Most people believe that moral progress has primarily been due to the guiding light of religious teachings, the activities of spiritual leaders, and the power of faith-based initiatives. In "The Moral Arc" I argue that this is not the case, and that most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment. Once moral progress in a particular area is underway, most religions eventually get on board—as in the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, women’s rights in the 20th century, and gay rights in the 21st century—but this often happens after a shamefully protracted lag time. Why?
The rules that were dreamt up and enshrined by the various religions over the millennia did not have as their goal the expansion of the moral sphere to include other sentient beings. Moses did not come down from the mountain with a detailed list of the ways in which the Israelites could make life better for the Moabites, the Edomites, the Midianites, or for any other tribe of people that happened not to be them. One justification for this constricted sphere can be found in the Old Testament injunction to “Love thy neighbor,” who at that time was one’s immediate kin and kind, which was admittedly an evolutionary stratagem appropriate for the time. It would be suicidal to love thy neighbor as thyself when thy neighbor would like nothing better than to exterminate you, which was often the case for the Bronze Age peoples of the Old Testament. What good would have come of the Israelites loving, for example, the Midianites as themselves? The results would have been catastrophic given that the Midianites were allied with the Moabites in their desire to see the Israelites wiped off the face of the earth.
Today, of course, most Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that moral principles are universal and apply to everyone, but this is because they have inculcated into their moral thinking the modern Enlightenment goal of broadening and redefining the parameters of moral consideration. But by their nature the world’s religions are tribal and xenophobic, 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.
The history of Mormonism is a case in point. In the 1830s the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, received a revelation from God to enact what he euphemistically called “celestial marriage,” more accurately described as “plural marriage”—the rest of the world calls it polygamy—just about the time he found a new love interest while married to another woman. Once Smith caught the Solomonic fever for multiple wives (King Solomon had 700), he couldn’t stop himself or his brethren from spreading their seed, along with the practice, which in 1852 was codified into Mormon law through its sacred "Doctrines and Covenants." Until 1890, that is, when the people of Utah—desirous for their territory to become a state in the union—were told by the United States federal government that polygamy would not be tolerated.
Conveniently, God issued a new revelation to the Mormon leaders, instructing them that a plurality of wives was no longer a celestial blessing, and that instead monogamy was now the One True Way. As well, Mormon policy forbade African Americans to be priests in the church. The reason, Joseph Smith had decreed, was that they are not actually from Africa but instead are descendants of the evil Lamanites, whom God cursed by making their skin black after they lost the war against the good Nephites, both clans of which were descendants of two of the lost tribes of Israel. Naturally, since the evil Lamanites were prohibited from having sexual relations with the good Nephites, interracial marriage was also banned. This racist nonsense lasted a century and a half until it collided with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Finally, in 1978, the Church head Spencer W. Kimball announced that he had received a new revelation from God instructing him to drop the racial restrictions and adopt a more inclusive attitude.
There are three reasons for the sclerotic nature of religion: (1) 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 this truth and thus is unprotected by our moral obligations. (2) 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. (3) The morality of holy books—most notably the Bible—is not the morality any of us would wish to live by, and thus it is not possible for the religious doctrines derived from holy books to be the catalyst for moral evolvement.
Many Jews and 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.
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 pickers. In the Old Testament, the believer might find guidance in Deuteronomy 5:17, which says, explicitly, “Thou shalt not kill”; or in Exodus 22:21, a verse that delivers a straightforward and indisputable prohibition: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
These verses seem to set a high moral bar, but the handful of positive moral commands in the Old Testament are desultory and scattered among a sea of violent stories of murder, rape, torture, slavery, and all manner of violence, including capital punishment for a variety of acts:
• Blaspheming or cursing of the Lord: “And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:13-16)
• Worshiping another God: “He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed.” (Exodus 22:20)
• Witchcraft and wizardry: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18)
• Female loss of virginity before marriage: “If any man take a wife [and find] her not a maid … Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die.” (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
• Homosexuality: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13)
• Working on the Sabbath: “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.” (Exodus 35:2)
Most modern Christians, however, respond to arguments like this by saying that the Old Testament’s cruel and fortunately outdated laws have nothing to do with how they live their lives or the moral precepts that guide them today. The angry, vengeful God Yahweh of the Old Testament, they claim, was displaced by the kinder, gentler New Testament God in the form of 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 is a great leap forward from the capricious commands and copious capital punishment found in the Old Testament.
That may be, but nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus revoke God’s death sentences or 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.” He 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 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.”
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.”
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.
If God really believes in equal rights for all of his people, one would think that He would have said something about them in his holy book. But such sentiments are nowhere to be found in the Bible. The closest thing to a modern moral value is in Galatians 3:28, when the apostle Paul says: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” That sounds ecumenical, but the surrounding verses demonstrate clearly what Paul is up to: (Galatians 3:1) “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?” And what is this truth, according to Paul? The truth is that “[T]he Jew in becoming a Christian did not need to become a Greek, nor the Greek a Jew. The slave might continue to serve his master, and “male” and “female” retained each its function in the ongoing stream of life.”
In other words, Paul is saying that you can carry on as you are. If you’re Greek, there’s no need to become a Jew—a significant dispensation, given that a man converting to Judaism often had to submit to adult circumcision, and this is just the kind of thing that puts a guy off the whole idea. Paul was not a revolutionary advocating violence, and he most assuredly wasn’t ghostwriting the U.S. Constitution. He was saying that if you’re a slave, you must keep on being a slave; if you’re a wife, must continue being regarded as property; no matter who you are, you can still worship Jesus Christ and be abused by your culture in whatever manner is customary for someone of your breeding and station. And in any case, slaves remained slaves for eighteen more centuries, and women remained little more than property for nineteen more centuries in Christian countries around the world. Clearly, even if Paul’s message were interpreted to mean that we’re all equal, no one took it seriously. But what Paul’s passage really meant was that anyone can go to heaven by accepting Jesus as the Christ (as instructed in John 3:16), and that’s the message of universalism—not equal treatment in this world, but in the next world.
Excerpted from "The Moral Arc" by Michael Shermer, published January 2015 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Michael Shermer. All rights reserved.