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Nov 27 2006

The whole God = morality thing

In the comments to the Warren Jeffs post of a few days back, an anonymous poster keeps asking us how we, as godless heathens, can possibly judge Jeffs’ actions as immoral because, being atheists and all, we obviously must live lives of pure moral anarchy where anything goes, right? You guessed it — it’s the old “no god, no morals” argument one more time. I thought it would be instructive to our commenter, as well as anyone else still uninformed enough to think this way, to devote to the topic a post of its own.

We have often heard from believers the whole “no Bible, no morals” pitch, and frankly I continue to be surprised that anyone in this day and age, even amongst the religious, could still be so naive as to adhere to it, as it demonstrates both an ignorance of the function of moral precepts in society as well as the actual content of the Bible. I also would have thought the recent scandals involving such evangelical leading lights as Ted Haggard and Kent Hovind should have put to rest the idiotic notion that religious belief is some kind of guarantee of moral superiority. (Indeed, the very fact that Warren Jeffs himself is a religious believer and not an atheist ought to say something.) But I guess some folks never got the message. I’ll address specific points in Anonymous’s replies in order to rectify his lack of understanding. (Note: because of Anonymous’s anonymity, I will default to assuming Anonymous is male for the sake of ease.)

To Tracie he said:

A lot of I’s and my’s going on here. If you don’t believe in objective truth then I guess it’s subjective. It’s just based on personal whims and preferences. In other words, someone can easily say to you who cares what you say is truth because my truth is different.

Someone could easily say that, but they’d be full of crap, because no one lives in complete isolation from other individuals. Humans are social beings, and thus our every action has consequences that affect not only ourselves but those around us. This is an observable fact and there for any thinking being to comprehend and evaluate. People who go around saying “my truth is different” and then act upon that precept are generally considered sociopathic.

To be honest, the only people I’ve ever heard claim that there is no such thing as objective truth have been Christians. I’m not suggesting this is an opinion held by all Christians, only that the only people who’ve ever expressed it to me have been Christian; no atheist in my experience has ever told me there’s no objective truth. I once had a pastor tell me “truth is relative,” with a straight face, and phrases like “everything is a belief” pop up with surprising regularity in debates with believers, usually when you’ve just demonstrated to them how some aspect of their belief system doesn’t stand up to scientific or rational scrutiny.

Anyway, Anonymous’s point seems to be that either a person gets a list of rules out of an ancient holy book, and is thus moral, or they don’t, and they aren’t, and can only make decisions based on “whims and preferences.” This strikes me as a baffling way for someone to learn morality, as it offers no understanding of the precepts being taught, and in fact discourages intellectual involvement in moral development. A person might practice “moral” behavior at a superficial level if they go out of their way to follow a list of Biblical dos and don’ts. But they cannot be expected to genuinely understand the difference between right and wrong; why they must behave they way they’ve been told to behave.

What Tracie was explaining in her initial reply to Anonymous is that she can rationally observe the consequences of certain actions, and make decisions about the morality or immorality of those actions based on her observations. She was telling him she doesn’t need a list of rules in a holy book to tell her a thing is wrong when she can readily see this fact for herself. It’s a little process called “thinking,” and it’s quite a different thing than “whim.”

The rest of Anonymous’s response to Tracie shows he really hasn’t the slightest clue what she was trying to tell him (Anonymous also seems not to understand human interaction), and I’ll let her respond to Anonymous from here on out.

To me Anonymous asked:

I never said it was arbitrary [to condemn Jeffs for his actions], I wanted to know why it isn’t arbritrary according to your world view?

Anonymous obviously doesn’t understand my “worldview,” and I have a pretty strong suspicion that what he thinks my “worldview” is, is comprised of stereotypical notions about atheists that have been fed to him as part of his religious upbringing.

Reason is not an abritrary process. Observing the consequences of actions, thinking about what you’ve observed, and arriving at conclusions rationally is anything but arbitrary.

The irony of Anonymous’s position is that he’s either unaware or unwilling to admit that he arrives at moral decisions by the same process I do: he thinks about them. If, as he says, he considers the Bible to be the “objective standard,” (more on this in a minute) then how does Anonymous arrive at the decision that its moral precepts are the correct ones? When Anonymous reads “Thou shalt not kill,” and thinks, “Hey, that sounds like a good idea,” where does that decision originate from and how does Anonymous account for it (to paraphrase his own question to me)? How does he know it’s a better idea to follow that precept rather than reject it? If he replies, “God instilled that understanding in me,” then why is the Bible necessary? Why would God have instilled understanding in Anonymous and not everyone else?

The fact is that whether you prefer to get your morals out of the Bible (a bad choice, as I’ll shortly demonstrate), or by observing actions, learning from those observations and just approaching life rationally, you will arrive at moral decisions by the same process: thinking.

Anonymous goes on to say:

Well, now your [sic] begging the question, but since you asked I’ll tell you. I presuppose that the Bible is the objective standard. This behavior is clearly wrong according to Bible.

Bzzt! Wrong answer. This behavior is clearly not wrong according to the Bible. There are numerous instances where the God of the Bible condones and even advocates rape, incest and murder. Indeed almost the entire Old Testament is a nonstop orgy of God killing, killing, and killing some more. But here are some salient passages.

  • Genesis 19:30-38: Lot’s daughters get him drunk and have sex with him to “preserve the family line” through incest. God does not punish them for this, or express any kind of disapproval. So if God and his Biblical rules are the “objective moral standard,” why is incest considered profoundly immoral by most everyone in our society today, including Bible-believing Christians?
  • Numbers 31: This entire chapter is a nightmare of rape, carnage and murder. God tells his armies to massacre the Midianites, which they do with gusto. In verses 17-18, he orders boys and non-virginal women to be killed, but he allows the Israelites to keep the female virgins for rape purposes.
  • Deuteronomy 22:23-24: Rapists get stoned to death here for violating betrothed virgins…but so do their victims if they don’t scream for help. Yow! Tough beans if he was, like, covering your mouth, sweetheart!
  • Deuteronomy 22:28-29: A little further down we see the very lenient punishment for rapists of unbetrothed virgins — they get to buy their victims at a blue-light special price of 50 she
    kels! What a deal!

Now I ask you — this is an “objective moral standard” to live by?

So to conclude — Anonymous asks:

I wonder how you can possitively assert something is wrong or right according to your world view?

Because my worldview is based on rational thought and observation of consequences. Contrast with a person whose moral decisions are explained by saying “Because the Bible tells me so.” Where is the understanding of right and wrong?

And…

Do you believe murder and rape is wrong? If you say yes then how can you assert this position from a morally relative position?

As I have demonstrated, my position is not “morally relative” in the way Anonymous thinks it is. Now I ask Anonymous: do you believe rape and murder is wrong? Then how can you assert this from a position of obeying a holy book in which rape and murder are either openly advocated or only very leniently punished by God?

8 comments

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  1. 1
    Anonymous

    Martin=Morality“few days back, an anonymous poster keeps asking us how we, as godless heathens, can possibly judge Jeffs’ actions as immoral because, being atheists and all, we obviously must live lives of pure moral anarchy where anything goes, right? You guessed it — it’s the old “no god, no morals” argument one more time.”No. I didn’t mention anything of the kind. I asked by what basis can you condemn a persons actions or say that a person is immoral when you believe in subjective morality. I mean, it’s fine to give opinions as to why you believe that what Jeffs did was wrong, but it’s just your opinion, and that’s fine. That’s all I stated. I really found myself commenting on this article for no good reason other than to flush out the subjectiveness of the posters world view.“Someone could easily say that, but they’d be full of crap, because no one lives in complete isolation from other individuals. Humans are social beings, and thus our every action has consequences that affect not only ourselves but those around us. This is an observable fact and there for any thinking being to comprehend and evaluate. People who go around saying “my truth is different” and then act upon that precept are generally considered sociopathic”.Huah? So you are linking the opinions based on if they are acted on? I don’t understand how this relates to what a person views what’s true or not true, but then again, why should Martin care? Sure, he can say that he believes murder is wrong, but if he doesn’t believe in absolute universal law then he has no basis for saying that it is wrong for everyone. It’s funny how he brings up various scripture in an attempt to prove the point that the Bible is not a good moral standard, well, that begs the question because he has no absolute moral standard! If he disagrees with what the Bible states in these verses then he only proves my point! So I guess Martin is sociopathic.“To be honest, the only people I’ve ever heard claim that there is no such thing as objective truth have been Christians.” Well, just because someone calls themself a Christian doesn’t mean that they are. Not to mention, most Atheists usually love to prop up various failed individuals or outright heretics as being Christians, basically because most Atheists are ignorant of orthodox Christianity. (Well, then again, many Christian are too.) “no atheist in my experience has ever told me there’s no objective truth.”Really? Do you hold to objective truth? I’m not very familiar with your position as an Atheist. Are you a materialist? Would you agree with this statement:1. Material things are extended into space.2. Objective moral laws are not extended in space.3. Therefore objective moral laws are non material.4. Materialism posits that non material entities do not exist.If you agree, then guess what? Surprise, surprise, you don’t believe in objective moral law. You don’t have a basis for morality. “Anyway, Anonymous’s point seems to be that either a person gets a list of rules out of an ancient holy book, and is thus moral, or they don’t, and they aren’t, and can only make decisions based on “whims and preferences.” This strikes me as a baffling way for someone to learn morality, as it offers no understanding of the precepts being taught, and in fact discourages intellectual involvement in moral development.”Your decision making and moral development is different than mine. This makes my point.“A person might practice “moral” behavior at a superficial level if they go out of their way to follow a list of Biblical dos and don’ts. But they cannot be expected to genuinely understand the difference between right and wrong; why they must behave they way they’ve been told to behave.”You seem to be trying to change the topic. This isn’t about my moral standard, this about you not having an absolute objective moral standard, so I say again to you, it’s your opinion against mine, who cares what you believe is right or wrong for the moment, it only depends on the person, culture, or era of the particular anyway. Also, how do you “understand” the difference between right and wrong? This is the question that you should answer.“Anonymous obviously doesn’t understand my “worldview,””You are right, I don’t know your particular world view, why don’t you explain it to me?“Reason is not an abritrary process. Observing the consequences of actions, thinking about what you’ve observed, and arriving at conclusions rationally is anything but arbitrary. The irony of Anonymous’s position is that he’s either unaware or unwilling to admit that he arrives at moral decisions by the same process I do: he thinks about them. If, as he says, he considers the Bible to be the “objective standard,” (more on this in a minute) then how does Anonymous arrive at the decision that its moral precepts are the correct ones? When Anonymous reads “Thou shalt not kill,” and thinks, “Hey, that sounds like a good idea,” where does that decision originate from and how does Anonymous account for it (to paraphrase his own question to me)? How does he know it’s a better idea to follow that precept rather than reject it? If he replies, “God instilled that understanding in me,” then why is the Bible necessary? Why would God have instilled understanding in Anonymous and not everyone else?”As a Christian, who is made in the image of God, I can say that I have the ability to reason because I’m made in the image of God and I have a reasonable God, just like Martin is able to reason because he is made in the image of God, but when Martin presupposes the ability to reason but can’t give an account why men should reason a certain way, Martin can only observe men and say this is the way it is. He can’t say this is the way it *should* be.“Because my worldview is based on rational thought and observation of consequences. Contrast with a person whose moral decisions are explained by saying “Because the Bible tells me so.” Where is the understanding of right and wrong?”I like that you prop up making moral decisions based on logical reasoning and such. I assume that you agree that laws of logic exist, such as the law of non contradiction and that these laws are non material. It’s great that you use the laws of logic, but the problem is your world view can’t account for these laws. Only the Christian world view can account for logic, science, and objective ethical standards because these presuppose the existence of the Christian God.Now to the scriptures that you cited. First of all, you are aware that these scriptures have been exhaustively dealt with by Christian scholars aren’t you? Oh, maybe your Atheistic hand book doesn’t deal with counter arguments.Gen 19:30-38“There is no question that lot sinned here in several ways, to say nothing of the violation of incest laws that Moses later gave as commands to Israel. Lot was drunk, and he committed adultery with his daughters. Lot’s righteous soul was vexed with many sins fue to his long association with the people of Sodom. But none of these sins are approved of in this passage. Indeed, the whole colorless tone of the narrative, without any positive comment by the narrator, indicates that there was no attempt to conceal the horror of his sins. Here is a good example of the principle that not everything recorded by the Bible is approved by the Bible” (Geisler & Howell, p. 49).Num. 31“First of all, it must be remembered that it was the Midianites who corrupted God’s people by leading them into idoloatry at Baal Peor so that 24,000 Israelites died in the plague (Num 25:9). It was necessary to totally eliminate this evil influence from Israel. “Further, it was not on the authority of Moses that Israel performed destruction. Rather, it was at the direct command of God. Verse 2 records God’s co
    mmand to Moses to carry out the Lord’s vengeance upon the Medianites. The abominable nature of the influence which the Medianites had upon Israel in leading them into idolatry merited the destructive judgement of God. God dealt severely and decisively with this cancer. The moral justification for this action is found in the fact that God has the right to give and to take life. Since the wages of sin is death, and the Medianites engaged in a terrible sin, they justly reaped the consequences of God’s vengeance” (Geisler & Howell, p.110).Deut. 22:23-24These laws were given to theocratic nation of Israel. There are different kinds of law found in scripture. These are moral, civil, and ceremonial. Christ fulfilled the ceremonial laws and the civil laws have been abrogated or modified because of course, there is no theocratic state of Israel, Israel in the true since of the word is now known as the Church. The Church administers church discipline. Much, much more could be said about this, but I don’t have the time.Deuteronomy 22:28-2928 “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.Can’t expect the modern western mind to understand scripture like this. This scripture was actually a guideline on correcting something that had already been going on in society at that particular time. But, I don’t expect these explanations to be of much help to you because, of course, one needs to interpret the Bible and read the Bible as a whole, not in little bits and pieces, and it has to be taken in it’s intended context. Scripture interprets scripture.As I said before, you can disagree with the Bible all day, but it’s only your opinion. For you to use logic and reason and say that this is wrong because of this or to say this is right because of that goes directly against your world view and in fact shows that you are using the Christian world view to attempt to make a case!“As I have demonstrated, my position is not “morally relative” in the way Anonymous thinks it is.” Please feel free to explain.“Now I ask Anonymous: do you believe rape and murder is wrong? Then how can you assert this from a position of obeying a holy book in which rape and murder are either openly advocated or only very leniently punished by God?”I do believe that the crimes of rape and murder are wrong according to my objective standard, which is the Bible. You have no objective standard and for you to say that rape and murder is wrong is subjective. It is merely your opinion at the moment.. Much more could be said, but that is really the only point that I was trying to make about the comments made concerning that weasel Jeffs. Thanks.Due to work, this will be my last post.Source: Geisler & Howell.(1992). When critics ask. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

  2. 2
    tracie

    “Deuteronomy 22:23-24: Rapists get stoned to death here for violating betrothed virgins…but so do their victims if they don’t scream for help. Yow! Tough beans if he was, like, covering your mouth, sweetheart!”Just to add, that I’ve also wondered what a woman was to do if confronted with a knife to the throat and told not to scream under threat of death?According to this verse, the Bible instructs that she must be killed along with her rapist.Killing a woman because a man raped her is a law I’d have to refuse to execute. (No pun intended.) It might be perfectly acceptable by the Bible’s standards–but, without a doubt, it’s not OK by my standards.I see no logical reason why this woman needs to be executed as a result of being raped. It appears to me to be an extremely irrational law based on highly mysongynistic cultural standards.

  3. 3
    tracie

    Subjective Position 1. It is your personal faith that a god-entity exists.Subjective Position 2. It is your personal belief that the god-entity had people write a book to define right behaviors for you.Subjective Position 3. It is your personal judgment that the behaviors described in this book are “moral.” If you had evaluated it and found that these Biblically defined behaviors were not morally correct, in your opinion, you would have logically rejected this particular god-entity and book as immoral and not worthy of following. So, you personally judged your god to be moral based on your own evaluation of what is moral. Otherwise, you are following a god you personally evaluate to be “immoral.” Your claim that “God is moral” appears to be simply a statement you make because you personally agree with what you are reading. It seems moral to you, because of the moral stance you held when you evaluated it, therefore you call it moral–because it aligns with your personal morality. I don’t see how you can label that as “objective.”Subjective Position 4. It is your personal choice to adopt certain behavioral standards you choose from this book, while rejecting others. You also appear to personally choose your mode of justification for why you follow some instructions and not others, based on your personal interpretation of the reading (since the human brain is a subjective filter.)Subjective Position 5. You have personally chosen to believe that this book is intended to define right behaviors for other people as well as for you.All of these things are things you adopted because you chose them based on your own judgment.Judging for yourself that it’s good to adopt Book X’s moral code is no more “objective” than any other method of choosing a moral code. It is still filled with personal choices, personal values, personal judgments and personal interpretations.

  4. 4
    ji coufal

    One Agnostics Source of Morals Theists frequently challenge atheists (and agnostics) by asking what is the source of morals for the latter. They apparently believe that without a law/morals giver (GOD) there can be no morals, and further seem to indicate that in asking this question they have somehow trumped atheists/agnostics. What follows is one layman agnostic’s (weak atheist) thoughts on the source of his morals. My main source of morals is my neighbor; that is, my relationship with my neighbors. There is nothing more logical to me than the Golden Rule. Christians might respond that my source is thus Jesus, who I hold in high esteem and honor, but Golden Rule formulations exist in many cultures and religions, including some long before the time of Jesus. My neighbor starts with my family—my wife, children, grandchildren, cousins, aunts & uncles, nephews and nieces. Whether this has a biological basis, such as the desire to perpetuate my “bloodline (genetic line) is open to discussion. I prefer to see it as coming from love. From the inner circle of family, my concern for neighbors ripples out from close friends in ever widening circles to encompass all humans (more on non-humans later). I would be false to say I am equally concerned for all humanity, but I do have concern for all humanity. The premise here is compassion, fairness and reciprocity. If I want my grandchildren to be treated with fairness, justice and compassion it seems fair and right that I treat the grandchildren of others the same way. I have no need nor see any reason to believe in a moral giver (GOD) to treat my neighbors with respect and dignity because I see them as fellow human travelers making a journey through life just as I am. Like philosopher Holmes Rolston, I believe life is the second rarest thing in the universe, the first being intelligence, and these characteristics deserve dignity and respect. The second source of my morals may well be evolution. Some scientists believe that there is a gene or genes for altruism, and research indicates that cooperative strategies and compassion are effective survival and reproductive habits equal to conflict and power. Some go further and suggest that there is a gene or genes that provide tendencies towards religious beliefs. This I think might be a tendency towards community, which religion provides. I suggest that religion is one things and spirituality is another, the latter of which can exist, whatever the source, without the former. As noted above, one of the advantages of religion is that it most commonly, in its organized, denominational forms, involves a community of “true believers”. One is not likely to find a hospital or school of St. B. Russell. But the violence of God thread and the exclusivity of truth dogma of such communities can and historically has led them to barbaric, destructive, inhumane behavior, whereas atheism and polytheism stress tolerance. I strive for a spirituality that does not need God or religion as its base. Evolution provides another source of morals when I realize that I and everyone and everything I see is the result of an awe inspiring 13 billion year adventure. In this sense, non-human others (trees, animals, birds, fish, geological formations, ancient civilizations and their artifacts, etc.) become moral objects even if they cannot be moral subjects. They become less “”other” and more “we.” In my opinion my source of morals is stronger than those found in a Holy Book, given by a God, who after creating me in “his” image (or have I created him in my image?) tells me to discount the intelligence I have been “given” and do anything that he says to do so that I can finally worship him in heaven. And, or course, if I don’t I will be eternally tortured in hell. Also, what is right and wrong to do depends upon which God I choose. My sources of morals don’t depend on either a carrot or a stick, a heaven or a hell.Jim CoufalJuly, 2006

  5. 5
    tracie

    I think most atheists would agree with your post.What I’m finding really interesting, though, is that at some point Anonymous made a personal evaluation and a choice that he deems Behavioral Code X (in the Bible) as the proper moral system. But he could only have done this by evaluating it somehow–based on his personal judgements, values and beliefs (the same way any of the rest of us determine what we think is the “right” thing to do).This is a real catch-22, because if he thinks X is “good”–and then he reads in the Bible that “X is good,” and Anonymous (obviously) agrees (because he’s basically just agreeing with himself), then all that’s really happening is that Anonymous has come across a book that he accepts–but only because it already aligns with _his_ preset moral views. He’s not “adopting” the Bible’s moral codes. He’s simply following his own subjective moral codes, and holding up the Bible to claim his own ideology is endorsed by a god–while denying the whole time that he’s doing nothing more that following the moral code he already believed before he ever determined the Bible was correct.The alternate would be that the Bible actually conflicts with his moral code–but he follows the Bible, regardless, even though he actually feels it’s teachings are immoral.

  6. 6
    Andrew

    Anonymous has only showed us his ignorance. He clearly doesn’t understand morality or materialism for that matter. It could be argued that ideas are material because they physically exist in our brains. This doesn’t mean that the individual ideas exist apart from our minds. You couldn’t use this argument to say a god exists because just having an idea of a god physically in your brain only means the idea is real not the god. In the atheists view, all morality exists in the minds of person. That is the only place it could exist. A theist would say that morality exists apart from us in some other realm or something.Anonymous loves talking about moral relativism. He believes the morality of an atheist is untenable. Morals are relative from person to person and culture to culture. This can be shown by the way people answer moral dilemmas. A recent Harvard study showed that people don’t all agree on acceptable moral behavior, but they agree 90% of the time! The vast vast majority of people choose to live together on certain rules that evolved over time and fostered civilization. Some of these morals inhibited scientific progress as an affront to god, but they were slowly seen as folly and slowly replaced. Everything we have today (even this PC that I’m pecking at) is thanks to altruism and our evolving moral value systems. Many of the conflicts throughout history are a result of value systems head-butting against each other. Today’s conflict arises from a religious resistance to a newly emerging global value system.I like how Anonymous counters Martins’ biblical quotes:”Can’t expect the modern western mind to understand scripture like this. This scripture was actually a guideline on correcting something that had already been going on in society at that particular time.”Wow, that sounds like you are justifying those acts with moral relativism. An atheist knows that these behaviors were common practice in there time, but that doesn’t change that fact that it was still WRONG! A Christian cannot deny parts of the “Word of God”, so for you to dismiss those views out of relativism is hypocritical.Lastly, you mention “universal law” as the basis for your morality. I would like to pose you a question I have heard many pose before:Anonymous, are you saying that without your god, you would not be moral person? If you were an atheist you would go about raping and murdering to your hearts delight?The fact is that the most atheistic of the democratic nations of the world have the lowest violent crime rates. Something can be said for being good for goodness sake than being good because a god told you to. The idea that you can do whatever you want (short of holy-ghost blasphemy) in this world, ask forgiveness before you die, and then be rewarded for eternity in an afterlife is absurd. There is nothing just, logical, or reasonable in that. People are less likely to waste their lives when they realize that this is the only life they will ever know.

  7. 7
    Anonymous

    It is clear that there are those among people of faith who simply have no ability to empathise with other people or view the consequences of their actions in that light. It is fortunate for the rest of us that these people have found a form of faith from which to derive a moral standard. If it weren’t for that they would presumedly be running about creating any sort of mischief imaginable. They cannot understand that there are people for whom a basic moral standard is self evident and who can behave in a civilised manner without the threat of eternal damnation hanging over them. It is perhaps best that these people be left to pursue their faith and keep out of everybody’s way.

  8. 8
    Natazaku

    Why dont you post the real Deuteronomy 22:28-29, cause it talks about Seducing, which he humiliates her by seducing her into sex without marriage, to no comit adultery she shall marry him unless she wishes to not get married.

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