Monday, March 1, 2010

Immoral God and Immoral Bible? (Article I): A Look At What Morality Is

[Note: Insulting, Profane and Blasphemous comments will result in the poster being banned without warning.  If you wish to disagree with the materials here, you may do so, provided it is done civilly and respectfully].

What are we to make of the accusations of certain individuals who claim that actions in the Bible are in fact immoral, and therefore negate the claims of goodness?

To me, it seems to be in part a rejection of sola scriptura which gives primacy to the Bible while keeping to the claims that the personal interpretation of the Bible is all that is needed.

Another part of it seems based in seeking to reject the claims of moral authority of the Christians who invoke the Bible.

The problem, of course, is the issue of understanding what Christians hold. An attack on something not understood will generally fail to attack what Christians believe. Thus, in attacks on the Catholic Church for example, we often see attacks on personal conduct of people in authority. This would be valid if we held that being in the Church keeps people from sinning. However, since we do recognize that people can sin if they act against what is required, such an attack is an irrelevant appeal unless it can be demonstrated that immoral actions were done because of Christian teaching, instead of being in opposition to it. Yet most people who make such an attack do not even know what the Church teaches to be able to discern what is a part of teaching and what is against it.

Likewise in the attack of the Bible, we see many accusations made on the individuals in the Old Testament by people who do not have a clear sense of what the Bible teaches and why. Therefore we see these attacks based on what a person thinks it means. Such people do not distinguish between acts of men disobeying God and acts of men obeying God.

However, if they do not understand, how can they critique? The concept is as ludicrous as it would be for me to critique quantum physics based on what I see on Wikipedia, creationist sites and my own interpretation of a textbook of quantum physics.

Atheists may reject the Christian assumptions, but that is irrelevant here. If we wish to know “How can the Christians possibly support this?” we need to understand what Christians understand about morality. That is the focus on this article.

Preliminary: The Limiting of the Boundaries for This Article

This article is intended to be the beginning of a series which looks at certain accusations of atheists which claims that the Bible is an example of wicked deeds and a wicked acting God.  However, before looking of the acts of the men of the Bible (normally the focus is on the Old Testament) and the commands of God, we first must make some considerations of what morality is, as it is senseless to begin a discussion of a topic without setting forth what is meant.

So for those who are waiting for me to delve into the gory details of the Bible will need to wait for me to lay down this framework in this first article. Article II will deal with the acts of men in the Old Testament. Article III will deal with the commands of God, and will also consider acts of men obeying commands of God (as opposed to men who act on their own in Article II).

A Caveat: What Christian Beliefs I Am Acting Under

While I am limiting the intents of this article, let me clarify that I am discussing what the idea of morality means to the Christian in my Catholic faith, to the best of my ability.  Any difference between what I say and what the Church teaches is accidental, as I accept and submit to the teaching of the Catholic Church and do not intend to claim anything in contradiction to it.

There are of course some different theories in varying Christian denominations, and even non-Christian interpretations (Jewish, Muslim for example) of the Bible, but where they run contrary to what my Faith believes, I feel no obligation to defend them.

So please don't point to some obscure sect that holds some idea which contradicts to the Catholic faith and claims it speaks for all Christians.

What Is Morality?

To discuss morality, first we need to understand where the speaker is coming from. So let me start with the definition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Morality is generally defined as “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour.” So the idea of morality is based on the premise that there is good and bad behavior to begin with. This implies a sort of standard. Without this sense, there is nothing to appeal to other than personal preference.

Of course, if personal preference is all there is to consider, then charges of an immoral God or an immoral Bible become meaningless, and those charges become nothing more than “I don’t like what I read here.”

So those who deny morality and claim the Bible is immoral (this is a subset of those who attack the Bible, but is not all people who attack the Bible) are right off the bat in self contradiction, and such a view is not worth discussing. Any claim that the Bible is immoral has to recognize that there is moral and immoral behavior.

Morality and Ethics

I think I should start with the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia which begins its entry on Morality this way:

Morality is antecedent to ethics: it denotes those concrete activities of which ethics is the science. It may be defined as human conduct in so far as it is freely subordinated to the ideal of what is right and fitting.

This ideal governing our free actions is common to the race. Though there is wide divergence as to theories of ethics, there is a fundamental agreement among men regarding the general lines of conduct desirable in public and private life.

I think this is a good distinction.  There are certainly differences in the systems of ethics, and not all systems are equally valid. However the underlying concepts call certain things good and other things evil.  Most societies hold that Murder (the unlawful premeditated killing of one person by another) is wrong.  There may be a divergence in deciding what may be considered justifiable killing, but we don't normally see a healthy society which openly accepts the committing of unlawful killings.  Indeed, societies which do tolerate this are generally seen to be grossly disordered. 

So while atheists and theists may disagree on why an act is wrong, generally speaking, certain concepts are held by most people to be wrong and never to be done (rape, murder, slavery etc).  There are a few agnostics and atheists I have encountered who deny this, but it seems this denial is more based on the avoiding the issue of where morality comes from rather than an honest belief that Hitler and the Dalai Lama are the same.

Morality and Natural Law

Natural Law is what members of my faith call this sort of recognition of certain issues of morality. So how do we understand this?  St. Thomas Aquinas discusses this (Summa Theologica I-II Q94 a.2) and believes there to be an underlying principle.  In discussing the idea of apprehension he says there is generally a major overarching principle from which all other principles derive.  St. Thomas reasons that the major apprehension of natural law is as follows:

Now as being is the first thing that falls under the apprehension simply, so good is the first thing that falls under the apprehension of the practical reason, which is directed to action: since every agent acts for an end under the aspect of good. Consequently the first principle of practical reason is one founded on the notion of good, viz. that "good is that which all things seek after." Hence this is the first precept of law, that "good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided." All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this: so that whatever the practical reason naturally apprehends as man's good (or evil) belongs to the precepts of the natural law as something to be done or avoided.

Since, however, good has the nature of an end, and evil, the nature of a contrary, hence it is that all those things to which man has a natural inclination, are naturally apprehended by reason as being good, and consequently as objects of pursuit, and their contraries as evil, and objects of avoidance.

Thirdly, there is in man an inclination to good, according to the nature of his reason, which nature is proper to him: thus man has a natural inclination to know the truth about God, and to live in society: and in this respect, whatever pertains to this inclination belongs to the natural law; for instance, to shun ignorance, to avoid offending those among whom one has to live, and other such things regarding the above inclination.

(This citation is abbreviated as St. Thomas discusses many things, but follow the link above if you want to see the article in entirety)

Ultimately then, acts of morality are to do good and, as a logical counterpart, avoid evil.  This means to do good and avoid evil both in regards to oneself and to others.  That man has a natural tendency towards self preservation and procreation indicates these things are not evil, though they can be abused by either excessive emphasis or contempt for it or for contempt for others.

However, if God exists (which I believe), then doing good and avoiding evil as the principle of Natural Law must also be extended to God, and doing evil against God is to be held with great severity. Why is this?

The Greater the Existence, The Greater the Wrong Done

Doing wrong is seen as more or less severe depending on the existence of the individual.  If I apply weed killer to a plant, I don't normally suffer consequences.  If I kill a cat (tragically common among teenagers it seems) people may show disgust, but the legal repercussions will be less severe than if I kill a person.  Likewise, while the murder of any human person is wrong, society distinguishes between the accidental killing during the self defense against a vagrant who intended harm, and the deliberate assassination of the president of the United States.  One is self defense.  The other is regicide.

This isn't classism of any sort.  Rather we recognize that there is a difference between the human beings and animals, and we recognize that the unlawful killing of any person is wrong, but also that the unlawful killing of a ruler is also an attack on the state and not just on the individual. In this case, the harm affects more people. Thus the punishment is more severe.

Because of this, when we remember that Christians believe that God exists, it is reasonable to suppose that an action against God is even more serious than an act against man or against an animal because of the existence and authority of God.

The flip side of this is that the atheist who denies that God exists disdains punishments for actions against God because they believe nothing is there to offend.

However, since Christians believe God exists, those who want to say “How can you believe in a God who does X?” needs to remember that the Christian view of what the Bible relates is based on the view that God exists and can be sinned against.

If we didn’t believe that, the influence of the Bible would be a moot point… as we wouldn’t be Christians to begin with.

Considerations of Euthyphro and the Origin of Morality

With this in mind, we should ask ourselves about the origin of the Natural Law itself, as opposed to the idea of Natural Law… in other words, where does this natural law come from?

Curiously enough, the questions of this type are quite ancient.  The Ancient Greeks believed in a pantheon of deities, but believed that the idea of what was right and what was wrong went beyond their pantheon.  Since to them, gods were finite (greater than man, but not infinite), we had the dilemma of Socrates to Euthyphro, where Socrates was enquiring about a man attempting to prosecute his father in a court of law, claiming it was the pious thing to do. Socrates’ dilemma was:

The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

The dilemma Socrates uses is we have to come to a decision: If a thing is pious because the gods love it, is this not arbitrary? Could they not change their minds?  And if the gods love it because it is pious, does this not mean there is something above the gods?

Some Christians unfortunately, try to answer this by saying that morality is good because God commands it, which opens them up to the charge of the atheist that such a God could change His mind and command evil… and indeed has done so when they point to the commands of the Old Testament.

The common explanation of atheists I have discussed this with or read is: since there is no god, morality comes from ourselves, either biologically or through society.

However, the elimination of the existence of God does not eliminate the dilemma of Socrates' question.  We simply replace "gods" with "man" or "society" and we have the same dilemma.  If morality is ingrained by society, then we have morals which can be changed by society.  If it is outside of us, what is it and why does it bind?

Is Morality From Society?

The problem with this view is, if morality is given to us by society, then those who support the status quo are good and those who oppose it are bad.  This would mean the rebel is a person of evil, and the person who doesn't make waves is good. This would make the Civil Rights movement in America wrong, and would make those opposition groups in Nazi Germany wrong as well.

Yet our experience is the opposite.  We recognize that often it is the person who speaks out against the practices of society that is considered moral.  At other times, a society fights to protect what it considers good against an immoral threat from leaders who act against this good.

Both examples demonstrate a view that morality is seen as being outside of society.

Is Morality From Biology?

The problem with this idea is that, if Morality is from biology, then things which promote life (such as self preservation) are good and things which harm it are bad.  Now this works in cases of society where the immoral act threatens the life of others.  However, it falls short in dealing with issues where the individual sacrifices himself in the name of what is right: That we are to prefer suffering to doing an act of evil.  Consider this example:

Two soldiers are captured and are told that one of them is to be killed.  One of them is told he will go free if he tortures the other man to death.  If he refuses, he will be tortured and killed instead.  Ought he to accept this offer?

Some systems of ethics might say this is a good thing to do, but most of us would consider the person who said "yes" to be a horrible person.  This demonstrates that morality is not the same as a biological instinct to protect the herd.  The soldier, if he accepts, does not harm society.  He protects himself at the cost of another, but if he does not he will die himself.

The Christian idea is that it is better to suffer evil than to do evil, and that the soldier would be doing evil to consent to the dilemma given.  We can see this in Matthew 10:28 which tells us:

28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Because we believe in an immortal soul, we recognize that death is not the worst thing which can happen, and the repercussions of what we do have an effect on us which exists after death. Because of this, it is not permissible to do evil to spare one’s own life.

We also recognize that it is never permissible to be cowardly. If another person is in danger and I walk away because I do not want to risk harm, I am scorned and not considered moral. However showing the courage to do what ought to be done can put our lives at risk. Because of this, self preservation is not the origin of morality.

The Christian Moral Theology Shows the False Dilemma of Socrates

Neither the idea of Society nor the idea of Biology answers Socrates’ dilemma. However some may wonder how Christians avoid either saying there is something beyond God (if God loves a thing because it is good) or that God is arbitrary (if a thing is good because God loves it). So how does the Christian answer this question?

The error of Socrates was his assumption was an Either-Or error, which he believed was between absolute and opposing premises. What he failed to consider was: That the measure of good and evil was not an arbitrary decision, but the reflection of the nature of what God is.  If God is infinite and the fullness of goodness, then that which is good reflects the nature of God while that which is evil acts in opposition to the nature of God.

In this, we see that the Christian understanding of Natural Law claims it reflects the goodness of God, and says evil acts go against the goodness of God.

The Christian believes God exists, and as a result, believes there is an objective rule as to what is good or evil. Some societies may err through no fault of their own when they try to follow the natural law, while others display contempt for the natural law. How God judges will depend on what the individual or the society could have known, not what was impossible for them to know. We do believe that all people at least know the Natural Law even when they err or sin in following it, as St. Paul tells us in Romans 2:12ff:

12 All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

I find this a good thing to remember in the face of those atheists who create a straw man argument that “morality did not come from Christianity.” (I understand Dawkins has made an argument along these lines). We don’t believe it came from Christianity, we believe it came from God, who made it known to the world through Natural Law and through the Jews and Christians by way of Revelation.

Therefore, when we consider Natural Law, it is hardly a quandary that the atheist may deny God exists and still tries to behave in a moral way, but we may challenge him to explain why morality is binding.


I believe this gives us a framework to use in understanding how God judges the nations – not based on the Torah for those who do not know it, but based on what they could know and had an obligation to do. However a nation which knows, for example, murder is evil and refuses to ask the question on whether the abortion of the unborn fetus is murder is in fact guilty of refusing to acknowledge good and evil. Why? Because all people are required to seek the truth, and the refusal to seek the truth makes one culpable.

With this framework in mind, we can move on, in Article II, to looking at some of the accusations made about the Bible and acts done within its pages. Because we believe there is objective truth about right and wrong, and that God exists and is good, we need to look at actions in the Bible through this view in order to understand what the Christians believe, rather than to assume that Christians accept actions from the perspectives atheists assume.

The refusal to do this and to insist on one’s own interpretation is to fall into the error of bigotry which GK Chesterton once described as follows:

It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

So it would not be bigotry for the atheist to believe his position is correct. However, it would be bigotry for him to be unable to consider whether there are errors in his assumptions which led to his conclusions.

[Article II in this series will be on the actions of men in the Old Testament].

No comments:

Post a Comment