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Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Illusion of an Objective Moral Standard

Professor Matt McCormick has a very interesting post on his website entitled, "The Illusion of Moral Guidance from God."

He writes:
When we consider only our own cases and our own experience, it is easy to make serious errors in our reasoning that we wouldn’t if we approached the question from a more objective, empirical, and scientific perspective. I take a large dose of vitamin C when I feel a cold coming on, the cold seems to be abated, so I conclude that megadoses of vitamin C prevent colds. The anecdotal evidence and reasoning isn’t born out by the facts, however. Large doses of vitamin C have not been found in large scale, double-blind, control group clinical trials.

Something similar is going on when the Christian who is contemplating some serious moral question, studies his Bible, listens intently to his preacher, prays, and feels that he has received moral guidance from God. Some peculiarities of the human psyche are contributing to a powerful illusion that then feeds into the widespread view that it’s not possible to be moral without God, or that God provides the pious with moral guidance.

So, do people really get divine (and therefore objective) guidance regarding moral issues from the Bible? Many Christians will claim that one can only know what is moral and immoral if one has an objective standard such as the Bible to go by.

What are the problems with this view?

1. People have a tendency to attribute their own moral view to God.

McCormick cites a study entitled: "Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A., [2009 Dec 22] 106(51):21533-8.

People often reason egocentrically about others' beliefs, using their own beliefs as an inductive guide. Correlational, experimental, and neuroimaging evidence suggests that people may be even more egocentric when reasoning about a religious agent's beliefs (e.g., God). In both nationally representative and more local samples, people's own beliefs on important social and ethical issues were consistently correlated more strongly with estimates of God's beliefs than with estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 1-4). Manipulating people's beliefs similarly influenced estimates of God's beliefs but did not as consistently influence estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 5 and 6). A final neuroimaging study demonstrated a clear convergence in neural activity when reasoning about one's own beliefs and God's beliefs, but clear divergences when reasoning about another person's beliefs (Study 7). In particular, reasoning about God's beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person's beliefs. Believers commonly use inferences about God's beliefs as a moral compass, but that compass appears especially dependent on one's own existing beliefs.

2. When moral views change, people will say that the new view has been God's view all along.

For example, it is obvious that man's views on the morality of slavery has changed. Virtually all men today would say that it is wrong. 300 years ago, that was not the case and some of the most vocal defenders of slavery were Christians who maintained that their beliefs were based on the Word of God.

McCormick writes:
And the studies also show that when our moral views drift, as they inevitably do, we tend to ignore or not notice the shift in our views, and we cover it up by thinking that God’s view was the same all along. People can and do justify anything they like with any text they like. And when the text is as convoluted, diverse, ambiguous, metaphorical, and large as the Bible, the opportunites are endless.

. . . Putting God into the process adds a level of false certainty, and ignores its fluid, constructive nature. . . It would be insane to think that the moral principles that served a nomadic band of Iron Age peasants will serve us equally well . . . .

3. People can find moral justification for many different and even contradictory actions from the Bible.

The persistent myth that the Bible is the inerrant, consistent word of God excacerbates this cluster of mistakes. The text is a hopeless mashup of contradictions that have been documented over and over again. Then if we were to carefully record what the fundamentalist Christian avows as God’s moral judgment on one day, and then compare that to what he insists is God’s perfect moral judgment about the same topic a year or 5 years later, the further inconsistencies of this faulty textual exegetical process would be even more apparent. Going to God and the Bible for moral guidance the way many people do it piles contradictions, fallacies, and mistakes on top of fleeting and rationalized errors. And yet the Christian insists through this convoluted mish mash that God is the only true source of morality. This mistake is thinking of the moral query as a matter of just checking the divine rule book as if there are discrete, unambiguous, and consistent answers there, and then refusing to acknowledge that the process that produced the answer was highly subjective, variable, and contingent.

4. Once an action is thought to be sanctioned or prohibited by God, then that allows God's people to enforce it ruthlessly.

And what’s even more dangerous is the tendency to attribute these shifting moral decisions to an almighty, supernatural being who will enforce them, whatever they happen to be that day, with eternal damnation.

This ruthless enforcement of "God's law" has been seen countless times through history, for example, Calvin's burning of Servetus at the stake for blasphemy, the Reformer's killing of Anabaptists for heresy, the killing of witches in Salem, MA, the persecution and killing of homosexuals, and so on. When one thinks he is enforcing a divine command, no amount of violence is too great.

How does "ethical intuitionism" fit into this? I think that people have a few basic moral instincts with which they are born. These intuitions came as a result of evolution. Individual survival has always been the strongest instinct. This instinct also extended to protecting one's family and then ultimately one's tribe. While a person would not kill one of his own family or his own tribe except under the most extreme circumstance, he would kill or rob people from another tribe without feeling bad. People from other tribes were seen to be inferior or even sub-human. In order to prevent anyone from feeling guilty about actions that ran counter to his instincts, tribal leaders began to ascribe certain moral commands as coming from a higher authority, such as their tribal god. It is God who had ordered them to do things which their instincts rejected. As man evolved, he has realized that really all humans are part of the same tribe and thus all should be treated equally. There are still vestiges of the old beliefs present in less morally developed persons as evidenced by racism, etc. An even later development has been the realization that we humans share a commonality with the animals and therefore the animals should not be treated inhumanely.

As man's moral sensibilities have evolved, some have continued to maintain that these moral notions must come from God and must be founded on an objective standard. Thus, they have convinced themselves that the Bible supports whatever the current moral ideas are. In reality, as McCormick's article shows, man's moral senses change and evolve but man prefers not to acknowledge that they are evolving and thus attempts to anchor them to an "objective" standard.


  1. Great post! Most people make the bible say whatever they want or need it to say. And it makes total sense that the OT writers would have ideas and then say that those ideas came from Yahweh-they are what he wants or requires, etc.

    Handy, isn't it, to have god fully sanction all man's ideas.

    It's almost humorous. If you are pro/con on slavery, gays, whatever-you can go to the scriptures to prove it!

  2. Many weaknesses.

    1. While there is no proof that C helps the cold, there is more reason to take than not to.

    2. If reading the bible is an illusion to morality, maybe it's the other way around: not reading is an illusion that reading is an illusion.

  3. Matt,

    Thanks for your excellent posts. Each one is very thought provoking.

  4. John Sfifer,

    1) Actually, no. There better reasons not to take vitamin C than to take it. There is no evidence whatsoever that it alleviates a cold or has any other positive effect, and moreover there is evidence that it simply does nothing at all other than cost you a lot of money that literally is pissed away. Super-dosing introduces a risk of negative effects. Exactly what are some of those reasons for taking them, John Sfifer?

    2) That makes no sense. Ken's entire article is a substantive argument in favor of his conclusion, and you're just dismissing it with a hand-waving assertion that he's wrong. How about actually addressing what he's written?

  5. The egocentric nature of religious belief is something I'd never considered, but it sounds correct. A personal example: After years of believing in eternal torments, I came to the point where I couldn't handle it any longer. So I began interpreting the Bible along annihilationist lines, telling myself that it was God's truth all along (we had just missed it because of human tradition). In time, even that scheme of personal eschatology became too harsh in my eyes, so I started applying the universalist grid to the Scriptures.

    I've been involved in discussions recently with liberals who insist that the Bible teaches full gender equality, and they're frustrated that the church doesn't get with the program. What's really going on, in my opinion, is that they've adopted gender beliefs that are external to their religion and are now trying to recast the religion accordingly. And, of course, enough intense research, reasoning, scholarly reading, linguistic study, considerations of historic context ... they'll always lead to what the person wanted to see all along.

  6. Steve,

    You are right and the fact that the Bible is so large and diverse allows for all kinds of interpretations, each one insisting that it is THE correct one.

  7. Chris Jones,

    Well with regards to #1, most people go ahead (when they are sick and have a REAl NEED) and buy Vit C stuff. I know I increase my intake of juice and such.

    I will get back to you on #2, will require more thought than right now.

  8. I was reading bruce gerencser's testimony (he was featured on Loftus' site a few days back).

    He is former minister etc. Anways, he talks about how he now cusses and watches porn.

    Now....why is it when folks leave the objective morality of christianity they turn to such behavior? Why is ethical morality not keeping them pure? There are benefits for being pure (eg, no porn) and not cussing.

  9. There are benefits for being pure (eg, no porn) and not cussing.

    What benefits?

    Why would the creator of the universe care whether you have watched some other people having sex? Why would the creator care whether you utter some words that are considered taboo only by your fellow humans?

  10. porn is responsible for breaking marriages, for starters (especially the internet kind).

  11. A 1999 Barna survey suggests that non-denominational Evangelicals and Baptists actually have a significantly higher divorce rate than agnostics and atheists in the USA. Makes you wonder who is viewing all that porn?

  12. The Bible has some pretty graphic stuff in it too.

  13. Whoever is committing the act doesn't make it more right or wrong.