Biblical scholar and professor emeritus at the University of Sheffield, Philip Davies writes that the idea that religion bestows ethical value on human life is the most ridiculous thing he’s ever heard. First he lays into the divine command theory throughout the Torah and proverbs as genuine routes to proper (or even defensible) moral motivation and then goes after the prophets:
And the prophets—so beloved of biblical ethicists? Joel, Obadiah, Nahum, Haggai, Zechariah, Habakkuk we can dispose of. Elsewhere we encounter rants against cultic irregularity (=bigotry, denial of human rights), xenophobia (ditto), exhortation to follow Torah (we’ve been here already). Some protests against social abuse, I will concede. But these critiques are hardly original, and being religiously grounded should not be confused with being religiously rationalized. If you want to challenge social or royal norms, you really do have to appeal to a divinity because nothing else counts. And why does nothing else count? Because the Bible is culturally totalitarian—unsurprisingly, because it emanates from a totalitarian world of monarchic societies. The development of monarchic religion in the Bible is hardly a supreme religious insight. Rather, it parallels the growth of ever-larger political units. Instead of local city-rulers fighting for supremacy (and their gods likewise), a supreme, if remote, “king of kings” controls everything (always through officials, of course), the semblance of world order that this emperor celebrates being reflected is the cosmic order governed by a supreme deity. (Plato’s monotheism, by contrast, has to be explained differently).
Western civilization, then, does not get ethics from the Bible (and I would say, not even from the New Testament, but I don’t have room to argue that. Go figure.) Ethics develop in a society where individuals have to make their own moral judgments about intrinsic goodness. In fifth-century Athens, we find Athenian dramatists using traditional myths and legends to explore ethical ambiguity, and especially the conflicts between duty to family city and nation. These are precisely the issues that will have confronted those Athenian citizens called upon to act as judges of their fellows in civic trials. In such a task there are no instructions from the gods, and indeed, no clear answers. Admittedly, the “good” was essentially political, and neither Plato nor Aristotle escaped this restriction. But it was a very good start. Where humans are (in theory) equal, and where political power lies within a citizen body, only educated judgment can hinder mob rule, while abdication of responsibility can easily lead to the return of monarchy. The moral lessons to be learned from the history of the Greek cities (and their Roman successors) can teach as much about democracy as the tragedies in which the heroes are typically caught between demands that are irreconcilable. Theocracy or totalitarianism actually triumphed. It is found first with Alexander, then the Caesars, and then the Roman Catholic Church. But for the time being, democracy, individual freedom, and ethics, are with us. Perhaps that is what we are fighting for in Afghanistan and Iraq. Or perhaps not. I am not sure the Bible would worry too much about torture: its god is quite comfortable with the idea.
Now, I treasure the Bible. And I even think that religion does have many advantages. But ethics is not one of religion’s gifts to humanity, and the Bible cannot serve a modern democracy as a moral guide—unless of course we decide ourselves, on or own ethical principles, which bits of it we will follow and which ones we will not. Come to think of it, though, isn’t this really what most of its believers actually do? So why not come clean and stop pretending that our Western culture is built on “biblical values”: for, thank god, it isn’t!