How do you define and determine morality?

7OBThe issue of where we get our morals from is one that comes up often in my conversations with Fundamentalists and Evangelicals. According to them, morality can only come from God by following his laws, therefore non-believers are incapable of morality. I would like to challenge this idea.

Morality is defined as: “Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.” It is also defined as “A particular system of values and principles of conduct, especially one held by a specified person or society.”
So how do we figure out what’s right and wrong? Here’s a question to start with: Is it wrong to kill another human being?

Christians and non-Christians alike would probably say the same thing: It depends. Is it in self defense? Is it in wartime? Is it the execution of a violent criminal? Both groups generally agree on one thing: Whether or not killing is right or wrong generally depends on the circumstances, and applying the same punishment to everyone without knowing the circumstances would be unjust. Most people would agree that it’s not wrong for me to kill someone who is actively trying to kill me, because that’s self defense. Most people would also agree that a mugger killing his victim is morally unacceptable.
It’s impossible to say that killing another human being is always wrong, because sometimes it’s not. It’s relative to the situation- hence morality is relative.
When we try to apply the same moral answer to every situation, we end up with an unjust system. That’s why we cringe when we hear about starving children being brutally punished for stealing food; sure they did something wrong, but we also take their age and desperation into account. This is also why atheists are horrified at the idea of Hell, because the same brutal punishment is unjustly applied to everyone- good people who simply believed incorrectly are burned right alongside child molesters and genocidal dictators.
So how do we determine whether or not killing another human being is acceptable? Sometimes there is no clear answer, but here are some basic questions to ask.

  1. Are my motives selfish? Am I killing this person for my own personal gain?
  2. Is killing this person necessary? Is there another way to remedy the situation?
  3. What will happen if I don’t kill this person? Will they harm or kill me or someone else?
  4. If everyone killed people for the same reasons I am killing this person, what would our society look like?

Combining these types of questions with general moral principle such as:
Empathy: “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” That means I am able to understand the pain and hurt that my actions will have on another human being. Empathy is what causes me to not desire to harm another person.
Social perspective: Humans are social animals, and we’ve learned that some societies are better to live in than others.

We’ve become smart enough to figure out that societies that condone senseless violence are not as pleasant to live in. We also understand the concept of individual rights as it applies to a functioning society. That means that taking someone else’s life intrudes upon their right to live, just as someone taking my life intrudes upon my right to live. I am capable of understanding that since I would not want someone to take my life away from me, I should not take the life of another person. In Christianity this is called the Golden Rule, but it is a concept found in every religion and outside of religion as well.
Of course, we rarely have to sit down and sift through these questions and concepts every time we are faced with a moral dilemma. Most of the time these thought processes happen very quickly and even subconsciously. This is where our conscience comes from- our subconscious understanding of these concepts which we have evolved to understand.
As you can see, we are more than capable of determining what is right or wrong without the Bible’s guidance. But if you’re still not convinced, my other blog goes into more detail.

“Prophetic” Verses

An example of religious logic and cult-like thinking. Make up a religion, “predict” that people won’t buy it, and call these future dissenters fools. It looks like a prophecy to those who don’t think it through, and effectively discourages questions and critical thinking. It’s what cults do to keep their members from leaving or thinking differently.

Ray Comfort has just revealed how manipulative this belief system really is. This is not prophecy- anyone with half a brain could have predicted that some people wouldn’t believe in a religion that teaches talking donkeys are real.

Undoing misconceptions about God and the Bible

Undoing misconceptions about God and the Bible

These are a few of the “Christianese” ideas about God that do not actually have scriptural backing, but people cling to them because they do not like the alternative.

If you are to believe in God, you must believe in Him as he is… not as you would like him to be. Otherwise you worship an idol, and not the God of the Bible.

  1. Age of accountability.

    There is no concrete scripture to support this belief. This is a concept created by Christians to make them feel better when a child dies. The Bible is very clear: We are all sinners at birth, and a person must make a decision to serve God before he can enter Heaven. This is not a popular teaching, but it is more scripturally accurate than an age of accountability. This means that mentally ill people may not be covered either; they are sinners from birth too, so unless they decide to serve God they are not safe either. It has been said that God knows each person’s heart and he would know if someone “would have” turned to him when they were old enough to understand. However, there is no scripture to back this up. David believed his young son went to heaven, but that does not mean he actually did.

  2. God is against abortion.

    While this is a comforting belief, it it rather humanistic and is not found concretely in scripture. In fact, at God’s order many children and babies were executed in the Old Testament- implying that the life of a baby is not as valuable as Christians have assumed he thinks. Although David speaks of God knowing him before birth, that does not mean that God is against abortion.

  3. Marriage is not one man and one woman.

    The Bible condones and often blesses marriages where there is one man and many women, and/or concubines, which is a fancy term for sex slave. If God truly hated polygamy or the practice of owning concubines, he would have forbidden it; instead, it is widely accepted and even promoted. Although Biblical marriage does not include two men or two women, the mantra that it does promote a single man and a single women is not accurate.

  4. God is not against rape and sexual slavery.

    This was a big one for me. I always assumed that regardless of the historical context, rape is wrong, and thus the Bible must support that belief. However, the Bible paints a very different story. In the Old Testament, it was very common for the Israelites to wipe out an enemy nation, kill everyone (including children and women), and keep the virgins for themselves in order to bear children. Since it was not lawful to marry these women, and no young women would willing sleep with a man who had just wiped out her entire family, what else can be assumed here? Concubines and sex slaves were also allowed throughout the Bible.

  5. The Bible does not condemn slavery.

    Back before the Civil War, the church once taught that slavery was acceptable. And technically they were right. According to the Bible, slavery is ok as long as you treat slaves well. It never once condemns this practice. However, Christians now teach that God is against slavery… even though you have to jump through hoops to make the Bible say that.

  6. Jeremiah 29:11 is not for us.

    This verse has been used to comfort many Christians- it was a favorite of mine in High School when I was distraught over circumstances in my life. However, that verse was written to a specific person- not to believers in general. God told Jeremiah that he had plans for Jeremiah specifically- plans to use him as a prophet. We can gain comfort from this passage, but we cannot take this scripture to apply directly to us- it wasn’t written that way. Verses must be taken in context, or their meaning changes.

There are many more issues like these, but these are the ones I end up discussing the most with people.

Critical Thinking: Fallacies in Biblical Interpretation

Critical Thinking: Fallacies in Biblical Interpretation

Critical Thinking: Fallacies in Biblical Interpretation

If you study the history of Christianity, you will very quickly see that interpretation of the Bible has varied greatly over the centuries. Things that were once accepted one way are now interpreted in the opposite way. What governs the methods used to interpret scripture?

It appears that the general beliefs of society dictate how Christians interpret it. Let me explain.

For example, for most of human history women have been seen as less than men. If you read the Bible without taking culture and history into account, it says that women should not teach, can be bought and sold, must not speak out loud in church, must obey their husbands, and much more. However, our modern society does not agree with these ideas, so people now find other parts of scripture that fit the current belief that women can do anything men can do. Many of these verses are regarded as cultural, and are not applied to Christianity today. Most churches now accept women ministers and strong female figures in society.

Slavery is another issue. Not so long ago, the church as a whole taught that slavery was condoned by God and was perfectly acceptable. And if you read the Bible at face value, that’s exactly what it says. The Bible does not state anywhere that slavery is wrong; in fact, it clearly spells out how slavery is to be conducted, and God even commands the Israelites to enslave other nations. (Do a study on slavery in the Bible sometime- it’s a bit shocking!!) Even the new Testament orders slaves to obey their masters. Yet today, Christians teaches that slavery is wrong. Christians believe a doctrine which appears to completely contradict what the Bible clearly states.

Why? Because people want to believe it. Slavery is not acceptable in our civilized society, so the Bible is scoured for themes and ideas that would support a different interpretation. People ignore the clear verses that state how slavery is to be conducted and instead embrace more vague concepts that could support a more tolerable idea of God’s character.

The Crusades are another example. Although we now shudder at the thought of the things the Crusaders did in the name of God, the Old Testament is not a walk in the park either. The Israelites were often commanded to wipe out heathen nations, killing women and children and taking lands that belonged to other people- all in the name of God. It is easy to see how someone reading the Old Testament could believe that the Bible condoned similar actions in another setting. It seems pretty straightforward- but of course the Bible is not interpreted that way today because no one wants to believe that genocide is acceptable.

Christians also teaches that abortion is wrong. However, the Old Testament shows God ordering infants and children to be put to death when the Israelites wiped out other nations, and he drowned countless pregnant mothers in the flood. Pregnant women were also put to the sword in some cases. If God truly values the lives of infants so highly, why would he do these things? To reconcile this inconsistency, other verses are found that appear to support a more socially acceptable belief.

But another fallacy occurs too. When a scripture comes up that condemns a practice that is already accepted as being wrong, people don’t look any further- they just accept it. People don’t bother to interpret it the same way they would interpret these other issues because they don’t feel it’s needed- they have already decided that they like the current interpretation, so it doesn’t warrant further scrutiny.

For example, the Bible appears to strongly condemn homosexuality. Christianity teaches that this interpretation is correct and unquestionable, so most people do not push it further. Many Christian societies agree with this belief. However, this is a double standard; these other issues show things that at first glance appear to clearly say something shocking, and yet they are interpreted very differently than what a straightforward reading would suggest.

Why are all scriptures not interpreted the same way? Why is it ok to find vague reasons to prove slavery and abortion wrong and women’s rights ok, but it’s not ok to study the gay issue in the same manner? Why is it ok to accept a straightforward interpretation in some scriptures but reject them in others? It is said that the Bible must be taken at face value and people should not read into it things that are not there, but people do that all the time- when it fits what they want to believe.

I am not trying to tell you what to think on these issues; that decision is up to you. My point is that Biblical interpretation is not as cut and dried as modern Christianity would have you believe. It is largely dependent on what you personally believe to be good or bad, or what society says. It is an aspect of humanism that has been a part of the church for a very long time.

My challenge is simple: Use critical thinking skills when you read the Bible. Are you reading things into the Bible that aren’t really there? Do you choose what to study deeper based on your preconceived ideas of what is right and wrong? The definitions of right and wrong have changed drastically over the centuries… usually with supposed scriptural backing. Don’t take someone else’s word for what the Bible really says. Find out for yourself.