Absolute Morality is Not Absolute

A commonly held belief among theists I’ve met is that morality comes from God, through the bible. Christians like to call this “absolute morality”- Something conceived and dictated directly by God. Essentially, we believe things are wrong or immoral because God tells us they are. That these things which are morally “right”, or morally “wrong”, always have been, and always will be. That God has given us these rules to abide by, and they won’t change, because God himself doesn’t change.

I always find it a bit puzzling that this is such a common belief by theists. If you give it more than a moment’s consideration, you can see how impossible, and downright ridiculous, this idea is.

Consider, for just a moment, the bible. God’s inerrant, holy word. Of course, anyone who has actually read the bible knows it is chock full of acts we would consider incredibly immoral by today’s standards. The Old Testament has countless passages describing how to properly treat your slaves, or rules for how to sell your daughter into slavery. Of course, slavery has been fairly common through human history, and was only relatively recently abolished as being immoral and a gross violation of human rights. I think the vast majority of today’s population would agree that slavery is wrong, immoral, and should not be practiced. When I bring this point up with theists- that their inerrant holy book is full of rules about slavery, the answer I typically get is that “times were different” back then- that slavery was more of a social contract, and the people needed rules for how to conduct these activities appropriately. Now, I’m not even going to attempt to describe how much of an issue I have with anyone who tries to justify slavery as a “social contract”. But, as I’m sure you’re aware, theists will go to great, and ridiculous, lengths to make their “holy” book seem less evil than it is.

Now, from my perspective, what we have here is a classic and perfect example of how morality is in no way absolute. We are well aware that slavery was at one time considered a perfectly reasonable way to treat other human beings; that the spoils of war included not only land and riches but people, as well- women and children to be taken and used as the victors’ wish. This is all outlined quite clearly in the bible as being completely acceptable in that time. Today, we know that slavery is abhorrent. We’re embarrassed that our ancestors ever practiced it. This is because our morality has evolved. Society has changed, our opinions and ideas have changed, to the point that we know that treating fellow human beings in such a deplorable manner is completely unacceptable. Our morality now says that slavery is unacceptable, when, at one point, it WAS acceptable.

Theists will sometimes take this, and explain that slavery was ALWAYS immoral- but simply that it was a way of LIFE in biblical times, so, apparently, God decided to cut his losses and just give the people rules with which to deal with it. Now… as far as I know, I am not God. But if I were, I think I could come up with a better plan than that. Such as, perhaps- telling people NOT to enslave each other? Maybe even sparing a passage in my holy book, somewhere between all the stories of rape and murder, to say “Hey, assholes- don’t treat each other like property!” But, apparently, God figured it was easier to just let people be people, and wait a few thousand years until they figured it out on their own. Of course, slavery is just one of many atrocities peppered through the bible. Murder, rape, forced marriages, public stonings for working on the sabbath or talking back to your parents…. That anyone could actually read these things, commanded or allowed by God, and think that morality is absolute, mystifies me. I’ve come to the conclusion that most theists who argue this point must not have actually read their own book. Let’s not even mention the fact that this essentially means that these people could foresee themselves raping, pillaging, and murdering, if it hadn’t been for God saying not to!

So, if we do not believe that morality is derived from God, through the bible, then where does it come from? Theists ask this in such an accusatory way, as if I, or anyone else, had never considered it before. I think the answer is really quite simple. Morality, in my mind, can be easily derived from a combination of empathy, compassion, and experience. Empathy allows us to understand and even feel when another person is suffering or in distress; for most people, this is an unpleasant experience that often leads to compassion, or a desire to help alleviate some of that suffering. This is why we send money to starving children in Africa, or feel the desire to comfort someone who is crying, even if they’re a complete stranger. This is something ingrained, that has evolved with us, maybe in an effort to protect the weak and encourage co-operation among us. Our life experiences, in dealing with people through our compassion and empathy, serve as a means to guide and shape our own personal version of what is moral. These things work together and allow us to decide as a society, together, what we think is right and wrong. This is why laws change. Why slavery was once legal, and now is not.

The conclusion I’ve arrived at when considering this idea of morality and the likelihood that it is from God, is that it couldn’t possibly be. There was a time in humanity when our morality and our ideals lined up directly with the God of the Old Testament. At that time it would have made sense for people to believe morality came from God. But it seems quite clear to me that, if such a God existed, our morality is certainly not derived from him- because at this point, our morality has evolved past that God. We have become too good for God.

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11 Responses to Absolute Morality is Not Absolute

  1. steelsaviour says:

    Loved reading this! Great job!

  2. T says:

    I am always greeted with stony silence whenever I present what you currently said to theists. They never have an answer for that.

  3. Thomas Herbert says:

    From what I understand the Mosaic laws were in the context of the holiness of YHWH in relation to mankind and creation. You see strong examples such as people being asked to take off their shoes on holy ground, or that touching the Ark of The Covenant resulted in death, or the incorrect worship (fire) being offered to God resulting in multiple deaths.

    Let’s just take one aspect, say human life. If GOD created all life, then HE has full obligation to give and take life as he pleases. Humankind being created (a creature) does not have this same sovereignty, thus GOD can decree that mankind cannot murder, but can not only take life HIMSELF but also ordain that the instrument of life being taken is by the hand of other creatures (i.e. judgement upon other nations, and HIS people).

    Therefore it would be pretty difficult to judge GOD by the standard and command HE has given to us in the context of us being created, and ultimately of HIS sovereignty. That being since HE gives and takes life of HIS creation, this does not mean we can; and that in specific contexts HE exercises HIS sovereignty by using nations to destroy other nations and judges them for their nature (i.e. Assyria against Israel).

    ‘Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. But he does not so intend, and his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few; for he says: “Are not my commanders all kings? Is not Calno like Carchemish? Is not Hamath like Arpad? Is not Samaria like Damascus? As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols, whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria, shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols as I have done to Samaria and her images?”‘ (Isaiah 10:5-11)

    I will try to wrap up quickly…

    What I am saying is that in the context of Judaism/Christianity (if you allow me, since this is the context from which I know more) we are judging GOD by rule and standard with which HE has given us as creatures. In this one example, we cannot kill, but GOD can.

    But here’s another quick example, the Mosaic law stated that the penalty of adultery was death, Jesus stipulated that the law cannot be broken, and that any man who looks at a woman lustfully is committing adultery and therefore should be put to death.

    The Mosaic law was to point to the holiness of YHWH (GOD). We can then say in this context morality is unchanging as it is measured against the holiness of GOD. A morality outside of this, in the context of say atheism is always changing and progressive as it is measured against the progressive social consensus of the prevailing world-view and philosophy. Unfortunately this also means that “might makes right”, that being the most powerful will always define ultimately was is right and wrong, whether we agree with them or not.

    I will leave it at that, and I apologise if I have been too long, and if I have moved too far away from the original question. You have prompted me to go looking for some (at least one) book on the morality and the Tanakh. I would encourage you to also have a look specifically lest both of us not fully understand the context of the Tanakh (or any religion in question).

    Also really worthwhile listening to Dr. Ravi Zacharias who is incredibly respected for his academic background and lectures. http://www.rzim.org

  4. Toma says:

    Mel I commend you on your post. It’s a topic that, in my experience, too many atheists choose to avoid. I do have one question however. Where in this post do you feel you’ve actually proven that the atheist’s morality is in any way objective or correct? Without an absolute to measure it by, what grounds does any man have to call any other man’s actions wrong?

    Let’s say from the POV of a social consensus. If there are only two countries in the world, and the social consensus in Australia is A, and the consensus in China is the exact opposite Z, then which one is correct? And in the case that it’s A, what happens if China destroys Australia leaving only Z?

    • Well that depends on what you mean by “correct”. We call other people’s actions wrong according to what our society’s rules and laws say are wrong. Society says murder is wrong, so we judge it as wrong. However, in some Islamic nations, honor killing is thought to be justified by many individuals. According to them, that is NOT wrong. According to me, and I suspect you as well, it IS wrong. According to the majority of societies in the world, it IS wrong. That’s one good reason why morality is not absolute, because as you point out, it varies not only over time (slavery, as per my example), but cross sectionally among different cultures. Some cultures would tell you burning witches is a moral task. We do not believe this.

      My view on morality is that it is fluid, and completely subjective. It’s possible that what I’d consider to be morally right is completely different from what you’d consider morally right. I think it’s far more likely that what we judge as moral would line up quite well with the cultures in which we live. Does that answer your question?

  5. Thomas Herbert says:

    Sometimes it seems that whenever morality is talked about as been God given (within the Biblical context), for some reason the Ten Commandments and proceeding history is talked about as if this was the very point morality arrived. (I may be wrongly presuming people think this in general.)

    I don’t think this is the case, and think the Biblical narrative is actually showing that morality was inherent from the point of creation. That being one could choose to take God at his word or not. (i.e. The Garden of Eden narrative).

    Now within the larger Biblical context, it would be more correct to say that mankind has the inherent ability to know “right or wrong” not by specific commandment but by their inherent nature. Unfortunately within the larger Biblical context the narrative is that our natures are also inherently broken.

    It is of course all well and good to talk about morality from a distance, and from the point of new social freedoms such as equality; but we are still left with the reality of the nature of mankind before we even use the term morality. For example, how do we deal with the growing reality of men and women using and selling other men and women as sex slaves?

    Now whether morality is subjective and if this act is “right or wrong” is one question; what we cannot deny though is the actual reality exists, and perhaps the question before the morality question is to ask why this reality exists at all?

    It is a difficult thing to ponder whether “good and evil” is actually relative to the prevailing cultural moral consensus. It is very convenient to ponder it from the safety of philosophy, it is another matter entirely when we realise that right now there are hundreds of young people who are locked in rooms being raped daily.

    Sobering indeed, and something I personally try never to forget this lest I dilute “evil” to merely an abstract relative concept.

    Anyway I think the discussion is VERY important, I just hope that it produces more than just debate.

    • Toma says:

      It seems to me we are over-complicating things. Morality can only be black and white, which is to say absolute. If it is not, then it is not morality, but rather a perspective, and perspective is always subjective.

      So, we either accept morality as an absolute with an absolute giver, or we accept that it is nothing more than a word we invented to name subjective and often communal perspective.

  6. Believers have another exit prepared: when sometjhing fits in the speech is part of God’s plan, when not, it is not. Another: they set apart the sin line from the custom line: e,g. David had several wives (custom line) but he had to take care of them and he could not leave them for another group of wives, as it would be adultery. (sin line), so David, with his hundreds of wives and any modern man with his one wife (custom) have the same do not commit adultery line. You can never win an argument with a beleiver: it defies every and any logic as it is apart from it.

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