Let’s face it, nobody needs God to tell them “thou shalt not kill.” Every culture that ever bothered to jot down a set of laws included some lip service to the fact that it would be a really good idea to take seriously the lives of your fellow citizens.
Of course, there has always been some disagreement about what is meant by “your fellow citizens,” and under what circumstances it becomes okay to kill them after all. Plenty of cultures, including Christian ones, make exceptions for war, capital punishment, heresy, etc. The point, however, is that having a generally applied “no killing” rule is beneficial to everyone. If killing is okay, then you might as easily be the target as the perpetrator.
I’m in a prolonged email exchange with a theist, moving at roughly the rate of one enormous letter every two weeks. I told him that we don’t need a god to establish “no duh” laws such as “don’t kill,” “don’t steal,” “don’t practice slavery,” and so on.
Finally the theist agreed with me, but by using a fairly common backpedal. “Fine,” he says. “I acknowledge that you already know, without referring to God, that you shouldn’t kill. But there’s a catch. The Bible teaches that God has built into us a sense of right and wrong, and the ability to reason. So it seems inevitable that humans will be able to construct a system that is more or less moral and just, without any reference or even knowledge of the Bible.”
This seems to imply that if there were no God, we wouldn’t know that killing is wrong. There is no evidence for this point, of course. It is no different from the common argument from design: “If there were no God, there wouldn’t be all these pretty trees!” Take an object that is known to exist, then assert that the object owes its existence to God. Works especially well with abstract concepts that people don’t fully understand, such as “love” or “logic.”
Here’s the problem: I can’t get anywhere by arguing “My moral intuition does NOT come from God!” Because the theist believes that God exists, and that God created everything. So if we both agree that you have a moral intuition, then of course he believes it’s from God. The only way he will stop thinking this is if I convince him to stop believing in God — which I really don’t expect to do.
So since I know that I will never get anywhere arguing against the divine moral sense, I’m embracing it for the sake of argument. We both believe that there we all have a mental concept of right and wrong, and it serves as a fairly good moral compass… most of the time. So we’re in agreement.
Now, MY built-in intuition about right and wrong tells me several general things which I hope you (I’m addressing the theist now) can more or less agree with. I’ll name a few. Let’s assume that whenever I say “person”, I mean “any sufficiently sentient, intelligent, self-aware being.” That should cover the future possibility of meeting intelligent aliens, self-aware robots, etc.
- Every person has their own feelings and desires.
- Like me, most people desire to pursue happiness and avoid pain and suffering.
- Except for the case of self-preservation, with all else being equal, it is best to avoid killing other people.
- It is wrong to needlessly inflict suffering on people.
- It is wrong to needlessly impose your will on other people — for example, through actions such as slavery and rape.
Does your own God-given intuition about morality agree with most of those? I’ll proceed on the assumption that the answer is yes.
What, then, am I to do with a Biblical passage that STRONGLY contradicts this moral intuition that you say is given to me by God? Suppose, for example, I come across a passage that tells me that God once ordered a group of soldiers to pillage a city, kill all the men (even noncombatants) and the non-virgin women, but enslave the children and marry the virgin women, whether or not they consent?
Seriously, what do I do with that passage? I really don’t believe that it can be resolved by adding context. And my moral intuition, which (as you tell me) was bestowed upon me by God, simply SCREAMS that this would be wrong today and it couldn’t have been right then either.
So I’ve got two choices:
- Ignore my moral intuition and accept the fact that pillage, slavery, and rape are sometimes good things.
- Trust my moral intuition, and recognize that some passages in the Bible completely SUCK for telling us right and wrong.
Which one do I pick?
You can say that those passages aren’t meant to be taken literally as advice for modern people, but once you’ve established that the Bible is a moral guide, you don’t have a leg to stand on when dealing with people who take the Bible more seriously than you do.
Here’s an article about Christian Reconstructionism. This is just a little taste of what these people believe:
Doctrinal leaders call for the death penalty for a wide range of crimes in addition to such contemporary capital crimes as rape, kidnapping, and murder. Death is also the punishment for apostasy (abandonment of the faith), heresy, blasphemy, witchcraft, astrology, adultery, sodomy or homosexuality, incest, striking a parent, incorrigible juvenile delinquency, and, in the case of women, unchastity before marriage.
The Biblically approved methods of execution include burning (at the stake for example), stoning, hanging, and the sword.
You’re going to say that this is a fringe group, not representing the majority of mainstream Christians in America. And of course, you’re right.
But these people are getting their moral laws straight out of the Bible. There are parts of the Bible that you don’t recognize as still in effect, but they do. Both of you claim to be informed by the Bible, yet they believe more parts of the Bible than you do.
Now, you and I agree that burning at the stake is not a fitting punishment for the crime of reading your daily horoscope. But we can’t arrive at that conclusion simply by reading the Bible and nothing else. We have to rely on this broader moral understanding that we both have, so we can say: “That shit that’s in the Bible right there? It’s EVIL. It has no business being in our laws, or the laws of any civilized nation.”
So which is right? My “god-given” moral intuition, or the Bible?