Friday, 22 June 2012

A Guest Response from Malin Freeborn on the Moral Argument (Part 2 of 2)

[Note: This is a continuation of a conversation involving atheist philosophy graduate Malin Freeborn and myself (Jonathan McLatchie) regarding the moral argument for the existence of God. This is part 2 of 2 of Malin's rebuttal to my first response. This response deals with my objections to his arguments from Scripture. For Malin's first guest post, see here. For my response, see here. For part 1 of Malin's rebuttal, see here. For my response to part 1 of Malin's rebuttal, see here.] 

It has been claimed that whether or not we can glean our moral knowledge from scripture is entirely missing Mayer’s point, that the subject he discusses in moral ontology rather than moral epistemology.  However, while scripture is not itself the ontological foundation of ethics, any theory of morality must provide some account of morality which goes beyond ‘Morality is the character traits of God, whatever those may be’.  It must provide concrete moral statements which must then be accountable themselves to reason and common sense.  Theological moral injunctions and their sources are not reasonable, and for this reason we must have a good look at the source - in Meyer’s case the Bible.

This system does not, on the whole, provide a usable ethical system.  It is not an answer to any moral problems, it is nothing but a signpost.  The apologist’s ethics simply point beyond.

Question: What is right to do and wrong to do?
Answer: The actions and character are good.
Q: What are they?
A: We can know them through the Bible.
Q: Then I shall look at the Bible.
A: I’m afraid you can’t read anything in the Bible without my commentaries.

Simply put, it seems to me that the apologist has a set of ethics and then attempts to back them up with scripture.  Anyone who follows the ethics of a religious person cannot know the character or voice of their god, so they must either become an apologist to determine their own reading of scripture, or they must put their faith in an apologist and do what the apologist says.

Problems in the Old Testament

Let’s have a look at the commentaries of the Bible, provided by one Christian group.  We are told that the rules in the Bible are divided into three types: moral law, judicial/ civil law and ceremonial law.  The evidence comes from a number of sources:

1.      John Calvin said this was true.
2.      Thomas Aquinas said this was the case.
3.      Augustine of Hippo said something very similar.

So there is a long tradition of saying that this is the case, yet no proof has been given.  Worse yet, the division in unclear when applied to specific passages of the Bible.  Let us take any given segment, say; Leviticus.
        Leviticus 1 details how to make a burnt offering that is pleasing to Yahweh.  So this is ceremonial law, right?  We have established that Yahweh likes burnt offerings and we know that Christians no longer give them.
        Leviticus 2 and 3 are the same.  Leviticus 3 ends with the note that these instructions are lasting - they are to apply to the generations to come.  Since Christians do not give burnt offerings then (a) Yahweh has changed his mind or (b) the Christians have decided not to bother any longer.
        Leviticus 4 tells us that the remainder of the passages are for the Israelites, so apparently verses 1-3 are not for the Israelites, or at least not for the Israelites alone.
        Leviticus 5-9 is a story about Moses performing ceremony.
        Leviticus 10-17 involves more offerings and details of which things are clean and which are not clean.  These are clearly hygiene laws,  and not simple ceremonies.  In among them is the command that women on their periods are unclean, and so not to be touched.  This is terrible hygienic advice and terrible ceremonial (or symbolic) advice as it is unnecessary and sexist.  This statement was given by the ‘lord’, i.e. Yahweh.  If we can agree that indeed this was Yahweh, then we know that Yahweh gives terrible advice.  If we know that Yahweh did not give this injunction then Leviticus is unreliable.  It would then be suspect, along with all of the other scripture which has no relevant difference.
        Leviticus 18 details laws concerning sex.  Is this a ceremony?  It seems not.  According to Jonathan, we are to believe that this is moral law, not because it says so but because cities have been destroyed for disobeying it.  What I wonder about is what the apologist must think of Yahweh’s previous inaction.  For instance - sleeping with half-siblings is quite acceptable in many cultures (e.g. among the Yanomamo).  Despite this, Yahweh seems not to have destroyed them, even during Biblical times.
        In Leviticus 19, without half a warning as to a change from Judicial to moral law, the flavour of things changes:
        Do not steal
        Do not lie
        Do not deceive one another
        Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
        Keep my decrees.
        Do not mate different kinds of animals.
        Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed.
        Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.

So we are dealing with, what?  Moral, judicial or ceremonial law?  The first few are clearly moral injunctions.  The later ones look more like ceremonial law.  Are we to understand that, in the manner of a doddering old man, a god switched from talking about ceremonial precepts to morality, without half a warning?

And what of these:

        27” ‘Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.
        28 “‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.
        29 “‘Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute, or the land will turn to prostitution and be filled with wickedness.
        30 “‘Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the Lord.
        31 “‘Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the Lord your God.
        32 “‘Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord.’

What are these?  They seem to switch.  They are certainly not all ceremonies, but then again they are certainly not all good judicial laws or moral laws.  The most plausible account is clearly that they are simply laws, and terrible laws at that, even for the time in which they were given.  There is nothing so terrible about a clipped beard, and refusing to seek out ‘spiritists’ may be a bad idea (because it is a waste of money) but it would have been better to say that there is no such thing as a magical spirit which does things for you, no matter what the price.  Spirits are just fairies by a different name.  Observing the sabbath seems to be a moral law, since Yahweh decreed that someone should be stoned to death for it, but it does not make for good law of any kind.

As to the excuses for ignoring ceremony Jonathan comments that Peter once saw some food, and a voice said that if Yahweh makes something clean then we should not call it unclean, and therefore all the rules of cleanliness are not to apply to us.  Let’s see that again:
Premise 1: If Yahweh says that it is clean to eat, then it’s clean to eat.
Conclusion: Nothing is unclean to us (including women on their period).

Not terribly convincing.  This excuse and a number of other unclear passages are given.  Yeshua stated that he had not come to remove any of the law, that if people did not believe in Moses then they did not really believe in him.  This part is clear and unambiguous, but rarely acknowledged.

So the three way division which Jonathan gave has no basis in the Old Testament, nor in the new.  It appears obvious that some things look like ceremonies, but it is not obvious that they are not meant to be followed, for Yahweh specifically says that these laws are not to be abandoned.  Many laws are concerned with hygiene, and the hygienic advice is deplorably sexist, and unnecessary.  Despite people at the end of the article asking for reasons to believe in this three way division, Jonathan remains silent.


Jonathan stated:

‘It is true, however, that there are cases in the Old Testament where the Hebrew people kept slaves. There is no parallel, however, between this kind of slavery and the slave trade of Africans. The Bible outlines the rights of slaves, and how they are to be treated (Deuteronomy 15:12-15; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1’

Notice at the end, the nice passages are cited.  The reader is gently relieved of the burden of looking at the Bible and seeing what the passages on slavery are.  However, there are more passages concerning slavery.  These passages have indeed been ‘cherry-picked’, for taking the nice passages and ignoring the nasty ones is exactly what people mean when they say ‘Cherry picking’.  Let’s have a brief look at the nasty passages:

However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you.  You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land.  You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance.  You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way.  (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)

So they are not always short term servants, as in the passages Jonathan suggested.  Sometimes they are ‘property’.  The passages Jonathan cited, concerning slaves being held for only six years, apply to Hebrew slaves, not general slaves.
Exodus 21:7-11 tells us the proper way to sell a daughter into slavery, and the proper recourse if she is not pleasing the man who bought her.  In Exodus 21:20 we are told that we can beat our slaves as hard as we like, so long as they do not die on the spot (they may die later).  They are clearly not just ‘hired hands’.

Problems in the New Testament

Jonathan states that he does not endorse cherry-picking the Bible, but states that some passages are not appropriate for our time.  As we have seen, some passages are not appropriate at all.

One passage which I cited as problematic was Matthew 27:52-53, in which many of the dead come back to life.  I cited this passage as problematic as I thought that nobody could believe that a large number of people came back from the dead, but I could be wrong.  It is certainly not a passage which can be swept under the rug by saying that Matthew is simply stretching the tale for effect.  If we are to banish any verse which is unrealistic, simply because it is unrealistic, then we may as well cast most of the Bible into the realm of fantasy in a single drop.

Hermeneutics and Reinterpretation

I looked at the proof for Christianity’s teachings, and been told that a belief in a god is necessary for an understanding of moral ontology and that nothing else will do it.  I found fault with both of these claims, and further found that the Bible was unable to give an account of what exactly morality consists in, as it is a jumble of different laws, many of which are bizarre and unnecessary, some of which are basic common sense and some of which are cruel in the extreme.  Jonathan re-labels these passages as he pleases, and states that this is okay, as long as Christianity is true.  This is an odd position, and I can only wonder why Jonathan believes this.
However, more importantly, if there is any evidence for Christianity, where is it?  If the moral argument was supposed to amount to proof then it seems that this is begging the question, for one of the (many) problems with the argument from morality is that if it were true, we would have no way to draw moral injunctions from Scripture.

I suspect that Christians putting forward these arguments have fallen into a trap which has taken many before him.  Specifically, I suspect that they think that a lot of compelling arguments for a position can total up to a single good argument.  This is not the case.  For any position, including UFOs and psychic healing, a large number of arguments can be made in their favour, but not a single one is without fault.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...