Thursday, 8 April 2010
Relative Morality, What god Should Have Done, and Historical Context
When pointing out immorality in the Bible, often the rejoinder is that we have to consider the historical context and the time the book was written. Atheists are often accused of being shallow thinkers who haven't considered all the nuance of the historical period in which the book was written. Unfortunately for the Xian, this criticism falls flat on its face when examined.
For example, let's examine the Biblical treatment of women. Women are treated as property in the Bible. We might be tempted to simply shake our heads and say, "Well, that's just how it was back then," but it's not so simple. One of the Xian tenets is that absolute morality exists and is displayed by god (god being perfectly moral and all that). Yet, this defense relies on an appeal to relative morality. This is a big no-no for the Xian, as it directly contradicts the idea of an absolute morality.
To expand on that idea, the Xian is in effect saying either that the treatment of women back in Biblical days was indeed moral, that it was moral at the time but isn't now, or that it was never moral. The first in the list leads to the absurd conclusion that treating women as property is indeed a moral thing to do. I'm not going to waste much space on that idea.
The second leads to the destruction of the idea of absolute morality. If morality changes (treating women like property was good then and now is not) then it is not absolute.
The third leads to the idea that god did not display perfect morality because he instructed, in his holy book, immoral attitudes and behavior. Instead of telling the Israelis that their attitudes and culture were immoral, he sets up rules that enforce and propagate that immorality, which is, in itself, an immoral action.
To anticipate one objection to this, the Xian may claim that god knew the Israelis would not follow certain moral strictures, so he did not promote them. But, this too fails for a couple reasons. The first is that it would still be moral for god to outline his perfectly moral behavior and not simply concede that "Boys will be boys." The second reason is that the story of the OT is one long story of the Israelis rebelling against god's wishes, yet that didn't stop him from putting forth rules that he knew they wouldn't follow in those areas.
In the end, the appeal to relative morality or the culture of the times is a bad appeal and should not be taken with any weight. Instead, we should push to find out why a supposedly perfectly moral god would include immoral instructions in his holy guide to life.