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.