TIA Tuesday: Not the Golden RuleDecember 2, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
One thing I’ve been noticing in Chapter 14 of TIA is that the longer Vox rambles on with his “Occam’s Chainsaw” arguments against atheism, the less and less his atheistic arguments resemble anything atheists actually say. Case in point, the so-called Argument from the Golden Rule.
It is often asserted that Christian morality is no different than other ethical systems that are based on the Golden Rule. And it is true that one can find pre-Christian examples of the same concept in the Analects of Confucius, in the Mahabharata, the Dhammapada, the Udanavarga, and even the histories of Herodotus. Still, there are two errors in this argument because Christian morality is not based on the Golden Rule, and because the Golden Rule, which states that a man should not do to others what he would not have them do to him, cannot provide a basis for a functional moral system.
Vox is partly right: Jesus didn’t base his religion on the Golden Rule, and more’s the pity because it would have produced a better moral system if he had. But the standard atheistic argument is more an observation that the best parts of Christianity, the parts worth keeping, are not original with Jesus, but were absorbed into Judaism and Christianity from the moral systems of the surrounding cultures. Vox, once again, is merely fencing with a straw man.
Vox pursues his point that Christianity is not based on the Golden Rule by making an argument that badly confuses ethics with theology.
Jesus Christ’s version of the Golden Rule… is practical advice given in the context of a general admonishment and it cannot possibly be the essence of Christian morality, for in the very same chapter, Jesus informs his listeners that “only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” will enter that kingdom.
Vox is confused here on two counts. First of all, he confuses the moral question (“How do I know what is right and what is wrong?”) with the soteriological question (“How do I get into heaven?”). He also seems to be confused about God’s will, which he apparently regards as being something incompatible with the Golden Rule. But why would Jesus want us to obey the Golden Rule if it were not going to get us into heaven? A more thoughtful theologian would be less likely to perceive Vox’s alleged conflict between obeying God and obeying the Golden Rule.
Vox goes on to give us what he calls “the true foundation of Christian morality, …in Matthew 22:37:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
This time Vox is on more solid ground. Yes, the reference to “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a fair rewording of the Golden Rule, but that’s not Rule One. Rule One is to devote yourself completely to God, which in practice means unquestioning obedience to whatever the priests and prophets tell you God’s will is, whether it’s selling your daughter into sexual slavery or beating your slaves or taking genocide to the point of killing every man, woman, child, babe, and beast. This takes precedence over the Golden Rule in Jesus’ eyes, and it’s a shame he had to tarnish an otherwise good moral system with such primitive and barbaric superstitions.
Vox objects to the Golden Rule on the grounds that it’s not perfect. “Obviously, a moral system based on loving the Lord your God and obediently submitting your will to His is a very different moral system and a far more objective one than the Golden Rule, which is not only entirely subjective, but incapable of accounting for either rational calculation or human psychopathy,” he says, apparently oblivious to the ease with which “the will of God” has been construed to mean “Gott mit Uns,” which is German for “we’re right no matter what we do.” Or words to that effect.
In fact, obeying God’s will is not merely difficult, but impossible, since God does not show up in real life to tell us what that will might be. Instead, we are forced to rely on what men say God’s will is—and no, it does not help that some other men have gotten together and voted to declare certain of their brethren to be infallible and inspired prophets and apostles. The leadership and teaching of an infallible and perfect deity might indeed provide us with a superior moral system, if we had real-world access to such a deity. But we don’t, and in His absence men have found it far too easy to their own desires into the words of Holy Writ.
Going back to the original atheistic argument (the actual argument, not Vox’s peculiar straw man), there is very little in Jesus’ personal moral system that is unique to Christianity, as opposed to being a continuation of moral principles that previously existed in various pagan and/or pre-Christian cultures. In fact, Jesus’ only true innovation might be the idea that we should love our enemies and do good to those that hate us. But seriously, is that really such a good idea?
Let’s suppose our Christian president decided to follow Jesus’ only original precept, and respond to 9/11 not by invading other countries, but by sending gifts and financial aid to Osama bin Ladin. Do you suppose Jesus’ moral principles would make the world a better place, if consistently put into actual practice? When you think about it, Jesus’ unique moral innovation isn’t really such a good idea in real life. Yet most of his other admirable moral teachings concern practices that were already old when Abraham was a kindergartner.
The moral history argument is still valid, despite Vox’s attempt to distract attention from it with a bogus straw man about the Golden Rule. Yes, the Golden Rule is not a perfect and infallible guide to morality (but then again, neither is the Bible and its questionable endorsements of slavery, genocide, and having sex with your brother’s widow). But the real point, the point Vox avoids mentioning let alone addressing, is that the Judeo-Christian tradition appears after most of the moral principles it seeks credit for inventing. And if it strikes you as ironic that someone would lie in order to defend morality, then you’ve probably got a pretty good handle on why atheists shake their heads at the moral bluster of Christians like Vox.