moral standards - are they possible?
by Alan Urdaibay
This article reprinted here for
your convenience. The original can be found here.
From a theist point of view - An
atheist point of view
One of the most common claims of religious adherents
is that atheists and agnostics are incapable of true moral behaviour because
they do not acknowledge moral laws of a divine origin. Whereas god's
laws are absolute - always right and impossible to question - man's
laws are merely relative to some principle that may be here today
and gone tomorrow. This is the criticism.
"Every Catholic holds that the Christian dogmas
were in the Church from the time of the Apostles; that they were ever
in their substance what they are now..." John Henry Newman. In other
words it is only necessary for the church to discover what was originally
there - never to invent new answers to moral questions.
God's laws are neutral - so it goes - god's
moral laws treat everyone the same while man's moral laws are often
designed for the benefit of some to the detriment of others. Nationalism,
socialism, capitalism have a moral basis which works for some more actively
than for others.
So theists think that only god's laws are satisfactory
because they see things from god's point of view. Any moral code that
man might think of would be flawed precisely because it was designed from
man's point of view. A moral code based on maximizing the number of happy
people, for example, would be inadequate because this might involve considerable
suffering or injustice for some.
God's laws are seen as being rather like a written
Constitution handed down by god. Instead of starting 'We the people...'
it starts 'I, God...' Men's laws are rather like having no Constitution
to refer to but having to argue out a hodgepodge solution to what is right
and wrong. The written Constitution of Christianity is the Bible. It
doesn't change and gives a sense of certainty and stability. Man's
unwritten Constitution is, well, unwritten - and it's a lot less comfortable
to live with because there are no black and white guidelines for us to
follow. (Many Americans see their written constitution - especially the
Bill of Rights as being almost a sacred document).
God's laws are not intended to make anybody happy
or to make life easier for us - they are designed from a principle of
what is right in an changeless, absolute sense. Almost by definition they
are hard to follow since it is in our nature to disobey them. (The Old
Testament makes much of this point e.g., "For all who have been born
are entangled in iniquities, and are full of sins and transgressions."
- Esdras 7:68.) This somehow makes them pure and inherently more reliable.
A moral code that was easy to follow would be as suspect as someone
giving away free £5 notes.
Man would simply design a code in his own self-interest
and change it when his perception of self-interest changed. There would
be no absolute right and wrong. Morals would be pale relative things
and humans would do terrible things to each other and themselves and
call them good. Since mankind has an inherent tendency towards evil
(because they enjoy bad things - especially in the sexual arena - the
bible refers endlessly to whoring) they could not devise a satisfactory
moral code designed to maximise happiness.
So a moral code originating from man could not
be trusted. For example it might say - 'if it's inconvenient then
let's kill foetuses and bump off our old people and call that moral'.
God's laws are not like that. It is wrong to practise abortion or euthanasia
and that's final. That kind of statement can give us a tremendous
sense of rightness (provided we obey). We just know we are right!
A moral system with man at its centre would
be a kind of consumer morality - subject to man's whim. Without a moral
law handed down by god man is left in a kind of moral no-man's-land. Each
one of us might have a different idea of what is right or wrong and no
way of demonstrating who is right.
Could the courts arbitrate between our conflicting
positions? Anything that the law permits would then be acceptable
and we could pass decisions about right or wrong on to the courts. Horror
of horrors - this would result in a society based not on moral principles
but on what is legally possible - notoriously contrary outcomes.
So a society without the absolute moral standards
handed down by god must be a miserable society - a divided and corrupt
society - the kind of society we live in. There is instability and
perpetual squabbling. The human race is like a bunch of irritable seagulls
on a rock. We need order, not division. It is the failure of people to
follow god's laws that is responsible for the terrible state we're in.
We need to impose... Oops! I've just jumped off the Religious Right as
found in the U.S.A.
However, it is easy to see where such ideas come
from now we have followed the argument. It would also be fair to say that
very many theists think in terms of the ways they can personally help
people who are experiencing problems with their lives rather than seeking
to impose order on society or individuals. Not surprisingly, though, 'discipline'
is a key word in a monastery!
An atheist point of view
The assumptions made by the theists are not based
on fact. There is no source of absolute morality to be found in any
religious document - and to the extent that there is - moral viewpoints
differ. Even If we accept religious pluralism there will be squabbling
over the rules and if we do not accept religious pluralism there could
be serious social problems or even war.
The document that Christians rely on is the
bible. It is an imperfect document, however, containing many contradictions.
Even what material should be included in the Bible and what should be
left out is the subject of disagreement amongst the different Christian
denominations - who publish different bibles!
One of the contradictions that remains is very
"...thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye,
tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. Burning for burning, wound
for wound, stripe for stripe. " Exodus 21:23-25
"...ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall
smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." Matthew 5:39
These two strictures are completely incompatible
(and come without clarifying explanations) and it is not possible for
a reasonable person to construct a moral code of practice based on them.
Even if it is, it is not possible to do so without debate and disagreement.
The Bible, then, cannot provide us with an absolute moral code.
Here's another pair of contradictions - both from
"A child shall not suffer for the iniquity
of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the
righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of
the wicked shall be his own." - Ezekiel 18:20
Speaking of whores (Ezekiel 23:43-46) "The
assembly shall stone them and with their swords shall cut them down;
they shall kill their sons and their daughters and burn up their houses."
- Ezekiel 23:47 (It is clear that the children of prostitutes are to be
killed - in clear contradiction of Ezekiel 18:20
Except, of course:
"Parents shall not be put to death for their
children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only
for their own crimes may persons be put to death." - Deuteronomy
The balance seems to be in favour of killing the
"You shall not bow down to them or worship
them (idols, from line 4), for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing
children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generations
of those who reject me" - Exodus 20:5
or punishing illegitimacy for rather a long time
(probably disqualifying most people now alive):
"Those born of an
illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even
to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted
to the assembly of the Lord." - Deuteronomy 23:2
These quotations represent
not the serious or sober elucidation of laws or principles - but the foolish
exaggeration of some ranting rabbis. We have a rambling
hodgepodge lacking intellectual weight or consistency of thought merely
designed to satisfy whatever prejudice the writers had about a particular
topic. Again, it is not possible for a reasonable person to construct
a moral code based on such contradictions - any more than killing the
innocent could be part of an acceptable moral code.
In theory, the Catholic Church has a solution
for this problem - firstly in the General Councils of bishops (including
the pope or his representative) which are believed to be infallible
(what they teach as the truth is taken to be as true as though it
were a statement of Scripture itself), and in the person of the pope.
In a decision taken in relatively recent times (First Vatican Council
1869-70) the pope declared that when he spoke 'ex-cathedra' (from the
chair) he was speaking the incontrovertible word of god. Popes have
wisely shied away from such statements, however (not wanting to make fools
of themselves), and only two such statements have been made (including
the first declaration). If the Pope were to exercise his power to clear
up a few of these biblical contradictions Catholics would then have an
absolute source to turn to. If there were any real faith in such pronouncements
we would expect to hear them all the time to clarify a wide variety of
problems. That we do not represents an acceptance by the church that
it is impossible to arrive at absolute truths and dangerous to seek to
express them - because only five minutes need go by before their failure
to meet the demands of circumstances will catch up with them.
Even if there were no contradictions in the Bible
there would be further problems. Some aspects of god's behavior in
the Bible are incontrovertibly immoral:
"Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah,
and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead,
and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah
made a vow to the Lord, and said, 'If you will give the Ammonites into
my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when
I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord's, to be offered
up by me as a burnt offering.' So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonistes
to fight them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. He inflicted a massive
defeat on them... Judges 11:29-33 Then Jephthah came to his home at
Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels
and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter
except her... she returned to her father who did with her according
to the vow he had made." Judges 11:34-39
The terms were acceptable to god - who is supposed
to be omniscient and know the future - and so knew what would happen and
accepted the human sacrifice of Jephthah's innocent daughter. (The relevant
context of this gruesome episode has been explained in full).
We would be appalled at this kind of arrangement
with god today but would not be surprised to read of such things in a
horror story in which the protagonist made a pact with the devil.
There are frequent references to slavery
in Exodus which make it clear that slavery was not only acceptable, but
a proper course of action according to god's ordinance:
"The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: This is
the ordinance for the passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, but any
slave who has been purchased may eat of it after he has been circumcised"
- Exodus 12:43-44
"But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord
your God; you shall not do any work - you, your son or your daughter,
your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in
your towns." - Exodus 20:10 (4th Commandment)
"You shall not covet your neighbour's house;
you shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or male or female slave,
or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour." -
Exodus 20:17 (10th Commandment - note the house comes before the wife)
"These are the ordinances that you shall set
When you buy a male Hebrew slave*, he shall serve for six years,
but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. If he
comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then
his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and
she bears him sons or daughters the wife and her children shall be her
master's and he shall go out alone. But if the slave declares, 'I
love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out a free person,
then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the
door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl;
and he shall serve him for life." - Exodus 21:1-6 (The process
of piercing the ear with an awl may refer to a technique of lobotomy in
which entry to the brain is made through the ear.)
*Hebrew slave - It is difficult to know
how one might buy a Hebrew slave since it is prohibited in Deuteronomy:
"If someone is caught kidnapping another Israelite, enslaving
or selling the Israelite, then that kidnapper shall die." - Deuteronomy
24:7 (Perhaps that someone could quote Exodus as a defence?)
"When a man sells his daughter as a slave,
she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please
her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her
be redeemed (returned to her family); he shall have no right to sell her
to foreign people since he has dealt unfairly with her. If he designates
her to his son he shall deal with her as with a daughter." -
Exodus 21: 711
"When a slave-owner strikes a male or female
slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall
be punished. But if the slave survives for a day or two, there
is no punishment for the slave is the owner's property." - Exodus
"When a slave-owner strikes the eye of
a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go,
a free person, to compensate for the eye. If the owner knocks out a
tooth of a male or female slave, the slave shall be let go, a free
person, to compensate for the tooth." - Exodus 21:26-27
"When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and
slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and
four sheep for a sheep. The thief shall make restitution, but if unable
to do so, shall be sold for the theft." -Exodus 22:1-3
"For six days you shall do your work, but
on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey shall
have relief, and your home-born slave and the resident alien shall
be refreshed." - Exodus 23:12
"Now therefore kill every male among the
little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping
with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping
with him, keep alive for yourselves." Numbers 31:17-18 (It would
appear that the girls were to be raped and kept as slaves)
It is unequivocally clear that the god of the
bible did not disapprove of slavery (or the killing of children, or even
human sacrifice - see quotations above) on moral grounds. If this
had been the case it would surely have been rejected. The Hebrews were
god's chosen people, and it is conceivable that a case might be made for
god accepting the slavery of non-Hebrews (who would go to hell anyway)
but it is inconceivable that god would have accepted the slavery of Hebrews
if it had been morally repugnant to him. However, the above quotations
show that god did accept the slavery of Hebrews, and even that men could
sell their daughters into slavery as a form of prostitution.
It is impossible to square an acceptance of slavery
with any acceptable moral code.
God clearly acts in an immoral manner towards
children (see also quotations above):
"Thus says the Lord of hosts, I will punish
the Amakalites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they
came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy
all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman,
child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey." - 1 Samuel
15:2-3 (Presumably this advice has subsequently been taken by Slobodan
"You shall not bow down to them or worship
them (idols, from line 4), for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing
children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generations
of those who reject me" - Exodus 20:5
It requires no special moral sense to understand
that children cannot be held responsible for what their parents do or
believe. Yet this last quotation is part of the first of the Ten Commandments.
(It is no surprise that Christians are selective about which 10 Commandments
they quote from, since those in Deuteronomy 5:1-21 are more benign these
are normally the ones quoted with the slavery bits omitted here also).
There is no suggestion that present-day Christian
groups hold theses atrocities to be morally acceptable - even though the
bible says they were part of god's ordinance. However, the fact that these
ideas have been firmly rejected means that what was once morally acceptable
to Christian teaching is no longer so. It is therefore the case that
Christianity does not contain a fixed and inviolable moral code. It
is a variable code in which even god's ordinances - as supposedly spoken
by god at Mount Sinai - can be ignored or varied. The idea that Christian
morality is fixed in some way is untrue.
In addition the bible is clearly not so perfect
a document as to resist the schism of Christianity into a large number
of different groups each claiming a truth and declaring the other versions
of Christianity to represent an untruth. An example of early disagreements
relates to the nature of god. Is god made up of three distinct persons
that might be described as three gods? Is god one person only and the
Holy Ghost and Christ are not god? Is there some mysterious and inexplicable
way in which the three persons are one and the same god while being quite
distinct? Well, the three-in-one people won the argument in the end, although
several councils of bishops including Arles (353AD), Milan (355AD), Sirmium
(357AD), and the simultaneous councils of Rimini and Seleucia (359AD)
supported what is known as the Arian heresy. It is a matter of the winner
writing history and declaring the losers to be heretics.
It is a fact that the whole history of the church
has heaved with religious conflict and bloody disputes (wars) over doctrine
involving a large number of breakaway groups and 'heresies', besides ruthless
infighting. There are far too many of these to consider discussing them
here. The stability of the church is an illusion.
Here is an additional selection of ordinances
that god passed down to Moses at Sinai, which have been inexplicably overlooked:
Quite a lot of fuss is made in the UK from time
to time about the importance of the Sabbath (the seventh day) which Christians
take to be Sunday i.e., the first day of every week. The biblical authority
is found above. Christian groups do not complain that their firstborn
sons, cows, sheep etc. are not given up to the Lord, however, despite
the explicit nature of the instruction. Of course, that such a stern
stricture could appear on a list requiring that baby goats must not be
boiled in their mother's milk might give one pause for thought. Besides
this there are frequent references to blood sacrifices and having blood
splashed all over the altar (which must not be made of hewn stone). These
strictures have also been overlooked. These solemn ordinances, or commandments
are simply ignored, despite their prominence in the bible.
- Whoever strikes father or mother shall
be put to death. Exodus 21:15
- Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that
person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put
to death. Exodus 21:16
- Whoever curses father or mother shall be
put to death. Exodus 21:17
- If a thief is found breaking in, and is
beaten to death, no blood-guilt is incurred. Exodus 22:2
- If you lend money to my people, to the poor
among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall
not exact interest from them. Exodus 22:25
- The first born of your sons you shall give
to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep:
for seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day
you shall give it to me. Exodus 22:29-30
- For six days you shall do your work, but
on the seventh day you shall rest. Exodus 23:12
- The choicest of the first fruits of your
ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God. (Perhaps
the chaps who invented this had their own interests at heart!). Exodus
- You shall not boil a kid in its mother's
milk. Exodus 23:19
The Catholic Church has taken it upon itself
to ignore Deuteronomy's sanctioning of divorce (the Catholic Church
does not permit divorce):
"Suppose a man enters into a marriage with
a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable
about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in
her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house
and goes off to become another man's wife. Then suppose the second man
dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand and sends
her out of his house (or the second man married to her dies); her first
husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his
wife after she has been defiled ..." - Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (This is
in keeping with the general anti-woman tone of the bible).
It's surprising that Catholics take the trouble
to quote the bible at all, if its contents mean so little to them!
It is clear then, that Christianity in general
has simply chosen to ignore much of the bible upon which it is based.
It is equally sure that Christianity does not have an unchanging moral
code. Something that was wrong in the past can be right now, and something
that was right in the past can be wrong now.
It seems reasonable to argue that what was suitable
for a group of primitive Israelite tribespeople is not suitable for the
life we lead now - or indeed for much of the intervening period. The
bible is, in fact, almost laughably inadequate and superficial as a moral
document and discusses no moral question with any clarity or depth - plenty
of nice things are said here and there but do not rise above the platitudinous.
It seems incredible that such a thrown together mishmash has had such
importance in western history. We need to develop a sophisticated moral
response to the issues that face us today that were not dreamt of in biblical
times, and seek solutions which are appropriate to our conditions. Here
is the beginnings of a list of problem areas which were not dealt with
in the bible:
Euthanasia - medical advances and increased
longevity have transformed our way of looking at old age. There is no
indication that the major religions have ever been opposed to the large-scale
killing of people when they were perfectly healthy. The bible, in fact,
is rather keen on killing people. (Atheism Central is not declaring in
favour of euthanasia - but saying it is an open issue).
Abortion - the writer does not know if abortions
were performed in biblical times (certain procedures may have been used
to kill the foetus), but conditions (both medical and social) were very
different from the present day. The killing of infants is regarded as
acceptable (see above). We cannot rely on the bible for any guidance here.
Interestingly - many of even the most Catholic countries have legalised
abortion in the event of rape (e.g., Mexico).
Gene manipulation - entirely beyond the
scope of the authors of the bible. The potential benefit is enormous.
The bible cannot help us to decide its rights or wrongs - we must use
Human rights - an alien concept in the bible,
which is designed to promote theocracy. Humans do not have rights in the
bible. They are subservient to god at all times. Humans acquire all their
value from god and have been given nothing in themselves. For this reason,
presumably, god can kill when he chooses (at the behest of the theocratic
rulers). In particular, anyone who believers in another religion will
go to hell, which is too bad for most of the world's population, and seems
a little unfair. Such a viewpoint makes a nonsense of the concept of human
Besides this, the bible accepts and even promotes the concept of slavery,
in both the Old and New Testaments.
Drugs - there are some references to the
evils of drunkenness but no guidance as to the special problems presented
by drug addiction, reckoned to be responsible for one third of all crime
here in the UK.
Contraception - high infant mortality and
death in childbirth would have put the emphasis in biblical times on having
more children, not fewer.
In vitro fertilisation and genetic screening
- these processes require the selection healthy or viable embryos
from a larger group which may contain equally healthy embryos. Both these
techniques can be used to promote life and health. Genetic screening can
remove fatal genetic errors from the population.
Animal rights - no small question as it
becomes clearer and clearer that we are not as different from animals
as was thought in past ages. Some religions are predisposed against certain
animals. Moslems are predisposed against dogs, pigs, and apes and monkeys
of all kinds. (Zoroastrians are very favourable towards dogs, however.)
There is nothing so dangerous as someone
claiming to be always right because that is certain to lead to them being
wrong - at least some of the time. Fortunately, driven by secular
influences since the Renaissance, Christianity, at least, has given up
much of its barbaric past and improved its claim to be able to represent
a moral standpoint (at the expense of ignoring the bible). It should not
be allowed to claim the present as its own, however, but must disappear
or continue to change. The fear, of course, amongst many Christians, is
that much further change would lead to its disintegration, and they may
Besides these arguments, it is universally the
case that it is impossible to write down a dozen words on a piece of paper
and have two people unequivocally agree on their meaning. It is even more
the case that two people from centuries apart in time would have very
different views. There is little doubt that any current member of
any clergy alive today would be horrified at the moral viewpoints of their
forebears centuries ago. Those forebears lived in mental worlds we would
find virtually incomprehensible and barbaric. As a result, effectively,
they believed in a different religions from believers today. That
religious institutions show organisational continuity from generation
to generation should not disguise the fact that they are very different
now from what they were in the past, just as our individual forebears
Where do we go from here?
We certainly could not rely on the courts
to arbitrate between different positions in the moral debate. We
cannot pass on decisions about right or wrong to the courts. As the theist
argument goes (above) this would result in a society based not on moral
principles but on what is legally possible - notoriously contrary outcomes.
Many non-theists would probably prefer a gradualist
approach, with mankind feeling its way towards a right solution for moral
dilemmas - with no claim of certainty along the way, but plenty of lively
debate. For this we need to promote the development of mature democratic
societies and the freedom of speech. Public opinion would be the forum
within which moral development would take place. Many of the moral principles
developed would be expected to find themselves expressed one way or another
in legislation and ultimately also in the determination of justice in
In articles to be developed over the next several
months, Atheism Central will investigate how we might go about looking
for moral solutions to the dilemmas facing us.
For additional discussion and for Koranic (Quranic)
contradictions these (linked) sites are highly recommended: