Are there any interesting defenses of the moral side of religion?

So for months now I’ve been talking about working on this book, and I’m finally at the point where I’m feeling good about the progress I’ve made. I’ve got a draft of one chapter and partial drafts of seven other chapters. It’s not a full draft of the book, but I’ve written enough of it that I have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to say in almost all of the chapters.

Basically the book starts off with three chapters of preliminaries talking about the sort of silly knee-jerk reactions that people have to criticism of religion, talking about why it’s okay to criticize religion, talking about the differences between what most religious people believe and what left-wing theologians believe, stuff like that. And then I have five chapters talking about the truth of religion, arguments for the existence of God, arguments against the existence of God, stuff like that.

Essentially that’s what I that written so far and the plan was to make the last chapter to chapter about the moral side of religion and the harm that religion does. But I’ve sort of got writer’s block on this chapter because I’m not sure how to make it interesting. Because I’m not sure there’s anything interesting that can be said in defense of the moral side of religion.

So, for example, I think Plantinga’s ontological argument isn’t it all a good argument in the sense that I don’t think it does anything for the credibility of theism. But it’s an interesting argument insofar as there’s an interesting explanation of why it’s a bad argument, and I can write 2500 words about it and not feel like I’m wasting my reader’s time. But I’m not sure there are any comparably interesting defenses of moral side of religion.

Perhaps a better way to explain it is that William Lane Craig’s arguments for the existence of God are terrible arguments, but when you put him up on stage against an opponent he can use all his rhetorical prowess and high school debate team skills to impress the audience. But Craig rarely does debates on things like the morality of hell, and he probably would never agree to a debate on a topic like, say, “resolved, that the Bible is full of immoral teachings” because any halfway competent opponent would win in spite of Craig’s debating skills. That’s an indicator that the question of the morality of many religious teachings is one-sided, in a way that the argument over the existence of God is not one-sided.

So when Dawkins says that the God of the Old Testament is a homophobic, misogynistic, genocidal, bully and so on and so forth, that’s something that’s just obvious anyone who’s actually read the Old Testament. That’s a paragraph that all of Dawkins’ critics cite as evidence of what a terrible person Dawkins is, but their attempts to explain what is wrong with that statement are just absolutely pathetic. For example, Alastair McGrath says well, that’s not the God I believe in or anyone I know believes in, which may be true but it’s still the God described in the Old Testament.

Or you have Alvin Plantinga who makes the really insulting claim that the fact that Dawkins would dare say such a thing about God (or the God of the Old Testament, rather) indicates that Dawkins’ book contains no “evenhanded than thoughtful commentary,” even though Plantinga ought to know the basis for Dawkins statement. And instead of actually trying to rebut it he just dismisses it, which I think is a much more serious indicator of a lack of thoughtful commentary.

When Christians aren’t talking about what a big meanie Richard Dawkins is, the usual approach to talking about the Old Testament seems to be to go on and on about context. (I won’t get into what Jews say, they have somewhat different strategies.) Both conservative Christians and liberal Christians do this, and it’s just an evasion. The Old Testament, remember, contain commandments to kill men for having gay sex, commandments to kill people for blasphemy or for trying to get you to worship other gods. It even contains a part where Moses has a man killed for picking up sticks on the Sabbath of all things. It contains commandments to exterminate entire tribes.

Lots of awful stuff. Stuff that is on the face of it horrendously immoral. And when Christians talk about the context of the Old Testament, they never actually get around to explaining why that should stop us from thinking that these things in the Old Testament are horrendously immoral.

Similarly, there are verses in the New Testament, which taken together seem to suggest that anyone who does not believe in Christianity will be punished forever in hell. I called the Old Testament horrendously immoral; this goes beyond horrendously immoral. In fact I don’t even think there are words in the English language to express how evil this doctrine is, except perhaps, for “hellish.”

Some Evangelical Christians address this problem by saying, no, this misinterpretation of the Bible and try to interpret the Bible in a way that allows some non-Christians to go to heaven or even allows everybody to go to heaven. There are a serious Evangelical Christians who seriously argue that the Bible teaches that, and part of me says fair enough, because I think the Bible contradicts itself on what you have to do to get salvation.

However, a lot of Evangelical leaders think the all non-Christians go to hell thing is nonnegotiable. How they deal with the problem of hell is first of all, the avoid talking about it. Second of all if they do have to talk about it, they downplay it. One thing they’ll say is that hell isn’t literal flames hell is just separation from God.

Of course this doesn’t sound so bad. In fact, it might even be a blessing in disguise since a lot of times the God of Evangelical Christianity he sounds like a bit of a weirdo, who I might want to stay far, far away from, if, for example, he’s really that obsessed with getting people to believe things for which there is very little evidence.

On the other hand, if you ask the “hell is separation from God” folks, “how bad is hell?” they’ll tell you that hell is the worst thing that could possibly happen to you. So if the belief is also that all non-Christians go to hell, that’s still saying that all non-Christians (if they die without coming to the truth and accepting Jesus as their Savior) will meet the worst fate imaginable. It’s saying that all of Hitler’s victims, with the exception of minority of converts to Christianity, all of them once they were killed in the Holocaust then went on to a fate even worse than Holocaust, ordained for them by the Evangelical Christian God. Good news indeed.

So there’s just no good defense of these doctrines. The other defensive strategy is that oh well we should ignore these doctrines because of the overriding message of love that is the true core of Christianity. This is very popular among liberal Christians, but surprisingly you also hear it sometimes from Christians who claim to be Evangelicals, claim to believe everything in the Bible.

My response to that is that, well, it’s true the Bible talks about love, but in so far as a particular biblical author combines talk about love with these horrible teachings and that’s evidence that that particular author did not really understand love. If a modern cult leader who advocated both stoning gays to death and also said some nice things about love, we wouldn’t think that the nice things about love overrode the horrible things about stoning gays to death.

Maybe the reason some Christians are so impressed the idea of a message of love and the Bible is they are under the impression that without the Bible, people wouldn’t know to love each other, which is maybe understandable if your moral education has been totally limited to the Bible. But once you know even a tiny little bit about ethical traditions outside of religion it becomes totally obvious that that’s false. For example, just look at Stoic teachings about the brotherhood of all men which, predate Jesus.

So that’s my stream of consciousness thoughts about the moral side of religion. I could go on, I’ve got more to say, but I’m not sure I have a book chapter worth of things to say. I think it’s a very important point and I don’t want to sell it short in the book, so give me advice on this one. When I talk about the moral side of religion, what should I be talking about? Yes, I can talk about the lie that Hitler was an atheist, and I can talk about communism, and I can talk about the Inquisition, and I can talk about the horrible treatment of women in Muslim countries today, but I think those issues are as straightforward and can probably be dealt with just as briefly as the things I’ve been talking about this post.

So what do I do to fill this chapter I’m trying to write?

Leave a comment


  1. Just keep the chapter short and tell the reader why it’s short. No shame in that. (And my suspicion is that by the time you actually have it written and have responded to a referee comment or two it probably won’t be as short as you fear.)

  2. You could try and make an argument for why our ordinary conception of morality implies atheism. For ideas, listen to Stephen Maitzen’s lecture on morality here:

    This topic seems wonderful for generating examples to specific points. The filisophical literature may or may not have much on this topic, though. Just my two cents worth.

  3. philosophical… Man! Sorry.

  4. In the thread referred to below I dealt at great length with some of the objections raised here. I sent my comments under the name “Patrick”, beginning with Comment #17.