An Objective Living Divine Objective, etc. Moral Authority

If you ask Richard Dawkins or any of the “New Atheists” whether they believe in an absolute moral authority, or from where we all get our morals, it’s likely he’ll answer along the lines of, “Well, I’ll start by telling you I know where we don’t get our morals from … and that’s the bible!”  He usually rattles off a handful of horrifically backward and archaic divine mandates that usually involve stoning people, sexually abusing women, or shaving, and then asks whether anyone in the room still does this today without expecting a visit from the police.

He’s right, of course.  The problem with people using a document like the bible as a moral code is that while it may contain some generally usable ideas (love your neighbor, care for the sick, etc.), they’re hopelessly outweighed by the far greater number of bad ideas that modern society has decided it best to consider obsolete.

Which is why I always find it confusing why anyone even bothers to ask whether a current political issue can be considered “biblical” … yet here we are:

Same Bible, Different Verdict On Gay Marriage

It’s true, says Carmen Fowler LaBerge: You can be a Christian and support same-sex marriage, but, she says, “nobody can say gay marriage is biblical. That’s just foolishness.”

“From the Old Testament and throughout the New Testament, the only sexual relationships that are affirmed in scripture are those in the context of marriage between one man and one woman,” she says.

This is true … but the bible also condo- … uhh …

Actually, the Old Testament does condone polygamy.

Yeah, what they said.  Moving on.

Still, LaBerge says, from Leviticus to Paul’s writings in Romans and First Corinthians, homosexual acts are called vile and detestable, and legalizing same-sex relationships does not change the sin.

Nope.  Sorry.  It doesn’t work that way.  For you to take your cues from what the bible forbids and conveniently ignore all of the currently-illegal things it condones is intellectual dishonesty and cherry picking.  God didn’t have a problem with a number of “righteous” men marrying more than one woman, owning slaves, or wiping out entire cultures, yet we consider it wrong for obvious reasons.  How is that any less of a violation of the bible than doing something it forbids?

And please, don’t quote Leviticus for anything.  Just stop.

Not so fast, says the Rev. Susan Russell, an Episcopal priest at All Saints Church in Pasadena, Calif. She takes her cues from Jesus.

“Jesus never said a single word about anything even remotely connected to homosexuality,” she says.

Or abortion, but that hasn’t stopped anyone.

Jesus does say the most important commandments are “Love God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Given that, Russell believes if Jesus were here today, he would celebrate committed, same-sex relationships.

That’s also a bit of a stretch.  If Jesus were the son of the God of Abraham and the Old Testament, I’d say probably not.  He was in no mood, and didn’t allow for anything that would get in the way of conquest and making more followers.  But then, if Jesus were just a normal, flesh-and-blood guy who thought the high priests at the time were acting like a bunch of sanctimonious assholes, then sure, I suppose he’d be cool with something that would piss them off.

It’s easy for me to say this, but who cares?  There’s no possible way to know since praying doesn’t give any reliable insight into the mind of God any more than my guessing about it.  And even after 2000 years, we still have people arguing about what the bible actually does and does no permit.  So here we are.  Right where we were 500 years ago.

And 1500 years before that.

Then the article goes into the issue of gay marriage and homosexuality and how it is viewed by the black community.  This is interesting:

“The breakdown of the family is the single greatest challenge that we face today,” [Pastor Evans] says.

Evans and others say the black family is in crisis — a majority of babies, for example, are born to single mothers — and that’s why black ministers are often the most vocal opponents of same-sex marriage.

Now I may be naive, but I fail to see how allowing two homosexual men or women to marry has anything to do with the cohesion – or lack thereof – of the black family.  I strongly suspect there’s a number of other issues at work that have a lot more to do with socioeconomic factors, institutionalized racism, educational opportunities, and the apparent conflict of values with the reality of surviving in a tough neighborhood.  The fact that a majority of babies are born to single mothers is a very real problem that needs a reliable, long term solution … but preventing homosexuals from marrying isn’t part of it.  Sorry.

Asked about the argument that this is a civil rights issue, Evans bristles.

“The issue of race is not an issue of choice. It’s an issue of birth,” he says.

Oh, I LOLed.  The issue of one’s skin color is not a choice, implying the issue of homosexuality is.  Unfortunately for Pastor Evans, there’s no evidence to support the notion that homosexuality is a choice either.  There is some information that suggests there are genetic links, and others that link it to a result of a series of events that occur during fetal development.  In fact, there are documented physiological and cognitive differences between heterosexuals and homosexuals, with evidence showing a combination of genetics, hormones, and biology as factors determining orientation:

Frankowski BL; American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Adolescence (June 2004). “Sexual orientation and adolescents”. Pediatrics 113 (6): 1827–32. doi:10.1542/peds.113.6.1827. PMID 15173519.

Royal College of Psychiatrists: Submission to the Church of England’s Listening Exercise on Human Sexuality.

I’ll tell you one thing that is a choice … religion.  I shouldn’t have to bend over backwards to embrace your belief in the supernatural or have laws that protect you just because of a lifestyle choice, should I?  What are we, some sort of nanny state?

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3 Responses to An Objective Living Divine Objective, etc. Moral Authority

  1. Richard says:

    One reason I pay more attention these days to Steven Pinker is that he provides constructive, evidence-based explanations for exactly where we *do* get our morals from (and you’re right, it’s not the Bible), among other facets of our subjective experience. I’d had suspicions for a very long time that something like evolutionary psychology would give an elegant, natural solution to this problem, so to see someone out there actually demonstrating, even quantitatively, how this could be the case (in books like The Blank Slate, How The Mind Works, and The Better Angels Of Our Nature) is both fascinating and encouraging. I hope the public debate starts to include more voices like Pinker, so that scientific materialism in general and evolutionary psychology in particular can start to provide a detailed alternative picture to religion being the seat of ethics, rather than merely casting doubt on the legitimacy of religion as the foundation of ethical behavior.

    • I completely agree. I’d love to give a more detailed response but I’m off to the east coast yet again and need to sleep before my 6 AM flight. My only thought here is that while you are right and I’d also like to see more than the (obvious) inadequacy of the bible as a foundation of morality, I’m not sure to what degree the average person will take this as yet another “attack” on the notion that we’re special and number one in the eyes of God, and so forth.

      Maybe that’s the point, though … after a while it might sink in that it doesn’t appear that we’re any more or less “special” than any other aspect of life or the universe as a whole.

      • Richard says:

        I think that’s partly the point, but not really where I was coming from. One of the common negative associations even I make with evolution and atheism is social Darwinism, according to which deeply antisocial behavior and the anti-Enlightenment ideals of the “superman” and/or “master race” are believed to be natural and reasonable because, y’know, survival of the fittest, right? But you don’t have to have such extreme mindsets to wonder, if you’ve been taught that God both provides ethics and establishes consequences for being unethical, why atheism must mean that you can do whatever you want and ethical behavior is an illusion perpetuated by the weak. Both Thrasymachus in antiquity and Nietzsche in more modern times suggested that justice might only be the will of the stronger. That kind of nihilism is profoundly disturbing and I couldn’t blame even reasonable people for not wanting even to look in that direction, even if they had external objective evidence that a God-based ethical model couldn’t be right and/or was undesirable for other reasons.

        But by demonstrating how our most common ethical impulses *and* universalist ethics arise out of natural selection applied to social organisms, we suddenly have a model which gives us real new insight about how ethical behavior is not only possible but desirable in a world with no God. If you’re even a little bit willing to entertain the possibility that evolution might be right, this line of reasoning explicitly demonstrates how to unmoor the question of the existence of God from the question of what it means to live a good life. Suddenly, not only *can* atheists be good people, but there are explicit good reasons to believe they *should* be. I don’t think that’s just more of the same, I think it’s a new and very important insight.

        What’s more, this does an end run around people like Sam Harris trying to pretend that one can even in principle write down an objective function for the good of humanity, and try to maximize it using Leibniz’s calculus. The optimization has been done, and is continually still being done, by nature itself. But that’s sort of another subject again and not an entirely fully baked idea.

        Have a good trip! Looking forward to more ponderings on your return.

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