Internal Moral Relativism

On certain Christian websites, moral relativism is derided almost as some sort of modern evil. “How do you know what is right and what is wrong if you don’t have an absolute source of morals? You need God to make your world make sense.”

The problem I have always had, but haven’t fully articulated, is the problem that there is always moral relativism, and specifically so in the Bible. Perhaps, actually, most egregiously so in the Bible.

At first glance, the Bible offers some fairly clear rules, but if you start thinking about it too much, things get… Weird.

I mean, let’s rank some of the moral precepts of the Bible, and I think you’ll find we can do this with some degree of objectivity.

Let’s open with the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” That one’s pretty easy.

Unless you work on the Sabbath–then you can be stoned. Therefore, since you are allowed to kill someone for breaching the sanctity of the Sabbath, our list looks like this, ranked from most severe to least severe:

1 – Breaching the sanctity of the Sabbath.
2 – Killing.

In fact,  the punishment for MANY things is killing. Killing is obviously not a moral absolute, otherwise you couldn’t use it as a punishment, because you wouldn’t morally be allowed to. So let’s list a few things in the Bible that are worse than killing: Talking back to your parents, homosexuality, bestiality, theft, lust, adultery, worshiping different gods, living on the land God has set aside for you (even though he set it aside after you settled there, and even though he didn’t tell you).

Even in the modern world, as laid out by the Assassination of George Tiller, there are modern Christians who still subscribe to moral relativism. “His aborting of human fetuses is more evil than my killing him,” is the logic employed.

The counter, of course, is that “Death is OK, if God tells me it is OK,” but the problem is the application of that in the absence of God’s final approval. The best the modern Christian can do is to apply their own slant on it, but here’s the thing:

If God has laid the Commandments upon our soul, and if He is the ultimate authority, why does it feel so wrong to contemplate killing prostitutes? Are you miswired? Have God’s Comments, writ upon thy soul, gone awry?

“Jesus commanded us to love, and freed us from The Law!”

Then God’s commandments aren’t writ upon our soul? Like our souls just had a cosmic dry-erase marker applied? But then, why is the application of Old Testament verse allowed at all? How do we know which parts were stricken from the record?

What did Jesus mean by the following? 17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven..” (Matthew 5:17-20) 

Until heaven and earth pass away. That is the King James, by the way–the NIV is a bit looser with its translation, stating instead “Until all is accomplished.” Those two sentences mean very different things to me.

Long story short, though, even if we are free from The Law, which parts? The Commandments were part of the law. Again, are they really writ upon my soul, if they are changed/abolished? If you are still skeptical, then consider the fact that breach of any of the Ten Commandments is punishable by death, and this is the second commandment (Exodus 20:4):

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…

Again, NKJV. Is that commandment writ upon thy soul?

So there, there is a large degree of relative moral ideas in the Bible. You can say that God is the ultimate moral authority, but God is not here to adjudicate… Which leaves man, fallible man, to judge how laws from 2000-3500 years ago apply to our lives today. How do you do that? By relating a situation in our life to a situation in the Bible. One might even say you rate a situation relatively to a situation in the Bible.

But you definitely have moral absolutism. Just applied in a relativistic way. Cough

A Mess of Words

The below is going to be a very ugly stream of consciousness. This isn’t just me thinking that out in advance, I am writing this disclaimer after I have already written the nearly unreadable, nearly incomprehensible, all-over-the-map blog post that is the gigantic mess of words below. Once I get some of the jumbled thoughts off of my chest, I am hoping I can write something more focused again some day in the future.

The thing that makes it hard for me to write is that everything that goes through my head seems like old news to me, and thus I believe that it is obviously old news to everyone else. That being said, as I travel from place to place, listen to one speaker or another, read books on philosophy, fantasy, religion, and a huge number of other topics, I further realize that not only is this thought in my head not common, it is possibly even considered unimportant… And yet, the more I think about it, the more I think that it is the question that could lead to the greatest internal mental revolution for a huge number of people.

Why? More specifically, why do I believe what I believe?

I am about to sound like a four year old child, but the number of “why” questions you are willing to answer to yourself is, at the very least, an indicator to how secure you are in your own beliefs. I can’t make you answer the question, of course, and the answers I posit below may not apply in the slightest to you… But I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, so I figured I’d get it off my chest.

To contextualize, I have been thinking about this question for at least the last decade; I can’t say I asked it when I was a small child, far ahead of my time, but I am happy I managed to consider the idea at all.

The reason, though, that it is truly at the forefront of my mind right now is that I am reading the book God’s Crime Scene by J Warner Wallace. Without getting too deeply into it, I can say that in the first half, most of what he says is a fair enough assertion, and as likely as anything else we have managed to come up with in absence of evidence… But in the second half of the book Wallace makes spurious claims relying on wildly non-representative comparisons. These comparisons are grounded in the idea that the answers to the questions such as why does the universe exist are unsatisfactory unless there is a God outside of the universe pulling the strings.

A significant portion of the thought in this book comes from the idea that he is an ex committed atheist. He explains, if you read between the lines, the reasons he went from atheist to theist (at about the age of 35, nearly as I could tell at a glance). A question that was not answered to my satisfaction was why he was an atheist at all.

The questions I have for Mr Wallace all come down to “why”?

I wanted to rank the questions by ease of answer, but there is never an easy question where it comes to the topic of the Almighty, so I’ll just stream of consciousness a little.

Why is it possible to invoke “God” to escape the infinite regress? To explain the infinite regress, it basically asks “What came before the universe? What came before that? What came before that?” Another line, “Who created the universe? Who created that? Who created that?”

To many religions (and in this case specifically Christianity) it is alright to call upon an Eternal God to have created the Universe, but to reiterate: Why is that OK? If God can be eternal, outside of time and space, why couldn’t matter have been eternal?

Why do you draw the edge of the Universe, or the edge of time as we know it as a barrier? I am not asking this question from the perspective of science, I am actually asking from the perspective of faith. Why do you believe God can be eternal, but specifically believe that matter, the universe, and space cannot?

I will speak briefly to the science, though it is largely immaterial to this question. As it stands, we cannot get data from a time before the big bang–though this does not mean there was no time before the big bang. There are theories, though with our current tools it is impossible to say with any certainty.

Why does one need to have an answer to the “why” of the universe? Mr Wallace makes a terrible error, I think, in describing his argument for why God created the universe. Specifically, Mr Wallace cites the fact that not having a “why” answer for the universe is intellectually unsatisfying; this makes the common error of assuming the universe is an agent that cares whether you are intellectually satisfied. For the most part, Mr Wallace does not make errors such as this frequently, but he makes such assertions far too often to be fully comfortable.

The type of logic in the previous paragraph is very much an article of belief, at least in my estimation. That may be incredibly potent in confirming for oneself a personal belief, but to an outside agent such as myself it is a gross error that focuses my mind far more on similar errors. As you get further into this book, you realize the author builds the house on a foundation that requires you to accept it as you move forward, and if the foundation is sand (as it appears to me) the house will fall over sooner rather than later.

Mr Wallace describes himself frequently as an ex committed atheist, but I am not sure he knows what that would mean; I am not sure it would be possible to describe it to him, or have him truly describe it to us in a way that is truly satisfactory. This might seem simple, and on the surface it is, but when speaking about the deepest questions of the universe, of life, of belief, why should we accept the answer on the surface?

Wallace describes himself as being a committed atheist in the past due to his outright rejection of the supernatural, of the idea that there is no ‘magic’, so to speak. He does not describe the evidence that led him to this belief, but being as he was raised Roman Catholic, we have to assume there was an event or a thought that led him away from the Church, though I haven’t read what that might be (Cold Case Christianity, a book very highly regarded in apologetic circles, is on my reading list still). That being said, it does tell us a lot about him; Wallace is a man who needs answers. The need for an answer led him away from the Church, I believe, in that he thought God did not give him the answers he was looking for in his younger years. The need for answers led him back to the Church, when science was unable to tell him why the universe existed–and for this assertion, I have his book God’s Crime Scene as reference.

Why am I going on about this? Mostly because I need to relate it to other types of belief. To do this, I’ll describe why I believe what I believe and how it relates and contrasts to being a “committed atheist”.

I do not believe there is “No God”. That being said, I do not believe there is “A God”. Personally, the question of why the universe exists is academic to me; the answer, either way, would satisfy curiosity in me but would not largely affect my life one way or another. Why should it?

I believe you should be good to other people and animals, and yet I am an atheist. Most Christians seem, for reasons still unclear to me, to find this reasoning unsatisfactory. Why should I need a perfect standard of Goodness, as so many apologists claim God is, to decide the morality of an action? I will admit, I subscribe to a certain type of moral relativism, but there is no perfect standard in my world.

How do I justify my morals, then? That’s fairly simple, and it is certainly something the dedicated apologist may latch on to and claim as their own, but here it is:

Don’t do to other people things that I don’t want them to do to me. It’s basically the golden rule, and even Jesus himself seemed to think it could be somewhat divorced from the Bible (as he was a Jew, and to disregard The Law would have been anathema). Why should I have more of a right to be happy than someone else? To reword, as I am wont to do, if an action would make me unhappy, I should not do that thing to someone else. If an action results in positive happiness, if that action were done to me and would make me happy, then there is an argument for its improving the world.

“But Chad, how can you say a rapist isn’t acting morally then?” This is a rewording of a frequent charge levied against the atheist by several religions. In this case, I have an answer, though: who is made unhappy by the rape? Just the victim? No, the victim, their family, their friends, the public at large, is made unhappy by the act. “Ok, but why are they made unhappy?”

Some times, the amount of effort strong apologists put into justifying rape “on behalf of the atheist” is frankly fucking disturbing. I don’t like swearing, but it is really justified in my mind here. “You can’t objectively define the morality of rape, therefore it is OK to you.” How the hell does one make that charge?

I am sorry about that aside, but it is something that really bothers me. The reason they are made unhappy, to get back on topic, is simple; something was done to a loved one that the loved one did not want to happen to them. To go one step further, something very preventable that someone did not want to happen to them happened to them. Had the person who was raped said “Yes, I am OK with having sex with this person,” it is not rape. That may seem obvious, but for some reason I feel compelled to mention it. The difference between “love” and “rape” is two or three letters long; “yes,” or “no.”

And that is where the moral line gets drawn.

This is just one small example, one part of the large question of “why?” Why do I believe what I believe? To me, the perfect world is one where everyone is happy. “Why?” Because I want to be happy, I enjoy the feeling. “Why?” I am wired that way. “Why?” Survival, probably, but even if it isn’t directly related to survival, why should the why need an answer? To restate something from above, it would be nice, but in this case is not required.

If answering “why” isn’t required for the big questions, why should it be required for the small questions? Now we are getting into waters murkier than I am qualified to answer, so I will just give some opinions.

I would like to know why Mr Wallace considered himself a “committed atheist.” I do not need the answer to this question, but it would resolve a lot of my curiosity. I think the reason he became an atheist would give a great deal of insight to the reason he went back to Christianity.

Let’s go further down the path of why I believe what I believe.

To use Wallace’s own analogies, I think the legal system is somewhat flawed, and based too strongly on the human desire for answers. I know that criminal courts work on the idea of “innocent until proven guilty,” and “guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” but the problem is that many innocent people end up in jail. This is because there are only two possible verdicts in the criminal justice system, “guilty” or “not guilty,” and I think that entire line of thought permeates humans too strongly. I can see why this might be, since it is not so easy to tell a person “we don’t know if you murdered Chuck, but we’re watching you.” That being said, the question of “Is there a God” shouldn’t require an immediate answer–an atemporal being who exists outside of Time and Space can probably wait for us to answer the question. If belief in God is a requirement to get into Heaven, Heaven will be full of people who care little for science or evidence, care little for the exercise of the human mind, which is an odd thing. A quote that has always resonated with me is:

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.” -Attributed to Galileo

I would find it confusing to think that the God who gave us these senses would ask us to believe in Him without evidence. YECs would tell me that they have all the evidence they need, but in full ignorance of the irony, they can only translate that evidence under the presupposition that the Bible is correct and true. I have never heard of a non-Christian scientist who has viewed the evidence and decided that the Earth is 6000 years old; that should worry them. When the YECs make statements along the lines of telling scientists to get off their lawn because they have the answers, I always think the same thing: “If your science is correct, secular scientists will eventually agree with you.” I don’t see that happening, but if they are right, and scientists are open minded, we’ll get there.

I don’t believe they are right, and I believe the evidence against them is nearly insurmountable, but I also realize the science of tomorrow will be as incomprehensible to me as astrophysics would be the a citizen of Rome in 300CE.

Let’s talk about presuppositions, while my mind is in that direction. Scientists are accused of presupposing the world is ancient, that the universe is older than that, etc, etc. It’s so odd, since these were not the first assumptions made by human scientists and philosophers. The idea that the world is millions or billions of years old has no supporting declarations prior to the 18th century, or thereabouts. Before then, people believed the earth was fairly young (the date of 10,000-6,000 years old was a 15th century hypothesis, as I recall). The point here is that the scientists were seeing a deluge of evidence that suggested that the Earth was older than generally assumed, and were working on moving their model of the Earth in accordance with the emerging body of evidence. The funny thing is how obvious some of that evidence is; to quote Bill Nye’s outburst from the Nye/Ham debate: “There are trees older than you think the Earth is.”

On the other hand, it is their scientists who defend their presupposition as correct. Why is it correct? Because the Bible said so. There is no amount of evidence that would dissuade them, as evinced by Ham’s declaration of that very statement during the debate.

That is the difference, in circumspect, between a hardline (committed) atheist and a scientist, I think. There are certainly scientists who are willing to make a strong prediction (Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins come to mind) but they make this prediction less out of presupposed belief than because it fits the evidence as they see it more closely. If the evidence aligns with the idea of God, then I would imagine you would have several scientists citing not the Bible, but the evidence. As it stands, even the scientists who stand on the side of YEC word their discoveries in ways that would be considered scientifically dishonest; “and thus, you see that the experiment fits within [book] [chapter]:[verse].” That isn’t how you should do science, not as the scientific method is concerned. When you can say “This evidence points to an Earth that is 6,000 years old specifically, and addresses concerns such as 11,000 year old trees, 500,000 year old ice sheets, and all the other hosts of evidence that suggest the world is older than my hypothesis,” then you will have a lot of people starting to take notice. As it stands, I do not presuppose the world is old, but the current evidence as I understand it is that the world is, at the very least, over 500,000 years old. I do not understand enough of the specific methods of geology to make a definitive statement that the Earth is definitely 4 billion years old… That being said, I do believe the Earth is 4 billion (or so) years old, as I do trust the wide body of evidence that attests to this fact.

If we find something that proves we have been wrong, then we’ll go with that. One of the theories proposed by YECs that would account for various dating methods is a period of accelerated decay. “Before the flood,” goes the reasoning, “radioactive elements decayed at a drastically increased rate.” Never mind that there is no proof that this happened other than “it would fit the Bible,” what about the fact that the world would be far more irradiated? That being said, this is an example of a place where, if they could produce evidence that shows this did happen, then I would revise my model of the world. Hell, as of February of 2015, new evidence suggests the Big Bang model is incorrect… But not because the universe is younger–it is because the universe is much older. (I only just discovered this research while looking up stuff for this mess of a post.)

The Big Bang, goes the new theory, was just another event that occurred in a much older universe.

And, if the research bears out, my internal model of the universe will change to account for this new information, rather than stubbornly clinging to an outdated model.

Funny how that is.