XII. What Religion Gets Wrong: (Part 3) Morality
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
— Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
“And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good — Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”
— Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The source of morality in the Bible basically all boils down to Adam and Eve and a Snake and a Tree. This is the basic story that has been preached to me by Christians time and time again:
Around 2,000 years ago God impregnated a virgin in the Middle East with his only son, who was also himself. This god/man volunteered to be tortured and killed (in order to fulfill the prophecies) and came back from the dead three days later so that now in today’s world, if I telepathically tell this invisible friend that I believe in him as my Savior, he will forgive me of all of my sins, as laid out by the Commandments of the Jewish Bible, and when I die, no matter what bad things I may have done in life, if I continue to believe and ask for forgiveness, my soul will live for eternity in Heaven with God. Otherwise, no matter how good of a person I may have been in life, when I die I take the risk that my soul will burn in pain and suffering for eternity in hellfire. The reason this happens is that I have inherited and was born with Original Sin. This unfortunate piece of luck arises from the fact that around 10,000 years ago the first woman, who was made from the rib bone of the first man, was convinced by a talking snake to eat a piece of fruit from a magic tree.
Ah yes. Well there you have it. It all just makes perfect, rational sense, doesn’t it?
If that all seems a bit vague, let us look at the commandments, God’s laws to his Chosen People. The first 4 all basically say that God is a jealous god, the only god, and that you should honor Him. Couldn’t these vanities be combined into one commandment? Kind of a waste. Honoring your parents is a good one, except for the parents that abuse their children, although the Bible endorses the beating of children, as shown in the recent Christian child abuse cases. Okay, well how about “Do Not Kill”? Pretty good. Except that it leaves out acts of self defense and the fact that God commands his servants to slaughter hordes of people in the Bible (Whoops. But those were actually good murders because God commanded it, right?). ‘No stealing’ and ‘no adultery’ are decent, although they are technically covered by “Do Not Bear False Witness” and “Do Not Covet Thy Neighbor”, so they can hardly count. And besides, where would today’s society be without coveting, if no one ever saw their neighbor’s car, iPhone, happy marriage, or sexy spouse and desired to find those things for themselves? It’s called wanting a better life. In contrast, the scriptures of Jainism, an ancient religion of non-violence from India, offers this as a commandment: “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.” How much better of an effect would the Bible have had if THAT statement was anywhere in the 10 Commandments?
The rest of the 613 laws that God gave to Moses deal with important things like not shaving, what kind of fabric you should wear, genital mutilation, what you should eat on what days of the week, which animals are clean and unclean, and how to rid yourself of the spiritual impurity of sperm and menstrual blood (both of which God supposedly created, remember). Of course there’s far more insidious, rather revealing laws that explicitly instruct church members to kill (yes kill) anyone working on the Sabbath, anyone who is homosexual (though God created homosexuality), anyone who speaks out against God (that’s me!), and anyone who commits adultery, among other things. And of course handicapped people cannot come to the church alter, lest they make it an abomination. I’m sorry but I can find no morality in these statements.
Why do the laws that God supposedly gave to his creation fall so short? Well, the obvious answer is that they were written by men a very long time ago when people were ignorant and concerned with such things. But one only has to look at the acts endorsed by God throughout the Bible to realize that he’s not such a moral guy himself. He personally killed or ordered the execution of an estimated 2.2 million people in the Bible, and that does not even count Egypt’s first born and all of the world’s population killed during the Flood! Not to mention that God sanctified Moses to command his armies to rape women, take young girls as sex slaves, and to kill the elderly, children, babies and livestock, all after killing entire villages full of men simply because they belonged to a different race or religion. And of course Abraham, the man for whom the world’s major religions are named, is praised to this day for his unwavering faith in the God who commanded him to slaughter his own child.
(Think the “Devil is in the details” and is responsible for the evils of this world? Think again. Most of the conceptions Christians have about the fictional character of Satan are nowhere in the Bible.)
So the New Testement cancelled out the Old? Then why did Jesus say over and over to honor the Torah laws? He ushered in a new covenant with God? Then why does he continue to endorse things like child abuse, slavery, abandoning your family, and avoiding planning for the future by “taking no thought for the ‘morrow”? He was a great teacher? Then why did many of his teachings directly contradict each other? A man of peace who loves his enemies? Then why does he threaten his enemies with Hell and damnation, and promise to return to kill most of the population in Armageddon? This is hardly “turning the other cheek”. I think the great Christian writer C. S. Lewis stated it quite plainly:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “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 said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the 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 a 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 with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
A New Perspective on Morality
We now know that many of the notions of morality in the Bible were based on the concepts of previous religions, which were themselves a crude first attempt to organize our primal ideas of ethics. These first, primitive morals came about through the evolution of the mammalian and then the primate brain. Our ancestors learned that forming bonds, cooperating, and keeping social harmony aided in survival. Indeed, that is the very observation that has led to the development of our entire culture throughout the ages…we humans need each other. Other large-brained animals like chimps, dogs, elephants and dolphins also have the rudimentary basics of these notions of morality in their family groups and use them to cooperate and survive. Morality simply pre-dates religion, and our system of morality has since developed and matured in many ways, amazingly at times in spite of religion.
I find it utterly incomprehensible how seemingly good, moral people can look me in the eye and claim that if there is no God then there is no basis for morality. Really? So you’re telling me that if God didn’t command you otherwise, you would immediately loose all self control and run around like a rabid animal– raping, stealing, killing and whoring, abusing drugs and destroying the world? I find the very notion genuinely appalling and completely insulting. I am not religious, and yet I know, for instance, that rape is bad because it is a forced act that causes great suffering, and I need no other reason than that to abstain from it, thank you.
Morality is an ever-evolving complex system of beliefs and behaviors, and it is up to all of us to determine, as a species, what we want that morality to look like. Sam Harris had this to say about his book, The Moral Landscape:
“I think the greatest challenge facing our species is to build a global civilization based on shared values. To do this, we will need to think about questions of right and wrong and good and evil in a common framework, purposed toward human flourishing. The alternative is for us to waste our time debating things like gay marriage, while problems like nuclear proliferation, energy security and climate change go unaddressed…The moment we admit that questions of right and wrong, and good and evil, are actually questions about human and animal well-being, we see that science can, in principle, answer such questions…After all, there are principles of biology, psychology, sociology and economics that will allow us to flourish in this world, and it is clearly possible for us not to flourish due to ignorance of these principles…We should reserve the notion of “morality” for the ways in which we can affect one another’s experience for better or worse.”
I think that’s a far more evolved idea than anything that ever came out of the Bible.
If you find any fault with anything I have said, I encourage you put in some time and do the research for yourself. Click on any of the underlined links, or explore on your own. Go ahead: open up the Bible, or the Koran, or the Book or Mormon to any page and start reading. If you still find fault with my claims, then please, leave a comment and let’s figure this out together. After all, I could be wrong. Could you?