Greta Christina points out something that I’ve been saying for years about Christian fundamentalism, which is that despite its almost constant criticism of atheism as necessarily entailing “moral relativism,” its own moral view is, of necessity, a relativist one. She starts by quoting something written by Peter Hess of the National Center for Science Education about the first episode of the new Cosmos and its focus on the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno:
It is odd therefore that Cosmos focuses almost exclusively on the marginal case of Giordano Bruno. Of course, I am not defending Bruno’s persecution and death—no decent human being now would ever condone burning a person alive for any reason. Moreover, in 2014 we view legitimate theological dissent very differently than did our ancestors.
But the circumstances were quite different 400 years ago. According to the 16th century Italian legal code and the customs of Renaissance politics, Bruno was judged by an ecclesiastical court to be an obdurate heretic for refusing to cease in promulgating his theological ideas. As such he was deserving of capital punishment and was turned over for execution by the civil arm in Rome. In the 21st century we inhabit a very different era, a religiously pluralistic age of largely secular states in which the nature and exercise of authority are vastly different than they were in Post-Reformation Italy.
I am very glad to see that the sentence in bold type has been edited, with this note:
Glad to see that. And Peter Hess is certainly no fundamentalist (he is the Director of Religious Community Outreach for the NCSE and, as far as I know, a rather liberal Christian). But Greta’s response is still accurate:
As such he was subject to capital punishment and was turned over for execution by the civil arm in Rome. [*Editor note: The preceding sentence originally said Bruno was “deserving of” capital punishment. Clearly a misstatement on our part!]
It hadn’t occurred to me before in quite this way. But religious fundamentalism and dogma doesn’t just often end up being morally relativistic in some screwed-up ways. It positively demands it. If you’re going to insist that a holy book written hundreds or thousands of years ago is the permanent and perfect moral guidebook written by God — then you’re stuck with defending behaviors that were considered ethical and even admirable at the time they were written, but that we now recognize as morally repulsive.
It’s a funny thing. Religious believers — especially the fundamentalist ones, or the ones attached to specific religious dogma or an authoritative religious structure — are always going on about the horrors of secular moral relativism. They’re always going on about how, without a belief in an ultimate divine moral arbiter, we would be morally lost: unmoored, unanchored, unable to distinguish right from wrong, basing our moral choices solely on what we find immediately self-serving or convenient.
But it isn’t the atheists who are excusing, defending, minimizing, and rationalizing the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno.
Quite true. And for those who accept that the Bible is the word of God and all true, they have little choice but to turn to moral relativism to defend much of the barbarism found within it. The slaughter of the Midianites, including innocent children? Well there must have been a good reason for God to do that, right? Well no, there doesn’t. God commands things in the Bible that even Adolf Hitler would not and did not do. If you’re going to claim this God is the source of all morality, you are forced into some seriously incoherent rationalizations to defend that.