An interesting experiment

A friend of mine and fellow vocal atheist has started up a new blog as a sort of religious exchange program. He agreed to read the Bible if his friend agreed to read The Blind Watchmaker. Both are blogging about it, and I’m interested in how it all turns out. There’s not much there yet, but I know that steady comments and regular readers are a pretty good impetus to keep writing, so please go check it out:

Understanding the Christian
And the Christian counter-blog is at:

Understanding the Skeptic


You might think it’s hysterical

So, Bronze Dog had a recent post riffing on the apparent problems woos have with humor. I think a lot of it stems from lacking a sense of irony and self-awareness, since those are key elements of a great deal of humor, but that’s another post in itself. In the comments, Valhar2000 pointed us to a brief and really lame website called Jokes About Atheists. It’s not just that the humor is not really humorous (although some of the images are funny–I particularly liked the “There is probably no cod” bus), but the website uses Comic Sans as its font. Comic Sans? Really? Yeah, maybe if I were twelve copy-pasting Internet jokes onto my Geocities page, Comic Sans might seem like a good idea. For (presumably) adults to go use it really speaks to the lack of awareness we’re talking about here.

Anyway, among the half-dozen or so “jokes” (which, by the way, make some glaring omissions–where’s the one about the Marine who punched the atheist professor in the face? Or the one where the atheist is eaten by a Christian bear? This site is far from comprehensive) is a list in the style of Jeff Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck” jokes. It’s an interesting look into what some Christians consider humor, and seemed like some easy post fodder while I continue working on the more in-depth posts (I promise I haven’t quit writing!). Without further ado:

You MAY Be a Fundamentalist Atheist if….

Yep, off to an auspicious start.

…you became an atheist when you were 10 years old, based on ideas of God that you learned in Sunday School. Your ideas about God haven’t changed since.

Converting to Christianity in childhood and never questioning or improving upon your beliefs, however, is a-okay!

Incidentally, I think someone who based their atheism on Sunday School God alone would be a pretty bad (and pretty easily reconverted) atheist. Most of the atheists I know–those in the more skeptical, scientific camp–base their disbelief on the lack of evidence for any god, whether Sunday School or Theology Class, and generally have done some research on the matter. Not that it’s necessary–if Sunday School teachers provided evidence instead of cutesy stories, this wouldn’t even need to be on the list.

…you think Christians are narrow-minded for believing in only one religion, but atheists are open-minded for believing in absolutely none.

I don’t know anyone who thinks either of these things as stated here. I think many Christians are often narrow-minded or closed-minded for refusing to consider other points of view, refusing to acknowledge evidence, and refusing to question their beliefs. Consequently, those who do question their beliefs, acknowledge evidence, and consider other points of view are what I’d consider open-minded. I’ve known lots of open-minded Christians; I haven’t known quite as many closed-minded atheists (except perhaps on political and economic views).

…you think the USA government is a theocracy.

I think there are people who are trying to move it that way, does that count? I think it’s a bad idea to mix religion and government, and I’d like to see a stronger separation between the two. I’d especially like to see a public open-minded enough to see the religious beliefs of political candidates as less cause for concern than policies and platforms.

…you refer to C.S. Lewis as “that traitor.”

C.S. Lewis was an atheist?

…you think George Carlin was the greatest comedian of all time.

He’s certainly up there. Who did you have in mind instead?

…you spend hours arguing that a-theism actually means “without a belief in God ” and not just ” belief that there is no god” as if this is a meaningful distinction in real life.

I don’t know that I’ve spent hours arguing this, but it is a meaningful distinction, whether or not theists want to accept it.

…”thinking for yourself” means adopting an atheist viewpoint.

Thinking for oneself doesn’t mean that one comes to a completely unique conclusion.

By the way, what’s an “atheist viewpoint”?

…you believe that nativity scenes should be banned from public view, but that anyone objecting to pornography only has to look the other way.

I’m not sure if this is more a strawman or a false dichotomy; I don’t know anyone who thinks that “nativity scenes should be banned from public view;” it’s certainly not a point of view of most atheists, even if there are some asshats who might advocate it. Most atheists who have any opinion that even resembles what’s stated here (and many others who value church-state separation) want nativity scenes removed from public property, since the secular government is supposed to remain neutral on matters of religion. There are two ways to enforce that neutrality on state grounds: the first is to allow any religious group to put up any display (within whatever secular guidelines the state sets) on the public land for any holiday. So we could have light-up plastic Jesus and the manger on Christmas, a light-up plastic Buddha for Buddha’s Birthday, a light-up plastic Flying Spaghetti Monster for Talk Like a Pirate Day, a light-up plastic Wookiee for Life Day, a light-up plastic Raelian UFO on August 6th, a light-up plastic angel killing light-up plastic Egyptian children for Passover, and a light-up plastic maypole with light-up plastic naked pagans dancing around it on May Day. If we’re going to allow the light-up plastic nativity scene, then this is the only fair option.

On the other hand, rather than allowing the courthouse lawn to become a constant rotating showcase for every religion’s chosen kitsch, the government could maintain neutrality by disallowing any religious displays on public property, which is the same policy used for political campaign signs, another point of government neutrality. For the government to declare the courthouse lawn (and other public properties) religious display-free zones does not stop religious groups and individuals from using church grounds or their own private lawns to erect their electric shrines. There’s no “barring the nativity from public view.” You could put a nativity on every lawn in town, provided that the owners of those properties want nativities on their lawns. Why is it such a big deal, why is it so necessary to put your decorations on the town’s lawn as well?

…you assert that “faith is believing things which you know aren’t true”.

It’s “faith is believing what you know ain’t so,” and it’s a Mark Twain quote. Get it right.

Incidentally, while this is a nice pithy and humorous phrase, I can’t imagine anyone actually using it seriously. A more serious variation would be “faith is belief without evidence or in spite of evidence to the contrary,” or “faith is the excuse we give to believe things without good reason.” The latter’s pretty close to something Matt Dillahunty is wont to say, the former is just a basic definition of faith as used in this kind of context.

…you think you descended from apes.

I’ll do you one better: I think I am an ape, and a great one at that.

I wonder how Francis Collins, Ken Miller, and every other theist who accepts basic biology feels about suddenly being a “fundamentalist atheist.”

…you get angry if someone implies you’re going to a place that you don’t think exists.

Yeah, it’s a little upsetting to know that there are large swaths of people who think I deserve to be tortured forever because I disagree with them. I don’t get angry about it, I just feel sad that people can have their basic empathy and compassion so twisted and contorted by irrational beliefs. I’m also frustrated that people can look to this sort of improportionate punishment, where actions are equated to thoughtcrime, and where all violations of arbitrary rules result in infinite penalty, and call it “perfect justice” and “merciful.”

…you think marriage is an obsolete fundy institution — except for homosexuals.

This conflates two (possibly three) different positions, I think, which you can see battled out in any Pharyngula thread on same-sex marriage. On one hand are people who think that marriage is a (primarily) religious institution and that the government shouldn’t be bothering with marriage at all, and advocate the replacement or dissolution of civil marriage. On the other hand are poeple who see marriage as a civil institution (or see civil and religious marriage as separate institutions, which is my position), and on that basis see no justification for allowing straights to marry and denying that right to gays. Religious institutions can do whatever they want with their religious marriages, and the government is not required to recognize or endorse religious marriage rites, just as religious groups are not required to recognize or endorse civil marriage contracts. Both positions are reasonable, stemming from different premises on the purpose and benefits of marriage.

…you become upset when a Christian says that not everything in the Bible should be taken literally.

I suppose this might be a sign of an inexperienced atheist debater, but I can’t imagine most “fundamentalist atheists” getting upset by this sort of thing. Now, when a Christian takes an explicitly literalist position (whatever that means), then interprets passages in a figurative way in order to smooth over obvious contradictions and uncomfortable implications, or when a Christian claims that their obviously subjective figurative interpretation of passages is the “literal” interpretation, that’s frustratingly hypocritical. I find it laughable, though, that Christians can claim “not everything in the Bible should be taken literally,” without providing any justification for which passages should be taken literally, and which ones are figurative.

…you call a view held by less than ten percent of the American public “common sense”.

Why use “the American public” here? Is “the American public” somehow the ultimate arbiter of “common sense”? Let me turn this around: Ray Comfort calls Christianity “common sense,” despite the fact that it’s a view held by less than a third of the Earth’s population. “Common sense” is worthless; it’s context- and culture-specific, and it’s certainly not a method of reliably determining truth.

…you have, at least once, phoned, emailed or written the ACLU.

I guess there are no non-American fundamentalist atheists. And I guess all those religious people who have been defended by the ACLU are fundamentalist atheists.

…you’ve ever called a Christian a “Paulian”.

Guilty as charged. Of course, it was in response to Christians who, when faced with contradictions between Jesus’s words and Paul’s words, chose the latter. I guess when I see “Christian,” I assume it means “follower of Christ” or “Christ-like,” not “follower of some guy who never actually met Christ but is apparently more of an expert on Christ’s views than Christ was.”

…you just can’t see any difference between Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, etc, and Osama bin Laden.

Sure I can: Osama has a beard.

…your first inclination when purchasing the Darwin fish for your car was the hope of being offensive.

This only barely makes sense. First, so what? If I want to have offensive decorations on my car, that’s my prerogative. I don’t see how it makes one a “fundamentalist” anything, any more than “My pit bull could eat your honor student” makes the driver a “fundamentalist dog owner,” or a knock-off Calvin pissing on a Ford emblem makes the driver a “fundamentalist Chevy driver.” Second, believe it or not, it’s not just atheists who accept evolution, though it does seem to be primarily Christians (of certain stripes) who would be “offended” by a decoration supporting good science. Third, if my “first inclination” was to be offensive, there are much better car decorations I could have picked. There’s the T. rex eating the Jesus fish, there’s the one where the Darwin fish is fucking the Jesus fish, and there are countless pithy bumper stickers. Incidentally, how many Christians’ first inclinations are to offend people when they pick out bumper stickers like “One Nation UNDER GOD” or “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”?

…you use one or more of the following alternate spellings: GOD-“gawd” JESUS-“jeeezus” “jayzus” “jebus” “jeebers” BIBLE-“bibble” “babble” “wholly babble” “buy-bull”.

Yeah, this is pretty immature stuff, and I’m a little embarrassed when I see other atheists do it (though I am partial to “Jebus,” just for the Simpsons reference). It’s about as childish as “evilution,” “Darwinist,” “DemocRAT,” and so forth.

…you insist that science is completely partial to all ideas, is not dogmatic and researches all possibilities.

Science isn’t dogmatic, that much I will insist. You don’t see Nobel prizes going to people who strongly reaffirmed the status quo and found nothing new or surprising or paradigm-shattering. As far as “partial to all ideas” and “research[ing] all possibilities,” it’s certainly possible for science to do those things, but it’s usually not necessary. Most ideas are, frankly, stupid, and most possibilities aren’t worth the time, effort, and grant funding to investigate. I don’t need to investigate whether or not clouds are really the cast-off tails of giant invisible floating rabbits; the idea has no evidence behind it and contradicts things we already know about the universe–particularly rabbit physiology and cloud formation. Science researches the possibilities that have some probability given what we already know is possible (or given areas where we don’t know what the possibilities are). We don’t need to research those possibilities that are rendered highly improbable or nonsensical by what we already know, unless there’s some evidence that those possibilities may be true. Take homeopathy, for instance: there’s no reason science should investigate homeopathy, because it’s internally inconsistent, it lacks provenance, and there is no physically plausible mechanism for its operation. The only reason science does investigate it is because so many people believe it works, and only science can determine whether or not it actually does.

Point being: science can and will be open to all ideas and has the capability to research all possibilities, but your possible idea needs to be accompanied by a compelling reason for scientists to spend time, money, and effort on the research.

…you think that if schools teach the Intelligent Design theory of creation, they should also teach the “stork theory” of where babies come from.

Only if we’re going with the “equal time” argument for teaching Intelligent Design Creationism, in which case we should be giving “equal time” to any alternate ‘theories’ of accepted science, regardless of how invalidated they have been by the evidence, or how little actual evidence they have supporting them. There are plenty of arguments proffered by cdesign proponentsists; in many cases, equal time being one of them, they open the door wide to teaching all manner of debunked, discarded, and discredited alternate ‘theories’ in classes throughout the curriculum. Hell, Michael Behe himself said that a definition of science which included Intelligent Design would also include Astrology. I guess he must be a “fundamentalist atheist” too.

…you have any “bible contradictions” website saved in “favorites”.

The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible is more than just a “bible contradictions website.”

…you insist on capitalizing “atheist”.

Why would anyone do that? I generally make it a point to not capitalize “atheist.” I don’t capitalize “theist” either; they’re not institutions, they’re positions.

…you think that “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” are more believable than the Bible.

I’ve given this one some thought, and yeah, I think I have to agree. “Harry Potter” is set in a world that actually bears some resemblance to the real world, and is generally internally consistent. There aren’t large swaths of “Harry Potter” that contradict other parts of the series, and the characters have human personalities and understandable motivations. There are lots of fantastic, impossible elements, to be sure, but at least they make sense in the context of the story. “Lord of the Rings” is even more internally consistent, and the world is far more fleshed-out; while Middle-Earth doesn’t bear much resemblance to reality, the characters’ relationships do. More than that, the magical aspects are generally fairly understated; there isn’t the same kind of flashy wizardry one finds in “Harry Potter,” but a much more subdued magic that one could almost accept as real.

Contrast this with the Bible, which is not only inconsistent with itself, but is inconsistent with the reality it purports to be describing. The characters, when they are given any development at all, often come across as unhinged or disturbed in how their demeanor, statements, and actions change from one scene to another. Jesus, being the character who receives the lion’s share of development in the story, is the best example of this–sometimes he’s inclusive and insightful and patient, other times he’s cursing fig trees for being out of season and being intentionally obtuse so only the right kind of people understand what he’s saying. God is right behind, seeming like an entirely different character from the first half of the book to the second. It’s as though at the start of “Order of the Phoenix,” people had started talking about how loving and benevolent and forgiving Voldemort was. That kind of abrupt, unbelievable diametrically-opposite shift in characterization won’t fly in decent fiction, in large part because of how unrealistic it is. Unless God had an iron rod shoved through his frontal lobes between Malachi and Matthew, his dramatic demeanor change just isn’t believable.

Naturally this is all apples and oranges; neither “Harry Potter” nor “Lord of the Rings” is seriously claimed by anyone to have actually happened, while there are plenty of Christians who look to their favorite novel as an accurate record of history and science.

…you think if a Christian won’t argue when challenged, they are too frightened or can’t answer; but if they do address your arguments, you think it’s a sign that they are “threatened” by your argument.

I can’t respond to this one: I don’t think I’ve ever had a Christian actually address my arguments.

By the way, “threatened” sounds an awful lot like projection to me–as do about half of the rest of these items.

…when someone says ‘God bless you’ when you sneeze, you take it as an open invitation to express your non-belief.

Once you’re stealing jokes from Dane Cook, it’s a real sign that you should stop trying to be funny.

Incidentally, expressing one’s beliefs (or lack thereof) in inappropriate situations or unwanted circumstances, taking any opportunity to bring up their convictions in conversation? Yes, the atheists clearly have that market cornered.

…you have actually calculated the number of people drowned in The Flood you don’t believe.

Can’t say I’ve done the math on this one. It’s really only an interesting figure if you’re comparing God’s death toll with others, or if you’re trying to demonstrate how absurd it is that so many living things could die and no one but the Jews would notice.

…you feel guilty whenever you use the word faith and have decided to remove it from your vocabulary.

Sorry, I look at that word between “word” and “and,” but my eyes just kind of slide off it. Looks like there’s an SEP field at work here.

Seriously, I can’t say that I’ve removed the word faith from my vocabulary, nor do I know anyone who has, nor do I even really know what that would mean. I am a lot more careful with how I use “faith,” and I try not to use it when I actually mean “trust.” It’s the same with “theory,” “believe,” “prove,” and several other words. I care about what words mean, and I try to be as precise as possible when I’m communicating, particularly when it comes to difficult concepts.

…you think religious tolerance does not include Christianity.

I think religious tolerance includes more than just Christianity, despite what so many Christians seem to think.

(This partial list was originally compiled by “GakuesiDon” and “Tekton” and various contributors)

Quoted for credit.

I find it interesting how few of these are actually atheist-specific. I imagine it has a lot to do with the fact that there’s no central atheist doctrine or dogma, which tends to limit how much atheists actually have in common with one another. Consequently, these Christians have to make jabs at science (via evolutionary theory), church-state separation supporters of all stripes, liberal Christians (who I have also seen drawing parallels between Falwell and bin Laden), fundamentalists of other religions (I suspect that a fundamentalist Muslim’s idea of “religious tolerance” might not include Christianity either), people who support the ACLU (which defends believers and nonbelievers alike, contrary to conservative propaganda), and of course a veritable squadron of strawmen. It’s also very specific to American Christianity (and then, to a particular non-literalist-but-still-creationist form of American Christianity), where no thought whatsoever is given to the rest of the world. They posit two camps, one of which is there specific brand of “Christian,” and the other is the “fundamentalist atheists,” who somehow encompass an awful lot of people who claim to be religious.

I’ll admit, I’m tempted to do a “you might be” list of my own, since it would be so easy to turn these around on the believers (and not just Christian ones, either), but I have slightly better taste than that.

The Bible is Not an Objective Moral Standard

Why yes, this is my go-to image for discussions of morality. Why do you ask?Reading posts by Rhology have made me realize some of the problems involved in talking to people who believe their morals come from the Bible. There are several common refrains involved when arguing about this–“atheists have no basis for morality,” “without an objective morality/absolute moral code, you can’t judge other people’s morals,” “everyone has inborn morals from God, even if they don’t believe in him”–all of which are bound to pop up in any argument about secular morals. These all generally lead back to the point that God (and/or/through the Bible) provides a perfect and objective moral standard, without any of the problems that come from trying to define and justify a moral system in the absence of a deity. This idea is simply false: the Bible is emphatically not an objective moral standard; in fact, it fails in each of those points.

We’ll tackle “standard” first, since it’s the easiest. What moral standard does the Bible provide? Do we take our morals only from the explicit commandments, or should we learn by example from the various heroes and virtuous people?

If we are to learn only from the explicit commandments, then we run into a problem right away: there are an awful lot of apparent moral quandaries that never get discussed in the Bible. Are there moral implications of genetic engineering? Cybernetics? Overpopulation? Pollution? Birth control? Phone sex? Organ transplants? Euthanasia? Where the Bible touches on these issues, it does so only in the most broad, vague, and tangential fashions; there are no specific instructions on whether or not children should be given mood-altering drugs, no specific answers to questions about the introduction of novel organisms into foreign ecosystems. Are we to assume that the only moral issues are the ones that the Bible discusses directly? Is the choice to vaccinate your child morally neutral and equivalent to the choice to leave them unvaccinated? These are serious questions of real-life issues, on which the Bible is silent, preferring instead to tell us how best to combine goats and milk (Ex. 34:26) and the taxonomy of eunuchs (Mt. 19:12). Is there really no morally preferable choice in any of those situations?

So, perhaps we are meant to also learn from example. If that’s the case, then what lessons should we take away from the heroes’ stories? Take Jephthah, for instance. He makes a deal with God that if God helps him win in battle against the Ammonites, then he’ll sacrifice the first thing that comes through his doorway when he returns home. Naturally, after the successful battle, his daughter comes out to greet him. There’s no Abraham/Isaac cop-out in this story: Jephthah follows through with his promise to God. So do we read this story as a cautionary tale about the price of testing God, or do we read it as a positive example of what the faithful should be willing to do in the name of the Lord? There’s enough material outside the story to support both interpretations; which moral should we be receiving?

We could find similar quandaries with any number of Biblical characters–Joseph, Elisha, Solomon, Samson, etc.–maybe we shouldn’t be learning from all of their examples. So which characters should we be learning from? I suspect that Christians would say we ought not be following in the footsteps of Thomas, refusing to believe in the extraordinary until extraordinary evidence is provided to support the claims (despite the corroborating commandment of 1 Thessalonians 5:21). There are a litany of characters who are willing–even eager–to sacrifice their children based on God’s say-so, from Lot to Abraham to Jephthah to Yahweh, which suggests to me that according to Biblical morals, there’s nothing wrong with what Deanna Laney or Andrea Yates Dena Schlosser did*. Or perhaps we shouldn’t be learning from those particular examples. And what about the big guy himself? Should we be taking lesssons from God’s actions, or is he a “do as I say, not as I do” sort of father figure? After all, God does some pretty nasty stuff over the course of the Bible, commanding and committing genocide and inflicting plagues and so forth. Even the “do as I say” bit is difficult, given all the places where God issues direct commands that conflict with earlier laws and commandments (such as the various exhortations to kill women and children, contradicting the whole “thou shalt not murder” bit). Do you do as he said before, or as he’s saying now–what was written in stone, or what was given in a vision? This would be a lot easier if each of the real commandments started with “Simon Says.”

Hitting on that point of contradictory commandments, we see quite a few such things throughout the Bible. There are places where some moral imperatives issued by the book contradict others, there are places where heroes’ explicit flaunting of those imperatives is cast in a positive light, and then there are places where God issues edicts that directly conflict with previously-issued laws and edicts. How can we call this set of morals a “standard” if it is internally inconsistent, and if God can change it on a whim? Or is the only standard “what God says goes”? If it’s the latter point, then how do we determine what God’s message is, given contradictory passages in the Bible and stories with ambiguous moral teachings? How do we distinguish between actual commands from God and paranoid delusions? After all, Dena Schlosser believed that God had told her to cut off her daughter’s arms, which isn’t exactly out of character for the God of the Bible (Mark 9:43, for instance); can we say with any degree of certainty whether or not she was actually receiving instructions from Yahweh?

This segues nicely into the issue of objectivity**. In short, there isn’t any. In long, we have to make some distinctions here. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there is an omnipotent universe-creating God who has some idea of morality in his big giant head, and cares whether or not we follow it. To this end, he communicates with some Middle Eastern nomads through bushes and tablets, plays some role in their writing of a bunch of books full of teachings and laws, then later comes down himself to tell stories and make pronouncements which also eventually get written down. At this point, we could conceivably have three distinct moral codes: What-God-Thinks, What-God-Said, and What-Got-Recorded. In any human communication, these three things would be different–perhaps only subtly, but certainly different. What one thinks might be more nuanced and detailed than what one says, which may lose some inflection or connotation in the transition to writing (or may gain additional ones through the addition of punctuation and other conventions), not to mention that the writers are filtering what-one-says through their own perceptions. But, for the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume that God is super-awesome and communicated everything pertinent about his thoughts on morality to his various followers, who recorded these thoughts accurately–to make things simple (too late), we’ll assume that the Bible (as it was written) accurately and completely represents God’s moral codes, that What-God-Thinks and What-Got-Recorded are the same.

That’s all well and good, but it’s certainly not the end of the story. Even assuming that God is perfect and infallible and a fantastic communicator, and assuming that his secretaries were all very thorough and accurate, the morals aren’t doing much good until they’re read. The process of reading is where any lingering objectivity goes right out the window. I’ll refer you to my post on communication for the lengthy discussion. Suffice it to say, each person who reads the Bible is going to read it in the particular context of their own knowledge, culture, and experiences. These contextual differences are going to have profound impacts on the message that the person receives***.

Take, for example, Exodus 20:13: “Thou shalt not murder.” On the face of it, that’s pretty straightforward. “Murder” is a more specific term than, say, “kill” (which some translations use instead); “murder” implies some degree of intent, ruling out accidental deaths, and is usually reserved for humans, ruling out killing animals and plants and the like. It would seem that the Sixth Commandment is pretty cut-and-dry.

It’s not. It doesn’t take more than a brief application of common sense to realize that, either. Even legally, “murder” is a broad term, and the difference between it and manslaughter is often a matter of prosecutorial discretion.

Consider this: is it murder to kill someone who is trying to kill you? Legally, it isn’t; it’s self-defense. What if you’re killing someone who is trying to kill someone else, some innocent? If you could demonstrate that that person was a clear and present danger, then it’d be a pretty clear case of justifiable homicide. Is it murder to kill someone who is not attacking you, but has threatened or promised to kill you? Is there such a thing as pre-emptive self-defense? What if you think they’ve threatened you, or you just feel threatened by them? Is there a hard-and-fast line where it isn’t self-defense anymore? What if someone’s mere existence threatens your life–if you’re trapped on a raft or in the wilderness with another person, with only enough resources for one of you to survive, is it murder to kill the other person? Is it murder to continue living, ensuring that person’s death?

This is, of course, ignoring other pertinent questions–is it murder to kill an enemy in war? What about the unborn? Is abortion murder? Is it murder to dispose of unused frozen zygotes from in vitro fertilization? Is execution murder? Is it murder if you don’t act to prevent someone’s death when it’s in your power to do so? If someone who is already facing imminent-but-painful death begs you for a quick and painless one that you are able to provide, would it be murder to kill them? Would it be wrong? I guarantee, for nearly all of these questions, that one can easily find Bible-believing Christians on every conceivable side.

Some of this may seem like splitting hairs, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about moral philosophy, it’s that it exists specifically to split those hairs. The whole point of moral philosophy is to provide answers–or at least reasoned arguments–regarding these tough hair-splitting moral questions. We don’t generally have much problem reasoning out the right thing to do in the obvious situations; it’s the ones that walk the lines, the no-win scenarios, and whatnot that cause moral anxiety.

Can the Bible be an objective moral standard if it doesn’t provide specific guidance on these questions? If it doesn’t provide a specific, detailed definition of murder (for instance), then how are we to determine what we shalt not do in these difficult situations? We started by assuming that God included his morals, completely and perfectly, in the Bible, but can any moral system be considered complete or perfect under any reasonable definition of either term if it leaves so much open to subjective interpretation?

It ends up being like the disagreement between Creationists regarding where to draw the line between “fully ape” and “fully human” when presented with the progression of transitional hominids. When a worldview that only admits binary options is presented with a continuum, dividing that spectrum up into those two absolute options is a subjective and arbitrary process. If the Bible had said “So God created man in his own image, which was upright and somewhat hairy and with a prominent sloping brow, and…,” those Creationists might have had more agreement. Similarly, if the Bible said “Thou shalt not murder, which includes but is not limited to…,” these questions might be answered more objectively within Biblical morality.

Or, rather than presenting us with the broad, general rules and expecting us to deduce the specifics, the more useful moral standard would provide us with a litany of specific situations and allow us to induce the generalizations. Sure, it would make the Bible exponentially longer, but after three hundred pages of various specific killing scenarios, it’d be pretty easy to reason “wow, God doesn’t much seem to like murder.” Instead, we have the general statement, which leaves us wondering “gee, what does God think about euthanasia?” and the like.

And this is where the Bible fails on the “moral” point. Even disregarding the bits of the Bible that no sane person would call “moral,” the Bible fails as a moral guide because it provides no clear guidance on any of these moral issues. Even if the Bible is a full and accurate description of God’s moral sense, it is not a complete guide to the morals that a human would need. We face moral issues that are apparently beneath God’s notice, and in these cases we must make our own decisions, we must determine the moral options for ourselves. And the fact that we are able to do this on an individual level (e.g., euthanasia) and on a social one (e.g., self-defense and justifiable homicide legal exceptions) completely invalidates the supposed need for an objective moral standard. The Christian’s claim that morality requires the Bible falls apart once one realizes that we routinely face moral quandaries for which the Bible offers no clear answer. The moral decisions we are required to make on our own are far more varied, nuanced, and difficult than the morals that are prescribed in the Bible; if we can make moral decisions in the vast gray areas and unpleasant scenarios of the real world, then I can’t see how the broad generalizations like “thou shalt not murder” would present any sort of problem. As I mentioned above, it would be much easier to induce the general rules from the specific situations than to deduce the moral options in specific situations from a general rule. The morals provided by the Bible are the simplest building blocks, the things we can all agree on and end up at independently (and, incidentally, things that most cultures have done independently), based on the much more complex situations we run across in the real world.

Where in the Bible we are meant to find morals is unclear; the stories are ambiguous, the commandments are overly general and often irrelevant, and there is little (if any) consistency. Most of the moral-making is ultimately left up to subjective interpretation, and the application of those morals is a matter for personal and social determination. The Bible does not provide the objective moral standard which so many of its adherents proclaim, and the notion that it is a necessary component for humans to have morals is self-refuting as a result. Moral philosophy, cultural anthropology, sociology, and biology have given us insights into how we make morals on the levels of the individual and as a society, and how moral codes and consciences developed in social animals. They have provided us with a way to develop our own systems of values, which then provide a way of distinguishing right from wrong in those situations where the division is indistinct. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they have allowed us the freedom to do what people do (and indeed must do, regardless of their religious convictions) already–examine and evaluate their own values and come to their own conclusions–without the threat of damnation hanging over them should they make the wrong choice. Morals come not from above, but from within; they are a result of our individual instincts and our interactions with one another. Consequently, we are held responsible, made to account for our moral decisions, by ourselves and each other, not some external arbiter. The only “objective moral standard” is the one we set ourselves.

*Some theists would likely say that these people were not actually receiving instructions from God, even though they believed they were. I’d like to know how they make that distinction. After all, can’t the same be said for Jephthah or Abraham? If you accept those stories, then you certainly can’t claim that it’s not within God’s character to demand a parent to sacrifice his or her child–Abraham certainly believed that this was something that God would command, and the Jephthah story confirms Abraham’s conviction. On what grounds can we claim with any kind of certainty that Abraham and Jephthah were actually receiving instructions from God to violate the “thou shalt not murder” commandment, while Dena Schlosser and Andrea Yates were schizophrenic or otherwise mentally ill?

**There’s a further issue here with the definition of “objective,” which could probably warrant its own post. Generally, things that are “objective” are the things that can be verified through application of fact or reason. “Chocolate is brown” is an objective fact (admittedly with some definition-associated wiggle room), subject to verification or falsification; “chocolate is delicious” is a subjective opinion, which is not subject to proof or disproof. What, precisely, makes God’s opinion on morals objective? Why would his opinion be any less subjective than anyone else’s? Yes, God is more powerful, but what application of power can make subjective opinion into objective fact? God’s opinions are not subject to verification or falsification; they are as inaccessible to us as anyone else’s opinions. We can know them only by being told directly, by the subject, what the opinions are–and that runs us again into the problem of communication and interpretation.

Yeah, this is definitely fodder for another post.

***I’ve omitted here another pertinent issue: the matter of translation and copying. Long before anyone reading it today can get a chance to interpret the Bible, it has already been filtered through multiple interpreters. We know from the historical record that the Bible has been subject to multiple alterations (intentional and unintentional) through the copying process, many of which were due to various dogmas and ideologies of centuries past. The translators are working from copies that are many generations removed from any originals, and which have built into them many of the copying errors and alterations from the past. Those translators must then make their own interpretations when choosing the best words in one language to convey ideas expressed in another. There is rarely (if ever) a 1=1 correspondence between languages, especially ones as distantly related as modern English and ancient Greek. Each idea in the original could be phrased any number of ways in the translation, and each translated version will be different depending on what the translator decided to emphasize–was her intent to preserve the closest literal meaning of the text, or to convey the poetry, or to try to present the concepts as clearly as possible with less regard to the particular language, or did she have another motive for her choices? For an example of how much impact this kind of interpretive choice has on a text, try opening up up any two versions of “The Iliad.”