The moral relativism of Christianity
Here comes another old favourite. Atheism, apologists claim, inevitably leads to moral relativism (assumed, but not demonstrated to be a bad thing), while Christianity has an objective and unchanging moral basis. Because Christianity has God’s teachings in the Big Old Book of Middle Eastern Tribal Behaviour, which opens a window directly onto the only true, objective basis for morality. That’s why we stone adulterers, keep slaves, sell our children… hang on!
Well, isn’t that strange? The Bible doesn’t just permit certain things we find abhorrent, or look the other way – these are apparently direct commands from God, the ultimate arbiter and source of the objective morality that’s so very important. So when people describe Christian morality as objective, does that mean they actually do all this stuff? Occasionally, you get some nut who really does believe in some of this, but they’ll always be wearing mixed fibres, and won’t say no to a bacon butty. It all looks rather – dare I say – relativist.
It’s obvious that there are some pretty huge gaps between the general moral principles in the Bible and the practical application of those principles (which doesn’t exactly help in an apparently objective basis for morality), but if even a direct command ends up being contradicted and ultimately ignored, what does that leave? Nothing of any great value, and certainly nothing objective.
And here come the objections, all entirely predictable. In no particular order:
“That was the old covenant, it doesn’t count” – Bzzzt! Sorry, that won’t fly. Even apart from the support for slavery in the New Testament from the man who could be argued to have founded the church, God’s still meant to be the same person, Marcionism having been condemned as heresy. He’s fully entitled to differentiate between groups and apply idiosyncratic situational ethics if He likes (even to the point of commanding the slaughter of people He later decides He loves after all), but there’s a word for that. Begins with an R.
“People then weren’t as advanced, so God took things slowly” – Took it slowly, as in ordering the Israelites to slaughter entire tribes, and punishing anyone who disobeyed? I’m having difficulty seeing that as baby steps towards a glorious moral future. In any case, it’s still unquestionably relativism, and if this is the case, who’s to say we’re not still on that journey? Why do our current moral understandings always end up being the last word on the matter?
“God never really commanded those things” – This is a bold one. Arguing that the very book that you’re claiming as an objective source of morality is actually full of errors requires some pretty nifty tap-dancing. In fact, it runs the very serious risk of creating a singularity that ends up sucking all supposed divine commands and/or morality into it. The only way to avoid such a fate is to have some criteria to discern which things God really said. To which I respond “What’s the objective basis for this distinction?”
“People misunderstood” – See above
“Some things were important at that time, but not now” – Explain how wiping out entire cities of people whose only crime was to be living in the wrong place can ever be important to a God who makes a big deal about love and peace. Explain the moral imperative to stone people to death for trivial offences. Explain how it can ever be important to force a woman to marry her rapist.
“That’s ceremonial and purity law, not moral law” – A common explanation, but it’s hard to see slave ownership, forcible marriage, public stonings and the like as ceremonial issues. Once again, there appears to be no objective basis for this distinction, just a desire to explain away awkward facts. These things do, however, have a very obvious moral dimension, which is still in direct opposition to other Biblical instructions and present day practices.
No, there’s no way of turning the Bible into any kind of source of objective morality. Even if you take the extreme approach and live it all (not that anyone does), you still have problems where it contradicts itself. The best you can do is to pick out the bits you like (some of them are quite good in isolation) and find an excuse for ignoring the rest. But the selectivity of this approach guarantees that whatever you end up with, it isn’t objective.