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Christianity, morality

Morality from the Bible

Imagine a dialog between a theist and an atheist:

Theist:  Without God, humans would not be moral.  God’s holy word, The Bible, gives us clear instructions about which actions are allowable and which are not.

Atheist:  Can we pick one?  Let’s talk about stealing.  The Bible says we are not to steal, correct?

T:  Of course.  It’s one of the Ten Commandments.

A: And so you know that you shouldn’t steal because the Bible tells you so, right?

T:  That’s correct.

A:  Does the Bible say why you shouldn’t steal, or does it just say, “Don’t steal”?

T:  Um… well, it just says not to steal.  What do you mean, why?  The Bible says it, so it’s wrong.

A:  Can you figure out why God told men not to steal?  What happens if men steal?

T:  Well, when you steal from somebody, it’s not fair.  Somebody else worked for something, or bought it with money he worked for, and then when someone else takes it, it’s like they’re getting it without putting in the work.

A:  Is that all?  It’s not fair, so we shouldn’t do it?

T:  Well, it’s kind of like the Golden Rule.  You shouldn’t do something to someone else you wouldn’t want them to do to you.

A:  So… the Bible didn’t explain all of this, and you figured it out…   So… why did you need the Bible to tell you not to steal?

This little exchange illustrates one of the biggest problems with the claim that the Bible is a source of morality.  A very prevalent Christian belief about morality is that it is a list.  There are specific actions you ought to do, and specific actions you must not do.  Examples of these are:

  • You ought to donate ten percent of your income to the church.
  • A woman ought to submit herself to her husband in marriage.
  • You must never have sex unless you are married.
  • You must never drink alcohol.

Not all Christian denominations teach these particular moral dictates, but many of them do.  The point here isn’t to lump all of Christianity in a single box.  It’s to dismantle one particular argument from some Christians.

This conception of morality as a list of do’s and don’ts is misguided.  As my imaginary conversation illustrates, even devout Christians realize on some level that morality is equivalent to meaning.  In other words, it’s not the action, it’s what the action means.

For nearly any action, we can imagine a situation in which it is beneficial.  The tale of Robin Hood is centered around the good guy stealing from the rich to give to the poor.  Yet… we approve of his theft.  The reason for this is that his thievery had a particular meaning.  In reality, it was making things more fair.  The poor peasants worked very, very hard and got little or nothing in return.  The nobles worked very, very little, and got very much.  The act of thievery, which would normally unbalance the equation, evens it out.  It makes things fair.

According to the Christian model, Robin Hood was a villain, and the Sheriff was completely in the right.  God was on the Sheriff’s side.

And here’s the kicker.  When I’ve discussed this concept with Christians, guess what they do?  They take Robin Hood’s side, and justify it by explaining the meaning of both Robin’s and the Sheriff’s actions.  The Sheriff committed a sin, and made things unfair, so Robin Hood’s actions weren’t “really” theft.  He was setting things right.

The fact is, we humans can’t avoid recognizing meaning as an inherent part of morality.  When the meaning is abundantly clear, even the most devout Christians bend the rules to allow prohibited actions.  They say things like, “God will understand,” or “God will forgive this because it’s justified.”

Even so, this concept of morality as a list of do’s and don’ts is dangerous:

  • Guilt:  Many Christians use their non-biblical moral conscience and do the right thing.  Because of their belief in a list, they feel guilty.  This sets up a dilemma.  Do they accept their own actions as moral, but defy God’s holy unalterable word, or do they think of themselves as bad people for doing the right thing?
  • Living By the Numbers:  Other Christians will do what God wants regardless of what their non-biblical moral conscience says.  When the prescribed action (or non-action) causes suffering, they give themselves immunity from doing wrong by explaining it away.  “God will work this out for good.  It’s a test of my faith.”
  • Murder by numbers:  If only one person were to believe and act in this way, it probably wouldn’t be very bad.  But when large numbers of people live in this way, the effect is huge.  For instance, when a certain number of people believe that abortion is wrong in all instances, you end up with institutionalized harm to lots and lots of women who genuinely need abortions for their own health.
  • Accountability:  When someone believes that actions either are or aren’t good, regardless of the consequences, morality literally loses its meaning.  Credulous believers can be convinced to do many things they wouldn’t otherwise do because they believe that an invisible, inscrutable god demands it.

This last bullet point is pretty important.  Normal human reasoning naturally ascribes meaning to actions.  Even very young children have inherent understanding of fairness.  As they grow, they learn the Golden Rule in various ways.  Put simply, there is no such thing as a human society without a ubiquitous concept of fairness.  But the “list” concept of morality undercuts this ubiquity.  It tells us that some things are good or bad in spite of the fact that our innate moral conscience disagrees.

Have we heard something similar to this before?  Remember, Faith is defined as belief in a thing despite evidence to the contrary or a complete lack of evidence.  Faith based morality, then, is a set of actions that are performed despite the fact that they defy our moral instincts, or that we can’t think of any good reason why we ought to do them.

A list of do’s and don’ts removes the normal, functional reasoning that determines the meanings — and therefore the moral value — of actions.  It doesn’t take much extrapolation to figure out that this is a recipe for gross injustice.



13 thoughts on “Morality from the Bible

  1. I don’t think that Christians can do something regardless what their non-biblicial conscience says seeing as all the studies I’ve seen [N=1] show that they use their moral instincts to determine what God thinks

    Two other studies directly manipulated people’s own beliefs and found that inferences about God’s beliefs tracked their own beliefs. Study participants were asked, for example, to write and deliver a speech that supported or opposed the death penalty in front of a video camera. Their beliefs were surveyed both before and after the speech.

    Posted by Alison | February 25, 2010, 7:22 pm
  2. So… you’re back to the position that religious belief doesn’t do anything at all?

    Posted by hambydammit | February 26, 2010, 11:31 am
  3. So….you’re back to all or nothing thinking?

    I never said that religious belief doesn’t do anything at all nor have I ever held that position.

    Posted by Alison | February 26, 2010, 2:33 pm
  4. But Alison, you consistently refuse to accept any cause-effect statement about religious belief whatsoever. Why don’t you tell me what effect you think faith based beliefs and dogma have, individually and culturally. Because I’ll be damned if I can find anything you think faith does do.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 26, 2010, 2:39 pm
  5. Hamby I’ve already said that I think religion is a vessel.

    As for cultural/indivdual I think it can provide a rationalization of actions, but such a rationalization could easily be replaced.

    The reason I link to Atran et al is that they show that this vessel could easily be replaced seeing as they are the result of already present cognitive mechanisms

    As for when I “consistently refuse to accept any cause-effect statement about religious belief whatsoever.”

    I would rather call it being skeptical espically when the evidence relies on anecdotes [such as this religious person did this or that]

    While you may say this is “obvious evidence of the effects of religious beliefs”

    A feminist will see a stash of porn under a rapist’s bed as “obvious evidence of the effects of porn”

    I for one am sick of hearing “obvious” instead of “Let’s actually put empirical study into this”

    Posted by Alison | February 27, 2010, 12:20 am
  6. Well, Alison, I’ll be honest… I’m not ready to believe that there are hugely divergent groups of people who just happened to form countries that are largely secular, and happen to be progressive and curiously free of several dysfunctions.

    I can’t remember which post it was, but GFelis responded to you last time you got on this kick. The problem with the idea that “people will do what people will do” is that it has been overwhelmingly disproven over and over and over, and it ignores the high degree of flexibility in the human psyche.

    What you’re saying is pretty remarkable, actually. You really believe that if you could somehow remove faith-based reasoning from America, we’d still have debates over stem cell research and abortion? Really? You honestly think we’d still be teaching ID next to evolution, or arguing over whether or not an atheist should be kicked out of office — as a notary public?

    Sorry. I’m not that credulous.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 27, 2010, 8:41 am
  7. *sigh* so just more strawmen then?

    Well, Alison, I’ll be honest… I’m not ready to believe that there are hugely divergent groups of people who just happened to form countries that are largely secular, and happen to be progressive and curiously free of several dysfunctions.

    I can’t remember which post it was, but GFelis responded to you last time you got on this kick. The problem with the idea that “people will do what people will do” is that it has been overwhelmingly disproven over and over and over, and it ignores the high degree of flexibility in the human psyche.

    You have no idea my position on this is do you?

    No, I do not think they just “happened to form countries that are largely secular”

    What I DO think is that countries with high economic growth and good social programs tend to ditch religion. [But not irrational thinking]

    Since you’re so up on science and critical thinking let’s do some now shall we?

    Take your favorite secular country and look into it’s history. Now, all countries were religious at some point or another, so answer this:

    How did they become secular?

    Did they:

    1) Fix their economic/social problems by actually being active in said programs and as these programs expanded, religion faded


    2) Used the power of science and reason [and strawmaning anybody who tried to get them to use science and reason] to vanquish religion.

    You really REALLY need to get off of that I think that somehow “people will do what people do”

    This is why I emphasize that we should get a proper understanding on the cognition of religion. People have been putting religion up to scientific lenses for centuries.

    What you’re saying is pretty remarkable, actually. You really believe that if you could somehow remove faith-based reasoning from America, we’d still have debates over stem cell research and abortion? Really? You honestly think we’d still be teaching ID next to evolution, or arguing over whether or not an atheist should be kicked out of office — as a notary public?

    That’s the point Hamby, we CAN’T get rid of faith based reasoning. Humans are hard-wired for it.

    Have you even looked at the numbers from the Eurobarameter poll?

    In Denmark 31% believe in God and 49% believe in a spirit of life force.

    Is a Spirit or life force any less faith based reasoning? I mean is there any evidence for it? [no] is there evidence against it?[yes]

    In Sweden it’s 23% God 49% life/spirit force

    Look at this:

    41% of Europeans think astrology is scientific.

    In Denmark it’s 35% scientific and 23% very scientific.

    Remember why I kept arguing that authoritianism and dogmatism are personality traits?

    You wanna know a fun fact about those traits? IF THEY DON’T HAVE DOGMA READILY AVAILABLE THEY CREATE THEIR OWN!

    So get this strawman that we’d still have things like ID if we get rid of religion outta your head will ya?

    The dogma may not be against abortion or stem cells, but you can bet the farm it ain’t going to be about where people put their fridges or what color the couch should be.

    This is where you seem to get hung up on my views and I haven’t the slighest idea why.

    Posted by Alison | February 27, 2010, 4:08 pm
  8. I feel like you and I have probably talked past each other about 98% of the time we’ve talked, Alison. I’m tired of going in circles on this. I’ll just wait until I come up with another way of saying the same thing, and we can do it again.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 27, 2010, 6:04 pm
  9. Hamby it’s either me, you, or both of us.

    Maybe it’s my curious nature, but I want to get to the bottom of it.

    What I see as the problem you viewing my points in too broad of a sense.

    I posted a study that shows that Christians get their view of God’s morality from their own morality. The reason I posted this is because you said their Christianity can override their own morality.

    You then went on a strawman that I don’t think religion does anything. I am honestly baffled as to how you can get to me thinking people will be the same regardless of religion based on me saying they get their moral views of God from their own morality.

    But then again it’s partly my fault for getting so emotional and getting it vered off course by responding to the strawman when I should have kept the discussion on course [whether or not religion can override inhert morality] rather than getting hissy.

    Posted by Alison | February 27, 2010, 6:48 pm
  10. What baffles me, Alison, is that I don’t get why you don’t get that I freely and happily admit that causation is not a one way street. I agree with you that improving socioeconomic conditions probably have a huge impact on individual religiosity and faith based thinking. I can’t think of any aspect of religio-social behavior that isn’t a complicated set of causes and effects. When I say, “faith based thinking causes X,” I wonder if you’re not hearing that as “Only F causes X, and F–> X is a one way causal street.”

    That’s certainly not what I’m saying. Every belief, faith based or not, has multifaceted effects on the sociological landscape.

    I also agree with you that people’s religious beliefs are mirrors of their own beliefs. However, I’m also convinced that the religious beliefs are a self-reinforcing causal agent in and of themselves. That is, I may be homophobic by nature, which would lead me to feel comfortable in a church that takes a hard stand against gay marriage… one that sends young boys to “Pray Away the Gay” Camps. However, having joined a group that shares my belief, I am now highly susceptible to accepting other beliefs within that group that are not intrinsically part of my belief system. In other words, every member of a church brings their own morality to the table, and because of groupthink and herd mentality, the whole group will tend to adopt the majority of that church’s moral dogma.

    Because of faith’s unique exemption from reality checks, and its encouragement to belief despite good evidence, it follows that people will tend to do things and believe things they wouldn’t ordinarily believe or do by virtue of being part of a faith based organization.

    I realize fully that this kind of phenomenon is not unique to religion, and I don’t say that faith causes it. I say that faith exacerbates irrational beliefs about things like morality by removing the reality check and then encouraging the whole flock to adopt the whole conglomerate of lots of faith-heads’ irrational beliefs.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 27, 2010, 7:51 pm
  11. And Alison, that wasn’t a strawman. It was an absurd question designed to get you to think about what you do believe faith does. You spend so much time thinking about what it doesn’t do, I wonder sometimes if you ever think about it from the other side of the fence.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 27, 2010, 7:52 pm
  12. Hamby now we’re back to our last discussion and the study I citied

    Instead of just re-hash I’ll just ask:

    Do you know why I citied it and why I stressed that it controlled for coalition?

    Posted by Alison | February 28, 2010, 1:44 am
  13. Church in the whirlpool of sins, guilt and morality

    R L Francis

    Last decade has been very painful and disturbing for the Vatican as it has mired in various controversies surrounding immoral behaviour of priests and accusations pertaining to sex abuse inside confinements of church. These accusations have practically bogged down Vatican to such a level that despite lot of squirming it has practically failed to come out of the mess. In the year 2000 Vatican first time officially acknowledged that many of the priests have been found indulged in the sex abuse of children. According to Vatican this is not an entirely new problem and is confined to certain geographical area. Vatican had also issued a list of twenty-three affected countries which includes America, Brazil, Philippines, India, Ireland and Italy.

    Pope Benedict (XVI), 2-years-ago, had released an official list of sins in order to salvage the plummeting prestige of priests who were found over-indulged in ‘sin’. Polluting environment, genetic manipulation, obscene wealth, creating poverty, drug-trafficking, immoral scientific experiments and violation of fundamental human rights were included in the list seven modern day sins. However, irony is that already blemished representative of Vatican are even sinking deeper in the quagmire of sins. After America, Episode in Ireland has shocked the Catholic churches all over the world. This is the second biggest blow for Vatican. Even those who believe in the administration of Church have started taking legal recourse against Bishops and other priests.Victim families have demanded1.37 billion dollars as compensation. On the other hand those victimised by priests are demanding from Vatican to make those secret files public which contains details of the sex abuse inside Roman Catholic Church.

    Victim families have accused Vatican of concealing and suppressing the truth instead of protecting children. Vatican and its higher officials are more concerned to save their skin and there is hardly any instance of taking tough action against misconduct of priests in the long history of Vatican. However, this time victims seem in no mood to relax and they are demanding to remove any priest or any Bishop or cardinal who have done anything wrong to children or has made the crime sophisticated. This case is pending in Supreme Court of America and is very important in two respects. First reason is Supreme Court will decide that can a legal recourse be taken against Vatican, which claims of sovereign immunity, in United States Courts? Victims, on the other hand, have released some documentary evidences that suggest that despite making lot of complaints against guilty priests to Pope Benedict (16th) and the then Cardinal Joseph Alois Ratzinger; these people helped guilty church officials to save their skin and did not take punitive measures on the complaints.

    At the time of appointment; Cardinals take oath before Pope that they will not divulge anything that brings bad name to church or brings disgrace to the church. This is the reason Cardinals try to suppress the truth even after cases of sex abuse erupts against church. Such priests select their victim from the highest level of devotes. These people are always told to respect the church at any cost. However, during last decade many victim families have publicly come out against sinful activities of church officials. Television Channels and newspapers have played pivotal role in publicising these sins of church. This is the chief reason Vatican and European Catholic Church are on defensive turf.

    Vatican is also very upset over the fact that due to sexual frustration priests are not taking genuine interest in compulsory services of church. And, impact can be seen as rising irritation and anger among Catholics. Devotes are constantly pressurising church to maintain its dignity and the drive for purity has taken international form. Catholic youths are playing important role in this movement. However, Indian priests have no threat from this movement as majority of catholic population in the country is wretched and they have hardly any time to understand these grave issues. Even if some ‘Reformist voices’ erupts; they are suppressed shrewdly. Priests and Bishops have huge organised army of slaves to help them. They also have support of big political parties, media and those in power.

    Such cases of rotting ills of church have also come into light in our country off and on. However, most of the cases remain under carpet due to highly God-Fearing nature of Indian Christians. Even if a case erupts it pre-maturely dies away due to strong influence of church in corridors of power and in the media. In August 2008, case of suicide of two nuns had come into light. Father of 22-year-old Anupameri accused that his daughter committed suicide due to sex abuse in the convent. Some time back his nun -daughter had complained her mother of such things. Anupa Mary’s father told that his daughter was highly scared. Father of deceased nun used to work as chef of Bishop in Kollam catholic diocese. Christian population in Kerala is 25 percent and 35,000 nuns in catholic churches alone come from Kerala. CPM government had given indication to take some action in order to stop sex abuse in convents and churches. Due to backlash of church CPM had to suffer humiliating defeat in the last year Loksabha election.

    Last year aSister Jesme book Amen – Oru Kanyasthreeyude Atmakatha (Amen-Autobiography of a nun) had rocked Catholic Church establishment in Kerala. Sister Jesme had given chronological sequence of injustice being meted out to nuns, sex abuse and torture. Initially, Indian media took cognisance of the book but very soon media was trapped in the planted story of church that Sister Jesme is ‘Mentally ill’ and consequently media frenzy soon ended. Now, nobody knows where is Sister Jesme? Incidents of suicide are not only confined to nuns but catholic priests, too, are ending their lives out of desperation. Many priests are deserting church. Recently, a priest in Delhi Catholic Convent School committed suicide.

    Vatican seems to be highly distressed with growing sense of sexual-frustration and even desperation among priests. A section of officials in Vatican has mooted the idea of allowing priests to marry. British Catholic Church Bishop Malcolm McMahon says that there is no genuine reason to stop priests from marrying. McMahon’s name is being touted as an inheritor of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. It is to be noted that Jesus never advocated for celibacy. Most of his apostles were married and having children. Had Jesus planned to make his followers celibate, then why he would have selected married disciples? He should have selected only bachelors and spinsters. In fact egalitarianism propounded by Lord Jesus took the form of imperialism of state and exploitative capitalism under church administration. To protect this ‘Pope Gregory VII’ in eleventh century had made it mandatory for priests of Roman Catholic Church to remain celibate

    Authoritarian mentality of church can be gauged from the fact from the level of faith it has in the holy Bible? In the first chapter ‘Creation’-Lord God has said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” And the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought to the man to fulfill bodily needs and in order to continue the ‘creation’. However, ignoring this basic need of the body and need to continue the ‘creation’ Pope/Catholic church has been running own authoritative regime. This has been opposed off and on but nothing concrete has come out. Due to fastidiousness of church most of the Catholic priests have been forced to live in desperation and sexual frustration. And when, a matter of sex abuse comes in light, church, instead of accepting the reality, tries to suppress it from its power and wealth. It resorts to saama (the process of pacifying), Dama (Process of paying), Danda (Punishment) and Bheda (Discrimination) to bury the matter under the carpet.

    R L Francis
    National President, Poor Christian Liberation Movement – INDIA

    Posted by Suresh | July 2, 2010, 5:23 am

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