Monday, August 28, 2006

God-given morality

Let's face it, nobody needs God to tell them "thou shalt not kill." Every culture that ever bothered to jot down a set of laws included some lip service to the fact that it would be a really good idea to take seriously the lives of your fellow citizens.

Of course, there has always been some disagreement about what is meant by "your fellow citizens," and under what circumstances it becomes okay to kill them after all. Plenty of cultures, including Christian ones, make exceptions for war, capital punishment, heresy, etc. The point, however, is that having a generally applied "no killing" rule is beneficial to everyone. If killing is okay, then you might as easily be the target as the perpetrator.

I'm in a prolonged email exchange with a theist, moving at roughly the rate of one enormous letter every two weeks. I told him that we don't need a god to establish "no duh" laws such as "don't kill," "don't steal," "don't practice slavery," and so on.

Finally the theist agreed with me, but by using a fairly common backpedal. "Fine," he says. "I acknowledge that you already know, without referring to God, that you shouldn't kill. But there's a catch. The Bible teaches that God has built into us a sense of right and wrong, and the ability to reason. So it seems inevitable that humans will be able to construct a system that is more or less moral and just, without any reference or even knowledge of the Bible."

This seems to imply that if there were no God, we wouldn't know that killing is wrong. There is no evidence for this point, of course. It is no different from the common argument from design: "If there were no God, there wouldn't be all these pretty trees!" Take an object that is known to exist, then assert that the object owes its existence to God. Works especially well with abstract concepts that people don't fully understand, such as "love" or "logic."

Here's the problem: I can't get anywhere by arguing "My moral intuition does NOT come from God!" Because the theist believes that God exists, and that God created everything. So if we both agree that you have a moral intuition, then of course he believes it's from God. The only way he will stop thinking this is if I convince him to stop believing in God -- which I really don't expect to do.

So since I know that I will never get anywhere arguing against the divine moral sense, I'm embracing it for the sake of argument. We both believe that there we all have a mental concept of right and wrong, and it serves as a fairly good moral compass... most of the time. So we're in agreement.

Now, MY built-in intuition about right and wrong tells me several general things which I hope you (I'm addressing the theist now) can more or less agree with. I'll name a few. Let's assume that whenever I say "person", I mean "any sufficiently sentient, intelligent, self-aware being." That should cover the future possibility of meeting intelligent aliens, self-aware robots, etc.

  1. Every person has their own feelings and desires.
  2. Like me, most people desire to pursue happiness and avoid pain and suffering.
  3. Except for the case of self-preservation, with all else being equal, it is best to avoid killing other people.
  4. It is wrong to needlessly inflict suffering on people.
  5. It is wrong to needlessly impose your will on other people -- for example, through actions such as slavery and rape.

Does your own God-given intuition about morality agree with most of those? I'll proceed on the assumption that the answer is yes.

What, then, am I to do with a Biblical passage that STRONGLY contradicts this moral intuition that you say is given to me by God? Suppose, for example, I come across a passage that tells me that God once ordered a group of soldiers to pillage a city, kill all the men (even noncombatants) and the non-virgin women, but enslave the children and marry the virgin women, whether or not they consent?

Seriously, what do I do with that passage? I really don't believe that it can be resolved by adding context. And my moral intuition, which (as you tell me) was bestowed upon me by God, simply SCREAMS that this would be wrong today and it couldn't have been right then either.

So I've got two choices:

  1. Ignore my moral intuition and accept the fact that pillage, slavery, and rape are sometimes good things.
  2. Trust my moral intuition, and recognize that some passages in the Bible completely SUCK for telling us right and wrong.

Which one do I pick?

You can say that those passages aren't meant to be taken literally as advice for modern people, but once you've established that the Bible is a moral guide, you don't have a leg to stand on when dealing with people who take the Bible more seriously than you do.

Here's an article about Christian Reconstructionism. This is just a little taste of what these people believe:

Doctrinal leaders call for the death penalty for a wide range of crimes in addition to such contemporary capital crimes as rape, kidnapping, and murder. Death is also the punishment for apostasy (abandonment of the faith), heresy, blasphemy, witchcraft, astrology, adultery, sodomy or homosexuality, incest, striking a parent, incorrigible juvenile delinquency, and, in the case of women, unchastity before marriage.

The Biblically approved methods of execution include burning (at the stake for example), stoning, hanging, and the sword.

You're going to say that this is a fringe group, not representing the majority of mainstream Christians in America. And of course, you're right.

But these people are getting their moral laws straight out of the Bible. There are parts of the Bible that you don't recognize as still in effect, but they do. Both of you claim to be informed by the Bible, yet they believe more parts of the Bible than you do.

Now, you and I agree that burning at the stake is not a fitting punishment for the crime of reading your daily horoscope. But we can't arrive at that conclusion simply by reading the Bible and nothing else. We have to rely on this broader moral understanding that we both have, so we can say: "That shit that's in the Bible right there? It's EVIL. It has no business being in our laws, or the laws of any civilized nation."

So which is right? My "god-given" moral intuition, or the Bible?


  1. Why do you assume we have moral intuition?

  2. I take it by your question that you assume we don't. Why wouldn't we? Humans are a social species, and while a number of moral precepts are learned, there are a number of behaviors that people are intuitively resistant to (unless they are sociopathic), like killing and other forms of wanton destructiveness.

    Anyway, the problem with proclaiming a god as the source of morality runs into the Euthyphro Dilemma, which I've never heard a theist convincingly refute. Why would a god be more likely to have moral intuition than any other sentient being?

  3. This also matches a personal post I put in at another forum. I was talking about subjugation of women in the fundamentalist churches--to the detriment of banning good (female) teachers in the Bible study groups because those groups contained men. It was one of a handful of things where I had the very quandry Russell is describing:

    If violating my conscience is wrong (according to Paul) and disagreeing with the Bible is wrong (regarding women teaching men and keeping silent in the churches)--what do I do when I honestly feel/believe the Bible is wrong (foolishly or harmfully so) about a thing and I can't live in that manner or morally accept that teaching? To quote Russell's blog, "Seriously, what do I do with that passage?"

    I realized that Biblically, "going through the motions" is defined as not acceptable to god. So, if I believed in my heart (and mind) a Bible teaching was wrong--then acting in accordance with it--but rejecting it in my heart--wasn't going to save me. I might as well leave the church--which is what I did. I was in a catch-22 where I was condemned according to the Bible--no matter what I did.

    Anyway, Russell, just to say that a Xian can "get" this concept. Now, whether they can be led to it by an outside argument, I don't know. It was something I reasoned out on my own. But the tools are definintely buried in this theist's head somewhere if he's able/willing to access them.

    And regarding Anonymous' post--all social animals illustrate morality--they are observably aware of "right" and "wrong" behaviors--things that are acceptable and unacceptable in their group/setting. And the group reinforces "good" behaviors and punishes "bad" behaviors. This is seen in dogs, all sorts of primates, lions--any animal that lives in a social circle.

    In Russel's blog, the Xian acknowledges this--he just says it's a product of our creation. Russell's quandry is "If everything is a product of our creation in the Xian's mind--where do I begin to argue?"

    I'm saying that you can start at a point where Bible teachings are sure to offend this "god given" sense of morality in whichever Xian he is arguing with. I have yet to meet a Xian who doesn't have "difficulty" with one or another Bible passage--which is basically an admission that they disagree with it and don't understand why "god" would command such a thing in the Bible. Then they fall back on "I just have to trust god knows better"--which is another way of saying that they'll support a teaching to which even they have a moral objection.

    One then asks: How can your god-given morality object to god's Biblical teaching? Shouldn't they be in sync?

    Most Xians will reply that their god-given morality is warped by their flawed natures due to the Fall of Man in Genesis. And since our innate sense of morality is flawed, we must just trust the Bible to "know better"; however, the dilemma becomes that "doing what it says" but disagreeing with it--from what I understand of Jesus teachings--would quickly leave one in the category of "hypocrite"--and they then would be among the most criticized group to ever have incurred the wrath of Jesus (according to the Bible).

    And we're back to the catch-22; but most Xians go the route of hypocrisy, and tell themselves that's the best route--at least the ones I have talked to on this level.

  4. Tracie said:

    One then asks: How can your god-given morality object to god's Biblical teaching? Shouldn't they be in sync?

    Most Xians will reply that their god-given morality is warped by their flawed natures due to the Fall of Man in Genesis. And since our innate sense of morality is flawed, we must just trust the Bible to "know better"

    In my experience, this is when you want to really HAMMER on the objectionable Bible passages that you have brought up. Don't let them get away with just a general platitude that the Bible is right; make them defend that passage. If you're talking about rape, become completely focused on the passage that appears to justify rape. Act like your true objective is to make them admit that rape is sometimes a good thing.

    They won't do it. Nobody except a sociopath has the stomach to do that. And if they can't come up with a convincing rationale, they don't really believe that the Bible trumps their internal moral code. They believe that the Bible is WRONG on that point.

    Slavery is another good example, because many times (including in this conversation that I'm having now) Christians try to excuse the Biblical support for slavery by saying "Well slavery then was very different than it was in the American South, you can't impose your own cultural experiences, blah blah blah."

    What I've been saying is: "Fine. Slavery was a good thing back then. So are you willing to bring it back? Let's institute real slavery right here in America. Not Southern slavery, but true Biblical slavery. What do you say?"

    So far, he has dropped this point completely rather than acknowledge it at least twice.

  5. That reminds me of another apologetic that I saw on the site Martin is fisking currently. And I've heard it many times as well: God flooded the world as a judgement on mankind--so all the death was justified--we were all wicked. In saying this, the Xian is then saying it's _justified_ to label babies as wicked--and kill them for it. God killed everyone but Noah's immediate family in the story--so, how many babies were drowned? And we freak out over Andrea Yates, who only did five. Huh. She's got nothing on the Biblical god.


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