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27 May 2009

"I am more moral than your god."

I enjoy saying inflammatory things to Christians—well, to religious folk in general, really. One of my favourites is: "I am more moral than your god." But how can that be?

Well, I, for one, would never accept human sacrifice. "Whoa!", replies the fundamentalist; "Abraham never sacrificed Isaac [or Ishmael, if your fundamentalist happens to be of an Islamic bent]—that was all a test!" Putting aside, for the moment, the horrific nature of the request—regardless of whether Yahweh was just screwing around—you need to realise that Abraham must have believed that this was the sort of thing that his god might legitimately ask him to do. And what right does Abraham have to sacrifice Isaac in the first place (aside from being one of the Good Book's super-Jews*)? Isn't it less of a sacrifice (which implies property; this might be an opportune moment to mention that contrary to popular belief, the child in question was well past the age of majority, if I recall correctly) and more of a murder?

It turns out that, regardless of the answers to these questions (which I'm sure are all very interesting), it doesn't matter, because I wasn't talking about Abraham and Isaac, anyway. I was talking about Jephthah.

Now Jephthah doesn't get a lot of press, which I think is sort of a shame, because I find his story much more interesting than Yahweh's daring, last-minute rescue of Isaac at Mount Moriah. (God seems to have a slight tendency to set up complicated situations which will allow him to play the hero, doesn't he? I mean, wasn't that the whole point of sacrificing himself to himself in order to allow himself to forgive mankind for not living up to the impossibly high standards that he set up in the first place? Why not just forgive the poor bastards? Why go through the whole ridiculous pantomime? But I digress.) In the story of Jephthah (at least the part of the story that we're examining here), the man makes a rather ill-advised (in retrospect) vow to the effect that if God will allow him victory over the Ammonites, he will sacrifice as a burnt offering what-/whoever comes out of his house to greet him when he returns from the slaughter (or, to phrase it more politically, as Jephthah did in the Book of Judges, "when I return in peace from the people of Ammon"). Considering that this is where his family lives, and people tend to be more ambulatory than, oh, I don't know, anything that you might realistically want to set on fire, this particular promise might seem somewhat unwise.

But hey, hindsight is 20/20, right?

To make a moderately long story approximately the same length, our hero returns triumphant and his daughter rushes out to greet him. This distresses him slightly, as you might imagine, and as an act of kindness he gave her two months to prepare her affairs (there is some implication that he was giving her a chance to "get her freak on", but this allegation may be scripturally indefensible) before he lit her on fire. I'm sure that it seemed as good a solution as any.

So. It doesn't seem like Yahweh was testing anyone's faith that time, does it? Some apologists might argue (no, really? you're kidding!) that this was not as morally indefensible as it might appear. Perhaps God wasn't paying attention (had he left the kettle on?); after all, he didn't initiate the bargain. But he did accept the sacrifice: no angel stayed Jephthah's hand.

It seems that God doesn't accept human sacrifices anymore. What, did he change his mind? That strange thing for a God who knows everything about everything, past and future. Why not set up the right set of laws to begin with? So much for moral absolutes.

But moral absolutes are a terrible way to go about morality anyway. Context is everything. Is it always morally wrong to kill? Of course not. What about self-defence? (And this is where the whole "Thou shalt not murder" argument breaks down; even if "murder" were a more accurate translation of the original Hebrew than "kill"—and I have it on good authority that it's not—this is, in fact, an example of situational ethics!) Again, is it always morally wrong to steal? Robin Hood, one of the most enduring folk myths in the western world, would beg to differ.

Apologists like to claim that, as our buddy Jehovah is the author of morality, anything that he commands is moral. He giveth, and he bloody well has the right to take away.

The problem with this argument, of course, is that when you ask a Christian if he/she would rape a child were God to command it, you will usually get something along the lines of, "God wouldn't ask that," which is petty avoidance of the question and an example of striking intellectual dishonesty. If it would be moral to rape a child if God commanded it, than morality is arbitrary, and subject to the whims of a being whose own scripture shows him to be callous and capricious. If it would not be moral, then the definition of morality does not lie with God; he is merely a messenger-boy. And if you think that God would not ask something like this... Well, you just haven't read your Bible very well!

So: I've never drowned millions of people and billions of other animals in a worldwide flood. I've never been party to human sacrifice. I've never condoned rape or slavery or the subjugation of women. I take responsibility for my actions, and I expect others to do the same. I am more moral than your god.

Thanks (and recriminations?) are due to Matt Dillahunty and the rest of the cast of The Atheist Experience and The Non-Prophets for pointing me toward many of the topics covered in this rant.

* It occurs to me that some might find this statement offensive; please, settle down. Although I might find it a little sad that I need to explain what I consider to be a harmless bit of fun in this way, I understand that anti-Semitism is quite real and quite appalling. When I say "super-Jew", I am merely referring to a protagonist of the Old Testament who managed to spawn an entire nation, live to an implausibly old age, physically or verbally tussle with a deity, live inside a large sea-dwelling fish or mammal for several days, or generally do things that seem, in retrospect, to be of suspect historicity: Adam, Noah, Moses, David, and their ilk (or to the Jesus of the New Testament, considered by many to be the ultimate super-Jew). It is meant merely as a funny turn-of-phrase; if you don't find it amusing, please feel free to be horribly offended. If you'd like, we can discuss it over coffee and biscuits. You've got my email address; we can set something up.

Edit: In my haste, I forgot to mention that the arbitrary morality v. messenger-boy morality discussed in the third-to-last (excluding footnote) paragraph is based on the so-called Euthyphro dilemma, found in Plato's dialogue of the same name. These are not new ideas, but they are good ideas.

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