Category Archives: Religion

Broad is the Road to Moral Insanity

Slacktivist recently posted a very insightful series called Unlearning the Lies We Learned from the Theologians of Slavery. Briefly, he points out that many of the great Protestant theologians who are America’s spiritual Founding Fathers supported slavery or even owned slaves — men like Jonathan Edwards (yes, even in the North!), Patrick Henry and George Whitefield. Slacktivist shows that this disturbing truth ought to challenge us in many ways. Do read his whole series, but I’d like to focus on one sentence from Part 4:

You have to get a host of other things wrong in order to arrive at the place where you get that one thing [slavery] wrong.

What wrong steps did Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield take that made that final step of justifying slavery seem perfectly sensible and even godly? Might we have already taken some of those steps?

As a former conservative Christian who walked the same path as Edwards et al, I suggest the road to moral insanity can go something like this…

  1. You believe that you are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and this gives you a supernatural edge in deciding moral questions: you can understand scripture and hear God’s voice more reliably than people who do not “know God.”
  2. In fact, you are taught to distrust non-believers’ ideas as non-spiritual “worldly wisdom” or worse.
  3. From that privileged position, you allow yourself a moral epistemology that you deny to others. When a fundamentalist Muslim arrives at obviously inhuman morality based on the Koran, you wonder how he can be so blind. “Why don’t his conclusions lead him do question his scriptures?” you ask. But when the same hermeneutic is applied to the Bible to arrive at positions that the rest of society has come to agree are harmful (e.g., the condemnation of homosexuality), you defend the process as being “faithful to God’s Word.”
  4. Having fully embraced an epistemology that has, by your own account, failed everywhere else it has been tried, you are well-prepared for final steps to moral insanity.
  5. You encounter passages in the Bible about, in this case, slavery. Although you are a good person, the plain reading of the text is that God not only tolerates slavery, but actually commanded his people to enslave whole cities full of people that were at a distance, minding their own business. The New Testament provides not a glimmer of relief for slaves, with Jesus’ parables casting God himself as a harsh slave-owner, and Paul teaching that slaves should obey their masters, rather than teaching masters to free their slaves.
  6. Although you are a kind person and would never in a thousand years have tried to justify slavery on your own, far be it from you to deny the authority of God’s Word. You come up with excuses for it. If you are Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, living in a culture where a consensus against slavery has not yet emerged, you positively endorse it as part of God’s Order.
  7. As I outlined in my last post, you are now mired in the same moral insanity as ISIS, for exactly the same reasons.

Maybe you think, “I’m quite sane, thank you very much. I don’t support slavery at all. I’m completely against it.”

Really? Have you repudiated God’s commands to enslave in the Bible, or do you justify them with one lame excuse or another?

When your Bible tells you that God commanded genocide, do you blame the victims, or do you say that genocide is wrong, period, therefore the Bible is wrong?

When the Bible commands a man to stone his own wife to death if she expresses the slightest desire for religious freedom, what is your reaction? Do you justify this command as “God forming his people” or do you say that no amount of historical context can justify stoning one’s wife?

These are all markers of moral sanity.

Although slavery, genocide and religious freedom are no longer a sources of controversy in America, we are fighting other battles in the culture wars, with same-sex marriage and abortion rights being the most active and long-running. More lately, a flare-up has started over contraception. In each case, the spiritual heirs of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield appear to be on the wrong side of history.

Jesus said, “The gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. The gate is small and the way narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

As we consider the questions that stand where the slavery question stood 150 years ago, I would add, “Be careful. The gate to moral insanity can look a lot like the gate to God’s Kingdom, and the road can appear to be the road of faith.”

Countering Our Own Prejudice

One of my kids asked me today, “How can a person prevent herself from being prejudiced? I have a bad impression of the culture of [a certain country], and when I meet someone from there, it’s very hard not to assume he’s like that.”

One strategy that arose in our conversation was to remember what “bad” groups we are members of, and how we don’t conform to the stereotypes.

We’re American and I imagine the picture the rest of the world has of us. Compared to most developed countries, we have far more crime, yet we insist on having permissive gun-ownership laws; we have more people in prison than any country on Earth, yet we style ourselves as the moral beacon of the world; our government is incredibly dysfunctional when it comes to caring for the poor, but we always seem to have enough money to invade other countries; we want the world to trust our leadership, but we spy even on our friends; we like to tell other countries to respect their citizens’ rights and the rights of their neighbors, yet it was not all that long ago that we stole the bulk of our continent from Native Americans and Mexico; we are the only country ever to have have used a nuclear weapon in war, and we have done it twice; our academic scores are well behind many less-developed countries’ and we seem determined to remain ignorant, with large numbers of us denying climate change and evolution. I could go on and on.

Yet, if you meet an American on the street, chances are he’s a normal, nice person with a decent moral core.

Sometimes, our prejudice toward someone arises from assuming he will live up to the dangerous implications of his ideology. But most people don’t. Most people quietly ignore those parts of their belief system that are particularly bad.

They have learned to do so because they are carried along by a civilization that has moved on from the early days of their ideologies. You won’t find Jews today in favor of slavery or genocide even though God commanded both in the Hebrew Bible. Christians don’t torture people into professing orthodox faith anymore even though they once thought it a good idea since an eternity in heaven or hell was in the balance.

If we are open to the possibility that other people don’t conform to their stereotypes any more than we do to ours, I think most people will pleasantly surprise us.

Polite Abhorrence

This is what discrimination and hatred look like in polite society.

When considering the possibility of a ministry to these people [in same-sex unions], a distinction must be made between those who have made a personal, and often painful, choice and live that choice discreetly so as not to give scandal to others, and those whose behaviour promotes and actively – often aggressively – calls attention to it.

That was from paragraph 116 of the Instrumentum Laboris recently published by the Vatican. I read about it on CNN’s Belief Blog, where the headline was Vatican softens tone toward gays and lesbians. CNN says the Vatican was softening its tone. So why do I call this discrimination and hatred?

We are so acculturated to this sort of polite abhorrence that we don’t notice it. Allow me to recast the sleepy, pastoral language more plainly. The boldfaced words draw directly from the Vatican’s statement.

We prefer to minister to homosexuals who are ashamed of themselves — those whose choice has been painful. Ideally, they will stay discreetly in the closet. If they were to make their same-sex union known, we would be scandalized. It is important that they avoid causing us pain, but it is entirely good and appropriate if they feel pain. Our pain is bad; theirs is good.

In case there’s any doubt about the continuing second-class status of homosexuals in the Catholic church, we have this four paragraphs later:

Should a reasonable doubt exist in the capability of persons in a same sex union to instruct the child in the Christian faith, proper support is to be secured in the same manner as for any other couple seeking the baptism of their children. In this regard, other people in their family and social surroundings could also provide assistance. In these cases, the pastor is carefully to oversee the preparation for the possible baptism of the child, with particular attention given to the choice of the godfather and godmother.

Again, very polite and very condescending. There’s the tight-lipped, smiling nod in the direction of treating same-sex couples “in the same manner” as heterosexual ones. But does anyone think that a heterosexual couple would be scrutinized to the extent that baptism — the rite without which a soul is doomed (paragraph 1250 of the Catechism here) — would be called “the possible baptism of their child”? Or that there would be nervous fidgeting about other people providing assistance? Or that particular attention would be given to the choice of godparents?

The whole world loves the new pope and the changes he is bringing to the church. Even I love him. I hope that the current trend toward welcoming everyone continues and in 10 years homosexuals will be neither living scandals nor second-class parents.

On Moral Vision

I was recently informed that my moral standards have “lowered” since walking away from my faith. It’s true that some things that I once considered sins are no longer on my Thou Shalt Not list. Homosexual relationships would be in that category. Touching on what is apparently the most important moral issue in the evangelical church, I no longer equate early-stage abortions with murder. And of course, I score a big fat zero on the Greatest Commandment.

I granted my conversation partner’s premise and we moved on from there.

As Blackadder said to Prince George, “It is so often the way, sir: too late one thinks of what one should have said. Sir Thomas More, for instance, burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism, must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, ‘I recant my Catholicism.'”

What I should have said was, “My moral standards have not lowered. They have sharpened.

“The Bible was the lens through which I used to see the moral world. It gave excellent vision of the basic moral truths: tell the truth, don’t steal, and so on. However, there were some dirty spots on that lens. Looking for truths about slavery, genocide, the treatment of womenhumane slaughter of animals, or even discrimination against the handicapped, one learns that the lens is not as clean as one would wish.

“Most people already have great moral vision for the basics, with or without the Bible. Our problem is that we suffer from various astygmatisms of prejudice. We don’t trust people who are not in our tribe — our race, our religion, our political party, our culture. We tend to over-trust people who are like us. We also over-trust ourselves: our cognitive biases systematically prevent us from seeing the truth.

“The most pernicious is confirmation bias, and faith-based morality sinks an arrow deep in that Achilles’ heel.

“I’ve traded the biblical lens for one that sees morality in terms of the well-being of sentient creatures. Although it may be harder to learn to use that lens than to read a book, it is cleaner than the book I had been using.

“I realize that my biases are hard to correct. That’s why I study them and blog about what I learn and learn and learn.

“My new lens is not perfect, but I think I see sharper now than I used to, and I hope my vision will continue to improve.”

That’s what I should have said. Now I’ve said it.

Why the Big Bang Does Not Imply a Creator

If nobody is around and there’s a Big Bang, does that mean Someone clapped?

Where I come from most people would say yes. As Robert Jastrow famously put it:

Consider the enormity of the problem. Science has proved that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks: What cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter or energy into the universe? And science cannot answer these questions…

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

I’ve been reading Brian Greene’s book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Law of the Cosmos. What a talent that man has for explaining things!

He points out that even in light of the Big Bang, it’s quite possible that the universe is both infinite and eternal. “But wait!” you say. “The Big Bang means there was a beginning, doesn’t it? And how can the universe start from a point and become infinite after only 13.7 billion years?”

While the Big Bang may have been the beginning of our universe, it could have been just one of an infinite number of Big Bangs in an eternal multiverse. The multiverse may be infinitely large and infinitely old.

There was a time when I thought the multiverse was just a wishful invention of scientists who were looking for any scenario that did not require a Creator God. However, as both Brian Greene’s book and Lawrence Kraus’s book, A Universe from Nothing, explain, multiverse scenarios are a natural consequence of the known laws of quantum physics.

Nor are these untestable speculations. You may have heard in the news recently that one key component of most multiverse models, known as cosmic inflation, has received stunning empirical support.

I like this continuation to Jastrow’s story from the Skeptic’s Play blog:

After staying a while to share some stories with the theologians, the scientist begins to explore the surrounding area. Soon he realizes that the mountain goes much higher, but the path is poorly marked and obscured in fog. He points it out to the theologians, but they cannot see the markings.

“How did you get this far?”

“God guided us here.”

“Can God guide you further?”

They cannot agree amongst themselves. Some declare they are already at the peak. Others speculate that there is no peak, and thus no reason to continue. Still others say, “Yes, God will guide us,” and begin to wander in the direction pointed out by the scientist, to become forever obscured in the mist.

The scientist prepares to leave, bringing only a few theologians with him. He slowly continues to scale the mountain, meticulously checking every rock, and occasionally backtracking for days at a time.

Those would not be the last theologians he would pass by.

Euthyphro’s Dilemma

I still remember the moment when it dawned on me, as a Christian, that God could not be the source of right and wrong. I was sitting on a stool at our kitchen counter, next to the cereal cabinet (where I often found myself) when it popped into my mind, unbidden.

Do we say God is good because he conforms to an absolute standard of goodness, or must we define goodness as “how God happens to be”?

If God merely conforms to The Good, then he is not the source of it.

On the second option, the sentence “God is good” is redundant. We might as well end the sentence at “God is.” The word “good” contributes no meaning.

I later learned that this is a variation of a dilemma that Plato posed in one of his plays. He has Socrates ask Euthyphro, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Or, as the comic strip Jesus and Mo puts it…
Jesus and Mo - Euthyphro

This is known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Various responses have been given, but none of them truly escape it.

All my adult life, I had believed that God was the source of Good. Without him, morals and ethics could not exist. Now I realized that if that were true, then right and wrong must be arbitrary — just rules God had made for no reason at all, or at least not for any reason that pertained to their intrinsic justice.

Ironically, my conviction that right, wrong and justice are real had had a lot to do with my becoming a Christian. Now that same conviction was to become an early factor in the unraveling of my faith.

I faced the choice of

  • admitting that right and wrong were just God’s caprice, or
  • admitting that God was not the ultimate source of Good, or
  • admitting that right and wrong do not exist.

Eventually (and for reasons that had nothing to do with Euthyphro’s Dilemma), I went with the second option.

How about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you believe in God.

In Which Belief Becomes Culture and Gains Respect

Not long after I became a Christian, Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late, Great Planet Earth stormed onto the scene. I well remember being convinced by its interpretation of biblical prophecy — that the world would come to an end within “one generation” of the 1948 founding of Israel. With a biblical generation supposedly being 40 years, that would mean by 1988.

I was not alone. The book was a best-seller and the latest wave of end-times prophecy mania was on. For me, this was a positive experience: God was in control of history and great events were just around the corner.

However, some people are more compassionate than I was and are not as eager for the world to end, as we will see in a moment.

One aspect of end-times prophecy commonly taught in the evangelical church is that the original Temple must be rebuilt before Jesus will return. The original site is where the Dome of the Rock (the famous golden dome of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque) now stands. Obviously it must be cleared away before the Temple can be rebuilt. Putting two and two together, a sign of the imminent return of Christ must be the destruction of the al-Aqsa Mosque.

The al-Askari Mosque

The al-Askari Mosque

In 2006, the al-Askari mosque in Iraq was bombed. It, too, has (or had) a golden dome. When one of my daughters, who had been brought up in the evangelical church, saw this on the news, she was visibly shaken. “Dad it has begun.”

“What has begun?” I asked.

“The end of the world,” she replied.

I quickly assured her that this was only the al-Askari Mosque in Iraq, and not the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. She was relieved, but as I look back on this episode I am not relieved at all.

First of all, I am ashamed that my daughter was ever afraid of anything because of nonsense she had heard on my watch.

Thankfully, she is past that, but I am still not relieved. I am concerned that millions of people live in fear that the world is about to end. Worse, millions more are looking forward to it — with bad consequences that are beyond the scope of this post.

This fear (or joyful anticipation) is the direct result of religious belief. In American culture, religious belief is accorded an enormous amount of deference.

Suppose a father were to tell his impressionable child, “The world is going to end soon. Before that happens (and it could happen at any moment), you must agree that the Moon is made of cheese and turn your life over to the Man in the Moon. If you don’t, then when the world ends he will fling you into the Outer Darkness for all eternity and you will never see your family again.” We would call such a father abusive, wouldn’t we?

But when an entire evangelical movement says something not unlike that, we don’t call it abuse. We call it “the evangelical culture” and grant it all the respect due any religious opinion in America.

In case you are able to shrug your shoulders at that, I’ll close with a quotation* from Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape. (Warning: graphic content ahead.)

If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely the person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes “culture,” and thereby becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western “moral thinkers,” including feminists.

Genital mutilation is not common in America, but can we reflect for a moment on the beliefs we do hold that are in themselves horrible, but have become so widespread that they gain respect as “culture”?

* – The quotation is actually Harris quoting Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate, who was in turn quoting anthropologist Donald Symons.