The Bible is No Place for Ethics

December 15, 2010

The  Bible can't be a source for ethics.

A genuine ethics should be about how morality can be objective, rather than subjective, and about increasing our capacity to take responsibility for our actions. The Bible is no help at all.

The Bible is a vast collection of Jewish and Christian pieces of literature. Embedded in all these stories are many instructions for how God's people should live. The Bible never offers morality for just anyone, regardless of who they are. There is no universal moral code for people in general. The Old Testament is for Jews who accept the covenant with Yahweh, and the New Testament is for people who accept Jesus.

That means that there is no objective morality in the Bible. An objective morality would be valid for every person regardless of their cultural heritage, political attachment, or religious faith. But the Bible explicitly says that a person can only be good by first believing in one specific God. In the Old Testament, the primary duty is to keep the covenant with Yahweh. In the New Testament, the primary duty is faith in Jesus and God so that sin is overcome and salvation is attained.

There is a huge difference between believing that some rules are objective (sure, Christians really want to believe this) and whether those rules are actually objective. Objectivity does not rest on some set of people claiming that some rules are valid for all. Hundreds of religions all make that same claim for their own rules, and they can't all be right, so that’s not any path to objectivity. Obviously, Christians want to believe that the Bible offers objective moral rules, but such blind faith does not make it true. At most, such faith can make it true for them, but that relativity is the opposite of objectivity. Objectivity cannot depend on who you are, or what faith commitment you have made. What if some scientists ran around claiming true objectivity for their theories, just because they all are loyal alumni of Harvard?

Both the Bible and the way Christians live exemplifies this lack of moral objectivity. The Bible just isn’t good enough. Ultimately, any selected list of moral rules from the Bible will be hopelessly inadequate for modern life. Christians appreciate modern law as much as anyone else, even if they sometimes wish it was more biblical. Atheists have no problem using modern law either, which overlaps anything reasonable in the Ten Commandments. Modern law cannot be Bible-based, though. The Bible does not respect universal human rights, it does not approve of democracy, and it is full of immoral prejudice and intolerance.

Not only is Biblical morality unable to offer objectivity, it cannot increase moral responsibility. A religious person must simply submit to whatever rules this God hands down. As I've said before, If God exists, then all is permitted. Submission to God and obedience to arbitrary rules is the opposite of taking responsibility for one's own actions. There is no ethics here, nothing that leads towards independent thoughtful objectivity. Letting God decide all morality is the ultimate subjectivity: the whim of one individual decides morality. It's a contradictory morality at that. Numerous inconsistencies among Biblical moral rules confuse and divide believers. Even Christians notice the awful parts of the Bible. There are too many examples of horrible behavior approved by God in the Bible, from intolerance and patriarchy to slavery and genocide.

Believers naturally defend the Bible by picking out just the "good" parts. But you could just as well pick out the "good" parts of any large body of literature, from sacred texts to secular novels. Picking through Shakespeare would serve just as well. Atheists can do this selecting from the world's cultural resources too, and there is no evidence that atheists must be less moral than believers just because they think first. Choosiness is a good thing, a sign of some thinking going on. Atheists are hardly alone. Typically, modern religious people decide for themselves which Biblical rules are the "real" divine commands. This independent exercise of thoughtful judgment is a good sign, but that independence is contrary to biblical submission to God. Besides, such independent judgment shows that even a religious person can have their own ethical standards in order to decide what God really wants.

If a religious person is trying to figure out which are the genuinely moral rules in the Bible, that shows that the Bible is a crutch that can be thrown away. We should encourage believers to take responsibility for their own judgment and conduct. They will find that they need God less and less. Atheists are farther along on the path of independent objective judgment, which means that atheists can not only be more moral, but more ethical as well. Humanism stands as a objective morality available to all, for example. Emancipation from God is not an exemption from the responsibility to be ethical.

Comments:

#1 Daniel Schealler (Guest) on Wednesday December 15, 2010 at 2:48pm

The Old Testament may or may not be for Christians too. It depends on our interpretation of Mathew 5:17-18.

#2 klatu on Wednesday December 15, 2010 at 3:25pm

What science, religion, philosophy or theology, Hawkins or Dawkins thought impossible has happened. History now has it’s first fully demonstrable proof for faith. And coming from outside all existing theologies, clearly has ‘tradition’ in the cross hairs. Quoting from an online review:

“The first ever viable religious conception capable of leading reason, by faith, to observable consequences which can be tested and judged is now a reality. A teaching that delivers the first ever religious claim of insight into the human condition that meets the Enlightenment criteria of verifiable, direct cause and effect, evidence based truth embodied in experience. For the first time in history, however unexpected or unwelcome, the world must contend with a claim to new revealed truth, a moral wisdom not of human intellectual origin, offering access by faith, to absolute proof, an objective basis for moral principle and a fully rational and justifiable belief! ”

If confirmed and there appears a growing concerted effort to test and authenticate this material,  of which I am taking part, this will represent a paradigm change in the nature of faith and in the moral and intellectual potential of human nature itself;  untangling the greatest  questions of human existence: sustainability, consciousness, meaning, suffering, free will and evil. And at the same time addressing the most profound problems of our age.

While the religious will find this news most difficult,  those who have claimed to be of an Enlightenment mind should find it of particular interest. But if they are unable to appreciate this change in the historical faith paradigm, to one that conforms precisely to a criteria subject to test and confirmation, then their own ‘claim’  to rationality is no more than pretension nor better then those theological illusions they find so abhorrent.

A unexpected revolution appears to be under way. More info at http://www.energon.org.uk

#3 Frank Blunt on Wednesday December 15, 2010 at 9:20pm

Here’s Jewish/Christian ethics for you.

From the first commandment - ‘the sins of the father will be visited on the sons until the 3rd the 4th generation.’

What a dreadful concept that is - from the mind of that dreadful fascist, Moses.

Lot rooting his daughters - there’s a good morals story bin that one too.

Or Solomon! Was it his child the two women were fighting over - probably.

TThe moralities in the Bible, derived principally from Moses and Saul of Tarsus are those of fascism, misogyny, intolerence ...

This is the last place you’d go to for morals advice.

‘And Yahweh so loved the world that he drowned every body.’

Rev Frank Blunt

#4 Pau (Guest) on Thursday December 16, 2010 at 4:43am

Energon…!  What a lot of nonsense.

#5 klatu on Thursday December 16, 2010 at 5:47am

I am constantly amazed how men who consider themselves ‘rational’ rely on nothing more but prejudice to define their reason. Having testing this new teaching out myself, I can say it is and does exactly what it claims to do. And the only ‘things’ preventing any man from sharing the same discovery are all inside his head!

“A man who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read”  Mark Twain

#6 Kenny Gonah (Guest) on Thursday December 16, 2010 at 8:03am

I think we got to hold on to something otherwise what this may be interpreted to lawlessness if we have no form of guidance at all. The bible maybe to me the only thing close to genuine ethics especially the old testament in as much as it has its flaws here and there. You must also remember that this has been watered down through the ages and also interpreted in many languages and thus the initial message may not stand out as it ought to be. What option do you have really.

#7 Kritikos on Thursday December 16, 2010 at 9:19am

Homer Simpson replies to comments nos. 2 and 5 above: “Ooh, Mama! This is finally really happening! After years of disappointment with get-rich-quick schemes, I know I’m gonna get rich with this scheme—and quick!”

#8 klatu on Thursday December 16, 2010 at 10:18am

What’s interesting about the sites offering this teaching is that it’s not even possible to offer any material support of any kind. That in itself is a first for any ‘religious’ web link.

But what debases the very title of this forum ‘center for inquiry’, what is most tragic, if not corrupting is not the attempt to do the impossible, but the failure to even imagine it. Such is the weight of reason that holds the wings of progress to the ground. And if those who would claim to be of Enlightenment values, cannot reconsider the God question on that same, direct cause and effect criteria, then they are as much a part of the problem for being unable to question themselves. The word hypocrite comes easily to mind!

#9 J. (Guest) on Thursday December 16, 2010 at 11:07am

The believers continue to be wrong but my concerns are rather more focused on behavior than belief. If believers do the right thing for the wrong reason, let them.

#10 eric yantz (Guest) on Monday December 20, 2010 at 7:28pm

Wow #6. You would follow a god that told a man to hold a knife to his sons throat in order to prove his allegiance because you have to have some, and appearantly any, guidance? Think about that?
I’ve seen the ways of god, I’ll take the devil any day!

#11 stuart (Guest) on Tuesday December 21, 2010 at 9:26am

Well, since moral conceit (especially in the religious)is what Jesus acknowledged as the closest relative to Satan (sons of hell) your paradigm for comparing religion as a moral marker is off target.  God is about grace.

#12 asanta on Monday January 03, 2011 at 4:18am

‘God’ is about petty jealousies and revenge. The bible condones incest, murdering infants, rape…gosh, whatever depravity comes to mind, I am sure you will find a passage in the bible to describe or condone in the name of ‘god’.

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