Rabbi Yoffie gets morality from God: presumably accepts stoning and genocide

July 22, 2011 • 6:58 am

Over at the HuffPo religion section, the rabbis continue to embarrass me. The latest embarrassment was penned by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. In his column, “For moral guidance, look to religion—not neuroscience,” he “reminds us why religion is the best and indispensable guide to moral behavior.”‘

Yoffie takes out after neuroscientists like Sam Harris who claim that moral “truths” can be found through science, but especially excoriates Patricia Churchland, a neuroscientist from San Diego who, he claims, is a complete moral relativist.  I haven’t read Churchland’s writings on morality, but clearly Sam Harris and Jon Haidt are not relativists.  Sam, in fact, is always attacking moral relativists.

So if we don’t get our morality from science (and, I would add, from evolution), where does the good Rabbi get his? One guess.

As a rabbi, I welcome research into neuroscience but believe that as much as we are the products of biology, we also transcend it. I make choices about right and wrong by studying sacred texts that record a 2,500-year history of men and women struggling with God’s message and with each other as they attempt to define what is moral and what is not. I also draw strength and inspiration from a religious community that cares about values and deepens its search for the good through the practice of ancient rituals and traditions.

I don’t believe in easy answers to moral questions. As a liberal person of faith, I reject simplistic moral codes, and I am aware that different religious traditions arrive at different conclusions about good and evil. Nonetheless, the process of moral decision-making that my tradition offers has left me convinced that, as Jonathan Haidt has argued, there is a moral structure to the universe, and despite our differences, the great religious traditions largely agree on what our moral foundations are. And in the moral world in which I live, infanticide and wife burning are always, always wrong.

Now Rabbi Yoffie is a Jew, so he doesn’t accept the New Testament.  So what kind of morality can he get from the Old Testament? Well, here are a few of the things that Yahweh approves or sanctions in that book:

  • slavery
  • genocide, including women and children
  • the killing of adulterers
  • the killing of homosexuals
  • the stoning to death of nonvirgin bride

That stuff was okay by God.  Is it not okay by Rabbi Yoffie? If not, why not?  Was it okay back then, but not now? Or if it was never okay, then why doesn’t the Rabbi approve of this stuff? Could it be that Yoffie picks and chooses his Biblical morality based on secular considerations?  Maybe he should read Plato’s Euthyphro.

137 thoughts on “Rabbi Yoffie gets morality from God: presumably accepts stoning and genocide

  1. amazing the ignorance that the religious have. We see the rabbi taking swipes at other religions but conveniently forgets the vileness contained within his own. His quote should read “And in the moral world in which I live, infanticide and wife burning are always, always wrong but killing people reasons *my* god is okay with is perfectly fine”.

    1. It’s all compatible in their world:

      Of learned men, the clergy show the lowest development of professional ethics. Any pastor is free to cadge customers from the divines of rival sects, and to denounce the divines themselves as theological quacks.
      — H L Mencken, Minority Report (1956), quoted from Jonathon Green, The Cassell Dictionary of Cynical Quotations (as harvested here: http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/mencken.htm)

  2. Don’t forget:

    death to witches (Exodus 22:18)
    death to blasphemers (Leviticus 24:16)
    death to . . .

    1. Hey! Don’t knock the bible for moral guidance. I shaved 10 minutes off my evening commute by following the old testament’s teachings on speed limits.


  3. I find it saddening that rabbis generally cite Abraham and Isaac as an example of a “hard” Biblical passage that they wrestle with, in the same way that Israel wrestled with YHWH himself.

    What they need to be wrestling with is Numbers 31. Hard as it is to imagine, it’s actually more horrific than what Hitler and the Nazis did to the Jews. The problem is that this is Moses and his Merry Men committing the atrocities upon the Midianites — at YHWH’s command and with and for his blessings. Granted, Hitler’s body count was higher…but Mose’s solution was as final as Hitler wished his were.

    The only saving grace of the story is that it’s 100% pure fiction. But, oh! what nasty fiction!

    And what’s especially saddening to me…well, Pesach used to be my favorite holiday. But it’s a “celebration” of YHWH letting loose with a horrific biochemical warfare arsenal upon the Egyptians just so YHWH can prove how much of a badass mothafucka he really is. Why not just send the Angel of Sleep to the Egyptians rather than the Angel of Death, and tell Moses to hot-foot it out of there before the Egyptians wake up? Again, it’s a damned good thing it’s fiction…but why does such a nasty story have to lie at the heart of such an otherwise-wonderful festival?


    1. Heck, why not the Angel of the Transporter Beam? Why should all those people have to walk through the desert?

    2. “Granted, Hitler’s body count was higher…but Mose’s solution was as final as Hitler wished his were.”

      Only that Hitler’s weapons were a deal more efficient, that’s all.

      1. But arguably thoroughness trumps efficiency — the Jewish people are still around, and the Canaanites and Midianites aren’t.

  4. Your examples are specious. None of those punishments are in force, even among the most orthodox, today.

    And even when they were, as part of societal norms, do you have any clue of the level of evidence that was required to carry out an execution?

    1. You completely missed the point. Jerry is aware that these punishments are no longer. Yes those are all nearly universally condemned as immoral actions now, but are clearly supported by scripture. It was secular moral reasoning and not divine revelation that led people to realize the immorality of such edicts.

    2. None of those punishments are in force, even among the most orthodox, today.

      That’s precisely the point — even the orthodox believe these “divine” moral commands are wrong. So how is the scripture supposed to give absolute, eternal moral truths, if different “societal norms” can trump them? How is this not just relativism?

      1. More than “relativism” I would refer to it as an allowance for man’s natural morality. Probably not too different, but enough of a nuance to leave me comfortable. 🙂

        1. So religious morals have been fully replaced with natural morality?

          What is then Yoffie arguing about? Why would we even consider religious morals any longer?

        2. I should add that it seems this scenario of yours fully support what Coyne is noting.

        3. Your religion teaches that man was created by your god, so in what sense can man have “natural” morality? All of creation is the responsibility of your god, right?

    3. And yet, there it is right in the bible.

      So what has changed? Surely, not “god”?

      Oh, so society has changed? So, someone gathering sticks on the sabbath isn’t to be stoned to death? Why not? Doesn’t god say so right there in the book? What “level of evidence”? There isn’t anything in the Torah about “level” of evidence. There isn’t anything in there about a jury of one’s peers, or the right to defend yourself, or the right to counsel.

      It says, the man was found gathering sticks … instant judgment…stoning.

      Which means that if we don’t stone people to death for gathering sticks on the sabbath, then the whole concept of an unchanging moral code being handed down from god is pure unadulterated crap.

    4. I am not sure if you are aware that that your talking about the quality of the evidence is a red herring here (completely irrelevant). Event if you had any (highest possible) level of evidence provided that given person is homosexual – killing that person would be immoral (or at least unjustified).

      Also, a fact that no one uses a practice does not render that practice right or wrong. It is just irrelevant.
      If you eat poison or not it does not make the poison less or more harmful. Similarly if you punish homosexual or not does not make punishment itself more or less wrong.

      1. I’ve seen that argument before and I think it’s hilarious.

        Oh, they had to be really sure they were gay or picking up sticks on the Sabbath before hurling rocks at them until they bleed out? Well, that makes it fine then.

    5. There’s no record of any level of evidence being required to slaughter the men, women, and children of the Midianites. God ordered it and the Israelites did it.

    6. None of those punishments are in force, even among the most orthodox, today.

      The only reason they are not in force today is that (at least in the west) religion has been detoxified by enlightenment based secular values.

      With the religious fighting it every step of the way.

      The most orthodox may not be able to get away with this disgusting behavior today but they are certainly yearning for the good old days when the only good non-believer was a dead non-believer.

    7. Then the bible has nothing to say then does it? Or are you going to be another fool that denys the bible where it is inconvenient by defending it by it’s ‘good parts.’

      Well, Ted Bundy was an Eagle Scout. In college he was an honor student and quite well regarded by his professors. He was a suicide hotline operator and was known as “kind, solicitous, and empathetic.”

      But in the end, we judge him fairly by the horrorcommittedmited. They so far out-weigh the good the scales can never be balanced.

      And such is the bible. Destroying civilizations. Destroying mankind. PlaBizarreBizzare punishments. Fucked up rMisogynyysoInfanticidefancide.

      God is not moral. At best he’s a raving psychopath like Ted Bundy who pretends to be ‘good.’

    8. Yeah, according to the Old Testament, if a wife was accused by her husband of not being a virgin when they married, then she had to go to her father and retrieve the bloody bed sheet from her wedding night.

      Or, the man can report his wife to the priest, who then makes her drink “bitter water”, and if she is guilty of being unfaithful then her thigh will rot and her belly will swell.(Numbers 5:11-31)

      Beautiful morals, huh?

      That Old Testament god– a bit of a bastard, if you ask me.

  5. See Butterflies and Wheels for a story about certain ‘settler rabbis’, supported by better-known Israeli rabbis, advocating the killing of non-Jews, including the killing of children if it is ‘clear’ that they might grow up to be a danger to Israel (by which I suspect they mean a greater Israel). It is a pity Rabbi Yoffe does not address the moral issues raised by such advocacy, instead of misrepresenting Churchland.

    1. Again, specious. These so-called “rabbis” are an aberration and have been roundly criticized from all segments of Judaism. Every group, yes even scientists, liberals, etc., have their wacko fundamentalists. I’m sure Dr. Coyne wouldn’t want to be judged by those of his group.

      1. Repeatedly crying “specious” doesn’t disguise the fact that you are (apparently unknowingly) supporting Coyne by pointing out that rabbis who actually follow God’s written law are rare-to-nonexistent.

        1. Oh c’mon, it’s a great word!

          That’s my point. Judaism, by definition, does NOT follow the literal scripture and nobody who understands Judaism says that it does.

          Obvious example: The scripture makes the famous “eye for an eye” statement. Jewish law NEVER accepted that literally. (The Talmud interprets it mean monetary compensation.)

          Maybe Jerry is more religious than he thinks. 🙂

          1. But then Jerry is not really attacking Judaism, he’s attacking notions of God-based and Bible-based morality.

          2. Why refer to the scripture indeed; why invent such a fiction; why *never* accept it as it is?

            Conversely, your analysis looks to be exactly secular.

            Except you stop unexplainable short.
            Rationally you would go on to note that this makes religious methods worthless, we should cut out the (confusing, immoral) middle man, and use the “natural morality” which is your explanation for this as per up thread comments.

          3. If the morality of your religious edicts is inversely proportional to the degree you don’t practice them then I think you need to rethink your reasons for adhering to your religion in the first place.

            And I love it when liberal theists complain that it’s only the atheists and fundamentalists who take their own scriptures seriously. I just don’t understand why they seem to think their unseriousness strengthens their position instead of weakening it.

            1. “I don’t actually believe this crap! I just revere it as an important part of my faith tradition! Now let us pray.” –liberal theist

          4. Obvious example: The scripture makes the famous “eye for an eye” statement. Jewish law NEVER accepted that literally. (The Talmud interprets it mean monetary compensation.)

            And here I thought monetary compensation was just offered as a reasonable alternative to some instances of “eye for and eye”.

          5. The problem, Yoni, is that so many people do believe in the literal truth of the superstitious nonsense that saturates the Bible.

      2. The thing is, if you can get those views from the same book that you get the supposedly correct humanistic views, what is the point of the book? Why not have something more authoritative that states everything clearly?

        1. Or, why not dispense with authority altogether and embrace the moral relativism you’re already practicing?

      3. All segments? Orthodox rabbis in Israel certainly haven’t condemned them, and there are plenty of lay Jews who support them.

        And how are they an aberration? They are following the morality described in their religious scriptures, exactly as Rabbi Yoffe advocates.

        1. In fact, Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg originally endorsed the book but then (probably after he actually read it), he withdrew his approval, saying that the book included statements that “have no place in human intelligence.” Goldberg is, amongst other things, Chief Justice of the Rabbinical High Court in Jerusalem.

      4. And yet these rabbies are fairly practicing the parts of your relgion you would prefer to just go away. You’re really fail-sauce with your Evolved God-of-the-Gaps arguments.

        I mean, seriously, our societies are far more moral than God. Our rules more humane. And we call this rape and sex slavery:

        So they sent twelve thousand warriors to Jabesh-gilead with orders to kill everyone there, including women and children. “This is what you are to do,” they said. “Completely destroy all the males and every woman who is not a virgin.” Among the residents of Jabesh-gilead they found four hundred young virgins who had never slept with a man, and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh in the land of Canaan.

        The Israelite assembly sent a peace delegation to the little remnant of Benjamin who were living at the rock of Rimmon. Then the men of Benjamin returned to their homes, and the four hundred women of Jabesh-gilead who were spared were given to them as wives. But there were not enough women for all of them. The people felt sorry for Benjamin because the LORD had left this gap in the tribes of Israel. So the Israelite leaders asked, “How can we find wives for the few who remain, since all the women of the tribe of Benjamin are dead? There must be heirs for the survivors so that an entire tribe of Israel will not be lost forever. But we cannot give them our own daughters in marriage because we have sworn with a solemn oath that anyone who does this will fall under God’s curse.”

        Then they thought of the annual festival of the LORD held in Shiloh, between Lebonah and Bethel, along the east side of the road that goes from Bethel to Shechem. They told the men of Benjamin who still needed wives, “Go and hide in the vineyards. When the women of Shiloh come out for their dances, rush out from the vineyards, and each of you can take one of them home to be your wife! And when their fathers and brothers come to us in protest, we will tell them, ‘Please be understanding. Let them have your daughters, for we didn’t find enough wives for them when we destroyed Jabesh-gilead. And you are not guilty of breaking the vow since you did not give your daughters in marriage to them.'” So the men of Benjamin did as they were told. They kidnapped the women who took part in the celebration and carried them off to the land of their own inheritance. Then they rebuilt their towns and lived in them. So the assembly of Israel departed by tribes and families, and they returned to their own homes.

  6. So the rabbi outsources his ‘sense of morality’ to an external text. I guess he is unaware or dismissive of the idea that what you get from reading books depends very much on your existing values and prejudices?

    For a fictional take on outsourcing decisions see the cult classic ‘The Dice Man’. How is this any different from the rabbi using a two thousand year old set of stories, poems, and temple rules?

    Improve your Golf Swing by using the Telephone Directory? Love by Logarithms? How Thomas the Tank Engine saved my life? Whatever next?

  7. If people say they get their morality from religion and not necessarily the Bible, then could they rightfully justify updating their moral beliefs (such as no longer accepting stoning, slavery, etc.) through religion by agreeing with writings by later theist philosophers like Aquinas, Descartes, etc.?

    1. Ah, but he has a sophistimacated way of studying the sacred texts you see. Without the sophistry the so-called moral codes of the sacred texts are indeed simplistic. You gotta have sophistica-shun.

  8. Good points, Jerry. It needs to be said that there are no actual biblical literalists in the world today. And that is only partially because the bible can be self-contradictory. Slavery, genocide, and murdering rape victims or Sabbath breakers are all considered morally repugnant today. Also, how many Christians do you know that follow Jesus’s very clear command in Matthew 19:21-29 that says “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me…Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God…And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.”? I don’t really know any. I think most people would find it quite immoral to forsake your wife and children to go on a religious quest.

    Moral progress keeps moving forward, but it doesn’t have anything to with additional divine revelation.

  9. You’re all operating under a typical straw man argument based mostly on ignorance of how Jewish law works.

    The “scripture” as you call it provides the framework. Whether “divine” or not, this is the core document. The “oral law”, mishna and talmud provide a structure for applying the teachings of the core document to various time and places. Is it perfect? No. Wasn’t meant to be. The Talmud is rife with disputes over how to apply the law that, by definition, proves there isn’t one single truth. And, yes, much of the application IS left to man’s logic and morality. (You see we’re not so far apart.)

    There’s a famous story in the Talmud that goes something like this. A group of Rabbis were discussing a particular law. The majority ruled one way and one of them ruled another. The lone Rabbi kept performing “miracles” to prove that he was right. Finally, a “heavenly voice” booms out saying that he’s right. The other Rabbis, seemingly nonplussed by this “divine” intervention, say that’s all well and good but the law still follows our majority and they make the famous statement, “The Torah is not in heaven” anymore.

    There was a great thinking born in the latter half of the 19th century name Abraham Kook. He wrote extensively about what he called man’s “natural morality”. He also, by the way, had no problem a new fangled theory called “evolution”. 🙂

    1. Again, you’re supporting Coyne’s point by emphasizing selective enforcement of law and cultural mutability of morality.

      If you want to construct a modern morality, why would you start building on a rotten base?

      1. And give that base the most sacred place in your writings. I’d have no problem if Jews just abandoned the Torah and lived off the subsidiary writings (and a lot of Jews do that anyway). But as long as you hold the Torah as the most high, there will always be people that want to strip of the years and go back to the source. Christians do it, Muslims do it, Jews do it. And there’s no way to really prevent it, because theology isn’t based on evidence, just consensus and authority.

          1. I dunno… what are the Jewish writings that get rid of all the death penalty offenses from the Torah?

            1. Talmud, I suspect. They don’t get rid of it, but as I understand it, the conditions set up in order for a court to impose a death sentence were so stringent that “a Sanhedrin that imposed the death penalty once in 70 years was called destructive.” The problem is that I don’t know of anybody who seriously studies Talmud apart from committed Jews (and perhaps a few critical scholars).

              1. And I presume that there are even further interpretations of the Talmud too. It just seems like the less mythical and more contemporary they are, the less authoritative they become, and the number of them increases too. I’d imagine quite a few Rabbis have written quite a few books, but you don’t see anyone adding them on to the OT. Maybe that should change.

        1. But there’s nothing to stop you from scrapping the old foundation and forming a new one. Or is there? Your reply doesn’t really answer Naked Bunny’s question.

        2. Oops, it was the page script that messed up my browser. Still yelling though.

          Well, evolution is “natural morality” sure, but now you have to explain why it was temporarily replaced with religious morals and why you want it back.

          And why the religious base was not rotten et cetera. You seem to be relating an (incoherent) story instead of answering Coyne’s questions.

    2. Read what Yoffe says. He specifically says that this morality comes from God and that scriptures and oral traditions are, somehow, useful in finding out what God wants.

      1. Absent scripture and tradition, do you think societies built from scratch would not be able to figure out the same morality we have now?

      2. So if I wear a leather belt with cotton jeans and a linen shirt I should be put to death? Because I have mixed fibers and that is an abomination unto the lord and I should be put to death…

        And don’t even get me started on shrimp…

    3. Sorry no. You’re the one with the reading comprehension problem.

      Rabbi: I get my morals from reading the Torah.

      Jerry: That’s crazy! The Torah advocates slavery, genocide, bigotry of all stripes, and makes the most minor offenses (eg, gathering sticks on the wrong day) a capital offense.

      You: That’s CRAZY! That’s not what MODERN Judaism does!!

      Me: See the rabbi’s comments. If MODERN Judaism does not get its moral code from the Torah, then the rabbi is WRONG. Where-ever he gets his morality from, it’s most certainly NOT the Torah. Thankfully, because that Yahweh fellow is something of an egomaniacal homicidal misogynistic prick.

    4. “You’re all operating under a typical straw man argument based mostly on ignorance of how Jewish law works.”

      No, watching Jewish law in action is watching hypocrisy in action. Claiming to have been given commands from God, then having to do double-backflips in order to render that law palatable to our socially evolving sense of morality?

      It’s an intellectually dishonest enterprise.

    5. “The Torah is not in heaven” anymore.

      Such arrogance!

      These are men declaring — based upon no evidence whatsoever — there to be an Ultimate Intelligence in the universe, an entity that knows all and is the ultimate font of wisdom.

      And then they further declare themselves to be superior to their unsurpassable fantasy!

      Even “chutzpah” doesn’t come close.



        1. I think this is in fact the real point of the story. It’s the inconvenient truth that much of liberal religion dances around.

    6. No, you’re confused. The Rabbi made a point — morality comes from God. The only ‘words from God’ consist of the relgious texts of the bible. In the Rabbi’s case, it’s the Tanakh, which we tend to call The Hebrew Bible or the “Old Testament.”

      In any case, no matter how much you try to defend the indefensible and cast doubt on the observation that religious based morality is barbaric, the fact remains.

      Abrahamic morality, as given by God himself, is completely fucking barbaric. We have out-grown it.

    7. Yoni, I think you are one the here is isn’t getting it. The fact that people cannot, and don’t, follow the basic principles and laws that are attributed to God in the bible, for example the death sentences and justification of genocide for violating the first seven of the ten commandments, is a major problem for people who argue that religion is the basis of morality. If Jews deal with this problem by ignoring the group genocide and individual death penalties according the instructions from various dead rabbis who recognized that God as depicted in the bible was wrong than that is certainly good for the day to day morality of Jews but its still very bad for any rabbi’s current argument that god belief is a solid foundation for morality.

  10. Oi vey! That basis of morality causes enough trouble in Israel and the neighboring areas. I guess some folks interpret the bible’s moral code differently from Rabbi Yoffie. I wonder what the Rabbi would have to say about that?

    1. No question that there is a strong strain of religious fundamentalism, on both sides, preventing a peaceful solution here. (Yes I live in Israel.) But realize that the core Israeli societal structure, based on Jewish values, is for more progressive than many Western countries.

      1. “But realize that the core Israeli societal structure, based on Jewish values, is for more progressive than many Western countries.”


      2. Really? What Jewish values would those be?

        Democracy? That’s a Greek value. The ancient Jews had kingdoms … some earned through inheritance but many through warfare (might makes right).

        I don’t see any Jewish concept of elected officials, universal human rights (including suffrage and women’s rights), or any other modern secular notions of governance and civilization in your religious texts.

        Sorry, but you’re co-opting thousands-years-old pagan concepts as well as more modern Enlightenment ideas and calling them Jewish. It’s no more correct for you to do so than for fundamentalist Christians in the US to declare that our country was founded as a Christian nation (it wasn’t).

        The Jewish religion is a dangerous anachronism. It deliberately sets its adherent apart from everyone else by declaring them to be the chosen people of god. What arrogant egotistical nonsense.

      3. It’s progressive to keep 4 million people in a state of abject poverty? It’s progressive to have a state founded explicitly for one religious group?

        1. It depends on what one means by “progressive”. I assume that the person who first used it in this thread meant it to mean at the very least modern, advanced technologically and socially, and Israel certainly is this. Moreover, the fact that it’s a Jewish state would have no relevance to THIS meaning of “progressive”, but perhaps you mean something else.

          As to the 4 million people living in abject poverty, if you’re trying to apportion blame, look at Israel’s friendly, peace-loving neighbours for the explanation.

  11. As others have said here, there are doubtless good and lasting moral teachings in some of the ancient religious texts (I would cite Pirkei Avot as a fine example), but they often sit side by side with other teachings that are now morally repugnant to us.

  12. People are always dissing moral relativists. Wikipedia tells me that there are different kinds – and from what I can tell, most of the people here would be the “meta-ethical” kind.

    So what’s so bad about being a moral relativist? Does the phrase as it as commonly used refer to only a specific type of moral relativist? I am honestly confused.

    1. I think the majority here are objective, not subjective. Subjective morality is like subjective biology — another god of the gaps, really. A crutch for the ignorant, who think null is scary.

  13. Yoffi wrote: “And in the moral world in which I live, infanticide and wife burning are always, always wrong.”
    Awesome, so do a Jefferson and take out “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” — Psalm 137:9

    Oh I know, no one does this anymore, but in the OT’s “Moral World” that the writers lived in it wasn’t wrong, god clearly gave the thumbs up. So either god’s moral world changes, or the writers had no idea of what god really deemed acceptable. And if the writers can’t get that right, how do you know that any of their claims, including god exists, are valid?

    1. So either god’s moral world changes, or the writers had no idea of what god really deemed acceptable.

      Or maybe god’s just fuckin with us 😀

  14. Yoffi also wrote: “there is a moral structure to the universe…”
    So, what’s the morality of gamma ray bursts, of colliding galaxies, of deadly pulsars, of black holes that consume their own galaxy?

    1. Or what is the morality in the loneliness of the universe, where the surface of ~ 10^-40 of the volume is made for “man”?

      Also evolution. Leads straight into the religious problem of evil.

    2. Speaking of the dubious moral of bad design, I have never seen IDers or other apologists explain why life use a select set of elements, and most of them sparingly at that.

      Generous and resourceful gods would have used “soulinite” for all of it. (And all of it would be life.)

      1. Yes, and in fact, this is the answer to the Creationist’s “imponderable” question of how did life begin.

        Chemistry. We’ve known since the 1800s that organic chemistry is indistinguishable from inorganic chemistry. The same forces act in the same ways for both.

        That we don’t have the exact recipe is of little consequence — though the theists try their darnedest to shove god into that gap. When “the” or “a” recipe is discovered, it will be nothing more than a chemical reaction.

        That’s life.

        A god would have definitely done it differently.

  15. I think you can look to religion for a certain amount of moral guidance, but as has been ably pointed out, there’s a lot of stuff has to be rejected. In order to test this, perhaps a good way would be to ask what are the most fundamental beliefs of the major religions. Are they moral teachings or something else? If they are moral teachings, are they both reasonable and usable, and if so, what follows.

    I don’t happen to know the answer for Christianity or Islam. In the case of Judaism, however, I am reminded of the story of Rabbi Hillel (ca. 110 BCE to 10 CE) who was, according to Talmud, confronted by a heathen and asked to summarize Torah while he (the heathen) stood on one leg, a rather strange request. Hillel took it in his stride, and said, “Do not do unto others that which is hateful to you. This is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary (explanation).” Such a view may well not have originated with Judaism (as Christopher Hitchens has pointed out), but I think it’s a good start.

  16. I haven’t read Churchland’s book either, but I suspect that like most theists Yoffie is guilty of ascribing his own flawed thinking to others: greedy reductionism. If the fundamental basis of human morality is empathy and the foundation of empathy is peptide oxytocin, then there is no morality after all. We’re “just” a lot of chemicals in motion. Right and wrong don’t “really” exist. They’ve been reduced into nothingness, because the basic level is the one that counts the most.

    This is what happens when top-down thinking meets bottom-up explanations. You lose the ability to think in levels of explanation which exist on the same plane, but talk about different aspects. Instead, the religious way of looking at the world sees ascending hierarchies of increasing importance becoming more and more abstract or spiritual, and less and less physical and worldly. Ethical reasoning, like Good and Evil, is supposed to exist on a higher plane of reality than chemistry, which must be separated from it lest it be subsumed. Bringing it all together as one explanation, as Churchland was probably attempting to do, would then seem like making excuses for harmful choices, or eliminating the concept of good and evil.

    Forget religion. For moral guidance, look to ethics. To understand why we use ethics, where they came from, and how we got to be ethical animals, look (at least in part) to neurology. The religious narratives can only exist then as props which we exercise our moral reasoning on. They can’t be moral guides unless they are chosen as moral guides because we evaluated them using standards we had before we approached them in the first place.

    The rabbi has an impossible task. In order to convince the neutral observer — the atheist — that sacred scripture contains good advice and rules, he has to appeal to moral senses which don’t depend on accepting the authority of sacred scripture. This pretty much means that we could safely jettison the sacred scripture and lose nothing but what at best might be a useful illustration and at worst a grim warning. It could tell us nothing new.

    1. As if the fact that a painting by Picasso is “just” pigmented oils on a piece of canvas, and our observation of it consists of “just” reflected light reaching the rods and cones of our eyes makes the painting any less beautiful to us.

      1. Or the talent and skill of the artist any less talented and skilful, and the significance of the artist’s message (for Picasso, think “Guernica”) any less significant.

  17. It is called “God a la Carte”, you take the bits you like and toss away the rest as metaphors…

    I assumed Jewish people did this, I just think it is more commonly practiced by Christians.

  18. In order to convince the neutral observer — the atheist

    Ah, but we’re not neutral. We hate YHWH and thus are agents of evil — a bunch of decepticons Hell-bent on perverting the righteous on the path to the ultimate glory of Truth, Justice, vital bodily fluids, apple pi —

    Erm, sorry ’bout that. No, it’s okay. No need to send the black heckilopters. I’ll be fine, thanks — just as soon as I finish basting the babies for tomorrow’s barbecue.



      1. It was the questions I had in the run up to Campings apocalypse fizzle. If Superman would stop Lex Luthor from destroying the world, why wouldn’t he fight Jesus for trying to do the same?

        1. Interesting idea, since the DC universe is based on the idea that Christian theology is true (thus you never see “Yahweh”, even though you meet other gods, and you have the Christian-style heaven/hell bit.

          It would be fun to see a Revelations-style comic, where the heroes and villains try to stop it. Then they can show Superman tortured in hell forever for defying the big Juju.

  19. Semantics Break!

    I don’t use the terms Old and New Testament anymore. They privilege xianity.

    I use WCARTATOT: What Christians Arrogantly Refer To As The Old Testament.

    And I use xian bible to refer to the part that starts with Matthew. (Not accurate, I know. Oh, well.)

    1. Seriously, a Jewish friend (but not, I hasten to add, One Of My Best Friends – which seems churlish to say, because he’s quite a good friend) tells me the polite terms are ‘the Hebrew Scriptures (“Old Testament”)’ and ‘the Greek Scriptures (“New Testament”)’.

      But now it is fair to ask, what makes a text “sacred”? Is it enough to be old? Enough to be on a religious topic? Clearly not. What makes a text sacred seems to be that it is old, on a religious topic and deemed “sacred” by the authorities in my church. (Thus if I am a Mormon, the Book of Mormon is a sacred text; if a Christian Scientist, “Science and Health, with Keynotes to the Scriptures”; etc.) Which seems a peculiar criterion on which to claim any kind of objectivity.

  20. “The complaint that a scientific approach to understanding morality commits the sin of scientism does really exaggerate what science is up to, since the scientific enterprise does not aim to displace the arts or the humanities. Shakespeare and Mozart and Caravaggio are not in competition with protein kinases and micro RNA. On the other hand, it is true that philosophical claims about the nature of things, such as moral intuition, are vulnerable. Here, philosophy and science are working the same ground, and evidence should trump armchair reflection. In the present case, the claim is not that science will wade in and tell us for every dilemma what is right or wrong. Rather, the point is that a deeper understanding of what it is that makes humans and other animals social, and what it is that disposes us to care about others, may lead to greater understanding of how to cope with social problems. That cannot be a bad thing.”
    (p. 4)

    “Morality seems to me to be a natural phenomenon—constrained by the forces of natural selection, rooted in neurobiology, shaped by the local ecology, and modified by cultural developments.”
    (p. 191)

    (Churchland, Patricia S. Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.)

  21. “I think you can look to religion for a certain amount of moral guidance, but as has been ably pointed out, there’s a lot of stuff has to be rejected.”

    But if you’re looking to sacred texts for moral guidance, how do you know what to reject as immoral? If you already know what’s moral and what’s immoral, what are looking in the sacred text for?

  22. A priest, a preacher and a Rabbi walked into their favorite bar, where they would get together two or three times a week for drinks and to talk shop.

    On this particular afternoon, someone made the comment that preaching to people isn’t real…ly all that hard. A real challenge would be to preach to a bear.

    One thing led to another and they decided to do an experiment. They would all go out into the woods, find a bear, preach to it, and attempt to convert it.

    Seven days later, they’re all together to discuss the experience.

    Father Flannery, who has his arm in a sling, is on crutches, and has various bandages, goes first.
    “Well,” he says, “I went into the woods to find me a bear. And when I found him I began to read to him from the Catechism. Well, that bear wanted nothing to do with me and began to slap me around. So I quickly grabbed my holy water, sprinkled him and, Holy Mary Mother of God, he became as gentle a lamb. The bishop is coming out next week to give him first communion and confirmation.”

    Reverend Billy Bob spoke next. He was in a wheelchair, with an arm and both legs in casts, and an IV drip. In his best fire and brimstone oratory he claimed, ” WELL brothers, you KNOW that we don’t sprinkle! I went out and I FOUND me a bear. And then I began to read to my bear from God’s HOLY WORD! But that bear wanted nothing to do with me. So I took HOLD of him and we began to wrestle. We wrestled down one hill, UP another and DOWN another until we came to a creek. So I quick DUNKED him and BAPTIZED his hairy soul. And just like you said, he became as gentle as a lamb. We spent the rest of the day praising Jesus.”

    They both looked down at the rabbi, who was lying in a hospital bed. He was in a body cast and traction with IV’s and monitors running in and out of him. He was in bad shape.

    The rabbi looks up and says, “Looking back on it, circumcision may not have been the best way to start.”

    1. Eliahu Ungar-Sargon, who made the documentary “Cut: slicing through the myths of circumcision” debates the ethics of infant circumcision with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of “Kosher Sex” here. The rabbi’s main tactic is “Let’s talk about something else.”

  23. I’ve often thought this sort of reasoning is odd. The liberal believer says “If the holy book says it and it makes sense to us, then it is truth; if the holy book says it and it doesn’t make sense to us, then it is not truth.” But “the holy book says it” isn’t actually doing any work here.

  24. ” … the great religious traditions largely agree on what our moral foundations are … ”

    ” … in the moral world in which I live, infanticide and wife burning are always, always wrong … ”

    Both these contradict each other. Infanticide not only exists in the bible but is encouraged, no, demanded by God in the bible.

    Also, wife burning is an accepted practice (perhaps less so now in this secular world) by some hindhu traditions, where the wife jumps on the cremation fire of her deceased husband.

Leave a Reply