Monday, March 05, 2007

Religious Morality


As I have discussed in previous posts, I feel that the metaphysics of the religious belief systems rests on decidedly shaky ground. When it comes to Christianity, for example, none of the supposed proofs for God’s existence is very convincing. Conversely, the notorious Problems of Evil and of Divine Hiddenness, and the lack of positive empirical evidence to support the God hypothesis and its predictions are major challenges for the Christian to explain. For more on that topic, I can recommend this, or for an introduction to atheism read this.

However, I take issue with the Abrahamic religions from a moral perspective too, as I feel that they have in numerous ways impeded human progress in science, philosophy, and ethics. The morality espoused within the Bible (the Torah, of course, being the first five books of the Old Testament) and Koran is often cruel, violent, vindictive, and ignorant, and has been used throughout the ages by fervent believers in order to justify the oppression, subjugation, torture, and murder of others. For example, the terrible behaviour of the Christian Church during the Dark and Middle Ages, with the Crusades, Inquisitions, and witch hunts is not an aberration, but rather is an empirical example of Scriptural literalism in action – as all of these acts can be easily justified by appeal to the Bible. I shall discuss this in more detail later, but see here for a list of Christian atrocities.

Whilst there are indubitably some words of wisdom contained within the Bible and Koran, these are not uniquely insightful, and are buried within a mass of other less worthy exhortations. It should be remembered that these books are often held up as being the sacred and inerrant word of a loving God. It is hard to reconcile this with the reality that the Bible and Koran are riddled with inconsistencies, absurdities, violence, and cruelty. Even some more moderate Christians and Muslims, as well as some non-believers, are prone to suppose that these books – whilst not inerrant - are generally filled with wise words and exhortations to do good, and that they form the basis of the best of our morality today. This, as I shall show, is far from being the truth.

1) Intolerance:

Now, onto the first of my issues with religion - that of intolerance.

Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are mutually incompatible, in that each makes a claim to its own infallibility and to the erroneous nature of the others. Each urges its followers to adopt a variety of beliefs and practices – some of which are benign, but many are not. And, central to each of these religions, is a dangerous intolerance of the others, and of non-believers in general. This has been, and continues to be, a source of much oppression and conflict in the world.

In an age of many diverse religions, Christianity and Islam in particular thrived and expanded at the expense of the other religions of the day due to their religious intolerance and their central tenets of conquest and conversion by the sword. Whilst members of various faiths might today talk about respecting the other faiths, this is in fact contrary to the teachings contained in their own holy books (see here and here for example). Intolerance is enshrined at the very heart of the Abrahamic religions, and it is only by ignoring tracts of their own sacred texts that the faithful are able to accommodate those of other faiths or of no faith. Any such tolerance has been achieved by relaxing the adherence to the moral precepts ascribed to their own god, and has come about in the West because of the increasing enlightenment and secularisation of society in general, and of the Church’s loss of power. Predictably, Christian Fundamentalists, and Muslims in general are far less tolerant of people of other or no faith.

In my view, intolerance and a desire to impose one’s own belief system on others is religion’s worst characteristic. These are natural human traits, but religion formalises and justifies them, making matters much worse. My liberal attitude to personal freedom dictates that people should be free to follow a religion if they so wish (or to follow none), but I cannot accept people imposing their belief system upon others. In other words, I cannot tolerate intolerance.

For examples of religious intolerance, we need only refer to the source texts. For example, from the Koran:

“Slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out ... if they attack you (there) then slay them. Such is the reward of disbelievers.” 2:191

“Allah stamped wretchedness upon the Jews because they killed the prophets and disbelieved Allah's revelations.” 2:61

“Jews are the greediest of all humankind. They'd like to live 1000 years. But they are going to hell.” 2:96

“Kill disbelievers wherever you find them. If they attack you, then kill them. Such is the reward of disbelievers.” (But if they desist in their unbelief, then don't kill them.) 2:191-2

“"They [Christians and Jews] say: The Fire will not touch us save for a certain number of days. That which they used to invent hath deceived them regarding their religion." (The Fire will burn them forever.) 3:24

“Allah will punish disbelievers in this world and the next. They will have no helpers.” 3:56

“Don't believe anyone who is not a Muslim.” 3:73

“Those who ascribe a partner to Allah (like Christians do with Jesus and the Holy Spirit) will not be forgiven. They have "invented a tremendous sin." 4:48, 4:116

“Jews and Christians believe in idols and false deities, yet they claim to be more rightly guided than Muslims.” 4:51

“Have no unbelieving friends. Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them.” 4:89

And so on.

From the Bible:

“If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die.” Deuteronomy 13:6-10

“Whosoever would not seek the LORD God of Israel should be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman.” 2 Chronicles 15:13

“He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. “Mark 16:16

“He that believeth not shall be damned.” Mark 16:16

“He that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Luke 3:18

“The Jews: Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men.... The wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.” 1 Thessalonians 14-16


Hence, the Christian or Muslim who wishes to subjugate, covert, or kill others can find plenty of support for this course of action within his or her own holy books. In fact, if one is to adhere to these texts then it actually becomes one’s duty to convert or kill the so-called infidels (see here and here).

Intolerance is actually enshrined within the Ten Commandments, but I shall come onto that later.

2) Cruelty and violence:

The Bible and Koran are positively littered with examples of cruelty and violence, which amply illustrate the character of God/Allah. These are far too numerous for me to list here, so I would instead urge you to look at the following links. For a flavour of what you will find, I should perhaps let God speak for Himself –

“Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;” Exodus 20:5

And, let’s not forget Jesus –

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” Matthew 10:34

Bible - and

Koran -

When you fully appreciate the amount of cruelty and violence contained in these supposedly sacred and inerrant books, the odious actions of some religious believers through the ages comes as no surprise. After all, there is abundant precedent for any action they should wish to carry out, no matter how heinous it might be.

Certainly, one can find examples in the Bible and Koran of goodness - for example, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount - and this has been an inspiration to some. However, the abundant verses exhorting the opposite have been the source of untold human suffering and misery for more than two thousand years.

3) Hell

And let's not forget one of the most abhorrent parts of the Abrahamic religions - the concept of Hell (and its obverse, Heaven). As a means of human control, one could hardly conceive of anything more efficient - salvation if you do what we say, but eternal damnation if you don't. Here is the system that God/Allah has implemented:

1) He has created Heaven - a place of eternal joy and happiness.
2) He created Hell - a place of eternal suffering and torment.
3) He created the material universe and the human beings within it (albeit unnecessarily old, large, and lethal to human life ).
3) He explained to humans (albeit in an ambiguous, vague, contradictory, unbelievable, and non-personal way) the criteria for determining whether they will go to Heaven or Hell when they die. The one overriding criterion seems to be belief in Him.
4) He then creates millions of people in such a way that they will reject Him, and will therefore be consigned to an eternity in Hell (Either by believing in false gods, or by believing in none. In fact, He created the universe in such a way as to positively encourage disbelief).

Note that the particular problem I am highlighting here is not that human beings have an inherent tendency to do evil (part of the argument from evil). Nor that many human beings will never actually be exposed to God's message (argument from divine hiddenness). But, rather, that God intentionally and knowingly created millions of human beings who will go straight to hell when they die. Compared to an eternity in Hell, the time that these humans beings will spend on Earth (during which time they will likely have some pleasure) is vanishingly small. So, for all intents and purposes, God created millions of sentient beings who will spend their whole existence in perpetual torment in Hell.

I say intentionally and knowingly, as God, being omniscient, surely knows in advance the choices that his creations will make. Further, being omnipotent, God could surely have made them in such a way that they would make such choices as would guarantee them a place in Heaven. Peoples' much vaunted 'free will' may mean that their choices are unknown in advance to themselves but, surely, God being omniscient knows in advance what these choices will be.

Note further that I am not highlighting the fact that our Earthly existence seems to be unnecessary, as God already knows in advance who will go to Heaven and who will go to Hell. Rather, I am asking what kind of a God would knowingly create millions of human beings in such a way that they will fail His criteria for going to Heaven, and will therefore spend an eternity in Hell. Surely such a God is responsible for far more suffering (in fact, infinitely more, as these souls will spend an eternity in Hell) than any Earthly tyrant such as Hitler, Stalin, or Mao.

4) Dubious Moral Precepts:

The Bible and Koran contain the type of narratives and moral instructions that one would expect of ignorant and unsophisticated authors writing hundreds or thousands of years ago. With the Bible, for example, the composition of the various books began in about 1000 B.C. and continued for more than a thousand years. A great deal of oral material was included. The editors often worked in different locales and in different times, and were usually unaware of each other. Their work was primarily intended for local use and it is unlikely that any author foresaw that his work would be included in a "Bible."

No original manuscripts exist. There are hundreds of differences between the oldest manuscripts of any one book. These differences indicate that numerous additions and alterations were made to the originals by various copyists and editors. Many biblical authors are unknown. Where an author has been named, that name has sometimes been selected by pious believers rather than given by the author himself. The four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are examples of books that did not carry the names of their actual authors. The present names were assigned long after these four books were written. In spite of what the Gospel authors say, biblical scholars are now almost unanimously agreed that none of the Gospel authors was either a disciple of Jesus or an eyewitness to his ministry.

The Old Testament is concerned with the Hebrew God, Yahweh, and purports to be a history of the early Israelites. The narrative abundantly illustrates the fact that they were a primitive, warlike, and barbaric desert tribe, intent on expansion into neighbouring lands (what is now Palestine) by conquering their peoples. It is no surprise, then, that they invented for themselves such a warlike, jealous, and bloodthirsty god (see this). They were far less sophisticated philosophically, ethically, and scientifically than the Ancient Greeks, for example - some of whose philosophy was later appropriated by Christian scholars.

The New Testament is the work of early Christians and reflects their beliefs about Jesus. It is an improvement upon the Old Testament but, nevertheless, its morality often leaves much to be desired. It should also be remembered that Jesus instructed his followers that they could not ignore the more barbaric teachings of the Old Testament –
“Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or tittle shall nowise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:18-19

Here is an interesting article on the character of Jesus.

Let’s look at a few specific examples of the type of morality contained within the Bible. Firstly, the atrocious -


Blasphemers must be stoned to death.
"He that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him." -- Leviticus 24:16

Sometimes God kills newborn babies to punish blasphemy.
"Because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die." -- 2 Samuel 12:14

For breaking the Sabbath:

"They found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. ... And the LORD said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones.... And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the LORD commanded Moses." Numbers 15:32-56


"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Exodus 22:18


“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” Lev.20:13


“And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? ... Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” -- Numbers 31:15-18

God’s character:

“The LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon.... And there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” Exodus 12:29-30

Rebellious children:

Children who refuse to obey their parents must be executed.
“If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.” -- Deuteronomy 21:18-21

Women’s rights:

“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing.” 1 Timothy 2:11-15

For a woman who is not a virgin on her wedding night:

"If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her ... and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid: Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel's virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate: And the damsel's father shall say ... these are the tokens of my daughter's virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. ... But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die." Deuteronomy 22:13-21

Now, to the ridiculous -

Eating seafood is forbidden:

"These ye shall eat of all that are in the waters: all that have fins and scales shall ye eat: whatsoever hath not fins and scales ye may not eat; it is unclean unto you." Deuteronomy 14:9-10

Clothes of mixed fibres are forbidden:

"Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woollen and linen together." -- Deuteronomy 22:11

I could continue quoting similar items from the Bible ad infinitum, and could find plenty of similar quotes in the Koran. Of course, liberal Christian apologists are fond of saying that one should not take quotes from the Bible ‘out of context’, or that they need interpretation. However, many appalling stories and moral injunctions are explicitly clear, and are not open to any other interpretation. What we need is not to 'interpret' them, but to ignore them - which is the reality of what liberal Christians do when they cherry-pick the passages from the Bible that accord with modern, liberal, secular morality, and ignore the rest (see this for some of the problems with such liberal Christians). Interestingly, one never hears Christians saying that any good moral instructions from the Bible should ‘not be taken out of context’, or need 'interpreting'. For more on Biblical interpretation, see the following post on my blog -

So, given the primitive and barbaric nature of much of the moral code contained within the Bible and Koran, we can reasonably ask whether we should still base our morals upon these books. The answer, of course, is that we shouldn't. The progress made on the subject of ethics during and after the Enlightenment has given us far better moral frameworks to choose from. For example, the various Consequentialist moral theories aim to maximise human happiness, and meta-systems such Secular Humanism go further still in that they specifically incorporate reason, justice, the search for truth, and the efforts to build a better world.

So, great progress has been made in the West over the last few hundred years when it comes to ethics (as well as in science, medicine etc., which were also held back or opposed by the influence of religion. Who now thinks that illness is caused by devils, or that the Sun goes around the stationary Earth, as the Bible tells us?). Society is far more democratic; people have far more freedoms; slavery is no longer permitted; women, people of other races, and homosexuals now have (nearly) equal rights; progress is being made on the subject of voluntary euthanasia and animal rights; and people now even have the choice to belong to religions other than Christianity, or to no religion at all. All of these moral improvements are due to the type of secular thinking that came about because of the Enlightenment, and they were always bitterly opposed by the Church – as we would expect, since they directly contradicted its teachings. Whilst some individual Christians were for change, the Church as a whole would only change in extremis.

Now to lay to rest a couple of tired old canards. Firstly, Christians are fond of saying that State-imposed atheism was tried in Communist Russia and China, and millions of people died as a result. The implication being that atheism is just as murderous as religion has been. However, this is a category mistake, as Christianity is an entire metaphysical and moral belief system, whereas atheism is merely the absence of belief in a god. The atheism that was imposed in certain communist countries was imposed by tyrannical, totalitarian regimes, and it is this that caused the large-scale murder – not the atheism on its own. When atheism is tied to a secular, humanistic moral framework – such a Secular Humanism – then the result is benign – unlike either the religious or totalitarian regimes which, in fact, have much in common. For more on Secular Humanistic morality, see here -

Secondly, one often hears from the religious that without a clear religious moral framework to guide us, we will become morally adrift, and then inevitably slide into crime and murder. It is interesting to note, however, that the evidence suggests the opposite. Surveys, such as this one ( have found that the level of religiosity in a society is positively correlated with rates of murder, crime, and general social problems and decay. That is, the more secular a society, the better its societal health is, as measured by rates of murder, crime etc. Now, one must be careful to not conclude that correlation implies causation, but it certainly does nothing to support the usual claims of the religious, and tends to do the opposite. In other words, we do not need a religious moral framework in order to have a healthy society.

Thirdly, the religious often seem to think that they have a monopoly on good morals. Leaving aside the fact that, as I have shown, much of the morality is not good at all, and that they best moralities we have found are secular, there are still problems with this line of thought. Foremost among these is that equally good or better moralities have arisen independently in many other cultures, and often predate those of Christianity or Islam. To take just one example, The Golden Rule is contained within the Bible, but is also found within other quite distinct cultures. E.g.

"This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you." from the Mahabharata (5:15:17) (ca. 500BCE)

"What you do not wish upon yourself, extend not to others." — Confucius (ca. 551–479 BCE)

Even amongst religious moralities, it can be persuasively argued that those promolgated by the Abrahamic religions are far from being the best. The Jains, for example, are strongly committed to compassion for all life, human and non-human. They consider that to kill any person, no matter what crime he may have committed, is unimaginably abhorrent. It is not possible to 'interpret' Jainism in such a way as to justify mass murder, as is the case with Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

See this for more talk of morality.

5) The Ten Commandments:

Surely, you must say, if all else fails then at least the Ten Commandments are a distillation of all that is good. Well, let’s examine the evidence (NB. there is some variation between the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic versions of these commandments).

First Commandment: I am the LORD thy God and Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Is this really the basis of all our morals? Is this really the most important thing to remember for the happiness and wellbeing of society and individual humans?

Second Commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

Is this really at the heart of a moral, healthy, and happy society? It certainly seems to be important to God.

Third Commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.

Again, is this pearl of wisdom the best that the supposed creator of the Universe could come up with? Will ignoring this moral stricture result in the breakdown of society’s morals? It certainly seems to exercise God inordinately.

Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

Another vitally important point that God felt the need to communicate to humanity. Of course, as with the first three commandments, God in His ultimate wisdom declared that the penalty for breaking this Commandment should be death. How morally enlightened.

After that, we’re on to the usual Commandments that people remember about not murdering, stealing. Committing adultery etc. But, even if we ignore the first four Commandments, are these the best and most complete distillation of morality? I think not. For an analysis, see this -

or this -

There are many secular versions of the Ten Commandments that seem to me to be an improvement on the Biblical ones. This one came up straight away in a Google search, but there were many others -

All the evidence suggests that morality arises naturally from the cooperation that is necessary for the survival of a group animal - such as humans. The first glimmerings of our moral framework existed long before organised religion came along. The precursors to this behaviour are even witnessed amongst other animals. Religious morals were an early attempt to formalise this moral framework, but left much to be desired. We have progressed much since then, and have no need to continue to refer back to these religions for our morals, as the secular ones are far better and more complete.

For the record, I believe that some form of humanistic, liberal, and secular moral framework based upon Utilitarianism (attempting to maximise overall human happiness, however difficult it is to quantify), tolerance, personal freedom and democracy is the best that we have devised so far. Under such a framework, religion or lack of it becomes a private matter, and not one that is any of the State's concern.

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