In recent years, there has been a strong push for greater flexibility (some may apply the term ‘rights’ – who am I to argue!) in two particular areas that Christians of a certain persuasion find particularly difficult to stomach – marriage equality and abortion. Those are two very complex, impassioned subjects and I don’t really want to get into them directly at this stage, but the attitudes of those from a religious background can, I believe, be traced back to the doctrine of divine moral absolutism – the idea that God is the final, unwavering authority in any moral or ethical dilemma and he has provided us, through Scripture, the instructions for how these should be settled.
When faced with someone who has no religion, in my experience, a Christian will often turn to this argument very quickly. How can someone with no absolute reference point possibly have a definable set of morals or rules? Without a God and His commandments, how can people propose any rules or regulations which are anything but arbitrary?
Indeed, many will cite that the laws we, as citizens, live by are deeply rooted in a religious foundation. I don’t know anywhere near enough to pass an educated comment on that, but it’s one of those oft-repeated lines that Christians tend to trot out simply because of the implied credibility that comes with it.
Yes, atheists and the non-religious might say they can be moral people and that society can adequately decide what it thinks is acceptable and what isn’t, but when those rules are not framed and have no ultimate, final authority, how can they be considered anything other than whimsical? Add to that the doctrine of original sin where everyone is inherently evil (nay, depraved, according to Calvin) and you’ll begin to see why this view carries so much weight.
That’s the pro-religious perspective. I know this because it was mine. I had loads of discussions over the years where this particular topic came up, and I turned to it, because I believed it and it made perfect sense at the time.
On the other side of my own arguments
Nowadays, I find it interesting when I consider the things I used to say from the other side. I always considered myself empathetic and capable of walking in another’s shoes. But I guess I’ve never really considered how it feels to be on the end of the accusation that you’re inherently immoral and incapable of making non-arbitrary decisions about what is right and wrong. And it really is crude in the extreme.
What about this view of some higher-power framework being required for the development of meaningful morals and universally acceptable concepts of right and wrong? Well, I now see some flaws. I’m more questioning of the very idea of divine moral absolutism.
At its core, it implies that if God says something, it’s an unquestionable, fixed truth. And more to the point, it is not only acceptable but to be proactively encouraged. So, when God, through the writers of Scripture, gives us His word on any subject, it’s a definitive. By inference, those who claim to follow Him and obey Him will avow that anything He has said or done is thus acceptable.
History is littered with tales of weird and wonderful (read: perverse and twisted) interpretations of this doctrine. This is one of the core foundations of modern religious opposition on matters of equality and choice. Fundamentalists believe they are God’s representatives on this earth and, using His blueprint, they must ensure that society maintains its reliance on His laws and instructions, all – of course – for our own good.
The idea breaks down now, as I see it, for one simple reason – nothing is off limits. For the very reason that we, as a society, are meant to be protected from ourselves, we are actually exposed to the notions of the wrathful, vengeful deity.
The bible is full of examples of God ordering or enacting what we can only consider to be some truly reprehensible things:
- Abraham told to kill Isaac just to satisfy Him (albeit as a test)
- Killing an entire generation of Egyptians even though He, Himself, had caused Pharaoh’s intransigence
- Slaughtering collateral damage after (one of many) wars
- Sending a bear to annihilate a couple of boys who verbally abused Elisha.
I could probably go on – others have spent much more time cataloging these things than I am ever likely to. These catalogues do produce a very intriguing listing.
A message often preached from church pulpits and central to Christian literature is that God’s authority trumps any law of mankind. If the two are ever in conflict, the Christian must side with God’s law and accept whatever the consequences may be – to them or to others. If that law denies someone else a right or freedom, then that’s just bad luck. If a Christian ever feels truly called or “ordered” by God to act or behave in a certain way, then they must follow – there is simply no choice in the matter. Because there is no questioning of the absolutes.
But I don’t accept those religious, holy book absolutes any more. There must be a much more viable way to make the world a better place for everyone in it. Adapting to our circumstances and ensuring that everyone can live without fear and with the freedom to be who they are without the need to hide or pretend. Of course we still need limits – we can’t simply allow anything and everything. We obviously need to form and maintain our laws and we – people – need to continue to make decisions over what we will tolerate and what is simply not acceptable. We have done so in the past, and it’s fairly much a given that we will continue. I do expect the influence of religion to wane further and further until it is only a bit-part factor – perhaps not in my lifetime, but certainly within a small number of generations. I’m more or less describing basic humanism, aren’t I? Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.
Until very recently, even talking about God like this – in this finger-wagging style – would have been unthinkable. It definitely feels weird, but it’s a certain type of liberating! What Christians (and what I used to) excuse and overlook in terms of God’s action has truly begun to astound me. The contrast between this violent, megalomaniac of the Old Testament vs the God of love and grace we are taught to worship in the New Testament is particularly stark and adds a whole level of confusion. But it does now seem to highlight how scripture has been concocted and crafted to fit a series of political or social needs at particular times.