The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos

A commonly argument for religion is that, without it, humanity would have no basis for morality.  The world would devolve into chaos and a seemingly endless stream of bad thins would happen.  I find this argument to be exceptionally annoying in that it ignores all evidence, research, and reason to the contrary.  Sam Harris addressed this issue in a brief but thorough examination of the issue in The Myth of Secular Chaos (you can find a better-formatted version on RichardDawkins.net).  In the article, Harris addresses some of the most common arguments:

1. If a book like the Bible were the only reliable blueprint for human decency that we had, it would be impossible (both practically and logically) to criticize it in moral terms. But it is extraordinarily easy to criticize the morality one finds in the Bible, as most of it is simply odious and incompatible with a civil society.

The notion that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality is really quite amazing, given the contents of the book. Human sacrifice, genocide, slaveholding, and misogyny are consistently celebrated. Of course, God’s counsel to parents is refreshingly straightforward: whenever children get out of line, we should beat them with a rod (Proverbs 13:24, 20:30, and 23:13–14). If they are shameless enough to talk back to us, we should kill them (Exodus 21:15, Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18–21, Mark 7:9–13, and Matthew 15:4–7). We must also stone people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshiping graven images, practicing sorcery, and a wide variety of other imaginary crimes.

Most Christians imagine that Jesus did away with all this barbarism and delivered a doctrine of pure love and toleration. He didn’t. (See Matthew 5:18–19, Luke 16:17, 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 20–21, John 7:19.) Anyone who believes that Jesus only taught the Golden Rule and love of one’s neighbor should go back and read the New Testament. And he or she should pay particular attention to the morality that will be on display if Jesus ever returns to earth trailing clouds of glory (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 1:7–9, 2:8; Hebrews 10:28–29; 2 Peter 3:7; and all of Revelation).

It is not an accident that St. Thomas Aquinas thought heretics should be killed and that St. Augustine thought they should be tortured. (Ask yourself, what are the chances that these good doctors of the Church hadn’t read the New Testament closely enough to discover the error of their ways?) As a source of objective morality, the Bible is one of the worst books we have. It might be the very worst, in fact—if we didn’t also happen to have the Qur’an.

It is important to point out that we decide what is good in the Good Book. We read the Golden Rule and judge it to be a brilliant distillation of many of our ethical impulses; we read that a woman found not to be a virgin on her wedding night should be stoned to death, and we (if we are civilized) decide that this is the most vile lunacy imaginable. Our own ethical intuitions are, therefore, primary. So the choice before us is simple: we can either have a twenty-first-century conversation about ethics—availing ourselves of all the arguments and scientific insights that have accumulated in the last two thousand years of human discourse—or we can confine ourselves to a first-century conversation as it is preserved in the Bible.

In addition, here are the other two points addressed in the article:

If religion were necessary for morality, there should be some evidence that atheists are less moral than believers.

If religion really provided the only conceivable objective basis for morality, it should be impossible to posit a nontheistic objective basis for morality. But it is not impossible; it is rather easy.

Obviously, few Christians (at least in the United States) read their Bibles.  And extremely few actually questions its teachings.  I contend that the majority of the world’s problems (at least ones that are human-made) stem from religion.  The Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition clearly could have been handled better (or, best of all, would not have occurred at all).  We have a President in the White House – one that is widely considered the worst in the history of the United States – who claims that God guides his decisions.  And no one seems to question that.

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