The origin of morality is a popular topic among both religious believers and skeptics. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a religious debate where this point has failed to come up. Many religious people, especially Christians, view the existence of a moral code as compelling evidence of their God’s existence, and will often reference the robust moral convictions of famous religious leaders to support that claim.
The most common contemporary example is Martin Luther King Jr., a revered Baptist minister and civil rights leader. King graduated high school at the age of 15 and, after earning two bachelor’s degrees, was awarded a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. During that time he served as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and became an outspoken proponent of the American civil rights movement. In 1964, King became the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35. King was a Christian leader who undoubtedly possessed a strong moral compass. However, it isn’t at all clear that his moral convictions arose from his religion.
In fact, MLK often boldly condemned the actions of the Christian Church. As Jeff Nall points out in his profile of King’s religious beliefs, MLK roundly criticized many forms of organized religion, not only for its failure to support racial and economic equality (calling it Christianity’s “everlasting shame”), but also for its explicit support of war and violence. King noted:
In a world gone mad with arms buildups, chauvinistic passions, and imperialistic exploitation, the church has either endorsed these activities or remained appallingly silent. During the last two world wars, national churches even functioned as the ready lackeys of the state, sprinkling holy water upon the battleships and joining the mighty armies in singing, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” A weary world, pleading desperately for peace, has often found the church morally sanctioning war.
Nall also points out that MLK was a strong supporter of church/state separation. Regarding the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that school-sponsored prayer is unconstitutional, King said:
I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally, or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision.
But King didn’t limit his criticism to the church; he was also openly skeptical of the very foundations of Christan doctrine. Despite being the son of a Baptist minister, MLK challenged traditional views of Christianity and the literal interpretation of scripture from a very young age. As Robert James Scofield describes in his profile of Martin Luther King Jr.’s religious doubts:
His entrance into Christianity at the age of six came from neither a genuine religious conviction nor a crisis moment; rather, he saw his sister make the altar call during a local religious revival and quickly followed suit. He claimed that during his baptism he had no idea what was occurring. Perhaps most striking was his denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus during Sunday school at the age of thirteen. From this point he stated [...in his Biography], “doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly.”
Those doubts were reinforced as King continued to explore the foundations of Christianity. In a paper he wrote in 1949, King examined the psychological and historical origins of three foundational concepts of Christianity: The divinity of Jesus, his virgin birth, and his resurrection. While his analysis is worth reading in full, I’ll give away the punchline by telling you that King begins by stating, “these doctrines are historically and philolophically [sic] untenable.” He goes on to strip these stories of their literal meaning, and explore what it was about both the historical Jesus and the sociopolitical environment in which early Christianity was spreading that might have led to the propagation of such obvious inconsistencies and falsehoods as those found in the Bible.
King went on to exhibit other forms of skepticism about mainstream Christian doctrine, and even warned that it may be harmful. In 1950, King wrote a paper titled “The Humanity and Divinity of Jesus,” where he states:
The orthodox attempt to explain the divinity of Jesus in terms of an inherent metaphysical substance within him seems to me quite inadequate. To say that the Christ, whose example of living we are bid to follow, is divine in an ontological sense is actually harmful and detrimental. To invest this Christ with such supernatural qualities makes the rejoinder: “Oh, well, he had a better chance for that kind of life than we can possibly have …” So that the orthodox view of the divinity of Christ is in my mind quite readily denied. The significance of the divinity of Christ lies in the fact that his achievement is prophetic and promissory for every other true son of man who is willing to submit his will to the will and spirit of God. Christ was to be only the prototype of one among many brothers.
The appearance of such a person, more divine and more human than any other, andstanding [sic] and standing in closest unity at once with God and man, is the most significant and hopeful event in human history. This divine quality or this unity with God was not something thrust upon Jesus from above, but it was a definite achievement through the process of moral struggle and self-abnegation. [Emphasis mine.]
In other words, King’s saw Christ’s “divinity” to have arisen through his good works, not because of his particular relationship to a deity. In this sense, it seems MLK is using an external definition of morality to evaluate Christ’s behaviors.
This is a reflection of what’s known as “The Euthyphro Dilemma,” which asks if something is good simply because it is God’s will, or if God wills something because it is good. Briefly, if the first statement is true, then morality is arbitrary, and anything a god does cannot, by definition, be immoral. Moral behavior therefore becomes a synonym for “God’s actions.” However, if the second is true, then morality is independent of any gods, and therefore can’t be used as evidence of said gods.
As a secular humanist and an atheist, I believe that the foundations of morality are rooted in a concern for human welfare and are completely independent of religious belief. Martin Luther King Jr.’s opinions and writings suggest that he would agree with me.