Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Perceived Fear of Moral Progression

Many theists fear the moral progression of Western cultures. One Muslim apologist said in a debate that a few hundred years from now the West might allow men to have sexual relationships with 3 year old boys, citing NAMBLA as pushing for this recognition. I disagree. If anything, secular morality has lifted the age in which a person can consent to sexual relations, unlike Islam which must forever allow 50 year old men to marry 6 year old girls. The accusation here, is that secular morality is not static, it is not absolute, it changes with every generation like the way fashion does, and therefore there is no anchor holding it down to any particular set of values. This accusation has become very common when debating morality with theists.

I have written numerous times on morality but I would like to address for a moment the perceived issue of moral progression for the theist and tie that in with concepts of moral absolutism. Whenever I talk about morality with anyone, I always ask whether they believe in moral absolutes. I often get different answers. Theists like to assert their moral superiority over the atheist by asserting their moral absolute standards. But when you press a theist on these moral absolutes, it becomes evident that it is easier said than done in practice.

Recently when I was debating a Christian theist on morality, the theist claimed to have moral absolutes that I cannot have as an atheist. However, during our dialogue he said Old Testament morality was relative to those people, places and circumstances, and is not necessarily relevant to us today. So after admitting that his "absolute" Christian morality is relevant to time, place, people, and circumstance, I asked "How much more relative can you get?" He responded that his absolutes are founded in the written word of the Bible. "What version?" I ask, "King James? ASV? Thomas Jefferson Bible?" He didn't respond.

The problem he knows is that there are many versions of the Bible, with different translations, and some include whole books that others do not. Also, the process by which the Bible was put together was rather political in its motivations by the Roman emperor Constantine. To ground your moral absolutes in a heavily translated and highly versioned book is a fatuous attempt to find a solid grounding of your values. Besides this, the Bible doesn't give us all the moral answers that we need and since god isn't going to reveal himself when we are faced with moral dilemmas, we are always forced to calculate and decide for ourselves what is right and wrong.

Now since the atheist rejects the validity of the written word of any supposed holy book, so what then do we make of moral progression? Are morals merely decided upon by each generation? In order to have the best moral code to live by, we would need to have all the scientific information regarding the laws of physics, the universe, human nature and biology. On top of that we'd have to know the outcome of every possible future event to know what action made today will produce the best possible results. So in the absence of the totality of empirical knowledge that exists, we must make moral judgments based on moral values that are made with limited knowledge. Therefore, any moral values system devised will always be to some degree, imperfect. And so as we gain new knowledge about ourselves and our world through the beautiful endeavor of scientific inquiry, we can better revise our moral system. This means that it would be as ignorant to solidify moral values as it would be to solidify medical or scientific knowledge because new information means they can always be improved upon.

How does this relate to a perceived lack of moral absolutes?

If our moral values can be subject to revision, what grounds them? Think of our attempts to make sense of time. We used to think it was absolute, but then Einstein came along and showed us it is actually relative. The truth was out there all along, we just had incorrect assumptions about it due to our limited knowledge. I see morality in much the same way. There are moral values out there that would best suit humanity regarding our treatment of ourselves and nature, we just don't know them yet because of our limited knowledge. Every attempt to morally progress and to revise our moral values, is an attempt to get one step closer to this moral truth. Religious morality was some of our earliest attempts to understand this moral truth, and that is why they fail so miserably in many areas at assessing human conduct.

How can we recognize this moral truth, and what impact does culture have on it?

The theist will point to cultural differences on what is moral and claim that the ultimate moral truth will differ from place to place. I disagree. Any culture that adopts critical thinking, reason, freedoms of speech, and the pursuit of knowledge through science, will inevitably come to the same basic moral conclusions as the secular progressives in the West has, as long as they do not have cultural and religious obstacles in their way. Moral truth exist naturally irrespective of cultural or personal bias in much the same way that the laws of physics are not relative to cultural belief about the nature of reality. Fairness, love and compassion are naturally good because of their universal benefits, they are simply not a matter of opinion.

As time goes on and we progress morally, some theists cringe because they see moral values step further and further away from what their religions codify. But I must ask you, if you are hesitant to adopt a progressive attitude towards morality, to seriously consider the alternative. How many of you would seriously be willing to literally pick up a stone to throw it at your neighbor's head with the intention of killing him or her, because they were found to be working on the Sabbath? How many of you would be willing to do the same to the accused adulterer, homosexual, or a witch, today in the 21st century? How many of you would be willing to allow slavery and to allow 6 year old girls to be forced into arranged marriages with 50 year old men? Think about this. If the idea of actually doing this makes you cringe and repulsed, you're a moral progressive, because these are all the absolute and unchangeable morals of various religions.


  1. I (a theist) would go further. I would say that Jesus was arguing for cultural relativism. Far from proposing any moral absolutes (except the axiom of love), Jesus deliberately demonstrated that the absolutism of his contemporaries was flawed.

    I don't know if you allow a commenter to include hyperlinks, but I'll try:

    That is an article I wrote, systematically looking at matters that Christians generally consider "core" and immovable moral absolutes, and show how they are actually fluid through the Biblical narrative.

    In fact, what can be said of the historical Judeo-Christian faith, is that what it's authors were concerned with was not so much *imposing* a normalcy on society, but with *discerning* what "decency" looked like, and ensuring that the faith community was exemplifying it. That's relativism.

    Of course, for large sections of time in the narrative, and for many centuries in the post-Constantine world, this faith has been in a position to write and enforce laws for a civil society. In that context, theological principles are used to try and guide the process. But at other very important times in the narrative (like Abraham's, and Jesus' time), the cultural norms were dictated by foreign cultures. What was important, then, was to be *decent*, whatever that meant.

    For Abraham it was polygyny, for example, whereas for Jesus and Paul it was monogomy, with a certain special reverence for celebacy (for the purpose of religious service).

    I have had it suggested to me that it is impossible to talk of "morality" without reference to God. I (the theist...) disagree. I think the best axiom on which to base it would be "community", and all morality can be then measured in that context. If only Christians and other theists used that axiom (which is arguably what the Bible actually commends), some of the more hurtful and flat-out crazy nonsense could perhaps have been avoided at various times in history.

    1. Well I applaud you for recognizing the moral relativity of Christianity. I don't argue for total moral relativism, I agree like you, that some degree of relativism exists, but there seems to be a few unchanging cores, like love as you say.

      I might even be less of a relativist that most Christians because I don't believe old testament morality was good at the time it was commanded. I still think most of those morals were wrong, regardless of where and when and who they took place with. The people in the OT times were simply ignorant of the knowledge needed to make informed moral decisions, and that's why their morality is so skewed. So to me slavery was always wrong, and the stoning to death of homosexuals, accused witches and adulterers was always wrong. It was not even right in the context of the OT. Christians are forced to believe these were morally good back then because god arbitrarily commanded it so, but some are not necessarily now, while the atheist can call them all out as wrong.

  2. >> "Christians are forced to believe these were morally good back then"

    Some are. Those who are determined that the Bible has been dictated word-for-word by God.

    I'm not so "forced", at all! But that requires an understanding of the Bible which is at variance to the "verbal-plenary" notion of "divine inspiration". For example, see my article: "Is the Bible actually 'the word of God'?"

    It should be cautioned, however, that imposing modern sensitivities on ancient civilisations is a form of moral absolutism, and is fraught. It is precisely that kind of anachronism that underpinned the cultural imperialism of the 17th-19th centuries. Simply because something is not considered "a crime" now, is not a reason necessarily to declare a death penalty for it in another culture at another time is "immoral".

    In my country, it is considered immoral to put *any* criminal to death. In the USA it is legally sanctioned by a number of states for certain criminals.

    Imposing one's morality one others is always ethically questionable. To some, of other cultures or eras, certain of the values that you consider "inalienably good", could be considered offensive or immoral.

    1. Well you don't seem to be a Biblical literalist and I think that's great. There are so many shades of "Christian" that "Christian" is really like an umbrella term covering many beliefs similar to "religion".

      It is true that a Christian can simply just believe in Jesus' divinity and resurrection and nothing more, and therefore is not bound at all to any OT commandments. Most Christians however, do accept the Bible as the inspired word of god. If you do not grant OT morality as the commandments of god, then you say they might be all the musings of an ancient desert tribe. In that case, no one is under any obligation to obey them. I would agree basically.

      You say that the community or the church should determine for itself how to interpret god's will. What about the Lord's Resistant Army, or a cult leader like David Koresh's Branch Dividians Sect, or any other Christian off-shoot sect or cult, that may have a leader that proclaims himself a prophet in direct communication with god? Do you really place morality to be that socio-culturally relative?

  3. Morality is a question of community. That's consistent with anthropology and sociology. In one community, arranged marriages are considered the pinnacle of moral uprightness. In others it is offensive. in some, violence is practiced as part of vital coming-of-age ceremonies, and in others violence is considered 'wrong' in all circumstances. That's very socio-culturally relative.

    Ultimately, the liberal democracy is founded on the principle of such relativity. Whatever the people want, the people get. Even if they want a changed constitution! The short history of democracy is sufficient to demonstrate profound changes in 'morality'. It's not slowing down. Morality is relative to the express interests of the community. Is that a good thing? It completely depends on your point of view: conservatives say no (that's what conservative actually means: morality is enshrined in traditions).

    An judeo-christian faith community does have a couple of non-negotiable axioms: love of God, love of one another, service to others. Beyond that, the surrounding culture's sense of decency should dictate the mores of the faith one. That's not my opinion, it's what the bible demonstrates!

    Indeed, another axiom of the faith is that withdrawing from 'the world' is not spiritually mature. When charismatic leaders seek to create isolated communities they are in error. The results speak for themselves. They don't have to be religious, either. Non-religious personality-cults are just as dangerous as religious ones. Religion is merely the convenient tool of the charismatic leader.

    On the definition of 'Christian', it means 'of Christ'. Thats what I am.

    What most Christians don't realise is that much of what they consider 'Christian' would be foreign to Jesus, in whos name they live. Not necessarily offensive, but certainly unrecognizable. Democracy, for example...

    Oh, and I didn't say that the Bible is *not* inspired by God. I simply express the nature of that inspiration in very different terms. Ancient Israel contemplated (from within their cultural paradigm) a holy God, and discerned certain laws. My argument is that we should contemplate the same God in our milieu to discern modern instructions.

    1. Qualification: 'we' refers to Christians in that final paragraph...

    2. Do you or do you not believe as a Christian, that there is one god and that he has one rigid set of morals that he has commanded us to live by, regardless of whether they change over time or not?

    3. God has required that his own people live in exemplary decency in whatever setting they find themselves. The only 'rigid' things are the love of God and of the fellow man. Specifics are relative to the community setting.

      God requires everyone else to comprehend life in terms of a good conscience, and will hold them accountable to that.



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