Sunday, January 27, 2008

Trying To Be Moral Through The Distorted Lens Of The Bible

We are repeatedly confronted with the claim that without religion one cannot be moral. More specifically, the Bible is held up again and again as a source of moral guidance. Unless a person lives their life in accordance with its principles, we are told, they cannot be moral, they cannot be blessed by God, they cannot receive eternal reward.

Even a superficial perusal of the book makes it clear that this position is deeply conflicted. First, there’s a long list of vital moral principles that it has very little to say about. There’s no outright condemnation of slavery, even though that’s clearly one of the most important moral issues confronting the human race. There’s no condemnation of genocide even though that’s consistently been one of the most profoundly immoral things that we do to each other. There’s no condemnation of pedophilia or child sex abuse even though to most people the child sex abuser is the most despicable and evil person they can imagine. There’s no condemnation of child physical abuse. There’s no clear remark on abortion. There are no clear remarks on vital end of life issues like euthanasia. Now consider the biggest and most far reaching moral issues that you will encounter in your life. Most, if not all of these will be on that list.

Not only does the Bible not offer any clear guidance where it is obviously needed, the examples and commandments we do find there are obviously morally repugnant to anyone with any decency. The Old Testament is full of examples of God commanding or God perpetrated heinous acts of genocide. God regularly condones rape, incest, and the physical abuse of women. God issues commands for the Israelites to murder all the men, women, and boys, but to keep the virgin girls for their own purposes. The punishments commanded for the most trivial infractions of arbitrary rules are death. The punishment for violating the 10 Commandments is death. The Old Testament is flooded in gore, torture, cruelty, and injustice either at God’s hand directly or through his commandments. If a person today committed the sorts of horrible acts that God or God’s followers did in the Old Testament, we’d condemn them as the most vile sociopath. The New Testament, Paul in particular, repeatedly endorses sexist policies that subjugate women. Christian slaves are enjoined to be obedient to their masters. The list goes on.

The view that the Bible can offer us any real moral guidance would be laughable if it weren’t so widespread, so ill-conceived, and wasn’t responsible for so many moral crimes itself. The irony is that the people espousing the view invoke many acceptable moral principles implicitly when they cherry pick their examples of moral virtue from the Bible. In claiming that the Bible is the only route to morality, they undermine their own position by selecting those cases that are exemplars of goodness and by refusing to take the multitude of God’s vile commandments and acts seriously. The people who claim that only the Bible can make us moral know in their hearts and on completely independent grounds that genocide, slavery, pedophilia and sexism are wrong, and they bring this autonomous ability to discriminate between right and wrong to their rationalizations and siftings of the Bible. But the moral lessons to be learned there are such a hopeless mess that their ability to separate right from wrong gets hopelessly warped and perverted. If they could abandon their attachment to that source, it would seem that they could be better people than it makes of them, and we could hope to make some real moral progress as a race. Think of how much better off they could be if they weren't expending so much energy trying to rationalize and justify God's various moral crimes in the Bible, and struggling to live by some of those demented principles.


Anonymous said...

One of my concerns with both Judaism and Christianity was the need for atonement via blood sacrifice, which is an underlying theme and basically the jugular of both religions. To me, that's about as unethical as it can get--forcing people (and animals) to suffer avoidable trauma. If an omniscient god would demand something as asinine as a blood sacrifice because of an arbitrary "debt," it creates this endless loop of needless suffering. Surely if we are to worship a god, we can do better than that, I thought.

Then I realized there was no god to worship.

Have you read the book Atheism, Morality & Meaning? It really details exactly what you're writing here. I think you'd enjoy it.

Exchanger said...


I am an atheist. I have done plenty of wrong things, and plenty of good things. Christians tell me I will go to hell. They tell me I will suffer forever, and they tell me to embrace god.

No thanks, I said. Not YOUR god, maybe the Childlike Empress (Michael Ende, Neverending Story). Now THATS a God to be proud of.

It leaves them puzzled. When I go on to explain that she loves and treasures all her creations because she created them, whether ugly or beautiful or evil or good, she loves and never judges them. As a result, even the most evil of her creations will never willingly do much harm to the good populace (unless the good populace happens to be in their way) out of sheer respect for her.

That explanation leaves a lot of people puzzled. What is a god if there is no heaven or hell, or good or evil? What is god/religion worth if there are no ULTIMATE set of rules to live by?

Anonymous said...

"There’s no condemnation of genocide"

I don't know. the golden rule seems to rule out genocide, and then there's those pesky Ten Suggestions that say "Thou shall not kill".

I don't know, I guess you could commit genocide without killing, but it would be somewhat difficult.

Now seriously, in the US a person so oblivious to logic suchh as yourself is able to teach philosophy?

Anonymous said...

Believers claim that religion is the exclusive source of morality; of course this code for, “atheists are immoral.” What a load. Most organizations are sources of standards of behavior. Take governments, associations, businesses, unions and yes religion; all have had an impact on morality, some good and some bad.

Anonymous said...

there is no need for a god to direct morality when in fact as sentient beings, we all desire to avoid pain and seek pleasure. With that in mind, society does create the principles needed to achieve these desires (no god required). The bible is full of contradiction that are frightening to the rational and objective when we see religious leaders using them at will. (Dean)

Anonymous said...

In the bible, actions speak louder than words.

The lord has his cultish followers espouse the ten commandments while commanding them to rape, murder, pillage, and commit infanticide and genocide.

No wonder christians are so confused.

By the way, nearly every society has had some form of the golden rule -- it's not anything particular or special about christianity/judaism.

It's just that social creatures produce the GR in conjunction with the rise of civilization and society, in general.

Now, one thing the bible is evidence of is old school tribalism -- that is, "thou shall not kill thy neighbor" but feel free to kill your non-neighbor as much as possible.

Old Testament morality doesn't blink an eye at tribal violence -- killing off one social competitor for land and food and women.

The bible is great evidence for this human contradiction inherent in social evolution -- that we are always able to rationalize the killing of the "other."

But this evidence is also proof that the bible is not inspired by god: why would such an all-good god ever endorse such vicious forms of tribalism when all humans are his children?

So, the ethical problems raised by the evil bible remain, primarily for believers -- how can believers call themselves moral agents when they rationalize all the brutality of the OT?

Answer: they can't. Anyone who justifies rape and murder and genocide is immoral.

So much for your average theist having something over the non-believer.