Endless Curiosity

May 23, 2010

Religion and Morality

Filed under: God, Life, Psychology — Alec @ 5:34 am

I was reading an article called The New War Between Science and Religion, which starts with:

There is a new war between science and religion, rising from the ashes of the old one, which ended with the defeat of the anti-evolution forces in the 2005 “intelligent design” trial. …. The new war pits those who argue that science and “moderate” forms of religion are compatible worldviews against those who think they are not.

The former group, known as accommodationists…. suggest that there are deeply mysterious, spiritual domains of human experience, such as morality, mind, and consciousness, for which only religion can provide deep insights.

I don’t want to address the domains of mind and consciousness because I think that science will eventually give us answers. Morality is much more interesting because there’s no agreement on what is moral and immoral, and certainly religion (at least the Bible) doesn’t seem to provide good answers.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, ‘One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes man virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it.

And here’s the historian Arthur Schlesinger from a speech he made. ‘As a historian, I confess to a certain amusement when I hear the Judeo-Christian traditions praised as the source of our present-day concern for human rights… In fact, the great religious ages were notable for their indifference to human rights….Human rights is not a religious idea. It is a secular idea, the product of the last four centuries of Western history.’

Let’s look at some instances of behavior listed in the Christian bible to see why Russell and Schlesinger might have come to their conclusions:

  • Exodus 31:15, ‘Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death’.
  • Exodus 21:15, ‘And he who strikes his father or his mother, shall surely be put to death,’ or verse 17 ‘And he who curses his father or his mother, shall surely be put to death’.
  • Genesis 12:11-20 Abram – later called Abraham – lies and says that his wife Sarai is his sister and basically gives her to Pharaoh to save his own skin. God punishes Pharaoh for believing Abram’s lie. So God condones lying, and punishes the person believing the lie. Wonderful isn’t it.
  • Deuteronomy 22:23-29 tells us that if a virgin girl who is engaged to be married is raped in the city, both she and the rapist should be stoned to death.
  • Exodus 21:7 makes it clear that God allows people to sell their daughters as sex slaves.
  • In Judges 21, the Israelites need women so they send 12,000 ‘valiant men’ to attack Jabesh Gilead and ‘utterly destroy every male and every woman who has known a man intimately.’ These valiant men bring back 400 young virgins to camp, where presumably they are gang raped, then they give the girls to the people of Benjamin as wives. Unfortunately 400 girls are not enough so the people of Benjamin go to Shiloh and hide in vineyards until the girls come out to dance at the ‘yearly feast of the Lord’. Kidnap and rape, how wonderful to be a woman in the Bible.
  • In 2 Samuel 11:4 David, that great King of Israel, sees Bathsheba bathing and wants to have sex with her so he sends people to get her. He rapes her and she becomes pregnant. Then David makes sure that Bathsheba’s husband is killed so that he can have Bathsheba permanently. 
  • In Numbers 31:1-18, God tells Moses to fight the Midianites, and the children of Israel win, taking captive all the women and children. However, this makes Moses angry and he tells his captains to kill all the little boys and all the women and girls who are not virgins. He tells them to keep alive all the virgins – 32,000 of them – for themselves. Now, I know God wants us to love our neighbors, but I doubt that he meant rape.
  • Numbers 15:32-36 where a man who is found gathering sticks on the Sabbath is stoned to death.
  • Exodus 12:29, to punish Pharaoh, God kills the firstborn child of every person in Egypt, from Pharaoh to the captives in prison
  • Deuteronomy 13:12-15 says that if anyone in a city tries to encourage others to serve other gods, then ‘you shall surely strike the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying it, all that is in it and its livestock – with the edge of the sword.’ So, for the sins of one person you should utterly destroy everyone in the city?
  • Deuteronomy 13:12-15 says that if anyone in a city tries to encourage others to serve other gods, then ‘you shall surely strike the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying it, all that is in it and its livestock – with the edge of the sword.’ So, for the sins of one person you should utterly destroy everyone in the city? 
  • Deuteronomy also tells is that if you are born illegitimately, neither you or any of your descendents for ten generations can enter the assembly of God. Again, punishment for the sins of others, but for 10 generations? Incredible.
  • Leviticus 25:45 tells us that we can buy the children of strangers who live among us if the children are born in this country. In Genesis 19:8, to protect his guests, Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the crowd and told the crowd to rape them as they wished. Not particularly family oriented, I’d say. In Judges 11:30-40, Jephthah kills his daughter as a burnt offering to God. What a guy.
  • Hosea 13:16, Samaria is guilty because it rebelled against God so ‘they shall fall by the sword, their infants shall be dashed in pieces and their women with child ripped open.’ Hey, you don’t like what people do so kill all the babies. Isaiah goes along with idea as well in 13:16: ‘Their children also will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered and their wives ravished.’ 
  • Leviticus 25:44-45 even tells us how to get slaves – we can buy them from neighboring nations and we can buy children from the strangers who live among us. And we’ve already seen that God allows us to sell our daughters as sex slaves.
  • As for slaughtering people who have what you want, in Deuteronomy 3:4, Moses claims that God wanted them to kill all the people in sixty cities – sixty! But Moses is a dilettante compared to Joshua. Pretty much the whole of Joshua is about slaughtering other people in order to get their real estate. 

I could go on and on and on and on and on. The Bible is simply filled with examples of things that we do not regard as moral or ethical. The only way anyone can claim the Bible teaches morality is to cherry pick out the good parts, but cherry picking means that we already have ideas of what is moral, which must have come from some place outside the Bible.

Probably the best moral advice in the Bible is the Golden Rule. In Matthew 7:12 Jesus says, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

However, the Golden Rule wasn’t invented by Jesus. It appears in religions and philosophies across ages and societies. My favorite expression is from Rabbi Hillel, one of the most important people in Jewish history, who lived just before Jesus. He said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.

As Christopher Hitchens says in God is Not Great, “We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books.

I would add that in addition to what literature tells us about the human struggle with morality and ethics, science is chipping away at the same subjects as it slowly discovers the genetic influences on thought and behavior, and the differences in the brains of sociopaths and normal people, and the reasons for the multitude of cognitive distortions that afflict us.

All in all, religion is perhaps the last place we should look for help in how to live a moral life. So let’s give the last word to the most famous scientist of the last century, Albert Einstein, who said “I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.

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