By now, I imagine most of my readers will have watched the infamous video clip featuring activist Dan Savage’s comments on “the bull—t in the Bible,” during a talk he recently gave to the National High School Journalist Conference in Seattle. The text of Savage’s remarks can be found in a post by a contributor named Sigmund, over at the Website Why Evolution Is True. (The font color is easier on the eye than the original transcript at Towleroad.) P. Z. Myers weighs in here, and The Huffington Post has a piece about Savage’s comments here.
I’m currently working on a post on Methodological Naturalism, which has direct relevance to the issue of Intelligent Design. Morality is a topic which has only an indirect relevance to ID, but it’s one which arouses surprisingly strong passions, as people debate the perennial issue of whether scientists can ever provide a purely naturalistic account of morality, or for that matter, of the origin of morality. Last year, I addressed this topic in my post, Why morality cannot be 100% natural: A Response to Professor Coyne. I had (mistakenly) hoped that my post would make some of the New Atheists pause and rethink their (by now predictable) screeds against moral codes that claim to be of supernatural origin. However, some of their recent comments on Dan Savage’s speech – as well as other comments that have been bouncing around on the Internet – have persuaded me to add my two cents’ worth to the discussion. Lots of valid points have been made elsewhere in response to Savage’s comments. What I’m going to do in this post is put them all together here in an accessible form, for interested readers.
Savage: credible or not?
Dan Savage has apparently read the Bible cover to cover (as I have) and he has a perfect legal right to criticize Biblical morality, if he wishes to do so. I’ll address his criticisms briefly below. But before I do, I’d like to pose a simple question: “How qualified is Dan Savage to talk about morality?” Short answer: not very. I’m not saying that Savage is a bad man; I’m simply saying that he has no right to pontificate about moral matters. Here’s why:
The Doorknob Chronicles of Dan Savage by Joe Carter, writing in First Things (July 13, 2011)
Dan Savage has endorsed “The Abortion Pledge”. An excerpt:
I pledge the following…
1. If I get pregnant before the age of 21, I will have an abortion.
2. If I know anyone who gets pregnant before the age of 21, I will strongly suggest that they have an abortion.
3. If I get pregnant while still pursuing my education and cannot feasibly financially support a child, I will have an abortion.
7. If I am in any other situation where I feel like an abortion is the best course of action, I will have an abortion.
I should also mention that Savage is a self-professed sexual libertarian who has stated that “our bodies are our own … they’re ours to use, abuse, and since we’re all going to die one day, they’re ours to use up.” On the subject of drugs, he has written that “the freedom to use drugs can certainly be viewed as a civil-rights issue: It’s about the right to control what you do with your own body, and that argument resonates with others advanced by gay-rights advocates and advocates of reproductive choice” – a quote That’s just one of many eyebrow-raising quotes you’ll find in an article at Alternet entitled, Dan Savage, America’s Most Important Sex Ethicist by Lutheran minister Benjamin J. Dueholm.
And here’s Savage advising a reader in the Pittsburgh City Paper (May 28, 2009) on drug use:
I don’t believe that all drug use is abuse, and I believe that recreational drugs can be used responsibly….
Recreational heroin? Heroin seems kind of extreme as recreational drugs go…
[L]egal or not, heroin is a highly dangerous drug. It’s a drug that’s made more dangerous by its prohibition, sure, but it’s dangerous even when it’s pure.
I think you have a right to use it, and that you should have access to safe, medical-grade heroin and clean needles. But I don’t think you should use it, not when there are other, better, safer drugs available.
Like my boyfriend’s pheromones.
What Dan Savage got wrong about the Bible
I would suggest that anyone who might be wondering whether Dan Savage’s rant against the Bible was accurate, despite its anger, might like to read an article I wrote on Uncommon Descent last year, entitled Why morality cannot be 100% natural: A Response to Professor Coyne. In that post, I endeavor to set the record straight about Biblical morality, and I also highlight certain passages in Leviticus 19 that Savage forgot to quote.
Savage asserts that “The bible is a radically pro-slavery document.” Rubbish. Regarding slavery, Dan Savage might want to read an article by Dr. Matt Flanagan entitled, Slavery, John Locke and the Bible. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:
It is often affirmed, as an incontestable and obvious truth, that the Bible supports slavery. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong cites Leviticus 25:44 as evidence of this charge in “Why Traditional Theism is not an Adequate Foundation for Morality.” Although Armstrong is not the alone in making this claim, I think the charge is mistaken; the Bible does not support slavery.
This claim was refuted by John Locke in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, one of the founding texts of contemporary liberal political theory…
Locke’s argument here is as follows,
 If a person is a slave then that person is “under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases.”
 The institution referred to in scripture that people could sell themselves into, was not one where they were “under an absolute, arbitrary, despotical power.”
The conclusion Locke draws from  and  is that the institution scripture refers to is not slavery. Locke’s response here is interesting and fundamentally correct.
Similarly, Christian apologist Glenn Miller argues in Part One of his essay “Does God condone slavery in the Bible?” that the “slaves” in the Old Testament – even the foreign slaves – were not chattel slaves. Additionally, he points out that in contrast to the laws of other ancient Near Eastern nations at that time, slaves who fled their owners and came to Israel were not to be returned to their masters, nor were they to be oppressed, but they were to be allowed to live wherever they pleased (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).
Regarding slavery in the New Testament, which is discussed in and Part Two of his essay, Miller makes the telling point that “the NT clearly denies the idea that a master ‘owns’ a servant.” That’s hardly a “radically pro-slavery” position. Responding to the popular objection, “Why doesn’t the New Testament command Christian slave owners to free their slaves?” Miller sensibly observes that “we would NOT expect blanket commands to ‘free the slaves’, if for no other reason than that infanticide-rescued infant slaves and aged/infirm/sick slaves would become critically destitute.” In the conclusion to his article, Miller declares that “we cannot correctly accuse the NT of ‘condoning slavery’ in any traditional sense.” Miller’s thoughtful, well-researched articles on Old Testament and New Testament slavery are essential reading for any critic of Biblical morality who wishes to be taken seriously. I wonder if Savage has even heard of Glenn Miller.
Incidentally, is Savage aware that slavery remains legal in the United States to this day, under the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constiution, which permits it “as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”?
Savage’s claim that that the Bible orders the stoning of non-virgin brides is highly questionable. Apparently the Jewish scholar Rashi (1040-1105), who was the medieval author of a renowned commentary on the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), thought otherwise. Rashi is considered the “father” of all subsequent Jewish commentaries on the Tanakh. According to his commentary on Deuteronomy 22 (see also the explanatory footnote here), the stoning was carried out only if it was confirmed “Through witnesses, and with a pre-warning, that she committed adultery after her marriage,” and not merely that she was not a virgin.
I should add that the death penalty for adultery was rarely carried out, for the simple reason that any capital crime required two or three witnesses, and the witnesses had to be so sure of what they saw that they were willing to “cast the first stone” – that is, initiate the execution (Deuteronomy 17:6-7).
On a practical level, however, Savage’s remarks about Biblical laws that people were executed for breaking is utterly irrelevant, as the Jewish leaders had virtually ceased executing people for infractions of these laws as far back as 2,000 years ago. Standards of evidence required for a capital conviction were extremely high, due to the strong Jewish cultural emphasis on the value of human life. An example of this kind of thinking can be found in the Talmud (Tractate Makkoth I. 7a): “The Sanhedrin which condemns to death one man in seven years is accounted murderous. According to Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaria, it would be a murderous court even if it condemned one man in seventy years. Rabbi Tarphon and Rabbi Akiba assert that if they had been in the Sanhedrin [i.e. when it possessed capital powers] no man would ever have been condemned to death by it.” In the 12th-century, the Jewish legal scholar Maimonides stated that “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” (Moses Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot [Book of the Commandments], commentary on Negative Commandment 290, as translated by Charles B. Chavel, 1967.)
Readers can learn more about capital punishment in Judaism here.
Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan describes how the capital punishments listed in the Torah for various acts came to be set aside, in his Handbook of Jewish Thought (Volume II, Moznaim Pub Corporation, 1992, pp. 170-71):
In practice, however, these punishments were almost never invoked, and existed mainly as a deterrent and to indicate the seriousness of the sins for which they were prescribed. The rules of evidence and other safeguards that the Torah provides to protect the accused made it all but impossible to actually invoke these penalties… the system of judicial punishments could become brutal and barbaric unless administered in an atmosphere of the highest morality and piety. When these standards declined among the Jewish people, the Sanhedrin… voluntarily abolished this system of penalties. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
As for what Christianity says about executing adulterers, I take it that Savage is familiar with the words of Jesus: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).
To sum up: neither Judaism nor Christianity advocates executing people for sexual misdemeanors today, and what’s more, they haven’t done so for a long time. So why is Savage flogging a dead horse?
Finally, Savage absurdly equates the Old Testament’s laws on sexual morality with its dietary laws, and he suggests that we can ignore what the Bible says when it condemns various sexual practices as immoral, just as we ignore what it says on eating shellfish. Apparently he hasn’t heard of the Noachide laws – a set of seven moral imperatives, which, according to the Talmud, were given by God as a binding set of laws for the “children of Noah” – that is, for the entire human race. A short summary of these laws is available here (see also here). The fourth law relates to sexual immorality. None of the laws relate to eating shellfish, although the sixth law prohibits eating meat that was taken from a still-living animal – and by implication, all cruelty to animals. The existence of the Noachide Code is proof that the Jews have always regarded the moral prohibitions in the Bible as more universally binding than the dietary laws.
As a point of interest, the rainbow (pictured above) is the modern-day symbol of the Noachide movement, recalling the rainbow that appeared after Noah’s Flood in the Bible.
I was amused to see P. Z. Myers confidently declare in his recent blog post, Truth will sometimes make you cry (May 1, 2012), that “Zinnia Jones says Savage is right about the Bible, and she’s exactly right.” I think Jones and Myers both need to do some reading.
Quoting Sam Harris on morality
Dan Savage digs an even deeper hole for himself when he quotes the New Atheist philosopher, Sam Harris, on morality:
Sam Harris, in ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’, points out that if the bible got the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced, wrong, slavery. What are the odds that the bible got something as complicated as human sexuality wrong. One hundred percent.
Sam Harris, you say? Would that be the Dr. Sam Harris who believes it’s OK to deliberately kill an innocent person in order to save the lives of five people? I’m referring, of course, to the famous “Fat Man” case, which goes like this. Imagine that you see a trolley which is about to hit and kill five people. The only way to stop it is to push the fat man in front of you to block the trolley.
Nearly everyone, if you ask them, says it would be wrong to push the fat man. Dr. Harris would push the fat man onto the track. For most of my readers, the evil of the action defended by Sam Harris is self-evident; it needs no further commentary.
To render his view more plausible, Sam Harris likens the action of pushing the fat man onto the track to the famous “Trolley problem”. The error in Harris’ moral reasoning has been identified by an atheist who goes under the pen name of Robephiles, in an article entitled, Sam Harris and the Moral Failure of Science. Robephiles sharply criticizes Harris’ ethical views, and regards them as being “as dangerous as even the most radical religion”:
In one of his speeches Harris mentions the famous “trolley problem.” In one scenario a runaway trolley is on a track and going to run over four people but you can flip a switch and put it on the other track where another person is. In the second scenario you are standing next to a fat man who you can push in front of the trolley to save the four people. In the first case almost everyone says pulling the switch is okay but almost nobody says pushing somebody in front of the trolley is okay. Harris mentions this but doesn’t even have a point. He just says that the two acts are “different” but doesn’t clarify.
If he had bothered to think about it for even a second he would have seen that the first example is collateral damage. There was no malice in the flipping of the switch but it was the act that was necessary to save the four. If the other person was to see the trolley and jump out of the way then their death would not be necessary. In the case of the man being pushed in front of the trolley we are using another human being as a means to an end and that is unacceptable to most of us. (Italics mine – VJT.)
Dr. Harris seems to have no qualms about his choice. He appears to believe that if you don’t see things his way, then you’re simply irrational. Rational, enlightened people would evaluate the morality of such an act by looking at the results produced.
What’s missing from Dr. Harris’ equation? Atheist blogger Robephiles hits the nail on the head: Harris doesn’t regard human beings as “ends in themselves”, properly speaking:
He [Sam Harris] doesn’t see what else is important other than the maximizing of human welfare, so your religious rights don’t matter, your civil rights don’t matter, due process doesn’t matter. Kant claimed that every human being had intrinsic value and an inherent right to be free. Kant thought that it was better to let humans be free to make bad choices than to enslave them in the interest of their well-being. For the last few hundred years civilizations that have lived by these principles have done pretty well.
For Harris, while treating people as “ends in themselves” in everyday life might be a good way to safeguard human well-being in the majority of cases, in the end, overall “human well-being” is the supreme good, and human lives can be sacrificed to protect this greater good.
Readers who would like to know more about what is wrong with Harris’ moral philosophy might like to read an article by Dr. Joseph Bingham entitled, The Science of Bad Philosophy: A Review of Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.
Dr. Sam Harris clarifies his moral views on some controversial cases here:
I’d like to say that I don’t want this post to lead to a flame war on Biblical morality. Most Jews and Christians will readily agree that there are passages in the Bible that are deeply troubling, from a moral perspective, and that create genuine difficulties for religious faith. But as Cardinal Newman once observed in part 7 of his Apologia pro Vita Sua, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt, as I understand the subject; difficulty and doubt are incommensurate.” It would be presumptuous to claim that people living today can possibly know how to interpret each and every verse of Biblical books which were written over 2,000 years ago, in a language very different from our own, and it would be foolish to point to an isolated verse as “proof” that the Bible is wrong, when we’re not sure what it means in the first place. I find it ironic that the New Atheists are a lot more certain about what Scripture really means than Jews and Christians are.
And given the human propensity for self-deception, especially on matters sexual, it would also be extremely rash to claim that scientists can know with anything like certainty that some sexual practice that was formerly considered “taboo” is in fact harmless, or even good for you. Scientists don’t know any such thing. The science of psychology is young, and its practitioners are all too human. They have their own set of prejudices. In the meantime, if some people choose to live by the Noachide code, or even the code in Leviticus, they should be free to do so, so long as they leave their fellow citizens alone. As for the education of the young: no State has any right to impose its own brand of morality – permissive, restrictive or otherwise – on children. That’s the job of parents. A State that doesn’t trust parents to tell children what’s right and wrong is a State that parents should not trust.
Just to illustrate how much we still don’t know about sex, I’d like to recommend the following article by Professor Jerry Coyne. Despite the fact that he’s an atheist who denies free will, he has offered a remarkably fair-minded assessment of what scientists do and don’t know about the causes of homosexual behavior in animals and humans, and what ethical conclusions (if any) can be drawn from all this. Here is his article:
I’d like to close with a comment made over at the Website The Right Scoop, which I think hits the nail on the head:
Fox and Friends had on Rick Tuttle, the teacher of the students who walked out in protest of Dan Savage’s anti-Christian message, who said that he, on behalf of all his students, was offended that he was duped into bringing his students to a seminar that turn out to be little more than a profanity-laced anti-Christian bash-fest. The bullied has effectively become the bully. Tuttle said that it’s his job to protect all of his students from bullying and was more than willing to grant his students leave of the offensive seminar.
“The bullied has effectively become the bully.” That says it all. I hope the anti-bullying activist, Dan Savage, will take these words to heart.
And now, I’m going to go back to writing my article on Methodological Naturalism.