Grappling With Questions

There are a lot of questions that a person can ask themselves in the course of a day and it's interesting how simple so many of them can be. Generally these queries will be in the form of a closed question and resulting in a Yes/No response. These sorts of questions are easy and require very little cognition. Would I like another cup of coffee? Should I have another cookie? Is it too early to take Nozomi out for another walk in the park? These are easy. Over the last couple of months, though, I've been finding myself thinking about some of the more philosophical questions that can have a person debating themselves for days. A lot of these would likely be good topics to write about as the act of assembling the ideas into a cohesive structure would help me better understand the matter, while potentially providing others with a perspective similar or different to their own. The problem with this, however, is that the subjects are often too complicated for me to fully think through. I don't know enough of the surrounding context to reach a complete, wholly consistent solution.

Take the sixth Commandment, לֹא תִּרְצָח (You shall not murder), as an example. This moral imperative to not engage in the unlawful killing of another human is very straightforward and easy to understand. We have the right to kill in self-defence if absolutely necessary. We have the right to kill as a form of capital punishment if absolutely necessary1. We do not have the right to end the life of another person outside of these two conditions2. This essential rule is incredibly cut and dry and, interestingly enough, most of us never think to break it … even if we're a non-practicing member of an Abrahamic faith, Pastafarianist, or atheist.

But why?

Why would an atheist find murder, defined as an unlawful killing, immoral? Where does an atheist get their morals and guiding principles from? What makes one thing good and another thing evil? Personal opinion? Federal laws? Something else?

This isn't to say that a person who does not abide by a religious text cannot be good. There are billions of good people around the globe. Not every person is going to have the same set of beliefs or morals, yet all of them will likely agree that murder is wrong.

So the question still stands. Why?

Do unto others as you would have done unto you? So if you don't murder me (or the people I care about), I won't murder you? This answer seems incomplete if not overly simplistic. What happens in the event a family member is murdered? Or two people? Or an entire branch of the family tree? Is it then okay to engage in some extra-judicial vengeance?

If there is no God, there is no punishment beyond that issued by society. Murder can then be considered "acceptable so long as you're not caught", sort of like speeding in a school zone, taking too many ketchup packets from McDonald's, or lying on a tax form.

But this is part of the problem I've run into when trying to weigh what's written in the ancient texts with a morally atheistic lifestyle. My arguments, which I will be the first to admit have been simplified for the sake of this post, are not deep enough on either position because I have simply not fully thought through the issues and quandaries that exist. One side requires faith and a belief that God provided humanity with a set of morals to follow and, because God is good3, the morals must also be good. The other requires a solid foundation of clear definitions for right and wrong based on emperical evidence compiled over our lifetime — or the lifetimes of others — and codified in a manner where morals can emerge free from the top-down, holier-than-thou format of a structured theology. The argument for a "Universal morality" is not convincing as morality cannot be any more universal than "common sense".

A person can read every book from authors like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Kerry Wendell Thornley, and even Bobby Henderson, and still not have the answers they seek for where morals come from if not from a theological foundation. This would mean that, even if a person were to say they did not believe in God, they would be living by many of the core principles attributed to God.

So, try as I might, topics like this tend not to get published because I lack the cognitive sophistication and historical contexts required to approach the subjects with any sort of cohesive clarity.

  1. Leviticus 24 states: A murderer must be put to death

  2. This is where a lot of the arguments against abortion, right-to-die, and mercy-killing stem from.

  3. This was another topic I've tried to write about countless times over the years. If God is good, then why is there so much pain, suffering, and outright malevolence in the world? "Because there is no God" is a shallow and unfulfilling answer as it raises several hundred follow-up questions, each with their own answers weakened by degrees of incompleteness.