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Why The Bible is a Terrible Guide to Moral Teaching
For your consideration...
Let's begin by acknowledging the elephants in the room. In this discussion I am referring to the Bible, both Old and New testaments, so if disparaging words about these texts will only raise irascible ire in you...maybe just not ready on, but particularly don't leave me a comment with any general overtones about my impending eternal roast in hell. This isn't how adults discuss ideas. It should also be acknowledged, in good conscious by me that I am referring to the King James Version of the bible and do not read ancient Hebrew nor Greek and so cannot comment on what the original text might have said. Yet it should also be acknowledged by you, if you are a theist that this is probably the only source you use to access the Abrahamic god's divine revelation. So the point becomes somewhat moot.
Next, I am not denying that there isn't some very good moral instruction in the Bible. But I do dispute that any such prescriptions originate with the bible. Any morality espoused in the bible comes from what Jung would have called the, "collective unconscious," which is a concept that can be reduced to human genetic inclinations. If not from this is it is derived from previous Philosophical traditions such as can be found in the Analects of Confucius.
The main point of the Titular central thesis of this hub is that the range of, "moral," advice in the bible covers a spectrum that includes rebarbative acts and basic decency. Such being the case, we, by the necessities of modernity and humanistic Ethics must pick and choose those godly revelations that actually conform to our own ethical intuitions and ethical maturation as a global culture. This undeniably being the case, we obviously arbitrate morality independent of the fiat found in revelation.
The last point before I begin needs to be honestly acknowledged for this discussion to make any headway. The bible is full of god and his envoys explicitly and literally calling for the most repugnant acts of barbarity including, rape, genocide, Draconian punishment for minor peccadillos and other acts that are decidedly independent of morality. To dismiss these passages as allegorical or products of their time is to fundamentally be unable to recognize an allegory or vastly underestimate the moral potential of bronze aged peoples.
Now we can begin.
What the bible actually says...
Let's start with the easy part...The Pentateuch. For those that would dismiss this as, "merely the old testament," let me remind you that Jesus did inform us that, "For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled." (Matthew 5:18). Further more I'll include plenty of immorality from the new testament for equity's sake.
To begin here's a small sampling of, "crimes," that will result in execution or excommunication (which would lead to almost certain death in bronze age Palestine) according to the Old Testament
- Eating unleavened bread
- Working on the Sabbath
- Not crying out loudly enough while you are being raped
- if you are a women, not being a virgin on your wedding night
- Worshiping other gods
- Cursing your parents
- If you are a man, sleeping with another man
- Going to the temple in an unclean condition
- Having sex with a woman who is menstruating
- Being uncircumcised
- Manufacturing anointing oil
- Practicing Witchcraft
- Simply being an Amalekite
This is the highly condensed, truncated list. If you have any doubt as to it's veracity or the plain manner in which these decrees are made simply read Genesis, Exodus,Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
The lord of the Israelites, Yahweh, as has been noted by many anti-theists is portrayed by his own revealed book as a jealous, controlling, insecure, spoiled king ruling by fiat and whim with little regard for the suffering of his creations.
Moving swiftly along to the ten commandments, let's examine these stone inscriptions for moral value and nuance.
The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17 NKJV)
1“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me."
Here we see nothing to do with morality but rather a demand that seems to speak to a petty, insecure, supreme being.
2“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. 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, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My Commandments."
This commandment is also devoid of morality but seems to tout jealously, vengeance, and upholding grudges even unto the unborn as admirable qualities. If god possesses these qualities surely they should be emulated...?
3“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain."
Again, a betrayal of pathological insecurity in the supposed master and creator of the universe.
4“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it."
So we have reached commandment number four and still haven't uncovered a hint or even a suggestion of moral guidance. Rather we have only encountered demands for a sad-masochistic relationship replete with obligatory love.
5“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you."
There is arguably morality in this. But it is an inescapable fact that not all parents treat their children in such a way that commands respect and so it lacks nuance and paints with a rather broad brush.
6“You shall not murder."
At long last we have reached a bit of true, blue moral injunction. The problem is that this injunction has been a moral standard within every civilization since the beginning of time. Furthermore Yahweh and his prophets explicitly call for so much murder throughout the bible that one marvels at the inconsistency displayed.
7“You shall not commit adultery."
Another good general piece of moral advice but what Christians regard as adultery is rather a nebulous concept. Is premarital sex between consenting adults immoral? Surely that is rather a difficult argument to make convincingly.
8“You shall not steal."
Another injunction that earlier philosophers, civilizations, and genetics itself have shown to already be incompatible with a cohesive civil society.
9“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."
Yes societies that allow perjury do not last or flourish and so a social value on truth has been a necessity for the collective survival of all groups of peoples.
10“You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's.”
This has nothing to do with morality and is actually antithetical to the forces, that when properly harnessed, lead to social progress and the pursuit of meaningful goal seeking. It is also one of the first codified instances of thought crime and holds human beings to a standard they cannot possibly attain. Perhaps this is the point since the bible would have us regard ourselves as self-deprecating, fallen sinners only redeemable through professions that disregard reason and human dignity. Furthermore the equation of women with chattle and other possessions is concerning.
The New Testament...(We're just getting warmed up)
"But," I can almost hear you saying, "Jesus changed all that barbarity in the New Testament." Did he? While there is undoubtedly some good moral teaching in the new testament such as the B-attitudes and the Sermon on The Mount why must they be cherry-picked from a trash-heap of inconsistencies and recommendations for atrocious behavior? An example;
"So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds." Jesus-Revelations 2;22-23
This seems an oddly harsh thing for the meek Nazarene to have said, but there's more;
"He said to them, 'but now if you have a purse take it and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword sell your cloak and buy one.'" Luke 24;36 This fits nicely with "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." Matthew 10;34
These passages are in stark contrast to the moral precept that admonishes us to, "love your neighbor as yourself," in Mark 12;31 How do we reconcile the bellicose Christ with the loving Christ? I would suggest that we do this through selective reading and convenient lapses in memory.
Here is another tale of not insignificant moral ambiguity from Mark 6;23-27;
"And he swore to her, 'Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you; up to half of my kingdom.' And she went out and said to her mother, 'What shall I ask for?' And she said, 'The head of John the Baptist.' Immediately she came in a hurry to the king and asked, saying, 'I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.' And although the king was very sorry, yet because of his oaths and because of his dinner guests, he was unwilling to refuse her. Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded him to bring back his head. And he went and had him beheaded in the prison,…"
The new testament is peppered with stories of cruelty and mass hysteria. Take the death of Herod in Acts 12;21-23;
"On an appointed day Herod, having put on his royal apparel, took his seat on the rostrum and began delivering an address to them. The people kept crying out, 'The voice of a god and not of a man!' And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died.…"
or from Esther 7;8-10
"Just as the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was reclining. The king exclaimed, 'Will he even molest the queen while she is with me in the house?' As soon as the word left the king's mouth, they covered Haman's face.Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs attending the king, said, 'A gallows seventy-five feet highstands by Haman's house. He had it made for Mordecai, who spoke up to help the king.' The king said, 'Hang him on it!'So they hanged Haman on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the king's fury subsided."
And, as is much of Revelations, the following is rather repulsive;
"And I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the fowls that fly in the midst of heaven, Come and gather yourselves together unto the supper of the great God; That ye may eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses, and of them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great. And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army. And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshiped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh." -Revelation 19;17-21
But I feel as if I begin to belabor my point. There is a treasure trove of equally appalling tales in the New Testament besides the ones sighted. This begs the question of those that would have us believe that own morality is derivative from religion and specifically from it's revelations, What does any of this have to do with morality? It is a collection of tales that, though not devoid of morality entirely, is decidedly lacking in moral teaching.
A Dostoevsky novel takes a significantly deeper, more comprehensive look at morality and Ethics than the bible could ever hope to. Mainly, perhaps, because such novels provoke thought and discussion of moral matters rather than demanding sheep like obedience to absolutist, antiquated points of view.
What's the alternative?
All moral progress that mankind has won for itself has come from a tradition of deep, contemplative thought from the Ancient Greeks to the Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th century to modern Ethicists. I am not a moral relativist, I do believe in absolute moral truth but these truths need to be uncovered by thoughtful men and women in the light of scientific understanding. Moral absolutes are etched on our hearts and minds by the evolutionary process not by bronze age fiat disguised as, "Revelation." As a highly moral secular humanist I have had my fill of the myth that Abrahamic religions supply my moral matrix. If anything I find the more i distance myself from concepts such as, "divine command," theory I am able to act with increasing compassion toward my fellow creatures. And I enjoy the added bonus of acting in such a way not so as to avoid lakes of fire or in hopes of earning my place at an eternal harp concert upon a cloud, but rather simply because acting with decency, compassion, and empathy makes me feel like a more deeply fulfilled and connected human being.