When certainty becomes uncertain…
Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.
(The best is the enemy of the good.)
The most common critique of humanism by Christians is that it promotes moral relativism whereby everything goes. This is a misrepresentation. As I will show in part II, not only does the Bible promote moral relativism, humanists have provided some of the best moral codes we have today (part III). It is the religious idea that a perfect morality has been objectively revealed that has opposed the best humanism can offer.
What many religious believers fail to see is that moral codes do not proceed from divine command or infallible scripture but are discovered by evaluating actions based on merit. The claim that a violent command does originate divinely can thus exposed for what it is: a power play used to justify human agendas.
But before we look critically at the Bible’s morality, we need to look at the modern fundamentalist idea that knowledge or morals depend absolutely on God and revelation. How do we get to sound morals, given that we are human and bound to err?
The Christian idea of basing one’s life on the Bible is tied up with the modernist idea of foundationalism whereby all knowledge must be constructed on a solid foundation. Reaching back to Descartes, modernists have tried to find something which is sure and unassailable on which to construct sure truth. The modernist project used rationality (axioms + reason) to arrive at knowledge which is different from the pre-modern or ancient approach which was often authoritarian (scripture/pope + power/fear).
Though I sympathise with the attempt to avoid error by making sure our presuppositions are correct, and I welcome any critique of my own presuppositions, it is historically demonstrable that we can never know if our presuppositions (or axioms) are indeed 100% correct. Our ancestors believed things we now deny and vice versa. Because, according to foundationalism our presuppositions form the starting point, they cannot be questioned and are assumed to be universally valid. This explains why the Bible is often defended by any means: if it falls, the Christian foundationalist edifice falls.
But, though we build houses on the assumption that the foundations are strong, we are obliged to test the foundations. At the very latest, if the house sags or collapses the test has revealed that the foundations are bad. I think Christianity, and theism in general, is showing signs of such sagging (see part II).
Experience has taught construction engineers which types of material are best suited to building foundations and thus they generally build “blindly” on foundations of iron-strengthened concrete without testing them. But, in the end, if the house falls, they cannot assert that the foundations were good, ignoring any evidence that they weren’t. The foundations are always the place to look for error especially if the building is unstable.
In recent history, many of the supposed foundations of evangelical Christianity have been undermined by advances in science, history and even ethics so that the building is leaning over precariously. This has caused many bible-Christians to retreat into a bubble and, for example, not allow their children to be taught in public schools. This problem would not occur if believers were allowed to re-evaluate their presuppositions, and find a new foundation. Catholicism has survived the attack on Scripture by allowing a re-interpreting of the Bible though it’s credibility as a moral is constantly questioned as scandals of abuse by priests are exposed.
This method, of looking at the results, requires that we anticipate and evaluate the consequences of our actions and that actions are tested by their outcomes or, as Jesus put it, their “fruits”. It is a kind of humane, compassionate utilitarianism, which I hope to develop and promote later.
Post-modern philosophers have also critiqued the idea that human knowledge works forward from unassailable axioms to absolute truths. Postmodernism is the recognition of the fallibility of humans, the need to revise accepted knowledge and progress. Though modernism itself was a revision of accepted traditions (beginning roughly with the Renaissance) it simply replaced one authority (the Pope) with another (the Bible) in an attempt at objectivity. Postmodernism is the recognition that humans are not objective observers but subjective persons situated in a culture, time and place, with associated blind-spots, biases and flawed methodologies. We thus need to verify and revise our knowledge, and even our values, according to their outcomes.
Though postmodernism appears to remove certainty from our lives, what it does is to help reveal false or illusory certainty by showing how people at every place and time have believed certain things which have turned out to be wrong. True ethics are progressive and situated but not arbitrary.
We need to find modes of thought which are less divisive than modernism (or positivism) which imposes supposed “objective” reality on others and tends to be judgemental. Postmodernism can help here because it admits that we may not have all the answers and it encourages different peoples and nations to listen to and learn from each other. It opposes black-and-white thinking and admits uncertainty whilst respecting and pursuing truth. I hope to describe some of these gains in part III where I propose a way forward for virtue beyond religion.
Often, when a Christian and an Atheist debate world-views, the differences in approach to morality look like this:
I want to propose that this is an unhelpful formulation of the problem of ethics and that what we need is not some imagined Objective Moral Values but rather the Right Moral Values. In other words: we need to seek a true morality though it be not objective.
Supposing there was indeed a divine being on high issuing commands which humans were obliged to follow. Would that make the commands objectively moral? Objective perhaps but not necessarily moral. The deity could be issuing commands to kill, steal and enslave. Such commands would be objective in the sense that they were not of human origin and thus not subjective but they would still be wrong. We would have wrong objective morals i.e. immoral morals.
Before we assume that a deity must always issue good commands consider the following: Many Christians believe the Bible is a reliable record of God’s dealings with man. The Bible is thus objectively true they say. The Bible however records God’s dealings with man as sometimes violent and less than honourable. God commanded acts of war, theft and rape which would land him in The Hague in our day. So such Christians, if they are consistent, must either believe that these acts are somehow good or, more likely, that the objective “moral” values which God communicates are not necessarily good. It can be very bad for your child if you follow God’s objective command to kill him as we shall see in the story of Abraham later on.
In a verificationist scheme the question would be: what is the consequence of my action for those involved? As we shall see, working backwards from consequence to action results in better morals than blind foundationalism or obedience to authority.
In part II I will delve into the morals communicated in the Old Testament and Jesus’ prophetic critique of them. If Christians believe in and trust Jesus, they would do well to listen to his own critique of his religion and scriptures and his ultimate abandoning of much of Judaism.
The Bible consists of many strands of incompatible thought on behaviour. The two main views are authoritarianism and ethics. This is the difference between “Do what you are told!” and “Do what is good!” or, between commands issues and actions considered. When the idea of right gets too closely identified with power structures, we have authoritarian morals where what is right is the same thing as what is commanded. To disobey is to be in the wrong. Recent international terror events have shown how destructive that thought can be.
Jesus, as part of the prophetic line criticising the establishment, the priesthood (and even parts of scriptures) denied authoritarianism. When he subverted the religious leaders who assumed the authority of Moses, Jesus affirmed their legal authority but undermined their moral authority because of their actions (Mt 23). Jesus would have his followers obey the laws (which were civic as well as religious) and thus avoid insurrection and unrest but we would at the same time have them not take part in the immorality of the leaders. Jesus severed authority and morality and in doing so, denied authoritarian ethics, without denying authority in general.
Jesus also undermined sacred Scripture by offering a better morality than the Torah offered. It is often claimed in Christian circles that Jesus came to raise the Jewish Law to a higher level. The Jewish (written) Law (Torah), we are told, is good but Jesus made it better and tried instead to undermine oral traditions which corrupted the Torah. But that is wrong on at least 3 counts:
As we shall see: Jesus proposed a true law behind the written law which we call Scripture. He would critique both the oral and the written law (the Bible) on the basis of the true law which was not codified. Unfortunately for us, we distrust mystical laws not written down, but Jesus believed in a law of love for others which was written on the heart of man, not in a book.
Jesus was not the only Jewish prophet and thinker to critique the Scriptures. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and others (including the Psalmist) all claim that God never desired sacrifice. But much of the Old Testament is about the priestly claim that God desires and commands animal sacrifice. Christians have unfortunately sided the priests on this issue and thus not with Jesus who undermined the sacrificial cult. Not only did Jesus end it for his followers, offering forgiveness apart from sacrificial acts, he accurately predicted its demise (see Mt 24). Jesus, with the prophets, denied the Bible’s claim that God instituted sacrifice.
If Christians are worried that, absent the infallible Bible, we should have simply no idea what right and wrong is they should keep reading. Much of the true morality I propose we can discover is indeed affirmed by Jesus – it just didn’t all originate with him. Much of Jesus’ teaching is more like a reminder to humans of the true morality we are able to uncover and learn. What humans need, and what Jesus taught was to consider your actions and how they affect others.
Thus, should there be any Christian/Atheist debate on the idea of objective versus relative morality the correct response should be this:
Of course the obvious question is: what is right behaviour? Can religion or the teaching of people like Jesus inform and influence our morality?
The answer is Yes! The quest for true justice in our world, though unsuccessful, reveals how desperately we need a way to find a common morality. As we discover more about the evils in the world we yearn to be able to say to evil doers: What you are doing is really wrong! How do we know we are not imposing our own culture on those who wish to stone adulteresses or deny children an education in favour of slave labour?
However, I contend, it is not religion but reality which we have in common with all nations. Though reality is perceived differently (i.e. subjectively) the general sense among all human groups that human dignity and flourishing need to be preserved and protected is there.
Now this sounds horrible to those steeped in modernism and in theological codes of ethics. If we all just have to “work it out” what is to prevent us from coming up with wrong answers? What if we all decide to kill all the weak and the sick out from our cities? What about abortion and euthanasia? Who will help us decide?
In the next section we will look at the religious option which lets God, speaking through, scripture answer our moral questions.
 Ironically it was the great atheist thinker Friedrich Nietzsche who postulated that without God there are no moral values. But Nietzsche, though brilliant, was also insane so we’d be advised to be careful in accepting his ideas on mere authority. It was his contention that God did not exist, and that therefore objective moral values do not exist.