God (cont.)

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In fact, I’d argue that to the extent that our society has become less bigoted and violent since the days of the Crusades and the Inquisition, it’s largely because believers have already begun this process of selectively disregarding their religious morality. The increasing acceptance of things like homosexuality, gender equality, and tolerance for other religions – all of which are strongly condemned by scripture – makes it clear that believers are getting a big chunk of their morality from somewhere other than their holy books. Of course, they might claim that they haven’t shifted toward more secular conceptions of morality at all, but that their understanding of their religious morality has simply grown more nuanced and sophisticated. But as Harris writes:

How does one become a sophisticated believer? By acknowledging just how dubious many of the claims of scripture are, and thereafter reading it selectively, bowdlerizing it if need be, and allowing its assertions about reality to be continually trumped by fresh insights – scientific (“You mean the world isn’t 6000 years old? Okay.”), medical (“I should take my daughter to a neurologist and not to an exorcist? Seems reasonable…”), and moral (“I can’t beat my slaves? I can’t even keep slaves? Hmm…”). There is a pattern here, and it is undeniable. Religious moderation is the direct result of taking scripture less and less seriously.

I mentioned another of Harris’s quotations on this point earlier, but I’ll repeat the longer version of it here:

Moderates in every faith are obliged to loosely interpret (or simply ignore) much of their canons in the interests of living in the modern world. No doubt an obscure truth of economics is at work here: societies appear to become considerably less productive whenever large numbers of people stop making widgets and begin killing their customers and creditors for heresy. The first thing to observe about the moderate’s retreat from scriptural literalism is that it draws its inspiration not from scripture but from cultural developments that have rendered many of God’s utterances difficult to accept as written. In America, religious moderation is further enforced by the fact that most Christians and Jews do not read the Bible in its entirety and consequently have no idea just how vigorously the God of Abraham wants heresy expunged. One look at the book of Deuteronomy reveals that he has something very specific in mind should your son or daughter return from yoga class advocating the worship of Krishna:

If your brother, the son of your father or of your mother, or your son or daughter, or the spouse whom you embrace, or your most intimate friend, tries to secretly seduce you, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods,” unknown to you or your ancestors before you, gods of the peoples surrounding you, whether near you or far away, anywhere throughout the world, you must not consent, you must not listen to him; you must show him no pity, you must not spare him or conceal his guilt. No, you must kill him, your hand must strike the first blow in putting him to death and the hands of the rest of the people following. You must stone him to death, since he has tried to divert you from Yahweh your God… (Deuteronomy 13:7-11)

While the stoning of children for heresy has fallen out of fashion in our country, you will not hear a moderate Christian or Jew arguing for a “symbolic” reading of passages of this sort. (In fact, one seems to be explicitly blocked by God himself in [Deuteronomy 12:32] – “Whatever I am now commanding you, you must keep and observe, adding nothing to it, taking nothing away.”) The above passage is as canonical as any in the Bible, and it is only by ignoring such barbarisms that the Good Book can be reconciled with life in the modern world. This is a problem for “moderation” in religion: it has nothing underwriting it other than the unacknowledged neglect of the letter of the divine law.

The only reason anyone is “moderate” in matters of faith these days is that he has assimilated some of the fruits of the last two thousand years of human thought (democratic politics, scientific advancement on every front, concern for human rights, an end to cultural and geographic isolation, etc.). The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside. The moderation we see among nonfundamentalists is not some sign that faith itself has evolved; it is, rather, the product of the many hammer blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets of faith to doubt. Not the least among these developments has been the emergence of our tendency to value evidence and to be convinced by a proposition to the degree that there is evidence for it. Even most fundamentalists live by the lights of reason in this regard; it is just that their minds seem to have been partitioned to accommodate the profligate truth claims of their faith. Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.

And Pinker writes something similar:

If you think that by reviewing the literal content of the Hebrew Bible I am trying to impugn the billions of people who revere it today, then you are missing the point. The overwhelming majority of observant Jews and Christians are, needless to say, thoroughly decent people who do not sanction genocide, rape, slavery, or stoning people for frivolous infractions. Their reverence for the Bible is purely talismanic. In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discreetly ignored. And that is the point. Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible. They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.


When they affirm their faith in houses of worship, they profess beliefs that have barely changed in two thousand years. But when it comes to their actions, they respect modern norms of nonviolence and toleration, a benevolent hypocrisy for which we should all be grateful.

In short, then, moderate believers aren’t just freely arriving at ever more nuanced understandings of their holy books, which coincidentally just happen to align perfectly with the evolution of secular morality; rather, the latter is driving the former. As Heather Hogan puts it, “Christians are in a constant state of retrofitting their understanding of the Bible to align with the natural progression of humanity. It happened with slavery, it happened with segregation, it’ll happen with same-sex marriage.”

Of course, it’s understandable why Christians would want to believe that they aren’t selectively reinterpreting the Bible at all, but are in fact staying 100% true to the scriptures’ original intent (as if the Bible supported gay rights all along, and they were just now “discovering its true meaning”). Once you admit that you’re just cherry-picking which parts of the Bible you want to consider valid and which ones you don’t – e.g. deciding that adultery is evil but homosexuality isn’t, despite the Bible condemning both – you’re completely undercutting the Bible’s claim to be the ultimate source of morality. You’re no longer deferring to its judgment on what’s right and wrong; you’re evaluating actions on their own merits. And that renders the Bible redundant as a moral authority. So in order to avoid this conclusion, Christians feel compelled to act like the Bible is guiding their judgments even when it’s telling them the exact opposite of what they profess to be true. It’s the only way they can continue to hold their position that it’s the only real source of human morality.

But the ironic thing about all this is that the Bible itself doesn’t even claim to be the original source of human morality. Despite the Christian claim that biblical rules like the Ten Commandments are what define right and wrong, the Bible portrays people knowing perfectly well that things like murder and theft are wrong, even before God gives them the Ten Commandments. It’s not like Moses and the Israelites had previously just been running around killing each other at random because they didn’t know any better; the Ten Commandments were just a formal codification of what they already knew. According to the Bible, humanity’s understanding of right and wrong first originated from Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and it’s been passed down to every generation since. Once Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they (and all their descendants) gained the ability to instinctively tell right from wrong. That’s why everyone, including all those isolated tribes and cultures that have never been exposed to Christianity before, still knows intuitively that things like murder and theft are wrong without having to be told so by the Bible. They’re clearly getting morality from somewhere other than the Christian religion.

That being said, though, we know that they didn’t actually get it from Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. So where does morality really come from, if not religion? How do non-religious people tell right from wrong without the guidance of some divine authority? Well, the simplest way to answer this, as a nonbeliever, is to respond with something like, “I get my morality from the same place you do – from my own conscience. That little voice in the back of my head that tells me what’s right and what’s wrong – believers might call it the Holy Spirit guiding them, but I just call it having a conscience.” Our innate sense of empathy for our fellow living beings is one of the main reasons why we act morally; gaining what we want at the expense of someone else just doesn’t feel as good as gaining the same thing without harming them. And actually helping them can feel even better still – so it’s perfectly natural that we should make a habitual effort to experience these good feelings rather than the bad ones. As T1J puts it:

There are situations in which being dishonest could benefit you and the people around you. But I think for most people in those situations, it would still feel wrong, even if it was necessary. Why is that? Well, I think it’s because of empathy. I’ve mentioned before that I think people have the propensity to be selfish and petty, but I think that everybody wants to be happy. And I think that deep down, we understand that happiness at the expense of other people isn’t really happiness. Whether or not we actually practice that is a different story, but I think that’s why dishonesty feels wrong, even if it’s necessary. It’s the same reason why when we, like, cuss somebody out at work, we have to make an excuse like, “I was having a bad day” – just because we know that that’s not normally a good thing to do. We just know it. We don’t have to be told it – we know it, we feel it. We want to be happy, and we want everybody else to be happy, because that makes us the happiest. Now can we ignore this and pursue selfish goals? Well of course, just like religious people can do shitty things in the name of God. But this question has always baffled me, because even when I was a Christian, I never had to go flip through the Bible to check and see if it was okay to be nice to people or tell the truth – I just knew it. And if the commandments of some higher power are the only thing keeping you from murdering and raping people, then I’m a little bit disturbed by you, I’m not going to lie.

Just to add to this, even if we were naturally inclined to act purely out of self-interest alone, the fact that we live in a society and must continually interact with other people (who might retaliate against us if we mistreat them) gives us a whole other reason to want to treat others well. In the long run, we’re all better off if we play nice than if we don’t. As Pinker writes:

Among the beliefs about the world of which we can be highly confident is that other people are conscious in the same way that we are. Other people are made of the same stuff, seek the same kinds of goals, and react with external signs of pleasure and pain to the kinds of events that cause pain and pleasure in each of us.

By the same reasoning, we can infer that people who are different from us in many superficial ways – their gender, their race, their culture – are like us in fundamental ways. As Shakespeare’s Shylock asks:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

The commonality of basic human responses across cultures has profound implications. One is that there is a universal human nature. It encompasses our common pleasures and pains, our common methods of reasoning, and our common vulnerability to folly (not least the desire for revenge). Human nature may be studied, just as anything else in the world may be. And our decisions on how to organize our lives can take the facts of human nature into account – including the discounting of our own intuitions when a scientific understanding casts them in doubt.

The other implication of our psychological commonality is that however much people differ, there can be, in principle, a meeting of the minds. I can appeal to your reason and try to persuade you, applying standards of logic and evidence that both of us are committed to by the very fact that we are both reasoning beings.

The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality. If I appeal to you to do something that affects me – to get off my foot, or not to stab me for the fun of it, or to save my child from drowning – then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours if I want you to take me seriously (say, by retaining my right to stand on your foot, or to stab you, or to let your children drown). I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.

You and I ought to reach this moral understanding not just so we can have a logically consistent conversation but because mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children when they get into trouble, and refrain from knifing each other than we would be if we hoarded our surpluses while they rotted, let each other’s children drown, and feuded incessantly. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one where we both are unselfish.

Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games. This foundation of morality may be seen in the many versions of the Golden Rule that have been discovered by the world’s major religions, and also in Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Hobbes and Rousseau’s Social Contract, and Locke and Jefferson’s self-evident truth that all people are created equal.

As it happens, scientists have actually used mathematical modeling to determine that a “Golden Rule” kind of morality, which favors treating others well and cooperating with them by default (unless they refuse to act fairly themselves), is exactly the pattern of behavior that natural selection would have favored during our species’ evolution – not a pattern of pure selfishness. A version of our species that refused to behave fairly and cooperatively would have quickly been outcompeted by a version that did. And biologists have corroborated these findings with their own discoveries that rudimentary forms of morality have evolved in other species as well, not just in our own. TheraminTrees summarizes:

Animal studies show that non-human social species demonstrate empathy, compassion, and an awareness of fairness, which are significant ingredients in morality. Primatologist Frans de Waal and his colleagues found that when given the choice to swap different kinds of token for different food rewards, chimpanzees and capuchins frequently swapped ‘pro-social’ tokens, which rewarded both themselves and a partner of their own species, rather than ‘selfish’ tokens, which rewarded them alone. Capuchins have been observed to reward partners for cooperation in a task to gain food, even when they have the choice to keep all of it for themselves. They’ve also been observed to protest aggressively when they see a fellow capuchin receiving a better reward for performing the same task. After fights, chimpanzees display distinctive reconciliation behavior – stretching out a hand to an enemy, kissing, embracing and grooming. Basic equitable behavior demonstrating a keen sense of fairness has been observed in a range of social species. To suggest religion is the source of this equitable behavior is plainly absurd. And it’s no less absurd to suggest it’s the source of human equitable behavior.

De Waal himself discusses some of these results in the clip below, describing the principles of reciprocity/fairness and empathy/compassion as the two “pillars of morality”:

To sum up, then, morality isn’t just something handed down by divine fiat; it’s an emergent property of our biology, having evolved over millions of years. It’s true that people do take plenty of moral cues from their religious philosophies – but these religious philosophies are themselves expressions (often tragically misguided ones) of the socio-psychological frameworks that natural selection has already ingrained in us. So to say that religion is the only source of human morality is to overlook the fact that religion is itself a product of human thought. It’d be more accurate to say that God gets his morality from humans than the other way around.

Now, that being said, even if we know where moral behavior comes from in an empirical sense, that still leaves the subtly different question of how to ground the concept of morality in philosophical terms. What does it even mean to say that we ought to do certain actions and not others? How can we say that anything is objectively good or bad without God defining it as such? This is a whole other discussion, and it’ll take more than just a few paragraphs to answer it properly – so I’ll make it the topic of my next post. In the meantime, though, it’s worth pointing out that religion doesn’t actually provide real answers to these questions like it purports to. Just because God says that certain things are good and others are evil, for instance, doesn’t make his judgments objectively true. They’re still subjective – they’re just contingent on God’s subjective opinions rather than ours. Likewise (as TheoreticalBullshit explains), just because God wants us to take certain actions doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re automatically obligated to take those actions; you can’t derive “we ought to do these things” from “God wants us to do these things” without resorting to some moral framework higher than divine command alone. (We might still want to take them anyway for consequentialist reasons, of course – like to avoid Hell – but that’s a separate question.)

At any rate, like I said, I’ll get into these questions more in my next post. But hopefully, the bottom line here should be clear by now: When it comes to determining what we should and shouldn’t do, religion is a dead end.

Continued on next page →