As the precept of "begin with the end in mind" has stood for some time now as a great habit for effective leadership (we have the late great Stephen R. Covey to thank for that), it seems it can also stand as a great habit for substantive dialogue. Thus, I will begin with the end in mind. The end is, rather plainly, that morality does not come from the Bible. And for those who may immediately see such a statement as a game of semantics and respond accordingly with something along the lines of "of course morality doesn't come from the Bible, it comes from God"; my contention is that such a proclamation doesn't hinge on the semantic wordplay. Rather, morality can't come from God either, in any functional sense. Thankfully, this appears provable even when we grant a belief in Jesus Christ (in fact, it appears more provable there than anywhere else). Indeed, even if we are devout believers in the faith, the idea that our morality comes from the Bible (or God) falls apart upon even the most surface level inspection.
Please note: I do not believe this renders the Bible useless. Rather, I believe understanding the Bible is a profoundly important part of our capacity to understand our nation's history. I find such an understanding as it relates to our nation's history similar to understanding the Constitution; both documents have influenced some rather prominent figures, policies, and practices throughout our nation's existence. The difference though is that I can recognize the Constitution's importance without attaching divinity to it - and I can do as such without courting controversy. That is to say: I can read the Constitution as an important document without acting as if the authors of the Constitution were omniscient and incapable of error. To that point: I am going to argue throughout this article that viewing the Bible as the supreme source of morality is a functional non starter, in the same way that viewing Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, or the Iliad as the supreme source of morality is a functional non starter. There is a silver lining of optimism in this reality too: as it turns out, it appears we all use the same basic intuitions to determine morality, whether we're religious or not.
Obviously, in America such statements are likely to be met with stiff opposition, as our country is made up of largely self professed Christians. And a majority of Americans think a belief in God is necessary to be 'moral'. It seems clear that a great many people in this country (and many other countries) see God as the immutable and undeniable anchor for morality. And of course, God's inspired word is the Bible - a book many Christians believe is inerrant, and thus acts as a playbook by which to guide our moral and ethical intuitions. It isn't conjecture to say that, from a theological perspective, the Bible is the supreme representation of God's will for human beings on earth.
This concept isn't seen by many as just a matter for preachers to take up behind the pulpit. No, this concept has been injected into the highest level of public discourse. For instance, here are words from GOP Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz delivered during one of the 2015-2016 GOP presidential primary debates:
I am blessed to receive the word from God everyday in receiving the scriptures and reading the scriptures - God speaks through the Bible
Ted Cruz's words aren't an anomaly as it relates to the general Christian position about the Bible; rather, they are a perfect articulation of it.
As was GOP Presidential hopeful Ben Carson's implication that the Bible could plausibly trump the Constitution in some instances:
I think probably what you have to do is ask a very specific question about a specific passage of the Bible and a specific portion of the Constitution. I don't think you can answer that question other than out of very specific context.
And whatever hedges Carson left in his answer, a February 2015 poll from Public Policy Polling (PPP) found that 57% of Republicans claim no such hedge:
Q17 (Republicans) Would you support or oppose establishing Christianity as the national religion?
- 57% Support establishing Christianity as the national religion
- 30% Oppose establishing Christianity as the national religion
- 13% Not sure
A quick aside: Obviously, "establishing Christianity as the national religion" in the United States would be a rather overt dismissal of our current Constitution.
And less than 2 months ago, GOP Senator and Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio had this to say about the relationship between the Bible and the Constitution:
If you look at biblical lessons, the first thing is, we are clearly called in the Bible to adhere to our civil authorities, but that conflicts with our requirement to adhere to God's rules, and so when those two come in conflict, God's rules always win,"
While I could go on at length about America's ongoing (albeit, decreasing) obsession with Christianity, and the Christian institution's attempt to allege ownership of 'morals', I'll let famed Christian apologist William Lane Craig articulate it rather directly in what he calls the 'moral argument for God':
1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.
The modus tollens argument here is quite simple: objective moral values and duties can only come from God. So, one can't claim objective moral values are present without also simultaneously acknowledging God's existence.
Let's start here, as it is a solid summation of what a great many people seem to think.
First, there's the obvious conundrum encapsulated within the usage of a capital "G" as it relates to 'god'. Dr. Craig clearly and explicitly believes 'god' to be the Christian God. This creates problem #1 as it relates to 'morality' coming from the Bible; multiple different faiths claim this same primacy on morality. Yet, the different faiths - especially monotheistic ones - make utterly incompatible claims. It is a fact to say that a plain text reading of the Bible, the Quran, and the Torah render it impossible for them to all be simultaneously true. Thus, while Dr. Craig's own personal beliefs about god shoe horn his statements into a theistic light (theism being a belief in a specific god creator), his argument is centered around a general deistic principle (deism being a belief in a non-specific god creator).
And this is crucial for Christians to acknowledge, as Holy Book-based morality has no functional application as a deistic concept. Because even *if* we grant Dr. Craig's principle that objective moral values and duties must come from god, that gets us no closer to determining which god's morals and values should be followed. Dr. Craig's a self professed Christian, so he of course arbitrarily chooses the God of the Bible. But, there is no objectivity being displayed when one arbitrarily inserts their own favorite god into that space, which rather succinctly undercuts Dr. Craig's notion of "objective moral values and duties" existing.
For the sake of discussion though - and with intent of persuading devout Christians to keep reading - let's grant the arbitrary assumption that the Bible God is indeed the 'right' God. Even granting this assumption, we run into problem #2 with the claim that morality comes from the Bible - the existence of multiple interpretations of scripture. This problem takes on two primary forms: (1) the form of selective adherence, and (2) the form of incompatible translations. Let's first deal with selective adherence.
The process of selective adherence is perhaps the simplest and easiest way for theists and atheists alike to see that, on a base level, we're all determining morality the same way. To illustrate this simple point, consider the following two passages from the Bible, both being from the book of Leviticus:
19:18 You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD
21:9 Also the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by harlotry, she profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.
Obviously, there's quite a glaring difference in principles here. The first edict is arguably the most moral precept we have at our disposal - love thy neighbor as thyself (I'll share the definition of 'moral' that allows one to arrive at such a conclusion shortly). The second edict is arguably one of the worst moral precepts we have - burn daughters of priests if the daughter engages in "harlotry" (harlotry being 'sexual foolishness').
Now, one should ask one's self: what moral mechanism have Christians utilized to continue lifting one of these passages up as a paragon of morality, while rather obviously dismissing the other passage for the crass barbarism that it is? We can say with confidence this much: whatever moral mechanism it was and is, said mechanism did not come from the Bible. Logically, it couldn't have - both of those edicts come from the same place (not just the Bible, but the same portion of the Bible no less), and thus they both have the dubious distinction of being 'God Breathed'. Yet, Christians have let one of them go, while continuing to embrace the other.
Is it any coincidence that the passage Christians have let go is the one which doesn't square with the objective evidence we have about human well-being, while the one they've held tight to for centuries and centuries rather directly squares with the evidence we have regarding human well-being? As you might guess, my contention is that such an occurrence is no coincidence. Rather, our innate moral intuitions have evolved to orient toward the well-being of conscious creatures, and specifically humans. Obviously, there are anomalies and exceptions to this, but generally speaking a given activity's impact on human well-being seems to be quite the solid foundation on which to determine the 'morality' (or lack there of) of the action itself. Thus, going back to a statement made in the opening paragraph: we all seem to be determining the concepts of 'moral' and 'immoral' the same basic way; some of us just have the benefit of our moral considerations not being encumbered by the ball and chain of uninformed first century conjecture.
And for those who may at this moment want to lob criticisms for my having used passages from the old testament to structure that last argument, a few points: First, it would seem difficult for Christian believers to ignore Jesus's alleged words in Matthew, Chapter 5:17: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill". But, even if a believer wants to ignore that passage and thus claim the Old Testament is no longer relevant, consider this passage from the New testament (and there are many others like it in the New Testament):
Luke 19:27 But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence."
Let us only hope that when someone is met with an obstacle in their lives and they - in the spirit of "What Would Jesus Do" - turn to their Bibles for guidance, they don't turn to Luke 19:27. And before someone of faith feels compelled to say "but that's just a parable" or "you're engaging in cherrypicking", consider the fact that citing any New Testament passage as evidence of the Bible's morality is also an act of engaging in exactly the same kind of (a) citing a parable as it relates to real world application, and (b) cherrypicking. Thus, if it is acceptable to cite select passages from the Bible and claim they are shining examples of morality, then it is equally acceptable to cite various passages from the Bible and claim they are abominations of morality.
As for the second form of the "multiple interpretations of scripture" problem - the form of incompatible translations: this dynamic exists in the fact that even when theists (and specifically, Christians) agree on which Biblical passages should continue to be viewed as important and applicable, they don't agree on what said passages actually mean, and thus how they should be applied functionally. This is a rather simple fact to observe. As a case in point, we have someone like Reverend Jim Wallis - someone who interprets scripture in a way that compels him to attack the religious right on any number of views they hold. Then, we have the religious right and it's various members; people who interpret scripture in a way that generally stands juxtaposed to interpretations like Reverend Wallis'. Then, we have individuals like those who proclaim allegiance to Westboro Baptist Church; these individuals interpret various scriptural passages much differently than a great many self professed Christians. The list of Biblical interpretations is, needless to say, virtually endless. And these numerous interpretations of scripture regularly lead to diametrically opposed understandings of morality even within the group proclaiming to be "Christian". In some relevant sense, this phenomenon of incongruent interpretation among Christians squares quite nicely with the Christian belief that God's power is so immense that it renders humans incapable of understanding it. The problem such a belief carries with it is obvious: if mere humans aren't capable of understanding God's power, then how exactly are humans supposed to derive a clear understanding of morality from His words?
So, as it relates to the functionality of the Bible being the source of our morality: even if we arbitrarily grant premise (a) that there is indeed a conscious god, and premise (b) that said conscious god is indeed the Bible God, we're still left with determining who's interpretation of scripture is the right one as it relates to God's actual will. Again, clearly, someone is getting this wrong - multiple people are claiming multiple interpretations of the Bible, often times offering interpretations that are repeatedly incompatible with one and other. If only God had a verified Twitter account, we could sort out all of these interpretative disagreements rather expediently simply by asking the alleged God in mention who's right (if anyone). But, alas, it appears he doesn't, and thus we can't. Instead, we get people claiming to have 'prayed' or 'contemplated' in a way that allowed God to 'talk to them' (exclusively in a way that no one else can hear of course), and we're left with the same subjective interpretations, now even more emboldened by the holder who claims to have received a 'private' verification from God that their own interpretation of his word is indeed the correct one.
Having said all of that, I once again submit to you: the verdict is in - morality doesn't come from the Bible in any functional sense. It can't, because of all the reasons I've laid out above. And the points I've outlined above applied to every Holy Book, not just the Bible.
So, if there is no supreme authority telling us what to do, or if there is a supreme authority telling us what to do but we have no objective way to determine what those directions actually are, then what's left of morality? Specifically, how do we determine 'morality' in a way that has any functional application? As I mentioned earlier, it is my contention that a given action's impact on the well-being of conscious creatures is a better, more objective, more consistent means by which to determine morality. After all, the concept of 'morality' is dependent on the presence of conscious creatures (human beings currently acting as the most conscious creatures we know). If this statement seems shocking, consider what 'morality' would look like if every person on earth was replaced with a rock. What role would 'morality' play in such an environment? Obviously, the existence of consciousness creates the existence of 'morality' as a principle. And thus, the well-being of the creatures which exhibit consciousness seems a natural navigation point for any discussion about 'morality'.
While I would never argue that using such a construct as an anchor for morality would end all moral dilemmas, it seems clear using such a moral construct would get us much farther along in our understanding of objective morality and moral dilemmas. For example: would condom use in sub-Saharan Africa or stem cell research ever hit the radar of "moral dilemma" if not for the influence of stone age religious principles (i.e. morals)? Of course not. Would gay marriage or comprehensive sex education rise to a level worthy of the kind of time and attention paid to it currently? Not likely. Would there still be widespread disagreement on the effectiveness of spanking children? Not a chance. Rather, if we were considering the 'morality' of these actions based on the provable impact such actions have on the well-being of humans, each one of these issues becomes a non-issue.
Additionally, using such a construct for morality opens up an unburdened pathway to constant new learning. As I mentioned previously - we're already doing this, theist and atheist alike (again, not many Christians are left arguing in favoring of burning practitioners of harlotry in today's day and age). The challenge is that progress in some areas is slowed (sometimes, to a snail's pace) due to the influence of a few first century men who had access to substantially less information than whoever the dumbest person on the planet is right now.
In short: it's well past time we let go of the notion that the Bible is a good source for morality (or, even worse, the only source). It's certainly time we quit acting as if atheists are immoral due to their unbelief because ultimately we're all relying on the same cognitive processes to determine morality. Perhaps the simplest answer is: where ever there's good evidence to believe something, proceed accordingly. Where ever there isn't - well, you get the picture~