The Non-Magisterium of Religion
Why Faith Is Not a Reliable Method for Determining Moral Values
In my previous Skeptic column I acknowledged the magisterium of religion, noting the power of faith in a pre-modern world lit only by fire and plagued by poverty, disease, misery, and early death. To this I would add that it was Jesus who said to help the poor, to turn the other cheek, to love thine enemies, to judge not lest ye be judged, to forgive sinners, and to give people a second chance. Many modern Christian conservatives seem to have forgotten this message.
In the name of their religion, people have helped the poor and needy in developed nations around the world, and in America they are the leading supporters of food banks for the hungry and post-disaster relief. Many Christian theologians, along with Christian churches and preachers, advocated the abolition of the slave trade, and continued to press for justice in modern times. Some civil rights leaders were motivated by their religion, most notably the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose speeches were filled with passionate religious tropes and quotes. I have deeply religious friends who are highly driven to do good and, though they may have a complex variety of motives, they often act in the name of their particular religion.
So religion can and does motivate people to do good works, and we should always acknowledge any person or institution that pushes humanity further along the path of progress, expands the moral sphere, or even just makes the life of one other person a little easier. To that end we would do well to emulate the ecumenicalism of the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who appealed to all religious faiths to join scientists in working to preserve the environment and to end the nuclear arms race. He did so because, he said, we are all in this together; our problems are “transnational, transgenerational and transideological. So are all conceivable solutions. To escape these traps requires a perspective that embraces the peoples of the planet and all the generations yet to come.”
That stirring rhetoric urges all of us—secularists and believers—to work together toward the common goal of making the world a better place.
But as I document in my 2015 book The Moral Arc, for too long the scales of morality have been weighed down by the religious thumb pressing on the side of the scale marked “Good”. Religion has also promoted, or justified, such catastrophic moral blunders as the Crusades (the People’s Crusade, the Northern Crusade, the Albigensian Crusade, and Crusades One through Nine); the Inquisitions (Spanish, Portuguese, and Roman); witch hunts (a product, in part, of the Inquisitions that ran from the Middle Ages through the Early Modern Period and executed tens of thousands of people, mostly women); Christian conquistadors who exterminated native peoples by the millions through their guns, germs, and steel; the endless European Wars of Religion (the Nine Years War, the Thirty Years War, the Eighty Years War, the French Wars of Religion, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the English Civil War, to name just a few); the American Civil War, in which Northern Christians and Southern Christians slaughtered one another over the issue of slavery and states’ rights; and the First World War, in which German Christians fought French, British, and American Christians, all of whom believed that God was on their side. And that’s just in the Western world. There are the seemingly endless religious conflicts in India, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan, and numerous countries in Africa, the Coptic Christian persecution in Egypt, and of course Islamist terrorism has been a scourge on societal peace and security in recent decades and a day doesn’t go by without some act of violence committed in the name of Islam.
All of these events have political, economic, and social causes, but the underlying justification they share is religion.
Once moral progress in a particular area is underway, most religions eventually get on board—as in the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, women’s rights in the 20th century, and gay rights in the 21st century—but this often happens after a shamefully protracted lag time. Why? There are three reasons for the sclerotic nature of religion:
(1) The foundation of the belief in an absolute morality is the belief in an absolute religion grounded in the One True God. This inexorably leads to the conclusion that anyone who believes differently has departed from this truth and thus is unprotected by our moral obligations.
(2) Unlike science, religion has no systematic process and no empirical method to employ to determine the verisimilitude of its claims and beliefs, much less right and wrong.
(3) The morality of holy books—most notably the Bible—is not the morality any of us would wish to live by, and thus it is not possible for the religious doctrines derived from holy books to be the catalyst for moral evolution.
The Bible, in fact, is one of the most immoral works in all literature. Woven throughout begats and chronicles, laws and customs, is a narrative of accounts written by, and about, a bunch of Middle Eastern tribal warlords who constantly fight over land and women, with the victors taking dominion over both. It features a jealous and vengeful God named Yahweh who decides to punish women for all eternity with the often intolerable pain of childbirth, and further condemns them to be little more than beasts of burden and sex slaves for the victorious warlords.
Why were women to be chastened this way? Why did they deserve an eternity of misery and submission? It was all for that one terrible sin, the first crime ever recorded in the history of humanity—a thought crime no less—when that audacious autodidact Eve dared to educate herself by partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Worse, she inveigled the first man—the unsuspecting Adam—to join her in choosing knowledge over ignorance. For the appalling crime of hearkening unto the voice of his wife, Yahweh condemned Adam to toil in thorn and thistle-infested fields, and further condemned him to death, to return to the dust from whence he came.
Yahweh then cast his first two delinquent children out of paradise, setting a Cherubim and a flaming sword at the entrance to be certain that they could never return. Then, in one of the many foul moods he was wont to fall into, Yahweh committed an epic hemoclysm of genocidal proportions by killing every sentient being on Earth—including unsuspecting adults, innocent children, and all the land animals—in a massive flood. In order to repopulate the planet after he decimated it of all life save those spared in the ark, Yahweh commanded the survivors—numerous times—to “be fruitful and multiply,” and rewarded his favorite warlords with as many wives as they desired. Thus was born the practice of polygamy and the keeping of harems, fully embraced and endorsed—along with slavery—in the so-called “good book.”
As an exercise in moral casuistry, and applying the principle of interchangeable perspectives, this question comes to mind: did anyone ask the women how they felt about this arrangement? What about the millions of people living in other parts of the world who had never heard of Yahweh? What about the animals and the innocent children who drowned in the flood? What did they do to deserve such a final solution to Yahweh’s anger problem?
Many Christians say that they get their morality from the Bible, but this cannot be true because as holy books go the Bible is possibly the most unhelpful guide ever written for determining right from wrong. It’s chockfull of bizarre stories about dysfunctional families, advice about how to beat your slaves, how to kill your headstrong kids, how to sell your virgin daughters, and other clearly outdated practices that most cultures gave up centuries ago.
Consider the morality of the biblical warlords who had no qualms about taking multiple wives, adultery, keeping concubines, and fathering countless children from their many polygamous arrangements. The anthropologist Laura Betzig has put these stories into an evolutionary context in noting that Darwin predicted that successful competition leads to successful reproduction. She analyzed the Old Testament and found no less than 41 named polygamists, not one of which was a powerless man. “In the Old Testament, powerful men—patriarchs, judges, and kings—have sex with more wives; they have more sex with other men’s women; they have sex with more concubines, servants, and slaves; and they father many children.” And not just the big names. According to Betzig’s analysis, “men with bigger herds of sheep and goats tend to have sex with more women, then to father more children.” Most of the polygynous patriarchs, judges, and kings had 2, 3, or 4 wives with a corresponding number of children, although King David had more than 8 wives and 20 children, King Abijah had 14 wives and 38 children, and King Rehoboam had 18 wives (and 60 other women) who bore him no fewer than 88 offspring. But they were all lightweights compared to King Solomon, who married at least 700 women, and for good measure added 300 concubines, which he called “man’s delight.” (What Solomon’s concubines called him was never recorded.)
Although many of these stories are fiction (there is no evidence, for example, that Moses ever existed, much less led his people for 40 years in the desert leaving behind not a single archaeological artifact), what these biblical patriarchs purportedly did to women was, in fact, how most men treated women at that time, and that’s the point. Put into context, the Bible’s moral prescriptions were for another time for another people and have little relevance for us today.
In order to make the Bible relevant, believers must pick and choose biblical passages that suit their needs; thus the game of cherry picking from the Bible generally works to the advantage of the pickers. In the Old Testament, the believer might find guidance in Deuteronomy 5:17, which says, explicitly, “Thou shalt not kill”; or in Exodus 22:21, a verse that delivers a straightforward and indisputable prohibition: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
These verses seem to set a high moral bar, but the handful of positive moral commands in the Old Testament are desultory and scattered among a sea of violent stories of murder, rape, torture, slavery, and all manner of violence, such as occurs in Deuteronomy 20:10-18, in which Yahweh instructs the Israelites on the precise etiquette of conquering another tribe:
When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if its answer to you is peace and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the cattle, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourselves…. But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded.
Today, as the death penalty fades into history, Yahweh offers this list of actions punishable by death:
• Blaspheming or cursing or the Lord: “And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:13-16)
• Worshiping another god: “He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed.” (Exodus 22:20)
• Witchcraft and wizardry: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18) “A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:27)
• Female loss of virginity before marriage: “If any man take a wife [and find] her not a maid … Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die.” (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
• Homosexuality: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13)
• Working on the Sabbath: “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.” (Exodus 35:2)
The book considered by over two billion people to be the greatest moral guide ever produced—inspired as it was by an all-knowing, totally benevolent deity—recommends the death penalty for saying the Lord’s name at the wrong moment or in the wrong context, for imaginary crimes like witchcraft, for commonplace sexual relations (adultery, fornication, homosexuality), and for the especially heinous crime of not resting on the Sabbath. How many of today’s two billion Christians agree with their own holy book on the application of capital punishment?
And how many would agree with this gem of moral turpitude from Deuteronomy 22:28-29: “If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.” I dare say no Christian today would follow this moral directive. No one today—Jew, Christian, atheist, or otherwise—would even think of such draconian punishment for such acts. That is how far the moral arc has bent in four millennia.
The comedian Julia Sweeney, in her luminous monologue Letting Go of God, makes the point when she recalls re-reading a familiar story she learned in her Catholic childhood upbringing:
This Old Testament God makes the grizzliest tests of people’s loyalty. Like when he asks Abraham to murder his son, Isaac. As a kid, we were taught to admire it. I caught my breath reading it. We were taught to admire it? What kind of sadistic test of loyalty is that, to ask someone to kill his or her own child? And isn’t the proper answer, “No! I will not kill my child, or any child, even if it means eternal punishment in hell!”?
Like so many other comedians who’ve struck the Bible’s rich vein of unintended comedic stories, Sweeney allows the material to write itself. Here she continues her tour through the Old Testament with its preposterous commandments:
Like if a man has sex with an animal, both the man and the animal should be killed. Which I could almost understand for the man, but the animal? Because the animal was a willing participant? Because now the animal’s had the taste of human sex and won’t be satisfied without it? Or my personal favorite law in the Bible: in Deuteronomy, it says if you’re a woman, married to a man, who gets into a fight with another man, and you try to help him out by grabbing onto the genitals of his opponent, the Bible says you immediately have to have your hand chopped off.
Richard Dawkins memorably characterized this God of the Old Testament as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Most modern Christians, however, respond to arguments like mine and Dawkins’ by saying that the Old Testament’s cruel and fortunately outdated laws have nothing to do with how they live their lives or the moral precepts that guide them today. The angry, vengeful God Yahweh of the Old Testament, Christians claim, was displaced by the kinder, gentler New Testament God in the form of Jesus, who two millennia ago introduced a new and improved moral code. Turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, forgiving sinners, and giving to the poor is a great leap forward from the capricious commands and copious capital punishment found in the Old Testament.
That may be, but nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus revoke God’s death sentences or ludicrous laws. In fact, quite the opposite (Matthew 5:17-30 passim): “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” He doesn’t even try to edit the commandments or soften them up: “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.” In fact, if anything, Jesus’ morality is even more draconian than that of the Old Testament: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.”
In other words, even thinking about killing someone is a capital offense. In fact, Jesus elevated thought crimes to an Orwellian new level (Matthew 9:28-29): “Ye have heard it was said by them of old time, Though shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
And if you don’t think you can control your sexual impulses Jesus has a practical solution: “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”
President Bill Clinton may have physically sinned in the White House with an intern, but by Jesus’ moral code even the evangelical Christian Jimmy Carter sinned when he famously admitted in a 1976 Playboy magazine interview while running for President: “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”
As for Jesus’s own family values, he never married, never had children, and he turned away his own mother time and again. For example, at a wedding feast Jesus says to her (John 2:4): “Woman, what have I to do with you?” One biblical anecdote recounts the time that Mary waited patiently off to the side for Jesus to finish speaking so that she could have a moment with him, but Jesus told his disciples, “Send her away, you are my family now,” adding (Luke 14:26): “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Charming. This is what cultists do when they separate followers from their families in order to control both their thoughts and their actions, as when Jesus calls to his flock to follow him or else (John 15:4-7): “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” But if a believer abandons his family and gives away his belongings (Mark 10:30), “he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands.” In other passages Jesus also sounds like the tribal warlords of the Old Testament:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:34-39)
Even sincere Christians cannot agree on Jesus’ morality and the moral codes in the New Testament, holding legitimate differences of opinion on a number of moral issues that remain unresolved based on biblical scripture alone. These include dietary restrictions and the use of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine; masturbation, pre-marital sex, contraception, and abortion; marriage, divorce, and sexuality; the role of women; capital punishment and voluntary euthanasia; gambling and other vices; international and civil wars; and many other matters of contention that were nowhere in sight when the Bible was written, such as stem-cell research, gay marriage, and the like. Indeed, the fact that Christians, as a community, keep arguing over their own contemporary question “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do?) is evidence that the New Testament is silent on the answer.
Most notably, what are we to make of the Christian moral model of sin and forgiveness? By this account, we are all sinners, born into original sin because of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. The Christian solution to this problem is to accept Jesus as your savior, as in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” I once said these words, and for seven years lived the life of a born-again Christian, until, among other things, I recognized the flawed syllogistic reasoning behind this proposition:
1. We were originally created sinless, but because God gave us free will and Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, we are all born with original sin.
2. God could forgive the sins we never committed, but instead He sacrificed his son Jesus, who is actually God himself in the flesh because Christians believe in only one God (monotheism) of which Jesus and the Holy Spirit are just different manifestations, as in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
3. The only way to avoid eternal punishment for sins we never committed from this all-loving and all-powerful God is to accept his son—who is actually himself—as our savior.
So…God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself.
In addition to being an exercise in twisted logic, the very idea runs contrary to centuries of Western jurisprudence, which is clear on the point that individuals cannot be blamed for something that they didn’t do. There is no such thing as a scapegoat in a court of law; pinning your crimes on an innocent person (like Jesus), and then expecting a judge (like God) to sentence the other person instead of you is what’s called redemption in the Bible, but in the real world it’s known as a miscarriage of justice. In the Western legal system, Jesus would never be allowed to bear the responsibility for anyone’s sins but his own. And blaming an innocent third party potentially leaves out the most important moral agent in the equation. If someone has been harmed by your actions, it isn’t God you should be asking for forgiveness. It is the injured party who deserves your supplications and entreaties, and only that person can forgive you and grant you absolution, assuming your apology is genuine and offered sincerely.
I could go on much more about this aspect of religion—and I do at length in Chapter 4 of The Moral Arc, but the point is made here that in addition to the acknowledged magisterium of religion documented in my previous column, faith is not the royal road to moral progress. Instead, reason, rationality, and empiricism as embodied in secular philosophy and science are the only reliable tools we have for determining the natural of reality, both physical and moral.
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Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of The Michael Shermer Show, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His many books include Why People Believe Weird Things, The Science of Good and Evil, The Believing Brain, The Moral Arc, and Heavens on Earth. His new book is Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational.
There are still members of a cartoonish fire and brimstone Christianity from an age long gone. For someone who urges “secularists and believers to work together” perhaps you should avoid pointing out moral blunders that scream “human being” rather than any specific dogma. Obviously the bloody 20th century atheists weren’t shocking for their appalling application of Marxist dogma, but more for the immense scale of their bloodlust. Could it be that any concentration of human power, regardless of specific dogma, inevitably transgresses on the rights of men? Underlying justification of some kind is always used before the hammer drops, and religion is only one of the ways human power becomes concentrated and exercised.
I do want to read more of your writing but this one looks like you may be championing an already immovable segment of society. I suppose it is fun, and certainly simple, to point out bizarre statements made by an ancient people(and modern as well), but I think we have all read this stuff many times. I think it is a mistake to rely on your own faith that the answer lies in secular philosophy and the misconception that “reason, rationality, and empiricism” will lead everyone down the same path of truth. You don’t have to look far to see honest men of science disparaging any who disagree, even other honest men of science. Human beings of all stripes seem to share the same weaknesses. Give them the same concentration of power, and I see no reason to think that the same patterns won’t again occur.
This wasn't up to your high standard of intellectual critique. The arguments you made were a little less than your usual brilliance. To me, they displayed a lack of rigor in digging into the theological arguments that you quickly brushed aside. There are many atheists , myself included, who find the teachings of Jesus a helpful guide to a meaningful and challenging lifestyle. We also recognize the difficulties in determining the actual sayings and acts of Jesus. Good theological work has been done by Marcus Borg, John Spong, Karen Armstrong, and others to indicate the cultural and literary complexities that must be confronted before making decisions you so cavalierly made in this article.