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.
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.