Universal vs. subjective morality & God's crimes

On the premise that human moral values and obligations are a product of human evolution, they would necessarily only apply to human beings and useful to govern and judge human behavior, and would be subject to change and further “evolve” over time.

Many atheists object to what they conclude are “immoral” acts committed by God described in the Bible, i.e. murder, commanding genocide, incest, slavery, etc.

How can morality that only applies to contemporary humans be used to make moral judgments against a hypothetical Creator God, who, if He existed, would not be bound to moral laws from human conceptualization, based on descriptions of immoral acts that the Bible portrays as occurring thousands of years ago? Doesn’t this show that even the atheist who would make such objections holds that morality is universal and absolute regardless of time, place or person, thereby placing the origin of moral values and obligations somewhere outside the scope of human convention?

Posted: December 5th 2011


Others have covered the details well.

Atheists are often accused of engaging in moral relativism; since we (at least many of us) don’t claim to have an absolute morality, that can only lead to problems.

And then these same people engage in the worst kind of moral relativism, claiming that we can’t judge a god who their own holy book is said to have committed genocide, advocated slavery, and a whole host of other crimes.

That is distasteful.

Posted: December 13th 2011

See all questions answered by Eric_PK

George Locke

Here’s how I understand your argument:

  1. If atheism is correct, morality is the product of evolution.
  2. Given 1, atheistic morality only applies to humans.
  3. Atheists make moral judgments of God.
  4. If these judgments are meaningful, they must be made with reference to a morality that applies to God.
  5. From 2, atheistic morality does not apply to God.
  6. If atheists believe that their judgments of God are meaningful, then they believe in a moral standard that cannot exist under atheism.

The first premise requires substantiation, but even if we grant it, the second point does not follow. Even if our evolution is the sole author of morality, it is far from obvious that morality only applies to our species.

Morality is about choices and, in some sense, well-being or self-interest. (Here’s one explanation of what that might mean.) Animals that can’t choose can still have their well-being harmed by our choices, so our morality applies to animals. On the other hand, animals (or supernatural agents) that can choose can affect our well-being, so our morality applies to them as well.

In general, there’s nothing incoherent about judging an agent according to standards other than those the agent uses to judge itself. Our ethics are about the choices a moral agent makes and the impact those choices have on beings like us. The God of the Bible makes choices that affect us, so our standards apply to it.

Posted: December 12th 2011

See all questions answered by George Locke

Blaise www

Anyone who judges anything in a moral sense is using his or her own subjective morality, regardless of who they are judging, or when the thing occurred. Of course each of us believes that our own moral code is the best one, otherwise, we would not accept it in the first place, as there are so many to choose from. So no, an atheist who judges the actions of a god described in a myth is specifically not saying “that morality is universal and absolute”.

Morality is a social construct, as evidenced by the fact that even among adherents of a single religion, there is a broad spectrum of moral differences, mostly cherry-picked from the scripture they all claim to hold to, but sometimes not even that.

Posted: December 12th 2011

See all questions answered by Blaise

Galen Rose www

While evolution has played a large role in human moral sensibilities, human cultures also play a role. For example, slavery has not always been considered immoral. As you suggest, moral values and obligations are not entirely “outside the scope of human convention.”

Most atheists, I think, believe that human cultures have matured through history, and continue to mature. The treatment of women and blacks in this country are good examples of this. Women and blacks were prevented from voting and lacked other rights that white men had, but as our culture matured, more and more of us have insisted on equal rights for all.

Our problem with the god of the Bible is that he is claimed to be a perfect being and should thus have been possessed of complete maturity from the beginning. It took us humans several millennia to realize that slavery was wrong, but a perfect god should have known this even in biblical times. A perfect god should ALWAYS be more moral than humans, but the god of the Bible clearly isn’t.

The problem with assuming that whatever god does in the Bible must be moral because he’s god, after all, is that one’s moral sense can become dangerously warped. If non-belief in Jesus is really a sin, and morally wrong, then the burning of heretics makes perfect sense.

It appears to me that the further we humans get from the morality of the Bible, the more moral we are. The Bible commands the death penalty for homosexuals, disobedient sons, witches, adulterers, and people who work on the Sabbath. None of those are in our laws, however. It certainly looks to me that we modern humans are much more morally mature than the ancient men who wrote the Bible.

Posted: December 12th 2011

See all questions answered by Galen Rose

donsevers www

It doesn’t matter which conception of morality or “Good” we apply to God. But if we don’t apply an external standard to him at all, then it means nothing to say he is moral or good. Leibniz noted that if God merely follows his own rules, he’s a tyrant. Even Satan does that.

So, choose your standard of Good. Then apply it to God. Most believers look for one that God will qualify for, but they have to go a little crazy to do it. We end up saying it is “Good” or “moral” to watch kids get tortured.

If God is omnipotent, he is complicit in everything. He either did it, allowed it, or set up natural law so that it was inevitable when he could have done otherwise.

Perhaps God is already doing the best he can. If he could do no better than what we observe, he’s as locked in as we are and thus not much of a god. Leibniz saw this, too, and accepted that in this world (which is the best of all possible worlds and thus the only one God could have created), God is locked in. But God still has free will because he COULD act differently in other, non-actual worlds. Again, that’s not much of a god.

Posted: December 12th 2011

See all questions answered by donsevers

SmartLX www

God’s deeds in the Bible stretch back no further than ten thousand years, as any young-earth creationist will tell you. The pace of evolution is such that humans have been in their contemporary form for hundreds of thousands of years. In any case, the humans with whom God interacts in the stories are biologically contemporary humans, from Adam onward. Evolution has made no difference to morals since then.

A more important point is that many of God’s commands were against God’s own moral instructions to us, as well as the moral codes that existed in Biblical times. Murder, let alone genocide, is forbidden in the Ten Commandments and was officially punishable in all ancient societies for which we’ve found legal documentation. Any applicable law would rule against God for what he did, if He weren’t God.

Placing God outside of human morality is a double-edged sword. If we don’t have the authority to declare an act of God immoral, nor can we say it was moral, and there is no way to support the basic assertion that God is good. Many theists are happy to leave this as a loud assertion, but if you want to try and back it up you have to apply some kind of known moral code to God’s actions and orders. And when you do that, you can’t pick and choose.

Posted: December 12th 2011

See all questions answered by SmartLX


Is your atheism a problem in your religious family or school?
Talk about it at the atheist nexus forum