Christianity’s “absolute morality” is neither absolute nor a good morality
By Don Baker
Christians would claim that morality flows from God’s laws. God sets this moral standard through the Bible as interpreted by religious authorities. Who can argue with, “thou shalt not kill,” for example. Many Christians in theUnited States, for example, believe so strongly in the absolute correctness of Christian morality that they have tried to apply these moral principles to all Americans. This essay addresses the question of whether there is such a thing as absolute morality. We show that the “absolute morality” promoted by Christians is neither absolute nor very moral.
Let us first take a look at what qualities a good set of moral principles should have. A set of moral principles can be partially judged without looking very much at their content. I count at least four such criteria. I will enumerate them here and discuss them.
- Moral principles should not have contradictions. If your morality tells you to do one thing and also do its opposite, then the moral principles are not useful.
- Unless a set of moral principles is perfect, they should evolve based on our evolving understanding of humanity and the universe. Unfortunately, humans are fallible. We have an imperfect understanding of the universe that is slowly becoming more refined as we learn and discover more. If our moral principles are based on assertions about human nature or the universe that are disproved, the moral principles should be reevaluated in light of the new evidence. If we don’t do this, the logical inconsistency in the moral principles will cause us to do things that don’t make sense. Reality is always right, but our understanding of it is changing. While a “perfect” set of moral principles might come from a god, any moral principles created by humanity must necessarily evolve.
- Moral principles can be based on beliefs or assumptions. Since we don’t know everything, it is often necessary to make some assumptions about the nature of the world. Thus, moral principles may be based on our deeply held, but unproven beliefs. Since the existence of gods is yet unproven, for example, a set of moral principles supposedly from a god would necessarily be based on the belief in the existence of that god.
- Any beliefs on which the moral principles are founded are an integral part of the moral principles, but one should not be obliged to believe. Such beliefs are something of a liability to the associated moral principles. Any such moral principle should explicitly say, “if you believe x, y, and z, then you should behave a certain way.” Notice that the principle doesn’t apply if you don’t harbor all three stated beliefs. This means, for example, that Islamic moral principles shouldn’t be applied to Christians. Unfortunately, since everyone believes different things, basing moral principles on beliefs leads to each individual having different moral principles. There must be a common ground on which we can base our laws.
This leads us to the idea that if moral principles are founded on beliefs, then the fewer such beliefs, the better. The more things that you take on faith, the more likely they are to be proven wrong, down the road. If you can later find incontrovertible evidence something that you formerly believed, it ceases to be a liability to the moral principles. If the belief is proven wrong, the moral principles are invalidated and must be reworked.
Now apply these criteria to the moral principles of Christianity. Nowhere does the Bible enumerate a comprehensive list, but it does provide the 10 Commandments and a smattering of other principles. The 10 Commandments alone do not cover such concepts as responsibility, trustworthiness, loyalty, etc., so even the Boy Scout creed is far more complete. We’ll also consider the entire Bible as a set of moral principles.
- Moral principles should not have contradictions.
- There are three different versions of the commandments in the Bible, so the 10 Commandments are already on shaky ground. The most popular version is from Exodus, however the version in Deuteronomy, which is virtually unknown to Christians, is the only one labeled in the Bible as God’s commandments. Sadly, different sects disagree on the exact statement of the 10 Commandments. It should also be noted that the God of the Bible, who supposedly authored these commandments, does a good job of violating the commandments himself. He murders throughout the Bible and lies in his covenant to David, for example.
- Contradictions in the Bible are well known (see the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible). The entire Bible, then, cannot be used as a basis for a good morality. While the 10 Commandments do not have obvious contradictions, the Bible certainly does. Even the notion of a single Bible is a myth. There are various versions, with many substantial differences between them.
- Moral principles should evolve based on our evolving understanding of humanity and the universe. Christians claim that God’s moral principles are perfect and therefore absolute. Christian behavior, on the other hand, tells a different story. The 10 Commandments absolutely prohibit lying, killing, coveting another’s property such as his wife or concubines, mistreating slaves, and worshiping graven images. Christians are happy to lie and even kill when it helps promote the Christianity Meme. Most Christians no longer consider their wives as property. Most Christians find it immoral to keep concubines or slaves. Finally, where would Christianity be without the graven image of Christ on the cross? The Bible has all manner of antiquated moral principles that Christians no longer follow. Consider how the Bible advocates the stoning to death of children who misbehave. When was the last time anyone followed that principle and wasn’t considered a complete nut? Nobody reads the Bible in the language, Aramaic, which God supposely wrote it, so even his choice of language wasn’t a good one. Clearly, Christian moral principles are changing and not absolute. Neither can an immutable God govern them.
- Moral principles can be based on beliefs or assumptions. Belief is an essential part of Christianity. Christianity is based, in part, on belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, and all-benevolent god. It is also based on belief in a man named Jesus who was born from a virgin, led an exemplary life, and had attributes of both man and god. Christianity has a long list of other beliefs as well (some of which we have discussed in the Consort Memes page). The 10 Commandments hold no weight unless one believes that the list comes from the creator of the universe. The Bible is a collection of stories which one could believe or not believe is true. Only Christian fundamentalists believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. The Bible does not mention free will, or emphasize marriage or family, which are integral parts of Christians’ belief system.
- Any beliefs on which the moral principles are founded are an integral part of the moral principles, but one should not be obligated to believe. Christians have done a poor job of enumerating and agreeing on their beliefs. Different sects believe somewhat different things. Even individual Christians rarely agree completely on their beliefs. Given different, and sometimes contradictory beliefs, it is not possible for one consistent set of moral principles to be created from it. Yet, despite all of this, Christianity places a very high value on faith and belief and a low value on reason and wisdom. Faith is preferred, even when such faith contradicts available evidence. Non-believers are not to be trusted and thinking is heresy. In a very real sense, Christianity is a set of moral principles that tries to enforce belief—backward from what it should be.
By these measures of the quality of moral principles, Christian moral principles are quite poor. Furthermore, Christian moral principles are far from absolute—they are predicated on a large number of beliefs to which few Christians can completely agree. Sadly, all of this can be concluded without even considering the content of Christian moral principles!
Secular Humanism, by contrast, qualifies as an exemplary set of moral principles. Secular Humanism embodies few beliefs and relies upon the human capacity for reason to resolve contradictions. It is based on science, reason, and our knowledge about human nature. Secular Humanism is amenable to change as we learn more about the world. It is an evolving set of moral principles that are revised periodically in a conscious way through discussion and debate. Surprisingly, Secular Humanism comes much closer to being an absolute morality than Christianity does.
The myth of an absolute morality from God is merely a hook used by the Christianity Meme to defeat reason. Who can argue with God’s alleged will?