February 23, 2019

Christian Bible is Poor Basis of Morality

young child reading the bible

Many contemporary Christians claim that their bible is the source of all morality and that it serves as something of a guide for them to determine how to live their lives. If we accept that they believe this to be the case (which may not be warranted), the implications are terrifying. Granted, there are some good things in their bible, and even if they can be traced back to moral systems that pre-date Christianity, this does not necessarily diminish their value. But there are also many terrible things in their bible, making me extremely uncomfortable with the notion that anyone might suggest that it should guide the behavior of my Christian neighbors today.

It may be helpful to consider an example, and there are many to pick from. The following comes from Exodus 34: 13-17 and provides one of many decent examples of why I have a difficult time with the claim that this book can be regarded as any sort of guide to moral behavior:

...ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves. For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice; And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods. Thou shall make thee no molten gods.

Even if you can ignore the obsession with "whoring" evident here, what do you think about the merits of the jealous god described? I see little worthy of admiration and even less worthy of emulation here.

The modern Christian confronting this passage has a few options, none of which strike me as satisfactory. First, the Christian may claim that this passage has nothing to do with morality and should never be regarded as such. Okay, but what are we to make of the "ye shall" part that certainly sounds like an instruction? Who are we to ignore what this god tells us to do? Second, the Christian may say that I am misinterpreting this passage and that understanding the bible requires some form of guided bible study. Again, who am I to say that the meaning conveyed by these words is not the meaning intended by god? Can I be that arrogant? Is it really wiser to conclude that I need trained clergy to decipher this text for me because this god can't communicate well? Third, the Christian may say that this is not a significant passage and that many others are far more important. Says who? It seems that I should read these words attributed to this god in order to understand what it wants of me rather than pick and choose what I will follow and what I will reject. Again, how could I be so arrogant as to assume I have the right to follow what I like and disregard the rest?

A far more reasonable conclusion is to realize that this book had little to do with morality when it was written and even less so now. Then again, I don't suppose it is fair to accuse someone who claims to have a personal relationship with a dead person (who may have never existed) of being reasonable. As nice as it might be to have an instruction manual for life, this isn't it.

This is how Richard Dawkins expressed the problem to which I refer in The God Delusion:

Once again, modern theologians will protest that the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac should not be taken as literal fact. and once again, the appropriate response is twofold. First, many many people, even to this day, do take the whole of their scripture to be literal fact, and they have a great deal of political power over the rest of us, especially in the United States and in the Islamic world. Second, if not as literal fact, how should we take the story? As an allegory? Then an allegory for what? Surely nothing praiseworthy. As a moral lesson? But what kind of morals could one derive from this appalling story?
This applies to any biblical passage selected by a critic of Christianity. An atheist might select any passage and present it to a Christian as an example of how their bible fails to provide a consistent and worthwhile moral message. The Christian will dismiss the criticism, usually by explaining it away as I noted above. As Dawkins suggests, the Christian who does this must be reminded of two crucial points.

First, some Christians are not only biblical literalists themselves but question whether those who are not are "real Christians." Christian fundamentalism is not a myth; it is all too real, and Christian fundamentalists have great political power in the United States. Any time a Christian wants to say, "Yes, but we don't take that literally," they must be reminded of the many Christians who do. To this, I would add that they should be asked about their grounds for deciding that this particular passage should not be taken literally. How did they arrive at that decision, and what does it mean to them that other Christians take it literally?

Second, if we agree not to take this portion literally, how do we take it? This book is filled with both admirable (if often grossly unrealistic) tales and cruelty. When we examine the passages highlighting intolerance, hatred, and cruelty, what symbolic interpretation do we conjure? What suitable interpretation can we invent? And to this, I would again add the question of how we know that our chosen way of interpreting (whatever that might be) is correct. How do we judge the merits of one interpretation against another?

This post initially appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007 as two separate posts. It was revised and combined into one post in 2019.