Understanding The Difference Between Morality and Preference
A recent survey of several thousand non-church attenders in the U.S. indicated that one of the major objections to Christianity is the perceived judgmentalism of traditional Christians toward homosexuals. When asked to elaborate further, most respondents voiced their belief that the church has no right to comment on the personal preferences of individuals. This is a common criticism based upon a complete misunderstanding of the important distinction between morals and preferences.
Preferences refer to matters of subjective personal taste. I love coffee, but my wife dislikes it intensely and can’t even tolerate the smell. She, on the other hand, loves chai latte, whereas I find it completely unappealing. Neither of us is right nor wrong. These are merely preferences based upon personal taste. I also love running, and enjoy a morning run almost every day. Others would never use the words “run” and “enjoy” in the same sentence. Life is full of personal preferences – different tastes in clothes, food, hobbies and interests – they are what make people so fascinating. Preferences are neither right nor wrong, provided they do not impinge upon issues of morality. Even the most bizarre clothing is not “wrong” provided it does not break moral conventions by exposing certain ‘wobbly bits’.
Morality, on the other hand, is ALL about right and wrong. Morals DEFINE right and wrong. They delineate the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable human behaviour. For example, we have an innate, corporate moral code that tells us that murder is wrong, and that incest is wrong, along with a plethora of other unacceptable acts – bestiality, lying, cheating, stealing, violence, adultery, genocide, paedophilia and rape, to name just a few. These are almost universally endorsed moral prohibitions. A paedophile or rapist who argued, “This is just my personal preference; you can’t condemn me for my personal preference,” would be considered to be living in denial of society’s accepted moral code of right and wrong. Preferences cease to be acceptable when they contravene clearly defined societal morals. Paedophilia is not a preference issue – we do not leave it up to individuals’ tastes. It is a moral issue, and we condemn it outright. The same is true of everything on that list, including lying, cheating and stealing.
Note please, that I am not saying that all these moral taboos are equally heinous. That would be absurd. The horrendous harm caused by a paedophile or rapist is exponentially greater than the person who steals chocolate bars from the local shop. But the simple point I am making is that ALL these things are wrong. We do not condone them as a society.
What is both intriguing and disturbing is the fact that over the last two decades, one issue has been moved from the “moral list” to the “preference list”: Homosexuality. A mere twenty to thirty years ago, homosexuality was viewed almost universally as immoral and unnatural. Irrespective of whether a person was religiously predisposed or not, almost everyone regarded homosexual practice as disgraceful and unacceptable. The thought of two men or two women sexually gratifying each other was universally viewed as some kind of sexual or mental sickness – a perversion of natural sexuality. I realise as a write this, that these words are now unacceptable to our modern open-minded society, but this is indeed how homosexuality was viewed in the very recent past. This was the historical viewpoint that prevailed for thousands of years until very recently. This view was also in accord with the Bible. For example, Romans chapter 1 describes homosexual practice as “sinful… degrading … impure … shameful … unnatural … depraved … evil … wicked” (Rom 1:24-29). Thus, for thousands of years, mankind’s conscience and God’s Word have been in complete alignment on the matter.
And please don’t fly off into a simplistic reductionist argument that claims that I am comparing homosexuality to paedophilia or rape. I have already stated that not everything on the list of society’s moral taboos are equally heinous. The point is that homosexuality was, until very recently, on the “list” of moral taboos and has now been removed.
Which brings us to the key question: Why? What has changed? What has prompted such a rapid reversal of this moral taboo – from being a disgraceful sexual act, to being a supposedly wonderful expression of love. It is quite a reversal in a mere twenty years, don’t you think?
One factor has been the intense campaign of the homosexual lobby. The estimated 2.5% of people who are homosexual (yes – it’s only a very small a percentage) have exerted a huge political force, well beyond their meagre numbers. The repeated use of loaded words such as tolerance and diversity, as well as more threatening vocabulary such as discrimination and hatred, have made it increasingly unpalatable for the vast majority to voice the once-accepted dissenting viewpoint. Political correctness has overtaken our innate sense of morality, and now those few who dare to voice a traditional viewpoint are met with howls of aggressive outrage and abuse.
However, the most significant factor in society’s acquiescence to the homosexual lobby, and our subsequent reversal of the once accepted moral code, has been the decline of belief in God – particularly within the developed world. Various statistical surveys indicate that secularism – the view that religion has no relevance for societal values and practices – is now on a level footing with religious affiliation and, within the next couple of years, is expected to surpass it as the predominant worldview in most Western nations. And with the decline of theism – belief in God – comes an almost unavoidable loss of belief in absolutes. The reason for this is simple: without God, there really are no absolutes. There can’t be, because there is no external source of morality against which to measure our behaviour. Right and wrong simply become a matter of communal consensus, and consensus can change very quickly.
But there is a problem with subjective morality. If societal consensus has now decided that homosexuality is acceptable, what is to stop society deciding that child marriage is also acceptable. The same arguments used to support gay marriage could be trotted out to justify a 40-year-old man marrying a 12-year-old girl: “We’re in love and we’re not hurting anyone. You can’t impose your values on us.” It is equally conceivable that similar arguments could be used to justify polygamy or incest. You see, when God is removed from the equation, absolute moral values become unsustainable, because there is no longer any basis for them. Morality ultimately becomes just another list of “preferences” that cannot be enforced or even insisted upon. When there is no external, authoritative source against which to measure our morality, everything becomes a matter of personal opinion: subjectivism reigns.
Intelligent atheists concede the impossibility of absolute morality without God:
Jean-Paul Sartre: “If God does not exist … there disappears with him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good, a prior, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it.” (Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2007, p.28)
Paul Kurtz: “If they [moral and ethical principles] are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, they are purely ephemeral.” (Paul Kurtz, Forbidden Fruit, Prometheus, 1988, p.65.)
Julian Baggini: “If there is no single moral authority [no God] we have to in some sense create values for ourselves … and that means that moral claims are not true or false.” (Julian Baggini, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2003, pp.41-51.)
Richard Dawkins: “The universe [without God] … has no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” (Richard Dawkins, ‘God’s Utility Function’, Scientific American, November 1995, p.85,) He also comments, “It is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, London: Bantam Press, 2006, p.232.)
So, what is my point? The issue of whether or not you believe homosexuality to be a morally acceptable practice ultimately depends upon two more fundamental questions: Is there a God? And, has he communicated his absolute moral standards to humanity? I am aware that certain liberal branches of the Christian church condone homosexual practice. That is because they answer the second of these two questions negatively. But Bible-believing Christians, who believe in a creator God who has declared to mankind an unequivocal set of standards by which we must live, are left with no choice but to regard homosexuality as behaviour that contravenes God’s absolute moral code.
In holding this view myself, I do not hate homosexuals. That is a simplistic, reductionist argument. It is entirely possible to treat a person with respect and love while disagreeing with a particular viewpoint that they hold. Let’s be very clear on this: If I disagree with the homosexual moral viewpoint, I don’t hate homosexuals – I just disagree with them on that particular moral issue. The reactionary claim that “if you disagree with me, you must hate me!” is extremely naïve and childish. Let us be adult about this, please! A mature society that values both tolerance and free speech, must uphold the right of individuals to respectfully voice alternate viewpoints without the ridiculous claim of “hate speech” being thrown at them.
So, to those who have a problem with traditional Christianity’s continued unwillingness to condone homosexuality, let me make the following concluding points:
– The issue is really about whether absolute morals exist.
– And this, ultimately, is a question of whether God exists.
– Furthermore, choosing to believe, follow and articulate God’s absolute standards as revealed in the Bible does not constitute hate speech. Christians who disagree with homosexuality do not do so because they hate homosexuals, but because they believe in God and are seeking to follow and defend his moral code.
– Many Bible-believing Christians are more than happy to engage in friendship with homosexuals, despite the fact that we do not agree with every moral viewpoint that they hold. Each person must make their own moral decisions – decisions for which we will all ultimately give an account to God. I cannot force my views on another person, but that does not mean I must be forced to agree with them either. If total agreement on every issue was a pre-requisite for friendship, no one would have any friends! And, surely, if friendship is to have any meaning, it must allow for divergence of opinions in even these big issues.
– Finally, as I’ve written in past articles, tolerance refers to respectful discussion of divergent viewpoints. It does NOT mean enforced conformity to a single viewpoint, nor must it ever result in repressive censorship of divergent views.