I’ve been reading around the blogosphere for, now, going on four years. The reason many Christians to try to give for their God not outlawing certain practices falls woefully short of any sound logic. So the reasoning goes, and I have used this reasoning myself in my Christian days, that God did not want to take away our free will, our autonomy, our ability to choose these things. Take slavery, for instance: Christian logic dictates God’s edicts about the treatment of slaves is merely legislation of a societal practice already in place.
This same logic rationalizes the way the spoils of war were treated. By spoils of war I don’t just mean possessions. Or do I? What are women and children in the Bible if not possessions? When Israel made their conquests they were told to annihilate their foes, killing all the men, and taking the women, children and livestock for their plunder(Deut. 20:13-15). The Israelites were authorized to use their plunder for themselves. Got that? They could use the women and children. These were the rules of engagement for those cities who simply lay in their path on the way to their promised land. Oh sure, those cities would be offered a chance for a peaceful surrender; one that involved submitting themselves willfully to slavery. Who could resist that offer?
Even worse were the rules of engagement for the cities to which they would lay siege and call home. In those cities they were to kill everything that had breath(Deut. 20:16-18). Men, women, children, the precious babies, livestock….everything. Why? Because their idolatry might rub off on the Jews. Yes, those tiny little newborns, little kiddies, and cattle would lead God’s people down the primrose path of destruction. The only thing safe in those cities were the fruit bearing trees(Deut. 20:19-20). Anything else was fair game for use in their efforts to win the battle.
These rules came from that staunch arbiter of objective morality, Himself. Himself has declared himself to be good, so Divine Command Theory suggests that anything that Himself does, commands, or says is also good. We don’t have to like it; we just have to believe it an do it. What does it say about the supreme being that some consider to be the author of all things ethical that we have evolved past these archaic and barbaric practices in most of the civilized world? What does that say about morality, in general, that you and I are more compassionate, more advanced in our thinking than the supposed creator of the universe?
I think it says quite a bit about where morality really comes from. Let’s talk about the ten commandments, shall we?
If the Judeo-Christian God did not mean to impede free will, autonomy, or choice why lay down any laws at all? If making a law against an act infringes on free will why do the ten commandments not infringe on free will? The making of a law does not infringe on the notion of free will at all. What’s that saying? Rules are made to be broken? Reading through the ten commandments objectively( ;) ) one can easily see that these are a social construct. The first four deal with unification of he people. We all worship the same deity, in the same way, and with the same fervor. That intensifies the last six. If the people believe that these laws are being laid down by a supernatural being who will strike them down for disobeying the last six they’re much more likely to obey them. The leaders could say, ‘hey, it’s not us, it’s God!’
Telling children to obey their parents seems like a good place to start. After all, children belong to their parents; it’s only right that they should kowtow to their every demand and command with a hearty ‘yes sir!’ and ‘yes ma’am!’. What if the parents are terrible? Same deal, right? Only in today’s society we recognize that sometimes staying as far away from our parents is the most honoring thing we can do. We don’t automatically assume every parent to be worthy of having children. Just because a person has reached a certain age doesn’t follow that they’ve reached any level of maturity or sanity, for that matter. We know that now.
Many translations change ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to ‘Thou shall not murder’. We know that instinctively, do we not, that murder is not acceptable in society. We have evolved with, not only a sense of empathy, but a sense of survival that tells us that if we murder everyone else we might be king for a day, but in the long run we’re kind of screwed. We need other people, we need a community, to survive and perpetuate our species.
Adultery, theft, and covetousness all deal with possessions. You read that right. Possessions. In the Old Testament the only way a man committed adultery was to fornicate with another man’s wife. A man could have as many wives and concubines as he wanted and never was considered to be committing adultery. Why was it adultery for him to have sex with another man’s wife? Because she was his possession. He owned her and any children she might have so if she fornicated with another and bore children the other man could lay claim to those children. The husband would have now way of knowing if those children were his property or not. On the other hand, a woman could only have one husband. Many read into the New Testament a command for marriage to be between only one man and one woman, but that’s taking serious liberties with the scripture. Nowhere is the practice of polygamy condemned. You won’t find it.
Not bearing false witness against our neighbors is a rational and reasonable law. Slander and false testimony intended to deprive a person of their property or good reputation is detrimental to a functioning society. Again, a social law for the good of the community.
Do we really need a deity to tell us not to do these things? Does laying down the law impede our ability to choose? Simply, no. Is this by any means objective morality? Clearly not when the deity, Himself, arbitrarily chooses when and how they should be implemented. It’s not okay to kill your neighbor, but it is okay, even commanded, to slay the entirety of a nation? Even the way the spoils of war are treated has evolved because we know that however we treat prisoners of war will be meted out to those of our own who are taken captive. Thus we’ve created laws which prescribe the code of conduct regarding the treatment of prisoners and plunder. We’ve made slavery, rape, and abuse against the law in most countries. We recognize the harm that is perpetrated, not only to individuals, but to entire societies.
Why do Christians continually excuse the lack of compassion and morality their god displays with the wave of a hand and write it off to free will? It’s a ridiculous notion if you really consider it. ‘Thou shalt not have slaves’ is much easier to say and shorter to write than the plethora of laws concerning treatment of slaves, up to and including how to beat your slave and in what circumstance it is acceptable to kill him or her. That’s no more an infringement than ‘thou shall not murder’. ‘Thou shall not rape’ is much better than ‘if a woman can’t be heard screaming out you must pay her parents the dowry and marry her’. If a person cannot read these laws and come to the conclusion that these were a product of the times and the society, instead of rationalizing how God isn’t complicit in abhorrent behaviors because he was merely a legislator, then they seriously need to re-examine their ability to reason at all.
Still, even though we’ve evolved past these simplistic, barbaric, archaic laws there are those who murder, steal, lie, cheat and covet. The laws set forth in the Bible are no more objective than the laws let forth by society. There is no more objectivity in a given law simply because it comes from an ancient document. Those who hold that objective morality comes from God are deluding themselves.
I’m in agreement with Violet that morality has evolved over time. Ignostic Atheist summed it up well with this comment in response to Mark Hamilton’s moral argument: