Once again, USA Today has kindly given me a big megaphone to spout my heathen ideas: a piece on secular morality called “As atheists know, you can be good without God,” The piece is an outgrowth of ideas I’ve expressed on this website, asserting (as I’ve done in my arguments with Rabbi Yoffie) that human morality has no basis at all in divine will, but rather stems from both evolution and rational contemplation.
The accompanying graphic is cute:
Oh, and the comments (I predict there will be many) are already hilarious. The piece is fairly calm and reasoned, without stridency, and yet the howling mob of Christians is descending. Here’s a good one:
173 thoughts on “My USA Today op-ed on morality”
To be kind is humane, not divine 🙂
You really, really have to be careful of those White Knight d00dz.
If things get too hairy, JAC can come to England! Matthew will put him up!
That’s an excellent introductory essay. Nothing surprising, revolutionary, or controversial; everything is simple, clear, and obvious. And yet, sadly, it all needs be said, and you said it in a way that can only be willfully misunderstood.
Sorry if I am stating the obvious but this is just my layman’s guess.
Some quirky trait in the brain which makes us want to help others at the risk of our own life surely is beneficial if combined with someone that has good DNA stock and is thus big and strong?
Putting your own life at risk to save a child is attractive because
1: It shows that you are so strong that you weren’t really risking your own life.
2: If you will save a stranger then you are more likely to save your own offspring.
The animals with this quirk that were too weak died, the animals with this quirk that were strong enough to survive would probably have impressed the ladies and been quite successful in the making-babies department.
Again, please consider my ignorance on the subject if you submit a kind reply to this post 🙂
It’s not about “being atractive”. The trait of helping others is beneficial by itself because gropus that cooperate have better chances of survival than lone individuals. Check the Battle at Kruger clip:
Notice how the whole herd cooperates to rescue the calf.
Man! That was some exciting video.
Oh no, group selection!
herd behavior and calf protection is still explained by individual selection just fine.
Amazing video, thanks for posting it. Never seen anything like it.
Large numbers of theists would say that it does become OK.
==Because if God commanded us to do something obviously immoral, such as kill our children or steal, it wouldn’t automatically become OK. ===
Dang it. Repost. Large numbers of theists would say that it does become OK.
How often do they defend the genocidal mass child rape of Numbers 31?
I really, truly cannot understand how they fail to be horrified by the words that they issue.
It’s like Milgram with turbine-powered hydraulic assists.
Yes, Numbers 31 is simply shocking. It is difficult to conceive how ordinary human beings can read this without feeling revulsion and disgust. Maybe this callousness is caused by some damage sustained during early youth? It looks like a stunted sense of empathy, which might be caused by the repetitive bible readings so many children are submitted to from a very young age?
Where in Numbers 31 do you find mass rape? That claim is a trope of yours. Numbers 31 is gruesome and inexcusable. But where’s the mass rape to which you like to refer?
We were seriously taught that Abraham’s willingness to kill Isaac (Gen 22) was a good thing, and an example for us to follow. Somehow God’s making it “just a test” makes it all OK.
If only “lol jk” were admissible in court 🙁
So, the question is:
If the Abrahamic god were real and he commanded you to slaughter children in order to get into heaven, would you do it? Would you refuse even if it meant an eternity in hell?
Is that some kind of random ejaculation, or did you have a point ?
It’s a question.
Well clearly, but in reference to what ? As it stands it makes no sense. It is an incomplete question.
Certainly, Egbert. What flavor would you like?
Nice piece. I can’t see how it’s contentious at all. You even left the door open for the existence of god. Yet those wonderful Jesufied xians are downright hostile about it. Logic and facts seem to be eluding many of them.
And, of course we can all be good without god, since he/she/it doesn’t exist.
When referring to gods, I often prefer the formulation, “s/h/it.” It’s both more compact and evocative.
You always have a way with words, Ben.
“s/h/it” covers any god very well.
I’ve always preferred he or she or it, abbreviated h’orsh’it.
It is easy to show how “holy” books like the bible is a mash up of good and appalling morality.
It is not easy to make the followers of those books realize this.
On behalf of all species, I object to, for instance the christian’s belief that humans are “special” because their god made them special, and everything else is “beasts” or something similar.
Altruism is not a “human only” feature. If only religious people’s arrogance weren’t so huge.
Every living being has a desire to keep on living as long as they don’t realize they are dying. This opens my eyes for altruism in many ways. To let a bug out of the house rather than kill it. To put a tortoise on safer grounds than the road.
Of course, there are many examples of other species than humans showing altruism.
The christians believe everything is created by their god for them to harvest or utilize as they desire. This very often leads to the opposite of altruism.
You should keep all the comments you get on the piece. Could fill up a very entertaining book one day.
That graphic is adorable!
…though I wish there were a way to make all such graphics look more…unisexual…
As it is, they’re always so male, even with the forward front leg carefully concealing genitalia…
If I had drawn the image, I would have depicted the person doing the lifting at the end as noticeably female.
So it’s the atheists who are “in your face?” More destructive and just plain nasty things have been done in the name of God than by atheists. Admitting to being an atheist in America is dangerous – certainly no one could be elected to public office who admitted it.
Excellent article. Hopefully it will cause those outside the atheist blogosphere bubble to think.
The comments? Yikes. Seems most either didn’t read the article or they can’t see beyond their myopic world view. Or both.
Unknown to the Fed Ex delivery man, those boxes contained copies of WEIT.
With my luck, they would have been pamphlets for mass mailing by the Age of Autism loons.
Unlike our theological friends who feel that morality is only comprehensible after you have mastered the fine are of apologetics, you have demonstrated that it simply requires common sense.
…which, apparently, is a misnomer…
Your argument might be better based in a conversation of nature verses nurture. Pulling the ‘God-card’ into the debate only gives this a more volatile perspective. Religion is merely part of the nurture. If morality is hard-wired into the human being then it could also be argued that the lack of morality is hard-wired. The leaps from that viewpoint aren’t nearly as sensational nor desirable. Certainly people can be good without God, they can also be bad with God. Ultimately, freewill plays into the decisions we make. And perhaps that is a little of both nature and nurture.
Tho arguably evolutionarily defensible. Consider the possibility that, under most environmental conditions, altruism is adaptive for certain social animals; but under certain rare but predictable conditions, selfishness is more so. In that case, the genes for the latter would tend to persist in a population at a frequency related to their occasional beneficialness.
Ah yes, all of those atheistic “perversions”.
Like mowing the lawn, paying taxes, going to work, raising a family.
How DARE we?
I wonder when Jerry will be accused of sapping and impurifying our precious bodily fluids?
Since Jerry’s article is about atheists being moral, I guess The Bard is saying that being moral is an atheist perversion.
That may closer to the truth than you think.
Hello everyone, I am a very strong Christian who was reading the paper with my coffee this morning and came across this article. First of all I want to express the fact that I am not a hostile irrational fanatic who will argue anything no matter what. I just want to point out a thing or two. One thing I want bring to light is a little history. Do some research on the town of Liberal, Missouri in the late 1800’s. The town was founded by an atheistic lawyer to be a free thinking utopia separated from any kind of religious bias. A journalist from a town nearby went to Liberal and recorded lots of things he saw and it ran in the newspaper the next week. The town was full of atrocities such as fetocide, prostitution, drunkenness, slander. I am not arguing that you cannot be an atheist and do good deeds, I have a good friend who tells me repeatedly he doesn’t want anything to do with religion, and he is one of the kindest people I know, would do a good deed for anyone. All I’m saying is what happens when all fear of any kind of long term retribution ceases to exist? Why not kill, rape, steal, etc? Sure it may seem to not be moral but why be moral if there’s no consequences for your actions? This is why the town failed and the founder ended up converting to Chirstianity before his death. Atheists could possibly have as strong if not a stronger sense of what is moral, but the ultimate question is if you don’t believ in a loving, almighty God, why be moral? There’s no reward for good deeds or punishment for bad ones. Just a few thoughts. I hope I didn’t come across hostile, I just wanted to bring to light the town of Liberal Missouri and the lessons it taught.
Well, I was going to rob a bank this morning, but then I remembered about this “jail” place I keep hearing about. I know it’s probably just a myth, but I decided not to do it anyway, just in case.
I was all set to punch my friend in the face, but then I realized if I did he wouldn’t be my friend anymore, plus he’d probably punch me back. Maybe it’s better for everyone if I don’t commit random acts of violence.
Oh, good lord.
Really? The only thing keeping you from going on a murderous rape rampage is fear of the boogeyman? Then, by all means, please don’t stop believing in the monsters under your bed. But, better yet, please check yourself into the nearest mental health institution before you lose your faith and do something horrid.
Because the fact of the matter is that the rest of us have no desire whatsoever to murder, rape, and pillage, and even less desire to live in a society in which murder, rape, and pillaging is the norm. That this should be so should be trivial to understand: such societies rip themselves to shreds in very short order, whereas sane societies with citizens devoted to construction rather than destruction thrive and prosper.
In the mean time, if you think you can do so without danger of giving in to your psychopathic urges, you might consider why you think it’s a good idea to build your life around patently obvious faery tales rather than simply grow up.
Society is just fine, as shown by, for example, large parts of Europe and Scandinavia, where fear of retribution from God has largely died out.
There are lots of consequences, in how you would feel about yourself and how other people would feel and act towards you.
Because we prefer being that way and living in societies that are moral. Don’t you?
Would you *really* prefer to live in vice, but don’t do so only for fear of your Sky Daddy’s big stick?
Here’s something for you to think about. Why are violence and murder rates usually much lower in societies where belief in God is least? Why is the USA both exceptionally religious by first-world standards and exceptionally violent? See http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html
Interesting ~ thank you. At Ziztur.com (Finding joy in being wrong) the delightful “Ziztur” tells a different story & has done a bit more research than you.
Here is a little extract:
There’s plenty more ~ I suggest that you follow your own advice & do some further r e s e a r c h
Even if your characterisation of Liberal Missouri is true, what then would be your argument? That you found atheists who did immoral things and therefore atheism leads to immorality?
Then you’d have to accept that when I point to all sorts of instances of God-believers being immoral (e.g. Crusades, current Church child-abuse, and countless other examples) that God-Belief leads to immorality.
Except that there are many instances of God-Believers who do good, right? Same with atheists, as you acknowledge (in fact, many countries that are essentially filled with secular people are currently rated as among the best places to live in terms of societal health etc).
So, you seem to have no ground to stand on with your reference to Liberal Missouri.
But then you also ask: “if you don’t believe in a loving, almighty God, why be moral? ”
Well, contemplate what you mean when you use the words “loving” and “moral.” And hence what would you mean when you use the term “good?”
You seem to have ignored that Jerry made this very point in his USA Today op-ed.
What does being “loving” and “good” entail?
Can anything at all be indicative of “loving” and “goodness?” For instance, enjoying torturing babies for fun, or any number of other atrocities? Presumably you will say “no.” Well, then it seems you have some concept of “What one must do in order to be loving/good.” And if that’s the case, if you are going to call God “Loving” or “Good” then HE must abide by those rules as well, otherwise who knows what you are talking about when you call God “loving” or “good”?
Given those principles must be in place for God to be good, it doesn’t make sense to presume “you can’t be good without God” because it’s the reverse: God couldn’t be good without a moral standard by which He’d be judged as “good.”
Now, where do such moral standards come from? Jerry indicated some possibilities.
But first presuming that a God would even solve the problem is, itself, an unjustified assumption.
I can remember the day I learned that it was wrong to steal. I was 4 years old, and I had innocently brought home a toy watch from my day care. My mother told me calmly and with great love that it was wrong to steal. I understood it immediately. For similar reasons, I just feel that it’s wrong for me to act in an immoral fashion. As far as divine retribution is concerned, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”
Everyone else has made great replies to this already, but there’s something I wanted to say about this. Considering how often we’re told that “God is love” it seems to me an awful lot of religious believers have no idea what love actually entails.
“Friend,” do you have anyone that you love? Anyone that loves you? And if you started stealing, killing, or otherwise being immoral, do you think those people would notice the change? Do you think they’d approve?
We’re moral because our actions are woven into the fabric of a society that in turn validates certain actions and discourages other ones, and each person learns as s/he goes. And each person learns moral behavior from the ones s/he cares for the most. Have you ever inadvertently offended or hurt a friend or family member and felt intensely guilty about it when you were told what was wrong? I’d guess yes, in which case morality CAN be learned even without any reference to God. It’s learned in bits and pieces throughout life as we each learn how we need to regulate our behaviors to preserve the ties of love and friendship on which we’re dependent for happiness and fulfillment.
We’re moral because human beings, when they treat each other well, make each other better. Humans working against each other achieve less than the sum of the total. Humans working together achieve more.
I would just say that doing good things because you are frightened into doing them isn’t being moral. Isn’t being moral doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do?
And I would further extend that.
Not doing bad things only because you’re watched is also not moral. Hell, it’s practically the definition of psychopathy.
I used to play sports at a fairly high level. If I had a nickel for every time I was told “Discipline is what you do when no one is looking” I would be sailing a yacht around the Hawai’ian Islands. I think morality is something similar… Doing what ought to be done regardless of consequences. Under a theistic system, everyone is always watched and the best reason to do anything is so as to not be banished to an eternal time-out. How is that morality? That’s just following the arbitrary rules of a cosmic dictator.
“A journalist from a town nearby went to Liberal and recorded lots of things he saw and it ran in the newspaper the next week.”
A s we skeptics so often has to say, plural of anecdote is not data.
Besides, Coyne has already answered that specific point: Sweden, Denmark.
Let me instead relate data as I remember them:
In US prisons ~ 0.1 % of prisoners are non-religious. But US population has ~ 15 % non-religious. That is a 2 order of magnitude difference!
Do you see why we are skeptic against proposals that atheists are somehow _less_ moral? Everything we actually know about secularism – its ideas of democracy, human freedoms, human rights, the statistics of secular societies – points to that it is a much better moral and societal system.
So I have a question for you, Friend. I am asking you personally. Is the only reason that you do not kill, steal and rape that you are afraid of being punished? That seems to be implied by what you say.
I suspect that your answer is actually no. I am willing to bet that you are a good person and would not do those things, even if you thought that you could get away with them. But if so, then you just answered your own question.
By the way “Friend”, it would be helpful if you could post some actual evidence that the rate of crime and/or vice in Liberal, Missouri was higher than in comparable towns.
Mere claims of such by proselytizing preachers will be treated as self-interested and dubious unless backed by hard data.
You have a dim view of humanity if you think the only reason to do anything good is to get an eternal reward/punishment after death. I wouldn’t speak for other atheists, but this life is the only one I and my fellow humans can reasonably expect to have. Anything I do to make it worse is squandering my/someone else’s life and happiness, which is a terrible thing to waste. Just because something lacks eternal, cosmic significance does not make it insignificant.
Ah, more lies told for Jesus no doubt. Why don’t you spend some time doing *real* research about this claim regarding ‘Liberal, Missouri’? Where are the public records to support your claims? What, none? You just heard that someone heard? Or did someone write up a lie, post it on the internet, and you believed it without bothering to check facts because the claims all match up with what you believe godless folks would be like?
“Hello Friend” (sounding like Julie Walters in “Educating Rita”)
SO if your god thingy exists,
and 2 equally moral individuals turn up at said gates of pearl,
one who has been “moral” because they expect a “reward”(heaven and all that)
and the other who has been moral because it is “the right thing to do”
Then the truly moral god would judge the latter superior!
SO I can improve my “chances” of heaven by being good and NOT believing in heaven.
Talk about WIN/WIN
As a counterexample to 19th century “Liberal, MO”, I sometimes visit parts of very religious 21st century Africa on business. In some areas, such as southern Nigeria, I have to travel with armed guards to avoid being kidnapped. It’s actually necessary for me to hire guys with machine guns to accompany me everywhere to keep from getting kidnapped or even killed.
Somehow the large number of churches, evangelists, and religious people there has not helped deter the high levels of crime.
In contrast, I walk the streets of secular cities in Europe, where very few people hold to any religion, at all hours with no problem whatsoever.
If there’s a pattern here, I’d say that religion is hurting morality.
In addition to the superb responses above, I would add that I don’t consider “atrocities such as fetocide, prostitution, drunkenness, slander” anywhere near the order of magnitude of the moral lapses you conflate with them in your question, “Why not kill, rape, steal, etc?”
And yes, if it’s not already clear, I don’t equate “fetocide” with murder.
The problem being that the mentioned ‘atrocities’ (such as ‘feticide’) are largely pulled out of his ass. There’s this lying preacher who’s often quoted as saying all sorts of nasty things about Liberal Mo., but the funny thing is that of the many dozens of other contemporary preachers who infested Liberal, none wrote the same words and the solitary lying preacher that did write offered no evidence whatsoever for his claims – not even numbers. Now ain’t it strange how only one self-professed man of god ever noticed all that evil around him.
He was also a criminal. An embezzler. Not a man of honest opinion or conduct.
And, as you pointed out, the ONLY ONE to write these things.
Ah, even better. So when you can’t quote-mine, why not just ‘source-mine,’ eh?
What a stupid thing to write. You’ve obviously been indoctrinated with a self-serving pack of lies.
The truth is that Walser wanted a place where freethinkers could live to their standards of decency and morality in a quiet, unmolested way, away from missionaries the barrage of religion. Christians were not allowed, and Liberal was advertised as ” the only town of its size in the United States without a priest, preacher, church, saloon, God, Jesus, hell or devil.”
But Christians couldn’t handle that and spent years harrassing the townmen. There was a salacious pamphlet written about Liberal, some of which you passed on. But it was lies and the man who wrote it (a preacher) was later convicted of embezzlement.
Eventually, the freethinkers packed up under the constant harassment by Christians and Liberal turned into just another shit-hole Missouri town, full of saloons, drunkenness and ignorance.
Engaging in moral behaviour is beneficial for all individuals and in some situations can enhance survival and reproductive benefits. Trying being an A-hole at your next social gathering. You certainly won’t be feeling the wrath of some deity
Some of the references to the New Testament the Jerry makes are rather disingenuous. There is plenty to complain about in the writings of the early Christians, but two of the examples chosen are clearly metaphors in context.
The bit about the rich finding it difficult to achieve heaven (actually in the preceding passage about the rich ruler who forsakes charity it is greed that is the barrier) is mollified a moment later as Jesus declares that anything is possible with divine help. We are left to conclude not that heaven is barred to the rich but that it might take divine assistance to overcome our instinctive greed.
In the verses about the beating of slaves, Jesus immediately interprets the metaphor for us. It has nothing to do with whether beating a slave is ethical! To say so is to ignore the clear and obvious message of these verses.
Jesus goes on to say that the meaning of the parable is that guilt for wrongdoing depends in part on the mental capacity and knowledge of the accused. Jesus also applies this very modern ethical principal to the responsiblities we are assigned. Compare the “good samaritan laws” to his decree that “to whom much is given much is required.”
The fact that Jesus chose to use the image of a master beating a slave here is of course offensive to us. It is hard for us to separate the metaphor from the message. He often made parallels though between the unenlightened practises of the current culture and the new ideas he was suggesting. Often he says something like “even you benighted souls have enough sense to do x, why not extend that principle to a better ethic (from God, of course.)” Here it is “even a slavemaster takes mental capacity into account in his selfish way, how much more should it be true when God judges us.”
“the Jerry” should be “that Jerry.” Sorry Dr. Coyne! But I am curious about your choices of examples here.
I have no clue which Bible you’re referring to, because those verses Jerry cited are full of some really nasty shit, nothing whatsoever like the caricature you make of them.
Best I can think of, you’re starting with an a priori assumption that Jesus is a love god and everything he’s quoted as saying must somehow be loving, and then completely re-writing everything to fit that assumption. But the sad fact of the matter is that you can play that game with any monster…and Jesus is about as monstrous as they come.
Don’t believe me? Try it with Mein Kampf. Pretend it’s the Fifth Gospel, and see if you can’t come up with rationalizations every bit as valid as those you’ve made up for the other four Gospels.
I’m referring to where Jerry accuses Jesus of: “barring heaven to the wealthy (Matthew 19:24) and approving the beating of slaves (Luke 12:47-48).”
I think an honest reading of those passages plus a few verses before and after leads to the description I gave.
To sum up: greed is so powerful that God might have to help some of us overcome our hoarding instinct (be sure to read two verses past verse 24); and a corrupt servant is much more culpable than an ignorant one (note that the corrupt servant is accused of both indigence and cruelty.)
I don’t deny that there are places where Jesus’s use of the promise of divine wrath on the oppressor and the unsympathetic hoarder might sound a little old-fashioned to us. However I can also see the value of angry rhetoric when it is well deserved.
Some of the greatest humanitarians the world has seen (Ghandi, King) agree that Jesus was a great ethical teacher. It behooves us to be careful when looking for those flaws in his recorded thought, not to jump to wrong conclusions such as “Jesus approves of beatings.”
You really don’t want to suggest that we look at those passages in context. It gets really nasty, really quick.
First, Matthew 19 opens with an unequivocal condemnation of divorce, one in which the woman is considered barely more than chattel property. Jesus said the same thing on the Sermon on the Mount. Have you any idea how many women have been literally tortured to death because of Jesus’s emphatic anti-divorce position? How many more people have suffered needless personal hells rather than risk the chance of an eternity in Jesus’s hell?
But never mind that. The last three verses of the chapter give the lie to your reinterpretation of it:
There is no possible way to interpret this but that the royalty in Heaven will be drawn exclusively from the piously self-impoverished on Earth. Which is one hell of an immoral concept, considering all it does to destroy the efforts of society to improve its lot.
Now, shall we consider Jesus’s parable about making blood sacrifices of all non-Christians? How ’bout the parts where he condemns to Hell all those who fail to hate their own families? The Sermon on the Mount, where the punishment for the horrible thoughtcrime of thinking lustful thoughts about a woman is a choice between immediately chopping off your hands and gouging out your eyes and eternal damnation? Maybe we should start with how the “Prince of Peace” came not to bring peace but a sword. Or we could just cut to the chase, where the whole purpose of the entire exercise is to make way for Jesus to destroy the world in the original Armageddon, and eternally torture all but a select handful of believers.
1. There’s not enough real evidence to conclude that “Jesus” was a real person. If you think there is (outside the so-called Gospels), you’re invited to present that contemporaneous eyewitness evidence. Even the “gospels” don’t purport to be written by eyewitnesses. Luke 1:1-4.
2. Even within the stories told in the bible, the Jesus character is a mass of contradictions. He reserves his beneficence for Jews only, he beats people with a whip, he allegedly killed a fig tree for the crime of not bearing fruit in season, he allegedly sent demons into pigs which then committed hogicide (some story). The Jesus “meek and mild” that some Christians proclaim is found only in a very few verses — most of which are direct plagiarisms of Rabbi Hillel (“do unto others”, for example). As a moral teacher, he is certainly of the “do as I say, not as I do” school.
3. Have you actually read the so-called “gospels”? Cover-to-cover, full and complete? It’s myth making, pure and simple. Jesus is Hercules with fewer muscles.
4. Where-ever we get our moral codes from, it’s certainly not from teachings attributed to Jesus. Turn the other cheek? Really? That’s moral? If someone sues you, give up and give them more of your property than was asked for? Seriously, give me a solid example of a moral teaching of Jesus that did not exist before his time that is both applicable to today and is acknowledged as a moral good in today’s society. I’d like to know what you think Jesus invented in terms of moral teachings.
1. I think the alleged teachings can be evaluated apart from the historicity, just as we can evaluate the writings of Xenophon or Plato.
2. …and evaluate we must! There is no guarantee that no error resides in these old stories, and that’s the main reason we have to carefully evaluate them. It might be nice to just ignore them and start ethics afresh, but a) too many people take them as their moral guide to let those people be their only interpreters, b) the potential to motivate ethics via ancient teachings is too good to miss.
3-4. Yes, and I don’t think that a good teacher must necessarily be an original inventer. Often these skills are quite separate. It says something that many of the stories and answers Jesus allegedly told and gave still resonate with listeners today.
I’m sorry, but I just don’t see where this notion of Jesus as a great moral and ethical teacher comes from. I literally can’t think of a single example where he had something unquestionably good to say that wasn’t horribly twisted by the surrounding verses. And most of what he teaches is terrible, awful, evil, despicable, and reprehensible. Yes, modern liberal enlightenment values have re-interpreted the Gospels out of all recognition, but so what? As I wrote earlier, you can do the same with Mein Kampf.
I compare this with something simple like the Euthyphro Dilemma, Epicurus’s Riddle, or even Aesop’s Fables — all of which remain unambiguously relevant and current to this day.
We rightfully abandoned Hammurabi ages ago as being unspeakably brutal. So why do we still cling to Hammurabi’s biggest apologist as if he had anything but hate and destruction to spew?
Admittedly, it is hard for me not to read selectively. My bias leads me to read the passages about feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and the stranger, following the example of the good Samaritan, etc. as primary. I suppose it wouldn’t be quite as tempting if I didn’t hold the hope that “followers of Christ” might be convinced to see his teachings the way I do and become devoted to charity rather than “faith” in dogma. So much good could be accomplished in one fell swoop if, as Ghandi put it, Christians would just follow the charitable teachings of their leader.
It would be easy to abandon this hope if not for the countless examples of charitable followers of Jesus, inspired by his teachings of love. I have the privelege of rubbing elbows with some of these saints as they feed hungry children and give out free medical care in our city. (I note that recently we had an awesome collaborative project for the homeless, with the skeptics group from a local university.)
However, it is just as easy to despair of this hope when confronted with just as many examples of so-called followers using dogma as an excuse to persecute and pillage!
So, in other words, you are reading selectively using your own moral compass as a guide? Well, at first blush, it seems that your compass ain’t so bad. But why navigate the rocky shoals of the Bible at all given how narrow the “safe” (read: moral) passages are and common the “obstacles” (read: immoral) are.
The Bible simply doesn’t provide a consistent framework, wantonly mixing the moral and immoral, with an emphasis on the immoral.
Just to show you how immoral the Bible is, take a moment to imagine the worst story of torture from the Holocaust you can imagine. Really, sit down and recall the details of the medical experiments, the gas chambers, the forced labor, the starvation, the separation of families, the turning of neighbors into enemies… Really, cogitate on it. Now, do the same for the Stalin regime. And Pol Pot’s regime, and Mao’s. Think about the blistered and dying survivors at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Let your imagination be flooded with images of horror. Now consider that such images aren’t even a stubbed toe compared to what hell is supposed to be. You can take the worst depravity that humanity is capable of and it is a pittance to what the Bible claims awaits unbelievers. Consider the monumental evil that hell represents and that, because he adjudicates who goes there, the source of all of this evil is god.
I’m happy that you and other Christians can be good people. But make no mistake, you are good despite the Bible not because of it. This goes for Christian churches as well. Any good that comes out of Christianity must find a non-Biblical way around the evil that the Bible contains.
Again, TreeRooster, I have no clue which Jesus you’re referring to.
The Jesus of the Gospels is a hate-fueled war god who demands human sacrifices made of all those who don’t love him and whose purpose in the pantheon is to effect the ultimate destruction of the planet and oversee the eternal torture of virtually everybody who ever lived. That a few deepities have been misattributed to him in ways that psychotically distort the originals they were plagiarized from seems utterly irrelevant to any discussions of modern morality.
You want to know what Christians do when they follow the teachings of their Christ? Read Mein Kampf. It’s clear you never have, for it’s in actuality one of those “sophisticated” theological screeds, in this case indistinguishable from those Martin Luther himself wrote. And it’s all extensively supported by in-context quotations of Gospel passages.
The solution to the disease of Christianity is to get the Christians to grow up, not to further feed their delusions.
The mere fact that you, TreeRooster, and Ben Goren can read the same stories and come up with two wildly disparate characterizations of the exact same individual ought to show how utterly useless Jesus the Christ is as a moral guide.
And keep this in mind: While the OT god is a raging, evil, meglomaniacal bastard, his fun with a sinner would end with that individual’s death. Through Jesus the Christ we have not only opened the door to the Earth’s wonderful attic, but also its horrendous and vicious basement. It’s not enough any more to be ordered to gut your own son in Moriah, or to be drowned in the Red Sea, or slaughtered by Joshua’s armies.
Now, failure to follow the rules means a banishment to a place worse than anything the Spanish Inquisition ever cooked up. What a moral guy, that Jesus. Follow the dictates of my dad (or is it me?) and you’ll be destroyed over and over again until the end of ends. What a moral guy.
From Mark (via http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/):
11:13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.
11:14 And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.
The fig tree was not even in season and it got cursed for fruitlessness. Jesus is here a wizard having a snit. Read metaphorically… honestly, I have no idea how to read this metaphorically without it being a metaphorical temper tantrum too.
The fig tree was (and still is) a symbol of Torah and Torah scholarship.
It makes perfect sense when you understand that the Gospels are virulently anti-Semitic, through and through, the exact same way and for the exact same reasons that Orpheus’s story is virulently anti-Thracian.
So I’ve read, and I don’t really have a reason to dispute it. But if so, it’s terrible writing.
The fig tree has a time for bearing fruit – valuable fruit – fruit Jesus is written as wanting. But “the time of figs was not yet.” The analogy would mean that Jesus was looking for something good from the Torah and Torah scholarship that it didn’t have but, given time, would – and then he condemned it and bade no one to follow or consider it ever again. He’s now in a snit at the Torah, without justification within the metaphor.
I guess the terrible writing hypothesis fits better than any rival. Goodness knows it wouldn’t be the only instance of it in the Bible. It bugs me a little to leave it at that. (Mind you, not enough to give over more of my life to it.)
Wait — you’re expecting good writing from an anthology that opens with a story about talking animals and an angry giant in an enchanted garden; that features a talking plant that teaches the reluctant hero how to wield his magic wand; and ends with a zombie snuff porn fantasy that includes the “hero” demanding intestinal squickage?
Um, yeah. “Good luck with that.”
Your examples are incredibly poor.
The Good Samaritan: if anything, this is ironically biblical proof that morality has absolutely nothing to do with religious conviction. The Samaritan was by definition neither a Jew (they were in fact despised as inferior to Jews), nor a Christian (Christianity hadn’t been invented yet). Nevertheless, he did the moral thing and the Really True Believers did not.
Master beating the Slave: you insist that we look only at the “moral” not at the rather dubious story. Why on earth do you think the supreme ruler of the universe chose such a morally poor example, knowing as surely such an entity would, that not only was slavery immoral but also that the message would have dire consequences down the centuries; first when people took this as one of the many examples of slavery being endorsed in the bible, and secondly that the story would run headlong into modern secular morality and cause people like yourself to look rather foolish as you try to desperately come up with a way to convince yourself that it doesn’t really say what it says.
As for your Eye of the Needle example: again, your metaphorical interpretation means nothing in the face of the evidence. There are plenty of wealthy altruists in the world who have donated millions for the benefit of others, and do it without needing to be prompted by bible stories, belief in a supreme being or fear of the pearly gates being locked against them. An example of this would be Bill Gates who, whether you are a fan of Windows or not, has given more money to charity than pretty much any other human in history.
In all three cases secular humans can and have improved on almost anything that Judeo-Christian legend has on offer.
Agreed on almost all counts!
(I wasn’t choosing examples of Jesus’s ethical thought, merely correcting Jerry’s interpretation of them–thus I agree that the two examples as originally intended were poor ones.)
Excellent point about the good samaritan. Jesus is clearly saying that no religion or any sort of “ism” has a monopoly on ethics; rather the ability to know love is a human invariant (excluding psychopaths.)
I agree that beatings are not a great visual metaphor: there is certainly a chance that this message might be lost in the offensive image. I pointed out that Jesus occassionally uses the rhetorical device (also a favourite of Socrates) of saying “you in your imperfection can see the logic of [beating an ignorant offender less], surely true wisdom will do even better [requiring less of those less endowed.]”
Of course there are great altruistic wealthy people, including examples in the gospels–see the story of Zaccheus. Jesus was not one to carefully explain all the exceptions to his pithy proverbs. This might be a symptom of the medium: rhetorical speech is not known for long lists of caveats. Thank goodness for the invention of writing books!
I must say that the game of defending ancient writings like this is no game I wish to play! I don’t pretend to know that every word is correctly transmitted or divinely inspired. But there are certainly good ethics there, and it doesn’t help to miss the point, intentionally or carelessly.
Again, which ethical teaching did Jesus invent?
You’d think an all-knowing god would have enough “knowing” to teach against mistreatment of children, to advocate abolition of capital punishment, to decry patriarchy in all its forms.
Not single verse that says “priests shouldn’t rape kids”. Not one that says “slavery is abhorrent”. Nary a mention of women as being equal to men. Fact is, every morning, Jesus said a prayer that included the thanks that he was not born a woman (or a slave, or a Gentile!). Where is the teaching that such a prayer is anathema to humanity?
I don’t know where you get your morality from, but I sure hope it isn’t from the revelatory teachings of Jesus.
See above about the difference between inventing new ethics and communicating them well. (Also see above about the importance of using reason to evaluate anything you read, especially anything someone claims is revelatory!)
It is definitely true that we need to have an ongoing study of ethics. For one thing, as you point out, the ancient writings skip over so many important points. For another, it seems easy, in light of history, for large groups of people to convince themselves of completely false ethical premises. Slavery is the best example. What sorts of things are we comfortable with today that we will abhor when our thinking clears up a few decades from now?
Which is your way of saying “Jesus was a man of his time with absolutely zero access to future knowledge”, even though he claimed to be otherwise.
In other words, not even the gospel writers could put enough lipstick on the pig to turn this “ethical teacher” into something worthy of worship.
Funny that. Would have thought that a great ethical teacher would, of necessity, have a better/more-modern ethical framework to present. Sorta like the Buddha — or even Gandhi.
But I guess just teaching about whatever everyone else already knew is good enough for you? Seriously, what makes that so special? For all of his original contributions, Jesus could be the associate professor of sociology at your local community college.
Make him “teacher of the year”, not a prescient divinely sent deity.
I think that Jesus had at least one pretty revolutionary idea. It was outstanding for the time and culture, but sadly it is needed today as well. The idea was that religious dogma should be secondary to human needs. This is most evident in his clashes with the religious establishment of the time, highlighted by his teaching that the rules of the temple and the holy days should serve the needs of the people, not the other way around.
Jesus is quoted as upholding the Old Testament rules, but in reality he claimed to teach a deeper truth–that any rule should pass the test of meeting human needs, and be subject to exception whenever it contradicts the law of love.
He said “the Sabbath [read: religious dogma] is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Unfortunately his “followers” today need to be reminded of just that.
Um… you seem to think you’re dealing with someone who hasn’t actually read the book.
Jesus is purported to have said follow the law and the commandments. And that not one bit of the law (which is not merely the 10 commandments, but all of the 900+ religiously based behaviors) would be overturned until “all was accomplished.”
And since Jesus hasn’t returned, everything hasn’t been accomplished, has it? The backsliding began with Paul and has continued to this day.
Seriously, I ask this question again…have you even read the book you’re so enamored of? Seems like you only know the cherry-picked parts that the preachers like, and those not so well at that.
Oh, what bullshit. In the Sermon on the Mount, no less, Jesus condemned to eternal torture all men who had even a single lustful thought towards a woman and failed to chop off his own hands and gouge out his own eyes. That’s just the first example to pop into my head — I’m sure I could find at least one on every page of the gospels, without even trying hard.
And, as to originality…well, that’s just the Euthyphro Dilemma, but distorted and twisted, almost beyond recognition.
If anything, the Jews and Samaritans despised each other. It wasn’t just one way. The Samaritans claimed at one point that they had the true Pentateuch (the deny the authority of Talmud) and that the Jewish Pentateuch was a false text produced by Ezra.
The relationship appears to have warmed during the time of the Romans, particularly after the end of the Bar-Kochba revolt.
“Jesus also applies this very modern ethical principal to the responsiblities we are assigned.”
Not so modern. A quick glance at the laws in Deuteronomy makes it clear that sentencing in ancient Hebrew law took intent/competence/subjective state into account in conviction and sentencing.
For example, 22:33-22:35 prescribe death for a man and woman who commit adultery consensually, but death only for the man if the woman is forced.
Maybe it’s not so much modern as “common sense.”
In the verses about the beating of slaves, Jesus immediately interprets the metaphor for us. It has nothing to do with whether beating a slave is ethical!
You’re making the author’s point for him, as do Jesus’ words in context, in which the beatings happen no matter what:
Though Luke 12:48 is well known, I might have preferred Jesus’ implied command in Luke 19:27, which was used historically as an exhortation to kill Jews:
Saint John Chrysostom used Jesus’ meaning to call for Jews to be killed:
Wow, I hadn’t read this guy before. However I understand that the sentiment was a common one among anti-Semites.
There is certainly a problem in interpreting the actions of the characters in Jesus’s stories to be precisely what he endorses as ethical, assuming you are using his words as an ethical guide in the first place. Even metaphorically they often get across the idea of a vengeful God (if the king in the story is God).
It might be that we have outgrown the need to be told “act charitably or face divine wrath.” Charity should be its own reward. However it was never, even in the first century, right for anyone to act out what they thought of as righteous vengeance (regardless of whether it was a false front for purely selfish motives.)
Hopefully this can be argued from the gospel stories, as Jesus himself in action decries lethal resistance and opts instead for civil disobedience and eventually martyrdom. He is killed, according to the stories, precisely because he speaks truth to power and threatens the grip that the established church holds over the populace.
Reason must be applied. Common sense must be used. Only then are we allowed to be instructed by these ancient writings. Oh, and common sense must be frequently reevaluated.
For Kevin and J.J.E. above,
I have often complained that there are too many historical and modern Christians who idolize the Bible (and by implication its human authors and editors).
One might ask, given the evil perpetrated in the name of biblical ethics, whether there is any value in trying to salvage the good bits of these scriptures. As I put it above, the hope is that the narrative and cultural power underlying the message of love could win out, in many cases at least.
As for Jesus vs. the Old Testament: it becomes an interesting academic exercise to try to find coherence in his puported statements. Is there a chance that he is misquoted? Is he slyly claiming to uphold the O.T. law, all the while undermining its injustices and championing its good bits? Note how he supposedly halts a stoning in progress, and compare his teachings on charity (Matthew 25) to chapter 58 of Isaiah.
Speaking of which, since I have to sign off and do some work, here is a shoutout to an organization that seems to be doing some good fighting poverty:
…and while I’m at it, it can’t hurt to put in a word for Mercy Corps, leading the fight against the current famine:
Christians claim that the bible is, at minimum, the INSPIRED WORD of the all-powerful all-knowing creator of everything.
A LARGE percentage of Christian denominations teach that the bible is INERRANT. That if it’s in the bible, it is literally 100% true.
If you’re hanging your hat on bad translation or misquotation, you’re at odds with virtually every preacher in every pulpit in the country.
And then there’s the problem of figuring out which are the “real” quotations of Jesus and which aren’t. The main problem with figuring that out is that the evidence points solidly toward the fact that Jesus is an entirely mythical figure. Cobbled together from various Messianic Jewish preachers of that era.
So, it’s hard to “misquote” someone who never existed in the first place.
Seriously, you need to learn the first rule of holes. You’ve dug yourself a very deep one. I suggest you stop.
No, according to the stories, Jesus was killed because he reanimated a fetid corpse against the express wishes of the family of the dearly departed.
I’m adamantly opposed to the death penalty, but I’ll admit I’d probably reconsider if presented with a genuine and unrepentant necromancer.
One more for the road, just to be clear: anyone who reads old manuscripts looking for guidance without bringing along their common sense and as much empathy and humane ethics as possible is asking for trouble. It might be argued that the real revealed scripture is the humane ethics we find our culture striving towards (we have come a long way but have far to go.)
When I conjecture along these lines I think of a public key encryption scheme, where the true divine message can be recognized by the way it matches a key in each individual–the key being some recognition of altruistic love.
Unfortunately the message is often garbled, and especially so when written down by the victors of some war, or those blinded by their own cultural milieu. It is up to us to certify what is good at every point, whether we are reading the Quran or Darwin. (And I’ve just pecked away a bit at the former–I’ll try to make some more progress there before picking up Mein Kampf for you, Ben!)
In conclusion I’d say that there is great value, even saving grace, in ethical study; for instance Sam Harris’s attempts to define and discover goodness on a modern scientific footing. Certain axioms, like the evil of torture, should be agreed upon. It is also arguably worth our time to utilize the emotive power of the recognizably ethical teachings of Jesus, Buddha and Lao-tzu. Of course we’ll all fail as individuals to live a perfectly good life, but the very admission of failure and desire for improvement is what gives us promise.
(Oh and on second thought, I’d better reiterate my point that ethical study itself, including debate, is of the highest value. I really have to quit psoting now, and didn’t mean to open up any debate over actual ethical questions like torture. It is enough for now to say that it is right for us to actively ask what is the “good life” as Socrates supposedly adocated!)
TreeRooster, it is good that you’re interest in morals and ethics takes you beyond the Bible — but if morality comes from God, why should you have to?
The need for hermeneutics always struck me as odd – why could an omniscient and omnipotent God not have ensured that scripture was clear and unambiguous rather than arcane?
You keep privileging the Bible for some reason I simply can’t fathom.
On the surface, it’s mindless faery tales about enchanted gardens with talking animals, wizards dueling with their magic wands, and zombie snuff porn.
Scratch the surface, and it’s the most repugnant hate text you’ve ever read, singing the praises of the most heinous forms of genocide, slavery, institutionalized rape, and other forms of brutality.
Why are you so enamored of immersing your head in that steaming pile of rancid pig shit? Just because somebody tossed a pearl or two in that general direction?
Hopefully this can be argued from the gospel stories, as Jesus himself in action decries lethal resistance and opts instead for civil disobedience and eventually martyrdom
I don’t see how either point can be argued given the fact that it is Jesus Himself in Revelation 2:26–27 that will ride from heaven on a white horse and slay all non-Christians so that birds may feast on the flesh of their corpses:
That’s right – just imagine that the babble actually means something which it doesn’t state. As for Jesus “explaining” stories, were those really Jesus’ words (and not inserted years later by another writer because someone else asked about slavery)? Was there even really a Jesus?
Dr. Coyne was never a Christian and is not a NT scholar. The passages he picks are by no means the worst in the NT.
I would have picked out any of Jesus’ rantings about the hell that awaits anyone who doesn’t do exactly as he says, including plucking out their eyes and cutting off their hands.
The very concept of hell as a place of eternal torture, and which is then held as a threat to manipulate people, is about as bad as bad morals get.
Ah, the old Metaphor canard. Been there, done that, it’s a stupid argument.
Why is it stupid? Because they didn’t become metaphors UNTIL PEOPLE DECIDED THOSE WERE FUCKED UP IDEAS. Or because they were clearly wrong from a ‘the way the universe works.’ Or because they were just flat-out made up horse-pucky…
Bro, awesome article. Thanks for representing.
That was a very fair op-ed piece Jerry. Those with an open mind will gain from it & most of the rest will be stricken with the usual reading incomprehension
HERE’S a rather good oil on canvas entitled Minotaur. It’s by the same Alejandro Gonzalez who drew the “cute” graphic
I prefer Pablo Picasso’s “Minotaur” – it’s one of my favorites of his work.
Jerry – you write that ‘who we have sex with’ is of no moral significance. I’m not asking from a religious perspective at all here, but I’m still a bit baffled by that statement. Do you really believe that there is simply no moral guidance beyond ‘do what you enjoy’ when it comes to consensual adult behaviour? I’m not talking about black and white moral rules, but I find it a bit of a stretch to say that ethical thought simply has nothing to tell us here. Of course the emotion of ‘disgust’ is something that has been (and is) frequently misused – but do you really think that there are no conceivable behaviours where this or other emotions we use when making judgements could come into play here? Let’s say (just to take an extreme example to bring out the point) someone enjoys copulating with animal corpses – nobody is getting hurt, but I don’t think I would be unjustified as regarding that person as somewhat depraved. I would imagine that many would apply this to other cases, such an incest etc. Do you believe they would be wrong to do so?
I wasn’t thinking of animal necrophilia, or pedophilia, or stuff like that and I hope that was clear! I was thinking about the behaviors of two consenting adults who respect each other. I was thinking, for example, about the Catholic proscription against homosexual sex, or sex with unmarried people–stuff like that. And I think that those things aren’t properly subject to moral judgments.
Thanks for the clarification. Sorry to push the question, and I’m not asking this to be annoying but I’m honestly interested to understand your position on the topic – what do you make of incest between consenting adults?
insert “consenting adults” in the appropriate spot in the sentence and then all of your objections disappear.
Indeed. If you still think something wrong is going on, check to be sure it’s not a matter of (a) this being just icky – which isn’t a matter of morality, it’s a matter of the comfort level of someone who isn’t even involved,
(b) this being a bad idea – considering (e.g.) health risks for necrophilia and the potential issues with pregnancy and doubling up bad recessive genes in case of consensual (heterosexual, unprotected) incest, and
(c) this is statistically abnormal, or a result of some bit of biological development taking an atypical turn.
I suspect, if one keeps all of those distinct from one another and moral judgment, moral judgments will be turning on little or nothing more than harm and consent.
I would add one more very necessary qualifier:
(by all participants)
“mutually informed adult consent”
I can imagine a situation where one or more of the adults is mentally sub-normal, and whilst can give consent, it may not be informed consent. This actually happens in situations where mentally disabled folk are taken advantage of sexually by other adults.
Let’s say (just to take an extreme example to bring out the point) someone enjoys copulating with animal corpses – nobody is getting hurt, but I don’t think I would be unjustified as regarding that person as somewhat depraved.
Well, what were you gonna do with the animal corpse? Eat it? Freak…
Old Freak Brothers comic: Fat Freddy is buying a live turkey at Thanksgivng, but the redneck farmer is eyeing him suspiciously:
“You’re not going to do anything weird with this bird, are ya, boy?”
“Naw, I’m just gonna kill it and eat it.”
“Well, okay then.”
You may go “ewww – icky!” but why should you tell others where to put their dead animals? Having such an undue interest in them, or watching them – now that’s depraved. I couldn’t care less – so long as they stay away from my chicken and my steak. Rebecca Watson recommended watermelons – I guess that’s the vegan option.
I swear that the comment you showed us did not come from me . . . .
This is such a wonderful thing you’ve done! And it’s everything that’s especially fine about your writing: clear, warm, rational, comprehensible…and you express thoughts I have but am not able to put into words. Mostly because I start yelling when I try.
I couldn’t have said it better.
Nice essay. One thing that should be emphasized is that our altruism is on par with our capacity to detect and punish cheaters. It wouldn’t work without that. We can afford to be good because we are smart.
Thank you thank you for this extremely well-reasoned and and clearly articulated piece! You put in words what I have been thinking for most of my adult life (since I had the courage of conviction to walk away from the intellectual black hole of Christianity). We as a nation are tolerant of every religion except atheism. That needs to change.
Except that atheism is not a religion and despite outward appearances, most religions are hostile to other religions and teach their respective congregations that they are special and that others are following the teachings of the devil and are hellbound. That’s not tolerance, that’s seething hatred and passive-aggressive behavior.
Since all morality is subjective, being an atheist allows us to work and live without the human construct of “god,” religion or any theistic irrationality or need for supernatural intervention in our lives.
We can be and are good without the need for the divine.
Indeed, we are living proof that actions and ideas, which are firmly grounded in rationality and science make us human, explain of world better, keep us more grounded, and allows us to be moral and connected to members of our species, the world and universe.
Sorta had a Macbeth thing goin’ there, didn’t ya? 😉
This is a fantastic article. I’m especially fond of this point:
Yes indeed. The minuscule amount of social progress that the Catholic Church, for example, has made over the past century occurred not because of any new revelations from God, or because one of the popes suddenly became more progressive and enlightened, or anything like that. No, the Church changes and progresses only when its disconnect from the ethics and social mores of secular society threatens to diminish its power, influence, and relevance. Then, and only then, does the Church reluctantly change and evolve just enough to ensure that they won’t become completely obsolete.
Actually I would argue that church has retrogressed socially into criminality. Earlier child abuse and rape wasn’t much of a legal offense, but since the heat is on they tried to organize an illegal (and immoral) cover up, aiding and abetting as it were.
Of course, the whole idea that they have somehow rights that overtakes national jurisdiction is probably criminal too. The whole organization is a mob, AFAIU.
Yes, that’s a great point. In my comment, I was referring primarily to things like Vatican II & such
I think more so than Vatican 2 (and even that was influenced by the events) were changes brought about due to situations throughout South and Central America. Church authorities saw great injustice throughout the Americas and hounded the church in Rome about the church’s social responsibilities. The church gave in to some demands, but many issues such as the use of contraceptives remained unresolved. Pope Paul #6 wrote an honest letter to say that the use of contraceptives is left to the individual although personally he does not believe that good catlicks should use ’em. Now Paul #6 must be roasting in hell – the last 2 popes proclaimed that catlicks will go to hell for using contraceptives. I think it may also have been Paul #6 who wrote that he believed abortion is permissible if it is a medical necessity (the fetus is likely to die anyway and the mother is virtually guaranteed to die without the abortion), but you can see from the fairly recent news that many (if not most) church leaders in the USA believe it is better for the woman (and unborn child) to die because that’s how god wants it to be.
“[The Catholic Church], for example, thought that slavery was perfectly fine. Absolutely OK. And then they didn’t. And what is the point of the Catholic Church if it said, ‘Oh, well, we could’t know better because nobody else did.’? Then what are you for?”
— Stephen Fry, “The Intelligence Squared Debate: Is the Catholic Church A Force for Good In the World?” (8:04)
At least as important as the source of morality is why it has changed so dramatically over the last few centuries. Everywhere you look — slavery, criminal law, child labor, treatment of the handicapped etc. — we are kinder, oft radically so. It’s outside the scope of Jerry’s excellent USA Today piece but deserves consideration. What little I’ve read on the topic (Jeremy Rifkin’s Empathic Civilization, Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works, Dawkin’s The God Delusion) express uncertainty but propose that maybe, among other causes, people are talking up empathy and that’s lead to the increase. My own tentative theory is that people care more about others’ wants when they get their own wants more thoroughly satisfied. Put another way, the reduction in pain elevates altruism. But I’ve found nothing on it. Anyone heard any convincing arguments on this?
Being just a layman in everything…
I agree with you ~ industrialisation & mechanisation led to a vast reduction in the costs of production & also required an expansion in the numbers of people schooled in critical thought to manage the beast & operate/fix the machines. This stimulated international trade, science, technology, education & organised warfare
People were drawn into the city from the farm. The unintended results of this was the emancipation of serfs, the freeing of land, paying for work done by even the lowliest with actual cash, a revolution in sanitation & general healthcare & the continuing emancipation of women.
Today a minimum wage UK worker can buy a paperback with the earnings from one hour of labour – there is the time & the space to think beyond food, fuel & a roof
Well, maybe if they have Internet access. NMW, £5.93. why Evolution Is True, £8.99, but £5.51 on amazon.co.uk.
And that’s not an entirely facetious “if”.
The anti-Enlightenment :-
Let’s Go to Church
(Baby’s First Church Book) + Zacchaeus’ House for just £5.93
“If You Like This You May Also Like…”
God Gave Me: A Story Of God’s Blessings
Jesus Is With Me
Jesus Loves Me
Baby’s First Bible Series – for very young children God Made the World
Baby’s First Memories
Evil, Evil, Evil
Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years by Jared Diamond. Is good on the factors I’ve mentioned, but does not address morality or altruism as far as I can recall
How about an argument against? After the second world war much of europe was a mess – cities and towns devastated, scarce food and drinking water, incredibly high unemployment and yet the majority of people helped eachother out rather than grabbing everything for themselves.
There are many instances where deprived people behaved humanely and where the comfortable tolerated (or even committed) atrocities. But the average of cases trends opposite, I think.
But there’s the challenge – can you measure and demonstrate that the trend goes the other way?
Morality, compassion, kindness etc. can’t be measured, of course, but if you set out some general markers, like slavery, public execution, democracy, animal cruelty, child labor etc., I believe you will find that the greatest progress has consistently accompanied the greatest leaps in standard of living. Far more to talk about here than there is space in this forum, but the Axials (with their water-powered leaps in agriculture) gave us the Golden Rule, the Classic (well-fed) Greeks produced democracy, the comfortable founders of the United States outlawed cruel and unusual punishment, and since the 1950’s in America we’ve enjoyed unprecedented leaps in standard of living accompanied by remarkable progress in civil rights, women’s rights, animal protection, handicapped access etc. Alternatively, decades of economic struggles produced the Nazis, and Jim Crow followed a devastating war.
I suppose it’s a change in the predominant culture that most of us regard as very positive.
Cultures can also turn very destructive, as we see in times of war. A bit of fearmongering leads to hatemongering, and before long the bombs are falling, and no one seems to mind very much (expect those getting bombed).
That’s an excellent article. It’s curious how some christians are so convinced that only they know The Truth that they act so immorally and yet believe everyone else is going to hell. I’ve never met a Unitarian or Methodist like that, but a lot of the pentecostals sure are and the catlicks are still like that in many places.
As for animal behavior – I observed the stray dogs of Sicily for a number of days many years ago and thought it would be interesting to find out if what I thought I was observing was correct or if I was imagining too much. The strays formed their own little packs (and they were interesting because no two dogs seemed to have the same heritage – they were really mixed bunches) and these packs would scavenge together and divide their spoils. Sometimes there seemed to be a top dog who was offered things and the top dog sometimes handed much of it out to the younger or less capable beasts. In most groups there was no obvious top dog, but the group looked after the less capable. Of course with all the statuettes of the Madonna around the island, perhaps the dogs were just being good because they knew god’s mamma was watching.
Why not rape, steal and kill. God hasn’t revealed or commanded to me to do it yet, like he did to Moses and Joshua.
With exceptions like extreme positions such as anti-homosexual, contraception and abortion stands (which is not even mentioned in the Bible), by and large Christians of the fundamentalist, liberal or sophisticated theologian variety adopt values compatible with their culture/sub-culture, as people always have.
Conveniently as a rule they either selectively quote mine the Bible to support positions they already have or selective ignore or are ignorate of abhorrent parts of the Bible or find some convenient rationale for immoral behavior from God commanded genocides or slavery (even if many of the supposed events were probably myths to begin with). In other words, they aren’t properly Biblical or only selectively Biblical (whatever that might be given numerous contradictions) on points they favor based on common sense (derived from evolved social instincts), culture or irrational hatreds (womans right to choose, contraception, homosexual rights, etc).
Nobody bases their morality on God, God memes in their head or thoughts of stone age mythologists maybe.
Thanks for the article. I moved to US about 10 years ago, running away from Islamic theocracy.I hoped US is less religious,which unfortunately is not, event though is more tolerant.I grow up in the Islamic revolution,seeing what happened over last 30 years, I will never trust a religious person.
I think problem with American Christians is, they are forgetting that all the western progress is because they experienced the inquisition,and afterward they seperated their state and church. the day you give power to Church , they will show their real face to you. revolution in IRAN was a quest for democracy,but since Muslim world never experienced the inquisition, our people trusted the religious folks, and now everybody in IRAN is suffering the consequences.Thanks Again.
A well written article. My only gripe is with the assertion that a belief in a God-given morality is American’s biggest impediment to accepting the fact of evolution. In fact I know a lot of non religious people who do not believe in evolution. The reality is that for many people evolution is not intuitive. They cannot wrap their heads around the idea of common descent, that we human beings have a shared evolutionary history with the rest of the animal kingdom. For many people, religious or non religious, the idea that our history is bounded up with the rest of the animal kingdom is repugnant. Part of the problem is that for the most part we only have scientists trying to tell the story of evolution to lay people (often in arcane terms) when the narrative of the greatest story on earth needs to be communicated by poets and storytellers.
I think a solid case can be made for Dr. Sagan as having been one of the greatest poets and storytellers of the latter part of the 20th Century, and Dr. Dawkins has written some quite beautiful stuff as well — “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” For that matter, Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a darned good storyteller…as are so many other popular science educators.
Sadly, the Christian PR machine shouts louder….
Well said Ben.
Good grief. This afternoon, I was sitting on Concourse B at O’Hare, picked up a cast-off USA Today and read Jerry’s piece, and by the time I get back to Colorado, there are 124 comments!! 🙂 As I read, I could only imagine the vitriol that would come his way. However, I also read in Science that once 10% of a group/population has an unshakable singular belief, that belief ultimately becomes predominant – hope for the Gnus!!
Well, I just read your article and at the bottom of the article I see this:
How curious?? Apparently, USA Today’s algorithms seem to think these kinds of articles are just up the atheist’s alley. After all, what would pique an atheist’s interest more than brutal killings, tragic accidents and serious felonies?
How do you remain so calm in the face of infantile and volatile comments? I get spitting mad on your behalf!
How long would it take before an article titled “You can be good without God” would elicit the same type of (Well, duuuuh! no shit, Sherlock!) response as an article, titled, e.g. “Can you be courageous without eating the hearts of your enemies?”
After reading many of the USA Today comments, I am getting a bit pessimistic…
And he said to them, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”
Jesus, addressing his apostles tells them directly that some of them will not die before the second coming and the Kingdom of Heaven is established on earth (Mount of Olives, not a metaphor).
Yes, but what did L. Ron Hubbard say about it? Or Joe Smith? Or the supposed historical figure called Muhammad? Or Siddhartha Guatama?
Well done Dr. C!
You very nicely summarized the reasons why morality is evolved and is coopted by relgion.
And you weren’t even a tiny bit strident.
The fundie Christians and Muslims must be entirely tone-deaf to not hear how their ranting, viscious comments sound enxt to you calm, reasoned prose. Wow.
next to your … that would be.
I am sure that Ben can explain his interpretation, but presumably this was the Gorenian hermeneutic of Numbers 31:18. Other equally sophisticated biblical scholars disagree. For example: “It has been groundlessly asserted, that Moses here authorised the Israelites to make concubines of the whole number of female children; and an insidious objection against his writings has been grounded upon this monstrous supposition. But the whole tenor of the law, and especially a statute recorded in Deu 21:10-14, proves most decisively to the contrary. They were merely permitted to possess them as female slaves, educating them in their families, and employing them as domestics; for the laws concerning fornication, concubinage, and marriage, were in full force, and prohibited an Israelite even from marrying a captive, without delays and previous formalities; and if he afterwards divorced her, he was to set here at liberty, “”because he had humbled her.”” Lev 25:44; Deu 20:14; Deu 21:10-14; 2Ch 28:8-10; Isa 14:2″ Of course such sophisticated analysis is from an apologist, and the Gorenian hermeneutic is superior because it has a much higher rating on the WTF rubric for rational biblical analysis, scoring a 3.78/4 compared to the nearest commentator at 2. Regardless – concubines or slaves – the god of Numbers in an evil dude.
That apology is entirely unconvincing.
The text makes quite clear that it’s only the virgins that are to be “spared.” The repeated emphasis on virginity makes no sense whatsoever, in any context or culture, unless they were to be sexualized.
And if you really think that a bloodthirsty horde would take the time to slaughter an entire population except for the prepubescent girls, physically inspect them to confirm their virginity, take them as slaves, and not rape them repeatedly…well….
And never mind the divine commands. That the people carried all this out, with great gusto and pleasure, is far worse. The gods, after all, aren’t human (by definition). The people damn well should have known better.
The only saving grace is that it’s pure fiction. Evil, nasty, psychopathic fiction, but fiction nonetheless. It never actually happened, and that’s the only comfort to be taken from the passage.
Find the paragraph “Was God being moral when” to be quite disingenuous. Skipped the bears part since I was more interested in checking what was said about Jesus. Looked at the passages the were being interpreted and realized that none of those interpretations were close to what I thought was the meaning. Thought back and couldn’t remember ever being given a similar interpretation. Later on, I checked the web for Christian interpretations and, once again, nothing like the interpretations provided. So none of the “Jesus preaches principles of questionable morality” examples are accurate and that statement is false also.
So I was wondering where these junky interpretations came from. And why would anyone present interpretations as facts? I noticed that the title and last sentence of the article are statements of belief presented as fact. Also, “at least the God of Christians and Jews” in a previous paragraph seems to be treating them all as a single large group. Remembered having seen this pattern several times before. See there was a recent article along the same lines – http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/08/21/the-illusion-of-asymmetric-insight/
If that isn’t the case, then why are interpretations that non-Christian presented as facts of Christian belief?