It is often remarked that morality changed over the centuries; yes, also Christian and religious morality. This is why atheists often argue that Christians can’t just take some Old Testament laws and moral regulations and follow them, while rejecting the one in the very next verse because society has changed to a point where the actions in the next verse would be immoral. A perfect example of this is the clichéd argument that Leviticus prohibits the eating of shellfish and shaving your hair, and says that gays and children who don’t honour their parents should be stoned to death. It is because we live in a different society as 2000 years ago that some of these regulations no longer count, and thank goodness stoning is more the exception than the rule these day, but how can you justify doing some of those things, and others not. If your morality is based on the Bible, you must certainly follow them all? Or reject them all.
Then there are the morals in the rest of the Bible, the actions of the God that prescribe Christian morals, that most atheists just can fathom following and using as a moral guideline. I think Christians are so used to hearing things or reading them in the Bible that they have become desensitized to what they really mean, or the impact they must have had on people. Let’s look at a few examples of God’s morality and the way he wants people to live their lives; the things he does directly or enables indirectly. I realize the majority of Christians will not look at it objectively and really think about it, but there may be someone who might just give it some thought.
Think about the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt. First of all, according to the Bible, God condones slavery and commands slaves to be obedient to their masters. Does that mean he was okay with it when his chosen people were enslaved in Egypt? If yes, well, then he could have left them there. If not, why does he only change his mind after 430 years? That is longer than the time since the Dutch came to the Cape, until now. After 430 years, suddenly, God has a problem with slavery. He no longer wants the slaves to be obedient; no he wants them to rebel and escape. And then wander the desert for 40 years. God had the power to work on the Pharaoh’s heart. He could have softened it to let them go, or even to let them stay as citizens and not slaves. Instead, he hardens it, and then tortures not only the Pharaoh, but also the rest of Egypt, for the Pharaoh’s hard heart. Think about that! You wake up one morning, pour water in the kettle to make coffee, and find there is only blood, no water. We don’t know how long that went on for, but the practical implications are huge! There would be nothing to drink; nothing to cook with, no way to bath, no water for animals and crops. And where does all that blood go? Imagine the smell. All because that is what God wants to do. He could have done it differently, but he doesn’t want to.
Think of the implications of the other plagues. Think of the hurt and grief of every single Egyptian family when they all lost their firstborn sons at the same time; the mourning, the mass funerals. Imagine that one day every first born male person you knew is dead, because a God decided to punish you for something you have very little, if any, control over. Your son, your father, your grandfather who was a firstborn, all your friends who were firstborns; children you saw growing up before your eyes – even the firstborns under your livestock and pets. It must be devastating! Again, the practicalities are also astounding. I think of the South East Asian Tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina, and how modern societies with vehicles, technology, international aid and many other things couldn't cope with all the dead bodies, and getting them removed and buried. I suppose we deal with these thoughts differently: atheists simply don’t believe it happened since there is no evidence and Christians either don’t think about it at all, or find a way to justify God’s actions.
This is one event in the Bible; there are many more examples of the cruelty of God; of the morality he lives by and condones. Add to that the things that he does consider moral, like giving your daughter to the mob to rape, and the silly, arbitrary laws and regulations like not sitting where a women sat who had her period; not eating prawns or bacon, lighting incense in one specific way, and no wonder atheists sees no sense in any of it.
Christians, the moral ones anyway, also don’t base their morals on those things because they “just know” it would be wrong; even if they still justify God doing it. I and most other atheists do not understand why Christians and religious people insist on believing we can’t have morals because we don’t believe in the Bible, because even the truly moral Christians don’t base their morals solely on the Bible and its cruelties and strange codes for moral conduct.
Then there are the “small things” and even though I still find them easy to define, they are so much more personal and relative. I have a friend who doesn't believe in god or the Bible, and yet she goes to church often, with her believer husband and kids. She believes it is the moral thing to do because it sets an example for the kids. This is where the lines start blurring for me. Personally I would teach my kids to be tolerant of everyone’s view point and respect it if I don’t want to go to church. To me it is hypocritical to go if you don’t believe, and therefore, more immoral than giving an honest, true reason why you won’t go. I think she is teaching her kids that dishonesty is okay To me it isn't; to her, not going to church is immoral, but she doesn't even have a clue on any given Sunday, what the dominee talked about.
There are many of these “small things” and they are harder to handle than the big ones, because of the duality. They often have two valid sides, and you just have to decide which is more important to you. It is more difficult because these things often involve others. For instance, a friend is getting ready to go out with you, and she wants to know whether her bum looks big in her outfit. We all know how difficult this is. I believe in honesty, but I also believe in kindness. Tough one; I think I opt for the choice of telling her that I actually think the other pair of jeans really suit her well and makes her look skinnier (which is true.) The Bible has nothing to say about this specific dilemma, so what does a Christian do? Hurt her feelings or lie? You see, there is not only one way to act; there is also not only one way to be kind. Most of us pick the way that we see as the best way to handle it. Is it the moral way? Sometimes it is, sometimes not, but it is almost always the best way you see at the time.
Atheists, or many of us anyway, read those things depicting morality in the Bible, we also see the “small things” and really think about them. Just like Christians. We make mistakes, we make errors of judgment, but like it is for Christians these are seldom out of cruelty or deliberately being evil. When it comes to Bible morality, we then decide to define personal morals differently. It rejects cruelty, infanticide, religious war, genocide, discrimination, senseless ritual etc. and embraces the simple principle of kindness and tolerance and not causing harm if you can help it – not because it is in the Bible or any other book, but because it is common sense.
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