How the Bible Goes Wrong: Morality

I get my morality from this device that tells me whether or not something is good by randomly pointing in one direction or the other.

I get my morality from this device that contains a tiny god who moves the needle in response to my questions.

The Christian perspective privileges itself over the ideas of any other belief system, and declares that if we don’t agree with it, we are the ones causing all the problems. That’s the whole point of Christianity…unbelief is the greatest of evils. It is, in fact, the only sin that will not be forgiven. Anyone who worships god, no matter what they’ve done, will receive eternal bliss. Anyone who doesn’t worship god, no matter what they’ve done, will suffer for eternity.

Is that an acceptable way to treat your children? Or more accurately, the children you abandoned at birth who have no real evidence that you even exist. If anyone truly believes it is acceptable, they have lost any real sense of morality, as they have let the definitions of right and wrong be dictated without reason through the pages of an ancient book. Their morality is nothing more than “things are good or bad because god says so”.

The idea of an eternal hell for unbelievers is an obvious scare tactic to make people fear leaving the religion. I doubt many Christians really think that the simple state of not believing in a particular god is the most serious moral offense ever, otherwise they should be quite concerned about how many different gods with equally compelling evidence demand their allegiance.

When considering whether or not the bible is morally sound, most people turn to the Old Testament, since it is filled with laws and rules of every sort. Christians tend to disregard the majority of Old Testament laws because they think Jesus made them unnecessary. Of course, this only applies to the rules they don’t want to follow; there are several that they still take as binding rules. It’s interesting to note that Jesus himself said not a single dot of an I or cross of a T will be removed from the law (referring to the Torah) until heaven and earth pass away (Matthew 5). He then said anyone who disregards any portion of the law will be least in the kingdom of heaven (which I suppose is a bad thing but not as bad as going to hell?).

Most laws found in the bible are commandments, direct instructions not to do certain things. A lot of them aren’t really moral issues, like don’t eat these types of animalsdon’t trim your hair this way, don’t wear clothing made out of multiple types of fabric, etc. But there are plenty of other laws prohibiting things that are considered immoral in almost every religion and worldview, like don’t murder people, don’t steal things, don’t sacrifice children to false gods, and so on.

That last one is interesting because god told Abraham to sacrifice his son, and then stopped him at the last minute. The fact that he was stopped is intended to make it all okay, but what I take from it is that Abraham was praised for being willing to murder his son just because a deity told him to. When someone today gives that excuse, we think they’re crazy. A righteous man would have flatly refused to murder his son in any context, since murder is immoral. But it seems that attempted murder of your children at the request of a deity is fine as long as that deity is the Christian god.

The story also establishes that biblical morality is relative since it’s defined by what god says. If he tells one person “don’t murder” and then tells another person “go murder these people”, it is considered morally wrong for the first person to commit murder but morally right for the second. Some might argue that god wouldn’t tell us to do something that’s immoral, but such a statement implies that god is subject to morality, which would mean the standard of morality exists apart from what god says, in which case you don’t need god to tell you what’s right or wrong. If you hold onto the idea that what god says defines morality, the statement “god wouldn’t tell us to do something immoral” is meaningless…it’s like saying “god wouldn’t tell us to do something he wouldn’t tell us to do”. Morality based on what god says implies that it is morally right to follow any command from god and morally wrong to disobey him.

I happen to think morality has a stronger foundation than that.

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To unquestioningly obey a command merely because you think it came from god is not moral, it’s blind obedience. We don’t usually let ancient books, other humans, or disembodied voices in our heads define right and wrong for us without stopping to think about what they’re saying. The “just follow god” view of morality has been used to justify the murder of gay people, because the god of the bible clearly said “men who have sex with men” need to be killed. Such murders have actually happened in America. Of course, most Christians don’t think they should kill people who engage in gay sex. But their bible commands it, so they have three options: either it is morally right to kill people for having gay sex, or morality is a constantly shifting and relative thing, or god commanded something immoral. There’s a fourth option for people who don’t take the bible as literal 100% truth, but that isn’t the view of scripture I’m addressing.

The Old Testament has a lot of instructions on how to deal with people who break the rules. Most offenses require sacrificing an animal or paying the person you’ve wronged, but it’s also liberal with capital punishment, some uses of which are for what we would consider legitimate crimes. However, many cases are hardly serious enough that any sane person would think they justify the death penalty today. I asked a Christian recently if it would be morally right for us to stone adulterers to death, and he said no, but the only reason he could give is that we don’t live in a theocracy. So…man’s laws overrule god’s laws? This is a good reason for anyone who advocates a theocratic government to be kept far away from any position of power.

One particularly troublesome application of the death penalty is found in Deuteronomy 22. To sum it up, it says that if a man gets married and he hates his new wife, and he accuses her of not being a virgin on their wedding night, then her parents must prove that she was a virgin. If they can’t, the woman gets killed. Anyone with a basic understanding of female virginity should recognize how evil this passage really is, and how preposterous it is to claim it comes from an all-knowing benevolent god. You would think he knows female anatomy better than that. Also, why punish a woman who isn’t a virgin when she gets married by killing her, while the punishment for two unmarried people having sex was that they had to get married? The answer, of course, is that these laws are based on viewing women and their virginity as valuable property that belongs to men, which also explains the verse that says if a single young woman is raped, the rapist has to pay her father money and then marry her.

There are many moral questions on which Christians disagree with the bible, some of which are things they consider immoral that are never prohibited by the bible…and in some cases even explicitly permitted. For example, there are exactly zero verses in the bible that say slavery is wrong. It is clearly allowed in the Old Testament and treated as normal in the New Testament, and the only guidelines given are how to treat your slaves. In Exodus 21, we’re told that if someone strikes his slave with a rod, and the slave dies, he shall be avenged. But if the slave lives for a day or two, the master may not be avenged because the slave is his property. All non-Hebrew people were fair game for enslavement, and Israel was given explicit permission to treat slaves as permanent property. If that isn’t enough, there are even passages that allow the enslavement of women and girls for sexual purposes.

In light of this, there’s no way to make the argument that all slavery is morally wrong from a biblical basis, and that is why it lasted so long instead of being abolished by Christianity a couple millennia ago. Some will object and say that most of the people who were instrumental in ending slavery in the western world were Christians. However, most of the people fighting against abolition were also Christians, which renders the objection worthless. In fact, the group of Christians who stood against abolition were the same ones who today stand against legal same-sex marriage. Even better, several high-profile Christian abolitionists often cited by modern evangelicals belonged to versions of the religion that evangelicals keep telling me are not “truly Christian”!

One of the most fundamental assumptions of Christianity is that humans are inherently evil. It’s this assumption that forms the basis for the entire religion, because otherwise they have no relevant problem to solve. I’ve often heard Christians ridicule the idea that humans are inherently good, as if that’s the only alternative to being evil. Anyone who claims a system of morality apart from god is said to be “borrowing from Christianity”, but I think Christianity does a lot of borrowing itself. It should be common knowledge that the morality laid out in the bible is very similar to other moral systems that predate Christianity (and even Israel), sometimes by several thousand years. There are other details that suggest Christianity may have borrowed a lot of its mythology from previous religions, but those can wait for another time.

The main problem with arguing about whether humans are good or evil is that the choice is a false dichotomy. Humans are not good, and they are not evil. They just are. The state of beingof existing as a sentient entity, is amoral. It cannot be judged as good or evil because those words refer to concepts rooted in cause and effect. Actions are what we call good or evil, because they are judged according to the effect they have. When we say someone is a bad person, we mean that they generally do bad things, not that their existence is inherently bad. Humans are complex, self-aware beings who are capable of doing both good and evil, feeling both love and hatred, acting both selfishly and selflessly. The solution to our problems is not simply telling people what they should do and expecting them to be good enough to do it, nor is it attempting to fix an imaginary “sin nature” through wishful thinking.

My conclusion regarding the laws in the Old Testament is that they are a messy combination of good morality, common sense, arbitrary rules, and the evil ideas of warmongering patriarchs. I don’t care if the laws were given to a specific nation and no longer apply to us. If it is immoral for us to enslave people today, it was immoral for the Israelites to enslave people four thousand years ago. Sure, god said they could do it. That doesn’t mean it’s right, it just means god is immoral.

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For another well-stated perspective on Christian morality, from an atheist, check out this video.

Next time we will look at two different historical aspects of the bible: the accuracy of stories found therein, and the history of how the book itself came to be.

There are five articles in this series:

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