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Chapter Six: A Moral Code

Section 2: God's morals

God claims to be moral, but his commandments and behaviour are often inconsistent, immoral and hypocritical.

Gustave Dore: Moses Showing the Ten Commandments (part)

The previous section concluded that morality does not exist independently of human beings. Moral acts promote human welfare; immoral acts harm it.

To believers, this appears weak. They argue that if human beings determine morality, there is no fixed definition of good and bad (in religious terms: "evil"). Without a moral compass, people can behave any way they want.

Believers claim that good and evil exist independently of human beings. Morality is determined by God, who is the epitome of good. Without God's morality, there would be anarchy - nothing would prevent us from killing, stealing, fornicating and committing other sins.

Let us take that argument at face value and assume there is a God, who determines good and evil and who gives us a moral code. What exactly does that code tell us?

6.2a Which religious morality?

Our first problem is to decide which God and which morality.

In Judaism / Christianity / Islam, there are two basic options: (i) the Old Testament and its sibling the Q'uran and (ii) the New Testament.

Both versions have one primary rule - worship God - but what follows is different. The Old Testament and Q'uran take a strongly negative approach to morality, while the New Testament is much more positive.

6.2b The Ten Commandments

The basis of Old Testament morality is the Ten Commandments, a collection of laws which might be called God's constitution. The Commandments appear twice (in Exodus and Deuteronomy) and consist of at least twelve instructions to the faithful, which are
interpretedly slightly differently by Jews, Protestants and Catholics (Wikipedia).

The first commandments enforce worship of Yahweh (have no other gods, make no graven image; don't take God's name in vain, remember the Sabbath). Why does God make worship of himself a priority? Remember the context: the Commandments were given to the Jews after they had been tempted to worship Yahweh's sibling, Ba'al. These preliminary instructions are the equivalent of martial law. "I have defeated my fellow God; you are my prize. Now you must bow down to me."

The first four commandments reflect the fact that in God's moral code the priority is not human welfare but human worship. Indeed, human welfare is low on his priorities, as he himself points out: "I am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of their parents to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me." (Deuteronomy 5:9) In other words, not only sinners, but even the most virtuous people may suffer God's wrath.

The remaining commandments are a mixed bag. Honour your parents (irrespective of their actions); do not kill (but, as we will discover, this commandment is often ignored); do not commit adultery (but pre-marital sex is acceptable); do not steal; do not lie; and reject envy (but there are no problems with greed, sloth, anger and pride).

6.2c The Pentateuch

The Commandments are supplemented with hundreds of rules scattered throughout the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). These laws are eclectic, to say the least. God expects burnt offerings. He imposes strict laws on diet and clothing and severely limits actions that are acceptable on the Sabbath. Usury - lending money for interest - is unacceptable between believers.

The deity's obsession with sex leads him to provide a long list of relatives whose nakedness must not be uncovered - prurient code for "do not have sex with". Adulterers must be stoned, sex with prostitutes is forbidden (yet daughters can be sold into prostitution: see Exodus 21:7-11), sex with animals or between men is out of the question and men cannot have sex with a woman and her daughter or granddaughter at the same time.

On the other hand, sex when neither partner is married is not explicitly forbidden, and while many obscure forms of incest are condemned, brother-sister relationships have been left off the list.

God occasionally strays into the absurd. A woman who defends her husband by seizing his enemy's genitals must have her hand cut off. (Deuteronomy 25:11-12); that means it is better for a man to die than for his wife to save his life by punching his attacker's penis.

With such a motley moral code, even the most devout believers fail to live up to God's peculiar standards. Even the most zealous fundamentalist has refrained from stoning adulterers in living memory. And although fundamentalist Christians insist that the whole Bible is the word of God, they have no qualms about disobeying him; they happily place meat and dairy products in the same refrigerator and charge interests on loans and seldom offer Yahweh a slaughtered cow...

6.2d The Q'uran

Written a thousand years later, the Q'uran offers the same basic message as the Bible. Worship of God is even more central to the lives of his followers (five prayers a day - you can recognise a true believer by the bump on his forehead); sex is strictly controlled and violence is acceptable when the victims are infidels.

There are some new twists, however. All usury is out, irrespective of the beliefs of the borrower. And specific instructions
pic: AlLah - The God
include prohibitions on stealing from orphans, deserting an army and practising magic.

6.2e Promoting privilege, not welfare

What if we set aside the weirder rules in the Old Testament and Q'uran and focus on the key commandments - don't kill, don't steal and don't lie? Is the abridged version of God's morality worthy of respect?

Unfortunately, no. Firstly, because if you accept the scripture of your faith, you cannot pick and choose which rules to follow or ignore. If God tells you to stone adulterers and you fail to do so, you are presumably as immoral as the adulterers Yahweh / Allah tells you to condemn.

Secondly, and more importantly from the humanist perspective, the basic principles of Old Testament / Q'uran (OTQ) morality are unacceptable because (a) they do not consider all human beings of equal value, and (b) they sometimes lead to human suffering rather than human welfare.

Look at the evidence. In God's "morality", men are privileged over women, adults over children, heterosexuals over homosexuals, believers over non-believers or followers of other faiths. The privileges religion grants to heterosexual, believing, men deprive the rest of humanity the freedom to lead happy, fulfilling lives.

In Yahweh's and Allah's eyes, women are unclean, secondary human beings, owned and controlled by their fathers, brothers or husbands. Throughout their lives they must subordinate their physical and mental freedom to men who in every other respect may be their inferiors.

In the strictest interpretations of Islam, women cover their bodies and faces because men cannot prevent themselves lusting after them. Surely, if the problem is men's uncontrollable lust rather than women's beauty, the best solution would be to keep men indoors and only allow women out in public, unveiled and without burqa.

Meanwhile, all homosexuals, women or men, are denied the right to lead happy lives. Same-sex marriage is forbidden; homosexual men may not have sex with each other; and when forced into heterosexual marriage, they, their partners and their children are also likely to suffer.

And under Old Testament and Quranic law, non-believers, who may lead far more moral lives than those who worship, are denied equality. They are therefore unable to fulfil their potential as full members of society; they are also at risk of being slaughtered with impunity (various passages in the Old Testament and Quran).

6.2f God's hypocrisy

Even worse, God expects his creation to obey a moral code that he himself breaks regularly. In the Old Testament he commits mass murder several times. In some cases those who die have opposed his will, but at other times, from the genocide of the Flood to the capricious slaughter of the first-born in Egypt, his victims include newborns, young and innocent.

Where he does not act himself, he allows or encourages others to act on his behalf, including carrying out forced abortion and murder of expectant mothers (Hosea 13:16), rape (Deuteronomy 21: 10-14) and mass murder (several instances, including Judges 15).

On paper the Quranic god is less bloodthirsty than his Biblical counterpart (a fact that surprises many non-Muslims) but he still encourages his followers to kill sinners and non-believers in his name.

Many believers argue that the more extreme and bizarre instructions in the Bible and Quran are irrelevant to modern life. They're right. But as they distant themselves from God's weirder commandments they cannot claim that they are still bound by religious morality. They may still worship God, but their moral code - respect the lives and wellbeing of others - is humanist in all but name.

6.2g Love thy neighbour

In comparison to OTQ morality, the New Testament provides a ray of hope.

The primary command becomes "love God" - a much more positive and welcoming message than the first four Commandments in the Old Testament. The rest of the law is compressed into a single injunction "love thy neighbour".

Jesus Christ, the fictional figure who supposedly introduced this morality, practises what he preaches. Apart from occasional lapses, overturning the moneylenders' tables and cursing a fig
The Feeding of the Five Thousand
by Joachim Patenir

tree, he spends his time doing good, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, forgiving sinners and so on. It's a welcome change from the petulant, angry and violent God we see in the Old Testament.

Jesus' morality is human-centred, and much more acceptable than the OTQ version. Unfortunately, it does not completely supersede the Old Testament. Not only does Paul, the other major figure in the New Testament, have some decidedly OTQ views, but Book of Revelation tells us that at the End of the World, Jesus returns to slaughter humanity at the end of the world, while his alter-ego, God, condemns the damned to the eternal fires of Hell.

6.2h The unnecessary God

In the Christian world at least, much religious morality has evolved. As it has moved from Old Testament violence and discrimination towards New Testament love and inclusion, it has become increasingly humanist - as God becomes increasingly less relevant.

The problem is that Christian morality has not moved far enough. Many Christians - together with Jews and Muslims - still base their morality on values that ultimately divide society and harm millions of men and women. And those same believers continue to ascribe their morality to a God whose power ultimately stems from violence and abuse.

The Bible and Q'uran tell us that God claims to be moral, but his commandments and behaviour are often inconsistent, immoral and hypocritical. True morality comes not when we accept God, but when we reject him.

Chapter Six: Section 3 Ethics

Are atheists immoral?

Religion makes a strong claim to morality - only God and faith, apparently, keep us moral.

It's a nice idea, but it's false. Religious morality is frequently harmful; only humanist values guarantee a truly ethical approach to life.

6.1: Defining morality
What's good for us?

6.2: God's morals
... leave much to be desired

6.3: Morals and ethics
From the abstract to the actual

6.4: Sex: what is it good for?
Whatever you want it to be

6.5: God and sex
Confusion and control

6.6: Sex: a broad spectrum
Tastes vary

6.7: Sex: Tell the children
Educate and protect

6.8: Abortion
An ethical approach

6.9: Humane justice
The death penalty is immoral

6.10: Suicide and euthanasia
Dying with dignity

6.11: Recreational drugs
A moral issue?

6.12: Do good...
... for goodness' sake

6.13: Summary
Chapter 7

How do you live when you realize that religion is false?

Do you descend into despair? Lead a life of crime and depravity?

The opposite, actually. Atheists appear more likely to live moral, happy lives than those who are stuck in superstition.

Beyond Religion