And the LORD said unto Moses, “Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the LORD against the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel.” – Numbers 25:4
The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief – call it what you will – than any book ever written; it has emptied more churches than all the counterattractions of cinema, motor bicycle and golf course. – A. A. Milne
This is the fourth of six parts of my critique of religious belief.
In this part of the essay, I discuss what the Bible has to say about the morality of the Christian god and his teachings. I also consider the evidence for the success of Christian morality in the world.
I must make it clear that in this part of the essay I treat Biblical events as if they actually happened. Of course, I don’t believe this is actually the case: it is my view, based on the results of objective Biblical scholarship and archaeology, and on our modern scientific understanding of the world, that much of the narrative in the Bible is mythical or metaphorical. And, as I hope is clear from previous parts of this essay, my view is that the evidence from these sources fails to support the existence of anything supernatural, including God himself. (Indeed, that is why I am an atheist.)
The purpose of this part of the essay, then, is to demonstrate the sort of morality that one is obliged to adopt if one regards events in the Bible to have happened as written.
A Jealous God
To explore the morality of the Christian god, I begin with the Old Testament. Perhaps the most straightforward method of exploration is to look at specific events, and their moral implications. The following list, while not exhaustive, provides a clear enough picture:
1. God threatens the Samaritans in Hosea 13:16: “The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open”.
2. The Israelites are enslaved by the Egyptians, and in order to free them, God is reported to have slain every first born male in Egypt, including infants. This genocidal act (which followed horrendous plagues) was his attempt to sway the mind of a single man (Pharaoh) instead of taking the more humane approach of setting the Israelites free directly by breaking their physical bonds, not a task too great for the same god who purportedly parted a sea. But this episode is even worse than it sounds. Exodus 4:21 tells us that, prior to sending plagues and murdering first-borns, God deliberately set Pharaoh’s mind against him (“And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.”). God then proceeds to “harden” Pharaoh’s heart following every plague, thereby preventing Pharaoh from capitulating. God therefore creates his own excuse to force yet another bout of suffering on an entire nation.
3. Consider the punishment God gives David for having an illegitimate child with Bathsheba. As recounted in 2 Samuel 12:11-18, God causes David’s child, who is completely innocent in this matter, to fall gravely ill. Despite David’s continued begging and pleading for seven days, God causes the child to die. Furthermore, God even threatens to cast out David’s wives to be publicly raped (“Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight.”, 2 Samuel 12:11).
4. In Deuteronomy, God threatens his disobedient people with the punishment of an invasion by an unknown nation. Part of this threat include a siege, described by God in the following grizzly terms: “Because of the suffering that your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the LORD your God has given you. Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children, and he will not give to one of them any of the flesh of his children that he is eating. It will be all he has left because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of all your cities. The most gentle and sensitive woman among you – so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot – will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For she intends to eat them secretly during the siege and in the distress that your enemy will inflict on you in your cities.” (Deuteronomy 28:53-57).
5. Moses battles the Midianites, and has this to say regarding the spoils: “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” (Numbers 31:17-18). Thus God, through Moses, commands infanticide, murder, and rape in the space of just two verses of the Bible. Perhaps we should not be surprised, since Moses is, in fact, a murderer, as explained in Exodus 2:11-12: “One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand”. On reading little anecdotes such as these, I begin to have serious doubts about whether most Christians have actually read the Bible.
6. In 1 Samuel 5, the Philistines have stolen the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites. God inflicts them with tumors, so they send the covenant away to another city. We are then told that “the LORD’s hand was against that city, throwing it into a great panic. He afflicted the people of the city, both young and old, with an outbreak of tumors.” So, innocent children and the fragile elderly are inflicted with tumors because people in the neighboring city stole a box belonging to God.
7. It is said of King David that “Whenever [he] attacked an area, he did not leave a man or woman alive, but took sheep and cattle, donkeys and camels, and clothes.” (1 Samuel 27:9). Thus, not only did god condone the slaughter of civilians, but he condoned the theft of their possessions.
8. The story of Daniel in the lion’s den is well known. Less known is what happens to Daniel’s enemies after he is rescued from the den. Almost as a footnote, it is written that, “At the king’s command, the men who had falsely accused Daniel were brought in and thrown into the lions’ den, along with their wives and children. And before they reached the floor of the den, the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones.” (Daniel 6:24). Children, who undoubtedly had no say in this entire affair, are casually tossed to hungry lions to have their bones crushed in a cruel, torturous death. Neither God nor the virtuous Daniel appear to have any objections.
9. A summary of some of Joshua’s conquests is given in the following passage: “Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded.” (Joshua 10:40). Again, we see the totality of God’s violence. Not even young children are spared.
10. The opening line of Psalm 137 is familiar to many Christians: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” Less familiar are the final two verses (8 and 9) of this Psalm: “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”
11. Also familiar to most Christians is the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his own son, Isaac, at God’s command. God showed mercy in this case, and stayed Abraham’s arm. However, in another case, God did not halt the sacrifice. The story begins with Jephthah, who is so intent on getting God’s help in battle that he makes the following ludicrous promise: “If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30-31). As it happens, his young daughter is first to come forth from his house on his return. God does not have mercy this time. The daughter spends a short interval on her own “lamenting her virginity”, and then “she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.” (Judges 11:39-40). It should also strike the reader that the value of Jephthah’s daughter is seen to lie primarily in her role as a sexual object rather than a human being.
12. Finally, it is well known that the Qu’ran extols followers of Allah to destroy apostates (“[As for] those who disbelieve in Our communications, We shall make them enter fire; so oft as their skins are thoroughly burned, We will change them for other skins, that they may taste the chastisement; surely Allah is Mighty, Wise.” sura 4.56). However, it is less well known that the Christian God makes a similar promise: “He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed.” (Exodus 22:20).
Support of less violent behaviors that are nonetheless rejected by many believers today, are also supported in the Bible. These include polygamy (even the patriarch of monotheistic tradition, Abraham, took a second wife; Genesis 16) and, in the New Testament, what appears to be communism (“No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. … For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”; excerpt from Acts 4:32-35). Finally, the Old Testament god is strongly prejudiced against those with physical defects or injuries, as suggested by the conditions to be met by anyone who wished to approach the altar: “For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or anything superfluous, or a man that is broken-footed, or broken-handed, or crook-backed, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or is scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken; no man of the seed of Aaron the priest, that hath a blemish, shall come nigh to offer the offerings of Jehovah made by fire: he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God.” (Leviticus 21:18-21).
Further examples of atrocities commanded or committed by god are listed in an essay at Ebon Musings. It is certainly clear to me that the atrocities in the Old Testament can easily be explained as the selfishly motivated endeavors of a barbaric, Bronze Age culture: a fictitious god would have provided the perfect illusion of authority and justification for such acts. Of course, this view is antithetical to Christian doctrine. And, even if God reformed his ways during New Testament times, the wanton violence and prejudice of the Old Testament remains part of the Christian canon, like an unwelcome guest at the dinner table. If Stalin, Pol Pot, or any other violent dictator had, in his later years, reformed his ways and written an admirably compassionate and balanced treatise on morality, would anyone put any stock in it? Would anyone even read it? Probably not. It seems odd then that Christians so easily overlook the extremely brutal behavior of God in Old Testament times, and are happy to describe him in the pacifist terms of his New Testament persona. Worse, many Christians are willing to go to great lengths to justify the violence of the Old Testament God, believing that his acts are somehow virtuous if seen in the right way.
What about the New Testament?
As it happens, even the supposition that New Testament morals are uniformly good, is not entirely well founded. While Jesus did teach some common sense morals such as the golden rule, other teachings of his (and of his followers) are of less obvious value. Consider the following:
1. Violence. In Matthew 10:34, Jesus says “Think not that I am come to send peace: I came not to send peace but a sword.”. In Luke 22:36, he says “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.” Jesus also supports a violent idea of the afterlife, saying “The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:41-42). We also have “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.” (Luke 19:27). Jesus threatens the fire of hell for even the most paltry of offenses. For instance, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that “anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell,” (Matthew 5:22). Notably, the concept of hell is found in the New Testament only.
2. The importance of family. Jesus spoke words encouraging people to reject their families in order to follow him: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26). He also said “I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” (Matthew 10:35-36). These ideas seem vastly at odds with Jesus’ plea for us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
3. Slavery. Jesus never explicitly condemned slavery, remaining remarkably silent about it.
4. Divorce and adultery. Jesus said that to divorce a woman is, under certain circumstances, akin to making an adulteress of her. Also, to marry a divorced woman is an act of adultery. (“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery”, Matthew 5:23).
6. Sexual desire. Jesus forbade natural sexual urges: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28).
7. Theft. Jesus said we should not try to recover stolen property: “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” (Luke 6:30); “[I]f anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” (Matthew 5:40).
8. Self defense. Jesus condemned self defense: “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39).
9. Support of draconian Jewish law. Jesus made it clear that he did not reject any law: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-19); “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you.” (Matthew 23:1-3).
10. The use of fear. Jesus instills fear in his followers, saying “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” (Luke 12:4-5). I must note that this use of fear is both supported and contradicted elsewhere in the Bible. It is unclear how these disparate views are to be reconciled.
Writers of the New Testament encourage morally questionable positions through their own words, not just those of Jesus. Consider, as an example, the treatment of women: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” (1 Timothy 2:11-12); “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:22-24); and “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:33b-35).
The New Testament biblical authors also condoned slavery: “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” (1 Peter 2:18); “All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.” (1 Timothy 6:1); “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” (Ephesians 6:5). The comparison of the slave-master relationship to the believer-Christ relationship (repeated in Romans 6:22) raises doubts about the virtue of the personal relationship Christians claim to have with God – how can any healthy relationship be founded on absolute subjugation and obedience, enforced by threat of hell?
Christians might claim that I have misinterpreted the above verses. However, I have simply taken them at face value. The writers provide no caveats or exceptions. Certainly, if these verses are to be seen in a positive light, they must be reinterpreted quite heavily.
In summary then, both Old and New Testaments of the Bible contain multiple examples of immoral behavior and teaching. A quick topic search at BibleGateway.com of five violence-related terms and five peace-related terms results in numbers of hits epicted graphically below:
Notably, violence-related terms take up the top four positions and have only one entry in the bottom five (“murder”). Obviously such a crude exercise is not conclusive, but it is certainly thought provoking.
Perhaps one of the most important moral questions about Christianity concerns the fundamental choice it offers us: we can either follow God or spend an eternity in hell. This choice is deeply coercive: we are threatened with unspeakable suffering if we choose to reject God (Matthew 13:41-42). The situation is analogous to a robber who holds a gun to his victim’s head and says, “You can hand over your money or keep it, but if you keep it, I’ll shoot”. Other religions are not free from this coercive tactic. Take the following threat in the Qu’ran (sura 22:19-22) “But as for those who disbelieve, garments of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid will be poured down on their heads, whereby that which is in their bellies, and their skins too, will be melted; and for them are hooked rods of iron. Whenever, in their anguish, they would go forth from thence they are driven back therein and (it is said unto them): Taste the doom of burning.”
A second analogy serves to drive the point home. Consider a very wealthy bachelor who owns multiple properties, speaks several languages, loves to travel, is stunningly handsome, donates money to charities, and is widely respected by his peers. This man wishes to find a wife, and clearly any woman would be lucky to have him. However, he issues a decree to the women in his city. He tells them that they are all free to choose him or some other man as their future husband, but that if they fail to choose him, he will make their lives miserable: he will use his considerable influence to make sure they become financially bankrupt and he will sow falsehoods about their personal lives, thereby alienating them from their friends and family. This is precisely the sort of ultimatum the Christian god offers us: he tells us that he is the best god to follow, that any of us would be lucky to be close to him. However, if we use our free will to reject him, namely to choose another god or no god at all, we will suffer painful torture in hell for all eternity. This is not a fair choice, but a strongly coercive one.
Free will is often the mechanism believers turn to when asked to justify suffering in the world. Apparently, suffering exists because God gave us the freedom to choose good or evil. However, the sort of person God must be to make such a rule, and then stand back and watch his creations rape and murder themselves, is quite staggering. As Ebon Musings succinctly puts it in a comment on the No Forbidden Questions blog, “If I’m a parent and I see one of my children hitting or bullying another child, I don’t idly shrug my shoulders and say, “That’s too bad, but it’s the cost of having free will.””
Finally, a complication arises if we consider the claim of many Christians that to avoid hell we must actually love God, we cannot simply obey him. This raises the question of how we are supposed to make ourselves love someone, if that is the only way we can avoid eternal suffering. Another analogy is useful here: imagine being on a sinking ship, with a long, cold death awaiting you in the frigid ocean. You are told, however, that if you choose to love the captain of the ship, he will take you aboard his life raft and carry you to safety. How is it possible, under such circumstances, to bring yourself to genuinely love someone in order to be rescued? Can anyone make a calculated decision about who they are going to love? From my experience, love is an emotional bond that arises involuntarily, usually after some time has been spent developing a friendship. For this reason, I cannot make sense of God’s request for us to choose to love him, especially under the condition that we face awful punishment if we refuse.
My final comment on the morality of God is that there is something eerily Orwellian about him: he said to be aware of our very thoughts, and not just dispassionately aware, but critically aware, holding each thought in judgement. The assurance of not a single moment of real privacy, not even in our own minds, is a frightening prospect, regardless of how benevolent and kind the eavesdropper may be (and, as I’ve argued already, God’s benevolence should not be taken for granted). I have known some wonderful, deeply kind people in my life, but the thought of even the most angelic of these friends being privy to my every thought, for my entire life, is deeply disturbing. The added notion that each surveilled thought and action may be judged as sinful, with possibly dreadful consequences, does not assuage my discomfit.
What, Exactly, is Christian Morality?
I’ve described my understanding of the morality of God, but what do Christians think? It seems to me that many Christians ignore, reject, or even reinterpret features of their scriptures they find immoral. But on what basis are these moral judgments made? If the Bible itself is their sole moral guide, how can they use it to select parts of itself that are moral and parts that are immoral? Furthermore, there is a troubling double standard at work here. Christians are taught to follow the moral example of Jesus, and to obey the ten commandments Moses handed to his people. Yet if we apply these moral standards to God himself, he fails, as any of the examples listed above attest. How are Christians to solve this problem? Some I have spoken to try to explain God’s immoral behavior by resorting to the common claim that God works in ways we cannot understand, and that we are therefore in no position to judge the morality of his actions. However, while there are some scriptural claims that God has a higher purpose for us that is hidden from view, there is no evidence that he operates on a different moral system to the one we are expected to use. Indeed, the common Christian mantra “What would Jesus do?” is based on the assumption that whatever morality Jesus adopts is precisely the one we should adopt. Yet God, who is “one” with Jesus according to the concept of the Trinity, goes against Jesus’ moral system time and time again. Perhaps this is the most glaring of all biblical contradictions: God’s son, for the most part, preaches compassion, peace, love, and justice, yet his own father, who is supposedly of the same mind as his son, frequently acts in direct opposition to these attributes.
Philosopher Scott Sehon has made the important point that if the morality of God is unclear (because God’s ways are mysterious) then it is impossible for his followers to make informed moral decisions, because they have no sensible, rational example to follow. God is observed to allow horrendous suffering to occur on a daily basis. An earthquake might trap someone alive, causing them excruciating pain and a slow death due to dehydration. If God’s failure to rescue this person is part of his ultimate plan, then how can we be sure that rescuing people is always the right thing to do? Should we really feel obliged to save someone from, say, a burning house, if we know that God has allowed people to die in burning houses on many previous occasions? Their deaths have presumably been part of God’s purpose, so might we not be thwarting his purpose by attempting to save someone in the same situation? Practically there are few, if any, Christians who actually think this way: most Christians, like any other person, would insist that attempted rescue is the right choice. This indicates that adherents to the “mysterious ways” position regarding God are not, in fact, basing their moral decisions on God’s example, but on their own moral instincts that have been handed to them, as to everyone, by evolutionary processes.
Modern Christian Morality
Supposing we can put theological problems of religious morality aside, let us take a more practical approach and ask whether the beliefs of the religious have led to observably improved morality in society. This is a difficult problem to tackle due to the lack of good data. However one can, for instance, conclude that no clear relationship exists between the general morality of a nation and the influence religion has on its government. Highly secular societies such as the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries do not experience a greater level of immoral behavior (or crime in general) than less secular societies such as the United States. Indeed, many nations influenced strongly by religion today, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, are highly repressive and discriminatory toward certain groups – not what most of us would consider moral behavior. Of course there are examples of secular but immoral governments (e.g., those of Myanmar and North Korea). Dictatorships such as these are often cited by believers as evidence of the immoral consequences of secularism, yet dictatorships ultimately function on religious premises: they are personality cults that quash challenges and questions, discourage critical thought, and encourage an adoring, worshipful, attitude to the leader. A more accurate example of what might be expected from a moral secular government can be seen in many European countries today. The U.S. constitution is also a good example of a secular approach to government, even if it is not always acknowledged as such by religious Americans.
Even if atheism was partly to blame for the atrocities of some dictatorial communist regimes, religion is to blame for atrocities of its own. As Ophelia Benson puts it:
Given holy wars, the inquisition, religious massacres, the revolting ubiquitous cruelty of the Irish church, it just isn’t obvious that atheism permits atrocities any more than theism does. It’s clear that atheism doesn’t rule out horrendous savage murderous violence – but it’s clear that religion doesn’t either. It’s clear that religion doesn’t necessarily make people more compassionate or generous or fair or kind – just as atheism doesn’t. It could be that one or the other tends to do better, but it’s simply not possible to argue that either one reliably prevents … any extreme of human brutality.
If belief in God really did make people good – good in the sense that people tend to mean it nowadays: compassionate, non-violent, kind – then there wouldn’t have been so many Christian supporters of slavery in the 19th century US. If belief in God made people good then sharia wouldn’t include so many savage punishments and such relentless limitation of women’s rights and freedom. (Sharia as practiced in the real world. People like to point out that various nasty things are not really part of sharia. Maybe they’re not, but that’s not much help when the relevant people think they are.)
Atheism too, of course, has no in-built defences against the will of a tyrannous majority. In truth nothing does, apart from constitutions and bills of rights. That’s why such things are needed. Simply depending on the good will of everyone in society, whether they be religious or atheist, is a terrible idea. Neither religion nor atheism causes people to behave consistently well (nor consistently poorly).
Religion has been used throughout the ages to promote or justify war and bloodshed, even if the causes of such strife have also included poverty, political suppression, and other secular phenomena. Christianity alone has been deeply implicated in many conflicts, including the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Thirty Years War, the Troubles in Ireland, and religious persecution by the Puritans. If we move on to other religions, we find the Muslim conquests, modern Islamic terrorism, the ongoing sectarian struggles in many parts of the Middle East, not to mention many eastern Asian conflicts. Religion has also been used to discriminate against minorities, including blacks, gays, and women, and continues to be so used. The Vatican recently (May, 2008) declared that any woman ordained as a Catholic priest would be excommunicated from the church, along with any bishops involved in her ordination. The Vatican has also dug in its heels regarding sexually transmitted diseases and the importance of condom use in their prevention, all because of the antiquated and superstitious notion that, in the words of Monty Python, “every sperm is sacred”. Perhaps most egregious is the apparently widespread pedophilia among Catholic priests, which is doubly tragic given their self-proclaimed role as moral leaders and compassionate caretakers. Finally, deep hatred of homosexuals is still rampant in some evangelical Christian communities in the U.S.A, not to mention in many African Christian communities where religious dogma is used to justify the generally homophobic attitude of these societies.
Of course some religious people do provide strong moral leadership – the name of Bishop Desmond Tutu springs to mind. Furthermore, many charity and aid organizations are religious, and provide daily relief and solace to the destitute. The value of these services cannot be underestimated. However, the existence of many secular charities and organizations (including the International Red Cross, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization) suggest once again that morality has a more general foundation than religion.
A further pitfall of religious morality is its rigidity over thousands of years. Society’s moral zeitgeist has undergone very important positive changes over the years, in step with our deepening scientific understanding of the human condition. These changes have left religious morals behind. As Mark Twain put it, “The Christian Bible is a drug store. Its contents remain the same; but the medical practice changes.” For instance, there is no explicit rejection of slavery in the Bible (instead, there are guidelines on the treatment of slaves). However, most religious people today would be quick to denounce slavery, a moral attitude that has emerged with wide consensus over only the last one or two hundred years. Further examples include the discovery that there are no such things as witches (unlucky women designated as such were once persecuted ruthlessly by Christians in the United States) and that equal rights ought to be accorded to all races, and to gays and women.
Our changing moral zeitgeist is, perhaps, the strongest evidence that our morals are not derived from fixed religious teachings. Rather, it is the other way around: enlightened moral views find their way into religious teachings. However, because these new teachings must, like all basic religious views, be grounded in unchanging scripture, they require a change in emphasis from outmoded parts of scripture to parts that don’t overtly contradict the current view. Hence it is not surprising that most teaching in Christian churches today studiously avoids books like Leviticus. This pattern of reinterpretation and change of emphasis is most widespread in theologically moderate settings. Indeed, fundamentalism is often considered undesirable precisely because it continues to acknowledge the importance of immoral passages in the scriptures. However, the fundamentalists have a point: when moderates adopt only those parts of the texts they find palatable, they succumb to the unjustified cherry-picking process described above.
Some moderates are so open in their views that they appear to verge on the brink of abandoning their beliefs altogether. Bishop John Selby Spong, for instance, suggests a revision of Christianity composed of the following theses (reproduced verbatim from his letterat http://www.polebridgepress.com/Periodicals/4R_Articles/spong_theses.html), which systematically strip Christianity of its basic tenets:
1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
12. All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.
It is notable how consistently negative Spong’s theses are, in that they recommend what should be removed from the Christian belief system without offering any positive replacements, or even a description of what substance (if any) remains.
The Christian author Karen Armstrong provides another perplexing example. In her book The Case for God, she argues that “The idea of God is merely a symbol of indescribable transcendence”. She adopts an apophatic approach, which posits that god is ineffable and we can therefore know nothing about him. It seems strange, then, that she would bother believing in something she knows nothing about. As philosopher Troy Jollimore says in a review** of The Case for God:
Ultimately it is doubtful that apophaticism can be made to work. If the concept of “God” is genuinely empty, as it needs to be if evidence and rational criticism are to be considered irrelevant to God-talk, then in a quite literal sense people who talk about God cannot say and do not know what they are talking about.
It is baffling to me why theologians such as Spong and Armstrong cling to the thin, unconvincing remains of their supernatural beliefs instead of opting for a more rational, parsimonious naturalist approach (such as humanism) that would champion their core ethical standpoints without the distractions of speculative theological minutiae. As members of the Jesus Seminar, both Spong and Armstrong have contributed to an extensive attrition of the familiar figure of Jesus, applying what appears to be objective, rigorous scholarship that has left Jesus looking extraordinarily ordinary. Yet it does not seem to have occurred to them to apply the same objective rigor to God himself – a figure who is surely far more fantastical than Jesus, and for whom even less evidence can be found.
* One wonders what moral codes the people of biblical times adhered to before the stone tablets were handed to Moses. If the the ten commandments were truly novel, it should be safe to assume that the world’s societies were entirely chaotic and immoral prior to that point. However, evidence of cultures older and more sophisticated than those of the Bronze Age Middle East suggest differently.