Instinct and Morality

For better or worse, the murder of innocent children is a contentious debate topic between Atheists and Christians. This is usually in relation to Old Testament commands from God, and how modern people should “instinctively know that premeditated / brutal murder of innocent children is wrong.” A lot could be said about whether events recorded in the Old Testament really happened or not, but that is a post topic for another time. I wanted to briefly dig into how “instinct” is mis-used here.

Whether killing children is wrong or not is a question of morality, not instinct. Instinct is a pattern of behavior in response to stimuli. Instinct would not look at a child and say “it is wrong to kill this child, so I won’t.” Instinct would kill the child if it was perceived as a threat, or otherwise just leave the child be. To instinct, murder is not right or wrong – it is only a response to certain stimuli.

This is important because we have to realize that morality is not something we are born with like instinct. Morality is a social construct that we can give a definition for at any given time, but that definition also changes over time. The people that recorded the premeditated / brutal murder of children in the Bible did so because their social construct of morality at the time did not see this as wrong, or even “brutal” per se. Again, this is a huge topic to explore, as the ancient world was often dog-eat-dog, might-makes-right, you-died-too-bad-who cares. But the reality is that they had a different moral standard back then.

The point being: morality is not some absolute truth that we are just now figuring out the one right construct to apply to it. In order for there to be one right moral code that we have to figure out as a species, morality would have to be a rational being that can understand thousands of languages and historical culture changes in order to let us collectively know what is “morally correct.” In other words, in order for there to be a universal morality, this morality would have to be able to understand new inventions like the Internet, and let us know how moral codes apply to our actions there. It would also have to have learned English at some point in order for us in America to understand it, as well as for it to understand the unique way Americans think about morality in our language.

Some would say that this is proof that God exists. Well, not really. it just proves that you can’t reject the idea of God while relying on the concept of “Universal Morality” as a global guide for humanity. Universal Morality would need to be a rational being – i.e., a god – in order to do so.

The more accurate way to look at morality is that it is a social construct that is evolving all the time. For example, the ancient Israelites had a different moral view on the killing of innocent children than we do now. Did you know that term “genocide” wasn’t coined until the 1940s as a way to describe the atrocities committed by Germany in World War II? Why didn’t Universal Morality have us label it a thing before that? Because Universal Morality is not a thing – we evolved the social construct of morality to say that this thing Germany did was wrong, and then we gave it a new word (genocide).

I know that some people are really convinced that across all time and all cultures, certain moral codes have remained true. Kind of… but also not really. It is true only if you generalize these concepts to gloss over important cultural norms. But that was not day-to-day reality for most people that had to live with those norms, and there are also still big differences across the globe and back through time. Overgeneralizing practical morality to derive Universal (historical and cultural) Morality erases cultural differences than made each culture unique.

It also means that in 100 years, people will look back at even the most enlightened among us and say “wow, did they get morality wrong!”

To me, this does not prove God exists in the least, but it also makes it pretty inappropriate to take 2019 Western American sociocultural normed moral codes and apply them as proof for or against God or Goddess or gods or supreme beings. Calling your sociocultural moral codes “instinct” is just passing the buck to some nonexistent Universal Morality or Supreme Being, claiming that one of these genetically programmed you to believe what is right and wrong. You and I need to take responsibility for how we have been influenced by our modern sociocultural context, and how we have chosen to follow those influences as a guide for what we do or do not believe in.

Narcigesis (and other obscure big words used to attack progressives) are all Relative

An older term (“narcigesis”) has popped up again – from the root word narcissus mixed with eisegesis. Typically, any word ending in -egesis usually just boils down to “you believe something I don’t, so you are wrong because BIG WORD says so!” That is also the case with narcigesis, which I will copy this definition here for those that don’t want to click over to the link:

  1. The reading of one’s own life experiences and/or that of another’s life experience into the text of Scripture; the need to make the Bible all about themselves.
  2. An interpretation of Scripture based on the interpreter’s self-authority, particularly driven by self-esteem, self-actualization, mystical experiences and/or the interpreter’s “felt needs.” (See Sola Experientia.)
  3. A personal and/or mystical interpretation of Scripture based on the interpreter’s own ideas, biases, opinions, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, experiences, impressions, dreams, revelations, or the like, rather than based upon the plain meaning of the text.
  4. The reading of one’s own doctrinal theories into Scripture (as opposed to exegesis, which is a critical explanation or interpretation of a text or portion of biblical text), particularly as a result of personal experience. (See Sola Experientia.)
  5. Self-centered, self-defined and self-authenticating biblical interpretation, application and counsel.
  6. The reading of one’s own interpretation into Scripture based upon the egotistic belief that all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; and that only the learned, the elect, or the leadership elite (of which the interpreter considers himself), may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (See Plura Scriptura.)
  7. The egotistical drive to invent new theologies, doctrines, revelations, applications and philosophies about Scripture, often manifested in self-aggrandizement activities such as book publishing, conferences, setting up organizations and websites, money-making schemes and publicity drives.

As a very conservative Assembly of God Bible teacher once said, “anyone that claims that there is a ‘plain meaning of the text’ is not being intellectually honest about the complexities of translation.” Now, to be clear, It is not about having to be “learned, the elect, or the leadership elite” to understand, it is just that everyone that is not fluent in Greek and Hebrew has to rely on translators to know what scripture says, and those translators frequently disagree with each other even on key passages. And therefore, even if you know the languages, you still have to pick which of the various sides of these debates to go with on many scriptures.

In reality, what that means is 1 – 7 above are all relative. For instance, after college I took #4 seriously and set aside all the things the evangelical church had taught me, took a long, hard, exegesis / critical examination of the whole Bible, and ended up rejecting several evangelical teachings because of it. I had no desire to go that way, but exegesis led me to those positions. Yet many of my church friends from that time claim that I am reading my own experiences, stroking my self-esteem, self-centered, inventing new theories, etc. Current church friends of mine disagree – they think I am following the clear text. We usually label what we agree with as clear, and reject anything else as narcigesis or heresy or what have you.

In other words, Christians usually have to rely on their own feelings, their own understandings, their own theories, their own ego, etc in order to claim that others are doing the same. In order to prove that someone else is doing so, one has to pick a translation of the Bible first – one that is going to reflect the bias and ego of its translators and the side of various linguistic arguments those translators chose to follow. Then you are going to filter that translation through your own bias and feelings. Its pretty naive to say that we can get through all of these barriers and claim “plain meaning” as if all of these choices don’t exist and we speak as a direct conduit straight from God’s mouth.

metamodern-faith-avatarIn many ways, this link is like an organized list of how many of us have been judged, misunderstood, and ostracized for thinking critically about and ultimately leaving the realm of evangelicalism. Narcigesis is not the word we are looking for, it is a word that represents the last bits of modernism left in churches trying to judge postmodernist scripture interpretation even though it sorely misses the mark in doing so.