The Problem with Scripture

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 25, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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The problem with scripture is that it gets a lot of the moral facts wrong, but people are not allowed to question its teachings.

Notice that I said scripture here, not Religion. I am talking about the writings that lie at the heart of many religions – the doctrine as written in their holy books.

One fact to note about scripture is that all of it was written by regular human beings. There is not a word – not even a punctuation mark – in any work of scripture that was divinely inspired. If we want to truly understand what any piece of scripture says the best framework for interpreting it is to ask, “Why would somebody write this?”

This question tells us that the authors of scripture, almost by definition, cannot be the most morally virtuous people. They are people who wanted their personal opinions carved in stone, and to silence all critics. If they had any love of truth, or of honesty, or if they had any modesty, they would have written, “Here are my ideas, what do you think?” Instead, they tell us, “Here are God’s ideas as told to me and written down by my hand.”

When I write a posting, anybody is free to disagree with its contents. Even those who basically accept desirism can say of any recent claim, “I don’t know about that, Alonzo. I don’t think you got that one right.” I hope that nobody is going to my postings and quoting chapter and verse as if the fact that I have written something is reason enough to accept it as gospel.

“…accept it as gospel.” The very phrase speaks to the vice that is found at the root of scripture – the fact that certain things are to be accepted as true and beyond question. Among the things that are to be accepted beyond question are the moral prejudices of the author – an author who is so arrogant that he claims to speak for God.

To be fair, I suspect many of the authors of scripture never claimed the authority to speak for God. They may have been simply recording a tribal story that they had heard or recording their interpretation of a historical event. Somebody else, then, comes along and says, “Those were God’s words and he was just taking dictation.”

The instant somebody – whether it is the author or some promoter – points to a piece of text and says, “That is the word of God and is not to be questioned,” he is guilty of committing a moral crime. He has performed an action worthy of our contempt and condemnation. He has taken a personal opinion created by a mere mortal – a substantially ignorant moral writing at a time when our understanding of the facts of the world we live in were in a state that can best be described as “primative”, and put it in the realm of “that which shall not be questioned.”

And not just any opinion, but opinions on who shall live and who shall die, who shall go free and who shall be enslaved or imprisoned, who shall be comforted and who shall be made to suffer. Of all of the human opinions to put into the category of “that which shall not be questioned”, these types of opinions deserve to be at the very bottom of the list. These are the types of opinions any morally responsible person would insist be at the bottom of the list – opinions that are in the most need of our careful study and scrutiny.

Yet, these are the types of opinions that the scripture-thumping evangelical puts at the very top of the list of those that must be taken as “not to be questioned.”

These facts lead to the conclusion that any scripture-thumping evangelical in any religion is an immoral person. The evangelical-thumping person puts at the top of the list of propositions that are not to be questioned those types of claims that a morally responsible person would put at the bottom of the list. Thus, the scripture-thumping evangelical is not a good person. The scripture-thumping evangelical deserves our condemnation and our contempt. He is shirking his moral responsibilities, and he is inviting his followers to do the same.

Now, one of the claims I have often made is that there is no moral crime that a person can commit in the name of God that one cannot rationalize without reference to God. We find the moral equivalent of scripture-thumping evangelizing among factions who hold that no God exists as well. The followers of Karl Marx and Ayn Rand have waved their prophets’ tomes around as the secular equivalent of bibles, quoting chapter and verse those propositions that they assert shall not be questioned. Not because it is a crime against God but because (they falsely assert) it is a crime against reason or a violation of the laws of nature to do so.

We can get into a debate over which scripture-thumping evangelicals have done the most harm. People can assert, “Well, our scripture-thumping evangelicals have not killed as many people as your scripture-thumping evangelicals.” However, I consider that to be the moral equivalent of trying to defend Ted Bundy by saying he did not kill as many people as Hitler. Regardless of who killed the most people, both are evil, and both deserve to be treated as such.

The same is true of all scripture-thumping evangelicals – secular and sectarian alike.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexandros Marinos June 25, 2010 at 6:43 am

Some typos:

a mere moral -> a mere mortal
Karl Mark -> Karl Marx

Feel free to delete this comment.

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Potco June 25, 2010 at 8:18 am

Awesome post. I have long said that dogma in any form a bad, even immoral. I suspect scriptures can only be held by dogmatic people. Easily could be wrong though.

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JJR June 25, 2010 at 9:05 am

Leninists are more prone to “scripture thumping” than the average, plain jane no-frills Marxist, but point well taken.

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lukeprog June 25, 2010 at 10:02 am

Thanks, Alexandros.

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Cory June 25, 2010 at 10:23 am

Great post. I like this one for its simplicity.

Although, in some ways, maybe it is too simplistic to attach the same blame to anyone who promotes scriptures or moral opinions as “the word of the gods” or as that which shall not be questioned. For example, in an ancient tribal society without strong rulership or government, maybe saying that the rules were the rules of the gods was a decent way to maintain order and respect for conventions that help keep peace and facilitate harmony and cooperation.

Great post though, and I like that Fyfe tied in the Randians and others who are very cultish and have some of the same shortcomings, just as he points out.

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Alexandros Marinos June 25, 2010 at 10:40 am

The theme here is similar to my analogy of religion (and other dogmatisms) as a single point of moral failure.

http://lesswrong.com/lw/21m/single_point_of_moral_failure/

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Zeb June 25, 2010 at 11:29 am

Alonzo’s assertion that scripture is “that which cannot be questioned” is not fair. The majority of people who belong to religions with scriptures do not belong to religions that teach that scripture is directly dictated by God and cannot be questioned (Buddhists, Hindus, most Christians, and most Jews at least). At most they say that scripture cannot be ignored. Most would teach that scripture must be questioned in order to find the meanings and values of scripture.

But why is even the “scripture-thumping evangelical” (an unnecessarily derogatory epithet, but I know what you mean) evil? Such a person believes she has true information about how to be morally good. The desire to share true information and the desire to promote moral behavior are both good desires in desirism. If her belief is wrong then she needs education, not condemnation.

Finally, can anyone explain why “opinions on who shall live and who shall die, who shall go free and who shall be enslaved or imprisoned, who shall be comforted and who shall be made to suffer” should be at the bottom of the list of “that which shall not to be questioned?” One of the greatest fears theists have about the prospect of a secular, majority atheist society is that these very issues will become open question. Even without god in the picture, the evolved interpretation of a scripture within its culture represents a sort of consensus of hundreds of generations’ consideration of moral issues; if we jettison scripture we are left with the our own and our contemporaries’ opinions on morality. As smart as I think I am, why should I trust my own conclusions more than those of a wisdom tradition? And as capricious as I think my contemporaries are, why should I encourage them to become unmoored from their own wisdom traditions?

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rvkevin June 25, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Finally, can anyone explain why “opinions on who shall live and who shall die, who shall go free and who shall be enslaved or imprisoned, who shall be comforted and who shall be made to suffer” should be at the bottom of the list of “that which shall not to be questioned?”

Because questioning reveals flaws. If you want to improve our moral customs, then they must be open to questioning. If not, they become frozen in the time in which they were instituted and that will remain the status quo until such questions are entertained.

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Zeb June 25, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Because questioning reveals flaws. If you want to improve our moral customs, then they must be open to questioning.

True, and I don’t think scriptural morals about life and death, freedom and imprisonment, and suffering and comfort should go unquestioned. But when Alonzo said those morals should be at the bottom of the list of things that are not questioned, I took him to mean that they should be the most readily questioned morals. And if by “questioned” he means just that, then I may agree, but if by “questioned” he means doubted (as in “He questions the wisdom of following ancient scriptures”), then my concern stands.

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Adito June 25, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Ancient wisdom can be useful but we always have to keep it in context. If ancient scripture states that we should fear water and modern inventions make transversing water a very simple process then should we fear water or not? This same reasoning can apply to almost everything scripture has to tell us. We’ve rightly decided to ignore most of the old testament but still appreciate the message of peace of love that Jesus preached. This is because one is still relevant and the other is not.

Without questioning what still matters in ancient scripture we just face the future with our eyes set on the past and ignore every new and unique challenge that comes up. We also simply assume that people in the past got it right. Given their lack of education and superstitious leanings I think we have excellent reason to doubt their conclusions.

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Cory June 25, 2010 at 4:18 pm

“Even without god in the picture, the evolved interpretation of a scripture within its culture represents a sort of consensus of hundreds of generations’ consideration of moral issues; if we jettison scripture we are left with the our own and our contemporaries’ opinions on morality.”

It only represents a consensus, if it has been questioned and ratified by all of those generations. The problem is exactly that it hasn’t, which is why it is not particularly terrific wisdom.

This is one of the absurdities of the religious fear of atheists that Zeb refers to. What great wisdom are we talking about?

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Erika June 25, 2010 at 7:01 pm

I agree with this:

One fact to note about scripture is that all of it was written by regular human beings. There is not a word – not even a punctuation mark – in any work of scripture that was divinely inspired.

but vehemently disagree that we can, therefore, conclude this:

This question tells us that the authors of scripture, almost by definition, cannot be the most morally virtuous people. They are people who wanted their personal opinions carved in stone, and to silence all critics.

I think that most of the Biblical authors who considered their words to be the words of God were acting based on a real experience (although one that I would say was all in their own head). When they say “God says this” or “God wants that” they are doing their best of translating their transcendent experience into human terms. Of course, since they are human and the experience was all in their head, this translation ends up looking like their own culture and opinions.

Thus, I think that it is unfair to imply that the authors of scripture were intentionally setting out to declare their own opinions binding. Many, if not most, of them probably did think that something was speaking through them.

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faithlessgod June 26, 2010 at 3:42 am

Erika

Alonzo:”This question tells us that the authors of scripture, almost by definition, cannot be the most morally virtuous people. They are people who wanted their personal opinions carved in stone, and to silence all critics.”
You said you:”…vehemently disagree that we can, therefore, conclude [with the above]”
Finishing with “Thus, I think that it is unfair to imply that the authors of scripture were intentionally setting out to declare their own opinions binding. Many, if not most, of them probably did think that something was speaking through them.”

Then please explain the numerous condemnations over non-believers, tempters of other religions and apostates, including more than incitements but absolute orders to kill them supported by God sending them all to hell.
Are you saying this evidence that these are not “people who wanted their personal opinions carved in stone, and to silence all critics”. Why do you think it unfair to conclude as Alonzo IMV more than reasonably did?

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Erika June 26, 2010 at 6:27 am

Then please explain the numerous condemnations over non-believers, tempters of other religions and apostates, including more than incitements but absolute orders to kill them supported by God sending them all to hell.

I think these people honestly thought that some agent was speaking through them and telling them these things. Their goal was to share and have others follow what they saw as the truth, just as our goal is to share and have others follow what we see as the truth.

The methods chosen (repression of truth and people, violence, etc.) were and are worthy of condemnation, but I do not think we can say that their motivation was to have their opinions carved in stone. I think that this is especially true when you realize that theses authors, when they wrote, were not authoritative. They were one voice among many and so they used strong language to prove their point.

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faithlessgod June 26, 2010 at 7:06 am

Erika

Whether they were sincere or not, or whether you or I think they were, is besides the point.

If you do not think that threatening with death and carrying out murders to prevent you questioning their claimed truths does not serve “to have their opinions carved in stone” then what on earth does?!

This is not the way “to share and have others follow what they saw as the truth”. This is the way to prevent the truth being found out. These are not the signs of someone who honestly wishes to find the best truth possible but someone who will go to any lengths to prevent their falsehoods being found out. Indeed such threats and actions are a very good indication that their claims cannot survive reasonable scrutiny, otherwise they would have had no need to resort to such extreme efforts.

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Erika June 26, 2010 at 7:41 am

faithlessgod, you are assuming that your modern, 21st century standards of discourse truth can be used to analyze the motivations of ancient people who lived in a completely different cultural climate.

While we, from our vantage point, have the right to condemn the words and actions of these people relative to our standards, we have no right to say that they should have known they were wrong. We have no right to say that the Biblical authors were not morally virtuous people by the standards of their time even if they fail to meet the moral standards of our time.

Consider slavery in the US as an analogy. While we now consider slave holders cruel, terrible people, and while we would do anything we could to thwart someone who desires to own slaves, we should not, therefore, say that slaveholders ought to have known better. That they ought to have been able to anticipate and act by modern standards. To claim that they ought to have known better is arrogance.

It is similarly arrogant for us to say of the Biblical authors

If they had any love of truth, or of honesty, or if they had any modesty, they would have written …

It would be more proper to say

If they had any love of truth, or of honestly, or if they had any modesty, and they had desires substantially similar to those we have, they would have written …

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faithlessgod June 26, 2010 at 8:29 am

Eriak

“faithlessgod, you are assuming that your modern, 21st century standards of discourse truth can be used to analyze the motivations of ancient people who lived in a completely different cultural climate.”
No I am not. There is nothing that could not have been determined then. The Old Testament was assembled around 500 BCE, at the same time in Greece we had the flowering of questions and challenges to dogmatic answers. In religion we had the Buddha saying “Believe nothing, question everything.” and “It is proper for you to doubt … do not go upon report … do not go upon tradition … do not go upon hearsay” and so on. So I am not putting any unreasonable expectations on the past. They were capable of doing better and they failed miserably. There certainly is zero excuse for both Christianity and Islam promoting more of the same and even worse.

“While we, from our vantage point, have the right to condemn the words and actions of these people relative to our standards, we have no right to say that they should have known they were wrong. We have no right to say that the Biblical authors were not morally virtuous people by the standards of their time even if they fail to meet the moral standards of our time.”
Yes we do, given the alternatives that existed then as noted above. Regardless the fact that we can now clearly see they failed to do what was available then is only a further indictment of them promoting a corrupted morality and discredits any use of such texts today. Certainly there is zero excuse for anyone today referring to and reiterate those flawed moral claims of those texts and any who does is worthy of our condemnation such as “scripture-thumping evangelical” which is one of the targets of the post.

On the other hand if we grant that these authors could not have done better than they could, then this only serves to dismiss their moral claims by our enlightened standard and again to condemn “scripture-thumping evangelical” and their Randian and Leninist equivalents.
As for slavery that is a different argument, this was not being addressed in this post. But then again note that the Buddha railed against the Indian Caste system – which was the nearest equivalent of slavery in India then – yet Judaism, Christianity and Islam did nothing equivalent.

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faithlessgod June 26, 2010 at 8:29 am

Sorry the edit function is not working. I meant Erika of course

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Erika June 26, 2010 at 8:52 am

faithlessgod, you cannot judge one ancient culture by the standards of other ancient cultures, they lived in completely different circumstances and had very limited knowledge of each other. Also, how did Islam come into this? It did not exist for another millenium years after the time you mention.

I am not disagreeing that we can and should discredit their claims now, but I think that it is nothing but arrogance to say they ought to have done differently or known better.

As for slavery, it was brought up as an analogy, a point that you seem to have either completely ignored or missed.

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godless randall June 26, 2010 at 8:58 am

One fact to note about scripture is that all of it was written by regular human beings. There is not a word – not even a punctuation mark – in any work of scripture that was divinely inspired.

i happen to ^believe^ that but its irresponsible to call an opinion a fact

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Erika June 26, 2010 at 9:06 am

In essence, faithlessgod, you seem to be implying that the people who agree more closely with our modern moral sentiments should have been seen to be right by the other people in the world. Why? Why should it have been obvious that they were more right? This, to me, seems like arrogance. The ideas you mark as good were, at that time, not obviously right. They were just more ideas in the market place of ideas (and, from the point of view of the ancient Israelites, ideas from a distant foreign culture that they may not even have had exposure to).

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faithlessgod June 26, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Erika

The first point I objected from you was you claiming they (either the original authors or those who later claimed those as words inspired from God) were not then trying to make their claims written in stone but you failed to address how condemning someone to death for questioning such claims does lead to such a conclusion. It is irrelevant as to how we see them now as to whether they could have done better or not, they did not and that was the result.

Second, regardless of hindsight criticisms of the past, it is those in the present who are being criticised and since you agree that at best those authors from the past could not have done but we do know better now the criticism on such a basis of condemn “scripture-thumping evangelical” and their Randian and Leninist equivalents is still valid.

“In essence, faithlessgod, you seem to be implying that the people who agree more closely with our modern moral sentiments should have been seen to be right by the other people in the world. Why? Why should it have been obvious that they were more right?”
Um it is nothing do with being more modern nor with sentiments, although these might coincide, but it is that we have a better idea of how ethics works and rational and empirical inquiry in general and specifically of arguments that are failures that were used in the past. No-one has any excuse now to perpetuate such errors, which is exactly what bible-thumpers et al are doing.

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cl June 30, 2010 at 7:06 am

The problem with scripture is that it gets a lot of the moral facts wrong, but people are not allowed to question its teachings.

Alonzo, that’s doubly troubling coming from you, and here’s why:

1) You claim that there is no intrinsic moral right, so how can anyone get “the moral facts wrong?”

2) We (meaning those you choose to eschew) are not allowed to question your teachings. Well, I guess technically, we are allowed to question them, but you give the same response as a pastor who can’t or won’t answer his flock — silence. In my opinion, your behavior is just as reprehensible as the pastor’s.

Among the things that are to be accepted beyond question are the moral prejudices of the author – an author who is so arrogant that he claims to speak for God.

Yet, you expect us to accept your own moral prejudices. For example, you say that concerning pederasty, the Greeks were “probably wrong,” yet when asked for an explanation, you allude vaguely to unspecified venereal diseases that would seemingly make all sex “probably wrong.” When asked to clarify or support your position, you refuse.

Isn’t that the same sort of behavior we decry in Fundamentalists?

godless randall,

…its irresponsible to call an opinion a fact[.]

That’s right.

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Ryan M June 30, 2010 at 7:35 am

This Alonzo thread finally gets a comment from CL.

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cl June 30, 2010 at 7:55 am

Ryan M,

I gave it a rest for two weeks while I was waiting for Luke and/or Alonzo to tackle the questions from last four or five posts, which — unsurprisingly — they did not. It’s like I’m that guy in church asking the pastor too many questions!

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Greg Rogers July 10, 2010 at 6:22 pm

In discussing “scripture” we need to address three topics: inspiration, idolatry, orthodoxy and authority. In succession:
Inspiration: There are two types of inspiration. The first is what Marcus Borg called “thin places”. This refers to certain experiences which many people have where we experience the transcendent. The second is basically “secret knowledge”. In other words, “God told me something special which no one else knows”. “Special knowledge” inspiration, of any type, has not held up under observation. Read Bart Ehrman, for example. This, IMO, is comforting. We share a common humanity and relatively common experiences…we do not have “special people” with “secret knowledge”.
With respect to idolatry, people tend to worship symbols rather than the reality behind the symbols or the reality to which the symbols point. People mistake money for wealth and tend to worship scripture rather than God. Why is this so? I do not know but I don’t think the concept is not controversial.
Orthodoxy is different than truth. I don’t know if Australia exists. I may trust in the words of someone who has been to Australia but if I doubt them, I may go and actually see Australia myself. However, whether the Spirit only flows from the Father or flows from the Father and the Son cannot be experienced by myself or others…it is a mind game. There is a need amongst many to create the “other”. In the early Christian Church there were many different beliefs amongst those who pledged allegiance to Christ. This was seen by some as unacceptable. Therefore they had the Church councils to determine who was “in” and who was “out”. If you believed that the Spirit flowed from only the Father you were “out” (in some cases on a 5/4 vote) and were subject to BBQ at a later stage of Christian “development”. “Scripture”
is often used as an “excuse” for an orthodoxy which separates humanity.
Finally, authority. Ultimately, we are the source of authority in our lives. The interpretation of the “Bible” (interpretation and Cannon up for debate) by the Southern Baptist Convention only has authority because certain people ascribe authority to it. Nothing has authority accept as ascribed to it by people.
So the only ultimately authority is the “Ground of Being” which gives us life. Scripture is largely a tool of some to exercise power over others. This power is affective because we tend to worship symbols and give authority over our lives to others.

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