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.