First, what is moral absolutism?
Moral absolutism is defined as "the ethical belief that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of the context of the act."
Moral absolutism and relativism can get us into some murky waters here so we have to be careful what we are talking about. Theists of many faiths will reluctantly admit that some moral relativism exists. I recently had a very conservative theist argue that Old Testament morality "was relative to a particular time and place." Thereby he admits that some moral actions are right and wrong, depending on where, why and how they were committed. That is moral relativism.
I would agree with this considering the virtually infinite number of possible situations where a moral choice must be made. The questions of where, why and how they were committed is often a determining factor to calculate its morality. However, this does not have to force you to dive head on into total moral relativism. The standards by which you calculate an action being wrong or right can be the same and apply across all cultures and time periods equally, even if different situations result in different determinations as to whether something is right or wrong.
No religion gives us a complete moral code. We are always going to be debating what is or is not moral, whenever new issues arise. Just think of the invention of the internet and how many new laws and regulations needed to be debated and passed as to what would be moral or not with this new advance in technology. No holy book will decide that, for this we must use our brains.
I further argue, that no religion really gives us the standards by which to calculate moral actions. In ethical philosophy, there are three main branches of thought to calculate morality: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Religion uses a divine command theory of ethics. That means god commands it to be right or wrong, period. So if you're a Muslim, eating pork is wrong, because god said so. If you are a Christian, you cannot suffer a witch to live, because god said so. You are required to accept these moral commandments and thinking for yourself and reconsidering what is right or wrong is strictly off limits: The boss has already done the thinking for us.
The atheist's problem with this is the source of these ethics. We are told that we just have to accept that these commandments were revealed to people years ago, from an all knowing god, and perfectly translated through many languages and many generations to the present. What the atheist insists upon, is questioning everything, and every moral, so that nothing is accepted by blind faith. And if we can consider a better moral based on the moral calculations of utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics, guided by the latest science, then we should be perfectly right to discard the moral we derived from religion.
The Cherry Pickers of Morality
I often enjoy accusing theists that they are merely cherry picking their morality from their holy books to suit their personal beliefs, while they discard many of the other "absolute" morals. In Christianity, the Bible condones a host of "absolute" morals that include various forms of slavery, fathers selling their daughters into slavery, indentured servitude, forcing underage girls into marriages with older men, stoning to death all homosexuals, adulterers, witches, unruly children, those who worship false gods, those who work on the sabbath, allowing the rape of female captives in war, and throwing war captives off cliffs. There are certainly more that I do not have the time to mention.
Now if a theist adhering to a moral absolute standard believes that these above mentioned morals were relative to a certain time and place, that is hypocricy. You can't have all morality to be absolute and relative at the same time. This puts the theist into a bit of a conundrum.
So a theist could ask, "Does admitting perplexity about the Bible’s teachings in one area, while strongly affirming its teachings in another area, make me a hypocrite?"
Well it would certainly make the theist a selective literalist. I personally do reject the Bible on account of several things. First are its contradicting, and fallacious moral teachings, that are the product of an angry, jealous and superstitious tribe, bent on justifying the harm they committed by believing it was divinely sanctioned. Second is the historical and scientific inaccuracy when compared to modern science.
As an atheist I do not accept the authority and validity of the Bible. So how then should Biblical morality be interpreted? If one must continue believing in the god of the Bible, they should take from the Bible whatever morals are beneficial, and disregard whatever is no longer relevant. This is pretty much exactly what almost all theists do anyway. Most logical Christians today know the Bible in its entirety is not meant to be taken literally, and a strict literalist interpretation of the Bible will only continue to shave away adherents as a result of the torrent of secular criticism. The best hope for religion is to reform itself to include what modern science and philosophy provide us. If not, religion, much like the republican party, will continue to see its numbers of adherents decline with time.
The theist could counter with a comparison, "Should we reject science and its findings because it is not entirely amenable to our understanding?"
There is simply no comparison of the practice of science and the practice of religion. First, as I've written before, science is just the method by which we build and organize natural explanations for everything based on testable evidence and predictions. Science is an activity, it is not a set of faith-based beliefs. No one who uses science is forced to commit themselves to one particular scientific theory or not. There is no hell for not believing in string theory. Although when the evidence for a scientific theory is overwhelming, scientists will sometimes look down upon those who deny it (just think of how ridiculous flat Earth proponents look today).
Religion is a set of dogmatic beliefs surrounding a deity that requires faith to believe in, and skepticism and doubt about these beliefs are frowned upon. Comparing science to religion is to compare apples to oranges. They are two different camps. The scientific understanding of matter at the subatomic levels, however perplexing, is not tantamount to our understanding of morality from a Biblical perspective. Scientists are not "revealed" scientific truths from an absolute authority that they then have to reconcile with contradicting testable results. In religion however, we are "revealed" not only moral truths, but scientific "facts", that we then see are contradicted by our moral intuitions and the natural world.
The Role of Science in Morality
When Europeans first encountered black Africans, they didn't even consider the Africans to be human beings. They thought of them as some kind of sub-species, without the same intellectual and emotional capabilities as Europeans. This falsely held belief lead to centuries of slavery and colonization that they helped justify with the Bible. Today with modern genetic science, and the unraveling of the human genome, science has proved that all human beings share a common ancestor and that all human beings came from Africa. In effect, science has shown us that we are all Africans. With this new found scientific knowledge, one cannot justify the inferiority of African people with their previously held beliefs.
Having scientific knowledge about ourselves and our world is necessary for making the best possible moral choices. The reason why I don't regard Biblical or religious morality with any serious regard, is because they were decided at a time when humans lacked the most basic scientific understanding of the nature of reality. We used to be a people who believed in the powers of alchemy, sorcery, witches who could control the weather and disease; we believed that the world was flat, and that it was the center of the universe, that being left handed was a sign of wickedness, and that children should be buried beneath the foundations of buildings to ward off bad luck. Why would anyone seriously consider believing forever, moral cues derived from a time when this ignorant nonsense existed?
The problem with religion is that it is philosophy frozen in dogma. Just as we shouldn't have considered permanently freezing all of our beliefs when we were ten years old, the ignorant "wisdom" of the Iron-age should not be our permanent guidelines on how to live and think morally.
We may never have all the scientific knowledge of ourselves and the universe to guide our moral thinking. What we should do then, is make the best moral decisions given the (always) limited knowledge that we have and continue to improve them as new information is derived. This is called moral growth and we all do it, whether theists like to admit it or not.
By What Basis Is Biblical Morality Unethical?
Theists claim that an atheist is in no position to critique Biblical morality since he doesn't have his own absolute standard to judge it by. To this I respond in two parts. First the theist has no absolute standard, since all theists reluctantly admit that morality is at least in part, relative. Imagine a world with no human beings. Who would the ten commandments apply to? Lions? Dogs? The ten commandments are only relative to human beings existing. We cannot expect animals to behave to our moral laws. So all morality is at least relative to the human species. Furthermore, think of lying. It is considered generally wrong, but who would argue against lying to save a life, such as if Nazis came knocking at your door to ask if you were hiding Jews and you were. This is situational relativism which the Christian theist also reluctantly agrees is true.
Second, in what sense is morality objective? Any argument made for whether something is moral or not, has to be justified for a reason. So for example, kindness, love, compassion and fairness are good in and of themselves for justifiable reasons. It doesn't help us any better at all to believe there is a god who says these things are also good. Would kindness, love, compassion and fairness be any less beneficial to the beings affected by it if there was no god, or if god didn't agree that these actions were good? Of course not! No one's opinion, not even god's, makes any difference as to whether kindness, love, compassion and fairness are good things. They are naturally good in and of themselves and do not require to be backed up by authoritative power.
We get our moral intuitions from the sociobiological evolutionary process. As a species of social primates, human beings had to learn to get along and live civilly with one another. Living in small tribes for hundreds of thousands of years, everyone was dependent on each other for survival. Collectivism reigned supreme. In the modern world, we've had to adapt this tribal way of thinking to a world where we largely don't personally know our neighbors. The great struggle of humanity has been to look past race, ethnicity and differences to recognize all fellow humans beings as extended members of the same tribe. The tribal and ethnic warfare of the Old Testament is indicative of our early failures to understand this. That is another reason why the validity of absolute morals from this era should be disregarded.
I'd like to summarize my points:
- Religion and theism cannot provide an absolute basis for morality. Every religion created has relativistic morals for different situations and morality is only relative to human beings.
- Divine command theory of ethics is a "might makes right" reasoning to understand moral truth.
- The religious all cherry pick their morality. Furthermore, since some morals contradict themselves, the theist is often forced to cherry pick morals.
- There is no way to compare the endeavour of science with the dogmatic practice of religion. One uses the scientific method to find natural explanations of our world; the other asks believers to frown upon doubt and skepticism and to accept "revelations" as fact.
- Scientific knowledge has greatly helped our moral understanding and the morality of religion came largely before the scientific era, that is why many of its teaches seem ludicrous.
- Some actions are naturally good or bad in and of themselves regardless of anyone's opinion of them. The effects of actions are objective regardless of what someone's opinion of it is. Introducing a deity to the situation merely adds one more unnecessary opinion.
Finally, on morality the theist should consider these questions:
- Couldn't it be possible that the counter-intuitive morality of the Bible is largely a product of our Iron-age superstitious thinking, which lacked the most basic understanding of science and human nature?
- Isn't trying to reconcile Biblical morality so that it all fits into modern morality simply a futile waste of time?
- If Biblical morality is indeed right, why is it right? By what basis is this justified?
- If Biblical morality is indeed right, shouldn't we still be practicing it now? What are the justifications for doing so or not doing so?
- Is something good because god commands it, or does he command it because it is good?
- If something is good because god commands it, then couldn't he command murder to be good?
- If god would never command murder because murder is inherently bad, then murder must naturally be bad in and of itself, and couldn't this be recognized by human beings without the requirement of god?