About this week’s eSkeptic
On September 30, 2015, Michael Shermer and Larry Taunton debated the question “Do We Need God?”. The debate will eventually be posted online for viewing. In the meantime, in this week’s eSkeptic, we present Michael Shermer’s notes for the debate. Michael did not have time to cover the morality of the New Testament (compared to the Old) but we include his notes here nonetheless in case readers would like to use this material. Much of it comes from his book The Moral Arc.
The Battle in Seattle
Do We Need God?
by Michael Shermer
Do We Need God? No. Thank you. Okay, seriously, there are at least 10 reasons why we do not need God…
1. Ben Carson, or Religious Ignorance. Only belief in God could infect a brain as smart as the renowned neurosurgeon and prominent Presidential candidate Ben Carson to mangle the Big Bang theory and preposterously propose that Darwin’s theory of evolution is a trick of Satan.
2. Kim Davis, or Religious Bigotry. Only belief in God could convince an otherwise decent and loyal civil servant that her personal interpretation of the Bible trumps the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court of the United States, and the law of the land.
3. ISIS, Al Qaeda, & Islamism, or Religious Extremism. Only belief in God could lead large groups of people to believe that the most moral thing they can do is to murder people in the most gruesome manner imaginable—beheading—anyone who does not believe their barbaric and primitive religious tenets, such as capital punishment for apostasy.
4. Crusades, Witch Hunts, and Wars, or Religious Violence. Only belief in God could lie behind these catastrophic moral blunders: the Crusades (the People’s Crusade, the Northern Crusade, the Albigensian Crusade, and Crusades One through Nine); the Inquisitions (Spanish, Portuguese, and Roman); witch hunts (the execution of tens of thousands of people, mostly women); Christian conquistadors (extermination of native peoples by the millions); the interminable European Wars of Religion (the Nine Years War, the Thirty Years War, the Eighty Years War, the French Wars of Religion, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the English Civil War); the American Civil War (in which Northern Christians and Southern Christians slaughtered one another over the issue of slavery); and the First World War (in which German Christians fought French, British, and American Christians, all of whom believed that God was on their side—German soldiers, for example, had Gott mit uns—God with us—embossed on their belt buckles.) And that’s just in the Western world. There are the seemingly endless religious conflicts in Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, numerous countries in Africa, and of course Islamist terrorism.
5. Slavery and Civil Rights, or Religious Intolerance. Only belief in God kept the slave trade alive through religious and biblical arguments that blacks were inferior to whites, that slavery was good for black souls, that slavery gave blacks civilization, that blacks liked being enslaved, or, later, that blacks should not have the same civil rights as whites (such as equal treatment under the law—interracial marriage was illegal until 1967) simply because the pigment in their skin was darker.
6. Women’s Rights, or Religious Suppression. Only belief in God would lead otherwise good men to think that women should not have the same rights as they, which is what almost all Christians believed until the women’s rights movement of the 20th century (and many today still believe in wanting to control women’s sexuality and reproductive choices). Like the meddling Puritanical control freaks of the Early Modern Period there are still men today who think they should decide what women do with their vagina. Women flourish in societies that are either not very religious or those, like the United States, that have separation of church and state; i.e., less religion equals more rights and equality.
7. Gay Rights, or Religious Moralizing. Only belief in God could cause otherwise decent Christians to become perversely obsessed with what other people do with their genitals in the privacy of their bedrooms, and that if these people don’t insert their genitals into the biblically correct orifice, or if genitals are stimulated in a biblically unapproved manner, they should not have the same Constitutional rights as straights.
8. Tribalism, or Religious Xenophobia. The world’s religions are tribal and xenophobic by nature, serving to regulate moral rules within the community but not seeking to embrace humanity outside their circle. Religion, by definition, forms an identity of those like us, in sharp distinction from those not us, those heathens, those unbelievers. Most religions were pulled into the modern Enlightenment with their fingernails dug into the past. Change in religious beliefs and practices, when it happens at all, is slow and cumbersome, and it is almost always in response to the church or its leaders facing outside political or cultural forces (slavery, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights).
9. Absolutism, or Religious Dogmatism. The foundation of the belief in an Absolute Morality is the belief in an Absolute Religion grounded in the One True God. This inexorably leads to the conclusion that anyone who believes differently has departed from The Truth and thus is unprotected by our moral obligations; even more, they must be forced to see the Way, the Truth, and the Light. Unlike science, religion has no systematic process and no empirical method to employ to determine the verisimilitude of its claims and beliefs, much less right and wrong, so it can never self-correct its mistakes, which are legion.
10. Preposterous Moral Rules, or Religious Immorality. The morality of holy books—most notably the Bible—is not the morality any of us would wish to live by. Put into historical context, the Bible’s moral prescriptions were for another time for another people and have little relevance for us today. In order to make the Bible relevant, believers must pick and choose biblical passages that suit their needs; thus the game of cherry picking from the Bible generally works to the advantage of the cherry pickers.
In the Old Testament, for example, the believer might find guidance in Deuteronomy 5:17, which says, “Thou shalt not kill”; or in Exodus 22:21: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” But the handful of positive moral commands are desultory and scattered among a sea of violent stories of murder, rape, torture, slavery, and all manner of violence, such as occurs in Deuteronomy 20:10–18, in which Yahweh instructs the Israelites on the precise etiquette of conquering another tribe:
When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if its answer to you is peace and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the cattle, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourselves….
Nice. Or consider what Moses did with an army of 12,000 troops Numbers, 31:7–12:
They warred against Mid′ian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and slew every male. They slew the kings of Mid′ian … And the people of Israel took captive the women of Mid′ian and their little ones; and they took as booty all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods. All their cities in the places where they dwelt, and all their encampments, they burned with fire, and took all the spoil and all the booty, both of man and of beast. Then they brought the captives and the booty and the spoil to Moses.
That sounds like a good days pillaging, but when the troops got back, Moses was furious. “What do you mean you didn’t kill the women?” he asked, exasperated, since it was apparently the women who had enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful with another God. Moses then ordered them to kill all the women who had slept with a man. “But save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man,” he commanded, predictably, at which point one can imagine the thirty-two thousand virgins who’d been taken captive rolling their eyes and saying, “Oh, God told you to do that, did he? Right.” Was the instruction to “keep the virgins for yourselves” what God had in mind by the word “love” in the “love thy neighbor” command? I think not.
Of course, the Israelites knew exactly what God meant (this is the advantage of writing scripture yourself—you get to say what God meant) and they acted accordingly, fighting for the survival of their people. With a vengeance.
What about the New Testament? The angry, vengeful God Yahweh of the Old Testament, Christians claim, was displaced by the kinder, gentler New Testament God in the form of meek and mild Jesus, who two millennia ago introduced a new and improved moral code. Turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, forgiving sinners, and giving to the poor sounds like a great leap forward in moral progress.
Yet, nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus revoke God’s ludicrous laws. In fact, quite the opposite (Matthew 5:17–30 passim): “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” Jesus doesn’t even try to edit the commandments or soften them up: “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.” In fact, if anything, Jesus’ morality is even more draconian than that of the Old Testament: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.”
In other words, even thinking about killing someone is a capital offense. In fact, Jesus elevated thought crimes to an Orwellian new level (Matthew 9:28–29): “Ye have heard it was said by them of old time, Though shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” And if you don’t think you can control your sexual impulses Jesus has a practical solution: “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” May I see a show of hands of those who agree with this moral precept?
As for Jesus’s own family values, he never married, never had children, and he turned away his own mother time and again. For example, at a wedding feast Jesus says to her (John 2:4): “Woman, what have I to do with you?” One biblical anecdote recounts the time that Mary waited patiently off to the side for Jesus to finish speaking so that she could have a moment with him, but Jesus told his disciples, “Send her away, you are my family now,” adding (Luke 14:26): “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Charming. This is what cultists do when they separate followers from their families in order to control both their thoughts and their actions, as when Jesus calls to his flock to follow him or else (John 15:4–7): “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” But if a believer abandons his family and gives away his belongings (Mark 10:30), “he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands.” In other passages Jesus also sounds like the tribal warlords of the Old Testament:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:34–39)
Even sincere Christians cannot agree on Jesus’ morality and the moral codes in the New Testament, holding legitimate differences of opinion on a number of moral issues that remain unresolved based on biblical scripture alone. These include dietary restrictions and the use of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine; masturbation, pre-marital sex, contraception, and abortion; marriage, divorce, and sexuality; the role of women; capital punishment and voluntary euthanasia; gambling and other vices; international and civil wars; and many other matters of contention that were nowhere in sight when the Bible was written, such as stem-cell research, gay marriage, and the like. Indeed, the fact that Christians, as a community, keep arguing over their own contemporary question “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do?) is evidence that the New Testament is silent on the answer.
Empirically speaking we can see why we don’t need God:
- Millions of Americans have no belief in God whatsoever, and 10s of millions have no religion and they’re doing just fine. There are no measures that believers are more moral than non-believers.
- Tens of millions of people in many Northern European countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Holland, and Germany have no belief in God or religion and not only are they doing just fine, by any measure they are far healthier societies than the most religious nation in the Western world: America.
- Gregory S. Paul study: 17 first-world prosperous democracies in the Successful Societies Scale database (Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United States). 25 indicators of social health and well being 1–9 scale: homicides, suicides, incarceration, life expectancy, gonorrhea and syphilis infections, abortions, teen births, fertility, marriage, divorce, alcohol consumption, life satisfaction, corruption rates, adjusted per capita income, income inequality, poverty, unemployment.
- Religiosity 1–10 scale: belief in God, biblical literalism, church attendance, prayer frequency, belief in an afterlife, and belief in heaven and hell.
- U.S. most religious by far & highest rates of homicides, suicides, incarceration rates, STD rates, teen pregnancy rates, abortion rates, divorce rates, income inequality rates & poverty rates.
- If belief in God & religion is such a powerful force for societal health, then why is America—the most religious nation in the Western world—also the unhealthiest on all of these social measures? If religion makes people more moral, then why is America seemingly so immoral in its lack of concern for its poorest, most troubled citizens, notably its children?
Concluding Statement (From Chapter 4 of The Moral Arc)
The Bible is one of the most immoral works in all literature. Woven throughout begats and chronicles, laws and customs, is a narrative of accounts written by, and about, a bunch of Middle Eastern tribal warlords who constantly fight over land and women, with the victors taking dominion over both. It features a jealous and vengeful God named Yahweh who decides to punish women for all eternity with the often intolerable pain of childbirth, and further condemns them to be little more than beasts of burden and sex slaves for the victorious warlords.
Why were women to be chastened this way? Why did they deserve an eternity of misery and submission? It was all for that one terrible sin, the first crime ever recorded in the history of humanity—a thought crime no less—when that audacious autodidact Eve dared to educate herself by partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Worse, she inveigled the first man—the unsuspecting Adam—to join her in choosing knowledge over ignorance. For the appalling crime of hearkening unto the voice of his wife, Yahweh condemned Adam to toil in thorn and thistle-infested fields, and further condemned him to death, to return to the dust from whence he came.
Yahweh then cast his first two delinquent children out of paradise, setting a Cherubim and a flaming sword at the entrance to be certain that they could never return. Then, in one of the many foul moods he was wont to fall into, Yahweh committed an epic hemoclysm of genocidal proportions by killing every sentient being on Earth—including unsuspecting adults, innocent children, and all the land animals—in a massive flood. In order to repopulate the planet after he decimated it of all life save those spared in the ark, Yahweh commanded the survivors—numerous times—to “be fruitful and multiply,” and rewarded his favorite warlords with as many wives as they desired. Thus was born the practice of polygamy and the keeping of harems, fully embraced and endorsed—along with slavery—in the so-called “good book.”
As an exercise in moral casuistry, this perspective-taking question comes to mind: did anyone ask the women how they felt about this arrangement? What about the millions of people living in other parts of the world who had never heard of Yahweh? What about the animals and the innocent children who drowned in the flood? What did they do to deserve such a final solution to Yahweh’s anger problem?
Many Christians say that they get their morality from the Bible, but this cannot be true because as holy books go the Bible is possibly the most unhelpful guide ever written for determining right from wrong. It’s chockfull of bizarre stories about dysfunctional families, advice about how to beat your slaves, how to kill your headstrong kids, how to sell your virgin daughters, and other clearly outdated practices that most cultures gave up centuries ago. It’s time we all gave it up now. Won’t you join me?