The Myth of the Moral Christian
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.