Listen, I felt I needed to write and post this, but I encourage people not to read it. They’re thoughts I needed to get out of my system and put someplace where they could theoretically be seen, but it’s not important to read. It touches on where I am with the religion thing and why I don’t buy into it. It’s long and pedantic, but I needed to write it anyway. Almost all of this is stolen directly from Qualia Soup’s Morality series, I mean word for word in some cases, and I recommend watching it and teasing out my stuff. I needed the structure since my brain was having trouble putting thoughts to paper, but I was raging.
And since I can’t get the More tag to work, I’ll just leave a lot of space between here and the start. Don’t continue reading. Just let me get my thoughts out.
Since I can’t seem to quantify this into a G+ post and haven’t been clear, I’m going to try and explain what I’ve been saying again.
Before I begin, let me get some things out of the way. I have no problem with people of faith as a rule. I have a huge problem with faith traditions, however, that claim moral authority when they are clearly undeserving of that authority. If you want to believe something, believe it, I won’t stop you or think less of you for it. However, at the root of a faith tradition is belief that it is somehow right, good, and true, and far too often that is not the case.
Second point, I don’t know everything about every religion. I do, however, know a lot about the big ones. In this post I’ll be focusing on the Bible since it’s the most relevant to my experience. 70% of Americans identify as Christian in one respect or another and much of the vileness I see regularly comes from people who supposedly believe in Biblical teachings.
Third point: not all people who believe in Biblical teachings are bad people. Good and bad are complex concepts. Most are generally good people, however I endeavor to point out that when you are a good person and ignore much of what at least this particular religion calls for, you’re no longer following that religion. You’re developing a moral and ethical code and searching for authority within a set of traditions and rites that make you comfortable and happy. If that’s the case, good for you, I’m glad that you’re happy, but it no more makes you a believer in that tradition and if you’re going to decide independently that certain things are right and certain things are wrong than it abandons the fundamental unpinning that that faith it is “true” in any meaningful sense. Much like Jefferson, I would much rather take a razor to the Bible to eliminate those flawed underpinnings and use the passages I leave as an example of positive moral teachings that have no divine consequence but should demand temporal consequence.
Now that I’ve gotten the disclaimers out of the way, let me begin.
Let us take a hypothetical leader who phases in four laws:
- Anyone who works on a Friday would face execution. The leader was born on a Friday and wants people to use that day to contemplate his or her greatness.
- The leader can kill citizens or order their killing for any reason.
- Any citizen forced by the leader to commit crimes by mind altering drugs will be punished.
- Parents who commit crimes will have their children killed, and if it isn’t their first offense they will be made to eat their children.
These would be thought to be insane. Law one punishes people for a victimless crime, law two makes the leader blameless for all actions, and laws three and four punish the innocent for crimes. The fourth is particularly abhorrent because it adds an obscene element designed to dehumanize. They also defy any conception of personal responsibility. These are manifestly unjust laws, and we can determine that because we know enough about what constitutes harmful behavior, suffering, and responsibility to make that determination.
But what if this leader had been in charge all of your life and you were brought up to think they were morally perfect? It would create a major cognitive dissonance, leaving us with no option but to attempt to rationalize them. We might say that somebody who had done so much for the society should have the right to make a few entirely arbitrary demands or that their understanding of things is so far ahead of ours that we cannot grasp their purpose (the “mysterious ways” argument). But we’d be wrong.
Clearly the root of the problem is the false premise that the leader is morally perfect. It is a fundamentally corrupting idea because in forcing us to accept unjust laws it leaves us defending the indefensible. Remove this idea and we can see the unjust laws for what they are.
When we accept ideas uncritically or make them sacred so they cannot be questioned, this can distort our moral reasoning. Those who accepted without consideration or interjected the idea that the lawmaker is perfect cannot properly evaluate the law until this distorting idea is removed. Identifying ideas we’ve swallowed whole is often key to solving a lot of the problems in life.
When we consider the Abrahamic God and the traits associated with it, clearly there is no better arbiter for administering justice. We are told it knows our thoughts, knows who is guilty or innocent, and is morally perfect. What better arbiter for justice could one think of? However, those assertions are based on a number of false premises.
The primary problem with this is that this same God permits, commits, and commands others to laws that correlate directly to the ones we just rejected. The Lord demands that those who work on the Sabbath be put to death (Numbers 15:32-36), as well as gay people (Leviticus 20:13), and women who show insufficient evidence of their virginity on their wedding night (Deuteronomy 22:20-21). Yehweh kills 70,000 people when He commands David to take a census (2 Samuel 24:1-15), and kills almost all land animals by flooding for human wickedness (Genesis 6 : 5-7). He hardens the heart of the Pharaoh (Exodus 4 : 21; see also Exodus 7 : 3; 9 : 12; 10 : 1; 10 : 20; 10 : 27; 11 : 10; 14 : 4; 14 : 8), the Egyptians (Exodus 14 : 17), and the King of Heshbon (Deuteronomy 2 : 30) through mind control in order to enable their defeat, it sends a powerful delusion in order to make certain people believe a lie so they can be condemned(2 Thessalonians 2 : 11), and sends false messages to prophets than punishes them for repeating those messages (Ezekiel 14 : 9).
Having stated no children will be killed for the sins of their father, He orders the killing of children for their fathers’ sins (Deuteronomy 24 : 16, Isaiah 14 : 21-22) and orders the death of innocent Amalkite children for their fathers’ sins (I Samuel 15 : 2-3) and the killing of children without pity (Ezekiel 9 : 5-6). At least three books in the Bible see Yehweh demanding familiar cannibalism, one of the most depraved punishments we can imagine (Jeremiah 19 : 9, Deuteronomy 28 : 53, Ezekiel 5 : 10). Some would say that without the Bible anything is permitted, but it seems clear that the opposite is true: all things are permitted by a deity we’ve given absolute authority and deemed morally perfect. Yehweh has specifically endorsed also rape (Zechariah 14 : 2), slavery (Leviticus 25 : 46), and mass murder (Exodus 12 : 29).
But what if we were brought up to believe that this God is morally perfect? How do we deal with the cognitive dissonance that springs up when we consider that these are manifestly unjust acts done by a being that is supposed to be entirely just?
Claim that they *are*just? That doesn’t hold up, since we know that they are unjust.
Concoct elaborate justifications? No. When we indulge any impulse to defend these acts we are already going dangerously astray, and relativistic morality is no morality at all. If we justify these acts, what won’t we justify?
Do we brush them under the carpet of symbolism and claim they weren’t meant to be taken literally? Nothing in the Bible implies that these are purely symbolic, but even if they were the idea of an omnibenevolent baby punisher makes no more sense as a symbol than as a literal being.
Do we claim that these particular passages are beyond our understanding? Not only is that a weak argument when we rightly condemn humans for this sort of behavior, it belies a horrendously irresponsible attitude toward morality and justice. Often this is mislabeled as “humility,” but it simply isn’t. Saying we don’t know everything about the universe is humble. Claiming that we don’t understand the purpose behind the order to eat babies is a critical abdication of rational judgment. However, if one does argue that there is a God who works in mysterious ways, ways clearly in defiance of our moral judgment, than its nature is clearly not the source of our morality.
Responding to these atrocities with examples of mercy doesn’t work either. All it proves is that the Bible has both examples of mercy and atrocity.
Some emphasize the supremacy of the New Testament over the Old, focusing on the comparative kindness of Jesus over Yehweh, and Jesus was comparatively kinder. He also provided a number of good, positive moral values. However, claiming to follow Jesus and his teachings comes with it a whole new set of problems.
Jesus, for example, has a lot to say about why divorce is not permitted under any circumstances, presumably even if the person in question is being beaten or abused (Luke 16:18; Mark 10:2-12) Two of the gospels have the bizarre story of Jesus punishing a fig tree, making it wither because it has no fruit when he’s hungry (Matthew 21:18-22, Mark 11:12-14, 20-24) even though it’s not the season to bear fruit. This is like smashing your TV on Friday because there is no new episode of House, which comes on on Monday. It’s a tantrum. Apologists will claim that he is reinforcing the parable of the barren fig tree, a commentary on people who are barren, but that doesn’t hold up. The tree is not barren, he is causing it to be so. Later verses reveal that this is a demonstration of how the power of faith can move mountains (Matthew 21:21), but all it really seems to be is a demonstration of Jesus’s power over nature. It also re-enforces the idea that if you pray hard enough that anything can happen, but that devolves very easily into victim blaming, an incredibly common problem among the faithful.
In Luke 9:61-62, Jesus informs a man who wants to follow him that he can’t go back to inform his family. The option isn’t even given to go get his family so they all can follow. What sort of family values is that?
This goes to the heart of the problem with the idea of a perfectly moral being. In the face of injustice, we are again struck with the untenable problem of how one can believe the moral arguments of a being that acts manifestly unjustly while still maintaining an accurate moral compass. By eliminating the idea that morality necessarily stems from God in this case, we solve that problem easily. When you claim that a being is perfectly just, loving, and honest, these are highly specific and highly fragile claims, and we can see from the behavior of God that they simply aren’t true.
By holding the Bible as a valid moral text, we see that it spans the moral spectrum from virtuous to vicious, which means that we can just as easily use as a moral guide a hypothetical human who’s actions range from charity work to mass murder. However, if we were to hold that person on trial, no amount of charity work would make up for the murders and render them blameless.
The other problem with the Bible as a moral text is that it is endless contradictory. The making of images of anything from Earth or Heaven is both prohibited (Exodus 20:4) and commanded (Exodus 25:18-20). People are ordered to stone others to death (Deuteronomy 21:21), yet only those without sin are allowed to cast the first stone (John 8:7) and since we’re told nobody is without sin (Romans 3:23) this is an impossible logical puzzle to solve. We’re told good deeds must be shown (Matthew 5:16) and not shown (Matthew 6:1). These contradictions defy rationality.
But much of the Bible’s appeal is its contradictions which allow almost anyone to find something to endorse their particular view. Books that endorse all viewpoints ultimately endorse none.
So, where does this leave us? I know, that was a lot to get through, but bear with me just a little longer.
I stated at the beginning that I believe most religious believers to be good people, and I stand by that. Nobody I know believes anything that I have pointed out above, or if they do, they keep it to themselves. This is an incredibly good thing and I think we should celebrate that, but it begs the question, where then does morality come from? Obviously it’s not from scripture since most people prefer to pick and choose the parts of scripture that fit with their idea of morality. You don’t have reams of people eating their babies or enslaving whole populations in the industrialized world (the third world is a whole other post), so clearly they’re applying their own reason and conscience to their perception of scripture, not drawing any moral guidance from those scriptures. They are doing the very human thing and being subject to confirmation bias, and thankfully they are. Rather than accepting that God wants them to kill their disobedient children, they see this is a terrible idea and subsume that passage as unimportant while focusing on other, more moral passages.
Therein also lies the problem, however. While it’s pretty obvious we shouldn’t rape people even if God commands it in certain cases, many common religious prohibitions are not so cut and dried. What about passages like those about homosexuality? What about the subservience of women? Jesus’s prohibitions against divorce for any reason? How do we deal with those when it’s clear that a significant number of people buy into them whole-heartedly and see no moral disconnect with them? And that’s not even taking interpretation into account by mortal authorities within the religion which leads to a rejection of science in classrooms or comprehensive sexual education due to moral qualms that argue that these things are in conflict with religious doctrine.
That is ultimately my problem. Religious teachings, especially ones from the Abrahamic traditions, promote some really terrible things. People by and large already bring their own moral judgments to the text in order to determine what is and is not worth following, but that moral judgment is far too often distorted by upbringing in traditions that insist that the code they are being taught has been handed to them by a perfect being, so they are discouraged from questioning those and are raised to apply their individual moral code to scripture in such a way as to accept arbitrary moral laws among the reasonable ones. I think we would be better off teaching children to have reasons behind their moral codes that don’t rely on scriptural authority.
For example: there is no reasonable purpose in denying same-sex marriage. You won’t find secular groups opposing that measure because it makes no sense. The closest is NARTH, but they are less than 20% scientists and the rest is religious activists. Opposition to this comes from a purely a religious place with no grounding in modern rational thought. But far too many people oppose this because of religious prohibitions.
I want to stress that religious people are not necessarily bad people, but when you apply modern reason to things a lot of this becomes really, really nonsensical.
This is why reasonable people of faith should be as vocal as the unreasonable ones, and I don’t see that as often. There are very few Fred Clarks and Rachel Held Evans in the world as compared to the followers of Rick Warren and Pat Robertson.
There are many reasons for religion but I believe they can be served secularly. Community, fellowship, friendship, and discussion can be gathered by reasonable people without needing the excuse or, in some cases, obligation to attend worship services. That being said, if it makes you happy, I have no problem with it. What I do have a problem with, though, is the vast amounts of hurt that people cause because of their sincerely held religious beliefs and the concept that these ideas about how the universe works are somehow immune from examination and criticism, on one end being dismissed as “this is just what they believe” and on the other end causing anger for daring to question the moral, ethical, and consistency issues that so many faiths have. Not all believers do this, but far too many do, and they should be called out on it, and part of that calling out requires pointing out that their ideas are bad ideas regardless of whether they believe that they were handed them by God or not.
We already make our own moral choices and apply them to our perception of faith. Let’s take the next step and stop claiming to base our morality on ancient texts written in different historical contexts and those of us who contribute to faiths that do manifestly immoral things with those contributions demand that they stop. Scripture of any sort is not a valid guide to morality, empathy and recognition of shared humanity is, and when we do arbitrary things for the sake of scripture, we are hurting other human beings.