A rather common claim made by different belief systems is that they not only hold the high moral ground but that they also have the ultimate incarnation of ethics. Associated with this is usually the seconds claim that beyond the boundary of their specific belief resides a wasteland of no ethics or morality but instead is a “Do whatever you like” philosophy. One interesting variation associated with this is the thought, “Oh but you do secretly believe, you simply reject god because you reject his law/morality/ethics”
Lets examine this claim.
Perhaps the best place to start to is define what words such as “ethics” and “morality” actually mean. These can often be used as interchangeable terms, but that is factually wrong because they are not at all the same and describe quite different things, so it is no surprise that some can say things that are quite frankly very confusing.
This is simply a set of rules provided by an external source. There are examples that you will be quite familiar with, for example the medical profession and also the legal profession both provide a strict and wholly consistent set of ethics for those within each of those professions.
- If you wish to be (for example) a doctor, then you must agree to abide by the medical code of ethics. This applies even in instances where this code conflicts with your own personal feelings on the matter. As an example, a lawyer might morally feel that a specific murderer is a repugnant human being that should go to jail, but has also agreed to abide by a code of ethics that directs them to defend that individual to the very best of their ability.
- If you breach the code, then there will be consequence such as being fired, suspended, or simply reprimanded.
- The deployment of the term “unethical” is simply saying that you have breached a specific code of ethics
Now, let’s think about “morality”, what exactly is that? This is your own internal set of beliefs regarding what is right and what is wrong.
- Almost every human on the planet has morality, and of course there will be a vast diversity. What usually determines your specific moral code is geography.
- One potential exception is that humans who are psychopaths may in fact have very little or no internal morality at all. Humans who have no empathy at all for others, do not actually think it is wrong to cause harm to others. This is not something you can learn, those who are psychopaths have distinctly different brain chemistry (there is something physically wrong) and rather sadly there is no cure. To be clear, it is not binary – think of it as a sliding scale. (I am aware that this is a very very simplistic description of a very complex topic, so if curious to find out more, start here).
- When we use the term “Immoral” what this means is that you know that something is wrong, but you did it anyway. As an alternative, the word “Amoral” means that you have done something that is clearly wrong, murder for example, and you simply do not recognise that it is wrong.
Now that should be just enough to help clarify the words themselves, but if you are curious to explore all that to greater depth, then I can recommend clicking on over to “Ethics vs Morals” or simply googling a bit.
The Religious Claims
OK, let’s move on to the various religious claims and toss them into the mix.
Christians will often assert that their morality comes from the bible, or to be more precise – from God, and hence those that are not christian are not moral. As you can now see, this is clearly not factually true at all. A belief system may indeed promote a code of ethics (for example the 10 commandments) but that is not the same thing as morality. It is perhaps also true to observe that our own personal morality is greatly influenced not only by our cultural heritage, but also by the specific belief that we embrace, but it is not factually true to claim that a belief is the exclusive and sole source for our morality. In fact, the bible is also not the source for the modern cultural code of ethics that currently prevails either.
OK, let’s take an easy example to illustrate that key point.
Slavery is wrong both ethically and also morally – we all know this to be true. The very idea of owning another human as property is not acceptable to any modern ethical code. Is is also generally not moral, you would be very hard-pressed to find a human today who has a moral code in which they embrace slavery as a jolly good idea.
OK, so that then leads us to ask “How do we know that slavery is wrong?”
If you read almost any religious book, the Qu’ran or the Bible for example, you will discover that these are pro-slavery texts. They give no hint that slavery is wrong at all, but instead endorse the idea (in fact Mohammed himself was a slave owner and trader). Instead, these religious texts give guidance on who you can enslave, and how you should treat your slaves, and never ever condemn the concept even once.
Here are some examples …
- Having slaves is fine, and blackmailing them into staying as a permanent slave by keeping a slaves’ wife and daughter hostage is also fine:
- If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him. If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may plainly declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free.’ If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will belong to his master forever. (Exodus 21:2-6 NLT)
- It is fine to sell your daughter as a slave:
- When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl’s owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment. (Exodus 21:7-11 NLT)
- Beating your slave is fine as long as the slave does not die:
- When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. (Exodus 21:20-21 NAB)
A common response to this is “Oh, but that is the OT, we now have the NT“, which of course means that they do not actually believe the bible at all, but instead simply cherry-pick the bits they agree with (moral relativism), one can only wonder how they then work out which are the good bits to keep and which are the bad bits to discard, what code of ethics helps them to refine their supposed “Code of ethics” like this. In fact you cannot even claim that they just believe in Jesus and the NT, but that is also all pro-slavery …
- Jesus endorsed slavery:
- Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. (Ephesians 6:5 NLT)
- If you are a Christian slave, the guidance is that you stay a slave:
- Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed. If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts. Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them. (1 Timothy 6:1-2 NLT)
So when faced with the claim, “I get my morality from the bible“, if the individual in question really does, then you are in extreme danger and need to rapidly flee.
Actually more seriously, what people are actually saying is, “I’m a good person because of my belief” but then they also make the leap to, “People who do not embrace my belief are bad people“. Well no … the facts are, neither of these statements is true.
Clearly we can see that people who make this claim do not actually get their morality from the bible at all. The real source for what we deem to be right and wrong is not only our cultural heritage, but also our human empathy and also our compassion. This is what drives our ability to reason about such things and gain insights that were previously unknown and not part of the culture when books such as the Qu’ran and also the Bible were written. Both those texts are products of their time, and so they reflect the prevailing ethical codes, and so while they both do indeed promote a code of ethics that we modern humans cherry-pick the nice bits from, our modern culture has evolved a far superior ethical code – driven not by a holy book, nor a belief system, but rather by our basic human ability to have empathy and compassion for others.
One Further thought
There is lots more to be said on the topic, but for now I’ll make one last observation and then stop. Let’s conduct a quick thought experiment and assume for a moment that there is indeed a god that dispenses moral guidance to humans.
- Are the things that are deemed to be wrong, actually wrong because this god has decided that they are wrong, or are these things that are wrong absolute truths, and this god is simply advising us about these things?
If morality is relative to god and this god gets to decide what is right and what is wrong, then if god decides that murdering babies is OK, does that make it OK?
Least you not get it, what I’m pointing out here is that the supposedly absolute morality of the bible is actually moral relativism.
The religious cannot claim god would never order people to kill babies, because this is exactly what god does in the bible many times (Ezekiel 9:5-7, Hosea 9:11-16, Exodus 12:29-30, etc…), and yet clearly it is wrong, and you know it is wrong, so if you now hold a moral code that directly conflicts with what the god in the bible is saying and doing, then obviously your moral code does not come from either the bible nor the god of the bible.
So does the god of the bible really encourage murder as part of its code of ethics? Yes indeed …
Kill People Who Don’t Listen to Priests
Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the judge or of the priest who represents the LORD your God must be put to death. Such evil must be purged from Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:12 NLT)
You should not let a sorceress live. (Exodus 22:17 NAB)
“If a man lies with a male as with a women, both of them shall be put to death for their abominable deed; they have forfeited their lives.” (Leviticus 20:13 NAB)
A man or a woman who acts as a medium or fortuneteller shall be put to death by stoning; they have no one but themselves to blame for their death. (Leviticus 20:27 NAB)
Death for Hitting Dad
Whoever strikes his father or mother shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:15 NAB)
Death for Cursing Parents
If one curses his father or mother, his lamp will go out at the coming of darkness. (Proverbs 20:20 NAB)
All who curse their father or mother must be put to death. They are guilty of a capital offense. (Leviticus 20:9 NLT)
Death for Adultery
If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife, both the man and the woman must be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10 NLT)
Death for Fornication
A priest’s daughter who loses her honor by committing fornication and thereby dishonors her father also, shall be burned to death. (Leviticus 21:9 NAB)
Death to Followers of Other Religions
Whoever sacrifices to any god, except the Lord alone, shall be doomed. (Exodus 22:19 NAB)
They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and soul; and everyone who would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, was to be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman. (2 Chronicles 15:12-13 NAB)
So if you do truly feel that your morality is from this god and this bible, then you should ponder over all this, and ask yourself where your morality does actually come from, because clearly if you do not support any of the above as moral acts then your morality is not from either this bible or this god. You have instead managed to rise above it all and embrace a far superior code of ethics that has greatly influenced your morality to such a degree that you can recognise that this biblical code of ethics is morally wrong.