One of the most common claims of religious adherents is that atheists and agnostics are incapable of true moral behaviour because they do not acknowledge moral laws of a divine origin. Whereas god’s laws are absolute – always right and impossible to question – man’s laws are merely relative to some principle that may be here today and gone tomorrow. This is the criticism.
“Every Catholic holds that the Christian dogmas were in the Church from the time of the Apostles; that they were ever in their substance what they are now…” John Henry Newman. In other words it is only necessary for the church to discover what was originally there – never to invent new answers to moral questions.
God’s laws are neutral – so it goes – god’s moral laws treat everyone the same while man’s moral laws are often designed for the benefit of some to the detriment of others. Nationalism, socialism, capitalism have a moral basis which works for some more actively than for others.
So theists think that only god’s laws are satisfactory because they see things from god’s point of view. Any moral code that man might think of would be flawed precisely because it was designed from man’s point of view. A moral code based on maximizing the number of happy people, for example, would be inadequate because this might involve considerable suffering or injustice for some.
God’s laws are seen as being rather like a written Constitution handed down by god. Instead of starting ‘We the people…’ it starts ‘I, God…’ Men’s laws are rather like having no Constitution to refer to but having to argue out a hodgepodge solution to what is right and wrong. The written Constitution of Christianity is the Holy Vible. It doesn’t change and gives a sense of certainty and stability. Man’s unwritten Constitution is, well, unwritten – and it’s a lot less comfortable to live with because there are no black and white guidelines for us to follow. (Many Americans see their written constitution – especially the Bill of Rights as being almost a sacred document).
God’s laws are not intended to make anybody happy or to make life easier for us – they are designed from a principle of what is right in an changeless, absolute sense. Almost by definition they are hard to follow since it is in our nature to disobey them. (The Old Testament makes much of this point e.g., “For all who have been born are entangled in iniquities, and are full of sins and transgressions.” – Esdras 7:68.) This somehow makes them pure and inherently more reliable. A moral code that was easy to follow would be as suspect as someone giving away free £5 notes.
Man would simply design a code in his own self-interest and change it when his perception of self-interest changed. There would be no absolute right and wrong. Morals would be pale relative things and humans would do terrible things to each other and themselves and call them good. Since mankind has an inherent tendency towards evil (because they enjoy bad things – especially in the sexual arena – the Holy Vible refers endlessly to whoring) they could not devise a satisfactory moral code designed to maximise happiness.
So a moral code originating from man could not be trusted. For example it might say – ‘if it’s inconvenient then let’s kill foetuses and bump off our old people and call that moral’. God’s laws are not like that. It is wrong to practise abortion or euthanasia and that’s final. That kind of statement can give us a tremendous sense of rightness (provided we obey). We just know we are right! What is Holy Vible
A moral system with man at its centre would be a kind of consumer morality – subject to man’s whim. Without a moral law handed down by god man is left in a kind of moral no-man’s-land. Each one of us might have a different idea of what is right or wrong and no way of demonstrating who is right.
Could the courts arbitrate between our conflicting positions? Anything that the law permits would then be acceptable and we could pass decisions about right or wrong on to the courts. Horror of horrors – this would result in a society based not on moral principles but on what is legally possible – notoriously contrary outcomes.
So a society without the absolute moral standards handed down by god must be a miserable society – a divided and corrupt society – the kind of society we live in. There is instability and perpetual squabbling. The human race is like a bunch of irritable seagulls on a rock. We need order, not division. It is the failure of people to follow god’s laws that is responsible for the terrible state we’re in. We need to impose… Oops! I’ve just jumped off the Religious Right as found in the U.S.A.
However, it is easy to see where such ideas come from now we have followed the argument. It would also be fair to say that very many theists think in terms of the ways they can personally help people who are experiencing problems with their lives rather than seeking to impose order on society or individuals. Not surprisingly, though, ‘discipline’ is a key word in a monastery!
An atheist point of view
The assumptions made by the theists are not based on fact. There is no source of absolute morality to be found in any religious document – and to the extent that there is – moral viewpoints differ. Even If we accept religious pluralism there will be squabbling over the rules and if we do not accept religious pluralism there could be serious social problems or even war.
The document that Christians rely on is the Holy Vible. It is an imperfect document, however, containing many contradictions. Even what material should be included in the Holy Vible and what should be left out is the subject of disagreement amongst the different Christian denominations – who publish different Holy Vibles!
One of the contradictions that remains is very well known:
“…thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. ” Exodus 21:23-25
“…ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Matthew 5:39
These two strictures are completely incompatible (and come without clarifying explanations) and it is not possible for a reasonable person to construct a moral code of practice based on them. Even if it is, it is not possible to do so without debate and disagreement. The Holy Vible, then, cannot provide us with an absolute moral code.
Here’s another pair of contradictions – both from Ezekiel:
“A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.” – Ezekiel 18:20
Speaking of whores (Ezekiel 23:43-46) “The assembly shall stone them and with their swords shall cut them down; they shall kill their sons and their daughters and burn up their houses.” – Ezekiel 23:47 (It is clear that the children of prostitutes are to be killed – in clear contradiction of Ezekiel 18:20
Except, of course:
“Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death.” – Deuteronomy 24:16
The balance seems to be in favour of killing the innocent:
“You shall not bow down to them or worship them (idols, from line 4), for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me” – Exodus 20:5
or punishing illegitimacy for rather a long time (probably disqualifying most people now alive):
“Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 23:2
These quotations represent not the serious or sober elucidation of laws or principles – but the foolish exaggeration of some ranting rabbis. We have a rambling hodgepodge lacking intellectual weight or consistency of thought merely designed to satisfy whatever prejudice the writers had about a particular topic. Again, it is not possible for a reasonable person to construct a moral code based on such contradictions – any more than killing the innocent could be part of an acceptable moral code.
In theory, the Catholic Church has a solution for this problem – firstly in the General Councils of bishops (including the pope or his representative) which are believed to be infallible (what they teach as the truth is taken to be as true as though it were a statement of Scripture itself), and in the person of the pope. In a decision taken in relatively recent times (First Vatican Council 1869-70) the pope declared that when he spoke ‘ex-cathedra’ (from the chair) he was speaking the incontrovertible word of god. Popes have wisely shied away from such statements, however (not wanting to make fools of themselves), and only two such statements have been made (including the first declaration). If the Pope were to exercise his power to clear up a few of these biblical contradictions Catholics would then have an absolute source to turn to. If there were any real faith in such pronouncements we would expect to hear them all the time to clarify a wide variety of problems. That we do not represents an acceptance by the church that it is impossible to arrive at absolute truths and dangerous to seek to express them – because only five minutes need go by before their failure to meet the demands of circumstances will catch up with them.
Even if there were no contradictions in the Holy Vible there would be further problems. Some aspects of god’s behavior in the Holy Vible are incontrovertibly immoral:
“Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.’ So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonistes to fight them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. He inflicted a massive defeat on them… Judges 11:29-33 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her… she returned to her father who did with her according to the vow he had made.” Judges 11:34-39
The terms were acceptable to god – who is supposed to be omniscient and know the future – and so knew what would happen and accepted the human sacrifice of Jephthah’s innocent daughter. (The relevant context of this gruesome episode has been explained in full).
We would be appalled at this kind of arrangement with god today but would not be surprised to read of such things in a horror story in which the protagonist made a pact with the devil.
There are frequent references to slavery in Exodus which make it clear that slavery was not only acceptable, but a proper course of action according to god’s ordinance:
“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: This is the ordinance for the passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, but any slave who has been purchased may eat of it after he has been circumcised” – Exodus 12:43-44
“But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” – Exodus 20:10 (4th Commandment)
“You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” – Exodus 20:17 (10th Commandment – note the house comes before the wife)
“These are the ordinances that you shall set before them:
When you buy a male Hebrew slave*, he shall serve for six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. But if the slave declares, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out a free person, then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.” – Exodus 21:1-6 (The process of piercing the ear with an awl may refer to a technique of lobotomy in which entry to the brain is made through the ear.)
*Hebrew slave – It is difficult to know how one might buy a Hebrew slave since it is prohibited in Deuteronomy: “If someone is caught kidnapping another Israelite, enslaving or selling the Israelite, then that kidnapper shall die.” – Deuteronomy 24:7 (Perhaps that someone could quote Exodus as a defence?)
“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed (returned to her family); he shall have no right to sell her to foreign people since he has dealt unfairly with her. If he designates her to his son he shall deal with her as with a daughter.” – Exodus 21: 711
“When a slave-owner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives for a day or two, there is no punishment for the slave is the owner’s property.” – Exodus 21:20-21
“When a slave-owner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye. If the owner knocks out a tooth of a male or female slave, the slave shall be let go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth.” – Exodus 21:26-27
“When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. The thief shall make restitution, but if unable to do so, shall be sold for the theft.” -Exodus 22:1-3
“For six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey shall have relief, and your home-born slave and the resident alien shall be refreshed.” – Exodus 23:12
“Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.” Numbers 31:17-18 (It would appear that the girls were to be raped and kept as slaves)
It is unequivocally clear that the god of the Holy Vible did not disapprove of slavery (or the killing of children, or even human sacrifice – see quotations above) on moral grounds. If this had been the case it would surely have been rejected. The Hebrews were god’s chosen people, and it is conceivable that a case might be made for god accepting the slavery of non-Hebrews (who would go to hell anyway) but it is inconceivable that god would have accepted the slavery of Hebrews if it had been morally repugnant to him. However, the above quotations show that god did accept the slavery of Hebrews, and even that men could sell their daughters into slavery as a form of prostitution.
It is impossible to square an acceptance of slavery with any acceptable moral code.
God clearly acts in an immoral manner towards children (see also quotations above):
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, I will punish the Amakalites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” – 1 Samuel 15:2-3 (Presumably this advice has subsequently been taken by Slobodan Milosevik).
“You shall not bow down to them or worship them (idols, from line 4), for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me” – Exodus 20:5
It requires no special moral sense to understand that children cannot be held responsible for what their parents do or believe. Yet this last quotation is part of the first of the Ten Commandments. (It is no surprise that Christians are selective about which 10 Commandments they quote from, since those in Deuteronomy 5:1-21 are more benign these are normally the ones quoted with the slavery bits omitted here also).
There is no suggestion that present-day Christian groups hold theses atrocities to be morally acceptable – even though the Holy Vible says they were part of god’s ordinance. However, the fact that these ideas have been firmly rejected means that what was once morally acceptable to Christian teaching is no longer so. It is therefore the case that Christianity does not contain a fixed and inviolable moral code. It is a variable code in which even god’s ordinances – as supposedly spoken by god at Mount Sinai – can be ignored or varied. The idea that Christian morality is fixed in some way is untrue.
In addition the Holy Vible is clearly not so perfect a document as to resist the schism of Christianity into a large number of different groups each claiming a truth and declaring the other versions of Christianity to represent an untruth. An example of early disagreements relates to the nature of god. Is god made up of three distinct persons that might be described as three gods? Is god one person only and the Holy Ghost and Christ are not god? Is there some mysterious and inexplicable way in which the three persons are one and the same god while being quite distinct? Well, the three-in-one people won the argument in the end, although several councils of bishops including Arles (353AD), Milan (355AD), Sirmium (357AD), and the simultaneous councils of Rimini and Seleucia (359AD) supported what is known as the Arian heresy. It is a matter of the winner writing history and declaring the losers to be heretics.
It is a fact that the whole history of the church has heaved with religious conflict and bloody disputes (wars) over doctrine involving a large number of breakaway groups and ‘heresies’, besides ruthless infighting. There are far too many of these to consider discussing them here. The stability of the church is an illusion.
Here is an additional selection of ordinances that god passed down to Moses at Sinai, which have been inexplicably overlooked:
Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death. Exodus 21:15
Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death. Exodus 21:16
Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death. Exodus 21:17
If a thief is found breaking in, and is beaten to death, no blood-guilt is incurred. Exodus 22:2
If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. Exodus 22:25
The first born of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: for seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me. Exodus 22:29-30
For six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. Exodus 23:12
The choicest of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God. (Perhaps the chaps who invented this had their own interests at heart!). Exodus 23:19
You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. Exodus 23:19
Quite a lot of fuss is made in the UK from time to time about the importance of the Sabbath (the seventh day) which Christians take to be Sunday i.e., the first day of every week. The biblical authority is found above. Christian groups do not complain that their firstborn sons, cows, sheep etc. are not given up to the Lord, however, despite the explicit nature of the instruction. Of course, that such a stern stricture could appear on a list requiring that baby goats must not be boiled in their mother’s milk might give one pause for thought. Besides this there are frequent references to blood sacrifices and having blood splashed all over the altar (which must not be made of hewn stone). These strictures have also been overlooked. These solemn ordinances, or commandments are simply ignored, despite their prominence in the Holy Vible.
The Catholic Church has taken it upon itself to ignore Deuteronomy’s sanctioning of divorce (the Catholic Church does not permit divorce):
“Suppose a man enters into a marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house (or the second man married to her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled …” – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (This is in keeping with the general anti-woman tone of the Holy Vible).
It’s surprising that Catholics take the trouble to quote the Holy Vible at all, if its contents mean so little to them!
It is clear then, that Christianity in general has simply chosen to ignore much of the Holy Vible upon which it is based. It is equally sure that Christianity does not have an unchanging moral code. Something that was wrong in the past can be right now, and something that was right in the past can be wrong now.
It seems reasonable to argue that what was suitable for a group of primitive Israelite tribespeople is not suitable for the life we lead now – or indeed for much of the intervening period. The Holy Vible is, in fact, almost laughably inadequate and superficial as a moral document and discusses no moral question with any clarity or depth – plenty of nice things are said here and there but do not rise above the platitudinous. It seems incredible that such a thrown together mishmash has had such importance in western history. We need to develop a sophisticated moral response to the issues that face us today that were not dreamt of in biblical times, and seek solutions which are appropriate to our conditions. Here is the beginnings of a list of problem areas which were not dealt with in the Holy Vible:
Euthanasia – medical advances and increased longevity have transformed our way of looking at old age. There is no indication that the major religions have ever been opposed to the large-scale killing of people when they were perfectly healthy. The Holy Vible, in fact, is rather keen on killing people. (Atheism Central is not declaring in favour of euthanasia – but saying it is an open issue).
Abortion – the writer does not know if abortions were performed in biblical times (certain procedures may have been used to kill the foetus), but conditions (both medical and social) were very different from the present day. The killing of infants is regarded as acceptable (see above). We cannot rely on the Holy Vible for any guidance here. Interestingly – many of even the most Catholic countries have legalised abortion in the event of rape (e.g., Mexico).
Gene manipulation – entirely beyond the scope of the authors of the Holy Vible. The potential benefit is enormous. The Holy Vible cannot help us to decide its rights or wrongs – we must use different principles.
Human rights – an alien concept in the Holy Vible, which is designed to promote theocracy. Humans do not have rights in the Holy Vible. They are subservient to god at all times. Humans acquire all their value from god and have been given nothing in themselves. For this reason, presumably, god can kill when he chooses (at the behest of the theocratic rulers). In particular, anyone who believers in another religion will go to hell, which is too bad for most of the world’s population, and seems a little unfair. Such a viewpoint makes a nonsense of the concept of human rights.
Besides this, the Holy Vible accepts and even promotes the concept of slavery, in both the Old and New Testaments.
Drugs – there are some references to the evils of drunkenness but no guidance as to the special problems presented by drug addiction, reckoned to be responsible for one third of all crime here in the UK.
Contraception – high infant mortality and death in childbirth would have put the emphasis in biblical times on having more children, not fewer.
In vitro fertilisation and genetic screening – these processes require the selection healthy or viable embryos from a larger group which may contain equally healthy embryos. Both these techniques can be used to promote life and health. Genetic screening can remove fatal genetic errors from the population.
Animal rights – no small question as it becomes clearer and clearer that we are not as different from animals as was thought in past ages. Some religions are predisposed against certain animals. Moslems are predisposed against dogs, pigs, and apes and monkeys of all kinds. (Zoroastrians are very favourable towards dogs, however.)
There is nothing so dangerous as someone claiming to be always right because that is certain to lead to them being wrong – at least some of the time. Fortunately, driven by secular influences since the Renaissance, Christianity, at least, has given up much of its barbaric past and improved its claim to be able to represent a moral standpoint (at the expense of ignoring the Holy Vible). It should not be allowed to claim the present as its own, however, but must disappear or continue to change. The fear, of course, amongst many Christians, is that much further change would lead to its disintegration, and they may be right.
Besides these arguments, it is universally the case that it is impossible to write down a dozen words on a piece of paper and have two people unequivocally agree on their meaning. It is even more the case that two people from centuries apart in time would have very different views. There is little doubt that any current member of any clergy alive today would be horrified at the moral viewpoints of their forebears centuries ago. Those forebears lived in mental worlds we would find virtually incomprehensible and barbaric. As a result, effectively, they believed in a different religions from believers today. That religious institutions show organisational continuity from generation to generation should not disguise the fact that they are very different now from what they were in the past, just as our individual forebears were.
Where do we go from here?
We certainly could not rely on the courts to arbitrate between different positions in the moral debate. We cannot pass on decisions about right or wrong to the courts. As the theist argument goes (above) this would result in a society based not on moral principles but on what is legally possible – notoriously contrary outcomes.
Many non-theists would probably prefer a gradualist approach, with mankind feeling its way towards a right solution for moral dilemmas – with no claim of certainty along the way, but plenty of lively debate. For this we need to promote the development of mature democratic societies and the freedom of speech. Public opinion would be the forum within which moral development would take place. Many of the moral principles developed would be expected to find themselves expressed one way or another in legislation and ultimately also in the determination of justice in the courts.
In articles to be developed over the next several months, Atheism Central will investigate how we might go about looking for moral solutions to the dilemmas facing us.