“Why am I so angry? It’s called new-atheism” – my response to Toma Part II

First of all, I’d like to thank all those who read Part 1 of my reply to Toma and your kind words on Twitter.

Atheism has become about the freedom to be morally flexible.

I wish I could say I was surprised that I needed to explain that morality doesn’t come from a storybook, but sadly, that’s not the case. I’ve been mulling over in my head for the past couple of days exactly how I would address this point; it seems obvious to anyone that has given it even the most cursory examination. There are a number of ways in which this could be approached, but as the person to whom I am responding is a christian, I thought the most salient method would be to examine what the Bible tells us about how we are to act in various situations. Forgive me if this comes across awkward in any way; discussions of morality are neither my forte nor a particular area of interest for me.

“Atheism has become about the freedom to be morally flexible.” Based on that statement, I can reasonably assume that you feel theism (christianity in your case) is the only framework by which morality can be determined, so without that framework, atheists are amoral/immoral, or ‘morally flexible’ as you put it.

The previous assumption being true, it also seems logical to think that you believe the ‘word of god’ i.e. the bible, to be the source of our morality. Please correct me if either of these assumptions are incorrect. An examination of the bible should then yield a treasure trove of advice on how to live a moral life. While you might immediately be thinking ‘cherry-picking’, you should be aware that it is those who claim the bible as a source of morality who are guilty of this, and not I. Were the bible an appropriate means by which to derive morality, should we not expect it to be free from ambiguous and/or conflicting ideas? The fact that I can easily find examples to demonstrate my points should immediately call into question the notion that the bible should be the source of our morality. Christians have to either follow the bible to the letter (and some fundamentalists attempt to do this) or pick and choose which aspects of it they will follow, and which ones they will ignore.

In order to illustrate this, allow me to pose a number of questions to you Toma, and we’ll look at the bible’s answers to them. If you consider yourself to be a moral person, and one who has derived said morality from the bible, then your answers should be the same as the bible, right? Let’s see.

1] What should be done about those who do not honour their parents?

According to Matthew 15:4 the answer is quite simple: they should be put to death.

If you don’t think death is an appropriate punishment for failing to honour one’s parents, then you are cherry-picking.

2] Should women be permitted to speak in church?

I Corinthians 14:34 makes it quite clear that no, they should not. The following verse adds: “for it is shameful/a shame/disgraceful/improper (there are so many translations!) for a woman to speak in church. Similar verses in I Timothy 2:11-14 tell us that women should always be silent and forbidden from teaching or using authority over a man.

If you have ever allowed a woman to speak in church, teach you, or exert any authority over you, then you are cherry-picking.

3] What should be done if a man is caught raping a woman who is not engaged?

Deuteronomy 22:28-29 lists 3 things: her father must be paid, the rapist must marry the victim, and a divorce is not be permitted.

If you don’t consider financial compensation paid to the father and a never-ending marriage to be an acceptable punishment for raping a woman who is not engaged, then you are cherry-picking.

4] How should homosexuals be punished?

That’s easy; according to Leviticus 20:13 they should be killed.

If you don’t think homosexuals should be killed, then you are cherry-picking.

5] Are there any other people who should be put to death?

Why yes, yes there are. Here is just a sampling: sorceresses, mediums, those who strike their parents, those who curse their parents, adulterers, a priest’s daughter who fornicates, followers of other religions, nonbelievers, false prophets, women who aren’t virgins on their wedding night, blasphemers, anyone who approaches the Tabernacle, people who work on the Sabbath, children who call a bald man ‘bald’, sons of sinners, the list goes on and on (and was taken from here)

If you don’t think that all of the above deserve death, then you are cherry picking.

With just those handful of examples, it is obvious that the average christian is not following the bible to determine their morality; they pick the parts that fit within a modern worldview. As the bible provides both moral and immoral actions, it simply can’t be trusted as a source of morality. That being the case, how do christians decide which rules to follow and which ought to be ignored?

It’s quite simple actually: empathy. Our notions of what is right and wrong are not derived from ancient texts; they come from empathy. Do you honestly think that before the holy texts were written, people had no sense of morality? I’m sure that we could agree that different periods of our history contained notions of morality that differ greatly from those we now possess. That however, is not to say that people had no concept of morality prior to the bible, quran, etc. or that people have been more moral since these books came into being.

Rats, dogs, elephants, and many other animals have been shown to display empathy; this is by no means a uniquely human trait. World-renowned primatologist Frans de Waal has done a great deal of research on primate social behaviour, showing our primate ‘cousins’ sense of empathy is very similar to our own. In ‘The Evolution of Empathy‘ he suggests our sense of empathy has been advantageous throughout our evolution and how it has led to morality.

It’s not that religion and culture don’t have a role to play, but the building blocks of morality clearly predate humanity. We recognize them in our primate relatives, with empathy being most conspicuous in the bonobo ape and reciprocity in the chimpanzee. Moral rules tell us when and how to apply our empathic tendencies, but the tendencies themselves have been in existence since time immemorial.

(Thought you might like the first part of that Tomo; de Waal seems to have drawn criticism from PZ Myers and AC Grayling over comments like that.)

Christians often ask what stops atheists from doing whatever they like, if they do not have the bible to guide them. They ask this question in all seriousness, without realising what it actually means about their own behaviour. The only reason you don’t rape and kill is because some passages in the bible tell you not to? That’s a terrifying thought; christians desire to rape and kill is only held at bay by a book. Before you became a christian, did you have a strong desire to rape and kill that was only repressed once you read the bible? If that is not true, then why would you assume that atheists are any different?

Penn Jillette summarises it nicely:

The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine.

The notion that atheists or theists (or anyone for that matter) need a book to tell them how to interact with people is laughable. Christians need to stop assuming a position of moral superiority because they’ve read a collection of stories from antiquity, especially considering the ‘morality’ in those stories is not something one should aspire to. As I’ve explained, most reasonable christians already pick and choose what parts of the bible they follow, indicating they must have another way by which they determine what actions are moral. That being the case, why bother pretending the bible is a source for morality?

As I stated earlier, discussions of morality are neither my forte nor an area of strong interest; I have likely spent too much time on certain points, while glossing over others that should have been expanded upon. Regardless, I hope I’ve gotten across the gist of what I wanted to say. Stay tuned for Part III.

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