When certainty becomes uncertain…
And if a master strikes his servant with a rod and he dies under his hand he shall be punished unless the servant survives a day or two. In this case, the master shall not be punished, for the servant is his property.
– Moses (Exodus 21:20-21)
In part II on ethics without God I want to look at reasons why religion and specifically the Judeo-Christian tradition offers a deficient ethic and how brave folk called prophets went against the prevailing religious establishment and spoke up for real justice over against religious baloney. Prophets like Hosea, Isaiah and especially Jesus of Nazareth critiqued not only distortions of their religion but their actual religion per se as well as its holy texts! First, Part IIa, we will look at the deficient morality in the Bible.
Though this may seem strange to us, most early religions and especially cultic practices, are largely unconcerned with what we would call ethics or good behaviour and were focussed instead on obtaining and maintaining the favour of the local deities. The sacrifices offered are designed to appease the gods in order that they send rain, support battles or bless the tribe in other ways. In fact, the actual cultic practices – such as sacrifices – are often pretty darn unethical but the religions were mostly not designed to bring about ethical people but to ensure the survival and success of the group. Right behaviour was whatever it took to please the deity.
The religion of ancient Israel shows signs of originally being just such a cult. YHWH is said to enjoy and desire the smell of burning fat and the effect (similar to that of smoke on bees) is that it calms the deity down or turns away their wrath. Most interestingly the blessings and curses YHWH promises are manifestly not heaven and hell in the afterlife but blessing and curse in this life. The blessings and curses are things like fertility (of women and land), longevity and success in battle and it was a later development which transferred Payback to the world beyond (or in) the grave. This worldly payback is recorded for us in the climax of the Mosaic covenant (see Deuteronomy 28 to 30 where the blessings range from mere mildew in your home to drought and plague) but such ideas of worldly punishment and reward stretch back as far as the first sacrifices of Cain, Abel, Noah and Abraham.
For Cain and Abel it was the smell of the offering (meat vs. grain) which won the approval of the deity. Most tellingly, the famous promise by God to Noah never again to flood the entire Earth (just low lying parts like New Orleans) was not because God saw the suffering of people drowning and repented but because of Noah’s burnt offering:
Then Noah built an altar to YHWH and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. YHWH smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans… and never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. (Gen 8:20-21)
Who says YHWH can’t be bribed?
But given that today’s discussion of religion is often about morality, the question of ethics always arises. In Christianity, for example, there are many who believe that only Christians can do good! The idea is that all humans are tainted by sin and thus, whatever they do, unpleasing to the God who only accepts perfection. This is basically the evangelical view in both its Protestant and Catholic forms. Yes folks, there do exist evangelical Catholics. For such people, it is axiomatic that their religion and their God provide the only framework for ethics. It does not matter that the Hindu mother cares for her child as selflessly as the Christian mother: that Hindu woman is immoral and unacceptable to God by definition. The most popular modern German New Testament translates Romans 3:23 as:
Alle sind Sünder und haben nichts aufzuweisen, was Gott gefallen könnte
All are sinners and have done nothing which could please God
Though this is plainly a mistranslation, this is what the vast majority of evangelicals believe: all humanity is unpleasing and unacceptable to God but for the blood of Christ which intercedes, cleanses and appeases the wrath which hangs over us all.
But aside from such crazy theology, wider Christianity does maintain that God has revealed His will to us and that we would do well to follow it. The 10 commandments are the most basic and common thing among all brands of Christianity and you often hear Christians say that we need God to lay down the laws for us because otherwise we have no basis for morality.
Some Christians mean by this that we would not know what is right or wrong if God didn’t tell us. For scriptural support, turn to Paul who, in Romans 7 says: “I would not know what coveting was if the Law had not said ‘Do not covet’”. I won’t point out that, if you don’t know what coveting is, the Law is incomprehensible. Of course, Paul probably means that he wouldn’t know that it was a sin, a wrong deed. Whether it actually is a wrong deed I would contest but I’m sure Paul would say that anything God forbids is by definition a sin. Eating shellfish was a sin for the Israelites as was wearing a garment consisting of two materials (e.g. wool and cotton) or sowing two types of seed in your field. If God so chose and commanded brushing your teeth would be a sin.
So God tells us what is and isn’t allowed. And what is and isn’t allowed may be things which are actually and obviously wrong (like stealing and killing) or things which are not so obvious (like making statues or cheeking your parents) or things which are bizarre (like not beating your slave so badly that he dies immediately – later is OK).
When we realise there is a difference between what is allowed (owning and beating slaves) and what is right (liberty and protection for all) we see that we have to make a choice about good and evil even if a deity like YHWH is involved.
There seems to be little evidence that humans only know right from wrong thanks to the Bible. Indeed some of what we get from the Bible muddies our morality in teaching us that some wrong things (i.e. violence and war) are right simply because God commands them. Other natural things (i.e. homosexuality) are declared abominations because God doesn’t like them. If you think homosexuality isn’t normal, that’s because it’s suppressed, not because it isn’t widespread. If you think sexuality has to be prevalent to be normal, well studies have shown that all sorts of weird sexual behaviour is prevalent (especially adultery). But passing on to the subject at hand…
Paul could probably not get away with his claim of ignorance about coveting for any other ethical commandment. Did humans really not know that killing or stealing was harmful and wrong before Moses set down the Law? What about respecting parents? The Zulu culture, of which I am somewhat familiar, has detailed etiquette about how to treat parents and how to respect the elderly and they didn’t get it from the Jewish Torah. No culture allows outright stealing, rape, enslavement and murder of just anyone but it would seem all cultures, including the Judeo-Christian culture, provides instances when these things are allowed. Consider our Bible:
– Murder is allowed if the person being murdered has a non-Jewish girlfriend (see Gideon)
– Rape is allowed if the woman being raped is from a conquered village and is a virgin (see Moses)
– Stealing is allowed if the theft is done as part of a military campaign to wipe out locals (Moses again)
– Enslavement is allowed as long as you don’t enslave a fellow Jew (Moses once more)
It is widely believed and preached that the 10 Commandments constitute a basic set of laws God communicated through Moses to the whole world (via the Bible). But understood in context, the 10 commandments are not even intended as a special revelation of good morals for all humans at all. The fact that we are often presented with a sanitized contemporary version of the 10 Do’s and Don’ts means the meaning of the Torah, the Mosaic Law, is lost. In context, the Decalogue is a selected list of Do’s and Don’ts for Israel which consists basically of two things:
1) Morally neutral teachings, specific to Jews
2) Morally deficient teachings, specific to Jews
3) Good morals, directed at Jews but known to all civilisations, religions and cultures
In the first class belong the injunctions to only worship the God “who brought you out of Egypt” only. It is YHWH who brought Moses and Co. out of Egypt: the “you” is Israel. One could argue that this commandment is a class 1 commandment (morally neutral) but it includes an explanation and a warning: a) for YHWH is jealous and b) will punish your children if you don’t. I think it’s fair to say to a people: I saved you from slavery, now you serve me. But to warn them that their children will be punished (active tense, YHWH doing said punishment) is immoral on the part of the deity. But the deity admits he himself is “jealous” though he will presently forbid jealousy on the part of humans in his final commandment.
Commandment 2 about graven images is controversial and scholars are divided on what it means. But whether it means you cannot make a picture or sculpture of any animal or whether it includes the injunction not to worship said artwork it classes with the morally neutral commandments from my perspective. It is morally neutral whether my neighbour prays to Buddah or kisses a Madonna each morning.
Commandment 3 (Sabbath) sounds harmless enough but we need to remember that these commandments are part of a larger set of laws which form the contractual obligations for Israel. So when we read “Observe the Sabbath” we need to seek the details and consequences elsewhere. I myself quite like the idea of a day of rest a week (I’d prefer 3 but nobody’s asked me) but the Jewish Sabbath is something else. It might class as morally neutral if there weren’t the command to stone those people who don’t observe it (Exodus 35:2). In context the Sabbath is violently enforced and thus immoral and patently not “for man” as Jesus will later reinterpret it to be.
Commandment 4 (taking YHWH’s name in vain) is something morally neutral outside of Judaism not something for the rest of the world. It’s meaning is likewise controversial but I find the following interpretation compelling and telling: Don’t pretend to speak for God. Boy would life be simpler and less violent if we didn’t have people thinking they spoke (and acted) for God…
The 5th command to honour your parents is a good commandment but, like the Sabbath, comes with a proviso that a child who disobeys it (Deut 21:18-21) is to be stoned. This makes it a good idea in principle but an evil command in practice. Ultimately, one who breaks any of the Mosaic Law, is liable to be “cut off from his people” i.e. excluded and exiled so all commands carry a bitter, external punishment, not related to the inherent effects of breaking them.
The next 4 commandments are things which other cultures know and revere but they did not originate on Mount Sinai. Don’t lie, steal or kill are pretty universal commands and many primitive cultures have even stricter laws about sex and adultery than the Jews.
The only command which is neither universal nor (arguably) good is Commandment 10: coveting. Very few cultures forbid you from desiring your neighbour’s land, property or wife. It must be noted that this command is basically a property law because, for the Israelites as for other ancient cultures, a women was something that, and I quote the 10th commandment, “belongs to” a person. Whether the command is a good one or not is a topic for another time though it must be said that if the basic issue is jealousy and it’s effects, YHWH does not meet is own standard for, as he tells us in Commandment 1, he is “a jealous God”.
But if 9 of the 10 commandments are either universally accepted apart from Mosaic revelation or not really universal moral injunctions at all, why should we claim that divine revelation is necessary for knowledge of morals? This is the debate:
Christian: We need the God of the Bible to tell us what is right and wrong.
Atheist: We do not, and some of what is commanded in the Bible is plainly wrong.
Ironically, Paul himself denies the Christian view of special revelation (perhaps inadvertently given all the logic chopping he needs to do to subvert Jesus’ teaching) by claiming, in Romans 1:18-20 that all humans are “without excuse” because “what can be known about God is clear to them, because God has made it clear”. In Romans 2:14-16 he says that God has written his law on their hearts and that their consciences confirm this. So Paul affirms that humans know what is right apart from revelation and yet, evangelicalism which is basically Pauline Christianity, denies it where convenient. To be inconsistent however is something the Church has in common with Paul.
The fact is, every culture has some sort of moral code, and we do not have the best one thanks to the Bible. The most Christian nation in the world is also the most trigger-happy and selfish. The same could be said about the most religious nations in general but also about the classical atheist countries. This shows that religion is not the issue. Morality must be decided apart from religious considerations and purely on merit.
In the next part we will look at how prophets courageously spoke out against the violent and nonsensical cult of sacrifice and raised their voices for the poor, the weak and the oppressed.