Sunday, March 8, 2020

"Sorry Guys, It's Still Immoral" - A Response To CMI - The Wrap-Up



In the past few months, I have written up a ten-part response to Creation Ministries International's (CMI) article "Is The Bible An Immoral Book".

(Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5
Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8 - Part 9 - Part 10)

And the reason I titled the series, "Sorry Guys, It's Still Immoral" is that, from my perspective, the Bible clearly endorses or commands a number of practices that, if carried out today, would be considered objectionable at best, or immoral at worst.
And because CMI published the article asking the leading question "is the Bible an immoral book?" with a focus on trying to show it is not immoral (rather than prove that it is moral), to me, the title of my series is a witty retort to the leading question.

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One of the reasons I undertook the project was because firstly, I enjoy writing, and second, CMI represent a strand of Christianity, namely Creationism, that I feel should be publicly challenged, with reason and rationality.


Because I believe in debate and the free exchange of ideas, if CMI want to publish something from their point of view, then they must expect responses from people who disagree with them no more than what they would expect compliments from people who do agree with them. Religion and morality are hot-button topics in today's society.

This is in no way to denigrate or defame any particular person affiliated with CMI – as much as I disagree with their public position, I have had friendly interactions with every CMI representative I have ever met, so if anyone from CMI comes across this, don’t take any of this personally - but I write what I write to challenge a worldview that explicitly rejects the most effective method of knowing about the reality we live in (the most unbiased and un-assumptive application of the scientific method) in favour of what amounts to obsequious deference to an imaginary overlord.

[And the reason I say that is because if you out-of-hand reject, do not seriously consider, or couldn't even entertain cogent arguments that the Bible could be immoral, then you're not genuinely saying the Bible is moral - you're obsequiously defending a faith position]

So when CMI ask is the Bible an immoral book, we need to consider quite a few things in order to give the best and most considered response.

Grab your popcorn and book some time off of work – this one is lengthy!

(Note: CMI have a plethora of articles available to peruse over at https://creation.com/qa, including some which may already answer points I have made in this series. Head on over, have a read, compare both sides of the argument!)

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Firstly, we need to consider what the best way to define morality is.

A cursory Google search gives the result:

Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour.

This is a good working definition, especially because of its simplicity and the fact that this definition adheres to no religious creed either way – it makes no judgement on gods or the supernatural in either the affirmative or the negative.

But however you wish to define the dictionary definition of the word morality, we then need to answer the next question, a tricky one: How do we discern between right and wrong and between good and bad in order to give flesh and bones to whatever version of morality we internally carry?

In my estimation, the essence of morality should be defined by what is universal to the shared human experience – health, wellbeing, and personal and economic freedoms.

We should call morally good or moral actions that increase (or even maximise) health, wellbeing and freedom, or that decrease (or ameliorate) pain and unnecessary suffering without unnecessary risk, and we should call morally bad or immoral actions that cause needless, avoidable or unnecessary pain, harm, suffering or death, are detrimental to personal or economic freedom, or carry unnecessary risk to personal safety.

And again, this favours no theistic position. It is as un-assumptive as possible in order to be able to apply as generally as possible. All this says is that we should consider as morally good actions that increase human well-being and/or decrease suffering, and we should consider as morally bad actions that increase pain and suffering, particularly pain and suffering that could be reasonably avoided.

How we get there is of course a vexed question with lots of twists and turns, particularly when it comes to situational ethics. 

But my contention here is that any definition of morality whose primary focus is the placating of a deity is, by definition, not a morality that is concerned with increasing human health and wellbeing or decreasing unnecessary pain and suffering. 

If you believe it that people suffering in agony or fatal harm is a better outcome than for your god to be offended or slighted, it means that you consider placating a deity to be of more importance and more value than people being healthier and happier. In the situation that you had a clear choice between helping a person stay alive or placating a god, if you chose placating a god, then in my view this means you have chosen an immoral action because you could have avoided harm and suffering, but chose not to.
This also means you cannot possibly argue that a religiously motivated morality is superior to an agnostic one that is focused simply on improving the human existence.


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Second, when we consider the Bible, there are some salient points to we have bear in mind:

A. There is no one authority that dictates and confirms correct Bible interpretation (a point I expand upon in the post 
No-One Owns Christianity). Essentially, Christianity is an affiliation of beliefs that share a foundational text inherited from the dying days of the Roman empire which has been revised and reinterpreted as necessary, as evidenced by two things:

1 - Some researchers have counted up to 33'000 different Christian denominations (depending on how they count what a denomination is), and;

2 - The fact that I could start a church tomorrow, with some of the most ridiculous and/or offensive doctrines imaginable, and there's no absolute authority anyone can stand on to tell me that I'm wrong or why.

When someone reads the Bible, they are free to interpret the text in any way they see fit. If someone wants to believe in a Bible that is literally true and self-interpreting, there is nothing to stop them doing that, and if someone wanted to believe in a Bible that is comprised of heavy amounts of mythology and allegory, then there is nothing to stop them doing that either.
Even if someone's interpretation of scripture is wrong because of an error in language translation, Christians, and in particular Fundamentalists, will swear by particular doctrinal positions based on the language they read the Bible in.

People may disagree with you, but they are relying on their opinion to tell you why you're wrong (for that is what theology is - opinion), and for every doctrinal position available, there will be at least one differing, maybe even opposite, doctrinal position that someone somewhere will hold with just as much scriptural justification.

Aside from language conventions, there is nothing authoritative to tell you your personal interpretation of the Bible is wrong, and even then, all it takes for a Christian to suddenly be an expert in Greek or Aramaic or Hebrew is to find an translation of a word that matches their ideal of what the scriptures should say.

The end point of all this is the following:

When someone proclaims ‘the Bible says…’, what they really mean is ‘my interpretation of the Bible says…’.


B. When people have used the Bible, or theology gained from a reading of the Bible, as a basis to justify or cover up harmful and destructive behaviours, it was humans themselves who, without divine intervention, brought an end to the practice of those behaviours.

For example, the historical child sexual (and subsequent psychological) abuse perpetrated by numerous people of faith, facilitated by churches and faith-based organisations across numerous countries over numerous decades. Far from bringing the abusers to justice, the various churches indicted (including the 
Catholic Church, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Anglican Church, the Salvation Army, various independent church movements, and more) at the very minimum swept the complaints of abuse under the carpet; demonised, ostracised or outright dismissed the complainant; hid allegations of abuse for reasons of political expediency, and more.
On top of this, faith-based organisations went out of their way to ensure that a large number of the perpetrators were never held accountable for their actions, be it allowing the accused to move from one diocese to another, aiding and abetting the accused in leaving the country to avoid trial, or vowing to never break the seal of confession if they become aware of child sex abuse - so many ways that it unreasonable to dismiss it all as just a lapse of judgement here and there, but a systemic and deliberate attempt at minimising and deflecting guilt to protect reputations. Given so many moral failures over so many years, the wave of criticism of organised religion cannot be deflected or dismissed.

Furthermore, it was not angels coming down on a cloud or God turning up at a police station to sign a statutory declaration that brought these abuses to light, but the various justice systems of the geographical regions that got wind of the abuses, instigating proceedings.

My point with all this is two-fold:

1. When horrible crimes and misdemeanours are committed by God's people, in God's name and sometimes even quoting God's chosen book, if/when the perpetrators are brought to justice, it is through humans working within their own capacity and within the local region's justice systems. On no occasion has a voice from on high manifested in a police station or on a witness stand.

2. In light of this, if God can't be bothered to defend his own morality, why should we?

And C: The best scholarship on the Jewish and Christian scriptures indicates many, many things that go against the Fundamentalist narrative. For example, 
Moses didn't existthe Exodus never happenedthe earth didn't stand still for a day, and many, many more controversial findings.

It is only the most Fundamentalist of believers that try their darndest to hold on to a "Bible as literal history" interpretation, to the point where they have to deny scholarship, common sense, and even reality such that they come up with colourful and inventive hypotheses in order to explain what an ordinary person would rationalise as myth.

Case in point: If we consider the Garden of Eden narrative (as per Genesis 1-3), how was a snake able to speak perfect Hebrew to the point that it could discuss theology with Eve in the Garden of Eden?
To show how you far people are willing to stretch reason to fit theology, someone once told me in response to the above question that it wasn't the serpent itself that spoke - instead it was Satan who possessed the serpent, thus enabling it to speak. This is swinging for the fences due to the sheer amount of questions, both biologically and theologically, that this ad hoc explanation raises.

My point here is that sticking to a Bible-as-literal-history narrative requires a degree of cognitive dissonance, which itself indicates a presumed willingness to disregard what we know (and can demonstrate) about reality, in favour of ad-hoc rationalisations unsupported by real world data (and sometimes not even supported by theology) that favours a particular theology.

And if your claim that you have the best explanation of reality, when your explanation of reality relies on a willingness to discard reality when things get prickly or when atheists start saying controversial things, you can’t say your explanation of reality is the best.

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Before I get to the question at hand, I also want to bring up a few fundamental flaws contained in CMI’s article.

Firstly, CMI employ the trope of atheism equals immorality. This is plainly wrong, because atheism is merely and simply not believing in god/s. Atheism does not inform morality.

Secondly, CMI employ the common Creationist trope of equating the theory of evolution with immorality. This, again, is plainly wrong, and for two reasons (amongst others) - first, plenty of Christians 
accept the theory of evolution (which seemingly makes no difference to their morality), and second, a theory of biological science makes no determination (either way) regarding morality.

Thirdly, because the author attempts to bring in extra-Biblical texts to defend the Bible, it actually deflects from the argument at hand. The argument isn't regarding the corpus of the Jewish scriptures or of Jewish society, but simply and only the Bible (and from a modern evangelical perspective).
You simply cannot say the Bible could not possibly be immoral, because of something the Mishnah says in its defence. When discussing the Bible, you need to stick to the Bible.

And forthly, CMI attempt to fend off atheist criticism of the Bible by impying critics of the Bible are Biblically illiterate
This is perhaps one of the weakest defences of the Bible one can employ - instead of arguing their case and coming up with convincing reasons why what Bible critics condemn about the Bible is actually morally good, the author would seemingly rather bring up the argument of  "you're not reading that in the right context correctly!".

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So let's answer the question at hand: Is the Bible an immoral book?

The question is not is Christianity immoral – this is a hard question that unfortunately gets reduced down to soundbites.
And it is entirely possible that Christianity is a moral religion, despite being based on a book that isn’t moral.

The question is simply and only, is the Bible an immoral book.

For the Bible to be considered an immoral book, it is because it failed criteria that would cause it to be considered a morally good book.
And for a book or text to properly be considered morally good, there are two basic criteria I want to apply that it has to affirmatively satisfy:

FIRST CRITERIA
a) the book has to contain moral pronouncements, commandments, policies, or statements that carry the weight/authority of being moral pronouncements (hereon referred to as moral pronouncement/s for simplicity).
b) these moral pronouncements can be encoded as principles that have the express purpose of suggesting, influencing, policing or dictating the decisions, behaviours and actions made by people, be it on a personal, societal or governmental level.
c) the encoding, creation or enforcement of these principles is done either by the author of the book, the alleged author of the book, or adherents/worshippers of the author of the book (real or alleged) under inspiration or influence from the book.

Any book or text that meets this first criteria can be then considered a book or text that attempts to make moral statements or pronouncements.

And if a book doesn't give moral pronouncements that become principles, it is considered amoral - not having moral value either way (for example, a maths textbook).

SECOND CRITERIA
When people who attain some level of political/governmental control of a society or geographical region at some point in time and place in history, and they applied the principles as informed by the book:
a) Did the principles being applied help the people of those societies live healthier and happier lives, and did that society minimise unnecessary suffering?
b) Did the direct application of the principles applied by those in societal control (by either cultural, theological or legal means) positively affect the wellbeing of the society the actions of those pronouncements were applied to.


In short, when people who believe in the book and/or worship the author of the book gain control and influence over a society, do their societies show an increase in overall human wellbeing, and is it because of what the book said.

I believe the above-mentioned criteria is useful for judging morality because with it we can use it to judge both religious texts (e.g. the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, et al), as well as non-religious texts (Mein Kampf, The Art of War, et al).


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Let us now consider the Bible against these two criteria.

FIRST CRITERIA:

Does the Bible make moral pronouncements?

Yes, it is clearly the case that the Bible makes moral pronouncements.

We already know about things like the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, but then we can also consider the entire Mosaic law as given in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. We can also consider the parables of Jesus who, in an oblique manner, was giving moral pronouncements. And even Paul in his epistles made moral pronouncements.
The Bible has an abundance of moral pronouncements, meaning the Bible easily passes the first criteria.

SECOND CRITERIA:

When a society has been governed, controlled or influenced by those who implemented principles from the Bible, did the people in those societies live longer and healthier lives, did those societies actively find ways to minimise harm and suffering, and did any significant portion of the population suffer for reasons that were under the control of the government that was influenced by the principles?

This is a tricky one because we have to consider what principles have been codified as law throughout history by various governments, and whether those laws were indeed inspired by Biblical moral pronouncements.

Because I want to judge the question against a Fundamentalist criteria (which I will explain shortly), I will rephrase the question for the second criteria as:

When a society has been governed, controlled or influenced by those who implemented principles from the Bible as inspired by a to-the-letter interpretation, did the people in those societies live longer and healthier lives, did those societies actively find ways to minimise harm and suffering, and did any significant portion of the population suffer for reasons that were under the control of the government that was influenced by the principles?

If we find an example of a Fundamentalist society or a theocracy that answers affirmative to the Second Criteria, then we can say that the Bible is a moral book, and therefore the Bible is not an immoral book.

Supposing we cannot find any examples of societies throughout history that have been influenced by to-the-letter Fundamentalist ideology, or that influence of such made no impact or material difference on the society that was under its influence, then we can only consider the Bible (from a to-the-letter Fundamentalist ideological perspective) to be a morally neutral book because when it has never been in a position to make an impact on any society – thus, the Bible cannot be considered either a moral or immoral book.
This, however, is extremely unlikely, given Christianity’s extensive history, especially in the West.

However, if we find a society that was influenced by a Fundamentalist ideology, but the implementation of the principles led to unnecessary harm and suffering, deprivation of personal and economic freedoms, or drastically shortened lifespans, then I believe we have sufficient basis to consider the Bible to be an immoral book.

For clarification, because I want to consider the strongest possible case for CMI's argument that the Bible is not an immoral book, I want to consider only strict and serious Fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible as acceptable and pertinent to the argument. By this, I mean interpretations that are either to-the-letter (“The Bible says, I believe it, that settles it!”), or that give very little credence (if any) to mythosymbolic interpretation (such as believing the serpent in the Garden literally spoke using a vocal capacity to Eve) when read in any accepted English translation.

This means that for the purpose of this exercise, I am also going to discount any Christian denominations that rely on supplemental texts as a basis for doctrine. For example, because Catholicism has extra-Biblical texts such as the four extra books of the Catholic Bible as well as the various catechisms and papal bulls that inform Catholic doctrine, I will not be considering any societies that were under Catholic control. Likewise for Mormonism, which also uses extra-Biblical texts.

This is to both avoid a strawman fallacy, and to consider the strongest possible case to argue against. I also believe we should consider only the most strident and serious interpretations of the Bible (e.g. Fundamentalism, Puritanism, etc.), because if we consider societies that were vaguely Christian or were secular in practice, the argument then involves the question of how Christian they were alongside the question of what impact Christianity can be responsibility for. This dual question is not something I yet wish to consider.

In light of this, I wish to only consider the societies that implement the most serious and strict scriptural interpretation when it came to encoding principles as law, which leaves Protestant Fundamentalism, because they abide by a to-the-letter theology, as the best-placed version of Christianity to consider.

Before we go through the two sub-criteria at hand, I also posit the case that for the Bible to be considered a moral book, it has to have a perfect track record - every society that ever implemented principles from the Bible led to a net positive impact with regards to the health and well-being of all the people under jurisdiction of the principles, such that even one case of negative would render the Bible, when applied as strictly and literally as possible, to fail the second criteria, and thus give us sufficient cause to judge the Bible as an immoral book.

Think about it like this - could a morally perfect book, written by a perfectly moral God, whose principles are being perfectly implemented (or as close to perfect as possible) imperfectly affect morality and history?

Or, if your argument is that the Bible has never been perfectly implemented, then this creates the logical inconsistency of a perfect God who has created a perfect book that can never be perfectly implemented (despite almost 2000 years of history).

So on to the task at hand, in my estimation, there have indeed been a number of societies governed by people who believed in and implemented a to-the-letter interpretation of the Bible. To list, but a few:

The Confederate States of America (1860-1865).
Europe of the Middle Ages (circa 1250AD to 1500AD) and Early Modern Period (1500AD to 1700AD).
The Puritan colonies of New England in the late 1600s.

Among others, but these ones are the most familiar.

From the above list, I will pick one to consider the impact of the Bible by – the Confederate States of America. This is because much has been studied of this time period and its people, with the effects still being felt today.

The Confederate States of America, a grouping of mainly southern and south-eastern states, existed as a breakaway republic from the Union (the northern states) and was most famous for being states that not only practiced chattel slavery, not only resisted the Abolitionist movement, but were also willing to defend their right to self-determination militarily, as the Civil War (1861-1865) proved.
Protestant Christianity was ingrained in the cultural psyche of the Confederate States, such that their official motto was ‘Deo Vindice’ (God Vindicates), and their constitution makes explicit reference to ‘Almighty God’ – this was written in to the Confederate constitution as a rebuke to the Union, whose constitution was seen to be the result of ‘perilous atheism’ for not being explicitly Christian enough!

Furthermore, among the moral justifications made for the legalisation of chattel slavery was specifically because chattel slavery was in the Bible. Numerous clergy from numerous denominations wrote numerous books claiming divine support for their implementation and practice of chattel slavery, something that would not have gone unnoticed.

We can see that the culture of the Confederacy was soaked in an atmosphere of to-the-letter Protestant Christianity.

This means we have example of a society that was indeed influenced by an ideology of to-the-letter Protestant Christianity, which means we have a candidate society to help us evaluate the Bible against the second criteria.

Let’s now look at the question of: did to-the-letter Protestant Christianity have any measurable impact on the society in question?
If there is a measurable impact, we can then evaluate if that impact was positive or negative, helping us answer affirmative or negative to the second criteria.

Ignoring the obvious impact of social cohesion (a function that religion plays in everyday life as part of a society’s wider culture), what we are interested in was how it affected decision-making, particularly with regards to legislation and military decisions. And straight off the bat, we see that two of the decisive factors that theology played in governance was regarding slavery and military action.

The Confederate practice of chattel slavery without very little hope of manumission or emancipation was driven by economic expedience, excused by outright racism and with justification from scripture, which is what led to the Confederate secession in the first place.

Over time, arguments between the Union and the Confederacy ramped up as the Union did not recognise the legitimacy of the Confederate States. As the arguments ramped up, so too did the theological rhetoric.

Both sides believed they had God’s favour.
Both sides believed that they were doing the right thing theologically.
Both sides believed they were engaging in a divine struggle for a greater cause.
And no side, particularly the newly formed Confederacy whose raison d’etre was that the Union was not Christian enough for its liking (especially because they let their slaves go), was going to back down in a hurry.

The Confederacy reaped the benefits of chattel slavery.
The Confederacy split the country in two (and in some cases, denominations as well) to hold on to the practice of chattel slavery.
The split led to escalating tensions.
The escalating tensions led to military conflict.
The military conflict changed the cultural landscape of America for decades.
And all the while, scriptural justification and divine providence was claimed at every step.

Further evidence is the Confederacy having chaplains from almost every major denomination out in the military encampments, the Episcopal bishop of Virginia, Robert Meade, telling Robert E. Lee, “You are engaged in a holy cause” (and it’s not like Episcopalians are on the fringe of Christianity), and revivals broke out on both sides of the conflict.

So it is not a great leap to reach the conclusion that to-the-letter Protestant Christianity had a profound impact on the Confederate States, and thus an impact we can measure.

So now, on to the hardest part we really want to consider:
Was the impact of the implementation of to-the-letter Protestant Christianity, on the whole, positive, affirming the morality of the Bible, or negative, affirming the immorality of the Bible.

On the one hand, if you were white, you had the best chance of longevity. Agricultural fluctuations, primitive medical practices and a wide-scale military conflict aside, given the social and economic freedoms white Protestants enjoyed, they tended to live to approximately 40-45 years.

But on the other, if you were black, you had a very high chance of being subjected to chattel slavery (if not outright born in to it) which denied you both personal and economic freedoms. So even on this count, it is not reasonable to state that a person in chattel slavery was in a position to live a happier life, as personal and economic freedom are most conducive to personal happiness.
Furthermore, those bound in chattel slavery experienced a reduced life-expectancy compared to the non-slave population, with one study suggesting the average life expectancy for slaves was as low as 20 years.

So with this data at hand, we can see that a significant portion of the population of the Confederate States, estimated to be about 27%, lived in conditions that caused them harm socially and economically and that cut their life expectancy in half compared to other people.

Thus, we can count the impact as being negative.

So, here we have an example of a society that identified very strongly as Protestant Christian, believed in a to-the-letter Fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, created and enacted legislation and made governmental decisions with moral support based on that Fundamentalist interpretation of scripture, and had legalised and enforced practices that ensured that a significant portion of their population died extremely early and in abject misery.

Thus, because we have an example of a Fundamentalist ideology in practice that negatively impacted its society, we can confirm and adjudge the Bible to not be a moral book, thus making it an immoral book.

So, to answer Creation Ministry International’s question “is the Bible an immoral book”, the answer is yes.

The Bible is an immoral book.

This is not to say there is no value in the book, or that there is nothing positive to gain from it, but when the most general definition of morality is applied, considering the strongest and most literal form of Biblical interpretation generally available, and weighing it against the most fair and nuanced criteria I can come up with, the Bible fails to meet a standard of perfection that we are told the Bible has, especially by those who believe in the strongest and most literal Biblical interpretation generally available - namely, Creationists.

And by failing to be perfect, the perfect, holy and inerrant Bible has failed.

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Is there a way back?

Yes there is, and it is called moderacy

By dialling down the seriousness, being willing to consider that not everything in the Bible is literallly true, and even being willing to consider that some things in the Bible are flat-out wrong, it is possible to step away from Fundamentalism and from a theology that doesn't subscribe to an us against the world mentality.

By stepping back from a to-the-letter theology that Fundamentalists and Creationists hold to, which also informs their scientific opinion and morality in a way that is not generally seen as being useful, let alone correct, dialogue can be positive and rewarding - and when that happens, everyone wins.

By being open to dialogue, by being willing to consider alternative opinions, by being willing to consider you may even be wrong and to finding a method that leads to the best interpretation of reality we have at hand, we can all make this world a better place.

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While it has been exhausting and time-consuming, I ultimately hope that not only this post, but this whole blog series expands and informs the realm of interfaith/non-faith dialogue, with an eye to honest and rational discussion.

To any Christian reading this - I am not your enemy. I come in peace. I do have a hard message, but who you are is more important than what you believe, and if we can make one better, we can make the other better.

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With many regards, and looking forward to keeping the engagement and ideas going...



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