Morality Isn’t Arbitrary

It's always funny listening to the New Atheists talk about God. They use words like "celestial dictator" to describe him, as though Christians imagine that God just sits in the sky and beams down his mandates which we must blindly follow, even if makes no sense. Even if it goes against our conscience.

Now, I can't speak for other religions or Christian denominations, but as a Catholic, this is not what I believe God does.

When William Lane Craig and Sam Harris debated objective morality 1Watch it here, this was one of the straw men that Harris was fond of batting at. The debate was frustrating for me to watch, for although Craig held his own against his atheist counterpart, as a Protestant the gaps in his theology became awkwardly apparent. Scrolling down the comments beneath the YouTube video, other atheists were quick to point them out. Things like:

'"You believe in god because god - as the supreme good - is the appropriate object of adoration & love. He is goodness itself," says Mr Craig. His proof for this? His belief that it is true.'

'Plato observed that God couldn't possibly be the foundation for objective morality because in order for God to deem something as "good" or "bad" it implies that God has a reason for making such declarations. Whether you want to say that his moral commandments are because he embodies "love" or it is because he loves us as his children, whatever the case may be, God must be subject to a morality that transcends his own existence. I don't like Craig's argument at all.'

Now, I'm not going to go into why we believe that God is love (Bishop Robert Barron has an excellent post about this which you can read here), but rather this interesting impression that God would issue his moral commands in a way that is divorced or at odds with the rest of the world he has created. On the contrary, I firmly believe that God's laws flow from his very nature, which is both intelligent and good, and that these laws are in perfect harmony with every other dimension of reality. That, in fact, they elevate and perfect the natural world.

Evolutionary Morality

Harris and many other atheists hold the opinion that morality is the product of evolution, the natural result of a species doing their very best to say alive and get along. If this is so, then our instinctual aversion to clearly evil acts—such as murder or torturing little children—is written into our biology. The basic assumption is that we should desire the maximum amount of wellbeing for the greatest number of people. Fair enough.

So let's consider the desire for sex, about as basic a biological urge as there can be. From a strictly animalistic and evolutionary position, this urge is absolutely crucial for the continuation of a species. From a strictly animalistic and evolutionary position, there really is no reason not to have as much sex as we want whenever we want it. After all, if a dog follows its biological impulse to breed, no one would consider it morally reprehensible. A dog, in the face of its most basic desires, does not consider the appropriateness of the situation, the feelings of the female in heat, nor the long-term consequences of its actions.

So why do humans?

Let's take the aforementioned assumption—the most wellbeing for the most people—and apply it. What is the IDEAL sexual encounter? 2 For the sake of brevity I'm going to assume this is a male/female interaction, as masturbation and homosexuality open a whole other conversation.

Well, you should consider the possibility of pregnancy. It is, biologically speaking, the whole point of sex. If both of you are at least somewhat fertile, even if you are contracepting, pregnancy could happen. Obviously, you would not want it to be life-threatening to the mother, nor life-shattering for you as a couple. In fact, in the ideal situation, even an unplanned baby would be an occasion of joy! And not only that, but that you would be bringing that baby into the best situation possible for raising a child: a thriving, stable family.3 Children Benefit When Parents Have Safe, Stable, Nurturing Relationships

What about your physical wellbeing? Of course, it should not be painful for either partner in any way. You should also consider disease; if either of you has had multiple partners, even if you are using a barrier method, there is the possibility of transmitting an STI.4 Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs): General Information And speaking of contraceptives—you would not want to use anything which would negatively affect the woman's health or prevent the natural benefits of unprotected sex. 5 I highly recommend Jason Evert's talk Green Sex: The Case for Natural Family Planning   In the ideal situation it would not only be pleasurable but you would both experience the full benefits of a healthy sex life.6Not sure all these points are true, but it's still interesting to read: The Surprising Health Benefits of Sex

What about your psychological wellbeing? Obviously, it would need to be consensual because anything less than that could be traumatic for the unwilling partner.7 Effects of Rape: Psychological and Physical Effects of Rape We also know that certain neurochemicals are released during intercourse (oxytocin in women, vasopressin in men, endorphins in both men and women) which create feelings of trust, loyalty, and happiness. Ideally, those chemicals do their job—that is, bond both of you together for a beautiful and lasting relationship, and you both come away feeling satisfied and peaceful.8 How the 'Love Hormone' Works Its Magic

From a social perspective, there should be no one else who would have legitimate reasons to feel betrayed by this encounter, such as another spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend. In fact, amazing sex has the potential to greatly improve your relationship with your partner9Why Sex is Important in a Relationship and the positive impact of that in your life will ripple out into your community. Society is made up of individuals, after all.

While there are many other variables that could be considered (trust me, I tried making a comprehensive list but it was boring) and I can guarantee there are people out there who would argue every single point just for the heck of it, I think it is reasonable to argue that the IDEAL sexual encounter, based on the points above, would be, at the very least, consensual, monogamous, committed, and life-giving. Or, in the words of JPII: free, total, faithful, and fruitful. If the relationship is built on respect, trust, honesty, communication, humour—those things which make all your interactions, not just the sexual, a positive experience—then the sexual act builds upon all that is good, reinforcing positive pathways in the brain, and binding both of you in a relationship that is mutually beneficial for you, and ultimately for society.

My Happiest Moment, Oil on wood

Holy Matrimony

The belief that you should save sex for marriage—and that it must only be between a man and a woman—is arguably the most hotly contested Catholic position of the last century. From a secular point of view, it might appear oppressive and unnecessary—a patriarchal power play to dominate women or a puritanical obsession with suppressing this natural but somehow "dirty" pleasure. To some, it might seem antiquated, inconvenient, romanticized, or overly sentimental.

But God didn't randomly change his mind about the goodness of this act after building this desire into our very biology. The law that sex is to be enshrined within the sacrament of holy matrimony is precisely because it is so good! The Catholic Church's teachings on sexuality call us to transcend our animal instincts and reach for the best possible outcome—for ourselves, our partner, our children, and our society.

Of course, this is not to say that being married and even having a great marriage is any guarantee that you will always achieve this ideal. Health factors, sinful habits, past wounds, heck, just being tired—all of these can make our relationships less than perfect. But this does not mean that the ideal does not exist, or that we shouldn't strive for it.

Now, whether morality actually comes from God or Christians happened to stumble upon these truths by accident, as Harris claims, is another matter entirely—perhaps I shall muse upon it in a later post. I would, however, encourage sceptics to begin looking at God's decrees not as the petty whims of a supernatural tyrant, but as flowing out of and back to Love itself.

I will never forget your laws,
for with them you give me life.
{ Psalm 119:93 }

About This Painting

I've been wanting to paint this image for a while now. It is my all-time favourite photo from our wedding. It was taken maybe a minute after my husband and I burst out of the back doors of the basilica, church bells ringing, the sun shining, and our hearts exploding with joy. It honestly felt like a fairytale.

I titled it "My Happiest Moment" because this one will always have a special place in my soul. I can think of a thousand times since then when my heart has swelled with happiness—my little girl being placed on my chest for the first time, candlelight and fondue on our anniversary, falling asleep with my love's heart beating against my ear—but within this particular moment is contained the hope for all those moments yet to come. 

When I spoke my wedding vows I consciously brought to mind the reality of what I was committing to... Happy times, yes, but also difficulty, weakness, failure. Everything that comes along with sharing your life with another human being. Over and over again I have been amazed at the grace of this sacrament. If anyone would like to debate the beauty and necessity of marriage, I would give happy witness to it. Sometimes I wonder why God has blessed me so deeply, for I know that countless other women have suffered terribly in toxic relationships. I hope it is because God wants me to share the good news—that we, broken and sinful, are yet made for love! That he truly does desire our good. That it isn't just a fairytale. 

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Thank you and God bless!

Posted in Marriage, Morality, Thoughts About Life.

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