Skip to main content

A Stubborn Myth

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

There have been several posts on this site recently by freethinkers (and/or posers?) who seem to have swallowed the Christian bait that religion is a good basis for moral teaching, and have yet to regurgitate this toxic concoction. Even though they have given up practicing the faith, and may even have given up belief in gods, they still suffer the delusion that religious training is good moral training.

In the Land of Myth and ProphecyImage by MarcelGermain via Flickr
This theory has caused more misery down through the ages than smallpox, and, like smallpox, needs desperately to be stamped out. This article is intended as a temporary inoculation of sorts. As the freethinker continues her studies of religion, and begins to see more clearly the effects of this diseased thinking in current events, I am confident she will move herself well beyond the reach of the sickness. While all major religions are guilty of spreading the disease, I will naturally concentrate on Christianity.

I want to address three major religious claims: (1) the bible, especially the Ten Commandments, provide sound moral training; (2) that not basing morality on god is to make morality relative or lacking an absolute basis; and (3) that those without religion lack moral incentive.

First, it should be obvious that human morality pre-dates Christianity. Mankind has been on the earth for 100,000 years, give or take, and is a social animal. Alone in the wild, we are no match for the major predators. In groups, tribes, we become a formidable force. Only a tiny fraction of modern humans need fear any predator, other than humans themselves. We were able to form ourselves into tribes and keep them together by agreeing, explicitly or implicitly, to certain rules of behavior, including basic moral codes. The liar, the thief, and the murderer were shunned, banished or otherwise punished. Those who succeeded in creating and raising progeny were largely those who could play by the rules. In short, thanks to evolution, we are, in part, hardwired for moral behavior (the same has been demonstrated for many other social species). Thus our basic human morality can be traced partially to genetic hardwiring, and the rest, the social-context-relative morality, is taught by our parents and other caregivers, our peers, and our society in general.

Thus, mankind had been living and flourishing in societies long before the first biblical texts were written. So, what did those Ten Commandments add to human morality? Short answer: nothing. Note first that only 3 of the commandments are in our modern laws – those that deal with theft, murder, and perjury (bearing false witness), and that those are in the law books of every nation on earth, even those where Christianity is barely known, such as China and Japan. The other 7 commandments all pertain to “proper” modes of worship (honoring the Sabbath and the one “true” god, no idols, no swearing), basic moral injunctions for honoring parents and against adultery, or silly directives like the one against coveting. Clearly there is nothing in any of this regarding morality that is remotely profound. Parents of all religions, and none, all over the world, will generally teach their children the moral basics on theft, murder, lying, honoring parents and adultery. All the other commandments are religious chaff or simple nonsense.

Many of the most important teachings of the bible are actually immoral, at least by any modern, socially accepted definition of the word. But the rest of the bible surely reflects sound moral principles, doesn’t it? Perhaps here and there one may find a worthwhile moral teaching, but it’s a matter of searching for a few pearls in a dung heap. Shouldn’t we expect that this bible, this relic of a primitive, superstitious age, would reflect a primitive morality? Of course, and it does.

Consider that many of the most important teachings of the bible are actually immoral, at least by any modern, socially accepted definition of the word. Is scapegoating moral (the sacrifice of an innocent in payment for the wrongs of others)? Is hell moral (the idea that most humans deserve to be tortured for a very long time for their supposed wrongdoings)? Is original sin moral (the philosophy that that we all should be held guilty for the supposed wrongdoings of our distant ancestors)?

God is the principal character of the bible. So, is god a legitimate moral hero, a good example to use for moral teaching? Let’s just list a few of god’s commands and actions in the bible which suggest he may, in fact, be a decidedly immoral being:

Kills nearly all of humanity in a great flood, toddlers and babies included.

Arranges to have his own son tortured and murdered as a sacrifice to himself.

Condones the practice of slavery.
In order to win a bet, allows Satan to do anything he wishes to Job, even killing his children.

Approves numerous murders (Judith Hayes provides 45 examples in “The Holy Bible Revisited: Not Ready for Prime-Time Reading”), these include the 42 children killed by 2 bears, and all the firstborn of Egypt in another incident.

Condones war crimes (Numbers 31): “And Moses spake unto the people, saying . . . Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.”

Holds the innocent responsible for their ancestors supposed wrongdoings (Exodus 20): “For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me.”

Condones the murder of innocent, uninvolved family members: In Numbers 16, two men who had displeased god were buried alive with their wives and little children, and in Daniel 6:24, men who plotted against Daniel are thrown to the lions along with their wives and children.

Commands us to kill disobedient sons (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), those who work on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2), blasphemers (Leviticus), non-virginal brides (Deuteronomy 22), homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13), adulterers (Leviticus 20:10) (and even witches - Exodus 22).

As you well know, I could go on for several more pages along this vein. But, it should be clear from these examples alone that the Bible is a horrible source for moral teaching. In fact, I question whether there exists a worse model than bible-god for teaching moral behavior.

Now many believers argue that whatever god does must be considered moral, that we can’t expect to understand god's ways. For example, we shouldn’t blame god for torturing people in hell, because it’s those sinful people’s fault for deserving it.

As to understanding god, what could be more foolish than believing in and worshiping a god one cannot understand? By that “reasoning,” it makes perfectly good sense to believe in any god we don’t understand, from Allah to Krishna to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In fact, this is exactly what billions have done since time immemorial; believed in false gods they couldn’t understand. If a god can’t make himself understood by us, then he is certainly too stupid to have created a universe. Such a god cannot exist.

As for the argument that it’s their own fault if people go to hell, my argument is against the very existence of hell. What sane parent tortures his children if they misbehave? If that’s not immoral, then nothing is.

The idea that if god does something then it must be moral is an extremely dangerous attitude. This is exactly the attitude that enabled the atrocities of the European inquisitors which cost the freedom and the lives of thousands, perhaps millions. After all, the inquisitors were simply honoring biblical commands; for example, to kill heretics (Deut. 17) and witches (Exodus 22).

Now, what about the claim that not basing morality on god is to make morality relative, or lacking an absolute basis. Now that is certainly true. Morality is going to be relative to something, whether it’s god or man. There is no getting around that. The real question is which makes more sense. You have just read several paragraphs indicting god’s morality, as taught in the bible. Now notice the implied morality of man as shown in our laws. Man’s laws forbid us from killing disobedient sons, those who work on the Sabbath, blasphemers, non-virginal brides, homosexuals, adulterers, or alleged witches. Now show me the sane man or woman who would really prefer god’s laws.

Furthermore, the “absolute basis” argument is likewise a failure. There are hundreds of sects of Christianity because there are hundreds of interpretations of the bible. If you are going to base your morality on the god of the bible, then whose interpretation do you use? The one which stresses that homosexuality is an abomination punishable by death, or the one which stresses that we are all god’s children, and he loves us all? You see the problem? There is no absolute.

Now, what is the harm of thinking that religious training is good moral training? Well, let’s look at just a few of the consequences this thinking has on our society:

It tends to put clergy above suspicion. The clergy pedophilia bomb would have exploded long ago if this were not the case. Also, many children were duped by clergy claims that their sexual predation was morally approved for god’s emissaries.

Clergy are always over-represented on ethics boards and media interviews on ethical/moral issues.

Gives the religious right more leverage in trying to overturn Roe v. Wade, gay marriage, etc., by claiming them as moral issues where they are the experts.

Provides a great sales tool for churches and parochial schools – send your kids to us and we’ll make them moral (or make the immoral appear moral, and fill their heads with reality-avoiding religious nonsense).

Provides a perfect cover for faith healers & other scam artists (like investment scams and the guy on late-night TV who sells vials of “miracle water”).

Has been the source of many so called “blue laws”: no liquor sold on Sunday, no department stores open Sunday, no car sales on Sundays, etc.

Now, lastly, what about the claim that those without religion are lacking moral incentive? As the religious put it, what’s to keep us non-believers from turning to rape, murder, orgy, theft, and various and sundry other fun stuff if we don’t fear the wrath of god? I know, I know, this argument is infuriatingly insulting, to say nothing of stupid.

Well, to begin with, there are man’s laws which are very strong incentives in some of these cases. Then there is concern for reputation, the near universal desire to not shame one’s family, and, perhaps most of all, our self esteem. I can think of nothing more important to me than my personal honor, with the possible exception of the lives of those I love. Would I dishonor myself to save the life of one of my children? Probably. Which, I guess, in a way makes me the opposite of those Muslims who have killed family members in the name of “honor.” Now which makes more sense to you?

I hope that the previous paragraph, combined with the earlier discussion on the evolutionary and social sources of human morality, have made the case that religion is not a necessary adjunct to morality. I wish to leave the freethinker with the conclusion that not only is religion not necessary for moral training, it is in fact detrimental to the development of a sound, modern moral philosophy.

So, please, do not send your kids to church or Sunday school! It should be clear to you by now that all religion has to offer is a seriously warped view of morality developed by superstitious primitives.

Think about it. How could it possibly make sense to base morality on a superstition?