The Bridget

Number 2 Published by Chris Tover May 12, 2005

The Bridget is an e-journal of opinion. Mine!
And I have strong opinions.

About Bridget

This e-journal is dedicated to the memory of my mother. To her family and friends she left a legacy of moral, social, and political activism.



Today's Essay

Where Do Morals Come From?

Let me deal with one question that often comes up when atheists engage conventional theists. I have heard said, many times, that atheists cannot have morals. Because morality comes from God, those who deny God must also deny morality.

If that is what you believe, I have news for you. You have not met an atheist with a strong sense Many agnostics and atheists are morally offended by what is done in the name of religion.

But these arguments will probably not persuade our conservative neighbors. They will not be persuaded unless it is in the Bible. So let us look at the Old Testament and see if there is something that deals with this issue. And yes, there is such a passage. Let's look at Genesis 18:17-25 (NSRV):

The Lord said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham will become a great and mighty nation, and that all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him so that he will charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham, what he has promised him."

Then the Lord said, "How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah, and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done according to the outcry that has come to me. If not, I will know."

So the men turned from there and went to Sodom while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham came near the Lord and said, "Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it for you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous along with the wicked, so the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you!

Next Abraham delivers an incredible statement:

Shall the judge of all the earth not do what is just?

This incredibly brave statement just leaps out of the story. Imagine, Abraham questions the moral authority of God. In verse 19 God acts as a character witness for Abraham. He chose Abraham because he was righteous and just. Then in verse 25 Abraham gives God a lesson in justice and righteousness.

I do not know of a similar statement anywhere else in the Old Testament. From time to time a prophet may complain about an act of God, but eventually he will accept god's act as just. For example, in Psalm 22, David cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" But the psalm quickly becomes a hymn to God's mercy and righteousness.

Now we come to the question, where does Abraham get his sense of righteousness and justice? What is the source of his moral vision?

Religious conservatives claim that we all get our morality from God. Is this true of Abraham? Did he get his morality from God? If he did, then God would be a hypocrite. No, I think what Abraham is doing is asserting the importance of his personal conscience. He says, "Shall the judge of all the earth not do what is right?" He is asserting his moral conscience against the will of an unjust god. Abraham is appealing to a higher authority, higher than God.

So where did Abraham's independent conscience come from? I believe that conscience is developed in early childhood. We have to learn what our parents and siblings want us to do and what they don't want from the moment we are born. We don't get our morality from the Ten Commandments. By the time we are old enough to understand the Ten Commandments, it's too late. No we don't really pay much attention to the Ten Commandments except when we want to criticize the behavior of other people.

So here is our message to our conservative neighbors. If Abraham can appeal to his conscience, independently of God, then why can't the rest of us? Why can't atheists have a moral conscience?

Before I leave this subject, I must mention that there is a terrible moral ambiguity in the story of Abraham. When Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac, he obeys. There is not a hint of a reproach from his lips, no hesitation in his conduct. You'd think that a man who loves justice would have something to say. Does Abraham obey because he loves God? Or does he obey because he is terrified of God's destructive power? Or is this a mythological account of how an ancient people rejected the practice of human sacrifice? How can you reconcile the Abraham who talked back to God with the Abraham who would sacrifice his son?

These are questions that I cannot answer. I leave it to you to speculate on this issue and to arrive at your own understanding of the story. Don't be afraid to speculate, for speculation puts you in the tradition of Jewish rabbis who wrote commentaries on the scriptures. You will find that there are many different ways of understanding the Bible.



Copyright Information:
NRSV designates Scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 © by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

This issue of The Bridget is copyright © 2005 by Chris Tover. All rights reserved. Readers may make nonsalable copies for personal use, for use in discussion groups, to circulate among friends, forward this e-journal to friends, provided that the entire issue is reproduced. Short quotations may be published in salable media and in school reports and papers provided the quotation is appropriately cited. However, the articles in this e-journal must not be republished in a salable medium without the written permission of the copyright holder. Any person who reproduces The Bridget is responsible for ensuring that any copyrights of included quotations are not violated.

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posted by Chris Tover at Thursday, May 12, 2005 9:44 AM     Comments:

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