Many religious people believe that our morality is a God-given and absolute code that is immutable and based on the precepts of the Bible or other holy texts. Even the non-religious are influenced by this idea, viewing morality as some intangible force that has an independent existence.
There are several problems with this view:
- Most Holy books including the Bible and the Qur’an contain and even ordain practices that are considered universally immoral such as stoning, rape, genocide, infanticide and slavery. The New Testament is a vast improvement on the Torah in many ways, but there are still some awful ideas about morality found within its pages.
- Even if they don’t actively ordain bad actions, those same holy books often omit to mention or condone misdeeds such as animal cruelty, misogyny, racism, environmental pollution, torture and paedophilia, which, although only recently being taken seriously in many parts of the world, have always been a problem in society. For example, only 4 of the 10 main commandments of Exodus 20 actually address moral issues; murder, unfaithfulness, theft and lying, and the rewritten tablets of Exodus 34 (the ‘real’ 10 commandments) contain absolutely nothing of moral value at all. (See this article for more information: Which Ten commandments?)
- Still other actions are said to be sinful, but they do not actively cause harm to a There is no thought or analysis into why things like blasphemy, eating pork or shellfish, wearing cloth with two types of thread, receiving blood transfusions or moderate alcohol consumption are immoral. These precepts are merely obeyed by the faithful without any moral or even logical basis. They merely reflect the wishes of a seemingly capricious and petty entity.
In other words, some things which we instinctively know are immoral are considered perfectly fine in the Bible, and some things which are considered sinful by some scriptures are perfectly moral.
In reality, we choose the parts of our religion that we want to follow based on what we already feel is morally acceptable. We more often that not dismiss religious precepts which don’t obey our own internal moral framework rather than dismissing our personal feelings (although exceptions do exist such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are taught to let their interpretation of the Bible train their conscience).
Holy books are often so unclear on what is acceptable that the religious have to cherry-pick from a self-contradictory set of commands leading to a plethora of denominations each claiming to know the mind of God. The homophobe or racist will scour the Bible for anti-homosexual or pro-slavery rhetoric, whereas the moderate will see only love and acceptance in the pages of the ‘good book’.
The mere existence of that internal conscience that does the choosing is actually a problem for the concept of an inerrant Word of God rather than a vindication of it. It demonstrates that morality simply does not come from up above and it also shows up certain forms of religious morality to be utterly based on the capricious whims of the writers or the interpreters of those writings.
In his book “The Moral Landscape”, Sam Harris argues that science could investigate morality just like it can other aspects of the world. If we have empathy, we know that other beings experience emotions and physical sensations in a way similar to ourselves. He then goes on to say that we can define “morality” as based on the well-being of others.
I tend to agree with Harris on many points, but I also think that scientific theory can make a simple idea very complex. In reality, morality is simpler than that in practise.
Harris, Sam – The Moral Landscape
‘Thinking About Ethics’ : a humanist perspective – Humanism for Schools – http://www.humanismforschools.org.uk/pdfs/thinking%2520about%2520ethics.pdf
Read more about today’s findings: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/11/03/religion-beyond-belief_n_6094442.html
Read more surveys and statistics about religion or belief: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-belief-some-surveys-and-statistics/