Why Christian Morality Scares Me

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 7, 2009 in Christian Theology,Ethics,Video

Here’s a quick video I put together about Christian morality:

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Anselm April 7, 2009 at 5:25 am

I see a problem with picking one example of a Christian interpreting the Bible and labeling the post “Why Christian Morality Scares Me.”  Wouldn’t it be better labeled “Why Doug Wilson’s Interpretation of Christian Morality Scares Me”?

As an analogy, Michael Spencer (aka “the internet monk”) recently wrote a piece in the Christian Science Monitor which prompted a lot atheist mail sent to him.   He says:

“When atheists wrote me during my fifteen minutes of fame last month, they were divided between reasonable people commending me and hate-filled scary people talking about herding all religious people into camps and “getting rid” of us.” (see http://tinyurl.com/dh53kf)

Should he then write a post based on the views of the latter group of atheists called “Why Atheist Morality Scares Me”?

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lukeprog April 7, 2009 at 7:05 am

Anselm,

Do you not think the majority of Christians ground their morality in the person or commands of God? Is this not a basic doctrine of Chrsitianity?

In contrast, there are no basic atheistic moral doctrines.

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Chuck April 7, 2009 at 7:11 am

I have to agree with Luke. When I was a Christian, that is what I thought. It is what my parents still think.

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Anselm April 7, 2009 at 7:31 am

lukeprog: Anselm,Do you not think the majority of Christians ground their morality in the person or commands of God? Is this not a basic doctrine of Chrsitianity?In contrast, there are no basic atheistic moral doctrines.

As a general principle, but there is a vigorous debate as to the proper interpretation of the passages mentioned in your video.  For example, theologian Greg Boyd has a completely different take.  On his blog last year, he had 20 or so very good posts examining all sides of the issue,  and definitely rejected the Doug Wilson approach.  See the first post in Boyd’s series here:  http://tinyurl.com/crugmu

As for there being no basic atheistic moral doctrines, Michael Spencer could easily distort that into a post saying “see, atheists have no agreed-upon moral doctrines, thus they are vulnerable to indulging their hateful fantasies of putting Christians in concentration camps!”  Of course, that would be a gross, distorted overgeneralization; but I think the same criticism applies to your post.

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diracdelta April 7, 2009 at 8:45 am

Good analysis of christian morals – very well said. I just found your blog and now I am a subscriber.

It’s the free interpretation of the bible’s teachings that leads to this sort of split. Like you pointed out in the video, some christians would be horrified (rightfully) at the prospects of rape and child murder and some would not simply beacuse god commanded it. 

I find it impossible to believe that an action (brutal murder of a child, rape) that causes a negative visceral reaction at even the thought of it, could be a moral commandment from a loving and morally just god. No way

Thanks

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toweltowel April 7, 2009 at 4:52 pm

I worry that it is a bit misleading to label this “Christian morality”.

If we look at Christian thought that addresses these issues, I think (though I could be wrong) that the only people who end up with this radical form of divine command theory are Descartes, maybe Ockham, and hardnosed Calvinists (like Wilson and maybe Calvin himself). OK, and Scotus if we’re just talking about OT atrocities. Everyone else ends up subjecting God’s will to the rest of his nature, so that morally obscene commands are off-limits for God. So I think Wilson is defending a minority view.

Except that maybe the majority of actual Christians hold the view. I honestly don’t know. I personally suspect most would rest content with the (seemingly incoherent) response that “God COULD command those things, but he never WOULD because he’s good, so it doesn’t matter”.

One last thing: there’s the suggestion that grounding morality in God’s ‘nature’ (by which people must mean the rest of God’s nature besides his will) is just as bad as the radical voluntarist view. But I don’t think that’s true. They only have to bite the bullet that “if there is God, then everything is permissible”, not the bullet that “if God commands evil, then evil becomes good”. Which means they only have to say that child abuse could be permissible or morally neutral, not that it could be a morally fantastic thing to do. Both are screwed up, but I think the difference is a significant one.

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lukeprog April 7, 2009 at 5:34 pm

Anselm: As for there being no basic atheistic moral doctrines, Michael Spencer could easily distort that into a post saying “see, atheists have no agreed-upon moral doctrines, thus they are vulnerable to indulging their hateful fantasies of putting Christians in concentration camps!” Of course, that would be a gross, distorted overgeneralization; but I think the same criticism applies to your post.

Atheism has nothing to do with morality. What Spencer said is like saying, “See, baseball fans have no agreed-upon moral doctrines, thus they are vulnerable to indulging their most evil desires!”

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Anselm April 7, 2009 at 6:05 pm

lukeprog: Atheism has nothing to do with morality. What Spencer said is like saying, “See, baseball fans have no agreed-upon moral doctrines, thus they are vulnerable to indulging their most evil desires!”

Note that I was just laying out a hypothetical; Spencer didn’t actually say that.  (In actuality, his post goes on to call for mutual understanding and tolerance between Christians and atheists–he’s much better at turning the other cheek than I am sometimes!).  However, I was just giving an example of a distortion.  There are many different Christian interpretations of those controversial Old Testament passages, and as toweltowel points out above, Doug Wilson is on one extreme.  Greg Boyd’s blog laid out the diversity of views in the evangelical world.

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lukeprog April 8, 2009 at 1:00 am
Anselm April 8, 2009 at 3:57 am
Reginald Selkirk April 11, 2009 at 5:37 am

“Anselm: As a general principle, but there is a vigorous debate as to the proper interpretation of the passages mentioned in your video. ”

If “interpretation” is acceptable, then these people may as well base their morality on Moby Dick, or any other source, as the Bible. Going the interpretation route will open you up to charges of cherry-picking.

I think the criticism of “follow the leader” morality in religion has some relevance even when a strict interpretation of the Bible is removed from the discussion. Consider any controversial topic, such as abortion or gay marriage. I would wager that a large number of religious people simply accept direction from their church leadership rather than think things through for themselves.

There are many others who differ with their church leadership on such issues, but maintain membership in their religion, thus contributing to the apparent clout of their leaders on those issues. That would be a separate discussion.

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Anselm April 11, 2009 at 7:45 am

Reginald Selkirk: If “interpretation” is acceptable, then these people may as well base their morality on Moby Dick, or any other source, as the Bible. Going the interpretation route will open you up to charges of cherry-picking.I think the criticism of “follow the leader” morality in religion has some relevance even when a strict interpretation of the Bible is removed from the discussion. Consider any controversial topic, such as abortion or gay marriage. I would wager that a large number of religious people simply accept direction from their church leadership rather than think things through for themselves.There are many others who differ with their church leadership on such issues, but maintain membership in their religion, thus contributing to the apparent clout of their leaders on those issues. That would be a separate discussion.

Are you saying you reject the entire concept that a text must be interpreted (also known as the discipline of “hermeutics”)?  Because if so, you will be rejecting the primary work conducted in the fields of theology, literature, and the legal profession, and will have embraced an extremely fringe position.

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lukeprog April 11, 2009 at 8:05 am

Anselm,

You just made me imagine a world without theology, literary criticism, and lawyers. And I smiled. :-)

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Anselm April 11, 2009 at 8:07 am

lukeprog: Anselm,You just made me imagine a world without theology, literary criticism, and lawyers. And I smiled.

Consider it my Easter gift to you :)

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Reginald Selkirk April 11, 2009 at 3:52 pm

<i>Are you saying you reject the entire concept that a text must be interpreted</i>

No. I’m rejecting the entire concept of a text being considered inerrant, and the panegyrics necessary to maintain that claim in the face of strong evidence. We don’t consider the constitution to be inerrant, and we even have mechanisms in place for amending it from time to time.

I’m also saying that with liberal Christians and the Bible, the “interpretation” seems a bit like the story of stone soup. By the time they get done with it, all that’s left is their interpretation, and none of the original material. If you are willing to “interpret” a text that far afield from its original content, then indeed, you could base your interpretations on Moby Dick rather than the Bible.

As examples, if a book tells you that insects have four legs, and that you can breed animals with stripes by putting sticks near their watering trough, the simplest, clearest interpretation is that the book is WRONG!

BTW, I see no difficulty in rejecting the entirety of work in the field of theology. There may be ancillary work that would fall under history and literature of religions, psychology, eclliastic music; ethics can fall more properly under philosophy, but everything truly deserving the label “theology” I dismiss as a field of study with no subject.

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Anselm April 11, 2009 at 4:49 pm

Reginald Selkirk: <i>Are you saying you reject the entire concept that a text must be interpreted</i>No. I’m rejecting the entire concept of a text being considered inerrant, and the panegyrics necessary to maintain that claim in the face of strong evidence. We don’t consider the constitution to be inerrant, and we even have mechanisms in place for amending it from time to time.I’m also saying that with liberal Christians and the Bible, the “interpretation” seems a bit like the story of stone soup. By the time they get done with it, all that’s left is their interpretation, and none of the original material. If you are willing to “interpret” a text that far afield from its original content, then indeed, you could base your interpretations on Moby Dick rather than the Bible.As examples, if a book tells you that insects have four legs, and that you can breed animals with stripes by putting sticks near their watering trough, the simplest, clearest interpretation is that the book is WRONG!BTW, I see no difficulty in rejecting the entirety of work in the field of theology. There may be ancillary work that would fall under history and literature of religions, psychology, eclliastic music; ethics can fall more properly under philosophy, but everything truly deserving the label “theology” I dismiss as a field of study with no subject.  Any text, whether theological or nontheological, requires interpretation.

Both Christians who embrace inerrancy and those who reject it practice biblical hermeneutics; it is a subject taught in both liberal and conservative seminaries.   Of course, you are free to reject the entire subject of theology a priori, as I suppose would make sense from the atheist viewpoint.  But my objection to the original post is that it portrayed one extreme interpretation of the text as THE “Christian” view, when that is manifestly not the case, even within the realm of evangelicalism.

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Reginald Selkirk April 11, 2009 at 5:31 pm

Anselm: Both Christians who embrace inerrancy and those who reject it practice biblical hermeneutics

Yes, I know. It is necessary since the Bible contains actual errors and contradictions. The literalists must learn how to claim that even though the Bible appears to have errors and inconsistencies, it actually doesn’t. The more liberal folk have more freedom, and can pass various things off as allegories, or culturally bound, or factually inaccurate but spiritually true, etc. None of which strikes me as a useful occupation.

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Anselm April 11, 2009 at 6:15 pm

Reginald Selkirk: Yes, I know. It is necessary since the Bible contains actual errors and contradictions. The literalists must learn how to claim that even though the Bible appears to have errors and inconsistencies, it actually doesn’t. The more liberal folk have more freedom, and can pass various things off as allegories, or culturally bound, or factually inaccurate but spiritually true, etc. None of which strikes me as a useful occupation.

If Christianity is true, then it is a supremely important occupation; if not, then it is useless.  Of course, if Christianity is true, then I guess running an atheist website would be a pretty useless occupation.

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anti-supernaturalist April 12, 2009 at 10:11 am


** the near eastern “divinities” know only submission to authority **

You have only to step outside monotheistic thought to understand how much western atheists and theists alike operate on the narrowest bandwidth of knowledge.

If your model of religion is based on the big-3 near eastern monster-theisms, you won’t even understand non-theistic philosophical theories and practices so vigorously quashed by the hope-faith-charity crowd for the last 2,000 years:

1. Xian (Jesus’ or Pauline) “ethics” is not ethical at all.
2. Non-western example: the ethic of Confucius is superior.
3. There is no inherent relationship between religion and morals.

Jesus’ ethic is irrational, otherworldly, and impractical. It promises much, and delivers nothing. Jesus’ “interim ethic” couldn’t outlast one generation of true believers. After all, the world was about to end. Behold the lilies of the field . . . . (Search term: interim ethic)

The fideistic irrationality of Paul of Tarsus with its anti-intellectualism, misogyny, and revenge seeking has poisoned the West for 2,000 years. After all, the world was about to end and Christ would soon return to elevate believers and damn everyone else — but he didn’t show up. (Read 1Cor1:20-30 NIV  See N. Cohn. Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come 2nd ed)

Chinese culture was far luckier. It has a very rational, this worldly, and practical book, The Analects [Conversations], attributed to Confucius. Five hundred years before mytho-Jesus and hysterical Paul, Confucius was eons ahead of contemporary xian (jewish/islamist) thinking:

6:20 Fan Ch’ih asked what constituted wisdom. The Master said, “To give one’s self earnestly to the duties due to men, and, while respecting spiritual beings, to keep aloof from them, may be called wisdom.”

Get the point? No relationship between religion, “spiritual beings” and ethics, “the duties due to men.” The latter cannot be understood in terms of the former.
(See ER Dodds. Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety. Cambridge Pr)

15:23 Tsze-kung asked, saying, “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” The Master said, “Is not ‘reciprocity’ such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” [trans. S.R. McIntyre 2003]

What follows?  The Authority, that never was, is dead. No religion police. No prelate, priest, pastor, rabbi, imam is needed to dictate human behavior — submit to some state-supported minister. (State support of religion in the U.S. comes through non-profit tax status and 1st amendment busting “faith-based initiatives.”)

All ethics are irreducibly social. (An ethic is a cultural artifact.) Harming other (in-group members) cannot be generalized; otherwise, no culture could exist.

Note: 1Cor1:20-30 NIV is shorthand for ‘the book in the New Testament named First Corinthians, the first chapter, verses 20-30 in the English translation named the New International Version.’

the anti-supernaturalist ©2009

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Robert June 6, 2009 at 7:29 pm

lukeprog:
Anselm,
You just made me imagine a world without theology, literary criticism, and lawyers. And I smiled.

That makes me smile as well!  Wow – what an amazing possibility to consider!

A person’s God is the sum of their limiting beliefs.

This is as true today as it was in those days of OT slaughter, rape and child killing.

The only way our God today would command such violence is if our belief system were a match to those Old Testament “warriors”. 

As you point out – there are those among us.  Does this make them right or wrong?  Not at all!  It simply reveals a very limited belief in a very limited God – of course they’d howl and fight to the death defending their little belief systems – they must because it is who they are.

The thing is – we’re all guilty at some level of the same thing – which means if you marked these people’s homes on a map, every home would be marked.

Just my way of looking at it today!

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