Do we need a god in order to be moral?

2014-01-08 00:00

ROBERT de Neef (The Witness December 31, 2013) objects to my explication of an alternative world view that suggests substituting the concept of a personal supernatural Creator, with that of perceiving the entire universe pervaded with Spirit.

This world view, and his, are very different, but both are based on assumptions and attempts to interpret our experience of the world in an endeavour to make sense of our complex, mystifying — at times joyful and at others painful — existence. Ultimately, it is a question of personal preference and subjective interpretation that guides us, but there are no proofs, or assurances of utter certainty, for what we claim. Reality can be understood in more than one way.

I know De Neef will immediately disagree with this statement, because he believes in the absolute certainty of revealed truth, the infallible words of God spoken through the pages of an ancient text: the Bible. But then there are others who believe the same about the Jewish Scriptures (what Christians refer to as The Old Testament), the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas, the Adi Granth, all claimed as sacred scriptures. Despite De Neef’s claim that the Christian faith is the conclusive, infallible word of God, and that he is able to provide proof for the veracity of the miracles and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, the saviour of all humankind, all these assertions are matters of faith, by definition beyond historical or scientific proof. So, perhaps, ultimately, the only really honest, authentic position is that of agnosticism — “I simply do not know”.

What I especially wish to address about De Neef’s article, “Are we God or are we not?”, is his claim that a spirituality that moves beyond monotheism, and theism generally, is morally deficient, offering no guidance for “discriminating between good and evil”. I dispute this, as the moral principles that guide one’s behaviour need not originate in what one believes to be the commands and demands of some transcendent divine authority (God), or code of laws requiring obedience (like the 10 commandments), with the accompanying dread of the consequences of disobedience. This is an external motivation for good behaviour, reminiscent of the threats of an authoritarian father figure to an errant child, not the internalised recognition of what is mutually beneficial to all and choosing to be part of the good.

A non-theistic spirituality advocates a holistic approach to all life — human, non-human and the entire natural world. If all earthly things are perceived as imbued with spirit, then every part deserves reverence. Life is in all creation, so all the Earth is “holy”. Each aspect of creation is recognised as contributing to the significance and wellbeing of the whole. This requires a sense of inner responsibility to all that exists. All actions have consequences and all things together weave the delicate web of life. A butterfly flapping its wings in an Amazonian forest causes a typhoon in China. An action that harms one part of nature, harms all.

This repudiates the hierarchical, dualistic biblical view that God created humans separate from and superior to the rest of nature, severing divine and human, spirit and matter, male and female, human and non-human, regarding all created matter as presented to the male to “subdue” and “have dominion over”, to be ruthlessly manipulated and exploited.

Each unique form of life possesses its own intrinsic value.

So, rigid dogma gives way to non-authoritarianism, spontaneity, a recognition of the goodness of pleasure and enjoyment of life. This is life-affirming, rejecting the Christian doctrine of the essential sinfulness of humanity. There is no sense of “fallenness”, no sense of universal guilt.

Instead, the fundamental goodness of all life is stressed, and the need, therefore, to celebrate and rejoice in the richness of life. Sexuality, too, is recognised as the manifestation of the life-force, not selfishly misusing, but fulfilling one’s responsibility to others — the violation of others is a violation of self. Authentic action must be freely chosen for oneself, with respect for the freedom of others. The ethics of mutual respect do not allow coercion or domination.

Love of life in all its forms is the basis of ethics; life should never be taken needlessly or squandered. It is important to foreground and call for a new reverence for the earth on which all life exists and is nourished.

This higher level of personal morality — doing the right thing for its own sake, not in response to the demands of some authoritarian deity — offers a more holistic and individually demanding world view than that required by theistic religion, challenging humanity to respect the self-regulating integrity of nature, and attempting to co-operate and live in harmony with these ineffable forces.

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