Can humans learn morality from The Bible?

 The first three Commandments are nothing more than an attempt by the God of The Bible to make his followers afraid to disobey him. In the space of The Ten Commandments, God could have included a condemnation of rape, slavery, child abuse or the killing of apostates. (Petr Kratochvil/Public Domain Pictures)

The first three Commandments are nothing more than an attempt by the God of The Bible to make his followers afraid to disobey him. In the space of The Ten Commandments, God could have included a condemnation of rape, slavery, child abuse or the killing of apostates. (Petr Kratochvil/Public Domain Pictures)

In January of this year, President Trump was busied with damage control after calling African countries “shitholes” during a meeting with a bipartisan coalition of senators. He hoped that his commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which took place on January 12th, would provide evidence that he was not, in fact, a racist. The President said some very lovely things about Dr. King, and then passed the mic to a man he once compared to a child molester, Ben Carson. After lauding Dr. King’s “message of equality, justice and the common dignity of man,” Carson called on his audience to remember where the ideas of “equality, freedom and liberty” get their power.

Providence alone is the answer. … If we forget this source of our fundamental equality, then our fight to recognize it in our society will never be fulfilled.” The argument that religion is the source of morality is a flimsy one, but it is especially flimsy coming from someone whose sense of “equality, freedom and liberty” is as stunted as Ben Carson’s.

Carson believes that human morality should be based on religious doctrine. One of the basic problems with this idea is posed by the abundance of horrific and morally unjustifiable content in all religious texts. An example would be the often-cited passage Leviticus 20:13, in which God commands his followers to murder any man or woman found engaging in gay sex. It is safe to assume that Ben Carson does not believe that gay people should be put to death, but he would still probably claim that The Bible is the inerrant word of God. No two readers of The Bible can agree on the exact specifics of God’s moral doctrine. There are pastors who think that The Bible does not condemn being gay, but Carson thinks that accepting homosexuality is tantamount to insulting God. If God’s framework for human morality is unimpeachable, it ought to also be intelligible enough for humanity to know what that moral framework’s components are.

Dr. Carson is far from the only political figure who advocates Biblical morality. There is also Dennis Prager, the conservative radio host who produces content for the popular YouTube channel PragerU.  In one video, Prager declares that “The Ten Commandments are all that is necessary to make a good world, a world free of tyranny and cruelty.” In Prager’s defense, a few of the Commandments are worth obeying. “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal” come to mind. However, some of the Commandments, like “Remember to keep Sabbath holy” and “Thou shalt not make any graven image of God,” have nothing to do with morality, and they have been forgotten by vast numbers of modern Jews and Christians.

The first three Commandments are nothing more than an attempt by the God of The Bible to make his followers afraid to disobey him. In the space of The Ten Commandments, God could have included a condemnation of rape, slavery, child abuse or the killing of apostates. However, condemning any one of those crimes would have enraged the prophet. Upon encountering a camp of heretics, Moses once commanded his men to “Kill all the boys and every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”

One of the most eloquent advocates of Biblical morality is Dr. Jordan Peterson, a professor who teaches psychology at The University of Toronto. Peterson thinks that “fear of god is the beginning of wisdom” and that The Old Testament is designed to make people “Stay awake, speak properly, be honest or watch the hell out, because [otherwise] things will come your way that you just do not want to see at all.” In simpler terms, Peterson thinks that sticking to a divine principle is what keeps society from falling apart, and that things like Nazism and Communism arise when people turn away from God.

Peterson fails to realize that the God of The Bible does not usually care about people upholding His universal moral law. God notices that Job obeys his moral edicts very precisely, so he kills all of Job’s children and gives the poor man leprosy. When Pharaoh decides to release the Jews from slavery, God hardens his heart, thereby keeping the “chosen” people in chains. To obey the “jealous God” of The Bible, Abraham had to subvert Peterson’s “universal moral law” and agree to butcher his only son. Therefore, Peterson’s idea that fear of God lets one lead a moral life is untrue just based on the actual text of The Bible.

Anyone can point out episodes of barbarity and immorality in The Bible, but that does not mean that it is a meaningless text. Its influence can be easily discerned in the histories of ethics, literature, and physical art. At the same time, it must be recognized that a great portion of what is in The Bible is immoral. Lot’s daughters date-raped him. Saint Paul did not “permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man.” Jesus, who told his followers that he “did not come to bring peace, once refused to let a boy go home to bury his dead father before joining the disciples.

No character in this text is dependable enough to act as the crux of one’s moral compass, and a moralistic reading of The Bible requires that one forget the story’s grisly parts. Dr. Peterson, Dr. Carson, and Prager are happy to excise the cruelty from this text so that what remains can be better molded to fit their perspectives. Prager’s God is a Jew whose morals can be laid out in The Ten Commandments. Carson’s God hates gays and atheists. Peterson’s God hates Communists and wants young men to stand up straight and to “speak properly.” The philosopher Xenophanes was clearly on to something when he said, “If cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw … then the horses would draw their gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would shape bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.”


Alex Klein is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus and can be reached via email at alex.klein@uconn.edu.