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The Moral Relativism of Fundamentalist Christianity

Greta Christina points out something that I’ve been saying for years about Christian fundamentalism, which is that despite its almost constant criticism of atheism as necessarily entailing “moral relativism,” its own moral view is, of necessity, a relativist one. She starts by quoting something written by Peter Hess of the National Center for Science Education about the first episode of the new Cosmos and its focus on the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno:

It is odd therefore that Cosmos focuses almost exclusively on the marginal case of Giordano Bruno. Of course, I am not defending Bruno’s persecution and death—no decent human being now would ever condone burning a person alive for any reason. Moreover, in 2014 we view legitimate theological dissent very differently than did our ancestors.

But the circumstances were quite different 400 years ago. According to the 16th century Italian legal code and the customs of Renaissance politics, Bruno was judged by an ecclesiastical court to be an obdurate heretic for refusing to cease in promulgating his theological ideas. As such he was deserving of capital punishment and was turned over for execution by the civil arm in Rome. In the 21st century we inhabit a very different era, a religiously pluralistic age of largely secular states in which the nature and exercise of authority are vastly different than they were in Post-Reformation Italy.

I am very glad to see that the sentence in bold type has been edited, with this note:

As such he was subject to capital punishment and was turned over for execution by the civil arm in Rome. [*Editor note: The preceding sentence originally said Bruno was "deserving of" capital punishment. Clearly a misstatement on our part!]

Glad to see that. And Peter Hess is certainly no fundamentalist (he is the Director of Religious Community Outreach for the NCSE and, as far as I know, a rather liberal Christian). But Greta’s response is still accurate:

It hadn’t occurred to me before in quite this way. But religious fundamentalism and dogma doesn’t just often end up being morally relativistic in some screwed-up ways. It positively demands it. If you’re going to insist that a holy book written hundreds or thousands of years ago is the permanent and perfect moral guidebook written by God — then you’re stuck with defending behaviors that were considered ethical and even admirable at the time they were written, but that we now recognize as morally repulsive.

It’s a funny thing. Religious believers — especially the fundamentalist ones, or the ones attached to specific religious dogma or an authoritative religious structure — are always going on about the horrors of secular moral relativism. They’re always going on about how, without a belief in an ultimate divine moral arbiter, we would be morally lost: unmoored, unanchored, unable to distinguish right from wrong, basing our moral choices solely on what we find immediately self-serving or convenient.

But it isn’t the atheists who are excusing, defending, minimizing, and rationalizing the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno.

Quite true. And for those who accept that the Bible is the word of God and all true, they have little choice but to turn to moral relativism to defend much of the barbarism found within it. The slaughter of the Midianites, including innocent children? Well there must have been a good reason for God to do that, right? Well no, there doesn’t. God commands things in the Bible that even Adolf Hitler would not and did not do. If you’re going to claim this God is the source of all morality, you are forced into some seriously incoherent rationalizations to defend that.

Comments

  1. blf says

    The Moral Relativism of Fundamentalist ChristianityReligions

    (or: “…of Believing Myths Are Teh Trvth”).

    I don’t see anything specific here either to fundieism or xianity. Some of the details or examples may be xian fundie centric, but the thesis still applies to non-fundies, and also to non-xian religions: “If you’re going to claim [the Great Magic Sky Faeries are] the source of all morality, you are forced into some seriously incoherent rationalizations to defend that.”

  2. Courtney Lynn says

    ” then you’re stuck with defending behaviors that were considered ethical and even admirable at the time they were written, but that we now recognize as morally repulsive.” << That is exactly it right there. However, the religious choose to cherry the parts of their religion to make them feel better about it. SO when people bring up the murderous, hate-filled parts, the religious often go to "but god also said…"

    They are so unwilling to admit that their religion is faulty because then that would shake their faith and make them start questioning more. And we all know what questioning religion leads to…. :)

  3. D. C. Sessions says

    I find it useful, when people go off about some practice that they find abhorrent and disgusting, to point out that it is, in fact, Biblical. People rarely respond by deciding it’s not that bad.

  4. raven says

    As Hector Avalos stated in a recent essay, there are two types of moral theorists.

    1. Moral Relativists.

    2. Peope who deny being Moral Relativists but are Moral Relativists. This includes any and all theists.

  5. raven says

    The Moral Absolutism of the xians fails for a lot of reasons.

    1. It’s based on the rules of a god or gods who might exist but probably don’t.

    2. Who aren’t around any more. God never writes books, makes Youtube videos, runs his website, shows up on late might TV, has a radio show. These are all simple task within the reach of the average human. No one has the slightest idea what he thinks or wants, although millions claim conflicting knowledge. No one even knows how many gods are there or if there are whole herds of them.

    The all powerful god is claimed to be everywhre but what we see is a god who is nowhere and does nothing.

    3. A lot of xians do make the claim of Moral Absolutism. When you ask them how they know the rules of Morality and where did they find them, they stop and go in circles.

    4. You don’t get morality out of the bible. It’s the last place anyone moral would look. We all know the rules about stoning nonvirgin brides, adulterers, or disobedient children to death. We just think it’s an evil idea these days, and considered murder, except for weird fundie xians. Slavery is gone. Polygamy is mostly gone.

  6. says

    The only way Christian morality makes sense is if it’s understood as follows:

    That which God commands is good.

    The corollary is:

    Disobeying God’s commands is evil.

    Morality is not inherent in any action, it only comes from how closely it adheres to what God orders. Killing babies is morally neutral — if God commands you to kill babies, you are engaging in a morally good act. If God tells you NOT to kill a baby and you do anyway, that’s morally evil.

    Thus if Abraham had followed through in killing Isaac, that would have been good because God told him to do so. When God changed the command, what would have been morally good moments earlier became morally bad.

    If you twist your mind in a certain way, that’s moral absolutism because it never changes — “Obey God” is the only commandment and the only factor in whether something’s moral or not. But it’s fundamentally moral relativism of the highest order because it’s based on the whims of God which, as you can see from even a casual reading of the Old Testament, changes a lot. Not to mention, you’re leaving it up to people to figure out exactly what it is God commanded anyway, and “God told me to” becomes the ultimate defense for anything.

  7. raven says

    That which God commands is good.

    The corollary is:

    Disobeying God’s commands is evil.

    1. This is Divine Command Theory. Widely believed by what passes for fundie xian thinkers such as WL Craig. It leads to evil.

    2. It’s not morality anyway. It’s obedience.

  8. raven says

    But religious fundamentalism and dogma doesn’t just often end up being morally relativistic in some screwed-up ways. It positively demands it.

    1. There is another alternative. You can accept the bible as the Absolute Moral Guide.

    2. And then turn into a Moral Monster.

    3. Or more likely these days a wannabe Moral Monster. The xian Dominionists like Gary North, Rushdooney, Lee Duiton, WL Craig, Strobel, McDowell, Fischer, Perkins, and millions more have no problem stoning witches, heretics, blasphemers, gays, and adulterers to death.

    They can’t wait for the mass murders of hundreds of millions to begin. And to go down to SlaveRUs and pick out some children as concubines, sex slaves.

    We Moral Relativists have a place for them that has so far stopped their plans. It’s called prison. Under our current laws, religiously driven mass murder of innocents for trivial offenses is considered Murder 1.

  9. garnetstar says

    The one that really annoys me is slavery. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “Slavery in the Old Testament wasn’t like it was in America–slaves were freed after six years!” (Which isn’t the whole story, of course.)

    Because, sometimes owning someone as property is bad, but sometimes it’s OK.

  10. raven says

    slaves were freed after six years!” (Which isn’t the whole story, of course.)

    This only applied to Jewish males. If you were a female or nonJewish slave, you were property for life.

  11. says

    raven “This only applied to Jewish males. If you were a female or nonJewish slave, you were property for life.”
    Well, sure, but imagine how bad those freed slaves felt. Isn’t it good to know that you’re wanted?

  12. eric says

    I think the typical theistic reply to charges of relativism is “they [the earlier church] just got it wrong.” IOW, what Jesus told people was good moral behavior has always been the same, its just that the first 1900 years of Christianity misinterpreted it out of incompetence or malice, but either way got a lot of it incorrect.

    Of course this defense itself has a some major problems. Its obiously historical exceptionalism and cultural favoritism. It ignores most if not all of the written justifications and thought the early church theologians put into their positions (i.e., if you read them people like Augustine and Aquinas, they appear both pretty erudite and pretty sincere. Yet Augustine himself is one of the originators of the christian “just war” theory that was used to justify the crusades.). And it undermines the idea that the Bible is a clear source of lessons. After all, if Christians took fundamentally wrong messages from Jesus’ teaching for 95% of the 2,000 years they’ve had it, that is fairly compelling evidence that the messages aren’t clear. Its kind of like teaching – when one of your students fail, its most likely their problem. When all of them fail, its most likely yours.

  13. says

    “God commands things in the Bible that even Adolf Hitler would not and did not do.”

    A first for Mr. Ed Brayton. A “Pre-Godwinned” thread!

    “They are so unwilling to admit that their religion is faulty because then that would shake their faith and make them start questioning more. And we all know what questioning religion leads to…. :)”

    Indeed we do.

    “Attsa nicea corporeal body, you got there, Signor Bruno; be a shame sumpin should happen to it.”.

  14. dingojack says

    Courtney Lynn – “…And we all know what questioning religion leads to…. ”

    Dancing?

    ;) Dingo

  15. tbp1 says

    I’ve said for years that most theology and, as far as I can tell, all theodicy, boils down to an elaborate attempt to justify the proposition that might makes right.

    I frankly am not well enough acquainted with other religions besides Christianity to be sure, but I suspect it might apply to them as well.

  16. says

    For me, nothing illustrates it more than a Christian who believes that Jeffrey Dahmer is in heaven if he sincerely repented before he was murdered in prison, but any of his victims who weren’t “saved” when Dahmer killed them, well, too bad.

  17. marcus says

    Since Hitler was mad and evil (a lot like the OT God, actually) I’m not sure that there was anything he “would not do” or have done, given the opportunity and the ability. Just sayin…

  18. AsqJames says

    in 2014 we view legitimate theological dissent very differently

    Personally I view all theological dissent as legitimate.

    Since this part has apparently not been edited, we must conclude Peter Hess believes there are two categories of theological dissent: legitimate and illegitimate. From context I think we can infer that Giordano Bruno’s dissent was legitimate. I wonder what kind of statements he would class as illegitimate.

  19. Michael Heath says

    Peter Hess states:

    Of course, I am not defending Bruno’s persecution and death—no decent human being now would ever condone burning a person alive for any reason.

    False, all Hell-believing Christians not only condone such behavior, they celebrate a supposed god they believe will burn some people for all eternity, not just for the relatively short period Giordano Bruno horrifically suffered.

    On this topic, Victoria Jackson’s idiotic, delusional, evil, denialist behavior is matched by all Hell-believing adult Christians.

  20. freehand says

    Hmmm. There are only two crimes in the Old Testament – disobedience and disrespect of Yahweh or his (self-)appointed representatives. Yet Paul said “The love of money is the root of all evil.” So Yahweh hates wealth, as his son declared. Yet look at all the rich fundamentalist Christians. Tsk.
    .
    Yes, the morality of the Fundie Christian is the morality of the samurai. Obedience is all. But this means that the Christian cannot claim that God is moral, unless they are claiming a tautology, which in this case says nothing. Id est
    moral = “That which God wants”
    God is moral,
    therefore God does what he wants.
    .
    If they claim that there is a moral code somewhere that God chooses to follow, they have to explain his monstrous behavior. Either God chooses not to be moral, or their idea of morality includes rape, genocide, and slavery (which some would admit). If they claim there is a moral code independent of God’s wishes (he wants to be moral), then they also need to explain why this moral code is not accessible or comprehensible to atheists.

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