By Simon Blackburn
For many people, ethics is not only tied up with religion, but is completely settled by it. Such people do not need to think too much about ethics, because there is an authoritative code of instructions, a handbook of how to live. It is the word of Heaven, or the will of a Being greater than ourselves. The standards of living become known to us by revelation of this Being. Either we take ourselves to perceive of this fountainhead directly, or more often we have the benefit of an intermediary – a priest, or a prophet, or a text, or a tradition sufficiently in touch with the divine will to be able to communicate it to us. Then we know what to do. Obedience to the divine will is meritorious, and brings reward; disobedience is lethally punished. In the Christian version, obedience brings triumph over death, or everlasting life. Disobedience means eternal Hell.
In the 19th century, in the West, when traditional religious belief began to lose its grip, many thinkers felt that ethics went with it. It is not to the purpose here to asses whether such a belief should have lost its grip. Our question is the implication of the standards of our behaviour. Is it true that, as Dostoyevsky said, ‘If God is dead, everything is permitted’? It might seem to be true: without a lawgiver, how can there be a law?
Before thinking about this more directly, we might take a diversion through some of the shortcomings in traditional religious instruction. Anyone reading the bible might be troubled by some of its precepts. The Old Testament god is partial to some people above others, and above all jealous of his own pre-eminence, a strange moral obsession. He seems to have no problem with a slave-owning society, believes that birth control is a capital crime (Genesis 38:9-10), is keen in child abuse (Proverbs 22:15, 23:13-14, 29:15) and, for good measure, approves of fool abuse (Proverbs 26:3). Indeed, there is a letter going around on the Internet, purporting to be written to ‘Doctor Laura’, a fundamentalist agony aunt:
Dear Dr. Laura,
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly state it to be an abomination. End of debate.
I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them.
a. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord (Lev. 1:9). The problem is my neighbours. They claim the odour is not pleasing to them. How should I deal with this?
b. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
c. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
d. Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighbouring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify?
e. I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?
f. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?
g. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?
h. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev.19:27. How should they die?
I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.
Things are usually supposed to get better in the New Testament, with its admirable on love, forgiveness, and meekness. Yet the overall story of ‘atonement’ and ‘redemption’ is morally dubious, suggesting as it does that justice can be satisfied by the sacrifice of an innocent for the sins of the guilty – the doctrine of the scapegoat. Then the persona of Jesus in the Gospels has his fair share of moral quirks. He can be sectarian: ‘Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into the city of the Samaritans enter ye not. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt. 10:5-6). In a similar vein, he refuses help to the non-Jewish woman from Canaan with the chilling racist remark, ‘it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to dogs’ (Matt. 15:26, Mark 7:27). He wants us to be gentle, meek, and mild, but he himself is far from it: ‘Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ (Matt. 23:33). The episode of the Gadarene swine shows him to share the then-popular belief that mental illness is caused by possession by devils. It also shows that animal lives – also anybody else’s property rights in pigs – have no value (Luke 8:27-33). The events of the fig tree in Bethany (Mark 11:12-21) would make any environmentalist’s hair stand on end.
Finally there are the sins of omission as well as sins of commission. So we might wonder as well why he is not shown explicitly countermanding some of the rough bits of the Old Testament. Exodus 22:18, ‘Though shalt not suffer a witch to live’, helped to burn alive tens or hundreds of thousands of women in Europe and America between around 1450 and 1780. It would have been helpful to suffering humanity, one might think, had a supremely good and caring and knowledgeable person, foreseeing this, revoked the injunction.
All in all, then, the Bible can be read as giving us a carte blanche for harsh attitudes to children, the mentally handicapped, animals, the environment, the divorced, unbelievers, people with various sexual habits, and elderly women. It encourages harsh attitudes to ourselves, as fallen creatures endlessly polluted by sin, and hatred of ourselves inevitably brings hatred of others.
The philosopher who mounted the most famous and sustained attack against the moral climate of Christianity was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900. Here he is in full flow:
Under Christianity the instincts of the subjugated and oppressed come to the fore: it is only those at the bottom who seek their salvation in it. Here is the prevailing pastime, the favourite inquisition of conscience; here the emotion produced by power (called ‘God’) is pumped up (by prayer); here the highest good is regarded as unattainable, as a gift, as ‘grace’. Here, too, open dealing is lacking; concealment and the darkened room are Christian. Here body is despised and hygiene is denounced as sensual; the church even ranges itself against cleanliness (- the first Christian order after the banishment of the Moors closed the public baths, of which there were 270 in Cordova alone). Christian, too, is a sort of cruelty towards one’s self and toward others; hatred of unbelievers; the will to persecute … And Christian is all hatred of the intellect, of pride, of courage, of freedom, of intellectual libertinage; Christian is all hatred of the senses, of joy in the sense, of joy in general.
Obviously there have been, and will be, apologists who want to defend or explain away the embarrassing elements. Similarly, apologists for Hinduism defend or explain away its involvement with the caste system, and apologists for Islam defend or explain away its harsh penal code or its attitude to women and infidels. What is interesting, however, is that when we weigh up these attempts we are ourselves in the process of assessing moral standards. We are able to stand back from any text, however entrenched, far enough to ask whether it represents an admirable or acceptable morality, or whether we ought to accept some bits, but reject others. So again the question arises: where do these standards come from, if they have the authority to judge even our best religious traditions?