How Religion Hijacks Morality

religious morality

I’ve noticed that one way religions exert control over their followers is to hijack morality. They do this in a few different ways: disregarding the human senses of empathy and justice, making people doubt their own ability to distinguish between good and evil, and asserting that morality must come directly from the commands of authority. Essentially, they force people to suppress their natural morality and replace it with arbitrary rules that are backed up with nothing but “god says so”.

My ongoing conflict with Christians over morality has, unsurprisingly, turned up zero definitions of objective morality or objective good. In fact, I’ve already had debates with two Christians who started out claiming morality was objective and ended up admitting it’s subjective, although they still insisted that it’s defined by god. Like I said a while ago, there is no way to define good or evil in objective terms. You always have to base your definitions on the opinions or experiences of a sentient being, whether human or god, which makes it subjective. This is simple logical truth. When you say something is good you are making a statement about the value of it; you are saying that it is desirable. There is no such thing as value in a universe without entities capable of desire.

I would argue that in practice, everyone’s sense of morality is based on the collective experiences of humanity. You instinctively know it’s wrong to hurt people because hurting is generally considered unpleasant, and we do not desire unpleasant things. Our dislike of unpleasant things is precisely why we call them wrong in the first place. The criteria for figuring out if something is wrong is built into the very definition of the word.

But then religion comes in and says nope, you don’t get to distinguish between good and evil by using the actual definitions of the words. You must redefine good to mean “anything that god says is good”, and evil to mean anything that contradicts god. If god tells you to throw a baby off a cliff, it is good. If god tells you to stand by and watch while someone rapes a child, it is wrong to intervene.

Christians try to get around this glaring problem by claiming god would never tell us to do something wrong. However, they are defining wrong as “things god wouldn’t tell us to do”, which makes their statement circular and renders their concept of morality totally worthless, at least if the goal is to reduce suffering. There are numerous cases in the bible where god commands things that cause huge amounts of suffering. He commands genocide, explicitly permits slavery, and actively kills millions of people. He floods the entire world to kill everyone except Noah and his family, which would have included the deaths of countless children, babies, pregnant women, and so on. Later, it is said that he kills every firstborn child in all of Egypt. Why? Because he intentionally made Pharaoh stubborn so that he could inflict horrific suffering on Egypt to make himself look awesome to the Israelites. That’s right, he was retaliating against something he himself caused…by killing children.

It’s clear that god’s ideas of good and evil have nothing to do with the outcomes of actions. Christians may object, saying that there’s a longer-term plan that we just don’t understand. But according to most traditional versions of the religion, the ultimate outcome of god’s whole plan is that most people will suffer for eternity. It seems plain to me that this god is more interested in his own ego and cares nothing about the suffering of humans.

Take Abraham, for example. God told him to murder his son Isaac as a human sacrifice. Wait, didn’t someone say that god would never tell us to do something immoral? Ha, that’s where the circular part comes in handy…it’s suddenly morally right because god told him to do it. So Abraham dutifully goes and just about murders Isaac, and god steps in at the last moment to stop him. What’s the moral of this story? That Abraham was insane and you should never commit murder just because a deity tells you to? No, the moral is that Abraham was a righteous man because he was willing to murder his son just because god said so.

God would never tell you to do something immoral? Seriously? Is it good to commit murder if god tells you to do it? Or would the morally right thing in Abraham’s case be to refuse? You can’t have it both ways. If obeying god is the only morally right option, if morality is based on what god says, then Abraham would have been justified in actually murdering his son. God told him to, thus it was right. But if murder is always wrong, then the morally right thing would be to disobey.

I think a far better outcome would be if Abraham refused, as any good man would, and was commended for being willing to defy even god rather than commit murder. If that’s how it went, the story would actually support the “objective” morality Christians so often try to claim. As it is, though, it celebrates blind obedience and moral relativism.

Every once in a while we hear a story about a parent who murdered their child because they believed god wanted them to. Some base their delusion on the story of Abraham. Some claim that they heard a voice. Some are convinced that their family would be better off dead (because heaven). Just look at the story of John List. Or Randy Janzen. Or dozens of others. That’s what can happen when your morality is hijacked by religion, particularly one that doesn’t care about reducing suffering.

According to this sort of morality, it would have been right for Abraham to murder his son and wrong not to, if god hadn’t stopped him at the last minute. Thus, Christians follow a morality that is completely relative. Not only does god tell different people to do different things and thus make morality different for each person, but he follows a completely separate standard for himself wherein he’s allowed to kill anyone he wants. Because he’s god.

I’m not straw-manning this, I’m repeating exactly what I’ve been told in these debates. It’s fine for god to kill everyone because he created them and they deserve to die.

So what are the implications of this? If Christians got their way and made the whole world follow their morality–which has nothing to do with reducing suffering–what sort of benefit would it provide? What’s the practical advantage of ignoring suffering and simply doing what god says because he said so? How would it improve the world?

I don’t know, but it sure as hell wouldn’t reduce suffering, which almost everyone would agree is the whole purpose of morality. See, even after all this talk about morality based solely on what god says, most Christians still live as if the goal is to reduce suffering, and they still judge things as good or evil based on the consequences. Most believe slavery is morally wrong, even though god said it isn’t. Most believe it’s morally wrong to kill people who try to convert them to another religion, but god commanded exactly that. Most believe it is morally wrong to kill people who have gay sex, but again, their god commanded it. I could go on. For the most part, when something is obviously harmful they will agree it’s immoral, yet they deny that it’s immoral because it’s harmful.

And then there are others, like the guy I debated who will say that slavery is morally good, that killing people who try to convert them to another religion is morally good, all because of a stubborn refusal to accept the actual definitions of good and evil. God said slavery is good, so it’s good. No way around it. The possibilities that maybe god was wrong or had nothing to do with the bible are never allowed. These are the people who worry me. Religion has so thoroughly hijacked their sense of morality that they remain loyal to their god to the point of condoning slavery and murder.

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