Last time I wrote I addressed the comments of Dan Savage while addressing a group of high school students at a journalism conference. The anti-bullying icon used the opportunity to verbally bully the young theists, specifically Christians and Jews, in the audience. More intolerance from a supposed tolerance advocate, further evidence that the myth of tolerance is one-sided. In any case, a thoughtful commenter on my last entry essentially posed the questions to me; Do I really think I ought to be, “lustful, prideful, angry, bitter, greedy, vengeful, and jealous?; Is society actually telling [me] to treat other people poorly, never forgive, never compromise and be promiscuous?”; Why do I need a Bible to follow my conscience? Let’s take a look at the reality of the answers to these questions, because I think though frequently posed by atheists, these are really pretty simple questions to answer.
To the first question on whether or not I should do these morally degenerate things, the answer is obviously: no, I don’t think I should. I think most people would generally agree with this. However, what they wouldn’t agree with is what constitutes the morally degenerate behaviors. That is where society comes in. We must all necessarily base our concepts of these morals on something. The question is what are we basing them on? In the end the atheist has a problem with where their values system comes from. In the absence of objective moral law, I can really only get my values system from myself or from my society. Neither one of these sources is adequate, as either one excludes you from being able to tell me my morals, or my society’s morals, are wrong. Fortunately, on my worldview at least, we’re all created in the image of the Moral Law Giver, which means that at least to some extent, we have some similar sense of right and wrong built into us so even though our belief in the foundation of morality may differ, we can agree on some major points of morality. Extreme things like murder, rape, theft, etc will generally be accepted as morally wrong among most individuals or societies.
However, it turns out we also have free will, which means we can defy what we know is right and wrong, and re-train our consciences into believing what once was wrong is now right, or vice versa. We don’t believe it though, because from our own perspective we’re in the right. History is filled with examples of people and societies whose consciences accepted things which they never should have (ie European and American slave trade, Nazi Germany). We look back and condemn these behaviors with hindsight, but what would I really have done if I was there, and let my own conscience and society be my guide? I suspect it would be no different from now as we normalize things like marriage hopping, porn, ladder climbing greed, and revenge seeking. Embedded in some other culture, I’d probably have come to accept that Jews or Africans are not people. I’d retrain my conscience to believe this to be permissible. Moreover, I’d have no reason not to conform to society. That is, unless I had some objective standard removed from human tendency by which to measure my own conscience.
At the same times in the past that society was normalizing morally abhorrent behavior, people like William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were standing up against other people’s consciences and fighting, even dying, for what was objectively morally right. We see now that they were correct in doing so, and that the cultures that promote slavery and genocide are wrong. You see, without some foundation, conscience becomes only a matter of popular opinion. So yes, I do need a foundation upon which to calibrate my conscience. That then, is why I rely on the Bible. Why I choose the God of the Bible over other possible foundations is a longer discussion, but the short explanation is that I believe it is because it is well-supported, where other foundations are not.
I think it is actually quite apparent that people’s consciences, while useful for day-to-day guidance, cannot be fully trusted unless properly trained. In the end, when you pose this question about conscience, the question I think the you are really asking is not why can’t I just follow MY conscience, but why can’t I just follow YOUR conscience. You want to be the foundation of my morality. You would prefer I give up the God of the Bible, so that you and/or society may take His place.