A recent exchange I witnessed on Facebook between a Christian acquaintance and a nonbeliever was instigated by someone posting a statistic that 93% of Americans base their moral choices on their own opinions and experiences. The Christian was aghast, naturally, because in their opinion people should be basing their choices on [the Christian] God’s moral standard. By the time I actually read the thread there were already over forty comments and it seemed to be winding down, so I didn’t see much point in responding there directly. But it got me thinking, and so we have this blog post.
The argument started from the Christian’s two assertions: 1) that in order to judge the morality of any action you need to have an absolute standard to compare to, and 2) the Christian god is that standard.
The first assertion isn’t true at all. An absolute standard may be a desirable thing. To a certain mindset (and that mindset is not necessarily that of a “good” person, but rather that of a person who is intensely uncomfortable with uncertainty) it may be such a strong desire that it feels like a necessity. But it isn’t. Much like people who know nothing of temperature scales and standards can work out whether one object is cooler or warmer than another, people without an “objective moral standard” can still work out the morality of actions. It’s not a perfect metaphor since morality is significantly more complicated, but it’ll do for my purposes right now.
But as much as I may disagree with the first assertion, at least I can understand it. It’s really the second assertion that I found the more problematic, because to me it doesn’t mean anything. Firstly, it rests on the assumption that the god being referenced even exists. And that assumption is one that I, obviously, don’t believe is warranted. But even more than that, if you grant the assumption, what does it even mean to say “God is the moral standard?”
Does this mean that the rules that God set out for us represent the standard of morality? For this, I’ll reference back to the Facebook discussion. As the nonbeliever pointed out, many of the Old Testament laws deeply violate any modern sense of morality – including that of many Christians. The example he specifically brought up was slavery, which is explicitly permitted under the Old Testament laws. The Christian’s defense here was essentially that those laws were written for a collection of slave-owning Semitic tribes traveling into Canaan, and since those people owned slaves it was clearly moral for it to be regulated by laws in that time and place. But those laws are clearly not applicable now because under secular law we’re not allowed to own slaves.
Firstly, if you’re arguing that something that is immoral in this time and culture was moral in a different time and culture, that’s the very definition of relative morality. In no way does that stand in defense of those laws as an absolute standard. Secondly, that tack is basically saying that if we were allowed to own slaves under secular law, then that would be morally fine. And that if we were allowed to own slaves under secular law, it would be perfectly moral to beat them so badly that they are confined to bed for days at a time, to kidnap people from neighboring countries for the purpose of enslaving them, to claim their children as your property as well, and to use your slaves as hostages to extort lifelong slavery out of indentured servants who would otherwise be protected by law. These are all explicitly permitted.
Lastly, the part of the argument that claims that these laws were necessary to regulate slavery because the Jewish tribes were a slave-owning society completely ignores the fact that (if you buy the Bible’s story) they were a society defined by God’s laws to begin with. It’s not like God just found this tribe lying around and decided to start tinkering with them in an effort at slow reform. He plucked them up (out of slavery of their own, incidentally), marched them off into the wilderness, and laid down the law on them. He completely redefined their society in that act, so to pretend as though he couldn’t possibly have told them not to enslave people because that was part of their society is fundamentally dishonest.
Nowhere in the Bible will you find a single verse decrying, much less forbidding, slavery.
That’s just one example, though. God’s law, and the specific marching orders he gave to the tribes of Israel, include many things we consider deeply immoral today. There are orders demanding genocide, the killing of rape victims, compelling rape victims to marry their rapists, the murder of disobedient children; the list goes on and on up to and including human sacrifice (seriously, read Leviticus 27: 28-29). Most people who claim that “God is the absolute standard” would also recognize that many of God’s laws require deeply immoral acts, and so are forced into elaborate justifications for why those repugnant behaviors are no longer actually required.
Even most Christians seem to think fundamentalists are assholes. But the thing that makes fundamentalists so disagreeable is their adherence to God’s explicitly stated moral demands, not their departure from them.
But maybe God’s law isn’t the absolute standard of morality. Maybe it’s “God’s law as interpreted through the lens of our society.” In the above referenced Facebook conversation, the Christian went on to claim that we can decide which of the Old Testament laws are “no longer applicable” (since none of them are actually explicitly disavowed within the Bible itself) through research, reason, and reading the teachings of Christian scholars. You notice that none of these things are direct messages from God. Which means these methods represent substituting human moral reasoning for the explicit commands of God. Yet the Christian in this discussion was insistent that the moral conclusions they reached were still adhering to the absolute standard of God.
So maybe that’s not what is meant by saying “God is the standard,” either. Perhaps we are supposed to see God’s behavior as what we should strive to emulate. Well, the god described in the Bible is cruel, jealous, dishonest, sexist, bloodthirsty, emotionally and physically abusive, a huge fan of punishing children for the acts of their parents, and prone to genocidal temper tantrums. Further, he demands similar behavior from those under his authority and frequently punishes followers for being insufficiently brutal. Yes, there are words promoting the ideas of love and compassion, but the actions belie them on a massive scale. Even his supposed greatest act of love (Jesus dying for our salvation) is a sacrifice that isn’t really a sacrifice, executed for the purpose of “saving” us from an eternal brutalization that God decreed in the first place. “I’ve come to save you from what I’m going to do to you if you don’t let me save you!”
If that’s the absolute standard of morality, perhaps it’s only in the same sense that “absolute zero” could be said to be a standard for temperature. The absolute absence of the quality being measured. Although that’s a tad unfair, because it does overlook the fact that there are some good things to be found in there. But the fact that it’s a mix of good and bad only further undermines the idea that it’s an absolute standard.
And finally, if the “God is the standard” phrase refers to a being that we are incapable of understanding anyway, it’s a functionally useless standard.
Basically, every way I look at the phrase, it’s either meaningless, deceptive, or indicative of a fundamentally horrific universe. It seems to be a code phrase to announce allegiance to your religion rather than a belief in a specific collection of moral teachings. In practice, people seem to work out their moral judgments just the way they always have. It’s a long and complicated road, constantly evolving, suffering setbacks and successes, and probably a never-ending pursuit so long as there are humans and human society to debate it. But I honestly think we’re getting better… largely by adopting compassion as the standard.
And while I have been very harshly critical of the Christian god here, I want to make something very clear: I am not equally critical of actual Christians. If you’re a Christian reading this, understand that I am not attacking you. That moral reasoning I mentioned above that has led the mainstream of Christianity to find ways to banish the worst of their god's laws and behaviors from its worldview are, by and large, improvements. Modern mainstream Christianity is morally superior to the god that dogma forces adherents to claim is their standard.
I do, however, think that “God is the standard” is an impediment to moral understanding. That it slows down progress when it comes to figuring out how we really ought to treat each other. Because with it, all moral questions face an additional complication: not only must believers figure out what the right thing to do is, they also have to figure out how to justify it within the context of the moral understandings of a millennia-old slave owning, racist, genocidal, misogynistic culture that somehow got its tribal totem inscribed into a book as the progenitor of all morality. That's a feat of mental gymnastics that has thwarted progress on so many fronts over the centuries, and continues to do so to this day. And it is most certainly not an objective process.