How Religious Fundamentalism, Ironically, Leads to a Screwed-Up Moral Relativism


Trigger warning: Burning at the stake and other torture

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.
-Peter Hess, co-author of Catholicism and Science, for the NCSE blog, commenting on the new TV show, “Cosmos”

giordano bruno burning at stakeI see. Circumstances were different 400 years ago. According to the 16th century Italian legal code. We inhabit a very different era. So therefore, it’s not reasonable or fair to criticize the Catholic Church of the 16th century for burning Giordano Bruno at the stake.

It’s hard not to read this, and think about all the religious believers who insist that without belief in God, we would have no solid foundation for morality.

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.

It isn’t the atheists saying, “Well, sure, burning people at the stake isn’t morally excellent — but you have to take into account the time that this happened. People got burned at the stake all the time. At the time, it was considered a fair and reasonable punishment. Anyway, he wasn’t really a scientist (Andrew Sullivan got in on that one, too), so it’s totes not fair to say that burning him at the stake was a brutal, terrorizing suppression of free scientific thought. And after all, Bruno was convicted of heresy by a legally-recognized court system, and he could have recanted. So it’s not fair to be so harsh on the Catholic Church for tying him to a stake in a public square and burning him alive. Of course we’re not defending it or anything. We’re just, you know, defending it. Hey, shit happens.”

It’s true that most atheists do have some recognition and acceptance of some degree of moral relativism. We have an understanding that at least some moral guidelines are not absolute, and that what’s reasonably considered right and wrong can shift somewhat depending on circumstance and culture. Most atheists understand that morality is something that evolved in us as a social species, and that our core moral values often come into conflict with each other in ways that can be difficult to resolve.

Giordano_Bruno_Campo_dei_Fiori_croppedAnd yet, atheists are perfectly capable of saying, “Setting fire to people is wrong. It is wrong now, and it has always been wrong. Yes, people did that in the 16th century, and they thought it was the right thing to do — but they were wrong about that. Wrong, wrong, wrong. R-O-N-G Rong. Setting fire to someone is morally repugnant. And setting fire to someone deliberately, cold-bloodedly, with careful planning ahead of time — putting someone in prison so you can later set fire to them, carefully deliberating before you come to the decision to set fire to them, carefully placing sufficient fuel under their feet to be sure the fire will burn, parading them through the street so the populace can mock them on their way to being burned alive, ramming spikes through their cheeks and lips so they can’t speak on their way to being burned alive, tying them to a stake so they can’t escape when they start to burn, doing it in a public square so everyone can watch and cheer while the flames consume their flesh — that is a special kind of moral repugnance. That is nineteen thousand kinds of messed up. Yes, some moral guidelines are culturally relative — but ‘don’t burn people alive’ is bloody well not one of them.”

Yes, atheists recognize that our moral values do not come from an ultimate invisible moral arbiter: they evolved in us as a social species. And we can therefore look at what exactly those moral values are, and what the foundational core is supporting them. and decide on that basis whether our current morality is consistent or screwed-up. We can recognize that our morality is evolving, refining, improving, as we come to a better understanding of those moral values and how they play out in the real world. We can see how our understanding of the core philosophical foundation of morality — the idea that other people matter to themselves as much as we matter to ourselves, and that from an objective point of view none of that mattering is more important than any other — has expanded over the centuries, to encompass more and more people. We can see how our morality has expanded to encompass women, to encompass children, to encompass people of different races and nationalities from our own, to begin to encompass non-human animals, as beings whose consciousness and volition matters just as much as our own.

And we have no need to see our forbears as perfect. We have no attachment to seeing the Holy Mother Church as a special sacred vessel of the word of God, and its highest leaders as morally infallible. We can see our forbears, the people we get ideas from, as human beings: good in some ways, flawed in others, limited by their own cultural blinders in many ways, able to see past them in others. We can say, “Yes, Charles Darwin had some racist ideas — and he was wrong to do so. He was a brilliant man in many ways, and we respect and admire that brilliance, but he also shared some of the racist ideas commonly held at the time — and he was wrong to do so.”

I’m not saying that atheists are morally perfect. Boy, howdy, am I ever not saying that. I am all too aware of the existence of atheists who are assholes. I’m not even saying that atheists never rationalize our own bad behavior or that of people we admire: that is a basic human trait, and we all do it. I’m saying that when people attach themselves to a fundamentalist, dogmatic, or authoritarian religion, this attachment, by necessity, forces them into an indefensible form of cultural relativism that they themselves, in theory, would decry.

bible revelationThe minute you start saying that your holy book or religious leaders are infallible, you start inflexibly attaching yourself to moral positions held by those leaders or that book. And as a result, you start contorting your morality to defend the indefensible. You start going on about how slavery was okay in the Old Testament days, even though isn’t okay now — and that somehow, even though God’s word is unshakeable, his opinion about this nevertheless changed over time. You start coming up with excuses for why slavery, or stoning adulterers, or setting people on fire and burning them alive, really wasn’t all that bad, and it’s not fair to criticize the people who did it. You cut yourself loose from the actual foundation of your morality — your innate sense of fairness and honesty and loyalty and not hurting people that evolved in you as a member of a social species. And in doing so, you take on even more moral relativism, and some particularly vile forms of moral relativism, than the secularists you despise.

Atheism does not require this. We can see our forbears as human, and fallible. And we therefore do not have to twist our morality into a pretzel, and insist that up is down, and left is right, and setting fire to people isn’t really that bad because that’s just what people did back then.

Comments

  1. Alverant says

    Good post.

    I would add that often religious texts don’t explain WHY something is immoral. It’s not being on being questioned either. We can explain why burning someone to death for having new ideas is wrong in a rational manner. But religion doesn’t do that. It doesn’t say why being homosexual is worthy of a long painful execution, just that the act is immoral and demands a punishment. Or, for a lesser matter, why you shouldn’t eat pork. If the holy books explained that pigs can carry parasites (which would be a real boost for its credibility since it would have actual new knowledge in it) or that it was too resource intensive to raise so you shouldn’t eat them, then later when conditions changed so the piggies are parasite-free and can be raised without using as many resources it would be OK to eat them.

    Instead religious morality claims unchanging perfection in a constantly changing world.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    and he could have recanted

    Why of course. If we all just go along with the thought police, everything will be just fine and dandy.
    Like, sure it’s awful that children and pregnant women die in the Arizona desert every month, but they ARE illegal after all! If only they would stay on their side of the fence and slowly starve, everything would just peachy.

  3. freemage says

    The counter-argument to this, of course, would take this form:

    “Of course it was as wrong then as it is now. But this isn’t the fault of the Scripture, but of the fallible men who sought to interpret and apply it. Even the Pope is only infallible when directly inspired by God.”

    It’s a nice shuck-and-jive; it does let you undermine their claims that the Church today is a moral authority, of course, but they’ll insist that the Church has evolved since then and thus it is now much better at Scriptural consistency, or somesuch.

    That’s when it’s useful to pull out those Old Testament passages about smashing infants’ heads against the rocks during wartime. That was supposedly a direct command from the guy at the top, not someone interpreting an ancient text.

  4. Kevin Kehres says

    This goes along with the Divine Command idea that if god commands it (or does it himself), then it is moral per se. The grossly immoral William Lame Craig is big on Divine Command Theory.

    Drown every kitten, puppy and unborn baby on the planet? Totes OK, because god did it.

    Demand the slaughter of every man, woman, child, and chattel of a defeated enemy? God commanded it — therefore it’s moral and just (WLC actually argued that genocide prevented children of immoral parents from becoming immoral and sinning themselves — in other words, visiting the sins of the parents on their children).

    Accept human sacrifice as a price for a battle victory? Well, it’s a promise to god … so it’s obviously morally correct. (I find it interesting that in the story of Jephthah’s daughter, she is unimportant enough to not even warrant being named.)

    Basing an entire religion on the concept of a god-human being sacrificed to propitiate the world’s sins? Only if that sacrifice is performed in the most-gruesome and painful manner possible (where do you think the word “excruciating” comes from?)

    Ugh. Gotta go mow the lawn now to get my mind off of disgusting things.

  5. Sastra says

    There is nothing more relative than faith beliefs because they have to appeal to truths which go beyond the world and worldly reason. The only thing which invoking God solves is the problem of how the other side is going to persuade you to change your mind: they can’t. This is only progress if your goal was being sure, not being right.

    God takes the burden of making sense off of your shoulders. The act of “being good” now carries all the ethical depth of “doing what you are told.” As Alverant says at #1, there are no actual reasons being given for any of it — other than obedience to God. It’s like going back to the time when you were 2 and a half or maybe 3 and just knew that Mommy and Daddy were the Boss. I suspect that this comforting mindlessness is part of the appeal.

    It’s surprising how the twisting and turning of rationalizing the unreasonable gets to count for the ‘hard work’ which faith demands. I’m in the middle of re-reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and one of his main points is that real moral progress was only possible once people started deciding that reason was better than faith — or, rather, that faith was too “special” to apply to the world.

  6. triple3a says

    Random Theist: My holy book tells me that homosexuality is wrong.  I don’t hate homosexuals, though.  “Love the sinner / hate the sin,” you know.

    Random Atheist: I’m gay and I resent that remark.  You’re basically saying that I’m less human than straight people, that if I suppress a core part of my being for your benefit, I’m suddenly deemed acceptable in your eyes.  Screw your “sin” and your bigotry.  Why don’t you develop a modern set of ethics and see me as a fellow human being?

    Random Theist: Hey, don’t blame me.  I’m just following the tenets of my faith.

    Random Atheist:: The tenets of your faith were developed thousands of years ago by people with a limited understanding of the world.  Besides, why are you talking about this here?  You’re in a public school right now.  Why don’t you wait to get home to spout off your religious bigotry to people who think like you?

    Random Theist: You’re trying to oppress my religious rights!

  7. aziraphale says

    “In the 21st century we inhabit a very different era, a religiously pluralistic age of largely secular states”

    Yes, indeed. And the moral is, if you don’t wish to be burned at the stake, or have your human rights otherwise infringed by the religious, be sure to live in a largely secular state.

  8. says

    Thank you for this excellent blog. I’ve often wondered how to explain this to apologists for Christian “behavior” over these many centuries. My point of view will be understood much better by occasionally paraphrasing your remarks. Thank you again.

  9. cuervocuero says

    The Catholic church of today has a go-to song and dance on how it’s totes not their fault that people were tortured and burned and otherwise agonizingly imprisoned and killed.

    You see, the church didn’t do the actual torture and killing, they just said in the hearing of their loyal, complicit, civil authorities, will no one do something about these awful heretics. And of course, priests might be in the room where the torture etc went on because spiritual counseling and proof of heretical goings on had to be done, but srsly doodz, church hands, clean! lily white! Not able to interfere in the matters of state that saw heretics as threats to stability and good government!!

    IE: they knew it was wrong at the time so they made sure the actual church had a ruler’s length distance from the bloodshed, at least on paper. They know it’s wrong now and they’re busy blamestorming the civil authorities that did their dirty work for them in past times and still do in present times.

    Last time I read about this piteously helpless handwaving about the power of the state being the real culprits, it was in the online Catholic encyclopedia.

  10. steffp says

    Wonderful post. Let me just add a few thoughts on the Peter Hess piece:

    That’s presuming a kind of identity between us and these barbaric guys (“ancestors”, like granddad), and no, we don’t see “legitimate theological dissent” differently these days: the whole concept of “legitimate theological dissent”, the whole concept of legitimate plurality in Christianity had to be pried out of the cold, dead hands of the Catholic Church. Thirty years of war (1618-1648), devastated landscapes, millions of deaths, ruined economies. After that, the concept of “legitimate theological dissent” could be established. The RCC could no longer request state to execute their heretics. Nor could Calvin in Geneva continue to burn people who disagreed with him. Secularization is not a gift from the church, it is something imposed upon the church


    That’s the “It was all legal at that time”fallacy. It can be reduced to might makes right Who wrote the legal code? Who had the power to demand that state execute ecclesiastical court’s decisions, and do the dirty work of killing? These procedural laws were imposed by the church, not some impartial law giver.

    Finally, as an aside, the Renaissance, a rather progressive time, had already ended in the 16th century, to be followed by the counter-reformation The name says it all.

  11. steffp says

    Wonderful post. Let me just add a few thoughts on the Peter Hess piece:
    “Moreover, in 2014 we view legitimate theological dissent very differently than did our ancestors.”
    That’s presuming a kind of identity between us and these barbaric guys (“ancestors”, like granddad), and no, we don’t see “legitimate theological dissent” differently these days: the whole concept of “legitimate theological dissent”, the whole concept of legitimate plurality in Christianity had to be pried out of the cold, dead hands of the Catholic Church. Thirty years of war (1618-1648), devastated landscapes, millions of deaths, ruined economies. After that, the concept of “legitimate theological dissent” could be established. The RCC could no longer request state to execute their heretics. Nor could Calvin in Geneva continue to burn people who disagreed with him. Secularization is not a gift from the church, it is something imposed upon the church

    “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”
    That’s the “It was all legal at that time”fallacy. It can be reduced to might makes right Who wrote the legal code? Who had the power to demand that state execute ecclesiastical court’s decisions, and do the dirty work of killing? These procedural laws were imposed by the church, not some impartial law giver.

    Finally, as an aside, the Renaissance, a rather progressive time, had already ended in the 16th century, to be followed by the counter-reformation The name says it all.

  12. petersen says

    I think you’re confusing two separate issues: the morality of the action and the blameworthiness of the people who took that action. In the lines from Hess you quote, he says that, in his estimation, the execution of Bruno was wrong. He then points out the *historical* fact that at the time, such executions were accepted. So we can say that the Church acted wrongly. But how harshly should we judge the Church for what it did? When the Church executed Bruno, it was acting within a political-philosophical system that allowed and justified such executions. Such a system does not exist today. So what today seems outrageously immoral would at that time have seemed permissible. Now, we can say that a system like that (i.e., a system that allows executions like Bruno’s,) is a bad one and should not exist. But given that it did exist – and that the Church existed within that system – we cannot judge the Church as harshly for executing Bruno as we could if it did the same thing today. The Church acted in a way consistent with its context. When we’re deciding how blameworthy the Church is, we have to take into account the context in which the action occurred; we cannot simply graft our own standards onto another era’s and blame people accordingly. This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t wrong to burn Bruno. That’s wrong no matter the circumstances. But that the Church’s guilt is lessened by its circumstances – its mitigating circumstances.

  13. johnthedrunkard says

    A while back Pat Robertson was on Youtube, admitting that the bible doesn’t oppose slavery, but that NOWADAYS we do.

    The Bible says that insects have four legs, that Pi equals 3, and that seven is an even number.

    Of course we can find non-religious examples of loony rationalization as well. Communists turning 180s so fast their eyes shook loose between 1936 and 1941. The objectivists declaring that addiction doesn’t exist when Rand lived on speed and cigarettes while her husband drank himself to death.

    BUT;
    The church got there first and has had more money and power over a longer stretch of time…

  14. anne mariehovgaard says

    petersen #13:

    When we’re deciding how blameworthy the Church is, we have to take into account the context in which the action occurred

    The context is that they had the power to do that back then. They don’t have that much power anymore. They didn’t change because they realized they’d been wrong, they’ve just been declawed; that’s had an amazing effect on their morals.

  15. Greta Christina says

    I think you’re confusing two separate issues: the morality of the action and the blameworthiness of the people who took that action.

    petersen @ #13: ????? That’s what the morality of an action means — how blameworthy (or praiseworthy) the person is who took the action. Yes, some actions are morally complex, and circumstances can affect that — but that’s what morality means.

    In the lines from Hess you quote, he says that, in his estimation, the execution of Bruno was wrong.

    Yes. And then he goes on to make excuses for it, to trivialize it, to rationalize it — and to chide Cosmos for holding the Church responsible for it.

    But how harshly should we judge the Church for what it did? When the Church executed Bruno, it was acting within a political-philosophical system that allowed and justified such executions.

    ????? The Church were, in large part, the one who created the political-philosophical system. They were largely responsible for it. It’s not like they were serfs in a serfdom. They held the power. They were the ones who created the system that allowed and justified these executions. Why should they not be held responsible for it?

    Now, we can say that a system like that (i.e., a system that allows executions like Bruno’s,) is a bad one and should not exist. But given that it did exist – and that the Church existed within that system – we cannot judge the Church as harshly for executing Bruno as we could if it did the same thing today.

    YES WE CAN. That is exactly my point. Some things are not only wrong — they are unquestionably wrong, and have always been wrong.

    The Church acted in a way consistent with its context. When we’re deciding how blameworthy the Church is, we have to take into account the context in which the action occurred

    And once again: They created the context. They were the ones in power.

    we cannot simply graft our own standards onto another era’s and blame people accordingly.

    YES WE CAN. There are some instances where moral relativism is reasonable. Burning people at the stake is not one of them.

    But that the Church’s guilt is lessened by its circumstances – its mitigating circumstances.

    They were the ones setting the circumstances. They were the ones in power. And they abused that power in one of the most grotesque ways imaginable. They put him in prison for years. They deliberated carefully, and cold-bloodedly chose to burn him. They paraded him through the streets. When he responded to the screaming crowds, they silenced him by ramming metal spikes through his cheeks and tongue and lips — in the form of a cross. They tied him to a stake. They piled fuel under his feet. They set him on fire. They watched as he burned to death. (As the people who try to terrorize kids about Hell say: Think about what it feels like to have your hand in a flame for even a second — and now think about what it would feel like to have your entire body in flames, and to be helpless to escape from it, and to have it continue for as long as it took to end your life. They did this in public — as spectacle, and as warning to others. And they did all this, solely and entirely, because they didn’t like the fact that he expressed disagreement with their opinions. To speak of h their “guilt is lessened” by “mitigating circumstances” is morally repugnant.

    What they did was wrong. It was terribly, horribly wrong. It was vile and despicable. It was among the worst things human beings could possibly do to other human beings, and for among the worst possible reasons. How hard is it to just say that? How hard is it to say it, with no minimizing, rationalization, or excuses?

  16. petersen says

    That’s what the morality of an action means — how blameworthy (or praiseworthy) the person is who took the action. Yes, some actions are morally complex, and circumstances can affect that — but that’s what morality means.

    I disagree. Morality, as I see it, is primarily about the lawfulness of an action, i.e., whether an action is obligatory, permissible, or prohibited. The amount of praise or blame we give involves not just the lawfulness of the action but the particular circumstances and psychological state of the agent. Someone who does an obligatory action for cynical, selfish reasons is less praiseworthy than someone who does the same thing for noble reasons; someone who does something impermissible out of ignorance is less blameworthy than someone who does it out of malice.

    The Church were, in large part, the one who created the political-philosophical system. They were largely responsible for it. It’s not like they were serfs in a serfdom. They held the power. They were the ones who created the system that allowed and justified these executions. Why should they not be held responsible for it?

    If we’re trying to figure out how blameworthy people are, we shouldn’t think of “the Church” as one single unit. I made the mistake of talking about it like that in my original comment – that was an error. When we say things like “the Church condemned Bruno,” we’re using “the Church” to mean the set of people who made up the institution at that particular time and who condemned Bruno. Yes, the Church as an institution was largely responsible (not entirely, though – an important thing to remember) for that political-philosophical system, but the individuals who condemned Bruno were not. That system had existed and had been developing for a long time before Bruno’s trial. The Church as it existed in 1600 did not stand over and above that system as its creator; it, too, was caught up in that system. The people who executed Bruno had themselves entered into a system in which heresy trials were already prescribed. Those individuals did not create the system themselves. They applied a pre-existing system. This does not absolve them of all responsibility, but it sets some limits. They cannot be blamed for the existence of system itself.

    Some things are not only wrong — they are unquestionably wrong, and have always been wrong.

    Agreed. But, again, that’s separate from the issue of praise/blame. Maybe an analogy will help: imagine two 20-year-olds who both believe in Jim Crow-style segregation. One is living today, in 2014, and the other lives in 1914. Now, segregation was just as wrong in 1914 as it is in 2014. But are both people equally responsible for their belief? I say no. The person in 1914 grew up in a world where segregation was normal and accepted; he was taught that it was fine from the earliest age. It’s only to be expected, then, that he believes segregation is okay. The person in 2014, however, grew up in a world where that kind of segregation was near-universally considered wrong. He, therefore, has less of an excuse for thinking it’s good, so he is more blameworthy than the person in 1914. The point is, whether something is lawful (i.e., moral,) doesn’t change over time. But how blameworthy a given individual is does change over time. It all depends on how reasonable it was for that person, given his context, to believe that something unlawful is actually unlawful.

    There are some instances where moral relativism is reasonable. Burning people at the stake is not one of them.

    I don’t think this is moral relativism. Moral relativism would mean that the lawfulness of an action itself changes across time and culture. That’s not true. Burning people at the stake is always and everywhere wrong. But certain cultural conditions might make people less blameworthy – not immune to all blame, mind you, merely less blameworthy – for conducting heresy trials.

    They put him in prison for years. They deliberated carefully, and cold-bloodedly chose to burn him. They paraded him through the streets. When he responded to the screaming crowds, they silenced him by ramming metal spikes through his cheeks and tongue and lips — in the form of a cross. They tied him to a stake. They piled fuel under his feet. They set him on fire. They watched as he burned to death[…]They did this in public — as spectacle, and as warning to others. And they did all this, solely and entirely, because they didn’t like the fact that he expressed disagreement with their opinions. To speak of h their “guilt is lessened” by “mitigating circumstances” is morally repugnant.

    Such spectacles were common, they had been common for centuries, and they were not only used by the Church to punish heresy. A variety of crimes against the state were punishable by public execution, which goes to my point that the system was not created by the people who executed Bruno. It was not created by the Church of 1600. That system was not entirely created by the Church at all, but was a group effort between the Church and various states which stretched back centuries and changed over time.

    I don’t think it’s “morally repugnant” to say that their guilt is lessened. It’s to understand that people do not act in vacuums, and the context of people’s actions into account when evaluating their character and the degree of blame we should attach to them.

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