Professor Jerry Coyne has recently written an opinion piece for USA Today (July 31, 2011) entitled, As atheists know, you can be good without God, as well as some posts (see here here and here) on his Why Evolution Is True Website which are highly critical of religious morality – and in particular, the moral precepts contained in chapter 20 of the book of Leviticus. According to Coyne, the argument that morality comes from God is no longer tenable. Coyne articulates a contrary view: he asserts that morality is an entirely natural phenomenon, and that all valid ethical precepts are justifiable in terms of reason alone. As he puts it:
…[T]oday’s morality stems not from the Bible, but from the Enlightenment (and, I would add, from sentiments evolved in our ancient ancestors). No Christian or Jew can make a tenable argument that morality comes from God.
I believe that Professor Coyne’s thesis is deeply flawed, on several grounds.
Why the Euthyphro argument fails as an argument against basing morality on God’s will
In the first place, Plato’s famous “Euthyphro argument”, which Professor Coyne cites as proof that a religious foundation for morality cannot work, doesn’t prove what Coyne wants it to prove. In his opinion piece for USA Today (31 July 2011), Professor Coyne invokes it as a knockdown argument against basing morality on the will of God:
Religious people can appreciate this by considering Plato’s question: Do actions become moral simply because they’re dictated by God, or are they dictated by God because they are moral? It doesn’t take much thought to see that the right answer is the second one. Why? Because if God commanded us to do something obviously immoral, such as kill our children or steal, it wouldn’t automatically become OK. Of course, you can argue that God would never sanction something like that because he’s a completely moral being, but then you’re still using some idea of morality that is independent of God. Either way, it’s clear that even for the faithful, God cannot be the source of morality but at best a transmitter of some human-generated morality.
All that this argument establishes is the necessity of human reason, when attempting to distinguish right from wrong. What Coyne is arguing for, however, is the sufficiency of human reason: he believes that reason (coupled with our ingrained sense of empathy) is all we need to tell right from wrong. His argument therefore fails to prove the point he wants to make.
Professor Coyne also maintains that morality is generated by human beings. At best, however, the “Euthyphro argument” merely establishes that morality can be known by human beings. Knowing something is quite a different thing from generating it.
Why Coyne’s materialism would destroy morality
The second major flaw in Professor Coyne’s case is that his materialistic world-view (which is a direct consequence of scientific naturalism) would actually destroy the very foundations of morality for society as a whole, if it came to be universally accepted. I’m not being melodramatic here. My argument is quite simple, and anyone can grasp it:
(i) If materialism is true, then all of our actions are physically determined.
(ii) If our actions are physically determined, then they are not free.
(iii) If our actions are not free, then the concept of a moral “ought” makes no sense, and hence the concept of morality makes no sense.
(iv) Therefore, if materialism is true, then the concept of morality makes no sense.
The premises of this argument seem pretty solid. Premise (i) is difficult to contest. Although some physical events appear to be undetermined and statistically random – e.g. quantum fluctuations at the subatomic level – this in no way undercuts the claim that all human actions must be determined, since random occurrences cannot possibly qualify as goal-directed actions.
Premise (ii) strikes most people as reasonable. There are some philosophers – known as compatibilists – who deny premise (ii), and claim that we can still enjoy a kind of free will, even if our actions are determined. After all, our actions would still reflect our beliefs, desires and intentions, and we can also learn from our mistakes, and avert dangerous events by preventing them from happening. However, most people (including Professor Coyne and myself) are unconvinced by this argument. They would respond that if the choices you make are ultimately determined by circumstances beyond your control, then there is no genuine sense in which you could have chosen to do something other than what you did, and therefore free will is an illusion. As the Christian philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe put it in her Inaugural Lecture as Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University in 1971, entitled Causality and Determination:
Ever since Kant it has been a familiar claim among philosophers, that one can believe in both physical determinism and ‘ethical’ freedom. The reconciliations have always seemed to me to be either so much gobbledegook, or to make the alleged freedom of action quite unreal. My actions are mostly physical movements; if these physical movements are physically predetermined by processes which I do not control, then my freedom is perfectly illusory. The truth of physical indeterminism is then indispensable if we are to make anything of the claim to freedom. (p.26)
(Anscombe readily acknowledges, of course, that indeterminism is not a sufficient condition for free will: for freedom involves the power of acting according to an idea, and mere indeterminacy is incapable of endowing us with this power.)
Premise (iii) seems intuitively obvious to just about everyone – including many atheists. It is difficult to see how the term “ought” can have any meaning when applied to an individual who is not free. And it is even more difficult to imagine a moral code which is free of “ought” statements.
However, the conclusion in step (iv), that the concept of morality makes no sense, is deeply offensive to the vast majority of people, and very few atheists are willing to publicly embrace such an outrageous point of view. Atheists who believe in the concept of morality therefore have to deny premise (i), (ii) or (iii), in order to salvage morality. (Professor Coyne, who is a self-proclaimed “Gnu Atheist,” accepts premises (i) and (ii), but would presumably deny premise (iii).)
However, most religious believers – including myself – would regard premises (i), (ii) and (iii) as obviously true, and they would also agree that if materialism is true, morality makes no sense. The problem for Professor Coyne is that he wants religious people to not only give up belief in God; he wants them to accept materialism and determinism as well, because he regards belief in libertarian free will as incompatible with scientific naturalism. Here’s my advice for Professor Coyne: be careful what you wish for. Converting religious people to atheism won’t necessarily make them behave immorally, but converting them to determinism definitely will. Many of these people will say to themselves: “Well, if my choices really are ultimately determined by circumstances beyond my control, then I’m not going to bother with morality.” This is obviously an undesirable outcome: a society cannot function properly unless the vast majority of its citizens believe in the concept of morality. So I would ask Professor Coyne if he is prepared to risk social breakdown, for the sake of promoting scientific naturalism.
History contradicts Coyne’s thesis
The third point I would like to make is that the evidence of history totally contradicts Professor Coyne’s claim that morality is a purely natural phenomenon. At various times in history, there have been lofty ethical codes which have succeeded in dramatically improving the morality of a society, by prescribing a high level of altruistic behavior. What is striking is that these moral codes have never appealed to reason or to Nature for their ultimate justification; instead, they have always appealed to a transcendent reality. In this article, I shall focus on two examples: Leviticus 19 and the Fourteen Rock Edicts of King Ashoka the Great. Leviticus appeals to a transcendent Creator who punishes wrongdoers, while King Ashoka invokes a transcendent moral law whose consequences are inescapable, in this world and the next. The difficulty for Professor Coyne’s naturalistic account of morality is that nothing within Nature can explain our ability to conceive of a Reality that lies beyond Nature. The idea of the transcendent cannot be naturalized. Yet it is this idea that lies at the heart of every major ethical code in history.
Exhibit One: Leviticus 19
Ironically, Professor Coyne’s claim that morality has a purely natural origin is blown to smithereens by the very book he quotes from: the book of Leviticus. Coyne quoted from chapter 20; I wonder if he has ever sat down and read chapter 19? Allow me to quote a few excerpts:
1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.
3 “‘Each of you must respect your mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God….
9 “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.
11 “‘Do not steal.
“‘Do not lie.
“‘Do not deceive one another.
12 “‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.
13 “‘Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.
“‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
14 “‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD.
15 “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
16 “‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
“‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD.
17 “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.
18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.…
32 “‘Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD.
33 “‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.…
35 “‘Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. 36 Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt.
37 “‘Keep all my decrees and all my laws and follow them. I am the LORD.’”
Evolutionary biologists (including Professor Coyne) have attempted to formulate plausible explanations for acts of kindness towards strangers, outsiders and people in need. I won’t be discussing these explanations here. Instead, my concern is with moral laws: laws that mandate acts of charity to people in need; laws designed to ensure that needy individuals of low social status would be taken care of, rather than being left to die; laws that tell people to love foreigners “as yourself”; and laws that forbid even secret feelings of hatred towards other people. From an evolutionary standpoint, such laws are very, very odd. What is striking about these laws is that they are written from the transcendent perspective of a Being who reads our innermost thoughts, who knows if we are harboring hatred in our hearts, who witnesses deceitful words and deeds, and who sees and avenges acts of injustice. At the end of every command, this Being announces His presence: “I am the Lord.”
The idea of a transcendent judge is a notion that goes beyond our human categories: it appeals to a standard of morality which is personal and at the same time larger than any human mind can conceive. It is an idea which is bound to cause headaches for an evolutionary biologist who holds that all human concepts can be explained within a naturalistic framework. Where did a community of social primates get the idea of a transcendent lawgiver from? The idea cannot be naturalized: nothing within Nature furnishes us with an adequate source for the concept of a Reality that lies beyond Nature.
Exhibit Two: The Rock Edicts of Ashoka the Great
The second source which I have chosen to support my claim that morality cannot be explained within a purely naturalistic framework is the edicts of King Ashoka the Great, an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who reigned from ca. 269 BC to 232 BC. Ashoka embraced Buddhism as a young man after witnessing the bloody carnage of the war of Kalinga, which he had waged out of a selfish desire for conquest. After his conversion, he became an advocate of nonviolence, love, tolerance for all religions and vegetarianism.
Ashoka never claimed to have a revelation from God, but what I shall be arguing here is that his moral code defies attempts at a purely naturalistic explanation. A few excerpts will serve to illustrate my point:
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has caused this Dhamma edict to be written. Here (in my domain) no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice. Nor should festivals be held, for Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, sees much to object to in such festivals, although there are some festivals that Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does approve of.
Everywhere within Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi’s domain, and among the people beyond the borders, … everywhere has Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, made provision for two types of medical treatment: medical treatment for humans and medical treatment for animals. Wherever medical herbs suitable for humans or animals are not available, I have had them imported and grown. Wherever medical roots or fruits are not available I have had them imported and grown. Along roads I have had wells dug and trees planted for the benefit of humans and animals.
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: There is no gift like the gift of the Dhamma, (no acquaintance like) acquaintance with Dhamma, (no distribution like) distribution of Dhamma, and (no kinship like) kinship through Dhamma. And it consists of this: proper behavior towards servants and employees, respect for mother and father, generosity to friends, companions, relations, Brahmans and ascetics, and not killing living beings. Therefore a father, a son, a brother, a master, a friend, a companion or a neighbor should say: “This is good, this should be done.” One benefits in this world and gains great merit in the next by giving the gift of the Dhamma. [In Buddhism, the Dhamma is the Universal Law of Nature, which everyone should live by. – VJT]
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas…
Now it is conquest by Dhamma that Beloved-of-the-Gods considers to be the best conquest… Here in the king’s domain, … everywhere people are following Beloved-of-the-Gods’ instructions in Dhamma. Even where Beloved-of-the-Gods’ envoys have not been, these people too, having heard of the practice of Dhamma and the ordinances and instructions in Dhamma given by Beloved-of-the-Gods, are following it and will continue to do so. This conquest has been won everywhere, and it gives great joy – the joy which only conquest by Dhamma can give. But even this joy is of little consequence. Beloved-of-the-Gods considers the great fruit to be experienced in the next world to be more important.
I have had this Dhamma edict written so that my sons and great-grandsons may not consider making new conquests, or that if military conquests are made, that they be done with forbearance and light punishment, or better still, that they consider making conquest by Dhamma only, for that bears fruit in this world and the next. May all their intense devotion be given to this which has a result in this world and the next.
I would like to draw the reader’s attention to several features of this passage. First, King Ashoka the Great repeatedly refers to himself as “Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi,” when issuing these edicts. The clear implication is that the King believed that his edicts had divine sanction. Clearly, Ashoka did not regard morality as being purely natural in origin.
Next, King Ashoka’s edicts display a concern for all living creatures, without exception: the the King’s subjects are instructed to show respect towards all living beings that are capable of suffering, and are forbidden to slaughter them in sacrifice. Interestingly, there are some Biblical parallels to these edicts: in the book of Isaiah, God declares, “I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats” (Isaiah 1:11), and elsewhere in the Bible, He condemns the hypocrisy of animal sacrifice (Jeremiah 7:21-25, Hosea 8:11-13, Amos 5:21-22, 24-25), especially when it is performed by people who fail to practice justice (Isaiah 1:15-17). (I am sure that Professor Coyne will ask me how the Biblical commands relating to the slaughter of animals fit into this picture. My own personal view is that animal sacrifice may have originally been tolerated, and regulated, as a “necessary evil” – i.e. a temporary expedient for people who had previously been accustomed to performing human sacrifices, and who still felt the need to sacrifice something.) I should add that Jewish law also prohibits cruelty to animals, and that Jews believe that non-Jews are also obliged to be kind to animals, which is why the Noachide Code prohibits cruelty to animals.
Finally, King Ashoka’s edicts display a great deal of concern with the effects of one’s deeds “in this world and the next.” Although Buddhism does not envisage God as a Transcendent Creator, they nevertheless teach that the Universal Law of Dhamma transcends this world: nobody can escape its reach, and no bad deed goes unpunished.
For the evolutionary naturalist, this passage is just as perplexing as the one from Leviticus which I cited above. The question arises: where did the human author of these edicts get the idea of a transcendent, universal moral law which applies to all living beings, and which punishes us for our misdeeds, not only in this world but also in the next world? Again I would argue that nothing within the natural world furnishes us with an adequate source for such a transcendent concept.
Why the Golden Rule is not enough: ethical norms don’t come with a big stick
The fourth point that Professor Coyne overlooks is that ethical norms are not self-enforcing, and that on some occasions, ethical norms need to make an explicit appeal to a transcendent moral order in order to induce wrongdoers to obey them. This is certainly true in the case where ethical precepts go against deeply ingrained selfish urges; and it is particularly true when these precepts fly in the face of barbarous customs which have been practiced for centuries by society as a whole.
The Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) is commonly invoked as a rational moral justification for taking care of people in need. However, living by the Golden Rule can be highly inconvenient at times – especially when it prescribes a course of action that may cause considerable inconvenience to the individual practicing it, or to society at large. After all, the Golden Rule doesn’t enforce itself: it doesn’t come with a big stick. What’s to stop people breaking the Golden Rule when following it seems to go against their interests? More to the point, who’s to stop people behaving like this? That is why the ethical injunctions in the book of Leviticus are not followed by appeals to the Golden Rule, but by the statement, “I am the Lord,” which is repeated over and over again, to remind readers that God sees everything, and punishes wrongdoers. It is this shared belief in a transcendent judge that makes it possible for a society to adopt and enforce altruistic behaviors such as caring for poor people, deaf people, elderly people and foreigners, even at a great cost to itself.
Only the shared belief in a transcendent lawmaker is strong enough to eradicate barbarous social practices
In the fifth place, I would maintain that belief in a personal God who avenges wrongdoing is absolutely vital for eradicating the worst kinds of barbarities practiced by a society. The example I will focus on is the practice of female infanticide, which is condemned in the strongest possible terms in chapter 20 of the book of Leviticus – the very chapter which Professor Coyne holds up as an example of backward, man-made, Bronze Age morality. Here is the relevant passage:
1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molek is to be put to death. The members of the community are to stone him. 3 I myself will set my face against him and will cut him off from his people; for by sacrificing his children to Molek, he has defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name. 4 If the members of the community close their eyes when that man sacrifices one of his children to Molek and if they fail to put him to death, 5 I myself will set my face against him and his family and will cut them off from their people together with all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molek.
Molek was a horrific Middle Eastern deity, who was worshipped by heating a metal statue representing the god until it was red hot, then by placing a living infant on the outstretched hands of the statue, while beating drums drowned out the screams of the child until it burned to death. Children of both sexes were sacrificed, but girls were sacrificed much more commonly than boys, who were seens as economically more valuable.
If we examine the record of history, we cannot help being impressed by the fact that each of the world’s three great monotheistic religions – and none of the others – succeeded in eradicating the barbarous social practice of female infanticide. The first people to throw off the practice were the Jews, who finally managed to eliminate female infanticide in ancient Israel and Judah after a period of several centuries, whereas the much more refined and cosmopolitan civilizations of ancient Greece, India and China all failed to do so. Indeed, to this day, female infanticide is still commonly practiced in India and China, as shown by the skewed sex ratios of males to females in those countries.
Much later on, the Christians, who continued to follow the Ten Commandments despite doing away with the Mosaic dietary and ceremonial regulations, spread the Jews’ ethical code across the Roman Empire. According to the laws of the Roman Empire, the male head of the household could order any female living in his household to have an abortion. What’s more, a married woman who gave birth had no legal right to keep her child unless the male head of the household picked it up and set it down on the family hearth. Otherwise the child had to be placed outside in the street, where it would either die of exposure or be picked up by some unscrupulous rogue and sold into slavery. Girls were exposed far more often than boys: research has shown that the ratio of men to women in the Roman Empire was at least 120:100. Given these facts, it’s not hard to see why Christianity, a religion which inherited from Judaism an ethic which was utterly opposed to infanticide, proved immensely popular among Roman women.
Centuries later, Islam also succeeded in drastically curtailing female infanticide in Saudi Arabia and North Africa. The social status of women in Saudi Arabia is poor, but the sex ratio of boys to girls clearly shows that female infanticide is nowhere practiced in that country.
“So what’s your point?” I hear my readers ask. Here’s my point. Population of the Roman empire: about 60 million people. Annual number of births (assuming say, 40 births per 1000 people per year): about 2.4 million, or 1.2 million boys and 1.2 million girls, of whom 200,000 were killed. Enter Christianity: up to 200,000 girls’ lives saved per year, or 20 million per century, or 200 million over a period of a millennium. Do the same math in Arab countries as well, and you get even more girls’ lives saved. Do you still think religion doesn’t play an important role in public morality?
Here’s my question for Professor Coyne: does he really believe that a subsistence society which didn’t fear the wrath of an angry God could have eradicated the barbarous practice of female infanticide? If so, how? And why didn’t it happen?
I, for one, am extremely grateful that the Israelites stoned to death people who sacrificed their children to Molek. Most of the people reading this article wouldn’t be alive today if they hadn’t.
Can evolution explain morality?
In his opinion piece for USA Today, Professor Coyne claims that our morality is largely the product of human evolution:
So where does morality come from, if not from God? Two places: evolution and secular reasoning. Despite the notion that beasts behave bestially, scientists studying our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, see evolutionary rudiments of morality: behaviors that look for all the world like altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing — even notions of fairness. This is exactly what we’d expect if human morality, like many other behaviors, is built partly on the genes of our ancestors…
And the conditions under which humans evolved are precisely those that would favor the evolution of moral codes: small social groups of big-brained animals. When individuals in a group can get to know, recognize and remember each other, this gives an advantage to genes that make you behave nicely towards others in the group, reward those who cooperate and punish those who cheat. That’s how natural selection can build morality. Secular reason adds another layer atop these evolved behaviors, helping us extend our moral sentiments far beyond our small group of friends and relatives — even to animals.
I’d like to make two quick points in response. First, a case can be made that some animals are capable of a limited degree of empathy. But animals can also be very cruel – think of female chimpanzees who kill and cannibalize infants for no apparent reason. I for one would not want to get my morality from chimpanzees. Professor Coyne is a biologist; I’m sure he knows full well what other unsavory practices they engage in.
Second, natural selection would at most favor a code for small groups of human beings. It would not favor the creation of universal moral laws that apply to all human beings. In-group pressures would tend to resist the creation of such norms, as they might well cause inconvenience to the group. Caring for outsiders usually comes at a cost.
What about all those unjust laws in Leviticus chapter 20?
Finally, I shall address the point which troubles Professor Coyne most: the fact that some of the penalties for violating the laws on morality in the book of Leviticus appear utterly barbarous to us today.
What if Professor Coyne is right?
Let us suppose that Professor Coyne is right. What follows? All that follows is that the Bible contains errors. What does not follow is that Biblical morality – or the morality of any other sacred text – can be explained in purely naturalistic terms, as Professor Coyne would have us believe. The question of whether a sacred text is free from errors is logically distinct from the question of whether it contains divinely inspired truths. Coyne’s entire argument against religious people deriving their morality from Leviticus and other sacred texts rests on the questionable assumption that if God were to speak to us, He would do so in a manner that is clear and unambiguous, and that He would not allow His message to be corrupted by human errors. But unambiguous communication of a message across all human cultures and all times in history is an impossibility: the potential for human misunderstanding is vast. And we cannot pronounce on a priori grounds that if God were to communicate with human beings, He would guarantee that no erors would contaminate His message. Maybe He would; or maybe human free will would prevent that.
The Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, for instance, did not believe in Biblical inerrancy (see here and here); nevertheless he also held that Scripture as a whole conveys the word of God to the reader. This is a tenable position, although it invites the obvious question of how one is to distinguish truth from error in a sacred text. Here, there is a legitimate place for the use of critical reason. But human reason should not be too proud of itself; for it is generally only capable of recognizing the barbarity of practices that people have already learned to live without. We regard a person’s sexual behavior as none of the law’s business, because we have managed to create a society which functions effectively without the government sticking its nose into people’s bedrooms. That’s fine. But as I argued above using the example of female infanticide, people can and often do ignore barbarous social practices occurring in their midst – until the cruelty of these practices is pointed out to them by a Transcendent Source.
Let me remind readers that the point at issue here is not whether there is a legitimate role for reason in critically evaluating ethical norms – for the vast majority of both religious and non-religious people agree on this point – but whether reason can totally supplant Divine revelation as a source of moral norms. Professor Coyne has completely failed to make his case that a purely rational human enterprise is capable of creating an moral code which is ethically sound, persuasive enough to compel the assent of any unbiased thinking person, and strong enough to deter people from flouting its precepts, withoutappealing to Divine (or karmic) retribution in this world or the next.
Is Professor Coyne’s argument still relevant today?
On a practical level, Coyne’s rhetorical point about Biblical laws that people were executed for breaking is 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.”
The steady trend within Judaism and Christianity over the centuries has been to mitigate the force of these Biblical laws. Similar trends have occurred in other religions, worldwide: in the vast majority of countries, adultery is no longer a crime for which offenders can be imprisoned. It is therefore highly unlikely that religion will ever generate any new laws with the death penalty attached, in the future.
In his opinion piece for USA Today, Professor Coyne argues that the real reason for the softening of Biblical morality is that more and more, our morality is based on human rationality:
Now, few of us see genocide or stoning as moral, so Christians and Jews pass over those parts of the Bible with judicious silence. But that’s just the point. There is something else — some other source of morality — that supersedes biblical commands. When religious people pick and choose their morality from Scripture, they clearly do so based on extrareligious notions of what’s moral.
Actually, however, the evidence of history shows that when religious people decide that parts of the Bible have been superseded, they do so on the basis of other parts of the Bible. The Quakers, who were among the first Christians to abolish slavery, were a case in point: they realized that “loving your neighbor as yourself” is incompatible with enslaving him or her. They didn’t rely on natural morality to achieve this insight, but on their understanding of Scripture. Their unshakeable conviction that they were right was what gave them the courage to challenge the institution of slavery.
Is Professor Coyne’s argument against Biblical morality factually correct?
What about the abstract moral question: were the harsh Biblical precepts listed by Professor Coyne inherently unjust? I would like to begin by pointing out that we cannot call a command just or unjust unless its meaning is clear and unambiguous. Professor Coyne’s searing critique of Biblical morality assumes that its meaning is transparent to us even today, about 3,000 years after it was written. This is highly doubtful, to say the very least. The Jewish people have always acknowledged that the written Torah needs to be interpreted with the help of the “Oral Torah” – a tradition explaining what the Scriptures mean and how to interpret them and apply the laws they contain – so if we wish to understand the meaning of a passage in Leviticus, we should consult this source first.
In his opinion piece for USA Today, Professor Coyne writes:
…God — at least the God of Christians and Jews — repeatedly sanctioned or ordered immoral acts in the Old Testament. These include slavery (Leviticus 25:44-46), genocide (Deuteronomy 7:1-2; 20:16-18), the slaying of adulterers and homosexuals, and the stoning of non-virgin brides (Leviticus 20:10, 20:13, Deuteronomy 22:20-21).
Was God being moral when, after some children made fun of the prophet Elisha’s bald head, he made bears rip 42 of them to pieces (2 Kings 2:23-24)? Even in the New Testament, Jesus preaches principles of questionable morality, barring heaven to the wealthy (Matthew 19:24), approving the beating of slaves (Luke 12:47-48), and damning sinners to the torments of hell (Mark 9:47-48). Similar sentiments appear in the Quran.
Regarding slavery, Professor Coyne would be well-advised to read Slavery, John Locke and the Bible by Dr. Matt Flanagan. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to the article:
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.”
Similarly, Christian apologist Glenn Miller argues in Part One and Part Two 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. Moreover, 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 (Deut 23:15-16).
Incidentally, is Professor Coyne 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”?
What about genocide in the Bible? In a recent two-part article (see here and here), Dr. Matt Flanagan argues on textual grounds that blood-curdling Biblical language such as, “putting all the people to the sword”, “leaving no survivors”, “totally destroying”, “striking all the inhabitants with the edge of the sword” are not intended to be taken literally, but rather as hyperbole – rather like a football or baseball game where it is stated that the team should “kill the opposition” or that “we totally slaughtered them.” Dr. Flanagan also contends that the Israelites living at the time would have all known this, and that this reading squares better with certain awkward facts about the book of Joshua.
The Biblical penalty for adultery is indeed extremely harsh, and I don’t know of a single Jew or Christian who would call for its restoration today. However, in the interests of fairness, I would like to point out a few simple facts:
1. Adultery posed a unique threat to the social structure of the day, by rendering paternity uncertain and by creating an under-class of bastard children. Thus it was a socially vicious act.
2. Adultery also facilitated the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. In an age when antibiotics were unavailable, these diseases could be permanently disfiguring or even fatal. In other words, the crime of adultery created many innocent victims.
3. Ancient Israel was a subsistence society, which could not afford prisons.
4. As a practical matter, the death penalty for adultery was rarely carried out. This is because 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).
We regard ourselves as a tolerant society today – and we are. But how tolerant would we remain if production of antibiotics and other drug treatments for STDs were to suddenly cease, if paternity testing were no longer available, and if our standard of living dropped to that of the Bronze Age? Not very, I suspect.
Professor Coyne also asserts – questionably – that the Bible orders the stoning of non-virgin brides. However, 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.
Professor Coyne is rightly troubled by the Biblical story of Elisha and the bears, but nearly everything in his description of the alleged incident is highly debatable, as this article by Christian apologist Glenn Miller demonstrates. The “boys” who were killed may well have been a gang of young men who physically threatened the prophet.
I could continue with Professor Coyne’s Biblical examples, and point out that Jesus’ description of the beating of slaves (Luke 12:47-48) occurred in the context of a parable, and that the people Jesus regarded as especially fit for Hell were those who failed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit prisoners (Matthew 25:31-46).
Professor Coyne would have us believe that the human race has come of age, and that we can now cast off the shackle of religious morality and rely on human reason, coupled with empathy. I have argued that on the contary, any improvements in our ethical behavior that can be attributed to human reason are generally modest and incremental, and that moral revolutions – especially those which overthrow deeply entrenched barbarous practices – require a transcendent source in order to succeed.
I conclude that religion and morality are, after all, inseparable.