By Lawren Guldemond
A few years ago, I attended a university debate on the question, “Can we be good without God?” The negative position was argued by a Presbyterian pastor, while the affirmative was espoused by an atheist professor at the school. The Christian pastor’s arguments focused on the problem that without God, there is no absolute basis for determining what is right and wrong. The atheist was unperturbed by this, and argued that mankind can collaboratively develop pragmatic codes of moral conduct that enable us to live in harmony. In this man’s worldview, morality does not have any basis in an absolute objective standard, and does not need to. Moral codes are just malleable truce agreements whereby we define behavioural constraints that keep us from antagonizing each other and kindling strife. The Christian pastor had no success in his attempts to convince his opponent that the lack of immutable moral standards was a theoretical problem or that it would cause moral decline.
Even though this atheist was expounding a moral philosophy built on ambiguity, I don’t believe he was arguing for amorality. I’m certain this man would judge sadistic, cruel behaviours (murder, rape, genocide, etc) to be evil and repugnant, just as I do. As I understand his thinking, I believe he was assuming that everyone has a natural moral compass, an inborn sense of right and wrong. The reason I am sharing my recollection of this man’s moral philosophy is that I believe it is typical of common thinking in our society. I believe that for most people, their basis for judging right and wrong is their own moral compass, or conscience. They do not have a fixed moral standard or principles for calibrating this compass, except perhaps for the ever-popular precept, “Anything goes, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” They believe that they and their neighbours have a sound conscience, a just sense of right and wrong, and they count on this to guide us all. They don’t have a defined theoretical foundation for their moral opinions. They are not governed by religious teachings or any particular cohesive system of human reason. Like this atheist in the debate I attended, they really have nothing but their own consciences to guide them, and they are confident that this is adequate.
There are, of course, atheistic moral philosophers who write books and carefully reason out their positions. However, I believe average people don’t read their books, nor do they live their lives in conscientious observance of any moral foundations such philosophers might articulate. I am not denying that the ideas of philosophers are influential upon the masses. However, they take decades to percolate down into mass opinion, and by the time they get there they are no longer pure streams of thought. The public mind is an aggregate of many mingled philosophical traditions. Picture, if you will, many pure mountain streams, each with their own distinct signature of mineral concentrations, converging into a vast stagnant lake. My subject here in this blog is not with the incoming streams of pure thought, but rather with the water conditions in the lake of public thought. Although everyone is influenced by the religious and philosophical heritage of our society, most people don’t recognize the teachings of a holy book, or any other source of moral legislation, as the authoritative arbitrator of morality. They do not determine their moral position by conforming themselves to a moral authority outside of themselves. They rely on their own moral compass to determine what is right and wrong.
I see a few problems with this. For one thing, a compass with no extrinsic referent will not guide you; it will get you lost. An ordinary magnetic compass is a useful navigational tool only because it points to an extrinsic referent—the magnetic north pole. Furthermore, for accurate orienteering, a compass needs to be calibrated for magnetic declination, which varies by year and by geographic region. The tool is only an accurate guide when it is accurately aligned with the extrinsic reference point. No matter how good your sense of direction is, if you do not have a guidance system that orients on something extrinsic to your own position, you will lose your bearings. When submarines are cruising submerged, they are unable to use a magnetic compass or receive radio navigation signals. To cope with this problem, they have sophisticated inertial navigation systems that track the boat’s movement and continuously plot its position and bearing while submerged. However, they cannot do this perfectly, and therefore cannot do it indefinitely. They will gradually lose their bearings and need to surface periodically to orient themselves by means of extrinsic navigation signals, such as those from GPS satellites.
Similarly, a moral compass can only function when it points to an extrinsic moral referent. We can only get our bearings on what good is when we are oriented toward God, who is the source of all goodness. When we are out of contact with God, we lose our moral bearings and we go astray.
There is a second problem with relying on our own intrinsic moral compass: conflict of interest. When we debate and decide upon our society’s moral code, we are determining what actions should be prohibited because they are unfair to others. In most cases, the prohibited actions will be tempting in some way to some people, because it is advantageous to them. It may be advantageous with respect to the pursuit of wealth, property, power, pleasure, ambition, the assertion of will, or any number of other reasons; the action at issue will be something that people are tempted to do. There’s generally not much need to formulate rules forbidding actions that no one is inclined to do anyway. Moral codes forbid people from pursuing their own advantage to the detriment of others. When we make our own moral sensibility the standard by which our own actions shall be judged, we are appointing ourselves to judge whether we should be allowed to do something that is advantageous and tempting to us, but arguably detrimental to someone else. This is a clear conflict of interest.
The particular case where this stands out most strikingly to me is the issue of abortion. Since pregnancy is an ordeal and it is followed by years of parental duties and responsibilities, which will consume great amounts of time and money, being pregnant may be seen as a great threat to one’s life plans, prosperity and freedom of action. When a pregnancy is regarded as inopportune, as an impending cause of personal ruin, then terminating it appears to be an advantageous course of action. However, it is not equally advantageous to all people. It is advantageous to adults—those who are already born and grown—to have the choice to have an abortion if it seems needful. Contrariwise, it is severely detrimental to those people who are not yet born. Who decides whether it is morally allowable for adults to terminate the lives of unborn children if they feel they are unprepared or unwilling to be parents? It is the adults. Predictably, the majority of adults in our godless society have decided to condone and justify the practice of abortion; it is to their advantage. To justify it, they necessarily deny the disturbing truth that abortion brings them freedom at the cost of depriving a precious little person of life. The adults decide the moral case in their own interest, trammelling the lives of the unborn in the process. The conflict of interest carries the day, rather than genuine impartial moral judgment.
This corruption of moral judgment is most prevalent among those who deny the existence of God, the one true extrinsic moral referent, and must therefore depend on their own intrinsic moral compass. In a 2012 Gallup poll, 68% of those who have no religion were pro-choice, which was the strongest propensity among all the demographic attributes sampled by the poll. The U.S.S.R., whose leaders consciously strove to construct a society stripped of religious traditions and foundations and built instead upon principles of atheistic scientific materialism, had very high abortion rates. The Journal of Medical Ethics, which I think it safe to presume does not regard divine revelation as a valid moral reference, considers infanticide (“after-birth abortion”) to be worthy of consideration and publishes articles advocating for it. Thus it is clear that those who deny the existence of God, and therefore also His moral authority, have a strong propensity for justifying that which is horribly wrong—the killing of unborn (even post-born) children.
I am convinced by this case that our own intrinsic moral compasses cannot be relied on for guidance, and must lead those who follow them into evil paths. An intrinsic moral compass is really a paradox. With no extrinsic referent to govern it, it cannot keep direction at all. It isn’t really a functional compass at all. We cannot have sound moral judgment on what is right and wrong unless we orient ourselves toward God, the source of all goodness, and follow the direction He gives in His Word.
 If anyone is inclined to challenge my generalization here by asserting that a large percentage of North Americans are Christians and therefore obedient to the Bible, I would direct their attention to the following article. It testitfies to the fact that many who identify themselves as Christians unabashedly ignore the Bible’s moral commands, rather than meditate on them and obey them.
Kenny Luck, “Sexual Atheism: Christian Dating Data Reveals a Deeper Spiritual Malaise,” Charisma, April 19, 2014, accessed February 5, 2015, http://www.charismanews.com/opinion/43436-sexual-atheism-christian-dating-data-reveals-a-deeper-spiritual-malaise.
 “Navigating a Submarine,” Smithsonian, accessed February 5, 2015, http://timeandnavigation.si.edu/satellite-navigation/reliable-global-navigation/first-satellite-navigation-system/navigating-a-submarine.
 Lydia Saad, “In U.S., Nonreligious, Postgrads Are Highly ‘Pro-Choice,'” Gallup, accessed February 5, 2015, http://www.gallup.com/poll/154946/non-christians-postgrads-highly-pro-choice.aspx.
 In 1967, the abortion rate in the U.S.S.R. reached a peak of 3,213 abortions to every 1,000 live births, or 240 abortions for every 1,000 women aged 15-49. Wm. Robert Johnston, “Historical Abortion Statistics, U.S.S.R.,” last modified January 18, 2015, accessed February 5, 2015, http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/policy/abortion/ab-ussr.html.
 “‘Liberals Are Disgusting’: In Defence of the Publication of ‘After-Birth Abortion.'” BMJ Blogs, February 28, 2012, accessed February 5, 2015, http://blogs.bmj.com/medical-ethics/2012/02/28/liberals-are-disgusting-in-defence-of-the-publication-of-after-birth-abortion/.