Do you see red the same way that I do? I suppose there’s not really a way to know. Even if we could agree on seeing the subtle differences between fire engine red and candy apple red, how do we know that we’re seeing those differences in the same way?
You could get an objective definition of red from its unique wavelength. But in practical matters, that’s of little use to the average person. None of us may see that wavelength in exactly the same way. Nevertheless, our society seems to move along quite well by using red in traffic lights to tell us when to stop. If you were to ask several different people to identify the exact shade of red in a traffic light, you might get different answers. In fact, if you were to compare the reds of different traffic lights, you might come up with slightly different shades. But traffic lights work because instead of making each light a different shade of red (which would be horribly confusing), we make each light an entirely different color: red, yellow, green. Two people might disagree over which red more closely matches fire engine red, but they won’t usually disagree when it comes to identifying red over green.
This is something we all understand without the need to endlessly equivocate over whether colors are subjective or objective. They’re both, and we’ve learned how to work with them accordingly. But when we begin talking about theism vs atheism, we seem to lose this ability. Not in regard to color, of course, but in regard to morality.
It seems to me that morality works in exactly the same way as color. Take modesty for example. What passes for modesty in one place and time may not pass for modesty in another. Every time I’ve seen Michelle Obama, I would describe her as being dressed modestly. However, were she to dress that way in a conservative Muslim country, they might feel very differently. Or if she were to travel back in time to Victorian England, her attire would be scandalous. So while the average person in Western culture would say that Michelle Obama is modest, when compared to stricter definitions of modesty, the label may not apply so easily. In the same way, while it’s easy to pick out red from red, green, and yellow, it’s harder to pick the “reddest” from three shades of red.
To use another example, consider the hippocratic oath. It says that the physician will never do harm to anyone. Yet don’t physicians often give shots? Or administer treatments like chemotherapy? But we know that sometimes momentary discomfort is necessary to bring about a greater good. Administering a shot and pricking someone with a pin are almost identical in regard to how it makes someone feel, but one is moral while the other is not. It’s not hard to see the difference between the two, and no superior being needs to tell us which is better, just like no superior being needs to tell us the difference between red and green.
In discussions about whether or not there is a god, theists will sometimes say that an atheist has no basis on which to decide that one version of morality is better than another. But I profoundly disagree with this. God never told anyone what names to give for the colors. Even so, most people can easily distinguish between red and green. By the same token, it’s very easy to determine that generosity is far more moral than rape — we don’t need a god to tell us that.
However, just as its difficult to choose between shades of the same color, there are times when deciding what’s moral can be quite difficult. If your Aunt Sally asks what you thought of her lasagna, is it preferable to lie and tell her that it was good, or to be honest and tell her that you didn’t like it? A compelling case can be made either way. If a child molester is going to be released from custody on a technicality, is it more moral for the father of the victim to abide by the ruling, or take justice into his own hands? Again, the “right” thing to do in such a situation is not all that clear. But these more difficult situations are not improved by believing in a god. Even theists are puzzled by the right thing to do under such circumstances.
The Bible gives a great example of this in David. In 1 Sam 13 and Acts 13, David is referred to as a man after God’s own heart. Yet we see David make some interesting choices, considering that description. In 1 Samuel 21, David is running from King Saul, and he and his men are hungry. So he goes to see Ahimelech the high priest and asks for some food. Ahimelech tells David that the only food they have is the consecrated bread, which only priests can eat. David and his men eat the bread. In Mark 2:23-28, Jesus justifies David’s act here by saying that some of these laws are meant to benefit people, not restrict them. In other words, it’s situational.
In 1 Samuel 27, things have gotten so bad for David (as in Saul is out to kill him), that he takes refuge in Philistia and serves King Achish. For over a year, he serves this king, and how does he repay Achish’s kindness? By raiding Philistine villages — something Achish would not have appreciated. Whenever Achish asks David what he’s been up to, David says that he and his men have been out raiding Israelite villages, which Achish thinks is great. And David never leaves any survivors who could rat him out to Achish. We’re never given any indication that God was displeased by this. In fact, it’s presented as being quite cunning — isn’t David cool?! So lying is okay if it keeps you out of trouble?
If the Bible gives us mixed messages when it comes to the moral conundrums that we all find difficult to navigate, and if we don’t actually need any help in figuring out what’s moral when presented with extremes (caring for the needy vs murder), then why are we supposed to think that belief in a god is somehow necessary to establish moral principles at all? When you get right down to it, identifying morality is usually like identifying colors: you know it when you see it. Why make it more complicated by that?