Some atheists have proposed that it is possible to be good without God. They’ve plastered the slogan on buses, developed websites, and sold t-shirts to press the point home. In a minor spin of the same message, other atheists are saying that despite what “religious people” (or often simply “religion”) says, you don’t need God to lead a good and meaningful life. If the meaning of these slogans is that millions of people find moral value and meaning outside the constraints of religious faith, I agree–wholeheartedly–and I think I am one of them. I challenge anyone to a duel if they say my love of art, music and literature is deficient; and I will shoot first.
At first flush, these seem like eminently reasonable propositions–as unarguable as Dr Seuss’s assertion in Horton Hears a Who that “a person’s a person no matter how small.” It’s the language of the culture of self-esteem. And it tells us that, despite anything Dostoevsky might have said a hundred (plus) years ago, it’s the absence of God that makes us all equally worthy; the moral universe does not collapse with his non-existence.
On the contrary, the presence of God, or at least a law-giving god like the biblical god, creates a value system and a moral hierarchy that modern women and men find unbearable. There is no universal human equivalence in this God’s world, only saints and sinners, law and law-breaking. I reject that system as vigorously as do my atheist friends. There can be nothing like a human moral system–a system good for humans–apart from humanity. Many atheists believe this– and many religious people, even if they don’t, will eventually have to face up to it.
Unfortunately, atheists at this point often try to press their case by cherrypicking the most obscene passages of the Old Testament and raising questions about the mental capacity of people who (they seem to allege) believe the verses still apply. Should parents be permitted to kill disobedient sons after a cursory inquiry at “the city gates”? Should fathers be able to sell daughters in slavery? Is a woman unclean (untouchable) for sixty-six days after the birth of a female child? Does the definition of rape depend on whether it happens near a city or in the country? Is God so petulant that he needs to destroy a world he could have made better, thus causing his non-omniscient self, not to mention his creatures, endless trouble?
The relative ease with which these questions can be tossed aside in disdain should clue the reader to the fact that he is not reading an engineering textbook, that he is trodding on unfamiliar, primitive soil.
The script for these objections changes slightly, but the underlying assumption of an unbelief-ful realist doesn’t: The common notion is that if you point out tirelessly what a silly book the bible is people will eventually begin to read it, see the absurdity, and say “Eureka: what an idiot I’ve been.”
I think these Aha! moments actually happen in certain cases, but the great majority of believers really don’t care about the absurdities, and the more “faithful” they are to the traditions of their church, the more they will know that the tribal contexts of Old Testament justice (exception being made for the recent use of lex talionis on bin Laden) don’t form part of the living voice of religious tradition in the twenty first century–just as they haven’t for almost a millennium.
Maybe, as an axiom, unbelievers should flirt with the idea that things that are regarded as anachronistic or irrelevant by the vast majority of religious people are not the best evidence against theism. That is why, for example, most philosophy of religion anthologies that include a chapter on “Descriptions and Attributes of God” deal with properties and not irrelevances skimmed from the pages of the Bible.
Anachronism is a putative pitfall in constructing any historical argument. To see how, don’t think Biblical law and custom–Think Hamlet. I remember thinking, the first time I read the play, that all the violence could have been avoided if the young prince had just called the police. (Never-mind that if that had been an option Shakespeare would not have had a tragedy) After all, the evidence was all on Hamlet’s side. Polonius might have testfied. Even Gertrude might have broken down and ratted on Claudius, and Claudius himself was not exactly a bastion of resolve. Instead, it all ends badly with everyone dead, including Hamlet. Fortunately I did not offer this solution on my final exam. It would have been my Paris Hilton moment.
But, no doubt, you’re way ahead of me. Hamlet doesn’t call the police because there weren’t any. Armies, sure, but armies weren’t usually called in to settle domestic spats, not even ones involving murder. Shakespeare wrote the play based (perhaps) on a thirteenth century work by Saxo Grammaticus–when justice was even more primeval and unavailable than in his own day, and where honor, shame and vengeance were largely governed by family honor and local magistrates (judges)–closer therefore to the Bible than to modern practice. Ultimately, the stories about heirs, usurpers and murder can be traced all the way back to David and Saul, or to Isaac, Esau and Jacob.
When did “crime” become a police (literally, a city) matter and not something to be dealt with in feudal or family fashion? 1822, when Robert Peel founded the London constabulary–a move opposed by many people in London (and it was, at first, just in London) because the city folk didn’t want a government agency getting between them and justice. Objections persevered north of the border in Scotland and in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee in the tradition of clan violence. The first “bobbies” were drawn from the lower ranks of society; many were drunks and bullies–uniformed thugs who meted out justice in strange ways. When in 1833 Constable Robert Culley was stabbed to death while breaking up an unlawful meeting, a jury acquitted the murderers and a newspaper awarded medals to the jurors. Let’s not even talk about Boston and Chicago in the nineteenth century.
Our sense of justice and the control of crime is a peculiarly modern invention. Yet we’re perfectly willing to accept (without knowing much about its evolution) that things were different–once. We don’t give a second thought to the fact that the meaning of justice has developed along with ways of enforcing and distributing it. And without getting into the politics of a recent international event, we (many, anyway) don’t really interrogate the sentence “Justice was done” when clearly what is meant is “Vengeance was exacted.” The recrudescence of biblical justice in exceptional cases, like poverty, is something we have to expect.
So I am curious about why the most universally abhorrent and rejected verses in the Bible should become symbolic of the entirety of the biblical world view. Why do we accept gratefully the social evolution of secular justice but deny religion the right to its own conceptual evolution by insisting it must be held accountable for things it produced in the Bronze Age? If evolution is the key to understanding how the world has come to be the way it looks to us, what’s the point in insisting that the religious landscape is unchanging? I frankly cannot imagine a more tendentious assessment of history than that one.
The fact is, whatever he may or may not have said, you will not find Jesus of Nazareth enjoining the poor to sell their children into slavery to raise some quick cash. But Hebrew settlers a thousand years before him probably did just that. You will find him exhorting a rich young man to sell what he has, and give it to the poor, in order to be a worthy disciple. A thousand years before, to the extent that this history is known to us, such advice would have been feckless, almost incomprehensible. It is similar to my wondering why Hamlet didn’t call the cops on Claudius.
Even the Hebrew Bible shows the slow and deliberate growth of a moral conscience over its millennium-long development: Like any idea that lasts longer than a day, God evolves:
This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22.3)
And let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos, 5.24)
You’ve heard it said, An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth [Exodus 21.24]. But I say to you not to succumb to evil: but if one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him also the other.” (Matthew 5.39f.)
None of these comments constitutes a moral system; I may not accept or believe them (especially my “obligation” to an enemy) and the Church itself has fallen shamelessly down if the advice of Matthew 5.39 is taken at face value as a standard for all Christians.
But simple historical honesty requires us to notice the change, and along with that (note well, my friends who tout the iron law of evolution in all things progressive) that the advantageous ethic, the one that looks for compassion and generosity rather than vengeance and payback, is the one that survives the predations of history. Not perfectly, but more adequately.
Frankly, atheists will get nowhere with the message of “good without God” and its accompanying parody of religious ethics and its drone about the pure awfulness of the Bible. They might succeed in persuading themselves of the rectitude of disbelief by creating a litany of biblical absurdities. But then the core principle of development, which is really at the heart of the atheist worldview, is laid aside in favor of a partial and static view of history that careful investigation won’t support.
The moral is, you can’t call the police when there aren’t any. And you can’t blame the Bible for being a “moral archive” of how human beings have changed their minds over the course of 2500 years.