Some Pig: Why God’s laws are not written on our hearts

Morals

According to Christians, everyone of us knows the right way to behave because God has written his laws in our ‘hearts’. We don’t always bother to consult what he’s written there, however, because we prefer to do our own thing, which is when our consciences start to bother us about our wicked ways. Here’s how Paul put in Romans 2.15:

Gentiles show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.

There’s no evidence that this is how it works, of course; Paul never cared much for evidence nor even for making sense. We know that, provided we are not born with psychopathic tendencies, we learn values, morals and how to relate to others from care-givers in our early lives. They teach us to share (or not) and how we should treat other people, and while it’s true we do seem to be born with a sense of empathy – watch a young child respond to the distress of another – this needs to be cultivated and nurtured. A knowledge of the 613, frequently absurd stipulations of the Old Covenant (which is what Paul is referring to) is demonstrably not genetic; we do not have an innate or instinctive understanding of God’s requirements. Psychologists point to the fact that it is only when she is three that a child learns that stealing is wrong; she is not born knowing it.

All of which is a far cry from ‘God’s law being written in (our) hearts’. Even if Paul meant we have a sort of general, non-specific understanding of how we ought to behave – though this is not what he actually says – there is no evidence this has been planted in us by a supernatural being. Certainly not one that thinks slavery is okay and whose prohibition against killing doesn’t extend to tribes beyond one’s own.

The Christian approach to morality puts me in mind of Charlotte’s Web. In that great children’s book, Charlotte the spider adds messages to the webs she spins to help save her friend, Wilbur the pig, from slaughter. When the gullible humans in the story see ‘Some Pig’, ‘Radiant’, ‘Amazing’ and ‘Humble’ written in the webs, they inexplicably give the credit, not to Charlotte, but to Wilbur. No-one, either in the book itself nor in reviews, comments on the fact that it is not Wilbur who has these qualities, despite what the messages say, but the creature who made them (an anomaly I’m sure E. B. White was aware of when he wrote the book.)

If I might interpret Charlotte’s Web allegorically, we humans are Charlotte, while Wilbur, on whom everyone seems focused, is God. It is we who have developed moral codes throughout our existence, the latest versions of which our children learn from us, and attempt to follow (or not). Meanwhile, the likes of Paul and contemporary Christians refuse to give us one iota of credit. Instead, they insist, the credit goes to their god; a being nowhere near as pleasant as Wilbur, though he’s every bit as fictional – another of our creations, just like those moral codes we invented.

 

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“When (a worldview) doesn’t include God, there is no basis for morality.” Roy Moore, 2008

Ravi3

I planned to dissect Ravi Zacharias’ morality argument even before recent revelations that he lied about his credentials. I’m sure that, despite his fraudulent claims, he’s still a good Christian™, perfectly entitled to tell the rest of us what terrible sinners we are. If you’ve ever seen his grandiose sermonising, you’ll know he likes to pretend that Faith is something deeply intellectual, despite Paul’s contention in 1 Corinthians 1. 26-27 that it isn’t. Zacharias’ pseudo-intellectual Christianity is, like many of his qualifications, fake.

In common with other Christians desperate to prove their God, he relies too on circular reasoning. He tells us that our morality derives from God (you listening TC Howitt?) and then uses this to argue that, because of we have morality, God must exist. His unproven conclusion is his premise, with nothing in between to justify either.

Here’s his ‘argument’ in full:

Ravi3

Let’s take a closer look:

‘When you say “There’s too much evil in the world”, you assume there’s “good”. Who says this? How much evil is ‘too much’? Do people other than Christians see the world in terms of good and evil? Does acknowledging evil mean one also assumes there is good? How is this ‘good’ defined? So many unanswered questions in this first muddled statement.

‘When you assume there’s good, you assume there’s such a thing as a “moral law” on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil.’ The only one making assumptions here is Ravi himself. The considerate treatment of others, which is how we might reasonably define morality, is easily recognisable when it occurs. This presumably, given he fails to define any of his terms, is what Ravi means by ‘good’ (and conversely, inconsiderate or malicious treatment of others is his ‘evil’). There’s no reason to suppose, however, that the demonstration of good is a component of an objective ‘moral law’ that exists somehow independent of human interaction. Morality and any resulting goodness (or ‘evil’), is human interaction.

‘But if you assume a moral law you must posit a “Moral-Law Giver.” Well, of course we’re not assuming a moral law, not in the magical way Ravi is assuming we’re assuming. And how about that imperative: ‘You must posit a “Moral-Law Giver”‘! Must we? Morality is socially determined by human beings themselves; we see this is in the different moralities that have emerged in cultures with shared heritage; we see it in the changing attitudes over the last fifty years to the treatment of women and gay people. Morality is fluid; it evolves. The ‘Moral-Law Giver’ then, if we must have such a term, is we ourselves.

‘But that’s Who you’re trying to disprove and not prove.’ Erm no. Ravi’s being disingenuous here. ‘We’ were not trying to disprove a Moral-Law Giver at all; he was trying to prove it (him? – note the capital sneakily added to ‘Who’). Let’s though, for the sake of argument say Ravi is right; let’s say there is a Moral-Law Giver out there somewhere. Why has he, over the expanse of human existence, issued such varying and often conflicting moral codes? Compare, for example, today’s moral standards with the harsh, brutal morality of the ancient Israelites, which demanded the death penalty for almost any infringement of the law. Compare that with the morality Christians today claim they derive from New Testament. Then compare Jesus’ impossible demands with how Christians actually behave. By and large, they’re happy to ignore him and, with the exception of one or two areas they get hot under the collar about (abortion, same-sex relationships), they go along with the consensus of the culture in which they live.

‘Because if there’s no Moral-Law Giver, there is no moral law.’ There is a ‘moral-law giver’: it is us. That is why moral laws vary according to culture and through time. Zacharias wants us to conclude that this capitalised ‘Moral-Law Giver’ is his God, yet he has neither demonstrated that a deity (any deity) decrees moral codes from on high, nor has he ‘proved’ (his word) that this cosmic law giver is his god, the barbaric and inconsistent YHWH. Rather, he ‘assumes’ this to be the case and hopes that his audience, failing to notice his assumptions, presuppositions and sleight of hand, will too. Given that most of them are Christian sheep  (Jesus’ term, not mine) they will no doubt do just that.

‘If there’s no moral law, then there’s no good. If there’s no good, there’s no evil.’ This is where the argument, such as it is, turns back on itself. Zacharias thinks he’s being very clever (he always thinks he’s being clever) but all he’s doing is declaring his premise over again.

Of course there are moral standards; humans have devised them throughout their existence. The ‘Golden Rule’ promoted by Jesus, for example, is first recorded thousands of years before him. We determine for ourselves what is good and therefore what is ‘evil’; these defintions are not delivered to us ready made from a “Moral-Law Giver” in the sky.

(While Zacharias doesn’t use the argument, there are those who like to say, on the basis of Romans 2.15, that God has written his (ever-changing) rules in our hearts, a fallacy I’ll address in the next post.)

‘What is your question?’ clever Ravi finally asks. We didn’t have a question. Here’s one for him anyway: how has he got away with such fraudulent drivel for so long?

 

Can you be good without God?

Good

You can’t be good without God, you can only be good with him – or so Christians like to tell us.

What is the evidence for this? What ‘goodness’ do we see in and from Christians (and other believers in God) that demonstrates they are directed in their morality by a supernatural being who, they say, dwells within them? ‘By their fruits ye shall know them,’ declares their leader in Matthew 7.16 – so what ‘fruits’ do we see?

How about Christians abusing the vulnerable? Sexual abuse of minors has long been widespread in the Catholic church and more and more cases are coming to light in Protestant ones too. Bruce Gerencser keeps a log of those accused and convicted of such crimes, adding names and cases from the States on almost a daily basis. Is this the ‘goodness’ Christians like to say comes from knowing God?

Or how about those believers whose ‘goodness’ manifests itself in cruelty, dishonesty or extreme right-wing views? (Never mind goodness, from these examples it would seem God doesn’t even provide his followers with common sense.)

Then there’s the likes of former judge Roy Moore, anti-LGBT politician who, when he’s not trying to erect monuments to the ten commandments, is excusing his history of grooming and abusing 14 year old girls? What part of this behaviour is ‘good’?

How about preachers like Franklin Graham, Stephen Green here in the UK and the self-righteous know-alls of Teens4Truth, all of whom persistently bear false witness? Perhaps demonising others with the intention of stirring up hatred and paranoia is somehow ‘good’ inside the Christian bubble.

‘Ah, but wait!’ say those Christians who insist we can only be good with God. ‘These people are not true Christians; if they were they wouldn’t be doing these things. Their behaviour tells us they’re not really Christians at all.’ And yet, they all profess faith in Jesus and are convinced his spirit lives in them; however they behave, and whether or not other believers accept it, they are Christians by virtue of this profession alone (Romans 10.9). Christian apologists can’t get out of the double-bind they’ve got themselves into by saying those who do wrong can’t be considered Christians and only those who are seen to be ‘good’ are true believers. They can’t reasonably demonstrate the goodness of God’s Chosen by discounting those who don’t manifest the characteristic they’re attempting to demonstrate, while pointing only to those who remain.

‘Well,’ Christians say, ‘non-believers and atheists are capable of behaving immorally too!’ which is true. But wasn’t their original argument that Christians are so much better (more good) than non-believers because of the indwelling Holy Spirit and their resulting spiritual discernment (or whatever)? Pointing out that some non-believers are capable of behaving as deplorably as some Christians is hardly a demonstration of the supernatural goodness that allegedly infuses Christ’s followers.

It has always seemed to me that religion is like alcohol. A little too much of either accentuates an individual’s true nature. If he or she is already a decent, kind person, drink and god-bothering tend to highlight these characteristics. If, on the other hand, a person is self-centred, greedy and unreasonable then that’s what we get more of. God has nothing to do with it; if it’s your nature, you can be good with or without him. As Bertrand Russell put it:

Cruel men believe in a cruel god and use their belief to excuse their cruelty. Only kindly men believe in a kindly god and they would be kindly in any case.

It is a pernicious lie that subscribing to a superstition imbues a person with ‘goodness’. It should be disputed at every turn.

 

The Moral Maze

Stoning

Where does morality come from? Ken Ham and others like to tell us it comes from the bible and the Christian ‘worldview’ they say they find there. Those non-believers who profess or practise morality in any meaningful way ‘steal’ it, they say, from this Christian worldview. They argue that without supernatural beings to dictate, with wild inconsistency, how we should behave, we simply wouldn’t know how to. That we do, by and large, means we can only have ‘stolen’ our morality from Christianity.

Unsurprisingly, the evidence suggests otherwise; versions of morality exist in all cultures – the secular, the pagan, the alternatively religious. Some of these are similar to those traditionally and often mistakenly associated with Christianity, some are not – which tells us they are socially determined. We decide ourselves, collectively, what is and isn’t morally acceptable. We don’t ‘steal’, or even need to, from the Christian ‘worldview’. Some of our morality might coincide with that espoused somewhere in the bible, but that doesn’t mean its taken from it. It means we value some of the same principles that ancient cultures valued – ‘do not steal’, is fairly ubiquitous, for example – because they too lived communally and needed rules like this one, as we do, to facilitate social cohesion. Of course, the collective understanding of a principle does not necessarily mean that everyone adheres to it, just as in those ancient cultures. Nonetheless we can all understand morality insofar as our culture defines and experiences it.

But let’s take a closer look at that ‘biblical worldview’ morality, that evangelicals think is the be-all-and-end-all, shall we?

T.C. Howitt, curator of the Oil for Light blog and commenter here, argues that ‘God’s moral law’, as demonstrated in the bible, is the only true (‘transcendent’ and absolute) morality. I’ve asked T.C. if he’s talking about the ‘morality’ that promotes the keeping and beating of slaves; the stoning of couples who have sex when the woman is menstruating; the execution of men who sleep with men, uppity teenagers and those who worship other gods, and which forbids work on the Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday afternoon, that is).

It turns out it’s not (and yet it is) because, this, you see, is Old Testament morality and Jesus did away with all that. But nonethless it’s still transcendent and absolute because it’s God’s Eternal Law. (I hope you’re following this so far.) However, in practical terms, what moralising believers seem to mean by biblical morality, is that which can be found in the New Testament. As I’ve pointed out to T.C., this is not the same thing as biblical morality.

So what does New Testament morality look like? Presumably it’s the morality promoted by Jesus, such as go the extra mile; sell all you have and give to the poor; turn the other cheek; give to everyone who asks; hand over your shirt when your jacket is demanded of you; don’t judge; love your neighbour as yourself; love your enemies; treat others as you like to be treated yourself, etc, etc.

If this isn’t what’s meant by New Testament morality then I don’t know what is. But forgive me – I don’t know many Christians who practise it, not even with an indwelling Holy Spirit and God’s personal support. That’s because it is an impossible morality. Consequently, Christians, like the rest of us, derive their moral standards from the culture around them, at the same time reserving the right to harangue the rest of us over our lack of ‘biblical morality’.

Doesn’t the bible have something to say about this? Oh my, yes it does. It goes something like this: attend to the log in your own eye, because it’s blinding you, and leave others to attend to the speck in theirs.

Now that’s what I call biblical morality.

 

 

God approves of slavery

slavery

Over on his blog site, Biblical Musing, Don Camp is trying to justify why God appears to condone slavery. It’s not the first time Don has tried to defend the indefensible; he’s recently been arguing much the same thing on Debunking Christianity.

The fact the Old Testament appears to endorse the keeping of other human beings as slaves is a problem for Christians. It’s a problem compounded by the fact that Jesus in Luke 12.47-48 and the imposter-Paul, in Ephesians 6.5, both support the practice. How can it be that God approves, or at least raises no objection to it? Wouldn’t an omniscient, all-loving God have outlawed slavery, as he outlaws so much else, in one of his innumerable laws and commandments?

Instead, he provides instructions about how to keep and look after slaves; what to do, for example, when you flog one to within an inch of his life so that he later dies (Exodus 21.20-21) or when you deliberately blind your slave – she’s your property after all – or rape her (Exodus 21.26; Numbers 31.17-18).

Don’s answer is that, despite God involving himself in the minutiae of slave treatment, he knew it would be a waste of time telling his people slavery was wrong. Why? Because he took the trouble to tell them lying and stealing were wrong and yet they ignored him. So, hey, why should he bother telling them about slavery? They’d just ignore that too.

But the point is – disregarding the fact that not everyone steals and lies – ‘God’ did issue laws prohibiting stealing and lying (and eating shellfish, and wearing garments of mixed fabric). It seems it was important to him to tell his pet-tribe that these were wrong, even though he must have known many of their number, and many more subsequently, would ignore him.

What can we conclude from this? Only this: that God didn’t feel the same way about slavery as he did about lying and stealing, which is why he didn’t bother making even the same token effort for slavery.

Or, and much more likely: the tribes who wrote the laws didn’t think slavery was wrong. In fact, they thought it quite useful to have slaves. Given this utility, they were unlikely to have devised laws prohibiting their ownership. The enslaved themselves no doubt thought differently, but then they didn’t get to write the rules.

We don’t find a commandment prohibiting slavery in the bible because those who wrote it liked having slaves. For this reason too, we find all those inhumane instructions about keeping slaves and what should happen if you maim or kill them.

Of course God didn’t write these laws. People did. And they wrote them according to their understanding of what was moral, fair and legitimate within their own primitive milieu. Thus it was that slavery got a free pass.

How the bible gets almost everything wrong: volume 2

bible-questions

The bible’s moral inconsistencies:

As we saw here and here, the bible’s morality is confused and frequently contradictory. Jesus himself adds to the confusion with pronouncements like:

You have heard it said (in Exodus 21.24), ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5:38-39)

and

You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5.27-28).

God’s ‘standards’ change depending on who thinks they’re channelling him:

In Joel 3.8 he advocates slavery but in Exodus 21.16 he forbids it.

In Matthew 6.1 Jesus insists good deeds should be done secretly forgetting he’s already said, in Matthew 5.1, that they should be done openly to impress others.

In Matthew 7.1-3 Jesus says judging others is to be avoided while in 1 Corinthians 6.2-4, Paul gives it the go-ahead; judging others is fine.

In Matthew 19.10-12 Jesus disparages marriage but the writer of Hebrews approves of it (13.4)

God allows divorce in Deuteronomy 21.10-14 but in Matthew 5.32 Jesus doesn’t.

And on and on. Like everyone else’s, Christians’ morality is socially determined. Unlike everyone else’s, their morality reflects the bible’s own confusion and inconsistencies. To accommodate its contradictions, Christians cherry-pick from it to bolster their pre-existing prejudices and biases. The rest of us are then measured – judged – against the resulting pick’n’mix morality and, boy, are we found lacking. ‘Biblical morality’ is nothing if not projectile.

 

The bible’s weak understanding of psychology:

Many of those who wrote the bible had a particularly bleak view of human beings. To these men we are totally depraved and our every thought is ‘continually evil’ (Genesis 6.5) Our ‘hearts’ are supremely deceitful and desperately sick (Jeremiah 17.9) and we’re under the control of the devil (Ephesians 2.1-3). We are incapable of doing good (Romans 3.10-13) and as Jesus himself puts it:

That which proceeds from a person, defiles that person. For from within, out of the heart, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile a person. (Mark 7.20-23).

I don’t recognise this as a description of myself and I’m sure you don’t of yourself. Of course human beings are capable of terrible acts (I’m writing this not long after a fanatical Muslim murdered 22 young, innocent people in a terrorist bombing in Manchester, here in the UK) and, on a more mundane level, we can behave in thoughtless or vindictive ways, entirely out of self-interest.

But we’re also capable of great kindness, compassion and concern. We are a complex mixture of these traits, the good and the bad. The biblical view that we are only ever hateful, devoid of any good, is jaundiced and unnecessarily negative. If parents were to spend their time telling a child he or she is only ever bad, wicked and evil, they would rapidly deprive the child of their self-worth, self-confidence and ability to relate in positive, loving ways to others. The description would become self-fulfilling. This is what the God of the bible does to his children.

Neither are we awash with sin. Sin is a religious idea, used to describe how humans fall short of the glory of God. It need not concern us here. There is no God to fall short of; sin therefore is a concept without any traction in the real world.

 

The bible’s fantasy perspective of the world:

Did you know this world is controlled by the devil and his demons? That powers and principalities of the air are at war with God and the powers of holiness all around us? In fact, the devil is always looking for ways to discredit the bible and is constantly trying to weaken Christians’ faith. He smuggles false doctrine into the church in order to mislead believers, and uses the hoax that is evolution to prevent unbelievers from accepting Christ as their saviour. He gives women ideas above their station, which God says is to be submissive, and has unleashed a wave of homosexual behaviour and gender confusion to blind people to God’s goodness and to kindle his wrath.

Did you know, though, that this fallen world and the ‘heavens’ above it are soon to be destroyed and replaced by a new earth and new heavens, where Jesus will reign over the select few God decides to raise from the dead? Despite Satan thinking he’s in control, it’s actually God who is. God only allows the devil to think he’s top-dog while he, God, is secretly pulling the strings.

If you do know these things, and if you believe them, then you have a ‘biblical worldview’. Or, to put it another way, you’ve bought into third-rate hokum that bears no relation to the world – the universe, even – as it is.

 

Sin

Sin

During the recent election in the UK, the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, Tim Farron, was asked if he thought gay sex was a sin. Farron is a born-again Christian and instead of answering the question, he hedged round it. Predictably, this meant that journalists returned to it, with the politician dodging it each time.

In all probability, Farron does regard gay sex as a sin. The bible teaches that all behaviour that offends God is sin, causing a rift between mortals and the deity. This, biblically speaking, is what defines sin. Tim Farron would have been better being honest, saying that his faith leads him to believe that sex between people of the same sex is sinful but that personally he is a supporter of equal rights for all. His voting record indicates this to be the case; he has consistently voted in favour of LGBT rights while, presumably, maintaining his faith. Perhaps if he had answered in this way, he might not have felt the need resign as Lib-Dem leader on the grounds that his role as party leader conflicted with his personal beliefs. Predictably, evangelical groups have claimed he was hounded out of office because of his beliefs, but it seems far more likely he was, as he said himself, finding it difficult to reconcile his faith-induced worldview with his public duty. It must be difficult defaming your colleagues when you’re supposed to be demonstrating Christ’s love.

Whatever the reason, those who believe that human behaviour is sinful are wrong. Nothing humans do is a sin. Nothing we do, gay sex included, offends God because there is no God to offend. Sin is an entirely religious concept that has outlived its usefulness, if it ever really had any. Which is not to say human behaviour cannot be immoral. It can, but immoral behaviour and sin are not the same thing. As a rule of thumb, morality is determined by the extent to which our behaviour adversely affects others. Deliberately harming them physically, materially or emotionally is (likely to be) immoral behaviour. Murder, theft and abuse are immoral – but they are not ‘sin’.

Morality is not always clear cut, however; arguably it would not be wrong to murder a terrorist or suicide bomber before he can embark on a killing spree. Aborting collections of cells in a woman’s uterus, if that is what she wants, is also not an immoral act. Similarly, victimless behaviours such as sex – both hetero and homosexual – between free, consenting adults is neither wrong nor immoral. Nor is masturbation, gender fluidity or transgenderism. And as for the betes noir of the church of my youth (and who knows, they may still be) – listening to rock music, having the odd drink and dancing – they’re not either.

On the other hand, some of the activities indulged in by religious people are immoral: attempting to impose their beliefs on others; misrepresenting and denigrating those different from themselves; pressurising gay people to deny their sexuality; advocating the death penalty for homosexuality; covering up fellow-believers’ criminal activity; teaching children that creation myths are true; dismissing science; persuading people that prayer works; convincing others they are sinners.

We all behave immorally, thoughtlessly and carelessly, from time to time. But we are not, as a consequence, destined for hell, nor are we in need of a saviour to magically wash away any wrong-doing; if that really worked, we would see no immoral Christians. No, when we have behaved immorally we need to make reparation to those we have harmed, not ‘repent’ by begging forgiveness of some irascible god. What we should never do, whatever the Righteous ones tell us, is regard ourselves as sinners. We are not: it is impossible to offend a deity that doesn’t exist.