Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Relationship Between Scripture and Morality

At the end of last year I wrote about the relationship between morality and god - the claim that without a god there would be no objective morality.

I compared this to the statement that some believe that without God there would be no trees - no life. The former is as irrelevant to the objective wrongness of something like rape as the latter is to the objective height, mass, and age of a tree. That is to say, it is not important at all to the answers to those questions.

Yet, many theists, wanting to see themselves as morally superior to atheists, cast this disagreement in a way that allows them to see atheists as morally blind if they do not have a religious morality to appeal to. Again, this is as absurd as thinking that an atheist cannot see a tree without referencing a passage in scripture telling them about trees. Not only does it feel good, but by casting atheists as morally inferior and unfit to lead, this sentiment comes with social, political, and economic benefits as well. With an interest in harvesting these benefits, these people adopt and promote these prejudices and injustices - an ironic counter to their thought that they presumed moral superiority.

This leads to another relationship worth discussing - the relationship between scripture and morality. It is one thing to say that there is an objective right and wrong and that it could not exist without a god. It is another to say that these objective truths are recorded in scripture. This is true in the same sense that there is an objective age of the earth and the earth could not have come into existence without a god, and that scripture accurately records the origin of earth. In both cases the first part can be true while the latter part is totally false.

In fact, the relationship between scripture and objective morality is exactly the same as the relationship that exists in general between the writings of primitive cultures and what is objectively true. Scripture records the beliefs of prehistoric tribes, substantially ignorant of the world around them, handed down through an oral tradition and recorded (with a strong regard to what the writers find useful) after the invention of writing. Many of those ancient beliefs are false. Many of the things that they report as being being true are false, and some of what they say is false is actually true. Similarly, many of the things that scripture identifies as evil are, in fact, good or permissible. Some of what it identifies as permissible or obligatory are, in fact, evil.

Taking scripture as recording the absolute truth with respect to morality is as much a mistake as taking the writings of Hippocrates as recording the absolute truth with respect to medicine. It is not only an absurd belief - it is a belief that comes with tragic consequences.

Imagine if the medical profession took Hippocrates' writings as divinely inspired - as literally true in every word - and set up the institution of medicine such that anybody who would doubt or question the writings of Hippocrates would be threatened with execution or torture or other social and economic punishments. Nobody was permitted to practice medicine except exactly as prescribed by Hippocrates, and nobody could be elected to public office who did accept the writings of Hippocrates in all matters related to medicine.

The results would have been tragic.

Yet, this describes the attitude that many have for the relationship between morality and scripture. Their claim that scripture contains the last word in all questions of morality is as absurd as the belief that Hippocretes wrote the last word on all matters of medicine. The consequences, in some areas, have been equally tragic. Whole cultures are practicing primitive morality to the detriment of their populations in the same way as practicing a primitive medicine would be to the detriment of those populations.

There are some differences in the ways that cultures draw this relationship between morality and scripture.

We can describe two fundamentally different ways of thinking, for example, that everything that Hippocrates wrote on matters of medicine was literally true, and all truth is contained in the writings of Hippocrates.

The most tragic way is to take a body of writing as true as it was originally written. This method allows for no advance - no improvement. Its practitioners are locked in a primitive mindset that they cannot escape.

The second way is to constantly reinterpret what is written in the sacred texts of Hippocrates to accommodate new understandings. In the realm of medicine, this would be represented by a person pointing to passages attributed to Hippocrates and saying, "Here is where Hippocrates wrote about the germ theory of disease. Here is his passage on penicillin. Over here he discusses radiation treatment for certain types of cancer, and in these passages he describes all of the parts of a cell and their legitimate functions."

This type of person would likely claim that everything Hippocrates wrote was true and all truth is contained in Hippocrates. However, he wrote in metaphors and symbols rather than by reporting literal truths.

These types of people, though their interpretations of Hippocrates abandon all reason, would still be able to practice modern medicine and provide their patients with its benefits. We may still have reason to worry about their ability to link symptoms to causes where their minds and their thoughts imagine passages in the writings of a primitive writers to cover these truths, but they can still effectively treat illnesses and injuries.

Similarly, those who constantly reinterpret scripture - finding within it an opposition to slavery, equal rights to women, an opposition to rape (except insofar as adultery is wrong and rape is adultery - and a spouse cannot be raped), acceptance of homosexuality and the eating of shellfish, democracy as opposed to the divine right of kings, the right to trial by jury, freedom of speech that includes a freedom to criticize religion, are just as imaginative as the hypothetical doctor who thinks that the writings of Hippocrates include passages on gene replacement therapy and the causes and treatments of Alzheimer's Disease. Yet, they can still oppose slavery, promote equal rights for women, condemn rape as something worse than adultery and accept that a spouse can be raped, accept homosexuality and the eating of shellfish, promote democracy, defend the right to trial by jury and freedom of speech.

This is not to say that atheists are morally superior to theists. Taking primitive fictions as true is not the only source of error. Atheists make moral mistakes as well. This includes falling victim to the psychology of tribalism and adopting absurdities that allow them to see members of their tribe as morally superior. Certain brands of Marxism, Ayn Rand Objectivism, social darwinism, the notion of an evolved moral sense (which excuses taking personal likes and dislikes and misinterpreting them as moral prescriptions), common subjectivism, are all examples of atheist mistakes. Another possible mistake is my claim that one of these atheistic philosophies is a mistake.

1 comment:

@blamer said...

Excellent post. I'm subscribing.

Biblicists seem to convince many people that morality is incomparable to all other areas pursued by scholars.

Their traditional biblical view of morality permits christendom to keep teaching kids what modern academia has discovered is wrong. Historically. Or ethically.

This includes the divisive practice of maintaining that today's clergymen have better advise than today's Ivy League professors.

Clergymen who believe in scripture will be as mistaken about ethics as biology and psychology. And unlike laypeople, they aren't merely misled, they're misleading the masses with divisive moral guidance.