Saturday, July 25, 2015

A few good rules does not a just moral system make

To many fundamentalist Christians (and believers of other stripes), morality is not a reasoned set of rules we've established for man's well-being, but rather a set of dictates from on high, presumably for man's well-being. Thus we see that, no matter how odious the outcome (robbing women of reproductive rights; robbing gay people of civil rights; etc.) and how devastating its impact on people, if you can convince believers that God wants it done, it is assumed right and just and pursued with a vengeance. You might be destroying and in some cases ending someone's life, but as long as God dictates it, somehow, perversely, it's the best thing for that person.

Believers will sometimes try to justify these monstrous acts, often with specious or downright monstrous reasoning of their own. Often enough, the reason comes down, in part or in whole, to the authority of God's moral code (as the believer defines it, at least). A rule is just because the believer assumes God supports it. Even if we cannot understand why, even if it appears harmful and monstrous, even if it is literally ruining people's lives, we just have to trust that it's for the best. Because God wouldn't give us a rule that wasn't good for us; and if we start to question the laws God has given, well, what basis for morality is there? As Ken Ham has charmingly wondered, if you don't believe in God's rules, what's stopping you from eating babies and raping animals? Sure, you may have secular moral codes; but without an authority figure handing down unimpeachable dictates, is anything ever really wrong? You might not like persecuting gay people, but if you won't obey God on that, why should we also stop murder?

Now, this kind of morality is less morality and more rule-following. In this worldview, humans aren't actually expected to exercise moral judgment, but rather to follow the rules given them; and, like a well-trained attack dog praised for his obedience, the believer is congratulated for following the rules closely, regardless of whose life he ruins in the process. The more closely he follows, the more moral he is (good boy!).

But not only is robotic obedience not demonstrative of deep moral thought, it's duplicitous to imply that because a code demands some morally justifiable behaviors all demanded behaviors are by extension morally justifiable. Furthermore, while observing a given rule may be morally justifiable in many cases, that does not in and of itself validate the reasons that led that to implementing that rule.

Perhaps the simplest way to explain my point is by way of demonstration. Let's suppose someone – a god, if you like – appeared, and offered up a set of rules. These were the Way of Convenience, and they go something like so:

1. Wasteful noise and inconvenience are loathsome in the sight of the Lord thy God. Thus sayeth the Lord:
2. Thou shalt not kill thine brother, nor shalt thou kill thine sister, or thine friend, or thine enemy. For killing is noisesome business, and the Lord finds it tiring.
3. Thou shalt not rob thine neighbor, for this creates unnecessary paperwork.
4. Thou shalt not commit adultery, for family drama vexes the Lord.

Now, these seem like pretty good end goals – something most people (and most moral or religious teachings, for that matter) can agree upon: don't kill, don't rob, don't cheat on your spouse.

But while we can agree that those are good goals, we also recognize that the reasons why are stupid. In other words, we implicitly acknowledge that decent ends are not validation of means. So the fact that, buried with a lot of odious and downright silly commandments, there are some solid principles in the Bible (or any religious text) is not validation of the Bible's moral authority, anymore than it is validation of the Way of Convenience. You have to actually demonstrate that there is a good reason to observe your set of rules, outside of the fact that there are a few agreeable dictates among there.

Now let's take this analogy further. Let's suppose, following all the nice-rules-for-silly-reasons, we get to a passage like this in the Way of Convenience:

843 And the Lord thy God spake, saying, People who sing in the shower are an abomination in the sight of the Lord thy God.
844 Forsaking the natural uses of bath time, they pursue musical endeavors which are neither fitting nor pleasing in the sight of God.
845 Let the shower singers be forever cut off from my people, and let their blood be upon them.

Even if all 842 prior verses were rosy and wonderful, and so it hadn't occurred to us to view them with a skeptical eye, this would be a really good time to start applying some of that skepticism.

Somehow, though, in our day and age people still look to a book that justifies owning people as slaves, regulates how a rapist can get away with his crime, prescribes the death penalty for disrespectful children; and a God who floods the entire world killing children, babies and fetuses along with everyone else (but is pro-life!); a God who metes out collective punishment for the actions of individuals; a God who punishes thought crimes while forgiving actual crimes (if the sinner repents!); a God who would allow the devil to torment a loyal follower just to prove his point; somehow, people insist that we must not only look to this book and this god without the least bit of skepticism, but actually derive our moral principles from a literal reading of it.

This isn't morality. This is just following orders, and assuming that you're not actually responsible for exercising moral judgment – because your particular orders came from the top man himself, the General in the Sky. You don't have to prove it, because you feel it's true. And, what's more, the rest of us have to follow those same orders too.

Because, my God, what's to stop us from eating babies and fucking animals if we don't rely on order-taking?!

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