Can an Atheist or a Buddhist or a Muslim be a moral person? Do Christians have a monopoly on being moral? Are Christians more moral than people of other faith (or non-faith) beliefs?
There is quite the debate between Atheists and Theists over morality and how it is grounded. I do not mean to rehash those arguments. Rather, the idea that I would like to explore is if, as Christians, we believe that ultimately right and wrong comes from God then can those that do not believe in God be considered moral people? We need to start by defining our terms. The two that are important for this discussion are sin and morality.
Sin is when we do things against God’s Law. But there is more to it than that. Both the New Testament and the Old Testament convey the idea that sin is like missing the bulls-eye. Sin is what has lead to the corruption of our very nature and separates us from God. While sin may have entered the world through Adam and Eve, we are responsible for our own sins.
I find it helpful to imagine a glass of water and a vial of extremely strong poison. The poison is so powerful that a single drop in the water is enough to cause death. The water is considered corrupt as soon as that drop is added. Now that glass of water misses the bulls-eye of being pure water. In the same way, as soon as we commit a single sin we are no longer considered pure.
Morality is holding to what is right and wrong. It means following the rules. It can pertain to following the “religious” rules of Christianity as well as to the “societal” rules. If we take the Ten Commandments as a quick example we can see that the first 4 commandments pertain to the “religious” aspect of Christianity (and Judaism) and the last 6 pertain to “society” as a whole. As a matter of fact all societies regardless of their basis will usually contain laws regarding murder, stealing and bearing false witness. In those societies people who follow the rules are considered moral and those that consistently do not are considered immoral.
Atheists, Buddhists, Muslims and any other non-Christian can be moral people. In the way that we usually use the term morality, being a moral person does not require one to have a certain belief in God. Christians are not more moral simply because they are Christians. Christians are not even moral simply because they are Christians. And that is important for all Christians to remember – we are only moral when we are following the rules.
So how do we as Christians make sense of someone that does not believe in God, the ultimate source of what is right, being able to be a moral person?
The first thing that we need to remember is that from God’s perspective a single sin causes us to be corrupt. That glass of water with the single drop of poison causes the water to be immoral in terms of being pure water. We are the same way. We are all, from God’s perspective, immoral. We normally think of someone as being moral in terms of our standards. It is understandable for us to think this way in order to have a functioning society but we all fall short of perfection.
The next thing that we need to remember is that God has placed his law in every person’s heart. We as Christians believe that Atheists can be moral because they – by the very nature of being human – have the basic laws of right and wrong within them. It doesn’t matter why they think they are moral. So remember that whenever – as Christians – we are dealing with someone with different beliefs. They can be just as or even more moral than we are. And this means that we as Christians need to do a better job of being moral.