A Not-So-Complicated Moral

This week in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof has a column titled Test Your Savvy on Religion, discussing the American religious knowledge survey which found that atheists were better informed about faith than believers. Kristof has a pop quiz of his own, and I’m guessing that regular readers of this blog will know the answers and see where he’s going with this:

1. Which holy book stipulates that a girl who does not bleed on her wedding night should be stoned to death?
a. Koran
b. Old Testament
c. (Hindu) Upanishads

5. Which holy text is sympathetic to slavery?
a. Old Testament
b. New Testament
c. Koran

11. Which holy scripture urges that the “little ones” of the enemy be dashed against the stones?
a. Book of Psalms
b. Koran
c. Leviticus

Of course, Kristof’s quiz is meant to showcase the many moral atrocities of the Bible – and to be fair, most American Christians are ignorant of these, so bravo to him for pointing them out – to disillusion people who believe that Christianity is morally far superior to Islam. I have no quarrel with that, but I object to his conclusion:

And yes, the point of this little quiz is that religion is more complicated than it sometimes seems, and that we should be wary of rushing to inflammatory conclusions about any faith, especially based on cherry-picking texts.

I don’t agree with this. I don’t think the conclusion that should be drawn here is very “complicated” at all. In fact, I think it’s simple: nearly all religions contain violent, brutal, morally unacceptable teachings in their sacred texts. Therefore, we should reject those texts as a guide for morality. What’s so complicated about that?

Kristof writes that “The most crucial element is perhaps not what is in our scriptures, but what is in our hearts”, but that sweeps crucial historical facts under the rug. It makes it sound as if modern churches and believers just searched their consciences, realized that these verses were wrong and stopped following them. In fact, the Bible’s teachings about sexism, about slavery, about absolute monarchy, about holy war, and about the oppression and destruction of differing ideas (to name a few) didn’t just dissolve in spontaneous, society-wide enlightenment. All of these were hard-fought victories won by determined freethinkers in the teeth of intense religious opposition (and the same battle is playing out today over gay rights). To put it another way, this moral progress was made by convincing people that the Bible’s teachings were wrong – and this process of enlightenment is still ongoing.

The only real difference between Christianity and Islam is that a higher proportion of Muslims interpret the Qur’an literally than Christians interpret the Bible literally. I’m in agreement with Kristof about the dangers of drawing unfounded generalizations about whole groups of people, but where we probably diverge is in the proposed solution – because I think the fastest way for any society, Christian or Muslim alike, to make moral progress is to simply discard these wicked and antiquated writings, put superstitions about gods and demons aside, and rely on conscience and compassion as the guiding beacon for their moral decisions.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • bbk

    It’s about as complicated as trying to say “this isn’t what it looks like” when your wife catches you in bed with another girl.

  • Michael

    This is for whoever wrote this article,
    In your criticism of Kristof’s conclusion you stated “nearly all religions contain violent, brutal, morally unacceptable teachings in their sacred texts.” You also stated that we should abandon those texts. I, respectfully of course, disagree with you. I do agree with you in the sense that religious texts contain many discriminatory, violent, and archaic ways of evaluating situations. However these texts also contain important moral lessons and values which are still applicable to modern life.(The golden rule, some of the ten commandments ect..). These values have inspired many influential men and women who have in some way changed the world for the better. People such as Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and M.L.K. JR. Also, lets not overlook the millions of lives which have been directly improved by religious charitable organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, an organization fueled by the morally correct teachings of the bible. Hence, why ignore the good found in various religious texts? Couldn’t we teach the new generations to differentiate the morally correct lessons from the morally incorrect lessons which these texts present? After all is it not the misinterpretation of these moral lessons which leads to religious induced chaos such as the crusades or terrorism by Islamic extremists?

    You should be wary of forming as strong of a position as the complete rejection of religious texts, especially when it is formulated by bias. Throughout history, bias and ignorant based conclusions are responsible for the very “moral atrocities of the bible” which you made note of in your conclusion. If we are to retain any hope of moral progression then we must rid ourselves of these unnecessary biased conclusions. What if a majority of humans began to create conclusions based off of wisdom collected by diverse mediums rather than a set bias? Wouldn’t that encourage progression of morality and human society as a whole? Is it possible that this would also have a positive affect on how religious text is interpreted and applied to everyday life? Only time can tell. So wake up people and listen closely, IGNORANCE and BIAS have always been an enemy of Human progression. An enemy which must be defeated if any hope is to remain for our species to fulfill its true untapped potential. Long live our brothers and sisters!

  • keddaw

    Michael, if I have a chemistry textbook that is part chemistry part alchemy should I continue using it and teach kids to ignore the alchemy parts or should I not just throw them away and teach kids the chemistry?

    By telling people this is the inerrant (or inspired) word of God, but parts 1-6 and 9-24 are wrong, you are confusing the heck out of kids.

    Teach kids morality, teach them using parables or allegories, but don’t teach them that God told you (or the authors) that this is true morality. Morality has to be understood, reasoned and felt, it cannot be blindly given (or forced) onto people.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Michael,

    I do agree with you in the sense that religious texts contain many discriminatory, violent, and archaic ways of evaluating situations…After all is it not the misinterpretation of these moral lessons which leads to religious induced chaos such as the crusades or terrorism by Islamic extremists?

    Apparently, you don’t agree because you seem to be claiming that people only do bad things when they misinterpret the Bible. Yet, if there really are discriminatory, violent, and archaic “ways of evaluating situations” (IOW morals) then it wouldn’t be a misinterpretation at all to engage in morally bad behavior.

    So wake up people and listen closely, IGNORANCE and BIAS have always been an enemy of Human progression.

    Exactly. Let’s all wake up and stop giving deference to the “IGNORANCE and BIAS” of religious texts.

  • Douglas Kirk

    I do agree with you in the sense that religious texts contain many discriminatory, violent, and archaic ways of evaluating situations. However these texts also contain important moral lessons and values which are still applicable to modern life

    I don’t think you realize what you’re saying here Michael. What you’re saying with is that, according to you, the Bible’s “morals” are capable of being objectively judged. You admit to cherry-picking the “good” parts and leaving out the “bad.” When you do this, you concede the point that moral teachings do not come from scripture at all.

    Since there obviously is a greater morality that any religious text can be judged against and found wanting, why should we continue to revere the morally bankrupt teachings of desert-dwelling tribesman instead of teaching the reason we can see these teachings as morally bankrupt?

    Don’t you think that it could cause confusion if I tell my children that this one book contains all the moral inspiration they’ll ever need except for the parts that don’t? That’s the same as saying Viet Nam was a great vacation except for the parts that weren’t.

  • Mark

    Religion is nothing without the acquisition and maintenance of great wealth and political power. In fact, religion cannot exist without it. Only those adherents who do not understand this would still try to justify the absurd teachings in the bible. There is nothing original in that book and we would be a thousand years more advanced had it never been compiled. Dawkins was spot on, religion does spoil everything. If there were a Satan, he would have invented religion.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Ebon,

    Brilliant post.

    This is exactly what I was thinking when reading Kristof’s ridiculous quiz and asinine closing commentary.

    Except that you were a bit more charitable than I.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Mark, wouldn’t that be Hitchens you’re thinking of?

  • L.Long

    It is easy to summarize any religion…It is mostly BS!!!
    and anything it teaches that is at least somewhat OK has been practiced by nearly everyone BEFORE the silly holey texts were ever even thought about.

  • RiddleOfSteel

    Ebonmuse wrote:

    The only real difference between Christianity and Islam is that a higher proportion of Muslims interpret the Qur’an literally than Christians interpret the Bible literally.

    That may be true, but there is something else that makes Christianity different from Islam, in terms of how believers may be guided by their religious texts today. Christians have the so called “New Covenant”. I guess we should be thankful they have it, because it affords an easier approach to ignoring some of the nasty Old Testament directions, by claiming that Jesus did away with the “old law” to form a new agreement. Correct me if I am wrong, but does Islam have a similar concept as New Covenant?

    Often times I bring up Deuteronomy 22:21 with believers, especially missionaries who arrive at my door step. (Seeing as this passage pertains to a god essentially directing his followers to stone a girl on her father’s doorstep, it seems appropriate.) Invariably the “New Covenant” is invoked to show why the Christian believer no longer has to follow this direction. New Covenant allows the believer (in his/her mind) to abstain from following some of the nasty stuff in the OT, while still claiming the text is without error. So basically, I would make the case that New Covenant provides a kind of “cover” that followers of Islam may not have, would people here agree?

    On a related note as mentioned, many believers bring up New Covenant when faced with Deuteronomy 22:21 and the like, and think “all is good”. Not really. Even if for arguments sake, we agree that Jesus did initiate a new agreement to release believers from following some of the OT nasty stuff, that still does not remove the problem, namely: At one time, their god (one god same god) did direct men to stone a woman for not being a virgin. Was it ever ok to behave this way!? No, not really. I don’t know what is worse, believers who have not contemplated any of this, or believers who then launch into a defense of the stoning because “back then it was needed”. I actually once had a co-worker (and overall a really nice guy) explain to me that the stoning was needed back then to keep the blood line of the religion pure. Hearing that, I was reminded of Steven Weinberg, to paraphrase “for good people to support bad things, that takes religion”.

  • L.Long

    Sorry but “Christians have the so called “New Covenant”".–is pure BS and hypocrisy.
    Jepus specifically said ‘not one jot of the law of moses can be ignored’ so the old testament is still official. And these same xtians become complete HIPPO-crites when they bash the gay as that is old testament. All xtians ignore most of the buyBull and pick and choose what they like and are too stupid to see the ironic hypocrisy of the action.

  • Sarah Braasch

    The new covenant wasn’t about the law changing; it was about the chosen people changing.

    The JWs actually get that right (they love the OT genocidal stuff). (But, actually, they do say it’s ok to eat pork and stuff, because of the new covenant, so, ok. they’re hypocrites too.)

    But, they think Jesus was talking about them — they think that JWs are the new chosen people.

    The fictional character of Jesus in the fiction that is the Bible was saying –

    Jews are yesterday’s news; they’re out. My followers are the new cool kids. But, the same law applies.

  • http://thesnideatheist.blogspot.com the snide atheist

    So, we shouldn’t cherry-pick the immoral parts of scripture, but rather cherry-pick the parts about puppies and flowers? If you don’t cherry-pick something, you end up with nothing more than a nebulous mess of disparate and contradictory messages. Then again, attempting to reconcile these messages while pushing your agenda seems to be the core of theology.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    It’s cool. After all, it’s the theists tap-dancing in the minefield.

  • stag

    Dear atheists,

    Christianity is morally superior to Islam, far and away, for hundreds of different reasons. Let me explain one of the most important ones. I will consider “morally superior” that religion which affords most space to the principles of tolerance and compassion (since we can all agree that these are good things).

    Islam is not only a “religion”, in the sense that we in the West are conditioned to understand that term. The Arabic word “din”, wrongly considered equivalent, covers much more ground. It is a whole way of life, a way of being, which must find expression in law and in politics, as well as in personal standards of behaviour. Being a Muslim is never simply a “religious” decision: it is inevitably and inseparably a political decision too. This has huge moral implications, and distinguishes Islam from Christianity in a very important way. The Muslim, by his profession of faith, becomes part of a political community, which aspires to very concrete political goals – namely, that Islam should become the dominant religion, that the Dar al-Islam (House of Islam) should stretch its boundaries to the ends of the earth. The Christian, and the community to which he belongs (the Church) also hopes that the message of Christ will spread and take root everywhere. But the crucial difference is that he does not conceive this in political terms. Jesus, according to his own testimony, did not come to establish a kingdom “of this world”; Muhammad, on the other hand, explicitly did, calling on his followers to “fight in the way of ALlah” in order to establish Allah’s superiority on earth.

    The difference becomes clear when we look at the traditions of martyrdom in each religion. The Christian martyrs suffered simply for refusing to give false testimony to the faith that they treasured. The persecutors were the non-Christians, and the Christians were innocent. In the Islamic tradition, conversely, the martyrs are often aggressors, who died trying to subdue non-islamic nations and peoples under the banner of Islam. These people, these aggressors, are worthy of the highest praise within Islam.

    So I would suggest we don’t need to look that hard to distinguish clear moral differences there. Islam, since it conceives itself as a political entity, sees the duty to proselytize in political terms: it becomes the justification for the most brutal doctrine of military expansionism. Christianity, on the other hand, is strictly a religion, not a political community. Therefore, in its attempts to spread the Gospel and to “conquer the world” for Christ, it in no way calls for political and military means. If this has happened in the past, it is due, not to the religion itself, but to those people who exploited it for their own ends. What each religion actually teaches, and how it conceives itself, is a separate question.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Dude,

    Could you please tell the teabaggers that Xtianity is not a political community?

    Their attempts at theocracy are annoying me.

    Also, ok, yes, Islam is worse than Xtianity at this point in history, but that’s a little like comparing horse shit with bull shit.

    They are both disgusting. And, I’m tired of cleaning up after them.

  • stag

    ok, yes, Islam is worse than Xtianity at this point in history

    That’s fair. I hope most people here would agree with that.

    What I would point out is that, at any point in history, a religion can be judged by its doctrines and teachings. Its adherents can be judged by their deeds, but that, as I said, is a separate question.

    So, if we stick to doctrines and teachings, it is clear for anyone who knows a reasonable amount about Islam and Christianity that Christianity is way, way better than Islam from a moral point of view. One of the main sources of Islamic morality and law is the example of the Muhammad. Compare his life, as it is reported in the Islamic texts, to the example of Jesus in order to see how far superior is the Christian standard of morality to the Islamic one.

    As for the bit about horses and bulls… unfair, I think; but I did smile a little…

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Islam, since it conceives itself as a political entity, sees the duty to proselytize in political terms: it becomes the justification for the most brutal doctrine of military expansionism. Christianity, on the other hand, is strictly a religion, not a political community.

    That parallel universe you live in seems like a nice place, stag. I hope I can visit it some day. In our world, unfortunately, we’ve had to suffer through an awful lot of Christians who believe things like this:

    “That the State must be separated from the Church is a thesis absolutely false, a most pernicious error.”

    —Pope Pius X, 1906, in the encyclical “Vehementer Nos

    “[It is an error to believe that] the Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.”

    —Pius IX, 1864, “Syllabus of Errors

    “We are informed by the texts of the gospels that in this Church and in its power are two swords; namely, the spiritual and the temporal… Both, therefore, are in the power of the Church, that is to say, the spiritual and the material sword, but the former is to be administered for the Church but the latter by the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest.”

    —Boniface VIII, 1302, “Unam Sanctum

  • The Tofu

    “I will consider “morally superior” that religion which affords most space to the principles of tolerance and compassion (since we can all agree that these are good things).”

    If we can all agree on this, then what do you need Christianity for? Clearly you have some basis for moral judgment outside of your religion, so what good is it?

  • stag

    Ebonmuse,

    Do you think that just coming along with a few choice quotes is enough to clinch this? Do you suppose, perhaps, that I have never encountered them before? Of course I have. But there is a whole lot more work to be done after “finding a quote”.

    Among the most important tasks is trying to understand what they are saying. None of these texts are proposing the same kind of relationship between Church and state that Islam proposes. The very fact that it is a “relationship”, and not a mere identity, proves this.

    But enough. I am not going to write more about this when you think it is enough just to throw out some quotations without offering any serious argumentation or exhibiting any real understanding of the doctrine of the “two swords” in its historical development and context, or of the key differences between Christian and Islamic thought in this area.

    Tofu,

    Christianity is not only valuable as a basis for morality, which does indeed have at least some basis outside religion. It did not have its origins in moral reflection. It is valuable most especially precisely as a religion, which means it has something to do with the dimension of human existence we call openness to the “transcendent”.
    It is valuable because it is the self-gift of God. If God exists, then that is probably something valuable. It is because of God that I am a Christian, because I think (know) that God is the perfect happiness of human beings, and I think (know) that Christ is the perfect means provided by God for us to be able to reach that goal.
    So, in sum, it’s not primarily a question of morality for believers.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Stag,
    You may want to explain to me why this is not an example of special pleading. When Xians talk about how Xianity is inextricably linked to politics and government, you shrug it off by claiming that it’s just the deeds of those specific people. Yet, you are not willing to offer the same leniency for Muslims. (Or conversely, you aren’t willing to look upon your own faith with the same level of scrutiny that you reserve for all other faiths.)

    Christianity is not only valuable as a basis for morality, which does indeed have at least some basis outside religion.

    How valuable is a religion that has to rely on outside influences to inform its adherents of what is and is not moral?

    It is valuable most especially precisely as a religion, which means it has something to do with the dimension of human existence we call openness to the “transcendent”.

    So, any religion that is open to the possibility of there being a god is somehow valuable? I’m not sure how, especially considering that most atheists are willing to believe in a god (are open to the “transcendent”) if it is shown to them in a compelling way.

    It is valuable because it is the self-gift of God. If God exists, then that is probably something valuable.

    If god exists, then perhaps the one religion that has it all right may be of value, but OTOH, if god is perfect, then what we do with our thoughts has very little bearing on god or anything else. Or, do you mean valuable to us? It’s only valuable, once again, if you have the right religious thoughts and will somehow benefit from it. Of course, without some sort of evidence or reason to believe in one religion over another, your chances of being right are vanishingly small.

    It is because of God that I am a Christian, because I think (know) that God is the perfect happiness of human beings, and I think (know) that Christ is the perfect means provided by God for us to be able to reach that goal.

    You can’t provide evidence for this god, but you happen to know that this god exists, and is the exact god you think it is, which is why you are a Xian? I find that hard to believe. It’s much more likely that you became a Xian first and formed your opinions of god based on the scriptures and teachings that you were exposed to. There are studies out there that show pretty convincingly that people make up their own gods to fit their own biases and wishes you know.

  • 2-D Man

    So bad Jackie stag, I guess Christianity cannot exist as an official state religion, then, since it violates the teachings of Jesus to do so. Any Christian church that became a state church, in so doing would become a not-Christian church. Am I right?

  • Mishmuf

    But enough. I am not going to write more about this when you think it is enough just to throw out some quotations without offering any serious argumentation…

    “Oh kettle, thou art black!”

    From this thread

    @ peter N #26:

    Just a couple of pestilent quotes from Hitler to back up your argument:

    “National Socialism and religion cannot exist together…. The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity’s illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew.” (July, 1941)

    “Originally, Christianity was merely an incarnation of Bolshevism, the destroyer…. The decisive falsification of Jesus’ doctrine was the work of St.Paul. He gave himself to this work… for the purposes of personal exploitation…. Didn’t the world see, carried on right into the Middle Ages, the same old system of martyrs, tortures, faggots? Of old, it was in the name of Christianity. Today, it’s in the name of Bolshevism. Yesterday the instigator was Saul: the instigator today, Mardochai. Saul was changed into St.Paul, and Mardochai into Karl Marx. By exterminating this pest, we shall do humanity a service of which our soldiers can have no idea.” (Oct 1941)

    “Kerrl, with noblest of intentions, wanted to attempt a synthesis between National Socialism and Christianity. I don’t believe the thing’s possible, and I see the obstacle in Christianity itself…. Pure Christianity– the Christianity of the catacombs– is concerned with translating Christian doctrine into facts. It leads quite simply to the annihilation of mankind. It is merely whole-hearted Bolshevism, under a tinsel of metaphysics.” (Dec 1941)

    Sorry,… to completely destroy your argument. The source is Martin Bormann, Hitler’s personal secretary during the war.

    Comment #28 by: stag

  • Alex Weaver

    Holy shit, did he argue that?

    Because, you know, if there’s one thing we can rely on, it’s the scrupulous honesty of Nazi leaders, particularly those writing for publication with an agenda.

    Also, Bormann was never captured and his remains have since been identified. So, citation still needed.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X