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.

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