When I was growing up, my dad did something that bothered me immensely: He made rules and said that because the Bible says “Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right,” it meant that if we didn’t do what he said, it would be a sin. It would be morally wrong for me to not do what he told us to do, just because the Bible said so.
The Bible, of course, was the highest authority. What the Bible said to do was morally right, and what the Bible said not to do was morally wrong. (I’ve written about that elsewhere).
This frustrated me immensely. There was no way to tell right from wrong, only obedience from disobedience, and the two concepts were fused together.
When I was older, I moved out against his wishes, but I later read a book called Under Cover by John Bevere, which taught me a perverse lesson: obedience to god-given authority is the highest good, even if that god-given authority is telling you to do something that would otherwise be morally wrong. So I moved back in and tried to be obedient. (Spoiler: My dad is toxic. It didn’t work out.)
In college, I got into lots of conversations about morality and right and wrong, and whether God was righteous in commanding genocide. We talked about heaven and hell and Divine Command Theory (the idea that a thing is morally good because and only because God commands it).
I read an article about Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral development theory that had obedience as the lowest stage of the development ladder. I was horrified. I thought it belonged on the top.
Religion: Moral or Immoral?
During the Enlightenment, some thinkers came to believe that the point of religion is to cause moral behavior in its adherents. As Christians, they naturally thought Christianity had the highest morality. Two world wars, mostly between “Christian nations,” disabused them of this notion.
But as with so many other things the rest of the world has abandoned as ridiculous, “conservative” Christianity picked up on that idea several hundred years later. Somehow, even while rejecting the Enlightenment as something whose purpose was to “get rid of God, “conservative” Christianity kept that conclusion, but modified it:
The purpose of true religion is to cause moral behavior. The reverse is also true: lack of true religion (false religion or none at all) causes immoral behavior.
As a result, modern “conservative” Christianity has all sorts of conversations about “fake Christians. Why? Because some Christians engage in behavior that they consider grossly immoral, but Real Christians engage in moral behavior.
For “The One True Religion will cause people to behave morally” to be true, we must disown people who claim to be part of the One True Religion but do not behave in a way that we consider moral.
I don’t think this is right. And I don’t think the Enlightenment thinkers were right either. Religion’s primary purpose is not morality. Morality isn’t even what all religions have in common.
The New Atheists are fond of treating religion as the root of all evil. After I wrote that, I looked up quotes as examples of that statement, and I kid you not, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion was originally a TV documentary called The Root of All Evil.
I don’t think this is right either.
Religion does not make people moral.
It is not moral.
Religion does not make people immoral.
It is not immoral.
Religion is not morally charged in either direction.
Religion is amoral.
Religion is like fire in that sense, I think. Used well, a fire will keep you warm at night. Used badly, it will burn your house down.
Or like a knife: knives cut carrots, and they cut skin.
But what does all religion have in common, then, if not morality? This seems painfully obvious, but I think religion connects humans to a sense of the divine – God or gods or nature, or the universe, or whatever.
Why Do Good People Happen to [do] Bad Things?
If religion is amoral, why have so many people in religions throughout history so often behaved so badly? I think I have an answer:
Because they outsourced their moral reasoning.
If I have an authoritative, inerrant book, I can say things like, “I’m not prejudiced; God is prejudiced on my behalf.” I never have to examine my motives because the Bible says what I’m doing is fine!
If I have a pastor (or cleric, or rabbi, or priest, or whatever) who authoritatively preaches from my sacred text and talks about moral absolutes being found in it, I don’t have to have any internal debate over whether it’s loving of me to domineer my wife and tell her God wants her to submit to me. I don’t have to think about her feelings; I can just do what’s right – without ever having to engage in any moral reasonabing about whether it actually is right!
If my pastor says it’s right for me to obey the governing authorities (not to reductio ad Hitlerum), I can kill Jews without even considering whether it’s right or wrong. It’s obedience, therefore, it’s right.
If my pastor (who has a doctorate, mind you!) says it’s right for me to keep slaves and fills up his sermons with verses about how some were meant to be subservient to others, I won’t bat an eye to hear about my neighbor beating his half-human slaves. Oh, it might bother me at first, but I have an authoritative moral compass outside of myself that tells me The Truth, so I’ll trust in that until my conscience is broken.
My dad didn’t want to hit his kids, but the Bible said to, so he overrode his own conscience until his conscience was so seared that it didn’t even bother him anymore.
When we outsource our moral reasoning, we can be convinced to do awful things. Exhibit A:
The Milgram Experiment
I wondered whether there were any studies about how people reacted when they were given an authoritative reason to override their own sense of morality. I was going to look it up.
Then I remembered: I already knew of one: The Milgram Experiment.
The Milgram Experiment brought in paid volunteers to “teach lessons” to people. If the students got answers wrong, authority figures next to the volunteers instructed them to push a button to send an electric shock through the body of their student.
The students would not learn correctly, and the authority figures told the volunteers to subject the students to ever-greater electric shocks, even when the student begged them not to. Most did anyway.
There were no actual shocks given, and the students were planted by the experimenters, but the volunteers thought it was real.
I must note here that the people giving the instructions in the Milgram Experiment were not doing so as religious authorities. They were doing so as secular authority figures. They were wearing lab coats and holding clipboards.
Therefore, the problem is not (as the New Atheists assume) religion per se.
The problem is blind obedience to an external authority without moral reasoning.
I know of one group that does train their adherents in moral reasoning. And wouldn’t you know it, Mr. Dawkins: It’s a religious group.
In the traditions I was raised in, we were taught that “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” We were taught that “Do what feels right” was a motto that led directly to all manner of sin and sexual perversion.
Quakers do not teach this.
Quakers believe in the The Inner Light (John 1:9), that “in every human soul there is implanted a certain element of God’s own Spirit and divine energy.” This “Inner Light” allows lowly humans to tell right from wrong. Quakers are taught to trust their sense that something is right or wrong.
So how did this work out for them? Funny story.
In 12 Years a Slave, Brad Pitt plays a Canadian laborer who is bothered by the plantation owner’s treatment of his slaves. He eventually finds a way to help the main character regain his freedom. Brad Pitt’s character is a Quaker.
In Amazing Grace, William Wilberforce becomes convinced that slavery is wrong and joins a group dedicated to its abolition. Who started this group? The first white American Christian group to came out against slavery in the first place: Quakers.
Lucy Stone was one of the earliest women fighting for the right to vote. Her dad was abusive. Her husband’s entire family was egalitarian and showed her how the world could be. Quakers.
Proto-feminists Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Quaker.
Alice Paul, who led a movement and was force-fed in prison for women’s right to vote? Quaker.
Who affirmed love between same-sex couples back when it was illegal, 6 years before the super-progressive United Church of Christ? You guessed it: A Quaker.
Have Quakers always been right about stuff? No. They still have a large branch that thinks same-sex marriage is wrong. Lucy Stone’s husband cheated on her. Some Quakers owned slaves.
But there’s one thing I think they did get right: that thing about the Inner Light.
But how did we get Quakers?
They descended from Protestants – people who stood up and spoke to the authorities of their day. People who listened to the voices of their own consciences instead of the voices of authorities who told them they were wrong.
Can freedom of conscience and trusting in the Inner Light go wrong? Of course it can. Absolutely it can. But you’ll be less sure of it than if you just followed an external authority figure, so you’ll be more open to realizing that it’s gone wrong.
And it is also free to go right when those who are obeying are going wrong.
So listen to your conscience.
And do what feels right.
This post may not be right. Your discernment is welcomed. After all, you too have the inner light.
David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.
3 thoughts on ““Do What Feels Right””
Thank you for this. For many years I’ve had a hard time with the thought of how can my mom shun or disown me. The idea that she outsourced her moral reasoning rings true. Your thoughts on this also remind me so much of the religion I was raised in and while it’s meant I lost my mom essentially I’m glad too that I’ve escaped it.