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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Religious morality as arbitrary as any other

    In the intellectual war between atheists and theists, the argument from morality is one of the sharpest weapons from the theistic side. It’s an interesting line of attack against atheism. How can we atheists possibly account for the existence of objective morality? How can we explain why things like slavery and the Holocaust are wrong? Doesn’t there need to be a God who decrees such things? Christian apologists ranging from C.S. Lewis to Ravi Zacharias have pushed this argument.

    Answering it seems like a Herculean task. Philosophers have attempted for millennia to construct ethical theories which explain why some things are morally right or wrong. They’ve produced theories ranging from natural law to utilitarianism to Kantianism, and all of them have something fatally wrong with them.

    But the real problem atheists face goes deeper than flaws in any one theory. Claims that an ethical theory is correct are often met by theists with a derisive: “”Really? Says who?”” – the implication being that someone powerful (like God) has to declare ethical statements, or else they’re just arbitrary. Consider Kantianism, for example: Why does one 19th-century German philosopher get to decide that the categorical imperative defines right and wrong? Who put him in charge?

    This is a damning indictment of atheism. We have three choices: Continue to accept flawed human reasoning backed by arbitrary authority, deny the existence of moral truths or believe in God.

    Or so it seems. This is really a false trilemma, as the last option suffers the exact same difficulties as the first. Theistic morality offers no advantages over its atheistic counterpart.

    Many theists will claim that their religion offers a simple path to clear moral truths: Read their holy book. But even holy books contain fairly few hard, moral pronouncements and, when they do, such pronouncements are often inconvenient or contradictory. The Bible and Qur’an both contain prohibitions on killing, but Christians and Muslims have found many ways to use their holy book and weasel around those.

    I’m going to pick on the Christians again, but any other faith faces the same issue. Consider the story of Genesis 38. Onan is commanded by his father, Judah, to impregnate the wife of his brother, Er. Onan sleeps with her but pulls out, spilling his seed on the ground; for this, God smites him.

    The moral of this story could be any of the following: Don’t masturbate. Don’t use birth control. Don’t spill your seed on the ground. Don’t disobey your father. Don’t piss off God. Some Christians interpret it to mean one of the first two, but any of these possibilities seems equally valid.

    Another possibility is that there is no moral at all and the story is just that: a story. Who can tell?

    The Bible, like every holy book, doesn’t come with a manual telling you how to interpret it. Resolving issues like this requires that some person develop a way to interpret the text.

    But therein lies the rub. Every theist must take the word of some human that their interpretation of the text is correct. And since interpretation relies on reason and logic rather than divine revelation, interpreting texts to glean moral truths from them is always “”arbitrary”” – at least, as arbitrary as any atheistic attempt to define morality.

    This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for moral laws to exist within religions. But it does mean, if religious moral laws do exist, the theist doesn’t have a good way to find them; and what good are moral laws floating around in the ether if no one has access to them?

    Some theists will insist that they’re special: They’re reading the text correctly, and unlike theists before them who have used it as a justification for immoral things, they’re being rational and impartial in forming an ethical framework.

    But the work of University of

    Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt provides strong evidence that people don’t usually reach ethical conclusions by rational means. They decide based on social conditioning and emotional cues; when reason does enter into their decision-making, it’s always in the form of after-the-fact rationalization, discussion among peers or, in the case of theists, reading their personal beliefs into a holy book.

    This explains well why conservatives think John 7:53-8:11 is about being a hypocrite whereas liberals think it’s about passing judgment on others, or why conservatives think Genesis 19 is about burning gay people whereas liberals think it’s an admonishment against bad hospitality. Neither group attempts to read the text impartially. They generally decide what they think beforehand, read the passage, pretend it agrees with them, and then go on clamoring about how their interpretation is “”objectively”” correct.

    To their credit, many religious scholars acknowledge a plurality of views in interpreting holy books. But such scholars are not often likely to be evangelical theists who push the view that only a certain religious worldview permits objective moral laws.

    And, furthermore, the fact that theists define their morality the same way as everyone else doesn’t mean there’s no fact of the matter. But it does mean their claims to have a morality which is more “”objective”” than atheistic morality are shoddy at best. Maybe someday, God or Allah or Odin will appear and enlighten me about what’s really “”right”” and “”wrong”” – but I’m likely to take that appearance as much more convincing than any bad philosophical noodling about morality.

    Taylor Kessinger is a senior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, math, and physics. He can be reached at

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