I can’t speak for all Christians, but from my experience in debate with them, the Bible is the central tenet of their position; it is the word of God and thus is the ultimate authority on moral matters. I deliberately had to make my first piece in this debate short and vague as way of an introduction, this article however will specifically address morality and argue that to base morality on the Bible is a dangerous thing to do. Whilst I will focus on Christianity, that is simply because it is the religion I was taught in school and grew up with, the principles I explore are applicable to many religions historical and modern day.
The previous article referred to the Bible as a historically accurate document and as a history student this deeply worries me. Historians try, and admittedly fail sometimes, to gather evidence, weigh it and draw conclusions. Just like the scientific discipline, history is constantly evolving as new generations ask new questions and reevaluate evidence in a healthy climate of debate. History tells us many things and one is that you shouldn’t base your individual morality on a document written a few thousand years ago in the Middle East. (One of the great ironies, that some conservative Christians in America can’t accept, being that Jesus walked the land of the East first)
Anyway, firstly some Bible references to paint a picture. The Old Testament, which tends to get swept off into the corner when the spotlight hits, gives us the following ‘moral’ teachings directly from God: God commits genocide of his created people with the great flood Gen. 6:7, he orders the killing of the first born sons of those accused of oppressing the Israelites (Ex. 7:3), he condemns the Samarians, telling them their children will be “dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open,” Hosea. 13:16. There are many, many other examples as Elizabeth Anderson highlights in If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted? God also permits slavery Lev. 25:44-46 etc and suggests that children may be sacrificed to God in return for his help in battle 2 Kings 3:26-27, Judges 11 etc.
“Ah, but this is only the Old Testament” I hear you shout, “Jesus of the New Testament is where I take my morals from”. Whilst lacking some of the more brutal and genocidal morals of the Old, the New Testament has its fair share. Peter and Paul promote the violent rule of husbands over their wives 1 Cor. 11:3, 14:34-5; Eph. 5:22-24; 1 Tim. 2:11-12 highlighting the common theme of misogyny in a lot of biblical practice. At the second coming of Christ, any city that does not accept Jesus will be flooded as in Noah’s time Matt. 24:37, possibly set on fire 2 Pet. 3:7, 10 but if that’s not enough not only that they will be stung by locusts until they call for death Rev 9:3-6. It reads like something religious extremists would warn of, not moderate Christians. Honour your father and mother, but if Jesus calls, abandon them to seek your salvation with Jesus as a disciple Matt. 10:35-37.
“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” 1 Timothy 2:11-12
“to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.” – Titus 2:5
Of course, there are many honourable moral teachings within the Bible, morals like “love thy neighbour” are hard to disagree with. However, the mountain of evidence on the other side cannot be ignored by even the most proficient cherry picker. This is not to speak of the inconsistencies of narrative found between chapters, which I’ll leave for another time, however if you are interested click here. The counter argument that each biblical reference (like those I mentioned regarding misogyny) needs to be taken in its context is not satisfactory. If I was the creator, I would make sure my holy scripture was 100 percent clear on important issues and without contradiction, a reflection of my holy infallibility. I most certainly wouldn’t ‘plant’ fossils to test people’s faith.
From a historical perspective, because of parts like that on slavery the Bible plainly reads like something written by several men (edited and reedited) who lived the Middle East a few thousand years ago; it is very difficult to apply to modern day Western society. Christians themselves still disagree as to whether the Bible is historical fact or holy metaphor.
If hypothetically, the Bible is historically accurate, what makes it superior to the much older Egyptian Book of the Dead, which holds many of the same themes of the Bible? There is a good reason why in seeking to ease conversion to Christianity, the Pagan cross was adopted to create the Christian cross. Understandably, rather than shock those your trying to convert with radical new symbols, you ease the conversion by adopting programmed practices.
“God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was quite the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization.” – Hitchens, God is not Great…
Moving away from the Bible for a minute and back to morals and history, a commenter on my previous article questioned that surely when a person commits something ‘evil’ like genocide or simple murder, we witness simply a person doing something to a person, regardless of their religious persuasion?
Some crimes are morally objectionable to any sane person: child abuse, genocide of a certain race, misogyny. To simplify “why?” in this way is misleading. People throughout history have killed, maimed and abused other people for a plethora of reasons: psychosis, racist attitudes and in the name of God/Ra/Odin/Yahweh/whatever. Yes some genocidal communist leaders were by extension atheists, as the old chestnut goes, however their justification was not primarily their lack of religion but in the case of Stalin’s terror for example, his fear of usurpers and general personality.
We can assume however that Pope Pius XII’s questionable response to the Holocaust was very much motivated by his religion. Elsewhere, many serial killers confess to hearing God within their heads telling them to do things, the ‘voice in the head’ is indeed used by some as evidence of God’s existence also.
“I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did. And now, again, I feel God’s words coming to me, ‘Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East’. And, by God, I’m gonna do it.” George W. Bush, Sharm el-Sheikh, August 2003.
In history, a vital part of the original spread of Christianity in Europe was the practice of a newly Christian Viking king arriving at a village, asking someone “are you a Christian” in Norse and chopping their head off if they said no; proving an effective method. There are many more examples available to support this; not just for Christianity either. The impression given by Christians seems to be that as soon as anyone got their hands on the Bible they were converted.
Yes it would probably be too reductive to argue that all religion makes people do bad things, but the evidence is there to suggest religion is a powerful psychological force in human ‘evil’. In some ways similar to the self-confident belief of Lenin’s communism, Religion gives us a tangible reason to commit atrocity with the hope of salvation or Utopia; removing us from immediate responsibility for our actions.
I want to you to imagine something for a moment with an open mind. It’s 2014 and you live in the rainforest as a hunter for one of the many tribes-people of the forest. You spend the day hunting monkeys to feed your hungry family but have never heard of the Bible or Jesus. Are you immoral? You will likely live and die without every hearing the Gospel, are you eternally damned?
Closer to home, what if you had been raised in the Jewish faith and rejected the idea of Christ? Or indeed any of the hundreds of non-Christian religions both historically and in the present day. Would you live an immoral lie of a life in your religious convictions?
These questions bother me and they should bother you too.
This article is the third part in our debate on religion and the Yorker welcomes anyone interested in writing a part to contact the Comment editor, Tom Stranney at firstname.lastname@example.org or through social media. The next part can either be a counter to a previous article or simply an outline of a different perspective.
I will leave you with a video of the late Christopher Hitchens on his “revised 10 commandments”. I urge you to read his “God is not Great” with an open mind.
The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer. A collection of over 40 essays on the topic, edited by Christopher Hitchens. Very readable.
God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens. His seminal work.