Saturday, 15 November 2014

Religion's Flexible 'Moral Absolutes'

One of the smug claims made by theists is that their religion gives them a set of moral absolutes, thus whatever they do in the name of their religion can't be immoral - and anyone who questions it is, by implication, immoral. It's fundamental to the way abusive clerics gain the confidence of their victims, for example. Who could doubt the moral fibre of someone who is working for God or Allah? Obviously, we should consult them on all matters of morality and ethics and allow them to dictate to us on such matters.

So where exactly are these moral absolutes in the holy books, and more importantly where is the evidence that these are er... moral absolutes? Shouldn't we expect a moral absolute, especially as practiced and promoted by religious clerics to be unchanging and eternal? If not, in what way is it an absolute?

The reality, of course, is that all modern religions have been forced to change even their basic interpretations of morality as spelled out in their holy books of Bronze Age and late Iron Age tribal morality. A few regressive diehards such as William Lane Craig have, of course, demonstrated their breathtaking ability to explain why, although 'Thou shalt not kill' is a moral absolute, genocide and infanticide are just fine and moral if God says so and those who find the idea repugnant have a character flaw. God's morality isn't absolute of course and can change on a whim. If the genocidist believes his god is telling him to do it, genocide becomes a moral absolute just like not killing people is a moral absolute.

It all depends on what God says, apparently. How do you know it's the real god saying it? Asked how one could tell which was the right god - the one telling the Israelites to kill the Canaanites and murder their children or the one telling people to be Muslims, join ISIL and behead non-believers - William Lane Craig explained that the real god - the one that should be obeyed - is the one that agrees with him. Joining this logic together then, we appear to have moral absolutes being defined as anything William Lane Craig agrees with and his delighted supporters have no problem with someone who has earned himself the epithet, The Apologist For Genocide and Infanticide, implicitly claiming to be their source of moral absolutes.

So much for the contribution of modern religious apologetics, which is more about pandering to an audience and providing them with relief from cognitive dissonance as their Bronze Age tribal superstition becomes increasingly irrelevant in the modern world, than it is about devising ethics to produce a harmonious, decent, humane and functional society.

Normal people can handle stories about Bronze Age genocides by accepting that things were pretty grim in those days for many people but we now know better, and that the morals of primitive tribal, pre-technological agrarian societies are no longer appropriate. We can do this because we have evolved an ability to empathise with others and put ourselves in their position. And generally we no longer accept that life will inevitably be nasty, brutish and short, and at the disposal of gods (or their self-appointed clerics) because that's what the gods have decided.

One only need read the Old Testament, especially Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, to see how our morals today are very different to those of the misogynistic clerics and tribal chiefs with small penis syndrome who wrote that stuff. No one would now seriously sell a daughter as a sex slave (Exodus 21:7), kill her if she's not a virgin (Deuteronomy 22:20-21), have the men of the town kill an unruly child (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), kill a rape victim (Deuteronomy 22:23-24) or force her to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), and, at least in the civilised parts of the world, we no longer kill witches (Exodus 22:17) and few people now believe that slavery was okay and that a master was entitled to beat and kill his slave (Luke 12:41-48).

We are better than that now, although this may not be true of some fundamentalist Christian extremist groups such as those behind the Discovery Institute's Wedge Strategy, intended to install a fundamentalist Levitican-style Christian theocracy in the USA and elsewhere, or those behind the various Muslim extremist groups such as ISIL, Boko Haram, the Afghani Taliban and Al Qaeda. Clearly, some people and some sects still need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st-century like the mainstream Christian, Muslim and Jewish sects have been, albeit reluctantly.

Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar. They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse.

Christopher Hitchens
But most mainstream Christian, Jewish and Muslim sects have managed to adapt as their power to bully and persecute has been taken away from them and are now highly creative in their explanations of why they used to behave so repugnantly and why their holy books still tells people to behave in ways which would see them incarcerated where they could do no more harm.

The holy books only applied in those times, to other people, or were allegorical or metaphorical, whilst still being God's inerrant holy word 'which endureth forever' (1 Peter 1:25), and anyway God later changed his mind and sent Jesus to teach us new ways - like killing his enemies (Luke 19:27), owning and beating slaves (Luke 12:41-48), hitting small traders with whips (John 2:14-15) and abandoning your family (Matthew 19:29). Oh! And obeying all the old laws (Matthew 5:17-19). It's just that when Christianity reigned supreme throughout Europe, people had misunderstood or misinterpreted the Bible - even those who claimed God spoke to them directly, like the Pope.

And of course, certain selected Old Testament laws still apply when the churches want to cling to their last few vestiges of power, such as in marital laws, and when sexually ambivalent clerics, ashamed of their sexual desires, need to loudly dissociate themselves from them by bullying and persecuting homosexuals.

My great grandparents, devout Anglicans that they were, saw nothing wrong with slavery, assuming, because the church told them so, that black people were inferior to white people and were born to labour for the white race.

My grandparents, devout Anglicans that they were, saw nothing wrong with the class system which sent working class daughters into 'service' to be at the disposal of the men of the rich household, and saw nothing wrong with women not having the vote, because the upper-class white male clerics told them this was how God had ordained things.

My parents saw nothing wrong with putting homsexuals in prison and discriminating against people on the grounds of colour, religion, gender, country of origin, ability or class because the upper-class male clerics told them homosexuality was a sin, black people and anyone non-English were inferior beings, people with disabilities were being punished for past sins and the different classes had been given their role by God.

And now the Anglican church has women priests and bishops, black clerics, declares discrimination on the grounds of race, ability, gender, even religion, to be wrong, has openly gay clergy and allows same sex marriages to be conducted in its churches if the vicar wants to conduct them.

And of course, the Anglican church declares all this to be fully supported by the Bible and backed by sound theology, just as it declared all its denial of basic human rights to people in earlier times to be fully supported by the Bible and grounded in theology. And of course the Anglican church still claims the right to be consulted on all matters of morality because only Anglican clerics understand the moral absolutes handed down to us from God in his inerrant holy book.

But it's not just the everso flexible Anglicans.

The Catholic Church used to order murderous crusades and burn heretics but doesn't anymore. It used to order the killing of witches but doesn't anymore. It used to endorse slavery but doesn't any more, and now the 'modernising' Pope Francis is at least putting on a display of trying to drag a truculent clergy into the 21st-century, so far without success, by at least acknowledging that homosexuals have something to offer to society and have value as human beings. One can't help but wonder though whether this is a response to haemorrhaging membership and dwindling income, or a sudden discovery of basic human decency and humanist principles.

In The Same God? Twelve Beliefs the Mormon Church Might Not Want You to Know About, former evangelical Valerie Tarico list several things the Mormon Church is becoming increasing embarrassed about in its holy book, the Book of Mormon, written by convicted fraudster and confidence trickster, Joseph Smith.

Joseph Smith taught that black people bore the "mark of Cain" (something many Christian churches also taught to justify slavery). Brigham Young, Smith's successor, declared:

Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.

Journal of Discourses, vol. 10

By 1978, the prohibition on black men being ordained priests of the Mormon Church was lifted but the blatant racism in the BoM remained. In 1981 the 'divinely inspired' words of Joseph Smith were 're-inspired' from "[conversion to Christianity brought about] a white and delightsome people", to "a pure and delightful people", and in 2013 Joseph smith's doctrine, so enthusiastically endorsed by Brigham Young and success leading Mormons that black skin was a punishment from God was officially renounced by the church.

Then of course, there is the example of polygamy, once forming a fundamental principle of Mormonism, and the reason Brigham Young took the Mormons to the wilds of Utah in the first place (strange how so many male-dominated sects have a relaxed attitude to marital fidelity and monogamy, especially for their senior members). This was the main issue preventing the state of Utah being admitted to the Union and probably lay behind the 'Mormon war' of 1857 - 1858.

For over 40 years, the LDS Church and the United States were at odds over the issue [of polygamy]: the church defended the practice as a matter of religious freedom, while the federal government aggressively sought to eradicate it, consistent with prevailing public opinion. Polygamy was probably a significant factor in the Utah War of 1857 and 1858, given the Republican attempts to paint Democratic President James Buchanan as weak in his opposition to both polygamy and slavery. In 1862, the United States Congress passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which prohibited plural marriage in the territories. In spite of the law, Mormons continued to practice polygamy, believing that it was protected by the First Amendment. In 1879, in Reynolds v. United States, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the Morrill Act, stating: "Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinion, they may with practices."

In 1890, church president Wilford Woodruff issued a Manifesto that officially terminated the practice of polygamy. Although this Manifesto did not dissolve existing plural marriages, relations with the United States markedly improved after 1890, such that Utah was admitted as a U.S. state. After the Manifesto, some Mormons continued to enter into polygamous marriages, but these eventually stopped in 1904 when church president Joseph F. Smith disavowed polygamy before Congress and issued a "Second Manifesto", calling for all plural marriages in the church to cease.

Miraculously, the 'inspired word of God' as revealed to Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and others, was re-inspired to say the exact opposite, just in time for Utah to be admitted to the USA as a full state.

So much for Mormon moral absolutes.

Now we are witnessing increasing tensions in Islam as 'the literal, inerrant word of an omniscient god as revealed to Mohammad some 1500 years ago' is inspiring the most grotesque human rights abuses, as Muslim clerics, at least in the West, struggle to explain where the fundamentalist extremists have gone wrong with their theology and their interpretation of the Qur'an, without saying that the brutality and misogyny it clearly endorses is wrong. Islam is being pulled kicking and screaming into the 21st-century, just like Christianity and Judaism before it, and the tensions are palpable.

Any day now we can expect creative Muslim clerics and apologists to be explaining how much of the Qur'an applied only in those times to those people and how a lot of it is allegorical or metaphorical, never intended to be taken literally - but of course the morals in it are absolutes because they have been handed down by an inerrant god, so good Muslims should obey the Muslim clerics - if they know what's good for them.

Religions and holy books are not sources of morals; they are sources of excuses for people who need excuses for their behaviour and for people who have abandoned moral responsibility in favour of abject obedience. Normal people with evolved human empathy can look at religions objectively and say, "If that's what your religion tells you, your religion is wrong!"

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  1. I've always wondered, without understanding (or maybe I do), why Christian churches don't condemn premarital sex, divorces, remarrying and so forth. Instead, nearly all of their their focus seems to be on homosexuality and abortion. For me, this looks like hypocrisy. Yet another proof of religious falseness and falsehood. The Christian churches seem to be built on lies and fraud.

    1. I think, in the UK, where pre-marital sex has been the accepted norm since at least the early 1960s and where it's assumed everyone, male and female, from the age of about 16 onwards has had multiple partners before marriage, if they even bother with marriage at all, any church which started to fulminate against it would not only look hypocritical but would find itself empty of all but very old ladies, and some of them would be looking guilty. It's even normal now for teenage children to have their partners to stay for the night. It's one way to ensure they keep their rooms reasonably tidy. :-)


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