what determines right and wrong?

right and wrong

Even if it’s just while we’re in the shower or incapacitated on the porcelain throne, we all spend at least a little time pondering the meaning of things. Someone who doesn’t even believe in God will have likely still concluded there’s some sort of inspired meaning to life. For them, that meaning might be wrapped up in worldly pleasure and riches, but it’s still a meaning. It’s driven by an urgent goal planted deep within us pushing us to play a part in some sort of massive system of things. Whether that particular self-focusing purpose is true or a deception is a topic for another day.

Some might claim that life has no meaning at all. I’ve met a few of those, and wasn’t surprised that they were a little depressed, angry, pessimistic, or some combination of the three. Maybe I can only speak for myself, but if you somehow convinced me that nothing has any meaning, I guarantee you I’d be sad. But why should I be sad if the statement is true? If nothing has any meaning, I should have never discovered that it has no meaning, or care at all for that matter. The very idea of caring means that it has… that’s right– meaning.

The concept of “no meaning” contradicts my soul, which screams everlasting purpose. I call it my soul anyway. Someone without faith might call it my hypothalamus, which is the part of my brain where my motivation, emotions, my ability to learn, and even my memory comes from.

To me, that’s like saying the shirt I’m wearing right now originated from the Target store down the street from my house. But my gut (and the shirt’s inexplicable label) says that it was really made in India. An atheist or agnostic, if their views about faith were applied to this, might argue that we can only say the shirt came from Target since it is impossible to prove which cotton field supplied the material to which factory, and which shirt maker actually made the shirt. The purchase receipt says Target. We can also go to the address listed on that receipt and find more of the same shirt. Therefore, even though it’s possible the shirt was made in India, we can only say (and confidently believe) that it came from Target. The atheist-agnostic stops there, even though they know their answer is logically incomplete.

Sorry if I lost you there. Back on track now, though. (You’re getting a glimpse of my own shower-talk right now. Seriously, I can’t shut it off and it’s annoying sometimes.)

If you ask someone who doesn’t rely on a God-given design “What determines right and wrong,” the answer you might get is something along the lines of this:

“If it hurts myself or someone else, then you shouldn’t do it.”

Side note: I’ve noticed many people without faith don’t like to acknowledge universal right and wrong. They say the word “relative” a lot, or “dynamic,” which, admittedly makes them sound super smart. But if universal truth exists (ask a mathematician if two plus two always equals four), why is universal right and wrong such a controversy? The only reason I can think of is because it implies we aren’t as brilliant and wise as we like to think we are. And we simply don’t like that.

As a Christian, this right and wrong answer is encouraging to hear (at first), since it’s not terribly far off from what the Bible says. But this person already having an others-focused mindset might actually make it tougher to build an argument for why they should seek a life that is surrendered to God. This supports the truth that no one will come to faith until they are humbled, honest, and ready (or as a Christian would say, “called”).

They believe they’re a good person and they already seem to have a solid understanding of morality, so why do they need a relationship with God? But what the moral-yet-faithless person doesn’t understand is that, based on their lack of faith, their measurement of morality actually doesn’t line up with what they say they believe. It’s impossible to explain through their worldview why they logically feel that any selfless tendency is, so to speak, “right.”

You see, if I don’t believe in a God who is inexplicably but undeniably the source of creation, love, and selfless purpose, then I cannot honestly warrant anything having more importance than myself. If God is not there to learn from, worship, and love, the only thing left is me. It’s a naturalistic “every man for himself” worldview. What inherent benefit is there for me in suffering for the sake of another if the only thing I trust is myself? A faithless person would say they are selfless, but why do they have that understanding and desire of goodness? And whose definition of goodness are they abiding by? It’s definitely not nature’s.

No one worships nothing. We were designed for worship, and we do it without even knowing it. If it’s not God, it’s ourselves, our relationships, our kids, our money, hobbies, or some twisted combination of all of them. For people without faith in God (and hey let’s be honest, even people who do believe in God), it’s most often the god of “self” that we worship. But humans are not worthy of worship, nor is anything else on that list. We can’t independently explain where our life comes from. We’re not all-knowing, or even truly honest with ourselves. We’re biased, deceptive, and prone to addictions. And money, hobbies, and relationships never make good on the promise of fulfillment we hear them whisper.

Without faith in anything higher than myself, “doing right” can’t supercede my own success and pleasure. According to that view, right and wrong has to remain a self-focused mindset. This belief can still involve doing good for others, just so long as it also helps me (either emotionally or materially). If life is about my own satisfaction, then other people have no inherent value outside of what they, as a product, can offer me. Even though there are plenty without faith who agree with the measurement of love by how much it gives of itself, the only explanation for that feeling is God, not the world.

I realize that there are many people without faith who will stand up and cry foul here. They will say that they have happy, successful, ironically even meaningful relationships with others. I spoke with one man in depth last week who was very quick to say that his marriage is doing great without faith. But aside from hearing the same claim from his wife, I was also unable to get a response about why it was important to him that his marriage was successful. Without faith in anything but himself (or so he says), there’s only a few answers that make sense for him: the opportunity for sex, someone to hang out with, the tax write-off, someone doing and telling him nice things, or maybe even the pride of “doing good” by not leaving when he know he could. We all have a little pride in not wanting to be seen as a liar (because we somehow know that lying is “wrong”).

Considering the worldview of someone without faith (assuming they’re honest enough to admit the implications of their lack of faith), it’s amazing to me that they have enough trust in someone else to actually get married. The whole idea of marriage is the belief that someone else has the ability to be selfless. Maybe this is why marriage was universally instituted by religious understandings. This begs the question why people without faith are so up in arms about their right to get married (and actually call it “marriage”) when they can easily argue for and win legal recognition of partnership by the state. By their standards, it should be the same thing. But for faithful people, it’s much more meaningful than that. This is another rabbit hole I won’t get into, though.

You can’t confidently explain the concept of selfless love without faith in the picture. It doesn’t add up, and it’s not honest to even try. “Naturally occurring” hormones can’t logically explain why your kids have your heart and why you’d go to great lengths for their benefit. The guy I talked to said he had all of these selfless things, but where did he get the idea to do them if they weren’t planted in him by something higher than himself? Selflessness contradicts his own worldview. It was curious to me that he had been raised attending church and chose later to reject faith on its lack of “sufficient” answers. This led me to believe he simply lost the ability to be honest with himself and the world around him. Pride convinced him that he needed to understand and see undeniable proof before having faith. If he is loyal to his beliefs, he is one who would argue that my shirt came from Target.

The point is this: If my worldview of not having faith in God inherently and fundamentally argues that other people have no value outside of what they can offer me, then why should I care if my decisions hurt them or not? Is it only a motivation to keep them happy so they can keep making me happy? Why does my conscience still give them value, and where does that feeling come from if it’s not God? There are basic values and truths that can simply only come from God. Because left only to ourselves, we are the top dog and purpose ends with ourselves. But since we feel something outside of ourselves, this offers some (admittedly unscientific) proof of our exposure to something from a different and higher Source.

There are people around us who would probably be willing to push a button that causes someone they don’t know nor would have ever known to drop dead if it meant they would receive a million dollars. But even a dedicated atheist would (hopefully) agree that such a choice would be universally classified as “wrong.” Based on the values and fundamental beliefs of their worldview, however, it’s not wrong. It’s actually a simple decision of self-preservation.

Our conscience about how to treat others tells us what is right and wrong. Some people don’t seem to have a conscience, but those people are globally referred to as insane. We assign them to categories of delusion and disorders. But why, if we can’t logically explain the value of others without God? If the point of life is truly to look out for ourselves, they wouldn’t be labeled as insane, but rather “efficient” or “successful.”

And if we do have value, the only source it can have is outside ourselves. That’s the very definition of value. The US dollar, and all world currencies is given value by the government, not individual people. It’s why we trade in gold instead of salt, charcoal, or saber-tooth tiger skins.

This entire article doesn’t acknowledge that, even the “insane” view, which warrants my own benefit at any and all cost to others, operates with the automatic assumption of value for myself. But where does that come from and why do I feel it? What is self interest? Why do I get angry if someone operates selfishly against me if that’s what they should be doing? The only answer I can think of is that it’s a perversion of the value I undeniably feel from God–just misconstrued as me being my own god.

Which leads to another question: if God exists and has given me value, then what? More on this next week.


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