethical person is truly the most important thing. Be the best person you can be, and always strive to do better. I believe it’s what will help her make sense of the world and get along with people; it’s what will help her work through problems and make major life decisions; it’s what will keep her safe; it’s what will keep her out of trouble; it’s what will keep her from getting hurt; it’s what will help her feel good; and it’s what will help her make the world a better place.
What is good? My kid will have to decide that for herself, as we all do. But until then, I will be her guide, as I am through all important matters. And, luckily, I don’t expect her to put up much of a fight.
She’s good that way.
This is the second part of a three-part series. Coming Friday: Do Secular Parents Have a Duty to Teach Their Kids About Religion?