Belief in God is morally wrong

In May 2019, Attorney General William Barr, in a speech at Notre Dame, thundered that America is undergoing a moral apocalypse. Which he blamed on irreligion and secularism. As if religion gives us morality. Which many people believe. 

“Is something holy because the gods love it, or do they love it because it is holy?” That was Socrates’s great question in Plato’s Euthyphro. It cuts to the heart of the matter. Is something moral just because God says so, or does he say so because it is moral?

If the latter, he’s merely telling us what we should realize ourselves. But if not — if God’s dictates are not independently justifiable — must we obey them? 

And anyhow, can any human know what God thinks? Self-anointed prophets, gurus and mystics claim to know — sure signs of delusion or charlatanism.

Well, we do have the Bible. Actually written by humans. But let’s assume for argument’s sake it’s the word of God. Could it then be our moral guide?

Start with, again, the obedience proposition. That’s the tale of Abraham and Isaac. The Bible praises Abraham’s readiness to obey God and kill Isaac. True, God changed his mind. But the very idea of killing an innocent like that surely is morally vile. As was the mental torture inflicted on Abraham while he felt obligated to kill his beloved son. 

The Bible does also say “Thou shalt not kill” (absent God’s order), or lie, or covet thy neighbor’s wife; to love thy neighbor, do unto others, and so forth. As if we need to be told all that. In fact it’s in the Bible because people did know it long before.

As Adam Smith explained in his other great book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, we come by our moral ideas not from God but through mutual sympathy: projecting another person’s feelings onto ourselves. And here is the one core concept for any moral system. It’s whatever enables people to flourish and enjoy life; whatever impedes that is immoral. Anything outside those parameters is prejudice, not morality.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said law makes no sense without morality. He said this in dissenting from the decision allowing gay marriage. Surely marriage is not immoral. It’s gay sex Scalia considered so. Why? Because of the Bible? It also commands killing people who gather sticks on the Sabbath and children who disrespect their parents. It allows owning slaves, beating them as long as they don’t die within two days, and selling your daughter into slavery. Most believers today ignore these atrocious passages. Picking and choosing the ones they agree with. On what basis? Obviously it’s not God telling them; instead it’s because they do have their own sense of right and wrong. And if they do condemn gays, it’s not really obedience to the Bible, it’s the Bible as their excuse. Scalia was not bowing to some eternal moral truth but rather his own atavistic gut revulsion at gay sex.

But gay sex cannot be immoral, because it doesn’t harm anyone’s ability to enjoy life. Offending YOU doesn’t make it immoral. In fact, aversion to homosexuality, among its many other ill effects, breaks up families and estranges parents from children. That doesn’t serve human flourishing. 

And what about God’s own moral behavior? Abraham’s already been mentioned. Then there’s Job, unjustly afflicted by God for no reason other than to taunt Satan. God did make it up to Job — though not to Job’s children he killed. Then he floods the planet, killing innocent millions, in a fit of pique. He kills the children of Egyptians for their ruler’s deeds. In fact, just to supply a pretext for that, he “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” He directs the Jews to conduct a genocidal pogrom in Canaan, except for women taken as sex slaves. Yet he kills thousands of Jews because a few had sex with Midianites. He sends bears to tear apart 42 children because some had mocked the prophet Elisha’s baldness. One could go on like this for many pages.

Morally sick as all this might seem, believers say we can’t presume to question God’s motives. That if God did it, it must have been okay. But recall the old Dostoyevsky canard against atheism: “Without God everything is permitted.” Actually it seems instead that with God everything is permittedTo him at least. 

But it’s worse than that. Not just that God’s every deed is permitted, but therefore in principle everything can be permitted. That destroys any idea that there are universal moral verities. Destroys the very moral certainty which believers imagine religion supplies. 

The truth is that the God of the Bible is a fictional character, created by human authors whose primitive notions about violence and morality are abhorrent to us today, and whose book would be a gross libel against God if he existed. Their prescientific psychology fixated on agency — everything had to be caused, if not by us, then by some unseen hand. If a bad thing happened, some angry god caused it. Those people trembled at the thought. That psychology pervades the Bible.

But if theirs is the God we are asked to believe in, then it’s a stunning argument against such belief. Against the existence of such a being. The idea of the universe governed that way is absurd. 

If this seems overstated, think about Hell. I mean, really think about it. No torturer in history ever came close to this diabolical absolute: inflicting maximum suffering forever. Maybe you could imagine it as justice for, say, Hitler. Okay, a thousand years of burning for every Jew. But that’s still far short of eternity. And it’s not just Hitler getting this torture. It’s most people on Earth! At least so says Christianity: everyone not buying the Jesus story goes to Hell. Some Christians even anticipate part of their reward in Heaven is relishing the sufferings of the victims in Hell. Nice.

It’s a fundamental precept of morality and justice that punishment should fit the crime. No human crime could ever justify such extreme punishment. Let alone the “crime” of merely not being Christian. And people believing this say they’re getting morality from God?

Meantime, though the sufferings of Hell are fortunately nonexistent, the pain here on Earth — caused by the belief — is all too real. Millions have spent whole lives tormented that some misstep will condemn them to eternal hellfire. Often afflicted by guilt and terror just because they have unavoidable natural sexual feelings. It’s the idea of Hell that is itself evil. It’s those who promote it that deserve punishment.

The mythos at the heart of Christianity is that all Adam’s descendants were to suffer for his supposed “original sin.” Even though they were not complicit. And instead of just mercifully exonerating them, God makes his son suffer and die to expiate the so-called sin. Jesus is a scapegoat (the Bible is filled with scapegoating — punishing people for the sins of others, including Adam’s). But Jesus doesn’t die anyway, he’s resurrected, so was the price really paid? Can anyone actually make moral sense out of all this?

Likewise moral nonsense is the idea of prayer — that God will change what was (foreknown?) to happen because someone asks. Why should a human preference influence God’s actions? Isn’t he supposed to know better than us? And what about the fate of those not prayed for? Should God discriminate against them?

Believers have always had a hard time trying to square their idea of a good God with a world so filled with suffering. They say God gives us free will to commit evil. But — given his evident penchant for smiting people with very little pretext — couldn’t he stop them somehow before they act out? And anyway, much suffering has no human causes, it’s built into the fabric of nature that God supposedly designed. Reality is far more consistent with a vicious than a loving God.

Religion being actually a source of moral confusion, rather than moral guidance, is proven by the legions of religious believers like William Barr who, with no sense of cognitive dissonance, inveigh against immorality but bathed themselves in Trump’s cesspool of wickedness. Showing they don’t know right from wrong. Their minds scrambled by religion’s false and nonsensical beliefs.

Indeed, the very fact that belief in God is so powerful an idea makes this brain-mushing effect all the more powerful too. Leading untold numbers of people, all throughout history, again and again and again, to commit the most atrocious evils, in the name of God. You might answer that their idea of God was just wrong, and yours is right. They would say the same to you (and maybe kill you over it). You’re both arguing over something nobody can know.

But — ridding your brain software of that dysfunctional religious virus leads to moral clarity, utilizing instead the human welfare maximization heuristic.

Conclusion: We get morality not from God but from our own hearts and rational brains. Belief in God is not merely false, it is morally wrong. Only atheists can be truly moral.

8 Responses to “Belief in God is morally wrong”

  1. Robyn Blumner Says:

    Brilliant! I sent it on to Tom Flynn. I thought he should see this one.

    Robyn E. Blumner *President and CEO*, Center for Inquiry *Executive Director,* Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science 1012 14th St. NW, Suite 205 Washington, D.C. 20005 RBlumner@centerforinquiry.org

    The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Our vision is a world where people value evidence and critical thinking, where superstition and prejudice subside, and where science and compassion guide public policy.

    On Thu, Apr 1, 2021 at 9:27 AM The Rational Optimist wrote:

    > rationaloptimist posted: ” In May 2019, Attorney General William Barr, in > a speech at Notre Dame, thundered that America is undergoing a moral > apocalypse. Which he blamed on irreligion and secularism. As if religion > gives us morality. Which many people believe. ” >

  2. Don Bronkema Says:

    This nonagenarian quondam boy-preacher could say he believes in Hell for the religious, but never mind–your argument is unassailable. Morality in primates is potentiated by the density of mirror-neurons [soi-disant] & associated limbic circuits. Self-righteousness is deadly: 1957 study found Sunday-school kids cheat, lie & steal more often than seculars. As for carno-betrayal, it’s driven by evo-selection [note married females in bars]. We don’t have genes, they have us. If quant is correct, we & the kosmos exist via mutual epistemontological sufferance. Rebut par hazard.

  3. Lee Says:

    In science we make progress by standing on the shoulders of giants. It would be foolish to believe that those giants are infallible. It would also be foolish to ignore the collected works of the giants. So, we read the established texts, trust where we have to, verify when we can, and improve when we have novel insights. The process is not 100% infallible, but it works quite well. Unfortunately, there are those who misunderstand or, worse, abuse science but these people do not reflect poorly on science generally.

    Although there are those who misunderstand or abuse religion, there are many more who think like a good scientist. We aspire to the human welfare maximization heuristic by standing on the shoulders of (religious) giants, leveraging their strong points and adding our own insights. The process is not 100% infallible but going to the extreme of accepting everything uncritically or to the extreme of excepting everything uncritically — in those directions lie foolishness.

    That said, there is a wide variety of sources and it is perfectly reasonable to seek out those sources that communicate most clearly to you. (Caveat: though watch out for confirmation bias.) You personally don’t have to like Christianity or its bible, but please don’t adversely judge others who find these to be giants that speak to them. (Caveat: but please do go on soundly criticizing those fewer in number who abuse religion.)

  4. Don Bronkema Says:

    Religious giants stand on philo-legs of unbaked clay. Their epistemologies are tyro-naive & credulous; their ontologies of origin & telos crumble when the first kid asks ‘Why?’ The kosmos is indecipherable, as demo’d in 158,410 pp of Bronkenotes. Life is unattenuated misery until we learn to sacrifice–then we are free–for the nonce. Our reward? Death. Many have rebutted since the Oxford Debates of 1948; sadly w/o issue. Lay on, MacLee!

  5. Lee Says:

    It’s all about which wording of the human welfare maximization heuristic sounds best to your ears. I like “God loves you.” I like how Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi invoked religion. I like “Whatever you do for [the the most destitute among us] you do for me (god).”

  6. Thia Says:

    Indeed morality is an inner compass found within our own hearts and rational brains. Thus morality is a human experience, regardless of whether one chooses to follow a faith walk or not. It is in that regard that atheists can be truly moral … as well as truly immoral, no different than anyone else.

  7. Don Bronkema Says:

    Lee: so components of moral judgment are heuristic? Bravo!
    Thia: rational brain is a neuro-phantom [vide: Libet & Koch]. Ding-an-sich von Hegel ist kaput!

  8. Don Bronkema Says:

    Encore Thia: Reverting to Anglo, this nonagenarian reminds–to function & obviate madness, brain must convince itself of spurious volitional autonomy. Context: kosmos writ-large is endogenous, thus the ontological conundrum, first & last mentational constraint. For nuances, vide quant. We are steeped in ineluctable absurdity at all echelons of Reality. He is not alone in welcoming Messor Gravis, tho his teen-dottir demurs for the nonce, awaiting Jomala roll-out!

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