This is the fourth article of an intended series in which I will explain why I am an atheist. The first part can be found here, the second part is here and the third part is here. Much of this is based on my own, personal thoughts and experiences with religion, mostly Christianity, because that is the religion I have been exposed to the most. While this is not intended as an attack on people of faith, you may wish to stop reading if you can’t handle opposing viewpoints very well or if you don’t like your faith challenged. This fourth article will look closer at religious morals.
The Ten Commandments
People of faith tell us how their religion is the source from which morality springs and that without faith, our civilization will crumble into an amoral anarchy where the laws of the jungle rule, which is a nice jab at Darwin’s theory of evolution. Christians will for instance extol the virtues of the Ten Commandments as the corner stone of morality of our western civilization. To see if this might be true, let’s examine the Ten Commandments a little closer. The best way to do that is by reading them, so please excuse the following excerpt from the book of Exodus, 20:2-17.
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.
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.
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.
4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour 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.
5. Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
10. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbour’s.
According to modern Christians, these ten rules are the source and bedrock of our morality but the astute reader will immediately notice one problem with the above list. The first four rules have nothing to do with morals at all. They sound like a jealous, insecure god admonishing the faithful to keep him in mind. Another, more serious problem, is not what the remaining commandments say but rather what they do not say. No one could argue that “you shall not murder” is a bad commandment, nor would most people disagree with “you shall not steal”. These are good, moral instructions.
There is however no commandment that says “you shall not rape”, no commandment that says “you shall not have slaves or take other people as slaves”, no commandment that says “you shall not increase the suffering of another person” and no commandment that says “you shall treat animals well”. Furthermore, commandment number ten neatly lumps your neighbour’s wife in with his other possessions. Is this truly the bedrock of our morality? It doesn’t seem to be because we have clearly developed some better morals since this list was allegedly chiselled into stone.
It gets worse, though. Not only do the Ten Commandments remain silent about human slavery, the one person from the Bible who is always presented as good, kind and loving, supports slavery rather than taking a stand against it. In Luke 12:45-48, Jesus has this to say about the punishment of slaves:
The lord [owner] of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.
How is this a moral teaching by any stretch of the imagination? Slaves that know what their lord wants but don’t act accordingly, will be beaten with many stripes of the lash. Slaves that didn’t know the will of their lord, will be beaten with few stripes. They should be punished even though they are not at fault. Jesus could have said that slavery was a bad thing, an affront to God, that Christians masters should free their slaves or at the very least not to beat them. But no, none of this.
Also, in his letter to the Ephesians (6:5-9), Paul instructs slaves to obey their masters as they would obey God. Clearly therefore, the Bible has no problem with the practice of slavery.
As we have seen, God has no problem with slavery but he is also a big fan of the death penalty. He doesn’t insist on merciful, quick deaths either, but rather on the brutal acts of stoning or sometimes burning alive. Even worse is that the death penalty is ordered for offences which seem remarkably silly. Some examples:
- Breaking the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15)
Even something as trivial as gathering firewood is punishable by death. So according to the Bible, it’s better that you and your family freeze to death rather than pick up a few sticks.
- Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:13-16)
Even though the god of the Old Testament is more than capable of doing his own killing, insulting him is punishable by stoning.
- Male on male sexual intercourse (Leviticus 18:22)
Apparently god doesn’t approve of male on male sexual intercourse though his opinion on female on female intercourse is as of yet unclear.
- Touching Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:13)
I guess god wants to keep this mountain all to himself. He did sit on it for quite some time so it’s probably his spot.
- A woman who isn’t a virgin on her wedding night (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
Don’t understand why an omnipotent god would get his panties in a twist over this but there you go.
- Disobeying your parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
Children who don’t listen to their parents should be stoned. If we followed this law, we’d have been extinct a long time ago.
- Eating shrimp (Deuteronomy 14:9-10)
Or any other water creature that doesn’t have fins or scales, like shellfish, squid, etc. Don’t know what the almighty had against seafood but perhaps he once had a bad clam.
- Mixing meat and dairy (Exodus 23:19)
Guess meatballs are off the menu, just like plenty of other tasty things.
- Being a man and having a foreskin (Genesis 17:14)
Don’t know what the fuss is about that little bit of skin but apparently the almighty changed his mind after creating Adam and it should be cut off after all.
- Mixing fabrics (Leviticus 19:19)
For the lord sayeth he doesn’t like static electricity. I think.
- Having a haircut (Leviticus 19:27)
Goes for beards too. God thinks all men should be hairy apes.
Some of the above prohibitions may have made sense back in the time when the Old Testament was written, like the prohibition against mixing meat and dairy or shellfish. Those foods could easily spoil and can make you very ill. It is a lot harder to understand what the problem is with mixing different fabrics. Fast forward to today though, it is hard to imagine that people still think these prohibitions make any sense at all.
Christians sometimes argue that the laws in Leviticus no longer apply to them because of their new covenant with god through Jesus. However, it is important to note that nowhere in the Bible Jesus explicitly declared these restrictions invalid for his followers. Furthermore, Jesus did say in Matthew 5:17-18:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
So which is it? Unfortunately, it is not clear what Jesus meant exactly by “the law”. Many Christians today ignore the inhibitions in Leviticus and so on but it is not sure if they should or not. However, it should be clear that killing someone for the “crime” of eating shellfish or getting a haircut is absolutely ludicrous and has nothing to do with morality at all.
Genocide and other cruelty
The Old Testament is probably one of the most bloody texts ever assembled and most of the killing is directly attributable to god himself. Not counting the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. the number of people killed directly attributable to god is 2,476,633. That is an impressive number, even in modern terms. However, that may be only the tip of the iceberg!
In several places in the Bible, god instructs the Hebrews to commit genocide, for instance the destruction of Canaan after the exodus or in 1 Samuel 15, where he orders the entire nation of Amalek destroyed. Not just all the people but all the beasts of burden as well. Christian apologists will argue that it is wrong of us to judge the actions of god because he is not bound by our laws. They may argue that the complete destruction of Amalek wasn’t genocide but a “death penalty” for their treatment of the Israelites (Deuteronomy 25:17-18).
It is important to remember though that while an omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent being may not feel or be bound by our laws, it is a non sequitur to say that its actions are therefore beyond the scope of morality. Things god does or does not do, can still be moral or immoral. In the example of the Amalekites for instance, the destruction of Amalek takes place hundreds of years after the actions committed by the Amalekites. How can this realistically be called a death penalty when all the people responsible are long dead? It’s certainly an odd decision to seek the death penalty for people that are already dead. To seek retribution on their living descendants is even worse. How moral would it be for us to seek the death penalty for the great-grandchildren of a Nazi war criminal? Yet Christian apologists try to argue that for god, this would be okay.
Fortunately, we have come up with higher morals on our own. Genocide is never legal nor excusable and punishing entire peoples or nations for the crimes of their long-deceased forefathers is also not done. You won’t find such standards in the Bible, where it is perfectly acceptable to dash children onto rocks (Psalm 137:9). Another act of barbaric cruelty that apologists will try to justify by saying that it is in retribution of the Babylonians doing the same to the children of the Israelites.
If the above wasn’t enough proof on its own that morality does not come from religion, how about the following gem? God expects Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac up the mountain and there sacrifice him as an offering to god. Can you imagine the heartache, the anguish and the desperation in Abraham’s heart as he takes his son up the mountain? What loving creator would demand such a thing, an act that can only be dreamt up by the most cruel sadists that mankind has to offer? Abraham obeys and we are told that even Isaac, upon learning the truth behind his trek up the mountain, is ready to lay down so that his father can cut him open. Only then does god stop Abraham, as he is about to kill his own son. Absolutely horrific. Those are not the actions of a benign creator god but those of a selfish, petty, sadistic monster. And what does Abraham do? Without a question, without a protest, Abraham obeys his god because his faith is strong. We are told this as if it were a redeeming quality. If your faith can make you justify the gutting of your own child, it is as dangerous as it is misguided and perverse. It is certainly not the response of a person with a sound moral compass. How much more fitting is the reply of Christopher Hitchens? Wouldn’t a sane person choose his own child above any god? A god that demands such a sacrifice is not worthy of worship.
Above, we’ve taken a really quick look at some of the things that the Old and New Testament say and compared them to morality as most humanists would understand it. That is two of the three great monotheisms covered. Furthermore, the Quran has plenty of verses that parallel the ten commandments so in that regard at least, Islam is also covered. We may conclude that from a humanist perspective, all three monotheisms are lacking, to say the least, when it comes to morality. It should come as no surprise then, that believers in general are not in any way morally superior to non-believers. Research has shown this. In fact, with recent sex-scandals in the Roman Catholic church, the discovery of the bodies of hundreds of infants in a septic tank in a Galway, the atrocities committed by Boko Haram, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Israel, the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch-hunts, anti-Semitism, ISIS (or IS or whatever they are calling themselves this week), suicide-bombing, genital mutilation, the prohibitions on birth control leading to unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, it would be very difficult to defend the morality of religion at all. If anything, the opposite appears to be true.
Religious apologists will try and counter the above arguments by pointing out that atheists have also committed atrocities. This is true and you’ll be hard pressed to find an atheist who denies that. It should be noted that this argument is a fallacy for several reasons. Among the atrocities most commonly referred to in this defence are those committed by the Nazis and those by Stalin. It should be noted that neither committed their atrocities in the name of atheism. Also, pointing out that you are no worse than Nazis or communist fanatics is not the way to show that you are morally superior. For a much more complete and better rebuttal of this fallacy, you should read this excellent article by Michael Sherlock, that wipes the floor with this defence in pretty much every way imaginable.
Reading holy books and learning about the actions of believers throughout history and still today, the claim that religion makes for itself being the bedrock of morality, has to be roundly dismissed. Only someone suffering from a very particular kind of selective blindness could utter this claim and mean it. It was certainly enough to convince me that there is little good to be expected from religion in general. Another reason why I am an atheist.