Tag Archives: Morality

Is the Enlightenment a Moral Free-For-All?

As a Christian, I was always suspicious of the Enlightenment. I associated it with the idea that “man is the measure of all things” and a rejection of God.

If man is the measure of all things, we must be in a moral free-for-all, right? Why should your moral ideas take primacy over mine?

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of the wonderful Plato At the Googleplex, recently wrote a review of a book by Matthew Crawford in which she sets the record straight.

[Crawford] believes that Enlightenment thinkers, in rejecting the old sources of authority, left every person with nothing to resort to but his particular point of view, muddling through both the “is” and the “ought” all on his own.

Such an extreme warping of Enlightenment ideas about knowledge is a bit like saying that the Catholic Church has just got to stop pushing its radical atheist agenda on us. The last thing the Enlightenment aimed to do was overthrow the very idea of intellectual and moral authorities. Rather, it was about insisting that any authority must be established by arguments that can be evaluated by others exercising their cognitive capacities—the antithesis of subjectivism.

Lately, the project of using Enlightenment ideas to derive “ought” from “is” has gotten a boost from books such as Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape and Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc. They are in line with Goldstein’s characterization of Enlightenment thought:

[For Enlightenment thinkers] only certain kinds of justification for beliefs would be countenanced—namely those that were, in principle, accessible to all humans relying only on our shared cognitive capacities. Insisting on this standard was the Enlightenment’s revolution. There could be no privileged knowers who appealed to special sources of knowledge—available to them by way of heavenly revelation, or authoritative status, or intimations to which their group was privy.

How about you? Can you justify your ethical convictions with reasoning and evidence that are available to all? Or do you feel that “ought” cannot be derived from “is” and morality can only come from God?

Next time: What if an Enlightenment thinker were to be struck by an apparent divine revelation? Should he believe it?

Same-Sex Marriage vs Tradition

In the last post, we heard from from John Trandem, interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition. If we were to legitimize same-sex marriage, he said, “how would we .. be able to exclude [marriage between] two men and two women or three men or three women…?”

Marriage between one man and one woman, he pointed out, has two things going for it that these other variations do not: biology and tradition.

The last post was about biology. Now let’s talk about tradition.

We can presume that when conservatives in America cite “tradition” they mean Judeo-Christian, or biblical, tradition. This is the tradition on which conservatives like to say our counry was founded. Okay, then.

Like the argument from biology, the argument from biblical tradition has a nasty way of curling back to bite those who trot it out.

For starters, biblical tradition is firmly rooted in polygamy. The Bible mentions two wives of Moses. Abraham had an unkown number of concubines (second-class wives) in addition to his wife, Sarah. I won’t mention Solomon, who had 700 wives, because the Bible does say that kings should not get carried away like that. His father, king David, was a monk by comparison, having only 7 wives, plus maybe a couple of others that are in dispute.

But what could be greater evidence of the polygamous root of Judeo-Christian tradition than the fact that the very 12 tribes of Israel descend from Jacob’s four wives?

The predominantly Mormon state of Utah was not allowed to join the United States until it agreed to outlaw polygamy. Where were God’s culture warriors when this abridgement of biblical norms was being foisted on patriotic Americans?

In addition to wives and concubines, Hebrew men were free to have sex with their slaves. In the chapter of the Bible that immediately follows the Ten Commandments, we find God’s regulations for sex slavery. A man could sell his daughter to a fellow Hebrew, who was then under obligation to continue to have sex with her (presumably so she could have the honor of bearing children) even as he married additional women. Alternatively, he could sell her back if she did not “satisfy him” or he could give her to one of his sons if he chose.

Now there’s a nice family value: Have sex with your servant-girl and then give her to your son for more of the same.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife gave him a hard time for fathering a child by his housekeeper, where was the outcry from conservatives? (The outcry against his wife, I mean.) Why didn’t traditionalists support Arnold as he upheld the proud biblical tradition of impregnating one’s servants? He was even a Republican, for cryin’ out loud! It’s shameful how people won’t stand up for the Bible.

No study of the wondrous variety of marriage arrangements in the Good Book would be complete without mention of the final, glorious act of Moses, the great Law-Giver of Judeo-Christian tradition. This was to direct the distribution of 32,000 virgin war-captives to his soldiers and sundry others. As recorded in Numbers 31, these girls were parceled out exactly like the cattle that were also taken as “plunder and spoils” of war. It is stated at least 4 times in this chapter that Moses did all this in accordance with God’s direct command (verses 25, 31, 41, and 47).

Numbers 31 does not tell us whether any of the virgins got to update their Facebook status from “plunder” to “wife.” We can only hope. If they did, Deuteronomy 21:10-14 gave God’s instructions for how the Hebrew men were to arrange the marriage — and terminate it at will if the girl whose parents and brothers had been slaughtered by her new husband’s army does not manage to “please him” sufficiently.

We have all been horrified by ISIS’ enslavement and plunder of women in recent months, or Boko Haram’s practice of capturing girls and marrying them off to their soldiers. Why won’t advocates of “traditional marriage” speak up and tell the rest of us that ISIS and Boko Haram are acting exactly as God commanded in the Bible?

Never mind; I know the answer to that one. It’s because it’s bad when Muslims do it, but God’s righteous judgment when those in our spiritual tradition do the same thing.

By the time of the New Testament, the Jews were subject to Rome and were in no position to wage war and get wives by capturing them. However, polygamy was still practiced among both Jews and early Christians. In fact, it was pagan Rome that finally outlawed the practice.

So maybe it is Roman tradition that opponents of same-sex marriage really want? Probably not.

Maybe tradition is not all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe we’re better off thinking for ourselves.

Same-Sex Marriage vs Biology

What do you think of this exchange between NPR host David Greene and John Trandem, who owns an auto body shop in North Dakota?

TRANDEM: I don’t think it’s a matter of whether or not you legalize same-sex marriage. It’s a matter of whether or not you remove the definition of marriage. You know, if marriage is defined as an institution involving one man and one woman, that’s what it is. If you want to create a union with a man and you’re a man, that’s not marriage. And under the guise of equality, if we were to … amend the definition of marriage to include one man and one man, how would we logically and rationally be able to exclude two men and two women or three men or three women if equality is the endgame?

GREENE: Three men and three women, like three people getting married or…

TRANDEM: I’d say six people getting – well, it doesn’t matter. … The magic behind the number two [man and woman] is biology – which we’re getting rid of that – and tradition. And we’re getting rid of that.

Mr. Trandem is very articulate, isn’t he? If you listen to the audio version, you’ll also discover that he’s an earnest, decent-sounding man. But I think he might be surprised at what can unfold once arguments from “biology” and “tradition” are opened.

In this post, I’ll consider the “biology” argument. The plea to tradition will be the subject of the next post.

The argument from biology, as I’ve usually heard it stated, is not that homosexual behavior is unknown elsewhere in the animal kingdom. It does occur, although bisexuality would better describe what goes on in the vast majority of cases.

Rather, the argument from biology centers on the fact that a homosexual marriage cannot produce children. That alone, the argument goes, should be enough to indicate that such marriages are unnatural and wrong.

Really? Do those who make such arguments say that a fertile man ought not marry an infertile woman? Or that two infertile people should never marry? Of course they don’t. They know that companionship, pleasure and fidelity are justification enough for both sex and marriage. Homosexual couples have all of those.

“But at least sex in a barren heterosexual marriage looks like sex in a fertile one,” they say. “At least they are going through the same motions.”

Are the motions what’s important? If we’re making an argument from biology, isn’t the actual biology what’s important? And isn’t the actual biological result in both cases (homosexual marriage and childless heterosexual marriage) the same?

The argument from biology also turns on those who use it in a way that might strike closer to home. If we want an institution of marriage that favors reproductive success, then, like so many of our mammal cousins, we should push for marriage between one dominant male and several females, leaving the other males out in the cold.

An alpha wolf might look at our society and sneer, “Those awful humans. They let anyone mate! Even the weak get to have children. It just ain’t natural! And it’s not good for the species, either.”

In short, the argument from biology will take its aherents where they don’t want to go. Applied consistently, it will force them to prohibit some heterosexual marriages, and maybe even call the whole idea of monogamy into question.


Next time: the argument from tradition.

Did God Guide the Evolution of Morality?

About a third of Americans believe “humans have developed over millions of years from less-advanced forms of life, but God guided this process.” That sounds like a solution that will please everyone, doesn’t it? The scientist’s theory of evolution is accepted and the believer’s God has a central role. *

Few people on either side of the debate would find that position threatening. It’s a different story when we talk about the evolution of morality. Somehow a naturalistic explanation for our moral sense strikes closer to home than a naturalistic explanation for life itself. In some ways, our moral sense is a more important and cherished component of our identity than our physical bodies.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis pointed to our shared moral sense as evidence of God. We yearn for right rather than wrong; how could we long for something that does not exist? We thirst for water, which exists, rather than for an imaginary liquid. In the same way, our thirst for righteousness strongly suggests that there is such a thing.

Let us agree, then, that there is such as thing as right and wrong. Could evolution, rather than God, account for our sense of it?

I have heard it argued as recently as this morning that evolution could not have been the wellspring of morality. The competition-to-the-death that drives evolution could never result in anything like the moral sense we all have. Evolution could only produce creatures more and more efficient and ruthless. By now, we should all be Nazis. The atrocities of the Islamic State should be the norm.

Before responding, let’s be sure we understand the assertion. It is that no purely physical (i.e., godless) mechanism could possibly produce the moral sense we share. If we were to inspect the process without allowing God into the picture, it would not hold together.

That makes it unlike theistic biological evolution. The adherents of God-guided biological evolution say that he nudged mutations at key points so they were not random, although his work was subtle enough as not to be obvious. If I flip a coin five times and the outcome is heads every time, you might suspect that I cheated by “guiding” the process, but you would not say it’s impossible for a five-heads sequence to occur all by itself. C.S. Lewis and others who make the argument from morality are saying that it is impossible for the moral order we observe to occur as the result of a purely physical process.

Richard Dawkins more than refuted this almost 40 years ago in his book, The Selfish Gene. I posted a little series summarizing the book three winters ago. To boil it down even further, the argument goes like this. The unit of evolution is the gene, not the organism, for it is the genes that are doing the mutating. The genes (not the organisms) that produce the most copies of themselves are the evolutionarily successful ones. Copies of one’s genes exist most abundantly in one’s kin, and then in one’s tribe, race, species, and genus, in that order. Therefore, genes that manage to induce in their host bodies an instinct to aid the survival of one’s kin, tribe, race, etc., will promote more copies of themselves. Cooperation becomes a survival strategy, not necessarily for the organisms but for the genes. And indeed we see great cooperation and sacrifice for family members, a strong but somewhat lesser loyalty to tribe, and so on down the line — just as a gene-centered explanation of cooperation predicts.

What is the first rule of cooperation? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That also happens to be the basis for all morality, according to Jesus himself. Voila!

A purely physical, perfectly sensible explanation for morality has been found. Believers have declared this to be impossible. Indeed some, following C.S. Lewis, have made this the linchpin of their argument for God. Will they now recant? In the spirit of truth, will they admit their error from their pulpits and in conversations with the unconverted? Will they even read Dawkins’ short book before they decide not do to so?


* – Young-earth creationists are unhappy with theistic evolution because, to them, it directly contradicts the gospel. They believe that Adam and Eve were real people and death — physical death — entered the world because of Adam’s sin. There was no death before Adam, so eons of “survival of the fittest” could not have happened. This is not a fringe view, by the way, according to the same Gallup poll cited above, just under half of Americans believe “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”

How Far Would You Go to Prevent the Extinction of the Human Race?

In the movie Snowpiercer, a disastrous attempt at controlling climate change has exterminated all of humanity except the passengers on a high-tech train ruthlessly run by Ed Harris’ character, Wilford. An interesting question that comes up is what actions would be justified to keep the human race from going extinct.

If you were in charge of humanity in crisis, which would you choose: killing some people to keep the ecological balance, or letting everyone live, with the result that all will die sooner rather than later?

To hear Ed Harris / Wilford tell it, of course you should keep humanity alive — by any means necessary. But why? The human race will go extinct at some point. Wouldn’t it mean more if we were to reach a pinnacle of love and starve to death in each others’ arms, than if we were to survive another few hundred years in savagery?

The universe will go on without us.  There is a lot of beauty in the way it unfolds. Isn’t quality more important than quantity in any work of art?

What do you think? How far would you go to keep humanity alive?

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.”

ISIS, Evangelicals, and the Mantle of Moral Leadership

Even if you’re reading this ten years from now, I doubt you’ll have forgotten the horrifying events of the summer of 2014.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have, among other atrocities, besieged members of the Yazidi religious sect at the Sinjar mountain, where children have died of thirst; they have captured and enslaved hundreds of Yazidi women after killing their male relatives; and they have issued “convert or die” ultimatums to hundreds of other members of this often-persecuted minority, slaughtering at least one entire village that refused. ISIS have not been kind to anyone, but they seem to have an especially large ax to grind with the Yazidis, holding them to be polytheistic devil-worshipers who should not be allowed to live.

How can this happen in the 21st century? Haven’t we arrived at the point where every person on the planet knows it’s wrong to besiege a religious minority, to enslave and rape its women, and to kill its men? Have we not learned that nothing can possibly justify this behavior — not even even the demands of the One True Religion?

Apparently not. But at least we Americans have gotten the memo, right?

Again, apparently not. I have heard more than one such American use the same thinking as ISIS to justify the same behavior as ISIS and defend a tribalistic morality that is just like ISIS’. I have heard this from Americans who are nice people and whom I otherwise respect. Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be; there are tens of millions of Americans who hold these views.

I am thinking, of course, of American evangelicals. Before you close your browser, hear me out.

Consider Bible passages like Deuteronomy 20:10-15, in which the God evangelicals worship commands his people (verse 15) to besiege (verse 12) members of other religions, and enslave them (verse 11), treating women as “plunder” to be “used” (verse 14) after killing their male relatives (verse 13).

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

As Christians who believe the Bible is God’s Word, evangelicals must defend God’s commands in this passage as “good” — and they do. As a member of that group for 40 years, I heard all the reasons.

“Those nations were evil and deserved what they got” is the primary one. “He had to drive the infidels out of the Promised Land” is another. “He was forming his people” is a third.

That sounds a lot like “This is where the Islamic State belongs and these Yazidi devils who are in it now don’t deserve to live,” doesn’t it?

But what if evangelicals are right? What if God really did have good reasons for ordering genocide, enslavement, and the plundering of women? Is that possible?

The thought is not as crazy as it sounds. Ironically, the idea that some entities are justly privileged to do things that others may not is what the rule of law is all about. Think about it. The State gets to put criminals in jail, but if a private citizen does the same thing, it’s called kidnapping. The State may impose a fine, to be paid to itself, but if a person does that it’s called stealing.

So is God like the State, meting out justice in ways for which the rest of us are not qualified? Not in the case we are considering. The claim that God is perfectly just, coupled with the claim that he is omnipotent, implies that whatever he is up to in Deuteronomy 20 is the best of all possible worlds. What we call atrocities are, in fact, the highest good. His plan could not possibly be any better.

Is that true? Presumably a state of affairs in which everyone, including God, is at least as well-off would be a better one. Can we think of such an outcome?

It’s easy. Here’s one modest improvement. Surely there were children in these cities who had not yet reached the age of reason. If they worshiped another god, it was only because their parents dragged them to church, so to speak. They did not deserve to become slaves. God could have tucked in a verse along the lines of “…but every child under the age of ten, you are to raise as your own, lovingly teaching them all I have commanded.” To kill the parents and steal the children would still be barbaric, but it would be better than calling the kids “plunder” to be “used”.

And don’t even get me started on what it meant to “use” the women as plunder. Are we seriously saying that such explicit permission brought about the highest possible good?

And let’s not forget that God could have sent his Holy Spirit on these distant cities, converting them into worshipers of himself, or at least giving them the chance. He would supposedly do exactly that in a few hundred years. Why wait?

The argument that God was doing the very best that could be done, given his broader purposes, just doesn’t hold up. The hard reality is that the God of the Bible ordered the same atrocities that ISIS has committed, for much the same reasons, with just as little justification. And tens of millions of evangelicals in America continue to defend him for it.

I believe that most evangelicals have good hearts and want what’s right. I believe that if all the passages like Deuteronomy 20:10-15 were in a book other than the Bible, Christians would believe that book to be inspired by the devil himself. Yet there they are in the Bible. Christians now must choose between defending and repudiating them. As long as they continue to defend, it will be hard for some of us to believe that Christians are in touch with moral reality.

Christians who stick by those passages have the same moral epistemology as ISIS: consult an ancient text and justify whatever you find there. Why should such an epistemology, which has led to moral and humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq, be trusted in our churches?

American evangelicals want to wear the mantle of moral leadership. That’s fine, but to qualify they must stand up and thoroughly repudiate the moral philosophy of ISIS.