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.