The Bible does not contain a guideline of moral absolutes
(The following entry was originally posted as comment #87 on 8 Reasons why I no longer believe)
After I left Christianity, understanding morality was one of the harder challenges I had to face. I had been told all my life that without God, we had no basis for our morality. Without that lifeline, I have to admit that it was pretty scary there for a while.
Many theists approach this subject from a false premise. They ask a non-believer where the universal standard of morality comes from if not God. Rather, I submit that there is *no* universal standard of morality.
To a theist, that is scary. I understand that. It is cold. It is harsh. It is raw, amoral naturalism. My wife recently asked how our children were going to get their morality if I was no longer a Christian. Wow. She knows I am a good man, but that Christian mindset that there is no good without God is so ingrained in her that she is not even aware of it. That any morality can come without God is inconceivable to most of us!
But now that I have been away from Christianity for a while, and have had a chance to observe my former faith from the outside – I think I have a pretty fair idea what is going on. The bottom line is, I do not believe there is a universal standard of morality.
Yet, how do Christians gain their morality? Supposedly from Scripture, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. However, now that I have seen Christianity for a while from the outside, I no longer think that is the case. Christians think that is where they gain morality, but in reality, I think they are doing what we all end up doing in the long run – gaining what we can from our society, from our culture, our own gut instinct, and yes our religious traditions – and taking our best stab at it.
I am reading a book right now called, “Science and Ethics: Can Science Help us Make Wise Choices?”, edited by Paul Kurtz. It is very enlightening! It gives data and informed opinion on some of the uniquely modern ethical challenges of our times. What does the Holy Bible say about the ethics of cloning? Stem cell research and other kinds of biogenetic engineering? Does Jesus ever say anything about a patient’s right to medical privacy, psychotherapy or chemical treatment for mental health? What ethical standards are sent down by God concerning euthanasia, unnecessary suffering or prolonging the life of the elderly?
I remember my old pastor lambasting Christian psychology, because he believed the Bible was sufficient for all our needs. Yet, I don’t see how 2000-3000 year old sacred texts can give insights, much less absolutes, to critical issues like cloning, embryonic stem cell research, or any of these other moral problems of our day. These are sophisticated and challenging problems worthy of debate. The ancient writers of Scripture simply could not conceive of such things, and the Bible is just not equipped to handle these types of issues.
Does the Bible contain a guideline of moral absolutes? I submit that it does not – in hindsight, I don’t know what moral guidelines it contains beyond “Do unto others…”. I found an interesting book on Google Books recently, that I will get around to reading someday soon. It is called Bible Defence of Slavery: And Origin Fortunes and History of the Negro Race, by Rev. Josiah Priest, originally published in 1843, it appears to contain over 500 pages of a Biblical defense of Negro slavery.
I want to read this as a historical perspective, because I want to get an insight into the moral justification some Christians once used for what they believed was perfectly just, good and right – the subjugation, and ownership of an entire race of human beings. I am certain that you think slavery is abhorant, as do I and 99.99% of modern westerners. That is the morality of our modern culture. Yet, that used to not be the case. Where did Rev Priest think his pro-slavery morality came from? The same place the modern Christian thinks they got theirs:
From page iv of the introduction:
The question, “Is slavery, as it exists in the United States, justifiable?” is one which, at least, admits of discussion. IF it be in harmony with the immutable principles of truth and justice, and not a ‘crime against humanity’, and a libel upon our holy religion, let i tbe so understood and practised by our honest citizens, whose highest ambition consists in faithfully serving God…
“But Rev Priest was obviously twisting the Scriptures to suit his pro-slavery desires,” the modern Christian will say. Maybe so – but I don’t know. That is why I want to read the book, although I am certain Rev Priest will be just as sure the modern Christian is wrong in their anti-slavery stance.
If God is the ultimate arbiter of morality, who is the ultimate arbiter of theological study and Biblical interpretation? What good is a holy book of moral standards if we cannot interpret or agree on what those standards are?
I do not want to hijack this article to be a tirade against slavery. The point I am trying to make is, that ultimately, whether we realize it or not, the ultimate arbiter of morality is not God, not the Scripture, but ourselves.
Where did this universal morality come from? Well, for one I don’t think it is necessarily universal. But across a single culture the agreed upon moral structure does not seem to need a supernatural origin. Morality seems to be concocted by us humans over time so that we can live civilly with each other. I don’t see why that is so profound, or why it takes a heck of a lot of faith to understand.