I received an email yesterday asking me to discuss one of the problems that I see with looking to religion as a source of ethics. I thought that I would include it in a list of the problems that I see with this brand of moral philosophy.
Before I get into the list, I want to stress the fact that this does not imply any condemnation of those who link religion and ethics in their own lives. It appears quite obvious that most if not all theists believe that there is a "second source" of ethics other than by looking in a bible. They may assert that this "second source" also leads back to God, and I have no objection to raise against those who believe this. All that matters is that there is a "second source", that this "second source" is accessible even to those who do not believe in God, and where this "second source" conflicts with religious teachings, the "second source" we are to go with this "second source".
Note: As an atheist, I hold that this "second source" is actually the first and only source of moral truth, and that it does not trace its way back to any God. However, for the purpose of this blog entry, this does not matter.
There are literally hundreds of examples where even the most devout theists have used this "second source".
For example, most theists hold that slavery is wrong even though no biblical passage directly condemns slavery and many tacitly accept their acceptance. No biblical passage supporting freedom of the press or a right to trial by jury, yet many people still recognize that these are important moral rights. No biblical passage talks about a right to liberty, or the idea that "to secure these rights, governments are established among men, deriving its just power from the consent of the governed." These moral truths and many others come from a "second source", and can overrule any biblical statement to the contrary.
In addition, many theists recognize that killing a child who disobeys his parents is child abuse and is not to be tolerated, though biblical passages actually command this. They recognize that, if they come across a group of people worshipping a golden calf, it would be wrong to slaughter them as punishment for failure to accept the Judeo-Christian God, though biblical passages praise such an act. The bible may demand death for those who work on the Sabbath, yet most theists recognize that this is a matter of personal choice and would be unwilling to command the death of those who violate this rule. Where biblical references prohibit charging interest to those within the same country, even the vast majority of theists today recognize that interest rates are a vital tool to maintaining a healthy economy.
These are all examples where even the most devout theist appeals to a "second source" of moral truth, and uses it even when biblical passages seem to suggest something different. Those who believe that the biblical passages are fallible in some way simply disregard those passages that seem to condone or command the immoral. Those who think that the bible can contain no errors use this "second source" as a tool for determining what the bible really means. This latter group still operates on the principle that the "second source" is the most reliable source, and that the best interpretation of the bible cannot contradict it.
Again, I want to add that recognizing a "second source" of ethics does not mean rejecting God. That second, more reliable route to moral truth might well be a more reliable route to knowing God's moral law.
Questioning Religious Texts
So, what is wrong with religious ethics when it does not make use of this "second source" of moral knowledge?
Assume that somebody is intimately concerned with doing the right thing -- being a person of good moral character and doing that which such a person would do. He confronts the question, "What would a person of good moral character do in this situation?" It is reasonable to expect an answer by turning to religious texts alone? I suggest that this route suffers from a number of drawbacks.
(1) There is no God.
I am not going to put a lot of weight on this issue, but it deserves to be mentioned. In using biblical texts as a source of ethics, one runs the risk that these are not, in fact, the inspired word of an all-caring being with perfect knowledge. These are, instead, the embodiment of the prejudices of primitive cultures who knew little about the world in which they lived. Why else would they praise the slaughter of those who worshipped a golden calf? Why else would they advocate the use of biological weapons of mass destruction (a plague that targets children) as a legitimate tool to use to achieve a political end ("Let my people go.")? It seems more likely that these are the moral views of a primitive culture than that these are the tactics of a perfect moral being.
(2) Even if there is a God, we cannot be assured of its benevolence.
Let us assume that there is a God or gods who created the earth and put us on it. What gives us reason to believe that this being is benevolent? It is also possible that this omnipotent being simply got bored with life and decided to create his very own episode of "Survival: Earth" on a planetary scale. He set up the planet and established the struggle for survival. He may have even established the rules of evolution so that He could see what happens. Yet, he might approach this game of his with the same attitude as a child playing a simulation on a computer. From time to time this deity may throw in a tsunami, a hurricane, or an earthquake just for the fun of it.
In addition, this same deity may have created all of the major religions. He appeared to different people, giving them different messages and telling each that only they had the one true word of God, so that he could set these factions to war against each other. He sets up these conflicts as a way of making his "Survival: Earth" game even more interesting. The person who turns to one of these religions for moral guidance then finds within it a command to join one of these factions in a struggle against the others.
(3) We have no reliable way of knowing what God wants?
If it was possible to turn to religious texts to get a reliable reading on the difference between right and wrong, then why is it that so many people who turn to religious texts get the wrong answer? Slavery, genocide, religious wars, inquisitions, the burning of witches, torture, the divine right of kings, and hundreds of other wrongs have all been 'discovered' by people who have turned to religious text for moral guidance. This is hardly what we would expect from a reliable guide to moral truth.
If it was possible to turn to religious texts to get a reliable reading on the difference between right and wrong, then why is it that so many people who turn to religious texts get different answers? Some demand peace and oppose torture and capital punishment, while others reading the same text insist on war, condone torture, and demand capital punishment. Both say that the same God is on their side, yet both cannot be right.
In fact, I doubt that it is possible to find even two people who agree on the entire moral message of any religious text. This means that at most one person (and probably not that many) has the moral message entirely right. How can religious text be a reliable source of moral knowledge if at most one person (and probably fewer) know what that moral truth is?
Another relevant question is: how can they settle their disagreement? They are looking at the same text. The only way that they can solve these problems is to look at something outside of the text. They need to refer to this "second source" of moral knowledge and let it arbitrate the disputes between them.
So, let us assume that you're concerned with doing the right thing. You want to know if you can reliably turn to a religous text to tell you what it is. There are questions that you need to answer. (1) Does God really exist, or is the "right thing" in this book merely the prejudices of some primitive civilization? (2) If God does exist, is God really asking us to do the right thing, or are we merely toys for his amusement? (3) If God does exist and wants us to do the right thing, can we know what it is by looking in that book, and in interperting that book the way you think it should be interpreted?
Most people use a different book, and most who use the same book will disagree with your interpretation, and not one of them will think that your interpretation is 100% accurate. So, what makes you think that you are so gifted that you can come up with the one right interpretation when everybody else is wrong?
Most of our moral truths are not found in a religious text. The right to a trial by jury, freedom of the press, the opposition to slavery, the wrongness of executing people who work on the day of the sabbath or children who talk back to their parents, charging interest. These are things that we learned from some "second source." This "second source" might also go back to a God. The real question is not whether God is at the root of it or not, but whether or not it works. Perhaps that "second source" -- the source that gave us these moral truths -- is the source that we should be looking at when we want to make sure we do the right thing.