When you read this I’ll be over—or, if something goes wrong, in—the Atlantic. If all goes well, Grania will have done the Hili dialogue; please her a hand for repeatedly filling in for me when I’m traveling.
I woke up about 2 a.m. in the Warsaw airport hotel and this idea suddenly popped into my head. Usually, genius ideas I have in the middle of the night are forgotten by morning (and rightfully so!), but I still remember this one. I’m throwing it out here because I can’t remember anybody making this claim before, though given the tortuous history of theology, someone surely has.
One thing that every liberal Christian or Jew admits is that the morality laid out in the Old Testament (and, for liberal Christians, much that appears in the New Testament, like the existence of hell for those who reject Jesus as Savior and heaven for those who don’t) are to be ignored—that most Biblical morality no longer applies. So, for instance, we no longer agree with these views of right and wrong, which the Wikipedia article on “ethics in the Bible” summarizes conveniently:
Elizabeth Anderson criticizes commands God gave to men in the Old Testament, such as: kill adulterers, homosexuals, and “people who work on the Sabbath” (Leviticus 20:10; Leviticus 20:13; Exodus 35:2, respectively); to commit ethnic cleansing (Exodus 34:11-14, Leviticus 26:7-9); commit genocide (Numbers 21: 2-3, Numbers 21:33–35, Deuteronomy 2:26–35, and Joshua 1–12); and other mass killings.Anderson considers the Bible to permit slavery, the beating of slaves, the rape of female captives in wartime, polygamy (for men), the killing of prisoners, and child sacrifice. She also provides a number of examples to illustrate what she considers “God’s moral character”: “Routinely punishes people for the sins of others … punishes all mothers by condemning them to painful childbirth”, punishes four generations of descendants of those who worship other Gods, kills 24,000 Israelites because some of them sinned (Numbers 25:1–9), kills 70,000 Israelites for the sin of David in 2 Samuel 24:10–15, and “sends two bears out of the woods to tear forty-two children to pieces” because they called someone names in 2 Kings 2:23–24.
Blackburn provides examples of Old Testament moral criticisms such as the phrase in Exodus 22:18 that has “helped to burn alive tens or hundreds of thousands of women in Europe and America”: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” and notes that the Old Testament God apparently has “no problems with a slave-owning society”, considers birth control a crime punishable by death, and “is keen on child abuse”.Additional examples that are questioned today are: the prohibition on touching women during their “period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15:19–24)”, the apparent approval of selling daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7), and the obligation to put to death someone working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2).
There are, of course, many more. Abraham and Isaac aren’t even mentioned!
These days nobody feels obliged to carry out such commands.
There are several ways to get around this rejection of Biblical morality; the first two assume that the Bible was somehow either the Word of God or divinely inspired by God.
- God didn’t really mean what he said; it’s all metaphor. But that won’t wash because even if you see the Bible as just “divinely inspired,” these simply aren’t metaphors, but “historical accounts” of what God commanded or wanted and what his adherents did. There’s no rational way to construe it otherwise.
- God did mean it, but times have changed; God dictated a morality appropriate only for Biblical times, but the times they have ‘a changed. This won’t wash either, and for several reasons. If God’s own morality is unchanging, and was laid down only once, but now no longer applies due to changing times, then anything goes; there is no longer any religious guidance for how to behave. And why would the rules change, anyway? If you could be killed for gathering sticks on Sabbath, why did that stricture go away? If slavery was okay in first-century Palestine, why is it now not only not okay, but morally reprehensible? Why did homosexuality suddenly become acceptable in God’s eyes? What changed?
- My view: the morality “dictated by God” was really a reflection of a morality held by humans. Those who accept Plato’s Euthyphro argument already realize that human morality must precede Biblical morality since God’s approval of an action can’t possibly be the sole criterion for determining whether it’s “right.” But the fact that the vast majority of Christians abjure Biblical morality like that above, combined with the fact that that “Biblical” morality was enforced Biblical times, can mean only one thing: God’s commandments were really made up by humans. It follows that we must not only reject the idea that Bible is the absolute Word of God a beneficent God whose laws were unchanging, but also accept that that morality was constructed by humans. In both cases the argument for morality based on Scripture fails.
Now we nonbelievers know this already. The priors for humans making up the Bible are surely higher than the priors for some Palestinian scribes channeling the word of a God who never left any evidence for His existence. (This is, of course, irrelevant to the issue of whether Jesus or Moses really existed as non-divine beings.)
I’m absolutely sure that religionists will say that my argument is naive, but who is more naive than someone who not only believes a book that has already proven to be wrong in many parts and a human construction in others, but also thinks their own scripture is the right one, invalidating, say, the Qur’an and the Bhagavad Gita? Who is more naive than someone who claims to prove definitively that humans can go to Heaven but dogs cannot?
Even neglecting the Euthyphro argument, which I consider one of the greatest contributions of philosophy to everyday human life, the fact that Biblical morality not only no longer applies, but is largely considered to be immoral, must certainly mean this: the precepts of behavior laid out in scripture were applicable only to their time, and were therefore constructed by humans. This, of course, completely destroys the argument that without the Bible, “Western” civilization would degenerate into anarchy and immorality. For if humans could make a workable morality for two millennia ago, they can surely construct one that works in our day.
Okay, tell me where I’m wrong.