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The Myth of the Moral Christian

2010 October 28

For a long time now an idea has persisted that religion has granted its morality to us rather than the reverse.  This can be attributed in many cases to the belief of those propounding this old recitation that their holy books are the true words of some deity or other.  If this were the case one would be dull to believe otherwise, for surely if god is all he claims to be we owe him quite a bit indeed.  However, as modern science has rendered this superstition sufficiently false, one must confront the possibility after all that our morals weren’t bestowed by divine passage.  This leaves it to nature to have done through the almost miraculous process of evolution by natural selection, and there is thorough evidence that this is just the case.  Now, despite all this, it is still recited by religious folks that without their holy book we on earth would be quite incapable of resisting the temptation to destroy ourselves and each other.  This I find offensive because it suggests that without the fear of eternal torture or the promise of divine reward I would not know better than to go about violently altering the genitals of children, demonizing the recreations of two adult persons of the same sex or forbidding the distribution of preventative measures to those in imminent danger of acquiring the earth’s most fatal disease.  Surely we do not need anything but the most common degree of compassion to differentiate between these acts and acts of decency.  And it is not incidental that these acts find their champions almost exclusively in churches and temples.

Let me begin by saying that I have no interest in citing immoral acts performed historically by Christians; firstly because the list would be quite long and rather tedious to get through, not to mention awfully discouraging; and secondly because the list might well be just as long if it were describing the immoral actions of non-believers, and anyhow this sort of tallying gets us nowhere.  As far as I’m concerned the score is quite even and, at any rate, who cares?  Rather, I am intensely interested in demonstrating that it is quite impossible to maintain a moral attitude while simultaneously maintaining the tenets of Christianity.  Certainly, many are able to live at least average moral lives while professing their adherence to Christianity, but as you well know, professing adherence and adhering are very different things.  It should be quite simple to act morally while professing anything at all, and we are all too well aware of the many instances of those who act immorally while professing to do just the opposite.

It would be easy to disregard the Old Testament altogether when discussing questions of morality, but I think it is worth a proper examination to reinforce the fact.  The New Testament is welcomed by Christians with a relieved sigh because it in a sense rewrites a few of its predecessor’s missteps, though this welcoming is done perhaps too eagerly, because, as we shall see, the sequel isn’t altogether so pristine as it is made out to be.  Jesus, in turn, is too held up as a profound moral leader and gives guidance to many people who feel that without him they might turn to lives of depravity and wickedness.  His proficiency as a shepherd of the inept is often defended even by those who find his claims to divinity unpersuasive, but this won’t quite do either.  One might be surprised to discover some rather questionable things the man said in recommendation, but it is certainly true that he was under a great deal of stress and was, after all, merely human.  One cannot expect perfection, can one?  Even our great contemporary moral leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have been known to fall to the impulses inherent to our species.  In such cases we have learned to trust them on the subjects in which they demonstrate profundity, and to disregard them on those in which they are less exceptional.  We are able to navigate these subtleties because we are quite aware of morality on our own and, while guidance in times of difficulty can be of immeasurable help, are sufficient judges of moral and immoral action in our own right.  It is with these faculties precisely that we conveniently forget the more disagreeable utterances of the alleged Christ and apply those we find to our taste.  Let us then use these faculties bestowed us by evolution to examine what a Christian morality would really look like and see if we still find it to be an example of human flourishing or, as it may so happen, not.

The Old Testament

The awful behavior of god in the Old Testament is well known, so I won’t go to great length to describe it, but I will draw our attention to a few bits that have always seemed to me to be especially affecting.

The Book of Job is a peculiar bit of sadism paired with grotesque narcissism.  God, in this book, demonstrates himself to be so concerned with his own adoration that he takes up the task of locating one negligent man and punishing him relentlessly (along with his poor wife and children whom he kills for the lesson).  Ultimately, and somewhat surprisingly, Job, at the end of all this, is able to find it in his heart to forgive god and goes on loving him more than he ever had before god had subjected him to unimaginable torture.  God then repays Job’s devotion by conjuring for him a new family, which apparently pleases Job just as well as to have the former one returned.

Prior to this is the rather worrisome episode with Abraham and his son Isaac.  Here god demonstrates himself again to be a true sadist and commands Abraham to walk his son to the top of a mountain, slay the boy and burn his body.  Abraham does this without a word of contention and, thankfully, just before he is about to commit the irreversible act, an angel appears and stays his hand, saying that it was a hoax all along and that god merely wanted to see if he’d do it.  God is occasionally defended in this scenario because he didn’t let Abraham go through with it after all and had been plotting the interruption all along, but this demonstrates only that god has the compassion of an unschooled child who takes up as recreation the pastime of convincing other smaller children to do his bidding on threat of a beating.  It is often contended by religious folks that we were made in god’s image and though I disagree it is beyond me to find fault with their reasoning.

The principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ can also be found in the Old Testament and this has been long demonstrated to be one of the poorest attempts at moral justice ever uttered precisely because it perpetuates injustice, though only as long as the persons involved may live, at which point the charge is taken up by god for the difference of eternity.

On this principle, no doubt, god punished the indecency within the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with their complete obliteration.  It seems unlikely that women and children were involved in the violent rape that is often given as the cause beyond their role as victims, though this detail seems to have been overlooked by the punisher.

It is in the book of Exodus that god stays his mortal punishment of Moses because he takes a strange pleasure from seeing Moses’ wife mutilate the penis of their son and touch the severed bit to her husband’s feet.  It is also here that he kills every firstborn child in Egypt – the reason need not be mentioned, for no reason given could suffice, and indeed this one does not.

The book of Leviticus is full of commandments to death, granted in many cases as punishment for sex of various forms between consenting adults.  The causes for these are quite bizarre and all unjustified as death hardly seems to me a proper punishment for any action at all.  Adding to this, god lays out a series of horrors that will be visited upon those who disobey his rather arbitrary and particular commands, most of which end in death by torture, though one of which is the required consumption of one’s own children.

In Deuteronomy (and indeed in other books) god not only condones war, but requires it and instructs a number of atrocities that today would stand as war crimes.  He then commands the forced enslavement of the citizens of occupied cities on punishment of death.  Anyone, human or otherwise, who cannot get right the question of human slavery seems to me to be fundamentally suspect.

This list is rather brief, but we shall have to move on otherwise one may do just as well to read the book itself.

It is not insignificant that the above atrocities were all perpetrated by god himself, not human beings, of whom we may expect less.  However, it seems that the humans in most of these stories commit only minor offenses, if any at all.  Indeed, it is often that torturous punishment is rained upon those who are acting quite typically.  And, upon any consideration at all, in many cases the horrors enacted by humans were done only to satisfy the monstrous instructions of god.

The Ten Commandments

Before we leave the Old Testament for the new one, we must thoroughly consider perhaps its most enduring moral guideline – the Ten Commandments.  Often held by Christians is the idea that the Decalogue contains the very basis of all moral instruction and that in ten lines god has given us all we might need to live a moral life.  If this is so they are certainly worth due consideration, however such consideration cannot help but leave even the most normally moral person wanting and thinking that perhaps the list might benefit from some revision.

I am the Lord your God and you shall have no other gods before me. This is often taken as one commandment, though when it isn’t the second half is paired with the following commandment anyhow and thusly it doesn’t influence our order or number.  This and the next few are hardly moral charges at all and so don’t leave us with much to consider.  However, in this first one, god does reveal himself to be a bit jealous, which leaves one wondering what, if he is the only god (this idea being the basis of monotheistic religion), he has to be jealous of.

You shall not make for yourself an idol. This is done harmlessly and often (in the case of history’s most gifted artists) inspiringly and most people seem to disregard the charge in any event for this reason.

Do not take the name of the Lord in vain.  This is rather a tricky point because ‘in vain’ is rather difficult to define.  Either way, this charge is also often disregarded because it seems rather particular and the crime quite victimless.

Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.  Personally I can never quite remember which day is the Sabbath for which religion.  This is for good reason, because it is never specified in any canonical text and is therefore quite difficult to remember.  However, it is now Sunday for Christians, though it was formerly Saturday.  It begins on Friday for Jews, who also take the Old Testament as their holy book, and so this adds to confusion.  It is meant, in any case, to recall the day that god rested after taking the previous six to create the universe.  The exact day, though never specified, is of great importance, because god in other books informs us that missing the Sabbath and thus accidentally neglecting its holiness is punishable by death.

Honor your father and mother.  Here is, perhaps, our first moral charge.  It seems simple enough but for the many existing cases in which one’s father or mother is abusive, negligent or otherwise unworthy of respect.

You shall not murder. This would be quite commendable if it represented any more than blatant moral hypocrisy.  It is shortly after this revelatory episode that Moses commands his followers to commit large-scale murder and one is consequently forced to consider whether, then, by his own laws, god is himself a moral being if he is so willing to break this commandment in order to enact vengeance either by his own hand or by divine mandate.

You shall not commit adultery.  This point, while in most cases valid, seems hardly worthy of god’s careful attention.  Its presence here, however, is merely a reinforcement of an issue with which god concerns himself often throughout the rest of his book.  In other cases he informs us that adultery is punishable by death.  One is led to wonder why he then lets so many people slide.

You shall not steal.  This seems warranted.

You shall not bear false witness.  This is perhaps the most morally salient of the commandments and in comparison to its companions seems to me to be quite admirably ahead of its time.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or property. Here is one of the most frightening exercises of god’s alleged omnipotence – the ability and willingness to punish one for one’s thoughts.  This is perhaps one of the most wicked abuses of moral sentiment ever conceived and it is allegedly perpetrated by the creator and overseer of the universe.

Surely, if one were to consider ten moral guidelines upon which to found all human righteousness, one could improve upon these.  The fact that certain persons wish to erect this list in halls of justice demonstrates in them a complete misunderstanding of the foundation of this country and a tragically inhibited moral sense, for it is often in the very same halls that the very same people prescribe acts of murder in the name of justice.  And I certainly could not be made to believe that these presumably well-intentioned people would wish to punish by law acts of thought-crime or parental dishonor.  This seems sufficiently below any person with a functional moral intellect.

It gives me great pleasure to know that this book is not in fact used as a basic moral framework, otherwise our society would be in great distress if not wholly destroyed by now, by god or ourselves.  Instead, and in direct opposition to the tenets of this book, we have seen a fantastic growth of human flourishing and an expanded moral consciousness that improves upon the guidelines of the Old Testament immeasurably.  This book, while of some true merit in other venues, mostly literary, I daresay it is at its best wholly useless as a moral guide and at its worst demonically destructive.  After all, it has been our steps away from such dangerous texts that have produced in our developed societies the recognition that women, people of color and homosexuals are, in fact, human beings just the same (though each of these improvements needs yet more work); that genocide is unwarranted and intolerable, especially when god prescribes it; that death as a punishment is cruel and morally defective (though consensus on this point is troublingly lacking); that the treatment of any person as property is unjustifiable and emphatically unthinkable; and other such ideas that have now come to define the basic moral mind.

The New Testament

It is quite common when in discussion with a Christian, after having cited the atrocities of the Old Testament, to be confronted with the new one.  It is often said that the New Testament undoes a few of the knots left by its predecessor and makes improvements that should pacify the modern skeptic.  While one must confess that the amending text improves upon the original, it leaves a great deal to be desired if we are to consult it as an instructive moral guide.

Jesus, in common thought, is made out to be at least a profound moral pioneer if not the son of god and all that.  However, the former cannot quite be true, because dismissing the latter admits a great deal about the character of the person in question and one may want to consider this redefinition more thoroughly before lending him one’s devoted adoration.  Let us do this.

Remarkably, it was the famous Christian novelist and essayist, C.S. Lewis, who lent us the following most distilled and astute ultimatum regarding the character of Jesus.  Lewis has this to say to those who claim, “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.”:

That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.

You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God,: or else a madman or something worse …. You can shut him up for fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.  He has not left that option open to us.  He did not intend to.

Lewis, for his perfect insight, fell surprisingly on the side of those who are taken in by Jesus’ claims to divine parentage.  Perhaps he was not quite aware of the effect of his words, for they forbid the excuse of the generous modern skeptic more powerfully than any atheist thinker has yet done.  In fact, his words have become so indispensible that I’ve yet to find an atheist who makes this point without them.

Perhaps it seems Lewis is being a bit hard on the old sage, but let us consider why we think this.  Perhaps we are thrown by Lewis’s severity because we know Jesus to be the speaker of such guiding moral phrases as “Love thy neighbor as thyself”; “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise”; and “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.  However, when reflected upon with due consideration, these phrases reveal themselves to be quite a bit more problematic than they may seem.  Let us take them in order.

Love thy neighbor as thyself.  This is quite impossible.  It should be sufficient to love our neighbors dutifully, respectfully and thoroughly when they are deserving of our love.  To be commanded as a requisite of god’s approval that we indiscriminately match our attention to our neighbors with our attention to ourselves seems to me too much to ask.  It is surely difficult enough for Jesus, whose narcissism condemns those neighbors who find the story of his parentage questionable to an eternal torture of his own sadistic creation.

Do to others as you would have them do to you. The Golden Rule can be found in the utterances of many mortal apes throughout recorded history, and Jesus is certainly not its originator.  Its prescription, too, is oversimplified to paralysis.  We could not, of course, have done to Hitler what we’d have had him do to us, otherwise we’d be surely dead or, far worse, under fascist governance.  While it must be admitted that the sentiment of the statement is worthy enough, a practical application allows for the permission of evil with passivity, a practice to which Jesus himself cannot be said to subscribe.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.  Adherence to this would corrupt our justice system fundamentally and demand the maintained freedom of murderers, rapists and psychopaths based on a doctrine of moral compromise.  It is our experiences with error that instruct us toward future prevention in ourselves and others.  If we are deemed unfit to judge moral action then any immoral action is permissible and I am certain that this would contradict Jesus’ interests in addition to contradicting the interests of humanity.

The contradictions that stain the integrity of the Bible have been long documented and I won’t record that argument here.  However, in the interest of examining Jesus as a moral teacher we must consider those more overtly questionable aspects of his character.

The Sermon on the Mount is often referenced as an eloquent example of righteousness taught, though to say so is to overlook some rather troubling commandments.  Surely this sermon contains some favorable sentiments.  Jesus lends his voice to the poor, recognizes the merciful and comforts the weary of spirit, however, he also reinforces the importance of the Ten Commandments, that most odd collection of alternately pseudo-moral and self-serving instructions, and demands the extraction of an eye that ‘offends’ in order that one rid oneself of any morally compromising organ lest the offense of one’s eye be confused for the offense of one’s spirit.  The removal of one’s eye is a recommendation that follows the news that lusting after a woman other than one’s wife is in fact equivalent to going to bed with her.  Jesus, to my knowledge, had never been anyone’s wife, but had he, it seems to me that he might have felt otherwise.

Another difficulty lies in his treatment of hell.  Jesus is, as seems often forgotten, the creator of hell as it is commonly known.  What are we to make of a moral leader whose doctrines are purveyed on threat of limitless and unimaginable torture?  Simply, this is moral blackmail.  One might wish that kindness to others, a generosity of spirit and a desire for equality and justice would be founded on a basic interest in common good, not on a fear of inescapable and perpetual agony.  An overwhelming amount of suffering has been brought into the world because of this and anyone who perpetuates this terrible myth is quite a cruel and fiendish person.

All of this is additionally compromised by the abhorrent and destructive notion of original sin.  Thusly, we are, as Benjamin Franklin wrote, ‘created sick and then commanded to be well’.  This impossible and damning paradox is nothing but wickedness and it soils the moral integrity of anyone who propounds it.

However, in the face of all this, many still take refuge in the fact that Jesus ‘sacrificed himself’ for the salvation of humanity.  Though this may sound quite lovely it is itself a morally confounding action.  If I were to, say, offer myself to god on behalf of the operators of the Holocaust, this would not, could not possibly erase the actual suffering inflicted upon millions of innocent people at their charge and by, in many cases, their own hands.  My action could only be conceived as morally irrelevant, as it would gain nothing for those dead and would only serve to exonerate the perpetrators of perhaps the most horrific and grand spectacle of human suffering ever enacted on earth.  Though, in the case of Jesus it doesn’t seem to have done much good anyway, because the churches are still urging their congregations to take up kindness and generosity on their own and many Christians still call for the damnation of various groups of people they deem unfit company in the afterlife.

This is all omitting the fact that in all likelihood Jesus was under a misapprehension about his relations and was therefore inadvertently (one would hope) misleading not only those to whom he spoke but generations of followers willing, at their worst, to slay in his name.  Even the cruelties of the Inquisition could not match the horrors Jesus himself promised to those who suspected he might be misinformed.

The Origin and Legacy of Morality

It is occasionally troubling to people to consider the foundations of morality once Jesus has been removed.  However, such a proposition shouldn’t be so confounding and certainly not so frightening.  Most Christians take exception to Jesus’ more violent episodes and do after all feel some hesitation about condemning their friends to an infinity of torment over a disagreement about the parentage of a Jewish peasant born some 2,000 years ago.  These exceptions should be quite revealing, for they admit of some source of morality other than the religion itself.  It has been thoroughly demonstrated that our morality is inherited from a long ascendance of creatures that required and thusly acquired a moral framework for survival.  Without this they surely would not have survived long enough to continue their lineage so far as they have done.  It is no accident that humans have morals, but a necessity.

Often when the truth of Jesus’ allegations is questioned it is arbitrarily brought up that Christianity compels its followers to moral action.  Perhaps this is true, though if it is it should trouble those that believe it, for is it not more moral to perform a good deed for the benefit of the recipient and the gratification of the performer than for the sake of opposing the threat of punishment?  It is certainly suspect to offer one’s generosity only so that one should gain the favor of a third a party.  While I do suppose the words of Jesus might inspire pure moral performances, I might suggest some other reading that I find much more inspiring: Sydney Carton, for example, of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, performs an astoundingly selfless act for the sake of love and, if I may say so, with a great deal less hesitation than Jesus performed his.  This I can employ as a model whenever I choose and without the burden of having to believe Carton to have existed historically, let alone to have access to my every thought and the ability to condemn me eternally thereby.

It is no wonder so many Christians feel conflict with their religion – this is no doubt the effect of a rift between one’s inborn morality and the one taught by an Iron Age mystic.  And the conflict retains much less friction when one remembers that Jesus was in fact evolved from more primitive forms over billions of years and born a mortal ape just like the rest of his contemporaries, predecessors and successors.  In this light, his fiery temperament, his cosmic narcissism and his conflicting moral lessons are quite easy to comprehend as the simple imperfections of a troubled human being.

Let us take, for example, another fellow ape and simultaneous moral leader, Martin Luther King Jr.  While leading his contemporaries toward an expanded moral understanding not previously achieved in this country he was able to maintain an array of extramarital relations with young women up to and including the night before his murder.  This poses a problem to those who doubt the ability of a person who commits immoral actions to speak a moral phrase.  It cannot be doubted that Jesus might have attached one of his most favored words to King – ‘hypocrite’ – though one may take comfort in knowing that Jesus himself surely earned this name as well, just as any human might.

In any case, King himself maintained that he drew his inspiration from the Bible, though he might just as well have taken it from Twain, a far better wordsmith than the gospel authors and a greater appreciator of irony, no doubt.  This should not demean King’s achievements, but rather attribute them wholly to himself.  The great non-violent leader certainly cut from his readings Jesus’ more violent spells and anyhow bent his allegedly Christian message toward a secular purpose.

Any person who claims to use the Bible as a basis for their moral action is in fact claiming to use parts they have excised to fit their own existing moral structure.  Christians are no more demonstrably moral than any other group of people on earth, though they outdo many with their legacy of wickedness.  We should not find this surprising.  Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, once said of this disturbing fact: ‘Religion is an insult to human dignity.  With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.’  This rings quite true when one reflects upon the history of our species and recognizes that our preservation has depended upon the avoidance of a strict adherence to scripture.

In my experience, I have not heard, witnessed or read of any moral action performed by a Christian that would be impossible for a non-believer to do.  This, I think, is because there is no such action.  This is due to the fact that religion was bestowed its morality by us, which should give some idea why the moral lessons of the Bible could withstand improvement; moral ethic has certainly evolved in the past 2,000 years, as one might expect it should.

Let us consider a question: if we are looking at a person compelled to moral action against their will by the commandment of god, are we looking at a ‘moral’ performance at all?  Certainly not.  Morality cannot be compelled in this violent way or else it ceases to be morality.  Thusly the prescriptions of god may only become moral when they are enacted in spite of their prescription, and does this not render the original prescription rather inconsequential?

Bertrand Russell confronted the issue of morality in his essential book, Why I Am Not A Christian, and did so with far more brevity than I have here.  He distilled his consideration to one point, and it is this:

If you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, you are then in this situation: Is that difference due to God’s fiat or not?  If it is due to God’s fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good.  If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that he made them.  If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God.

It does seem much simpler to me to say that humans made god and lent him their morality after the fact.  This avoids much of the above confusion and falls neatly in line with the opinions of modern science.

The preceding thoughts are not to say that it is impossible for a Christian person to be likewise a moral one.  On the contrary, I have myself known personally far more loving and thoughtful Christians than wicked ones, but it seems to me that this is in spite of their belief, not because of it.  There is no moral lesson in the Bible worth knowing that could not be discovered otherwise, though there is a great deal of menace exclusive to it.  It is a rather troubling thought to know that while speaking with a Christian, however lovely, that they think that despite your general good will and the pleasure of your company you will, after you leave the earth, spend the difference of infinity engulfed in flame for your disagreement.  This seems to me to be a thought contrary to their normal decency, no doubt learned reluctantly from their holy book.  Much ill can be spoken of unbelievers, though it can never be said that they believe their opponents to be worthy of this awful suffering, and that says to me a good deal.  Let us be suspicious of anyone who claims they have taken their morals from the Bible – perhaps they have.

22 Responses
  1. November 1, 2010

    Brian,
    I don’t disagree with your entire piece. In fact, I absolutely agree with you here, “In my experience, I have not heard, witnessed or read of any moral action performed by a Christian that would be impossible for a non-believer to do. This, I think, is because there is no such action.” There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that morals do not derive exclusively through Christianity or any other religion.

    And I’m sure this is your intention in your writing: you made me remarkably uneasy. I’m glad you included the disclaimer that you’ve known more thoughtfully moral Christians than immoral ones. I’m uncomfortable (god, i hate using that word regarding religious studies, but it’s how we tend to phrase things) with the idea of making such a vast claim about religion and morals not being tied together. Because religion and morals ARE tied. For many religious practitioners, morality IS derived from their religious texts. And often in spite of their religious texts these people are still often moral. At various points in my academic caeer I’ve found it helpful to view religions as strictly moral systems or other times to separate the religious morals from cultural mores.

    I use religions as moral systems to create a structural comparison to atheism/secularism. I had a long argument–and eventually a lower semester grade–with a professor (jesuit priest teaching hinduism) on whether or not atheists could even properly study religion. And I agree that we have placed morality onto religion, particularly since we created religion.

    No, that’s all good to this point. My discomfort comes from your method of scriptural examination. It’s solid analysis, but i think you rely too much on scriptural literalism. I can’t fault you for using Abraham and Isaac or Job. Neither seem to have a moral lesson beyond Blind Faith. 7 years of studying religion and 25 years of being raised by two Episcopal priests and no one has convinced me of either story as anything different. But when it comes to the 10 Commandments, I think you need to consider not only the scriptural comands that they are, but their historical relevance and later development. For example, creating/worshipping “idols” is something that’s still a matter of debate. Iconoclasm was one of the main causes of a split between the Eastern and Western churches. As a scholar of Hinduism, I’ve seen other versions of the debate, too, since “idols” are used all the time– they are the only direct path to “see” God. In the case of adultery and why it makes it into the Big 10, I’m going to guess that there were rampant problems with adultery in both Israelite and other groups at the time. (I’ve always liked the theory that religions are a response to problems of the time. Islam and Buddhism are both great examples of that.) But as you say, it may be “hardly deserving of God’s attention” and I always wondered why are we, as individuals, deserving either? But without historical context, you are right that these are all just sort of out of place laws of order. If you examine the scripture literally, as only a small (but sadly growing) portion of Christians do, then you miss the broader point that religion doesn’t exist in a textual vacuum, but a larger evolving sphere of ideas, and of morality.

    This almost makes me want to follow up your piece with a similar one on Hinduism and the Laws of Manu re: sati and caste system. And honestly, that’s the biggest compliment for a piece of writing in my mind: one that inspires me to write as well. A conversation worth continuing.

    Bravo!
    Meg

    (and i apologize at the probable disjointedness of my comments. it’s taken me 8 hours at work to write this.)

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      November 1, 2010

      Meg,

      I really appreciate your comments and your attention – I know this is your area as well. Let me try to address your comment as thoroughly as I can without writing an entire sequel.

      For the sake of clarity, I do believe that it is possible to use the Bible to cultivate one’s naturally inherited moral sense. However, I believe it is much more difficult than it is made to be, and I believe that people often think they are doing this when in fact they are not.

      Religion and morals are certainly tied. I think my main disagreement with the common understanding is that they are tied in a vastly different way than is typically assumed and propounded.

      I agree that much of the moral teachings were appropriate to their time and this, to me, is the reason why I find them so suspect. I am glad that we can dismiss the more inappropriate ones due to moral evolution, otherwise, as we know, the world would be a much darker place than it already is. However, our ability to do this indicates to me that it is not religion from which we’re deriving our moral knowledge. Surely, if we can (appropriately and correctly) judge the morality of the Bible and hold it to our (better) contemporary standards, our mechanism of judgment must come from without. ‘Without’ would of course be evolution, etc. My contention is that while certainly many folks take a good moral lesson or two from the Bible, they do so in spite of most of it (this is a good thing!), because, personally, as a moral guide I find it to be pretty lousy. I think that most people do too, even those who credit their morality to the Bible.

      As for literalism, of this I’m guilty. This is because I have a difficult time believing in the idea of the ‘metaphorical’ Bible. Judging by the scientific knowledge and, as you note, differences of epoch inherent to the authors, I don’t see metaphor as a viable option in most cases (excluding the intentional metaphors employed by Jesus in his parables, etc.). Many people like to bend the Genesis legend toward a contemporary scientific understanding citing ‘metaphor’. But surely this couldn’t have been a metaphor! For what? Their hidden knowledge of quantum mechanics? This seems unlikely. The Bible, in its inaccuracies (historical, scientific and moral), evidences its age and its ignorance. I do not blame it, of course. However, I think the fact that we now know better should rightly take us further from these superstitions rather than closer. The Commandments reek of Bronze Age ignorance, as they should certainly not if the charge of their divine authorship is true, but as they understandably should if, as is well known, they were written thousands of years ago by men under a misapprehension. The Bible is a wonderful document of ancient superstition and an invaluable text if we are to understand both historical and contemporary society, literature, politics, art, etc., but an everlasting source of sound moral guidance? Surely not.

      I hate to leave a point unaddressed because it may seem like I’ve evaded it rather than simply overlooked it. I hope I’ve been clear.

      Yours is indeed quite a compliment and I thank you for it. You know, I thought something similar of your latest – I’ve been thinking of writing a piece about the importance of contemporary scientific understanding to politics and I should have written to you (as I thought to do) to tell you that your meditation on a similar topic was reassuring to me. Perhaps we should do an inspiration swap and follow through on each!

      Cheers,

      Brian

      • November 4, 2010

        Brian,

        Again, I turn to Hindu scriptures when looking at something like Genesis. First of all, there are two creation stories in Genesis. I’m hazy on this, because the Bible isn’t my favorite scripture to read (and you’ll see clearly why, shortly), but i believe those creation stories are both within the first 4 chapters? What I absolutely love about Hindu scripture–and this is possibly one of the reasons I started studying religion in the first place–is that I can’t count the number of “Hindu” creation stories. For example, in one story, the gods create the universe by churning the sea of amrita, or the nectar of life. In another, it grows as a lotus from Vishnu’s navel. Because there are so many different creation stories, from what i’ve always heard, not one is considered “more real” than another. (This is one reason why Hinduism and science don’t have the same issues as Christianity and science.) Do they really believe that the earth came out of a lotus? Possibly, but unlikely. The plurality of creation stories lends itself to treating them as metaphor. The Vedas talk about creation, but so do the Upanishads and the Puranas. They build upon the old, changing their ideas, not thinking “this idea was more right than that.”

        I wonder also if we’re using “metaphor” in slightly different ways. I’m gonna guess that there’s no way that the Bible is holding secrets of quantum mechanics, only because we’d have discovered QM long ago if that had been the case. I’m struggling to find the right way to describe it in less than a book, because it’s the culmination of over 7 years of studying religion. It’s not that we’re talking about metaphor in opposite ways, or even dissimilar ways, but i think the nuance is different. I’ll get back to you when I figure that one out.

        One of the other things that I forgot to consider earlier was the amount of “Christian” morality drawn from the greek philosophers through the patristics (early church fathers) and the neo-platonists. The early church shaped a substantial portion of the religion outside of the realm of simply scripture. And as I mentioned to Kevin, the Reformation has a great deal more to do with morality than I’d previously considered. With the Reformation, you have the idea that the individual can have direct knowledge/inspiration of the divine but also of the scripture. That’s the point at which you have more people trying to build morality out of scripture instead of having church leaders tell you what to do (or who to pay to be forgiven and granted salvation).

      • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
        November 4, 2010

        Meg,

        Sadly, as you certainly know, there are many people who do, in fact, believe the Genesis nonsense. This is worrisome to me. In regard to the myth as metaphor, the Bible itself does seem to take itself rather seriously on such points. I’m wary of contemporary ‘interpretation’ because so much of it seems to me instead to be ‘justification’, a far different and feebler thing. And if we are left to ourselves to ‘interpret’ these texts so liberally then our intuition must thusly come from without and we are quite on our own anyhow.

        In regard to the necessity of the Bible for moral guidance, your point about the Greek philosophers is telling.

  2. kevin permalink
    November 4, 2010

    After reading this through, the part that jumped out at me was what Meg already highlighted.

    “In my experience, I have not heard, witnessed or read of any moral action performed by a Christian that would be impossible for a non-believer to do. ”

    As a Christian, I agree with this. Spot on.
    Which is why I think one of the “5 Solas” is Sola fide (“by faith alone”). Meaning, salvation is not based on any moral action, but by faith alone.

    • November 4, 2010

      Right, but that still only stands for Protestant Christians. Roman Catholics and I believe Orthodox Christians believe that you need more than faith alone, that you need “works” as well. And it’s the Reformation that allows for our current form of atheism to even exist. I’m a firm believer in the fact that prior to the Reformation, there were people who didn’t really believe in God or necessarily in the Church, but the Church had the power and wrote the history (since monks/clergy were the only literates for a long time), which is why we assume everyone else was ignorant; but that’s for another time.

      We need to be careful at addressing “Christianity” as a lump sum when talking about morals. Because of the Catholic/Protestant divide in Western Christianity, there is an external/internal divide when it comes to morals. Protestants believe, i would say in a large part because of sola fide, that faith and morals are internal. We see what God has said, we think/meditate/pray on it or feel internally moved by it, and we act morally upon it. Because of the additional belief in works and ritual, the act of receiving Communion for example, Catholics are more likely to take external moral cues. Just more food for thought.

      • kevin permalink
        November 4, 2010

        good point.
        the Catholic/Protestant difference does play a part in how I view things for sure.

        I wonder if it’s similar to the Muslim divide between Sunni and Shia? Sadly, I’m a bit ignorant on that part.

      • November 4, 2010

        Kevin,

        From what I understand the initial Shia Sunni split came about over a dispute of leadership after the death of the Prophet, and whether another one of the Prophets followers should be the spiritual leader or whether one of Muhammed’s descendents should be. And that’s about where my knowledge of the differences ends, honestly. But a very very interesting question, and one that I’ll try to look into.

        Meg

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      November 5, 2010

      Kevin,

      ‘By faith alone’ still troubles me. Firstly, it still prescribes damnation for those without faith of a particular variety, which, to me, is irredeemably wicked. And secondly, what does one then make of all the talk of broken commandments and subscription to Jesus’ teachings on punishment of damnation? As per Meg’s earlier claim, this is where I have trouble navigating ‘literalism’ and ‘interpretation’ and why I tend to lean toward literalism. It seems to me a bit much to ask to believe that Jesus didn’t really mean those things after all. I think, regrettably, that he did.

      • kevin permalink
        November 8, 2010

        Brian,

        If “by faith alone” is not the way to Heaven, then what is the other option? Is it by works? Or a balance of the scales- just do more good than bad? or something else? Or maybe there is no afterlife? That is possible I suppose.

        If you think that the best way to understand what Jesus said is ‘literalism’, which I do too, then we have to take Jesus at his word. And from the whole reading of the Bible, it seems to me to say that salvation is by faith alone.
        But if Jesus was wrong about that, or if Jesus never rose from the dead, I’ll admit that my following of Jesus is just a big waste of time.

      • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
        November 8, 2010

        We’re in agreement there.

  3. Reed permalink
    November 4, 2010

    Hi Brian,
    “…surely if god is all he claims to be we owe him quite a bit indeed. However, as modern science has rendered this superstition sufficiently false…”

    This quote seems to be the key assumption to the whole article, but you’ve just given us an assertion. Given that the article is already so long, perhaps its unfair to ask for more, but can you give an argument instead of a mere assertion?

    Reed

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      November 4, 2010

      Reed,

      You’re certainly correct – I am working with that assumption. As you rightly suggest, I neglected to detail it here because it would be worthy of another article altogether and has in many cases supported entire books and centuries of debate. I could consequently go on and on, but I’ll try to distill my thoughts.

      Science, to my taste, has made the god hypothesis unnecessary. While modern science trails religion chronologically, it is in many ways a historical subject, the history of which predates religion by billions of years. For this reason, granted one believes the claims of modern science (as I enthusiastically do), it is thusly religion that bears the burden of proof in regard to vitality and necessity.

      I prefer science to religion because science has a long history of proposing, challenging and confirming demonstrable hypotheses about the universe. Religion has not fared as well in this area and instead pleads for one’s faith. I am not an admirer of faith because it so often champions a disregard for evidence in favor of passionate ignorance; a rather regrettable pursuit, in my opinion.

      A dear friend of mine is a Christian fundamentalist. I once asked him how it is he can hold up the stories of Genesis in the face of modern scientific knowledge which has been so thoroughly demonstrated to be truth as to render such a debate almost silly. He said to this that as I look at his religion and hold it to my science, he looks at my science and holds it to his religion. Einstein, Hawking, Darwin, Carson – these people do not fit to his Bible and so he disregards them seemingly as easily as I disregard Moses, Jesus and the like. To this I can say nothing. I find it unfortunate, but he surely finds misfortune in my case just the same. If he weren’t as fond of discourse as I our conversations would surely end much sooner than thankfully they do.

      However, I suppose most of us are, in fact, open to the advances of science, and if this is the case there is much up for discussion. Science has surely not answered all questions, but god, in these cases, is not quite as good an answer as many think, for his involvement raises myriad other questions which we need not have asked otherwise. As far as I know, the pursuits of science have not been wanting of something which only god can provide, and until this day I can find god only an unnecessary irrelevance.

      • kevin permalink
        November 5, 2010

        “As far as I know, the pursuits of science have not been wanting of something which only god can provide, ”

        Brian,
        Has science been able to produce something from nothing?
        Isn’t that a problem that science has not been able to do yet?
        Maybe they have, but I haven’t heard about it yet.

        But if science cannot create something from nothing, doesn’t that mean that there needs to be a creator to create creation? thus, a reason for God?

      • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
        November 5, 2010

        Kevin,

        God proposed in this position only stalls the same question. If we trace the universe back to god, to whom do we trace god back? It seems silly to say that ‘god always existed’ and call this a victory because this raises the same suspicions we encounter when we propose that the universe ‘always’ existed (understanding the fact that when considering pre-time the word ‘always’ has no relevant meaning). You’re quite right to suggest that the questions of the universe’s origin are incredibly difficult and as yet unanswered, but my claim was not that science has told us all we need to know. It certainly hasn’t. However, we are continually expanding our scientific capabilities and are presently able to ask questions about the universe for which we hadn’t yet had the vocabulary. It was my assertion that science has yet no need for god – we are in pursuit of perhaps the greatest questions ever posed in mankind’s history and are in no such debilitated state that we must propose a supernatural answer to natural questions.

        “But if science cannot create something from nothing, doesn’t that mean that there needs to be a creator to create creation?”

        There is quite a difference between ‘cannot’ and ‘has not yet’. Simply because we do not yet know does not mean we shall never know. If Christians prevailed over science in these matters our explorations would have ceased millennia ago and we would thusly have no germ theory of disease, no concept of an expanding universe and no understanding of the origin of all living things. Instead, we have made these discoveries in spite of religious teaching. Prior to such scientific advances diseases were explained by demons, the origin of human life was explained by dust and its perpetuation by a rib, and the expansion of the universe was so far beyond understanding that it was not even hypothesized about. Surely in the face of scientific uncertainty these (understandably) rather ignorant explanations were cited as evidence for god – the debate continues today in the same fashion, though science has provided the religious with a far greater vocabulary.

        God is often placed by the faithful in between the current and ever-changing gaps in scientific understanding. This practice seems to me to be logically impotent. In this fashion it should delight the faithful that we are finding more and more answers to our greatest questions, for with each answer two gaps are created in which to place god.

  4. Moral Christian Lady permalink
    November 5, 2010

    It would be better for Christians for what you propose to be right when we are standing in the face of eternity, so I pray for you because when the time comes and you are at deaths door before you cross into whatever the truth is on the other side remember the words you have written, the fist you have shaken in the face of God, for they will be with you for eternity.

    • Benjamin permalink
      November 13, 2010

      I’ve seen people shaking their fist in the face of God, and it doesn’t seem to me like Bryan is doing that. Instead, he’s just making logical conclusions based on the premises he’s accepted, and doing so as honestly as possible. That would make him much more honest and ‘real’ than most Christians I know. Also, Christ’ reaction to people who were ignorantly condemning/crucifying him was that of pity and prayer for their forgiveness (and not forgiveness of their ignorance), not warnings that they should reconsider their actions because they will be reliving them through all eternity.

  5. Kevin permalink
    November 8, 2010

    “If Christians prevailed over science in these matters our explorations would have ceased millennia ago and we would thusly have no germ theory of disease, no concept of an expanding universe and no understanding of the origin of all living things.”

    How does this square with people like Newton, Pascal, Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Michael Faraday, William Thomson Kelvin, and even current scientist like Francis Collins?

    • November 8, 2010

      I think one of the issues is the term “prevail” and it may be the major place that Brian and I diverge. My biggest issue is that neither science nor religion need prevail or triumph over the other. There are instances when I want to thump religious people over the head with their holy books for some of their firm disbeliefs in science. Likewise, I want shatter beakers and textbooks over the heads of some scientists who are not sensitive to the ideas religion.

      Brian is right, though, that in certain cases if Christians prevailed we might not have germ theory. Aren’t all diseases sent from God? The mathematical evidence of an expanding universe is incredible, and certainly literal Christians aren’t comfortable with that.

      One of the things I learned as a scientist is that you can’t try to force universe to shape TO your equations; you’ll get nowhere trying (you can hypothesize and try to direct experiments in a certain direction, though, which is different). You let the universe shape the equations instead. A little self-plug for an earlier post I had: http://thebusysignal.com/2010/07/19/conversations-on-religion-and-science/ in which i talk a little about equations and map-of and maps-for.

      The same is said for religion. Just because you (or your religion) says it is so, doesn’t mean the universe will take that shape. This leads me to the conclusion that when our views of the universe begin to change because we learn more through science, that we need to adapt our religions to do the same. Just saying it isn’t making it more true.

      • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
        November 8, 2010

        Meg,

        ‘Prevailed’ is the right word, certainly? Science has been distinctly better at explaining the universe than Christianity – I’m sure you’d agree.

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      November 8, 2010

      Oh! Typo. I intended to write ‘If ChristianITY prevailed…’. A very big difference indeed! Yes, you’re quite right, many incredible scientists have been practicing Christians all the while. However, my assertion, as intended (not written), squares because in those instances it was their science, not their faith, that produced their invaluable contributions to human knowledge. I would say something like: Francis Collins was able to lead the Human Genome Project and subsequently develop some of the most important scientific work in the history of the world in spite of his also being a Christian. That is to say, his Christianity had nothing at all to do with the work. That should be clear, no? I don’t think in any of the cases you mention anyone would hold that it was their Christianity that helped them produce their scientific work – not in any direct way, at least. I think we’d have to admit that they were unrelated.

  6. November 9, 2010

    If, to pick an illustrative subset, America’s 175 million Christians drew their morality from the Bible, it’s a wonder why you don’t see more of them making war on, capturing, subjugating to chattel slaves and raping and owning the women of, rival tribes, as the Bible explicitly commands.

    Which Christians reading this, if they found out incontrovertibly that Christ was not divine nor that Moses never received any commandments from God, would have such low self-respect that they would begin killing and stealing and lying? Which would claim that, absent Christ’s and Moses’s admonitions to the contrary, such behavior would indeed be moral?

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