Friday 20 May 2011

"Objective" morality — not all it's cracked up to be

This week the podcast of Premier's Saturday discussion programme Unbelievable? was available for download the day before broadcast. The show's description reads:
This week on Unbelievable : Is the Bible Unbelievable? Leslie Scrace & Chris Sinkinson

Former Methodist minister turned atheist Leslie Scrace stopped reading the Bible after he lost his faith. 20 years later he read it again and wrote a book-by-book account of how he views it as an atheist called "An Unbelievers Guide to the Bible". Leslie criticises parts of the Old Testament that he sees as primitive and immoral while praising other parts of scripture that illustrate humanist values. Chris Sinkinson is a church pastor and teaches Old Testament and Apologetics at Moorlands Bible College. He responds saying that the Bible can't be dissected in the way Leslie attempts and that taking God out of the morality of the Bible robs it of its meaning. They discuss books such as Job, Joshua, Song of Solomon and the Gospels. Chris also challenges Leslie on whether his humanist morality has any objective foundation.
It's that last sentence that irks. Christians — and others of a religious persuasion — seem to be obsessed with the idea of "objective" morality. Justin Brierley exemplified this attitude in his uncharacteristic interrogation of Leslie Scrace towards the close of this week's discussion. He repeatedly questioned the basis on which Leslie judged certain parts of the Bible to be immoral. The vice-like grip of this mindset was evident in the way both Justin and his other guest Chris Sinkinson claimed that morality must be "objective" or else it isn't morality. When Leslie suggested that Epicurus was a better moral teacher than Jesus, and treated women better than Jesus did, Justin responded thus:
Where does the "better" come from? This is the whole problem, for me, of the humanist perspective — that they talk about better this and better that, all the while denying that there is this standard that the better is getting closer to.
And when Leslie said he thinks the human race hasn't arrived at a proper treatment of women, Justin replied:
But you haven't explained what this proper standard is and how it exists independently of evolution and everything else.
Let's nail this persistent accusation. Where do Christians get their "objective" morality? Obviously it comes from scripture. Often the Ten Commandments are cited as a repository of moral standards. Disregarding for the present the obvious moral flaws within the Decalogue, let's just examine the idea of having a list of written rules — however the list may have originated. A set of laws, literally set in stone, inflexible and unquestionable, will inevitably lead to their inappropriate application, as all such laws do. The Ten Commandments can be described as "petty bureaucracy gone mad" — insistence on their application in all cases without exception is akin to the pompous official who says, "Sorry, I sympathise, but rules is rules. It's more than my job's worth to make an exception in your case."

There's huge irony in the religious insistence on blindly following a rule book, while at the same time decrying those who attempt to make moral judgements based on circumstances and consequences. The humanist approach is to consider notions of fairness, and the effects our decisions will have on those around us and on the wider world. The religious idea of morality is to follow an ancient text regardless of the moral consequences, and to hell with anyone who disagrees. That's not morality, "objective" or otherwise.

Look at it this way: who is exhibiting greater moral responsibility — those who attempt to derive and construct moral guidance from the circumstances the human race finds itself in, for the furtherance of human well-being, or those who ignore such efforts and stick rigidly to a list of obviously outdated "laws"?

"Rules are made to be broken." It's a cliché, but it's true. Rules — including moral rules — are not the be-all and end-all of how we should act. A list of rules is merely a handy aide-mémoire — a short-cut to help in knowing what to do in a wide range of circumstances, but not all circumstances. There will be times when the rules won't fit the circumstances, and we'll have to decide for ourselves how to act. Those who have taken it upon themselves to consider moral questions from the humanist perspective will clearly be better equipped to deal with such situations than those who rely slavishly on a list of supposedly inerrant rules.

Religious morality is no more "objective" than humanist morality. Humanist morality is founded on continuous study of circumstances and consequences — a morality that evolves, and is progressively honed by scientific knowledge, moderated by individual and group desires and aspirations, and a consideration of the well-being of the global human race. Religious morality on the other hand is "founded" on ancient texts of dubious provenance — it is, to all intents and purposes, arbitrary.