Ever-changing Morality

Over at Daylight Atheism, Adam Lee is responding to some comments made by Peter Hitchens, the Christian brother of the late Christopher Hitchens. Specifically, he’s responding to this quote:

For a moral code to be effective, it must be attributed to, and vested in, a nonhuman source. It must be beyond the power of humanity to change it to suit itself

Lee seems most interested in tackling the first point: it’s meaningless, because we have no “nonhuman source.” To that end, his response is much like Deacon Duncan’s Undeniable Fact: God does not show up in the real world, so everything we say about God must come from humans.

That’s a solid point, but I think it’s also redundant because Hitchens’ second point fails as well: there very little in the world of religion and culture that is beyond the human ability to change.

That means that even if we were to grant Hitchens his first point, it would still do his argument little good. Even if we had the perfect book, we are still not perfect readers. Every word in that book must be translated, transmitted and interpreted. Even if you could perfect those first two processes, that last one would prove insurmountable.

What does “Thou shalt not kill” mean? A quick survey of biblical religions will return different interpretations of those four simple words. Does it apply to killing in self defense? To killing during war? To killing during an unjust war? To killing animals? To criminals, and if not, what types of criminals?

You’ll find Christians, Jews and Muslims on all sides of each questions. So what, exactly, is the advantage of having this “nonhuman source”?

I disagree with Lee that religion makes moral ideas harder to change. From my read of history, religious morality shifts at the same rate as other forms of culturally-embedded morality. Certainly the history of Christianity has shown massive shifts in its consensus over how to live a moral life, and no doubt this will continue. “Biblical morality” no longer means living a celibate life with few possessions, but perhaps it will return to that as the centuries roll on.

Part of this is because humans are champions rationalizers; we can find all sorts of reasons to do those things that we want or that make sense to us. Convincing someone to not do something that doesn’t make sense to them is tremendously difficult, as witnessed by the Catholic Church’s failure to prevent contraception use among American Catholics. But what makes sense to us comes from our preconceptions, which are shaped by our experiences and our society, and not just by what we hear from the pulpit.

For Hitchens to act as if having a “nonhuman source” grants us an unchanging moral code is to ignore most of what we learned from the past fifty years of philosophy and everything we’ve learned from history. There is only one law that continues to govern all human morality: This too shall pass.

  • vasaroti

    I’ve seen morality by democratic vote work well in elementary school classrooms. Voting on things like not making noise in the halls because it disturbs other classes sometimes works better than a teacher’s edict. Social pressure is more immediate than an authority, real or supernatural, who may not witness your crime. It’s as simple as “If you want to be part of our group, you can’t do that.”

    I disagree that supernatural authority always stabilizes a moral code. We can all think of examples of revelation by crisis, in which the devout understand during a famine, or conquest by people of another religion, that they had been reading their scriptures incorrectly. The Christian and Islamic expansions wiped out scores of indigenous religions, each with its own moral code.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    What does “Thou shalt not kill” mean?…

    Indeed. A common ploy in Christian apologetics is to re-translate this as “thou shalt not murder.”

    Peter Hitchens’ position is vulnerable to the Euthyphro treatment.

    • UrsaMinor

      That is an interesting question. I don’t know enough Hebrew to be able to say if the distinction between ‘kill’ and ‘murder’ is found there too- but if it is, then ‘murder’ might actually be the correct translation, depending on the original verb used.

      Are there any Hebrew scholars out there who would care to comment on this point?

      • mikespeir

        And what does “murder” mean, anyway?

        • Reginald Selkirk

          Unlawful killing. This gives the more hateful Christians an out for their support of the death penalty and war in general. It also gives Yahweh an out for his support of genocide. If it had any validity.

          • Len

            There’s generally also the aspect of premeditation – ie, not accidental killing, but setting out with the intention of killing.

            • TrickQuestion

              That however puts forth the question of all the “you have to stone these people to deaths” commanded by the same being that said not to kill people.

            • http://fugodeus.com Nox

              The difference between “kill” and “murder” in modern usage includes considerations like premeditation, self-defense, open combat, and accidental manslaughter.

              The difference between “ratsah” and “harag” in the Torah would seem to be mostly concerned with kosher killing vs. unkosher killing.

              If you kill someone you’re not supposed to kill it’s murder. If you commit murder in compliance with the law, it’s just good wholesome killing.

            • Custador

              Hence that batshit insane Israeli Rabbi who said in his book that it’s perfectly okay to murder Palestinian babies. And got some quite high profile support (and even higher profile lack of condemnation).

      • YaronD

        The word in Hebrew is absolutely the one for “murder” and not the more general one for “kill”.

        But devoid of context I don’t think it matters any, since the definition of murder varies over time and with culture and law.

        Not even from the premeditation angle mentioned by Len, as some kinds of technically non-premeditated killings can be considered the equivalent of murder these days in many places. Such as hitting someone when drunk driving, bombing a building intending just structural damage but not verifying it’s empty first, etc…

        Is it, always, not murder if the order to murder came from a voice you hear inside your head and decide it’s god? Is it, always, not murder if you just follow orders to shoot the unarmed civilian or bomb the school? Is it, always, not murder if he did disrespect his parents before you stoned him to death?

        • FO

          I wonder, in this light what would be the difference between state-sanctioned death penalty and state-sanctioned abortion?

          • Sunny Day

            Be fruitful and multiply.

            That guy on death row, he done something. Lets speed him on his way to god’s inJustice.

          • YaronD

            One is a decision by the state to kill a living sentient human being.

            The other is the state giving permission, as if it should even be needed, to get rid of a group of non sentient cells, which is given to a living sentient human being in order for her to be able to save or improve her life.

            Either case as long as is permitted by law then it won’t be legally considered a murder.
            And either case semantically you can consider it a murder if you consider whatever was killed to be a person, and if the reason for the killing doesn’t pass a perceived justification level to make it a non-murder.

            Personally I’d consider the first a murder almost always (though in some cases I could accept that it’s a “murder for the common good”), and the second almost never (whatever is there in early stages of pregnancy isn’t a person so you can’t murder it).
            But that’s a really off-topic discussion.

      • Charles Corum

        The OT was written by Jews for Jews. My understanding is that the prohibition against murder applied only to killing another Jew. It was perfectly fine, indeed justified by their god, to slaughter other non-believers, including men, women, children, and animals! And killing was fine for those women who were not virgins on their wedding nights, those who wore clothing made from wool AND cotton, those who worked on the sabbath, etc.

    • HC

      Yep, I’ve heard that the original Hebrew text says “thou shalt not murder”. Murder narrows the meaning of killing. I noticed that the English version Bible and the Greek version has differences. For instance, in the New Testament, Hebrews 12:2, “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith, …”, in Greek, “αφορωντες εις τον της πιστεως αρχηον και τελειωτην ιησουν…”. “τον αρχηον” and “τελειωτην” are the accusative case, meaning “the beginning and the end.” In the Revelation 1:8, Jesus Christ described himself “Alpha and Omega”. They are the same meaning. Also, in Greek Archon and teleios both mean nothing beyond it, or the highest power and authority. Meaning God is the highest of all things.

      Another thing I want to mention is, I am hoping people will understand that science cannot prove whether a religion is true or not, however, a true religion can prove any kind of science. Even though people don’t have any believe, they still have consciences which would help them to recognize good from bad.

      • YaronD

        “science cannot prove whether a religion is true or not”

        But science can prove whether any specific falsifiable claims made by a religion are true or not. The holy books for religions like Judaism and Christianity are full of factual claims that science can (and in some cases did) prove to be wrong.
        Deciding whether it proves a religion false when the claims in its holy books are proven false… Well, as long as the believer is fine with saying “My religion is true despite the fact that it is based on a lot of false claims” then you’re right, it doesn’t.

        “however, a true religion can prove any kind of science”

        Are you sure you know what the word “prove” means?

        “Even though people don’t have any believe, they still have consciences which would help them to recognize good from bad”

        Yes, people have a conscience, and it is one of the tools they use to make moral judgements. Regardless of belief and without the requirement of an external and superior source of morality. So we’re in agreement that morality doesn’t require a non-human god.

      • Theory_of_I

        “…science cannot prove whether a religion is true or not,”

        Science has absolutely no interest in proving or disproving religion. Science is a tool used to increase our knowledge of the universe/world by means of reliable and verifiable evidence of things that can be observed or measured.

        “…a true religion can prove any kind of science.”

        So…? Religion makes no contribution to the body of knowledge. It never has, and never will.

        “Even though people don’t have any believe, they still have consciences which would help them to recognize good from bad.”

        People are acculturated. What represents good or bad varies culturally, therefore conscience is culturally mapped. The underlying culturally universal motivating influence for conscience is consequence. No consequence, no need for concern. For both believers and non-believers, one significant consequence for good works is contemporary recognition and appreciation, while unacceptable behavior invites rejection and intervention. It’s just common human herd behavior. There is no need to extrapolate that into the abstract meanderings of some other life under the whip of some other being.

      • Custador

        Scroll down to the last blog post, cowboy ;-)

        • Theory_of_I

          I got thrown off ={
          Which post?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Be sure to check out the original piece by Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail, December 16, 2011:
    How I found God and peace with my atheist brother: PETER HITCHENS traces his journey back to Christianity

    It contains a lot that is worthy of criticism.

    Because religion is the one reliable force that stands in the way of the power of the strong over the weak. The one reliable force that forms the foundation of the concept of the rule of law. … the idea of conscience depends on it being implanted by God. …
    I am also baffled and frustrated by the strange insistence of my anti-theist brother that the cruelty of Communist anti-theist regimes does not reflect badly on his case and on his cause. It unquestionably does.
    Soviet Communism is organically linked to atheism, materialist rationalism and most of the other causes the new atheists support. It used the same language, treasured the same hopes and appealed to the same constituency as atheism does today.

    O noez! The Stalin argument. It’s going to be difficult to take this man seriously.

    • vasaroti

      Christopher Hitchens was probably baffled and frustrated by the strange insistence of his theist brother that the cruelty of theist regimes does not reflect badly on his case and on his cause.
      Fixed.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    For a moral code to be effective, it must be attributed to, and vested in, a nonhuman source. It must be beyond the power of humanity to change it to suit itself

    Right. That is why slavery is now outlawed worldwide.

    Right. That is why no one in the world eats pork or shellfish.

    Peter Hitchens is as deep as a puddle. If he were not Christopher Hitchens’ brother, no one would care about his fatuous babblings about religion and morality.

  • Sunny Day

    “For a moral code to be effective, it must be attributed to, and vested in, a nonhuman source.”

    Let’s just say that that part is true.

    God is the source of all morality. So What?
    You have absolutely no reason to be moral. Their religion also says as long as you believe in a Magical Jew it doesn’t matter what you do, after your death you get to live in a paradise. So go ahead and lie, cheat, and murder your fellow man, you’re going to paradise. They are too, it will all even out the in wash and everyone is forgiven. Except for those other sinners who didn’t believe, those dirty bastards deserve to be taken advantage of because they didn’t accept jesus.

    • trj

      Well, to be fair, the doctrine of salvation by faith alone is primarily Protestant. Far from all Christians subscribe to it. Also, most of them will tell you forgiveness is not granted if your repentance is insincere.

      • Sunny Day

        Is the fake it till you make it school of religious faith also a Protestant teaching?

        And Pascal’s wager?

        Oh I was wrong, I’m sincerely sorry and don’t want to be burned in Hell.

        See how easy it is?

        • trj

          Pascal’s wager is sloppy and self-defeating. If I were to believe in an omniscient god, I would think he’d have the mental capacity to not take it seriously. Likewise, I’d expect him to see through believers who fake their sincerity.

          Which is not to say there aren’t plenty of Christians who are convinced they’ve received forgiveness/absolution and then continue their bad behavior, deliberately or not. I’m merely saying their bad behavior or their hypocrisy is not a point against Christian theology.

        • Julie42

          They would say that in the end, God is the final judge.

          Someone may say they’re a Christian and they may be able to fake it well. But God knows their heart and he can tell whether they truly believe or not.

          Since Protestantism is all about faith, it would be easy to fake to other people, but impossible to fake it to God, if he was there.

          They do believe that your faith will likely show through how you live your life. Even if God is the final judge, they enjoy doing plenty of their own judging.

  • trj

    The idea that there is some set of moral behaviour which is constant and always correct strikes me as naïve in the extreme. After all, what is morality but the application of a certain behavior depending on the context. Applying the same morals to any situation, regardles of context, is impractical and even arguably immoral in many cases.

    Ask a Christian what these supposedly immutable moral laws actually are and they won’t be able to tell you. At most they’ll say something vague like “morality means always obeying God”, which completely fails in practice since Christians can’t agree on what it is God tells us to do, and furthermore, history is full of atrocities commited by people who honestly believe they were/are simply doing God’s bidding (I also remember several fundies posting on this site who’ve claimed they’re ready to kill others if God commands them to, since whatever God commands is automatically moral – the problem with this kind of thinking is obvious to most sane people).

    I suppose the idea of an absolute morality is born out of the classic good/evil duality. If you think good and evil are absolutes, what better way to navigate them than by using absolute rules?

    Of course, anybody remotely grounded in reality can tell you that life is not like that, and that completely inflexible laws are harmful. Good and evil are fluent and subject to perception and circumstances.

    There’s no cheat sheet containing the “right” solution, no divine set of rules that always works. Get over it.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Peter Hitchens (identity not fully verified) from the comments at Daylight Atheism

    As my book (‘The Rage Against God’) attempts to explain, we choose the belief we prefer. The only interesting part of this discussion concerns our reasons for our choices. I have found atheists, for the most part, reluctant to discuss this.

    1) Plug for his book.
    2) Admission of wishful thinking.
    3) I have not noted the same reticence among atheists to talk about reasons for choosing belief (more below).
    4) This appears to be a segue to attacking atheists’ motives rather than their arguments.

    Reasons for choosing what to believe:

    I think we should believe what is true. This leads us directly to a discussion about what are reliable methods for discerning truth. Science is pretty reliable. Personal revelation and scriptures are not. It isn’t just that these methods are nto known to be reliable, it is that they are known to be unreliable.

    The list of known errors and contradictions in the Bible is lengthy, as most readers here will be aware. And personal revelation also has a very bad track record. Just this last year, the followeres of Harold Camping got a big dose of that. P. Hitchens himself probably does not consider non-christian religious revelations to be reliable, and in fact most revelation cannot be true, since it conflicts with other religious revelation.

  • revrun71

    Many of the comments here illustrate moral relativity. Murder is wrong and that’s been a pretty universal concept among cultures throughout history. Whether it’s state sanctioned, delusional, committed for religious or personal reasons, or whatever reason or lack of – I still think it’s unjustifiable to take another person’s life. And yes, the old testament has plenty of examples of just that as does much of history throughout the world. Doesn’t make it right IMHO and I also wonder if some of that is in there to show human misunderstandings of God and one another or even as cautionary tales. The God portrayed in the NT is characterized by love and mercy and much if those older teachings were turned upside down. ” you have heard it said…,but I say to you…”
    As for the communist arguments, why is it so difficult to see a parrallel between expressly atheistic governments and the horrors committed against their own citizens? I know correlation does not necesarrily indicate causation but it’s difficult to simply overlook that aspect of Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China. It’s not that religions have always been perfect teachers of morality but all the ones I know of teach respect for life. And before anyone starts typing a retort, I have no problem at all accepting and appreciating that people can also be very moral, loving people without religion and some really horrible things have been done in the name of religion too. Some horrible things have been done in the name of science, democracy, etc too. It seems to be part of human nature to harm or manipulate and for the most part, religious teachings have attempted to be a corrective to that.

    • http://fugodeus.com Nox

      Stalin killed his political enemies. The church and the various christian theocracies killed for explicitly religious reasons. It’s not that atheists are always perfect teachers of morality. It’s that there isn’t any logical path from atheism to violence. Also there aren’t any atheist holy books that command genocide in the name of no god. There are as you have noticed, religious texts (like for example the bible) that do command genocide in the name of god.

      The problem is not what some people have done in the name of religion. It’s what those people were manipulated into doing by the same religious hierarchy that defined christian belief in the first place.

      • Brian K

        Some of the more “radical” anticommunists (largely Rand-bots) also argue that Marxism is most definitely a heresy derived ultimately from some of Christianity’s moral precepts. Instead of being “born again” the new revolutionary state creates a New Man.

        I would note that absolute faith in a doctrine/world view can very easily lead to totalitarian solutions to support that world view. Stalin was a garden vareity (on a GRANNNNDDDDD scale, of course) tyrant, but Lenin and his crew certainly justified the Russian Civil War and their various crimes by appealing to their doctrine. The doctrine per se did not DICTATE the killing, but it certainly justified it and made it inevitable. So…I am a little uncomfortable when athists blithely dismiss that particular claim. It’s a little more complicated than we would like to thing. (Hitler, of course, was in no way an “atheist” and atheism cannot be tagged with his crimes)

        • trj

          Lenin and his crew certainly justified the Russian Civil War and their various crimes by appealing to their doctrine. The doctrine per se did not DICTATE the killing

          I disagree. One of the tenets of Marxism and Leninism is that communism and socialism inevitably must arise from armed revolution. By that “logic” the opposition needs to be violently eliminated. Which is exactly what Lenin did.

          Lenin saw it as nothing less than his ideological duty to impose a civil war and eradicate the unworthy classes and peoples. He says this directly in various speeches and letters, and his actions leave no doubt that he meant every word.

    • trj

      The primary objective of a socialist dictatorship is to get rid of all opposition. Any kind of institution that has the potential of uniting people in anything other than serving the state is attempted eliminated. That is why from day one all socialist governments have persecuted and eradicated labour unions, religions, and interest organizations of almost any kind. Atheism, being a lack of belief, is considered a lesser potential threat to the state than any religion, and so socialist states adopt it by governmental creed – not because of any ideological similarities but because of its diminished potential for a conflict of interests.

      For all the apparent state support of atheism, what do you think would happen if atheists in a socialist state wanted to organize? Did you ever hear of the existence of an informal atheist club in those states? Or do you think atheists who are somehow deemed a threat to the regime get preferential treatment in the prisons and work camps?

      Atheism is historically associated with socialist regimes – but not due to ideological overlap but simply because it presents less of an incovenience in the state’s ruthless repression of opposition.

    • Custador

      I can think of dozens of scenarios in which I would feel perfectly justified in taking a life. Black-and-white moral absolutism only works in stories – It’s often incompatible with the ethical first-principle of justice.

  • Lester Ballard

    Are we going to be hearing more and more from Peter Hitchens now that Christopher is dead?

    • Sunny Day

      Lets just hope this is as far as the coattails of his dead brother can carry him.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      Less and less, I would think. He has a small window here to erspond to things his brother has said and written, without fear of reply. But as time goes on, it will become clear that Peter Hitchens is not a dep thinker nor an effective communicator, and he will lose the spotlight.

  • Julie42

    Gotta love how Christians think morality never changes.

    Polygamy? Slavery? What were those then?
    Ahh yes, those were wrong, God just chose to deal with them at a different time…and in the meantime, told people how to go about buying, selling, and beating their slaves and blessed David and Solomon with their many wives.

    Maybe some day homosexuality, sex before marriage, and reproduction rights will be normal enough to be accepted by everyone, even religious people.


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