Morality is quite simply the belief that certain behaviors are either "good" or "bad". Christians frequently make the claim that their religion forms the framework for their moral behaviors and without it we wouldn't be able to tell right from wrong. For all monotheists, actions commanded by God are deemed inherently good - a concept frequently referred to as Divine Command Theory. We are going to apply this concept to some real world cases to determine just how well the perceived belief holds up to the scrutiny of common examples. On a side note, this topic is not the exclusive domain of Christianity. The same end result can be achieved by replacing the word Bible with the Qur'an, Torah, the Book of Mormon, or the Bhagavad Gita. While the examples I give are from the Bible, I'm confident that we can find equivalent examples from any holy scripture.
Before we can even begin to discuss morality, we must admit that the capacity to care for others is the most basic prerequisite for this type of discussion. If any sentient being has the capability to feel, then that being also has the potential to experience pain and suffering as well as joy and happiness. Any statement of morality can eventually be reduced to this kind of experiential claim where we can ask the very simple question: how do our actions impact not only our own well-being but the well-being of those around us in either a positive or negative manner? This is important because if we can agree that actions contributing to a healthy and happy state of well-being are better than actions resulting in suffering and misery, then we can look at specific actions against the backdrop of what we'll call our Moral Ladder. At the lowest rung of the ladder we'll find the Ground Zero of Morality - a place where everyone experiences complete, unimaginable suffering - the worst possible situation. Conversely, the top rung of the ladder is where everyone experiences happiness and flourishing - the best possible situation. I refer to this as the Pinnacle of Morality. As Sam Harris has noted, the moment we acknowledge that right and wrong has something to do with the well-being of another sentient being, then every choice we make can be assigned somewhere between those two rungs on our ladder. Some actions are worthy of being placed higher on the Moral Ladder than others. For example, would it be a good idea for a community to remove the eyeballs of every first-born child? Besides the obvious pain and suffering felt by the child, there would be a significant negative social impact to this type of decision. Every potential parent would find themselves seriously worried about the well-being of the future child he/she planned to introduce to the world. Because this doctrine would affect the first-born child, no parent would be immune to this decision. A reasonable person can see how this type of decision would likely be detrimental to the community. It wouldn't do a very good job of maximizing the happiness of the community. If we are measuring happiness and well-being and we can agree on this basic concept, then the doctrine of removing every first-born child's eyeballs would likely warrant placement closer to the Ground Zero of Morality. The Moral Ladder is a simple, yet objective way of determining the morality of a particular action or decision by allowing us to rank actions according to their effect on a community.
Here's where religion has had and continues to have the ability to warp our sense of right and wrong. What if the community's decision to remove the eyeballs of every first-born child was the result of interpreting ancient scripture that explicitly stated every first-born child is incapable of truly seeing God without first having the light of the material world removed from his/her sight? How would this affect our original placement on the Moral Ladder? Before his death in 399 BC, the Greek Athenian philosopher Socrates posed the question "Does God command a particular action because it is morally right, or is it morally right because God commands it?" Once we introduce religious dogma into our equation, we have the ability to take what was once objectively considered immoral and make it moral. Based upon the same amount of pain and suffering, our objective placement of this act near the Ground Zero of Morality really hasn't changed. Every first-born child still has his/her eyeballs removed and future parents will still have to contend with this, but the religiously dogmatic would have us believe that this act warrants higher placement on the Moral Ladder simply because it was divinely mandated.
Where religion still finds safe haven is in the perception that without it we wouldn't know right from wrong. We have been led to believe that without religion, we wouldn't be able to determine what our values should be. Without its dogma we are somehow helpless in formulating our own moral compass and thus would be more apt to make decisions closer to the Ground Zero of Morality. As I intend to show, this type of claim (a claim being made on behalf of virtually every religion incidentally) is simply an illusion. In fact, when we consider the actual contents of our religious texts, it seems profoundly troubling that millions consider books like the Bible to be perfect guides to morality. As Sam Harris points out, most of the arguments made on behalf of religion and its exclusive claims on morality are generally conducted under the auspices of one of three positions: 1) a specific religion is true, 2) a specific religion is useful, or 3) atheism/agnosticism is morally corrosive. Rarely does a religious person argue for the truth of their religion. Rarely does someone come forth with confirmation of Biblical prophecies or overwhelming evidence of miracles for example. They more often than not take the second position and argue for the beneficial, social utility of the faith. Every religious person will tout the generosity of their charity work, the comfort delivered to the sick and dying, and the personal fulfillment they find in their faith. The usefulness of something has no bearing whatsoever on the truthfulness of it however. A medical patient given a placebo can achieve recovery even though the placebo had no medicinal value. The usefulness of religion doesn't mean that any of its metaphysical claims are true including any that relate to issues of morality. Throughout history, religion has falsely presented itself as the arbiter of absolute moral truths under the banner of the Divine Command Theory.
If we are being intellectually honest, Divine Command Theory should cause us some grief. A reasonable person should find more than a few issues to warrant a pause in this line of thinking. The first is with the very existence of God. As I am fond of saying ad nauseam, there has not been persuasive enough evidence put forth on behalf of any religion to anoint one as true. To use unsubstantiated faith as the bedrock for belief is a rather fragile and flawed approach. The burden of proof has simply not been met. If the very existence of God cannot be proven, it begs the question as to where "His" commands came from. Here is where religious dogma takes over. The moment you accept that there has been some type of divine revelation to some human being somewhere on our planet, you will then be forced to surrender to the compulsory position of being told what you can think, what you can feel, and how you should act by another human being who is no better a primate than you are. If God cannot be proven, how can we prove that any of the divine instructions that are routinely placed upon us are in fact divine?
Even if we grant the concession that God does in fact exist, why do we rush to believe that God is good? Why do we assume that this being is incapable of bad conduct? What evidence exists to suggest that any command given by God is moral and thus worth following? In virtually every religion, we can find examples of truly barbaric acts being attributed to God. The God of the Old Testament is a sadistic, misogynistic, and homophobic figure guilty of acts that if conducted by a mortal would be immediately considered psychotic and reprehensible. This double standard begs the question of whether "good" means something different for humans than it does for God. If so, it becomes highly illogical to base our morality on such a double standard. Additionally, what does this say about human beings if we can't figure out right from wrong without Big Brother telling us which is which? Faith robs us of an innate ability.
If morality is truly dependent upon a religious framework like Christianity, it could be logically concluded that someone like me, who no longer believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ and is by all accounts no longer a Christian, has no basis for morality. Does this mean that I, along with millions of other agnostics and atheists, don't have a sense of what's right or wrong? There is no reason to believe such a thing. Let's just for a moment imagine that a group of archaeologists have uncovered the tomb of Jesus Christ. They rolled back the stone at the entrance to the tomb and his bodily remains were found inside. DNA evidence confirmed it. With his divinity proven false, Christianity completely unravels. Are we to believe that two billion Christians around the world would suddenly start murdering each other? Would their moral compass suddenly vanish? A dash of common sense should tell us that this scenario would be highly unlikely. If Christianity faded away today, there is no reason to believe that our sense of morality would fade away with it.
As Richard Dawkins correctly points out in The God Delusion, there are two ways to derive morality from the Bible. The first is through direct instruction. God does this through the Ten Commandments and other various instructions that He gives throughout the Bible. The second is through examples, similar to a role model. The cliche "actions speak louder than words" comes to mind. I think everyone, religious and nonreligious alike would agree that if morality comes from God or the Bible, these would be the two methods by which we would retrieve it and this should give us cause for concern.
For a case in point, we need only look at the Book of Genesis and the story of Abraham's nephew Lot to see this Biblical morality in action. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, the historical existence of which is still in dispute by modern-day archaeologists, were cities of wicked sin that God saw fit to destroy with fire and brimstone. In an unbelievable exchange, Abraham negotiates with an all-powerful God (Genesis 18:22-33) to spare the city if fifty righteous people can be found within it. God, being an atrociously awful negotiator, gets whittled down to ten. If just 10 righteous people can be found within the city, God agreed to spare them. Like the story of Noah, there lived a righteous man whom God also saw fit to spare. God sent male angels to warn Abraham's nephew Lot. One can only assume angels were sent because a personal visit from God would be less believable. Regardless, Lot invited the angels into his home, but the wicked townspeople gathered around the house. The townspeople demanded that Lot turn the male angels over to them so that they may be raped by the masses (Genesis 19:5). Lot, not wanting to see his angel guests sexually assaulted, comes up with an idea to appease the crowd. He offers to them his two virgin daughters so that they may be raped in place of the angels. Fortunately it doesn't come to that as the angels strike the crowd with blindness and instruct Lot to gather his family and leave immediately. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is at hand, and as Lot's family is leaving the city, they are commanded not to look back at the city. Lot's wife makes the mistake of looking back and God turns her into a pillar of salt for committing such an apparently heinous crime. With the family's matriarch nothing more than sodium chloride, Lot and his daughters escape. Keep in mind that the all-knowing God deemed Lot and his family to be righteous. This makes the next part of the story and the moral lessons derived from it all the more concerning. Lot and his daughters found a cave to stay in. The girls get their father drunk on wine and the older daughter has sex with him. The next night the girls do the same, but this time the younger daughter has sex with her father. Both girls end up pregnant and Lot was apparently none the wiser. What are the moral takeaways from this story? What's righteous about turning a mother and wife into salt for something so petty? What type of respect is placed upon women when offering up virgin daughters to a crowd is deemed moral? Where should we place each of these acts on our Moral Ladder? If the Bible establishes a moral framework, how do stories like these contribute to it in a positive manner and what are we to make of the absolutely immoral portions? Are we to ignore those parts, and if so who decides what should be morally ignored? What is the real moral lesson supposed to be?
I think it's appropriate to classify the people who hold the Bible up as their moral compass into two groups: Biblical moralists and modern moralists. As I will show through this chapter, and really throughout this book, there are plenty of distinctions that separate these two groups. A Biblical moralist uses the Bible, warts and all, to set the guidelines for morality. Most Biblical moralists are known by their more common name: "fundamentalists". To these people, the burning of witches, the persecution of homosexuals, and the suppression of women are all moral actions because 1) God has provided explicit instructions in these matters, and 2) God has provided examples of actions taken either by Him or under His direction that support these moral guidelines. A Biblical moralist uses the whole Bible. Conversely, a modern moralist picks the parts of the Bible that they believe are moral and rejects the parts that they don't. I'd wager that a great deal of modern moralists can be found in the pews on Sunday mornings. A modern moralist uses only those parts of the Bible that fit his/her already predefined notion of what is right and wrong. They would never consider burning someone alive or stoning someone to death. They would almost certainly consider those actions to be immoral, regardless of any command given by God or any example in which He directly or indirectly supported such actions. Modern moralists do not get their morality from the Bible and this premise can be highlighted by the simple fact that if actions like adultery were actually punishable by stoning and death, we would likely face a shortage of politicians.
If someone considers themself to be a modern moralist, I would like to ask how they determine which parts of the Bible are good and which parts are bad? How do they know which of God's commands or actions to reject as immoral and which ones should be followed? Why would their moral compass tell them that they shouldn't burn alive someone who is Wiccan if God commands us to "suffer not a witch to live"? What prevents them from stoning unruly children? What prevents someone from killing a person who has committed blasphemy or apostasy? God has given us explicit instructions in these matters and clearly expects us to follow through with them. If God and the Bible are supposed to be the basis of morality, where does this "extra" source of morality come from that is being used to negate the parts of the Bible that someone doesn't morally agree with?
When the obvious contradictions are considered, it should readily become apparent that morality is not based upon the Bible nor is it derived from a supernatural being. God does not create moral truths - we do and these truths exist independent of any claimed divine knowledge. Morality is based upon a rational understanding of reality and not upon any assertion of invisible authority. Morality can be found within us irrespective of our religious beliefs including no religious belief. I would suggest that this extra source of morality comes not from any divine scripture but instead has its roots in biology. Charles Darwin makes a compelling case in The Descent of Man for the development of a moral sense from a naturalistic frame of reference. Our innate sense of morality is a natural result of both the biological and social characteristics of human beings. This is why an understanding of God has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not we would instinctively dive into a pool to save a drowning child or throw ourselves in harm's way to prevent our own children from danger. Incidentally, this altruism is not the sole domain of the human condition which is why it is safe to say that it is biological in nature. We have watched chimpanzees help humans and conspecifics without any sense of reward in return36. We have watched vampire bats regurgitate blood for sick bats unable to feast for themselves.37 At great danger to themselves, velvet monkeys are known to loudly warn other monkeys about a nearby predator38. Dolphins have been seen banding together as a raft to help keep an injured dolphin breathing above water39. Frans de Waal, an expert on primate social behavior and the Charles Howard Candler professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University, makes a very persuasive case for associating morality to evolution when he says "... conscience is not some disembodied concept that can be understood only on the basis of culture and religion. Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are. Once thought of as purely spiritual matters, honesty, guilt, and the weighing of ethical dilemmas are traceable to specific areas of the brain. It should not surprise us, therefore, to find animal parallels. The human brain is a product of evolution. Despite its larger volume and greater complexity, it is fundamentally similar to the central nervous system of other mammals."
Human beings cannot lay exclusive claims to issues of altruism, empathy, or even basic instinctual emotions derived through evolutionary means and molded by societal customs. We can find examples of sexual jealousy for example in apes. The fact that we can find a similar human emotion in an evolutionary cousin shouldn't surprise us, but it is interesting to see where we humans have taken this emotion. As we have progressed morally over time, we have placed cultural restrictions upon each other. Like apes we feel sexual jealousy, but unlike apes that don't possess sophisticated forms of customs like humans, we modify that behavior with cultural practices such as formal marriage ceremonies. There are great benefits to be had by evolving our moral compass. While we can find examples of sympathy-related traits and internalization of rules among the animal kingdom, no species has perfected it as well as our own. Evolution has served us well in this respect. The intellectual superiority of our species has given rise to an umbrella of philosophies and ethical perspectives known as Humanism. Its focus on reason, ethics, and justice allows us to reject the divine as the source for things like morality. Morality is the natural evolutionary product of reason and logic. I would be remiss if I didn't highlight one of the more obvious delineations between humanistic altruism and religious altruism. If the religious argument is true that God is necessary for people to act against their own self-interest (giving alms to the poor for example), then there is either divine reward or divine retribution as a result. If religious people are acting altruistically only because God has commanded it and they want to either enjoy the reward or avoid the punishment in the next life, the irony is that the reward/punishment is actually motive enough for them to act in their own self-interest. If I give to the poor, I'll be rewarded in Heaven. If I don't give to the poor, I'll be punished by disobeying God. This type of thinking robs us of our humanistic compassion and fraudulently takes our natural sense of morality and undeservedly gives it to God. Even though many in our society may not consciously embrace it, their full sense of morality doesn't come from the Bible or any religious text. If it did, the population of fundamentalists in our country and world would be far greater than what we see today.
Within our population, there will always be some who claim that there are absolute moral truths to be had by embracing religion. If killing is wrong and this is a moral absolute, then any killing would be immoral. If lying is wrong and this is a moral absolute, then any lie would be immoral. If you can think of a single instance where either killing or lying would or could be considered moral, then by definition neither is a moral absolute. Chances are that you have already thought of at least one example for each. It's not difficult to find an example where killing or lying can be done in the name of the greater good and yet we are led to believe that absolute morality not only exists but that it can only be found within a religious framework like Christianity. Is a reasonable person supposed to believe that the Jews would not have understood that killing other people was wrong before they reached Mount Sinai where God first commanded them not to kill? Do we really need God to tell us this? Are we to believe that the Jews wandered the deserts for years happily and indiscriminately murdering their fellow humans oblivious to the consequences of such actions? Common sense should tell us that this is highly unlikely. Morality is innate in us as human beings. To say otherwise is to imply that humans would be incapable of distinguishing right from wrong without a divine big brother.
Our holy texts are not always the best sources of moral lessons. I'm supremely confident that we can find more moral inspiration and moral agreement in such works as Aesop's Fables than we can in the Bible. A great deal of morality can be found in The Tortoise and the Hare, The Lion and the Mouse, and The Fox and the Grapes than what we can find in many of the stories of the Bible. The best part is that we can accept these moral lessons without having to directly reject any specific commands or divinely-inspired actions. For example, we won't find any mass killings of innocent children and women through a global flood in any of Aesop's Fables nor will we find slavery, homophobia, or misogyny being endorsed. Nobody gets raped or stoned to death. None of the characters in Aesop's Fables kill everyone just to punish a few. This is not to say that practical life lessons cannot be learned from the Bible or any other religious text but rather to emphasis the readily apparent and easily digestible parabolic wisdom offered through alternatives like Aesop's Fables. Can you imagine the neighbor in The Honest Woodman being punished not by losing his own ax but instead by having scores of people killed by an intentional plague? It's terribly difficult to hold up a book like the Bible as an instrument of absolute morality when that same book tells the story of how God indiscriminately kills
- 500,000 people in 2 Chronicles (13:15-18)
- 14,700 people for complaining about the LORD killing people in Numbers (16:41-49)41
- 50,700 people for the petty crime of looking into the Ark of the Covenant in 1 Samuel (6:19)
- 3,000 men and women when God helps Samson destroy the temple in Judges (16:26-30)
- 51 men burned to death with fire sent from Heaven in 2 Kings (1:9-10)
- 70,000 people when David takes a census (2 Samuel 24:1-17)
- And of course the largest genocide ever when God drowns the entire world sparing only a single family (Genesis 7:21-23).
If one is able to come to the conclusion that genocide is wrong, they would be best served to ignore Joshua 6:20-21, Numbers 31:6-18, Deuteronomy 2:32-35, Deuteronomy 3:1-7, and 1 Samuel 15:1-9 where God either directly assists or divinely commands the Israelites to destroy Jericho, eradicate the Midianites (except for their virgins which may be raped), kill everyone including children in Heshbon and Bashan, and exterminate the Amalekites. A reasonable person would find infanticide and child sacrifice to be morally-reprehensible and yet billions of our neighbors put their faith in a God who was responsible for the slaughter of all Egyptian firstborn children (Exodus 12:29), accepted the virgin daughter of Jephthah as a sacrificial offering (Judges 11:30-39), and threatens His followers with forced cannibalism (Leviticus 26:27-29).
Every one of these examples can be verified by anyone who takes the time to pick up a Bible and look them up. If the Bible is true, then God has personally intervened in our world and performed actions that a reasonable person would deem to be immoral. After all, would these actions be considered moral if they had been committed by an ordinary man? Where should we place each of these actions on the Moral Ladder? God has been responsible for so much death and suffering that His murder tally would make even the most determined serial killer blush with embarrassment. When faced with the astoundingly clear evidence of God's immorality, Christians will inevitably default to the position that God is not human and therefore not bound by human laws. We are not supposed to judge God because we are not qualified to judge Him. Under the Divine Command Theory, the actions of both God and those who follow His commands are always moral even if the absence of God would otherwise place those actions near the Ground Zero of Morality. This seems an absurd proposition. When we critically evaluate religious claims to moral superiority, we can see that the Bible is no more useful as a guide to morality than a map of Chicago is to guiding us around New York City.
If many of the stories from the Bible have questionable moral value, how should we view the core beliefs of the faith? The central tenet of Christianity is vicarious redemption. To be a Christian is to believe that we inherit the sins of Adam, and yet I find it interesting that many people believe the story of Adam and Eve was not meant to be taken literally. Even the Catholic Church itself questions whether to take the story literally or figuratively. Cardinal George Pell described the Adam and Eve as mythical saying "It's a very sophisticated mythology to try to explain the evil and the suffering in the world." To anyone who doubts the literal creation of Adam and Eve, I wonder how they reconcile a parable to original sin. If Adam didn't literally exist, how can we associate the sin of an imaginary person to Jesus and everyone who came after? Conversely, for those who believe in the literal interpretation of Adam and Eve, does this policy not strike you as asinine? The act of Adam eating the fruit seems to be a rather petty crime worthy of a mere reprimand, certainly not eternal hereditary damnation. This would be no different than you being responsible for the one-time, petty action of your great, great, great, great grandfather. What kind of accountability system is this? As Matt Dillahunty once said, "Anyone who advocates infinite punishment or infinite reward for finite crimes and deeds is morally inferior."
Have you ever paused to consider what the moral of the Adam and Eve story is? Disobey me and your entire hereditary line will be cursed? That doesn't sound very "loving"...but it is close to the real lesson. The moral of the story is a subconscious lesson. According to the talking snake, the fruit is "good for becoming wise". Their eyes were "opened" after eating the fruit and they suddenly became aware of their nakedness. God would punish each of them (including the talking snake) for their disobedience. The subconscious moral lesson here is to always obey God and do not ever question Him. In politically incorrect terms, the lesson here is to "shut your mouth, do as you are told, and don't ask any questions." If we never seek to "become wise", we become the equivalent of sheep. Oddly enough, Christians tend to make this a virtue. They are happy to be part of the "flock" blindly following their shepherd. Considering the fact that lambs were ritualistically offered as daily sacrifices in Jerusalem (Exodus 29:38-42), I wonder what's virtuous about being compared to livestock? To this day I question my own past desire to be part of that livestock. There is no morality in the Genesis story of original sin. It is the house of cards upon which we are convicted of wrong doing without even knowing it. If God is all-knowing, He would have certainly known that Adam and Eve would disobey Him, correct? What's moral about creating man from dirt and breath (an absurd notion in and of itself that I feel the need to repeat it whenever possible) knowing that he's going to disobey you and then passing judgment on every soul ever born thereafter for a decision that you knew he would make in the first place? The concept of original sin is simply bizarre, and just like Alice in Wonderland, it becomes more bizarre the further down the rabbit hole we go.
Atonement means to be "at one" with someone. Christians use the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as the atonement between them and God. I'll never understand how this can be rationalized. In order to reconcile the world to Himself, He needs to send Himself to Earth as Jesus so that He can be murdered (Christians call it a sacrifice) so that God (who is also Jesus) will be at one with the creation that He knew would disobey Him in the first place. Really?
If God didn't know that man would sin, then God is an imbecile who falls tragically short of the all-knowing moniker. If He did know that man was going to sin and went through this whole process anyway, He did it to please Himself. What kind of God is this that builds something faulty, blames His mistakes on the faulty creation, and then requires Himself to sacrifice Himself to Himself for the redemption of His faulty creation? Can you follow the thread on this? To further confuse the situation, when Jesus is apparently raised from the dead, what do we make of the "sacrifice" itself? If the Son and the Father are one, the sacrifice would be purely cosmetic, hardly worthy of the term "sacrifice". Nothing of value was lost.
The moral laws that God apparently established are ones that none of us would ever be able to live up to. Paul makes that pretty clear in Romans. If God had a profession, He would have been an attorney, and a brilliant one at that. He built a loophole into this set of laws. That loophole is Jesus. We are essentially presented with a system that we won't be able to adhere to, but that's OK. It's OK because ultimately it doesn't matter. As long as we believe in Jesus, the laws become suggested guidelines with no real everlasting consequences. In the modern interpretation of Christianity, a violation of one of these laws is irrelevant as long as we believe in the vicarious "sacrifice" of Jesus and his resurrection. This is the most basic tenet of Christianity.
This concept was covered in greater detail in the previous chapter, but it bears repeating because it directly relates to our topic of using Christianity as a moral framework. I would argue that the belief in Jesus as a savior is immoral and therefore cannot be used as the framework for a system of morality. I need only use common sense to back up my assertion. When I reference the "vicarious sacrifice" of Jesus, this means that a Christian is being saved through Jesus' actions, not his/her own. By that definition, our sins and bad deeds can be "paid" for by someone else. Here's the real takeaway on this. This simple belief relieves us of any personal responsibility. If there is nothing else that you take away from this book, I hope you'll remember this concept. Belief in Jesus relieves us of having to take any responsibility whatsoever for our actions and there is nothing moral, honorable, or virtuous about this. When we really stop to think about it, Christianity is entirely based upon the immoral practice of human sacrifice. It celebrates a single human sacrifice and it portrays it as something that absolves us of any future or previous wrongdoing. If I murder someone, would it be moral for you to go to prison instead of me? Do I not need to be held accountable for my actions? Where do Christians find the morality in this? How can we have morality without accountability, and if we can't, then how can Christianity serve as a framework for morality?
Allow me a quick digression. I have one quick comment about Jesus and his sacrifice that I feel compelled to add here simply because it gets brought up so many times by Christians that I have talked to. The question is simply this: doesn't the notion that Jesus went through so much pain and suffering convince you that what he said was real? The corollary question is why would someone put themselves through all of that suffering if it wasn't real? Now, these sound like good questions, but ultimately they are both naive and irrelevant. Replace "Jesus" with "suicide bomber" or "Heaven's Gate" and you'll achieve the same result. A Muslim suicide bomber is willing to sacrifice himself because he believes strongly in what he's doing. Is belief alone enough to make something true? When 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed suicide so that they could hitch a ride on the space craft that was supposedly following the Comet Hale-Bopp, did their undeniable belief and inner conviction mean that an alien space craft was actually following the comet? What religious people fall victim to and fail to understand is that the level of conviction that someone has about something being true has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the actual truth. If Jesus was committed to his belief, so is every suicide bomber that feels compelled to strap a bomb to his chest. The fact that people are willing to die for something only means that they believe strongly in it.
I would propose and will provide evidence to support the following statement: Morality changes. Unlike the Bible, morality changes over the course of time. To say that we must have the Bible to have morals would be like saying that a new Ford F150 pickup truck still needs a buggy whip to drive forward. The Bible has essentially remained the same for centuries but acts that Christians deem moral has and continues to change. The Catholic Church is a great example. On March 12, 2000, Vatican official Bishop Piero Marini said "Given the number of sins committed in the course of 20 centuries, [reference to them] must necessarily be rather summary." In layman's terms, the Church said that they acknowledge the sins that they have committed in the past and that the number of sins is so great that they are not going to take the time to discuss them individually. This was part of a bigger mea culpa offered up by Pope John Paul II. Even the Catholic Church can admit that what they've done was considered moral at the time but would not be considered moral today. Otherwise, why bother apologizing?
One of those sins was the burning of witches. Between 40,000 and 100,000 women have been killed by Christians using the Bible (Exodus 22:18, Deuteronomy 18:10) as the moral foundation for deciding whether or not someone deemed a witch should be executed. The people who imprisoned, tortured, and murdered those women thought they were morally right in doing so. If Christian morality doesn't change with time, why are there an estimated 800,000 adherents to Wicca today? Why haven't modern day Christians, who outnumber Wiccans by a factor of 20,000 to 1, followed God's will and killed them all? If a Christian's co-worker practices Wicca, should they feel morally obligated to execute her? Most Christians would say no to which I would ask why not? Exodus hasn't changed. The fact that the practice was once deemed moral and it no longer is means that morality changes with time.
There are many passages in the Christian Bible that condone and encourage slavery. If fact, nowhere in either the Old Testament or the New Testament will you find the Bible condemning slavery. It would appear that even Jesus was in favor of slavery. He never once criticizes the institution of slavery and can be found using analogies about the practice. For those who outright ignore the Old Testament where slavery was quite common, I'd ask you to consider Ephesians 6:5-9 in the New Testament:
"Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him."
Lest you think that I'm cherry picking passages and that reference to slavery in the New Testament is seldom, I offer up another in I Timothy 6:
"All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God's name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves."
The Bible actually provides guidelines for the acquisition of slaves as property. Leviticus 25:44-46 educates us on how we can morally pass the ownership of slaves down to our children.
"Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly."
The practice of slavery in the United States continued until January 1, 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln, using his war powers, issued the famous Emancipation Proclamation. This freed many slaves but did not make them citizens. Slavery wouldn't be officially abolished until the Thirteenth Amendment to our Constitution took effect in December 1865. For the overwhelming majority of human history, slavery was morally justified. Using the Bible as a moral framework, slavery was often encouraged. It was big business and slave owners from Biblical times to the founding of our nation certainly considered it moral. Even though there were certainly elements of Christian abolitionists fighting to end slavery, we mustn't forget the historical fact that the banning of slavery was being vehemently opposed by the Catholic Church and other Christian organizations as our government considered outlawing the practice.
If the Bible is dictated by the creator of the universe, He clearly expects us to keep slaves as long as we don't beat them too much. Again - Jesus never says that slavery is bad or that it should be outlawed. This should strike us as somewhat hypocritical if we apply Jesus' most well known and most universal moral teaching - the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12 & Luke 6:31). The Golden Rule of do unto others as you would have done unto you was clearly not followed by any slave-owning Christian, for if it was, it would mean that a Christian wanted to be owned or indentured to another person. Slavery, by its very definition, is involuntary. Jesus clearly saw no evil in the practice of slavery nor did Paul who tells slaves to treat their masters, particularly their Christian masters, well. Until it can be demonstrated that a reasonable person would actually desire slavery for himself, slavery and the attitudes of Jesus and Paul are completely incompatible with the concept of the Golden Rule.
When confronted with the issue of slavery, Christians inevitably fall victim to thinking that the slavery of the Bible is not the same slavery that many of us instantly picture in our minds. If the definition of slavery is "the state of one bound in servitude as the property of a slaveholder or household" or "a civil relationship whereby one person has absolute power over another and controls his life, liberty, and fortune"42, then any attempt to cleanse the definition in an effort to make it more agreeable is both inappropriate and obscene. We can find examples and instructions in both the Old Testament as well as the New Testament regarding various forms of enslavement ranging from debt slavery to sexual and conjugal slavery along with time frames ranging from manumission to permanent enslavement. No matter how hard a Christian might try and redefine the term "slavery", it is nearly impossible to make it nicer or more palatable. Slavery cannot simply be erased because of the uncomfortable and immoral implications that it springs forth any more than the condoning of these actions can be wiped from the Bible. Let's fast forward to modern day in which religion has finally caught up to morality. How many Christians do you know who own slaves? Most Christians would say zero to which I would ask why not? Ephesians and I Timothy haven't changed. The fact that the practice of slavery was once deemed moral, and today it no longer is, means that morality changes.
For early Jews and Christians as well as modern-day, devout, fundamentalists, it is considered immoral to work on the Sabbath. Like many consequences spelled out in the Bible, death is the penalty for working on the Sabbath. Surely an act worthy of the consequence of death must be considered wrong by God. We find evidence for this in Numbers 15:32-36:
"While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, 'The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.' So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses."
When the punishment is death, it's fair to say that early believers took the Ten Commandments seriously. There have been cases made, even plausible ones, that the Sabbath commandment was annulled with Jesus and rendered obsolete. Mark 3:1-6; Luke 13:10-17; 14:1-6 are often picked as evidence that only 9 of the Old Testament commandments should stand. Even if someone considers this commandment obsolete, that doesn't mean that people didn't practice this for many years. Many Jews along with the Christian denominations Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Seventh Day Baptists, and the True Jesus Church still observe the Sabbath. For quite some time in the history of the Judeo-Christian religion, people would have considered working on the Sabbath to be morally offensive. Today we have stores that are open 24 hours each day and 7 days per week staffed by people of all faiths. This begs the question: is it wrong to work on the Sabbath today? Most Christians and Jews would say no to which I would ask why not? The Commandments haven't changed and early followers adhered to them. The fact that the practice was once deemed moral, and it no longer is, means that morality changes.
The gay debate we are having in our country today is another great example. For millennia, the crime of homosexuality could have meant death as outlined in Leviticus 20:13. Again I say that an act worthy of the consequence of death surely must be considered wrong by God, and thus immoral. When I look at the issue through the lens of time, only recently have the attitudes towards gays and lesbians begun to soften. In the year 2012, several states have legalized gay marriage, and with each passing year, the public support for it has increased. When we see former US President Bill Clinton calling upon the Supreme Court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, something that he himself signed into law, it's not unrealistic to think that we're nearing a breaking point. The stigma associated with being gay will diminish with each subsequent generation. It's also not unrealistic to think that the Vatican will eventually apologize for its stance on homosexuals as it has for its past actions with regards to forced conversions, rape, and murder. What once was considered immoral is increasing being seen otherwise. Leviticus hasn't changed, but our society has. The Bible hasn't changed and yet our moral compass has changed over the course of time.
If what we deem to be moral can change with time, while the framework that we try to house it under does not, what does that say about the strength of the framework? There are real consequences attached to using a rigid, morally-questionable framework. We can look through the pages of time to see the pendulum swing on issues of morality. Every example that I have provided highlights changes in moral attitudes over a certain period of time. What was considered moral one day is not considered moral the next. As I asked earlier in this chapter, if Christianity were proven to be a hoax, would that suddenly mean that the two billion Christians living on our planet would lose their sense of right and wrong? Would they start killing and raping uncontrollably? Of course not! That would be absurd, which is why trying to tie morality to religion is absurd. Morality can (and does) exist without religion. To find a moral compass, a person needs empathy, not religion. To further my point, I'd like to ask you to consider the following:
1. Name me an ethical statement made or a moral action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer.
2. Name me a wicked statement or immoral action that could be or has been performed by someone who believed they were doing it in the name of God.
If you give this a few moments of thought, you'll find that the second statement is much easier to answer and there are certainly more examples that readily come to mind. The suicide bombing community is almost completely comprised of devout believers. The circumcision community is almost completely made up of religious faithful. The Kenyans burning suspected witches is entirely done under the name of God. The terrorists that hijacked airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon absolutely believed that they had God on their side. One can easily come up with a plethora of examples to answer the second question, but answers to the first question remain elusive. That should speak volumes about morality and religion.
This is, of course, the Hitchens Challenge conceived by the late Christopher Hitchens. While many have tried to provide an answer to the first statement, the statement itself is a bit of a paradox with the only right answer being one that the asker would agree morally with. Just because the challenge is a paradox doesn't mean that it shouldn't be asked nor does it mean that ample thought shouldn't be applied.
Another question posed by Christopher Hitchens that is worthy of ample thought can be found in the following scenario. Somewhere in Pakistan tonight, there will be a child born to a Wahhabi Muslim couple. Wahhabi Muslims are some of the most conservative fundamentalists practicing Islam. Would a Christian or Jew prefer that child to be born and bred to be a Wahhabi or an atheist/agnostic? If religion and belief in a god is truly a good moral guiding force, they should have a preference for the fundamentalist Muslim. If not, then it's worth asking ourselves why there's a distinction. If the answer is the latter, the belief that religion forms the basis of morality needs to be dismissed.