From *The Skeptical Review*, 1994 / January-February:
by Farrell Till
Of all the arguments that fundamentalists resort to in their defense of the Bible, none is more ridiculous than their claim that the Bible is necessary for people to know how to live moral lives. They arrive at this conclusion through a series of assumptions. Their first assumption is that God exists, and onto this assumption, they pile another one: morality (and they even make it an absolute morality) emanates from the nature of God. Then, of course, they assume that their God, in verbally inspiring the Bible, revealed absolute morality to mankind. Hence, man must rely on the Bible to know what is moral and immoral. They envision life without the Bible as a moral chaos reminiscent of ancient Israel before the time of its kings when "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25).
The whole superstructure of this argument is built upon another assumption that is incredibly cynical on the part of a group that delights in condemning the pessimism of philosophies that question the existence of God. This assumption is that man is incapable of making moral decisions without divine guidance. In other words, man must have God's help or else he just can't determine for sure what is right and what is wrong.
Were it not for the seriousness of fundamentalist attempts to impose this belief on society in general, it would be too ridiculous to deserve comment. We have used human intelligence to cure diseases, split the atom, and invent a technology that has us reaching for the stars, yet Christian fundamentalists would have us believe that we are too stupid to discover that lying, stealing, and killing are harmful enough to the general welfare to be considered morally wrong. That view of life is about as pessimistic as any that can be imagined, infinitely more pessimistic than the mental action of a skeptic who questions the existence of an afterlife for which he can see no verifiable evidence.
This foundation belief of Bible fundamentalism is of course erroneous. It is even contradicted by the Bible itself. In Romans 2:14, the Apostle Paul said that the Gentiles, who had not received the law [of Moses] or, in other words, a revelation from God, had nevertheless sometimes done "by nature the things of the law" and were therefore "a law unto themselves." If this doesn't mean that Paul believed that the Gentiles who had no divine revelation had discovered morality on their own, then pray tell what does it mean? So even if the existence of the biblical god could undeniably be proven, how could bibliolaters, in the face of this statement from their much revered apostle to the Gentiles, justify their claim that man must have direct guidance from God in order to live morally?
The fact is that no one can prove the existence of God. Volumes have been written on the subject, but no theist has yet advanced an argument for God's existence that has not been adequately answered. Anyone who doubts this should read the information available on the subject, and a good place to begin would be with George H. Smith's Atheism: the Case Against God. In this book, one will find logical refutations of all the major theistic arguments.
What this means is that the fundamentalist claim that there can be no morality without a god to reveal it to us is just an empty shell. It begins with an unprovable assumption and ends with a conclusion that even the Bible contradicts. What kind of argument is that?
The fallacy of the argument is obvious from its flagrant appeal to wishful thinking. It is certainly appealing to think that we will live in another world after we die in this one, and so wishful thinkers spend their lives believing in religions that offer them the hope of gods and saviors who promise them eternal life in a great beyond. Few of these wishful thinkers ever bother to subject their otherworldly beliefs to rational examination. They want it, so they assume that they will get it just on the basis of their wanting it. Nothing could be more irrational than belief based on a premise no more substantial than this, yet this is exactly how many theists reason. "I want it, and so I know that I will get it."
If there is no God, fundamentalists are fond of saying, then there can be no standard of objective or absolute morality. Well, so what? What kind of argument is that? If there isn't, then there just isn't. What the fundamentalists are really saying is that it would certainly be nice if everything on the subject of morality was already decided for us and neatly laid out in categories of black and white. This is right, and this is wrong, period, end of the discussion. But if it isn't that way, then it just isn't that way, and no amount of wishful thinking or praying or hoping will ever change the fact that it isn't that way. We (mankind) are just in the world on our own and will have to get by the best that we can.
The thought of that terrifies most theists, but it shouldn't. God wasn't much help to us in discovering how to cure or prevent smallpox, diphtheria, typhoid, whooping cough, polio, measles, and dozens of other diseases. We had to do it on our own. God wasn't much help to us in making the scientific discoveries that led to the technology that now makes life so comfortable for us. We had to do it on our own. So if we did all these things without God, surely we can make the moral discoveries that are necessary for society to function in an orderly, beneficial way.
To the fundamentalists, of course, this is all outrageous heresy. The Bible is the inspired, inerrant word of God. It just is, and no amount of rational argumentation will remove them from their fantasy world in which everything is either black or white. There is one thing, however, that they cannot do. They cannot open their Bibles and demonstrate just how anyone can know what absolute morality is. They will say that the Bible provides us with a guide to absolute morality, but they can't show us exactly what absolute morality is.
Is it, for example, morally right for blood to be transfused from one person to another? Most religions permit it, but the Jehovah's Witnesses argue that biblical principles properly understood condemn it. Who is right? When the Bible was being written, the technology for transfusing blood didn't exist, so the Bible did not directly address this problem. The same is true of numerous other technologies now available to us. The transplantation of body organs (including even cross-species transplants), artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, genetic mapping, gene splicing--these are all technologies that were developed after the Bible was written, so what is the "correct"" moral position to take on these issues? Through processes of in vitro fertilization and embryo transplantations, a woman in South Dakota gave birth to her own grandchildren. Was it morally right for her to do this? What does the Bible say? Well, of course, the Bible doesn't say anything about this or any of the other technological procedures mentioned above. If we asked a hundred theologians to take their Bibles and resolve the moral dilemmas posed by these technologies, we would find ourselves hopelessly trapped in a maze of confusion when all of their answers were in.
Last summer, when the story about the Lakeberg twins first appeared in the newspapers, the article was clipped and mailed to several fundamentalist preachers known to believe in absolute morality. An accompanying letter asked them to explain what the Bible had to say about the dilemma that the parents of those twins were facing. The twins were joined at the chest and shared a common heart. Surgery would mean that one of the twins would have to die, and subsequently this was the decision that the parents made. The absolute moralists who received that letter were asked to state what their god of absolute morality has revealed to us in this matter.
Not a one of these preachers has yet answered that letter. Their silence shouts the inconsistency of their position. The Bible gives us a guide to absolute morality, so they say, yet they cannot tell us what absolute morality has to say about the difficult moral dilemmas that we must confront in our modern society.
Elsewhere in this issue, a debate on biblical morality begins. Before it is over, maybe Lindell Mitchell, the spokesman for the fundamentalist position, will try to explain to us how the Bible can be an absolute moral guide in problems that didn't even exist in biblical times. If he doesn't attempt to explain it, some of us just may suspect that he isn't nearly as sure of his position as he would like us to believe.