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For a recent issue of Free Inquiry (August/September 2014), I wrote an article discussing how morality has the objectivity that matters, without any reference to God or his commandments. To keep the article at a manageable length, I had to forgo discussion of some interesting arguments. One of the points I did not dwell upon in the article is that reliance on God and his commandments as a moral guide actually makes morality more subjective; in fact, it makes morality irredeemably subjective. You can justify anything and everything through religious texts.
Let me expand on that point. It seems to me an especially timely issue in light of President Barack Obama’s repeated assertions that “no God condones [the] terror” perpetrated by the fanatics of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). (See, for example, his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2014.) The president’s assertions present an interesting question. How do we know what God has condoned or commanded? Well, unless you’re a prophet who has had the privilege of communicating directly with God or one of his angelic messengers, you must rely on what some prophet says God has said. To ensure that subsequent generations have the benefit of these divine revelations, these secondhand statements are typically set down in writing, and these writings assume the status of sacred texts, for example, the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. the Old Testament), the New Testament, and the Qur’an.
The problem is that once the prophet has passed from the scene, it’s up to us to interpret these texts. And the sacred texts of all three major monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are a hodgepodge of observations, comments, and thoughts that were set down at different periods of time and address a variety of different topics, often in contradictory terms. The Qur’an, which purports to have an advantage over the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament because it supposedly relies on one prophet only, even acknowledges that it lends itself to differing interpretations. In the notorious Sura (chapter) 3, verse 7, the Qur’an states: “It is He [God] who sent this Scripture down to you. Some of its verses are definite in meaning—these are the cornerstone of the Scripture—and others are ambiguous. The perverse at heart eagerly pursue the ambiguities in their attempt to make trouble and to pin down a specific meaning of their own: only God knows the true meaning” (The Qur’an, trans. M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford University Press, 2004).
This verse is truly astonishing. Leave aside the puzzling issue of why Allah would intentionally provide ambiguous revelations. This verse effectively concedes that the Qur’an can be interpreted in contradictory ways. Oh sure, it says that some directives are clear, but it does not specify the procedure for determining which directives are clear and which are not. Only Allah knows, and apparently he’s not telling.
The Qur’an is known for its many passages in which the faithful are urged to kill the “disbelievers.” Those who argue that Islam is a religion of peace explain away these passages as a reaction to the persecution that Muhammad and his followers faced. They are not calls to a never-ending war against all those who reject Islam but rather a justification of the right of Muslims to engage in self-defense. That cannot be dismissed as an inherently unreasonable interpretation, but neither can the contrary interpretation of such texts by the fanatics of ISIS be dismissed as inherently unreasonable. There’s no objective method for determining which interpretation of scripture is the correct one. Sure, there are theologians and scholars who will assert that their interpretation is correct, and they may back this up with some verbose analysis and frequent pleas to consider the context or the symbolic meaning of the text in question. But at the end of the day, one theologian’s opinion is as good as any other’s. There is no scientific test, no reference to undisputed historical facts, that will provide us with the basis for concluding that one theologian’s analysis is entitled to special deference. Which theologian has special insight into the mind of God? Whichever theologian you happen to agree with.
Ultimately, how one interprets scripture depends largely on one’s preexisting beliefs. The religious have their opinions about what’s right and wrong, and these opinions shape and influence the interpretation of the relevant texts. It’s not the other way around.
Do I exaggerate the extent to which sacred texts are malleable? I don’t think so. Pick any controversial issue, present or past, and you will find believers on either side, each armed with supporting scriptural citations. Slavery (fortunately) is no longer an issue on which public opinion is divided. But that wasn’t always the case, and when Americans were at odds over the justification of slavery, one could find clergy and devout believers on each side of this issue. Southern clergy used scriptural citations to argue not only that slavery was justified but that abolition of slavery would interfere with divine providence. Their position could not be said to be irrational, because slavery is nowhere expressly condemned in the Bible (or, for that matter, the Qur’an). If Christianity was incompatible with slavery, it took Christians about 1,800 years to realize this.
As with slavery, so too with the emancipation of women, the desegregation of schools and other public institutions, interracial marriages, same-sex marriages, contraception, abortion, stem-cell research, capital punishment, assisted dying, immigration regulation, and on and on. Sacred texts have been cited to support contradictory positions on all of these issues. It doesn’t matter how clear the cited text may appear to be; if you want to take a contrary position, there’s always some way to distinguish or creatively interpret your opponent’s scriptural citation.
A telling example of how one can impose one’s views on an apparently contrary text was provided, ironically, by Yale law professor Stephen Carter, who, a few years back, came out with a book titled The Culture of Disbelief (Anchor Books, 1994). The book’s principal objective was to lament how secular discourse was replacing religious discourse about public-policy issues. According to Carter, one problem with the marginalization of religious discourse is that without religious validation, policy decisions lose their authority because only God can serve as a moral arbiter. Carter fails to explain how we know which decision God has made on a policy question.
In discussing how he developed his own views on the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church, Carter unintentionally illustrates the limitless flexibility of Scripture. Carter obviously wanted to believe female priests are permissible, but he was faced with this apparent difficulty: How does one get around biblical passages such as Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, in which the esteemed apostle unequivocally states that women should be silent in the churches and subordinate to men? No problem. According to Carter, after prayerful consideration he came to realize that one has to distinguish between Paul’s statements of doctrine—which are binding—and Paul’s statements of advice—which are not binding. And how does one make that distinction? Carter is silent on this question (other than his reference to prayer), but the answer is obvious: Paul’s statements of ignorable advice are whatever one doesn’t find congenial to one’s own outlook. Carter simply did what millions of believers have done before him and what believers do now. They cherry-pick those scriptural passages that support their position and explain away contrary passages.
Because God says whatever we want him to say, he is no moral arbiter. Instead, God is the ultimate ventriloquist’s dummy. We don’t even have to worry about not having our mouths move. We move our mouths, and then we attribute what comes out of them to God.
To return to President Obama’s claims about ISIS: it is true that the vast majority of Muslims now reject the notion that Islam should be imposed by force and that infidels must be slaughtered or forced into a subordinate status. But one cannot argue against ISIS using the Qur’an or any other sacred text. That’s a fool’s game. For every citation to the Qur’an to support the claim that ISIS adherents have a perverted view of Islam, ISIS fanatics can put forward a contrary citation—or even cite the same passage and interpret it differently.
Furthermore, to invoke God as support for one’s position, as President Obama has done, not only obscures the reality of how we actually arrive at our moral judgments but impedes effective moral reasoning. Invoking God encourages people to turn to their holy writ for answers, which is precisely what the fanatics say we should do. To achieve moral progress, we need to make explicit our reliance on secular considerations. Catholics didn’t stop slaughtering Protestants and vice versa because suddenly one morning some pope woke up and said, “My goodness, we’ve been misinterpreting Scripture all along. We don’t have to burn heretics.” Religious toleration in Europe and the Americas came about because of the slow realization that it is more beneficial—and less costly—to cooperate and collaborate with people who hold different metaphysical views than it is to try to impose one’s views on them by force. Morality is an institution for furthering human needs and interests, and reasoning with each other about the best way to advance these interests and satisfy these needs is the only reliable way to achieve the objectives of morality, one of which is to secure a peaceful, stable society.
The Qur’an is no more inherently violent than the Bible (if you doubt this, refresh your recollection by reading about what happened at Jericho); nor are Muslims more belligerent than Christians. Fanatics will become as rare in the Islamic world as they are in the West if and when the Islamic world becomes more secular—when Muslims spend less time leafing through their Qur’ans and listening to their imams for guidance and more time talking to each other about this-worldly concerns, such as how to make their societies more equitable and prosperous (hint: it would be enormously beneficial to make use of the intellectual capital of women).
In the meantime, there’s no point in making pronouncements about what God supposedly commends or condemns. Such statements persuade no one. Furthermore, the reality is that God can’t tell us what to do. We need to figure that out ourselves, using our reason and evidence about what policies best serve human interests and discussing these issues with each other in wholly secular terms.
Ronald A. Lindsay is president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. He is also the author of The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do (Pitchstone, 2014), in which he develops at greater length the arguments set forth in this editorial.