God does not provide a basis for morality – so sayeth the bible.

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By now you know how I hate those lame arguments about religion being necessary for absolute morality to exist. See my earlier discussions on this topic, and especially here and here, and numerous articles on religion in schools.

Usually, the dismissal of this claim for absolute morality is based on avoiding the notion of a god and speaking of humanity itself. For a change, here’s a small discussion from the perspective that there is a god, and that the word of the bible is to be taken seriously. This should appease the apologists, but they shouldn’t get too comfortable…

Might Makes Right

Even if god is the foundation for moral facts, that in itself doesn’t make them objective. Rather, they are subjective because this is god’s view of morality. The assumption is that he who has the ultimate ability to create a universe may do as he pleases. And because he created the universe, anything he does with his creation is morally permissible. Morality is therefore nothing more than the strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak do what the strong allow them to. It seems that moral ‘laws’ are universally enforced by the only being that has the power to do so. Put another way, god is the creator of the universe and therefore has choices of moral settings, and therefore morality is not objective.

But, I hear you say, what is wrong with that? If we all behaved as god does, wouldn’t that be just great? Well, as it turns out, no.

God suits himself

As the good book tells it, god’s behaviour is actually quite poor, and not a good role model for humanity. For example, in Genesis 18, god has plans to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah. God is initially shy to tell Abraham his plans – but we soon learn that Abraham is appalled to learn God’s plan and says ‘will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?’, and, ‘Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is right?’ .

Abe is clearly appealing to an outside standard – outside of God’s initial moral intuition. (Note this is after the flood, so god already has form for genocide). Surprisingly, God agrees with Abe on this point, and says ‘If I find 50 righteous people in the city, I will forgive the city‘. What? Does Abraham have a more complete moral picture that God????  What if there were only 40 or 30 or 5 righteous people? Hence it is clear from the bible that morality is completely separate from god and christianity, certainly not objective, and certainly not rooted in god.

Interestingly, God does indeed wipe out the city. He actually finds a handful of righteous people (Lot’s family), but instead of sparing the city, he tells them to run for the hills, so he can proceed to wipe out the city – which is not what he agreed with Abe.

Another example lies in Exodus 32, 9-14. After the 10 commandments has been given, Charlton Heston Moses doesn’t come done from Mt. Sinai immediately, and the gathering below gets impatient waiting, so they melt their jewellery and make a golden calf to start worshipping (as you do). God is pretty annoyed with this and threatens to destroy these people, whom he has asked to come here in the first place. He says ‘Now let me alone so that my wrath shall burn hot against them and I may consume them’. But Moses questions this, ‘Why does your wrath burn hot against your people whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt?’ and implores him to change his mind. The lord then goes on to change his mind. Moses is therefore appealing to an outside standard – of fairness. He appeals to the virtue of the promise god made to these people to lead them to the promised land and multiply their descendents ‘like the stars in the heavens’. Apparently god forgets about things like promises when he gets pissed off. Of course, this can be spun so that god is still sitting in judgement but shows mercy, but ultimately there is some dishonesty on display.

On another level, we also see relative judgements regarding different actions: is mercy more moral than justice? Which is it, and what is the precedence?


So if we don’t believe in god, morality is subjective (and a product of the times in which events take place), and, if we do believe in god, the morals he has handed down are arbitrary and demonstrably subjective, and also arguably a product of the times – so sayeth the bible. Case closed.

Thanks to the crew at the Reasonable Doubts podcast for an excellent discussion on this topic.


4 thoughts on “God does not provide a basis for morality – so sayeth the bible.

    Blamer .. said:
    June 3, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    Interesting stuff.

    Although that line of reasoning may expose an internal inconsistency within Christianity, I can’t see it provides much justification for non-Christians (since the Bible is untrustworthy) or persuasion for Christians (since any “subjectivity” of their One True God is surely as universally binding as objectivity) nor for apologists (since internal inconsistencies like that can be easily reconciled, say by conceding that Yahweh is amoral – not moral/immoral).

    Hint: The more worrying inconsistency for Christians ought to be reconciling the OT (Yahweh) with their NT (Yahweh = Jehovah who is Jesus).

    I guess I find it hard to see that the contents of the Bible can undermine Christianity as a valid moral system since the Bible is either true, untrue, or a bit of both.

      rationalbrain said:
      June 3, 2011 at 4:43 pm

      I wouldn’t be looking for justification of anything really. I come from a personal point of view – I am affronted by apologists’ assertions that my particular morals are invalid if I don’t subscribe to their beliefs. The reason I found that discussion interesting was that it’s all to easy to say, well god doesn’t exist so what you say is crap. It’s actually refreshing to be able to use their own tools to destroy their argument.
      And I don’t buy the ‘universally binding subjectivity = objectivity’ – this still leaves the issue of why the big guy himself does not practice that which he preaches. I don’t think a malevolent dictatorship is a very good basis for a sermon on morality, although I do concede it can result in a stable society, at least for a certain period.
      Just to clarify my position, I believe that christianity is a valid moral system, and don’t seek to undermine it – as allegory, the bible aint that bad. It’s more the smug attitude of ‘it’s the only moral system, and no other could exist without god’, etc, etc. which irks me, since other systems patently exist. And those who subscribe to this view should be very concerned that the contents of that which they believe to be the wellspring of their moral system should also undermine that very moral system.

    The Atheist Wars « rationalbrain said:
    January 2, 2012 at 1:04 am

    […] the good acts. It is the good acts of people for which the church takes credit. As I’ve argued before, you don’t need religion to be moral or […]

    Morality as an evolved trait « rationalbrain said:
    June 28, 2012 at 1:01 am

    […] and usually said with a supercilious grin, that atheists have no basis for morality (see here, here and here for a […]

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