Of all the arguments in favor of the existence of God (or gods), the weakest are the ones that start by suggesting there should be a deity. Most importantly, they do nothing to advance the idea that there is, indeed, an almighty creator or ruler—and instead better argue that blind faith is a useful device for crowd control or individual manipulation. They place faith as a virtue over reason in cases where the two prove incompatible, which does nothing to persuade the cynic. They value the good consequences of even a tenuous or ill-justified belief over the honest process of critical evaluation—and presume wrongly, dangerously wrongly, that the latter won’t lead to the same or better outcomes.
I’ve been absorbing Christopher Hitchens‘ writing since his death last week. His work is to live on in a way his neverlasting soul most certainly won’t. He was fond of arguing not only that there’s no god, but it’s a good thing for anyone who values free will and self-determination. Why should we—clumsy assemblages of flesh and blood and tissue and hair and cartilage, blessed by fortune (though not provenance) with a useful if flawed clump of grey matter toward the top—be so hungry for tyranny? Why should we wish to hand over our will to an unknown and unknowable superior? Even if God is omniscient and omnipotent, even his judgment is beyond reproach (and the judgment of the god of any major holy book most certainly is not), why should we be so eager for subjugation?
I can see where for some, that might be appealing. Witness the outpouring of grief in North Korea for Kim Jong Il, one of the most thorough and irredeemable tyrants of modern times. There are any number of reasons why a person might prefer deference over independence—a lack of confidence in one’s own ability to think with nuance; a deep-seated comfort with submission left over from childhood, when Mom and Dad knew everything and we knew nothing; a variation on Stockholm syndrome. And all those dynamics and others might be all the more appealing when the supposed superior is said to be infallible and (in some depictions) full of love.
I have a certain sympathy for those who’d very much like there to be a god (many wishful nonbelievers and agnostics fall into this category). But Hitch wasn’t one of them, and neither am I. Give me liberty or give me death, even without a prospect of an afterlife (not that it necessarily follows that if there’s a god, there’s an afterlife, or one worth wanting—nor that if there’s an afterlife, there’s a god).
The source of morality?
Among the most common arguments for why there should be a god is the suggestion that from God comes morality. Some go further—and say that even if God may not exist, the trappings of religion and its insistence on a moral structure are necessary to hold civilization together. Both camps argue that either God or a thorough belief keep us from thieving, from killing, from raping, from wanton, hedonistic and self-interested barbarism. If we weren’t afraid of burning for all eternity in the pit, the argument goes, the world would surely go to hell.
For the nonbeliever who succeeds at keeping his own barbarism to a socially acceptable minimum, this is silly on the surface (and indeed, it’s not hard to find justification and enticement in holy books to do things considered wholly reprehensible by modern moral conventions—but more on that in a bit). But, still, let’s explore the line of thought with a little more care.
Presume, for a moment, that there is a god, and that his good and true moral instruction has been keeping the world more or less in line up until now. Put aside, for practical purposes, the inescapable observation that any number of religions with disparate rules already dominate any number of societies, and in all as well as even the most secular cultures, certain sins (if we’re to use that word) are both severely punishable by the state and recognizable as evil even to those ignorant of the law (murder’s bad pretty much wherever you go—unless, of course, the god in your corner has demanded it).
Now lets say God, as he was fond of doing for a time, makes a pronouncement—and lets say he does so in clear and unambiguous terms. “Hey all, thanks for all the devotion and whatnot—it’s been a blast,” the divine creator bellows from the heavens. “I’m sort of done keeping an eye on humanity, though. You guys have been great, but I’ve been at this for a long time, so I’m moving on. No more instructions, no more promises of reward or punishment, no more going to Heaven or Hell. Just the mortal coil from now on. Talk amongst yourselves, and all that.” And then God goes off to catch up on back episodes of Battlestar Galactica and The Wire, as he takes a well-deserved break. Good for him. God bless.
So what would happen? Surely, surely, not an orgy of murder and gross violation. Surely, not rampant theft and rape and assault. How many of us are fighting back urges for that sort of evil, held back only by the threat of retribution (and for that subset of humanity that is—how effective does the threat usually prove)? And what distortion of self-interest would lead us to break down the legal barriers and perfectly mortal punishment aimed at keeping the actual psychopaths, sociopaths and other fundamentally broken human beings at bay?
But we’d certainly see some changes. The devout Jew would taste his first strip of bacon, the Hindu would slaughter his first cow, and the Mormon would finally get a morning pick-me-up. The Sabbath day would be sacrificed, and lowly animals would not. God’s name would be taken in vain without hesitation. Mixed fabrics would no longer be unholy (though white after Labor Day presumably would). The repressed homosexual would feel free to seek out love (or lust) on his own terms.
To the nonbeliever, these sorts of changes would be somewhere between harmless and welcome. But even to the believer, it’s hard to see where any offense could remain. They’re rules for which our own sense of reason can find little or no basis, accepted (to the extent they’re accepted) only because they come from a divine authority. Any bright 4-year-old has been frustrated by the rational inadequacy of a parent’s pronouncement, “Because I said so.” At some point, absent the threat of retribution or even the sense that the aggrieved party remains aggrieved, it’s time to consider whether there’s any harm to be had in pushing back one’s bedtime—and if none can be found, to test it out.
And if God took himself out of the equation, we’d also lose the justification for any number of atrocities and bad behavior that the moral among us would never otherwise consider.
The moral man doesn’t need instruction from a higher authority to act justly—his own sense is enough. But he does need instruction from a presumably just superior to violate that sense. This can often be useful and productive for society. The moral soldier with no inclination toward murder needs to believe (sometimes correctly) that the order to kill serves a greater good, and has been issued by an authority more capable of making that judgment than he. When the judgment comes from god, there’s no question as to its merit.
But a study of any major religion suggests they should be. Hateful and destructive acts are not only committed in the name of religion (even the most devout clergy would acknowledge that happens time and again)—they’re committed at the behest of religion, under the instruction of the texts and traditions considered most holy (that same clergy might be more reluctant to make this concession).
The Koran and Bible both endorse slavery and provide detailed instructions for its appropriate application. Forced female circumcision is common to several faiths. Orthodox Judaism instructs the mohel to draw blood from the circumcised penis with his mouth as part of the covenant with Noah (a practice that, in one notorious New York City case, led to the spread of herpes to several infants). Daughters may be sold and sons may be sacrificed. Those who fornicate outside the covenant of marriage or who work on the Sabbath may be stoned to death. Witches may not be suffered to live. A prohibition on coveting, necessary for a free-market economy, is among the 10 most notorious commandments. Verbal offenses against the reputation of a God who can’t, by virtue of his omnipotence, be harmed are punishable by death. Mothers and fathers must be honored, even if they’re abusive or absent. The Mormon church denied its priesthood to blacks until a new “revelation” amended God’s infallible instruction in 1978. Not only are xenophobia and tribalism common to every major bible, so is the endorsement of the slaughter of outsiders and infidels should they, for instance, occupy lands promised to the truly holy.
These aren’t ancient and long-abandoned interpretations of ambiguous edicts. These practices and warrants are still very much alive today. Witness all the difficulty we still have in the Middle East, particularly in and around Israel/Palestine, for a troubling example of the last. And the text that supports this evil is most often plain and direct. God is not, by modern standards, particularly compassionate, interested in equal treatment for his various creations or respectful of the sanctity of life. By the descriptions presented in major religious texts, he’s petty, megalomaniacal, starved for adulation, grossly inconsistent in his instruction and prone to favor some of those made in his image above others for reasons that are never made clear (conveniently, the people of whichever book is being followed are almost always at the top of the organizational chart).
(Note: The New Testament, on the whole, is kinder than its older counterpart. But its story is not without troubling developments of its own. For instance, it introduces into the Judeo-Christian tradition the concept of a Hell in which the unrighteous will suffer eternal torment—the Old Testament was content to let punishment end at the moment of a horrific death at the hands of one’s peers.)
True believers and their sympathizers have found a fairly neat loophole. Yes, the Bible, Koran and other texts appear to endorse and command any number of practices we’d consider unconscionable, or severely punish offenses we’d consider benign. But these works aren’t always meant to be interpreted literally, they say—religious texts are full of parable and metaphor and hyperbole, and must be read critically to extract lessons about unimpeachable values without preoccupation for the specific details and events described. (Not all true believers turn to this argument—for some, the book says what it says, and if Leviticus tells me my slaves can be bought from neighboring nations, or the Koran says it’s heroic to die in an attack on the infidels, than so be it; this ethic is more dangerous in practice but more logically consistent than the compromised and contorted sort of belief professed by most uncomfortable with the text put in front of them).
But this thinking itself—though a respectable effort to square a circle, and to break away from barbarism while still holding onto the comforts and solace a belief system might provide—exposes the most fundamental flaw in the assertion that morality stems from God. If we’re to recognize that some passages of some holy texts must be figurative, because what they seem to suggest literally can’t possibly be reconciled with our modern moral standards, then we’re still reliant on a moral sense outside of the religion as a basis for that determination.
We’re still turning to our minds, as we should, to tell us that up is up and right is right, and skeptical of assertions to the contrary. We’re still dependent on rationality, not faith.
And thank God for that.
— Louis C. Hochman