Social Question

ninjacolin's avatar

What do you think about Morals?

Asked by ninjacolin (14243points) January 5th, 2011
51 responses
“Great Question” (2points)

What are morals?
What do they do?
What are they for?
Should people have them?

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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Winters's avatar

I’m Morally/ethically nihilistic. Moral/ethical nihilism is the meta-ethical view that morality does not exist as something inherent to objective reality; therefore no action is necessarily preferable to any other. For example, a moral nihilist would say that killing someone, for whatever reason, is not inherently right or wrong. Other nihilists may argue not that there is no morality at all, but that if it does exist, it is a human and thus artificial construction, wherein any and all meaning is relative for different possible outcomes. As an example, if someone kills someone else, such a nihilist might argue that killing is not inherently a bad thing, bad independently from our moral beliefs, only that because of the way morality is constructed as some rudimentary dichotomy, what is said to be a bad thing is given a higher negative weighting than what is called good: as a result, killing the individual was bad because it did not let the individual live, which was arbitrarily given a positive weighting. In this way a moral nihilist believes that all moral claims are false.

And yeah I copy pasted most of that from wiki

jaytkay's avatar

The Golden Rule pretty will covers it for me.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

I’m all for morals. They are good for the survival of the species.

poisonedantidote's avatar

Morals are self imposed laws. They are usually, but not exclusively, a compromise between personal beliefs and the beliefs of the general public.

Morals regulate social cohesion, and are probably the first line of defense in regards to preventing social unrest.

Morals are there to benefit the holder of said morals, and there to benefit the friends and family of the holder.

People should have morals, but they should be aware of where they come from and how they work.

CaptainHarley's avatar

I suppose most of my morals are based on the teachings of Jesus, called The Christ.

“Owe no man but to love him.”
“If someone compells you to go a mile with him, go two.”
“Love the lord your God with all your heart, and mind and strength.”
“Love your neighbor at least as much as you love yourself.”

tinyfaery's avatar

They are all relative.

ninjacolin's avatar

I think a lot of people fear the term “morals” they consider it as bad as discussing religion. Even people who live what you or I might consider to be perfectly moral lives don’t consider themselves as having anything to do with morals. Why do people shy away from the concept of living a moral life? Why aren’t morals more explicitly taught in schools?

marinelife's avatar

I think that morals are a function of human beings having or choosing to live in groups.

They are a codification of what it takes to live in groups.

I am happy to have them.

I disagree with @ninjacolin that they are not taught in schools. They are taught and enforced everywhere throughout society.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

It’s good to have some since we socialize with others and a random free for all isn’t a better alternative. Otherwise, morals are a human construct brought up when it’s most convenient for people to poop all over the actions of others.

the100thmonkey's avatar

Most people who invoke nihilism haven’t really thought about it.

TexasDude's avatar

I’m with @jaytkay. “Treat others like you want to be treated” and “don’t fuck with those who don’t wish to be fucked with” tends to cover it for me.

Also, I don’t believe that all morals are subjective or relative.

CaptainHarley's avatar


I agree with you on that.


Read Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis… if you dare! : ))

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@CaptainHarley Maybe, maybe. Is he the guy who wrote the Narnia ‘propaganda’?

Winters's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir wow, that’s the first time I ever heard the Chronicles of Narnia being referred to as propaganda.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Winters In quotes, tongue-in-cheek. They’re as much propaganda as the Harry Potter series are about turning children to the ‘dark side’ of paganism.

CaptainHarley's avatar


He is indeed the author of The Narnia Chronicles, among lots of other things.

Winters's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir I just thought it was good literature to read as a child, just as I thought Harry Potter was, just as I thought His Dark Materials was, just as I thought The Darkness is Rising was, and it helped me keep my imagination alive. Propaganda? Perhaps only for those of the faith, otherwise its just simply an enjoyable read. I thoroughly enjoyed Ron Hubbard’s sci fi novels as a child but in no way did it ever sway me towards Scientology.

Coloma's avatar

Having and abiding by integrity and moral code is imperative to a well functioning and healthy society and for a well functioning and healthy personal self.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Winters Right, I know. I agree.

Blackberry's avatar

I just feel that we should all agree on some type of standard. So people can’t just murder their daughters if they are raped and say ‘these are our beliefs!’.

YARNLADY's avatar

Standards of social behavior are necessary to provide a stable environment. The name you choose to apply to the standards is not really the issue.

josie's avatar

Morality is NOT subjective. Community standards of behavior ARE subjective.

Arbornaut's avatar

Its only wrong if you get caught…hehehe

Qingu's avatar

“Moral” has a lot of very different definitions, which will influence how anyone answers this question.

I prefer to think of morals in the framework of behavioral rules. There are two categories: morals which you do not think should be enforced, and morals that you do. Category 1, for me, includes things like “Don’t talk during movies” and “Give to charity.” Category 2 includes things like “Do not steal” and “Do not murder.”

On an individual basis, morals are subjective. However, morals do not function on an individual basis, because individual humans are social mammals that define themselves by interacting with others. Therefore, there is an “emergent morality” that arises from the way the moral views of individuals interact with each other, shape society, and are shaped by society. I think that such high-level moral systems undergo Darwinian selection in the long term and are evolving towards more cooperation and empathy between humans, largely because of the argument Robert Wright makes in this book.

Also, the moral codes in the Bible, the Quran, and most religious texts are more inhumane and revolting than most people realize and it never ceases to amaze me that these texts are honored as even relevant to morality today.

anartist's avatar

“Try to be a decent human being” sums it up for me.

CaptainHarley's avatar


As usual, you allow your prejudices to override your rationality. Christianity is anything by “inhumane and revolting.” The mere fact that you say such a thing is indication that you have no idea whatsoever whereof you speak.

cookieman's avatar

Morals I’m OK with.

However molars – now those piss me off.

anartist's avatar

When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion. -Abraham Lincoln

Nullo's avatar

Morality is a system of values governing (and hopefully ensuring the quality of) our behavior. There are many such systems, and there is much debate as to which one gets precedence. They are often tied to or derived from faith and religions.
Some these days claim that all morals are equally good (which is silly, because while many are largely compatible – as they share the same roots – many aren’t), with the exception of those classically associated with the Church.

TexasDude's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir, well, I think I can say with some certainty that killing a baby and making its skin into a hat while drinking the tears of its lamenting mother is pretty much morally reprehensible no matter where you come from and in any context.

Qingu's avatar

@CaptainHarley, have you even read the Bible?

Leviticus 25:45 — you can purchase slaves from foreigners and pass them down to your kids.

Exodus 21:22 — you can legally beat your slaves as much as the Romans beat Jesus before they crucified him.

Deuteronomy 22 — If a woman can’t prove her virginity on her wedding night, she must be stoned on her father’s doorstep. Also, if a man rapes an unbetrothed virgin, he must pay her dad the brideprice and marry her (because “you break it, you buy it”)

Deuteronomy 13:12 — if a holy land city converts to unbelief, you must commit genocide against it.

Deuteronomy 20:10 — if you go to war against a city and they surrender, enslave them all. If they don’t surrender, kill all the men and enslave the women and kids. If the city is in the holy land, you must commit genocide, killing everyone in the city and burning it to the ground.

Joshua (the entire book) — details of these multiple genocides, praising them as God’s will and Joshua as a worthy hero for carrying them out

Matthew 5:17 — “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks* one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” —Jesus, explicitly saying we should follow God’s genocidal, pro-slavery, misogynist commandments.

I stand by my statement. The Bible is one of the most morally repugnant books ever written. It is the only religious text to command genocide that I know of.

iamthemob's avatar


@Qingu – Law and morality are separate things. Connected, but separate. Resort to reference to ancient laws ignores (1) historical context, (2) entrenched power structures, and (3) current understandings. Therefore, reference to ancient laws is useful as a critique when one bases a particular moral understanding of the world as it is now to a law as written then.

Therefore, OT references removed from the context above do not properly critique statements made above regarding referenced principles found in Christianity as there has not been an argument that anything contained in the laws cited would today considered to be moral behavior.

The single NT statement attributed to Christ has been interpreted in a manner that undermines a literal interpretation, as opposed to your summation. Certainly both interpretations exist. Christ stated the above in response to claims that, because he violated aspects of Jewish law, the law no longer applied generally. What the more relevant (as I consider them) interpretations of the passage say is that the speech shows Christ meant to bring meaning to the law. What the law says is not meant to change. What the law means is our struggle to determine – and is not meant to be derived from what has been told to us, but through the lens of Christ’s teachings. It was meant to, in essence, was that although the law may be fixed, it may yet be revealed.

Democracy resulted in the United States continuing the execution of children until 6 years ago. Does that mean that the entire U.S. legal system is barbaric? No.

@the100thmonkey – touche.

@josiespot on.

josie's avatar

@Qingu I don’t know a lot more about the Bible other than what they talked about back when I was a little kid in Sunday school (My mom made me go).
But ” of the most morally repugnant books ever written”?
You don’t read much.

Response moderated (Personal Attack)
tinyfaery's avatar

Many people here are guilty of reading only what they want to. The only honest answer about the Bible and morality is not so simple.

iamthemob's avatar

@psychocandy – Agreed.

Qingu's avatar

@iamthemob, I don’t think the OT references are “removed from context.” The laws state what they state.

The Code of Hammurabi contains many laws that are repugnant by our standards, such as executing children for the crimes of their parents. I don’t see how saying these laws are repugnant is taking them out of their “context.”

The context in which these laws were originally written and understood was that of a bronze-age society. Bronze age societies typically were misogynistic, perfectly okay with slavery, and in the Hebrews’ case, perfectly okay with wiping out rival tribes.

I understand that almost no Christians want to follow such laws; I understand that most Christians interpret the theology of Christ and salvation as somehow meaning that the OT laws are no longer applicable or important. Nevertheless, the book says what it says. And if we’re going to be intellectually honest in interpreting the book, we should try to understand it based on what it says and on the culture that produced it.

As for comparisons to the United States, a couple of things. First, I never said that every single law and moral in the Bible is barbaric, just that overall it’s one of the most barbaric books written. Also, to take your analogy, I do think the execution of children is barbaric. I also think much of the United States’ history was barbaric. Manifest Destiny was a policy and worldview that was, in my eyes, morally indistinguishable from Nazism. I have no problem calling out the legal system, domestic and foreign policy of the United States as barbaric; one important difference between the US and the Bible is that the US is based on a living constitution and an evolving society, whereas the Bible is a book that has not changed in 2,000 years and is not designed to change. So unless you’re suggesting we simply rip out the majority of the Old Testament and say it’s no longer part of the Bible, I don’t see how this is really a valid comparison.

@josie, okay, can you please name another religious text that mandates genocide? I am unfamiliar with any. The human-sacrificing Aztecs never even committed genocide; I’d rather live next to them than the ancient Hebrews.

bkcunningham's avatar

@Qingu when Moses was telling these instructions about war to God’s people, who was God commanding be wiped out?

Qingu's avatar

“You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.”

I’m sure they all deserved it, too. Even the women and children.

josie's avatar

@Qingu As previously stated, morality is not subjective, but community standards of behaviour are subjective.
You could burn every religious text of every faith on earth and morality would still exist.
As long as there are reasoning creatures, that must choose their actions, and face the alternatives of life and death, there is morality.
It has nothing to do with ancient tales from the Old Testament. In some cases, certainly, the ancients attempted to discuss morality, but they lacked an epistemogy that would support the concept. But once upon a time people thought that the sun was being carried on a chariot that was driven across the sky. Now they know better.
Religious texts are neither moral or immoral. They are a collection of stories, some of which are parables, and some of those are attempts to establish a community standard. The New Testament is full of this. The Old Testament is just that. It is old. Very old. So old that it originated in a time when people didn’t, because they couldn’t, write it down. Who knows why these stories were told as they are. Tribal survival is certainly part of it. Certainly a lack of science is evident. And possibly an attempt to articulate the abstraction “morality” is in there too.
But morality does not originate in a text. The text does not establish morality, it merely attempts to explain it. Successfully, or not. Morality exists because of truths about the creature that must discover and respect morality.
So the statement stands. The Bible is not morally repugnant. It is full of stuff that does not make a lot of sense to post enlightenenment man, but is is not morally repugnant.
I don’t read it, but not because it is morally repugnant. I just don’t.
And people who live their life by it are not seeking morality. Morality exists whether or not they read it. They are seeking a comfortable standard of behavior which in some cases overlaps with moral principle, but not always.

Qingu's avatar

@josie, do you think Mein Kampf is morally repugnant? By your logic, it is merely an attempt to explain and establish community standards.

josie's avatar

@Qingu It is a book. The guy who wrote it was a sociopath. His choices and actions were immoral. The book has value because it demonstrates lunacy, in case people forget what it looks like or what it can do. Everybody should read it just to see what crazy sounds like.

Qingu's avatar

I guess we’re just arguing about semantics. You don’t think books can have moral value; I do.

iamthemob's avatar

@Qingu – The concept of intellectual honesty that you’re outlining seems extremely limited and flawed. Intellectual honesty, particularly when you’re using reference to the Bible as a particular method of undermining a current interpretation of meaning, means that you don’t resort to referencing the Bible by what it says, but rather what it means now, or what it can mean now.

To quote the passages as relevant and requiring a literal interpretation of them and say it’s intellectually dishonest to do otherwise is your argument. But our expression of what should happen is dependent on our current available understanding of how the world works at the time, and the reality of what’s happening around us. If we say OT law is barbaric, we’re using our standards. If we are to truly say it’s objectively barbaric, we have to show that these types of prohibitions, punishments, practices were not common among various other cultures. We also have to limit our comparison to other cultures of the same type – let’s say, nomadic people in areas with little resources for survival and other competitive peoples.

To approach it from points of privilege such as a Western perspective where the resources of survival are readily available makes very little sense. To also attribute absolute meaning to anything written in a clearly rhetorical way and for a particular purpose removes any intent that would be clear if such a thing were written today.

It’s also dishonest to say that you never claimed every single law and moral in the Bible is barbaric and simply that it’s overall barbaric. Again (1) you must compare it to contemporary and similar legal, moral and ethical expressions and behaviors of the time to determine whether it comes from a place of barbarism, and (2) your references to the Bible were a response to a post saying someone followed three lessons of Christ that are objectively good moral lessons, and therefore you must take a current understanding as well as a Christian recoding of the old covenant in order to argue that those things are still objectively barbaric and therefore represent an overall theme of barbarism, which is not clear from your Matthew reference is the case, and (3) you must also show that the overall theme of the OT and NT together make it objectively horrific. Three may be a possible argument – but again, we’re taking something new from it today rather than a way to real in people in a dangerous time more and more.

And the old standby – “the bible hasn’t changed.” The Constitution has been amended about 7 or 8 times since it’s writing regarding our rights generally. And one of those repealed another. But the words of the original have barely changed – however, nearly everything we understand about the Constitution has changed because a steadily refined and growing interpretation of that Constitution. We don’t rewrite the Constitution as a document each time the First Amendment is interpreted.

That’s the flaw with resort to the static nature of the Bible. The Constitution is a relatively static document as well. There’s also an argument about the canonical value of certain books and not others. In both of the cases of the Bible and the Constitution, we are dealing with paper and words that meant something totally different when written than they might today – and the words have stayed the same. Our understanding of them is not based on the words themselves…rather it is based on a developing understanding that can be found in millions of pages of documents that surround either.

I recently disagreed with a couple of users who posted that we should limit our understanding of the First Amendment to precisely what was said by the Framers when it was written. This, of course, would lead to some ridiculous results, and would negate how we understand it today. You say that the Constitution is a living document – that contradicts the originalist/textualist argument just stated, and I agree with that. But it requires we look outside the Constitution for meaning. If we say that Christianity is static because the Bible has not been rewritten…it’s just as reasonable to say that The U.S. is exactly the same as it was at the beginning, because the Constitution itself has not been written.

Practically, the fact that religion has not necessarily kept in step with changing along with government doesn’t mean that it’s locked down. And the argument that it’s intellectually dishonest to not consider why certain things were written as they were because of the context of it, and attribute them literal meanings now, is essentially an all or nothing requirement that we don’t apply the exact kind of nuanced analysis to our religion that we apply to our laws so that it does develop.

Qingu's avatar

@iamthemob, a couple of points:

1. If your point is that we shouldn’t judge ancient people too harshly because our cushy developed culture enables us to have “civilized” morals, I would agree… or at least, I would say it’s pointless to judge the ancient Hebrews for whatever crimes they committed and encoded, because they’re all long dead.

But their legacy—the Bible, with its code of laws—is still with us. The reason I am judging the Bible by our cushy modern moral standards is because the Bible is overwhelmingly presented as a morally relevant and important document! If people all agreed that the Bible is an archaic text that has as much moral relevance as the Code of Hammurabi, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

2. You said we should judge the Bible based on how it compares with contemporary cultures. I have done so. Look at the Code of Hammurabi. There are no mandates for genocide in the Code. The Code does not say we must kill homosexuals, or unbelievers, or women who do not prove their virginity on their wedding night.

Now, the Code is still an unmitigated disaster by any modern moral comparison. And I’ll concede that the Bible actually improves on the Code in one very important aspect—the Bible does not call for punishing kids for the crimes of their parents. But in many other aspects (cited above) the Bible is a step backwards from the nascent culture at the time.

Again, I am fine with leaving aside judgment of ancient history. Ancient Mesopotamians believed women were literally property; I imagine it would have been extremely difficult for someone in this culture to believe otherwise. Nevertheless, I think that the Bible is repugnant even by the standards of ancient Mesopotamia, because unlike other Mesopotamian religious and legal text, the Bible mandates genocide. In any case, I certainly don’t think the Bible was an important moral leap forward for humanity.

3. On the Bible and the Constitution—again, I just don’t think this analogy makes any sense, for a number of reasons in addition to what I originally said. But first, I think you are vastly downplaying the role of “changeability” in the Constitution vs. the Bible. The Constitution is fundamentally designed to be changed; it explains how to change itself as society evolves. The Bible, on the other hand, explicitly says it cannot ever be changed (see Deuteronomy 4, for example). Christ is the “first and last.” Arguing that the Bible is just as mutable and evolving as the Constitution is like arguing that an iPhone’s software ecosystem is just as open as Android’s. Maybe it should be, but it’s clearly not, nor was it designed to be.

Then there is the issue of the context of the laws in the Constitution vs. the Bible. The Constitution was written by men; it never claims otherwise. (This is why the Constitution thinks it’s okay to change the Constitution). The Bible, on the other hand, claims to have been written by a god, Yahweh. What’s more, “sin”—the thing Christ is supposed to be saving us from—is explicitly defined in the Bible as disobeying this god’s laws. There is also no process enumerated in the Bible—unlike the Constitution—by which humans can get together and decide “okay, maybe the pro-genocide parts of Deuteronomy should be repealed, and can we put in some stuff about women’s rights?”

It sounds like you want to understand the Bible like we understand the Constitution, and that’s entirely your prerogative; but I don’t think doing so makes any damn sense.

4. Finally, on intellectual honesty and the Bible, I think you are making a circular argument. You seem to be saying that it’s not intellectually dishonest to “evolve” our understanding of the Biblical text because… our understanding of the Biblical text has evolved.

I certainly acknowledge that Christianity has changed, drastically, over 2,000 years. But I don’t think this is an argument for an evolving interpretation of the Bible.

I’m pretty sure we talked about this before, but I’ll say it again: imagine that there is a sect of modern-day “Aristotelians” who are devout followers of Aristotle’s philosophy. Now, educated people realize that Aristotle was wrong about a ton of shit, from his views on women to his belief in just five elements. But these modern-day Aristotelians don’t say that Aristotle was “wrong.” Instead, they say Aristotle was just writing in metaphors (i.e. the “four elements” really refer to the “four phases of matter”), and that our understanding of Aristotle’s writings needs to evolve as humans learn more about science, psychology, and the best ways to treat each other.

I would call such Aristotelians intellectually dishonest. For the same reason, I call Christians intellectually dishonest who cherry-pick morals and laws from the Bible to coincide with modern, secular morality; who conclude Genesis is a “metaphor” solely because it’s not scientifically accurate, so it must be because otherwise it would be “wrong,” and who reflexively spout out the words “cultural context” when confronted with barbaric-sounding OT laws, without actually explaining how such context mitigates the laws. For better or worse, I think this describes the majority of Christians on Earth today.

iamthemob's avatar


The Constitution is fundamentally designed to be changed; it explains how to change itself as society evolves.

I agree. I also admitted already that religion generally is not designed for change. However, I think that you’re looking at the Bible in a metonymic fashion that, if we translate the concept over to the Constitution, is equally unfair. Now, @CaptainHarley referenced some of the general moral teachings of Christ as represented in the Bible. You later stated that the moral codes of the Bible were repugnant. Whether or not this was spontaneous and not responsive I don’t know…but it’s still a broad stroke, and doesn’t really make clear what you think the moral codes are. @CaptainHarley responded saying that Christianity was about something else, and you referenced the Bible again. Let’s be clear – the Bible is not Christianity, or it is Christianity as much as the Constitution is the U.S. It’s a starting point.

The Bible, on the other hand, explicitly says it cannot ever be changed (see Deuteronomy 4, for example). Christ is the “first and last.” Arguing that the Bible is just as mutable and evolving as the Constitution is like arguing that an iPhone’s software ecosystem is just as open as Android’s.

To be clear, I never argued that they were equally malleable. However, you do realize that the bible was (1) a first edition, latter supplemented by (2) a second volume. The Book of Mormon is, to some, a third volume. And many look to the Gnostic teachings, which are not canonical but contemporaneous with many NT writings.

So the problem with the argument that the Bible is static is that it neglects the fact that it is not unitary, but a collection. The Bible resists change not because it is structured to do so – Deuteronomy states that it cannot ever be changed…but then it was…drastically. The fact that the OT and NT are sold in a single volume called the Bible is in many ways an artificial unity. The NT is sold as a standalone, and can be read absent the OT. The OT is part of the Christian writings, in many ways, as part of the argument to draw both Jew and Gentile into the movement. And the fact that the Church mandates a certain reading runs in contrast with so much of the argument against “words” and “acts” and in favor of “truth.” The concept that the Bible is a static document is a product of control that is NT backwards, as it recreates a hierarchy of priesthood that Christ spoke against in his teachings. It is not a static Bible that’s the concern, but the fact that the teachings filter through an undemocratic religious structure.

The Constitution was written by men; it never claims otherwise. (This is why the Constitution thinks it’s okay to change the Constitution). The Bible, on the other hand, claims to have been written by a god, Yahweh. What’s more, “sin”—the thing Christ is supposed to be saving us from—is explicitly defined in the Bible as disobeying this god’s laws. There is also no process enumerated in the Bible—unlike the Constitution—by which humans can get together and decide “okay, maybe the pro-genocide parts of Deuteronomy should be repealed, and can we put in some stuff about women’s rights?”

This again depends on the assertion that the Bible is a unitary document. I’ve addressed what I see as the problem with that. First, there is nothing in the Bible that claims it was written by any god whatsoever. The Ten Commandments may be the one exception – but we never saw those. Divine inspiration is the expression of God’s word through man – but you’ll be lucky if you can get a universal statement on what that really is. What is important is to conceptually separate what the Word is and how it is written. So, if we look only in the Bible, we’re missing the point – again, it’s the beginning.

Sin is disobeying God’s law, but again from a Christian perspective the question is – what is the law? What is written is not the law, because man is imperfect and therefore what is written could not be what is law as man’s language is imperfect (and meant to be so, considering the story of Babel). It cannot be what other men say it is to us, as again, man is imperfect, and interpretations are different.

The Gospel of Thomas suggests that Christianity is an individual journey, and that one is meant to wipe out assumptions and determine meaning. Knowledge of God cannot come with any presuppositions. But that’s not a good method of control – it’s therefore non-canonical. So the work is determining the meaning of the law – the word is easy.

The fact that there is no process of amendment or change neglects movements withing various sects. Different churches have done much the thing you ask – reversing previous dogmatic positions based on Biblical interpretations. Further, you are looking at it through the lens of the religion which claims it, rather than taking it holistically and accepting non-canonical interpretations or even canonical, but radical ones. So claims that the “Bible” cannot be altered through any processes is more of a semantic and not as much of a substantive problem as you seem to think.

It sounds like you want to understand the Bible like we understand the Constitution, and that’s entirely your prerogative; but I don’t think doing so makes any damn sense.

I do. I make no claim that the Bible is anything close to the Constitution – but I am saying that it is much like it when we remove the interference of religion. Consider this – the Supreme Court is the final pronouncement of what the law means. It is possible that the country could ratify the Constitution to change something the Supreme Court ruled – but it has never, ever directly happened. The Court is, therefore, like the Church. Remove either structure, and the flexibility increases dramatically.

For the same reason, I call Christians intellectually dishonest who cherry-pick morals and laws from the Bible to coincide with modern, secular morality; who conclude Genesis is a “metaphor” solely because it’s not scientifically accurate, so it must be because otherwise it would be “wrong,” and who reflexively spout out the words “cultural context” when confronted with barbaric-sounding OT laws, without actually explaining how such context mitigates the laws. For better or worse, I think this describes the majority of Christians on Earth today.

I would totally agree with you. But modern Christianity allows the opportunity to take the entire thing as (1) a starting point, and (2) accept all of it as metaphorical. It all should be taken in context of the time it was written, and in conjunction with theological writings since the Bible.

Now, it is intellectually dishonest to claim divine authority when it all seems unclear. It is also intellectually dishonest to cherry pick as you describe. It is not proper to accept the law literally and then strip away things as proven wrong.

It is not, however, intellectually dishonest to accept that the Bible (1) is the product of divine inspiration, but one that cannot be taken as a whole, that may include things it shouldn’t, and exclude things that it should have included and thereafter (2) reconstruct the canon so that a personal understanding of God’s truth becomes increasingly clear. It is a critical approach that Christianity does nothing to disallow, but which the Church distinctly does.

One of my favorite quotes on this topic is “Remember, the only time Christ ever got pissed was in Church.”

This leads anyone, in the end, to a morals-based instead of a laws-based approach to the Bible, but more importantly, to Christianity.

Qingu's avatar

I think it would help me understand your position if you could explain how you interpret (for example) Deuteronomy 20:10, the Bible’s rules of warfare, including the command for genocide.

Is this passage, in your view, a “metaphor”? If so, a metaphor for what?

Is this passage an instance of some kind of “gap” in the Bible’s divine inspiration, i.e. not true, manmande, etc? If so, how do you account for the entirety of Joshua, Judges, Kings, and Samuel, along with Chronicles to some extent, all of which corroborate at length God’s rules of warfare as described in Deuteronomy?

For my part, I just don’t see any sensible way to interpret this passage other than for what it says directly. It’s a law, given by God, and it describes how you should fight wars and with who. You seem to be saying that the passage’s meaning becomes different if you happen to believe in this God; I don’t really see how this is practically possible.

iamthemob's avatar

Here’s my approach.

For these discussions, I believe there are three main kinds of truth: truth about natural claims and historical claims, and truth about moral claims are the two most important. Religious claims, I believe, are left to those in religious authority, and from my perspective are always suspect because the authority is based on a claim of authority rather than an objectively verifiable authority. It is inherited rather than demonstrated, and inherited authority is problematic.

Truth about natural claims and historical claims is, practically, wholly objective. The subjective element is based only in the limits of our perceptions – we all agree certain statements, like “I have hands” are true because for all practical purposes I see them, feel them, and the outside world will agree with me. So when making a claim about the natural world, it must be judged from the perspective of the limits of perception available at the time. Claims regarding how things occur, when examined through this lens, should be considered metaphorical when perception was limited or impossible, and credible and therefore believable until proven untrue. So, the further in the past claims are made, the less likely they are to be sophisticated or observably true. And it is often the case, therefore, that the claims are unfalsifiable as there is no method to prove them true or otherwise. So, claims about the origin of the universe, of the world, of life, of man, etc., when made without current scientific methods, are metaphorical, and reflect belief about humanity as opposed to the natural world. When we see that often religions that emerge from cultures that settle and influence the environment around them (i.e., stereotypically civilized cultures), end up with a structure where natural phenomenon are due to personifications of human traits in a human form. Greek and Roman gods were very human, and were the reason why the sun rose, the fall came, and we died. Man views himself as affecting the world. For more stereotypically tribal cultures, we find more animistic or spiritual beliefs – a holistic approach to religion, where forces interact, inanimate objects, plants and animals have influence on man (where man depends on the natural world supplying the means of survival rather than cultivating the environment), etc. So, these claims later should be taken to tell us how we used to think about ourselves, and need to be examined for whether they contain moral truth.

These are the claims in the Bible that we can most clearly link to divine inspiration – ones that are most likely “revealed” to a writer, based on the cultural understanding of nature. They explain a why and a how, and come from a more universal human need.

Truth about historical claims specifically have a more subjective element, as “history is told by the victors.” But the claims are still verifiable. When we look at claims made in sacred documents, there will be inevitably a rhetorical coloring. This is more true the more violent the world in which the culture emerges, and the world is naturally violent the less control we have over it, and often violent when we first interact with other cultures.

These are claims that are less about divine inspiration – they’re more about the psychology of the time of the writing.

Truth about moral claims contains both objective and subjective elements. Moral claims can be shown as true in an objective sense the more we know about other peoples in the world, and see to what extent they hold those truths also. These interactions also allow us cultural empathy, as truths that may be shared across cultures and therefore indicating objective truth become muddied when they involve evil contained in an “other.” As we interact, we become the “other” in these claims and therefore see the negative effects when applied to us, and are required to reexamine. Very often moral rightness as related to warfare are these very kinds of shared truths that become questionable.

But when interaction is fairly novel, or limited, or in a situation during a crisis, post-crisis or both, the result is often to reinforce your truth or militarize it further. And when knowledge and information is not quickly and generally available, claims are considered accurate more often on information that is anecdotal but perceived as objective rather than objective.

These moral truths will be based on the two truths above, and our laws come from this moral understanding.

We see this often in peoples subject to forced diaspora – refugee people, e.g. In the less global past, when a people is victimized, there is a need to reaffirm existence that is drastically reinforced by the fact that the groups end up being more insular. This is also seen in social justice movements in modern cultures – those who have been oppressed tend to force an issue when there’s sufficient power or critical mass to work against, as well as support in, the majority. The contrary reaction is often a critique of the methods the outgroup uses, generally a “Why do they have to be so vocal/in our face about it?”

So, if we look at the Hebrew people, the religious traditions emerged and consolidated from a post-exile mentality. There is a scholarly debate about the historical truth of pre-exile times, but it seems to be accepted that the writing was close to the exile. So, because (1) science was limited, and writing about time before the exile was potentially done much later and, if not, was still consolidated and disseminated during a time where the psychology of the culture was a post-exile one, we look at the claims about anything before that time in a highly critical way taking this context as central.

The Hebrew people had just escaped slavery, and were attempting to establish themselves as non-victims. Their views about the universe should reflect that. Why would they have been subject to such profound suffering? Because it was a test and they are the true worthy people of the world, as demonstrated by the fact that they were now free. How can they best recognize this? Through differentiating themselves physically and culturally from the other. The more profound this desire, the more clearly this must be demonstrated, the more insular the group, and the more important it is to reinforce this separation legally. How can this best be achieved? Military power and fear.

Law will be a result of this construction of morality. Our perceptions of moral right and wrong are what shape our laws, and are limited by the above concepts of truth. Therefore, laws themselves are not metaphors, they are in fact literal. But those writing them will be influenced by what they have been told and experienced as the history and state of the world.

Therefore, killing is morally wrong. However, as a chosen people, the Jews are already morally better than “you.” Because they were taken and enslaved, they have been expelled from their homeland. Those occupying the homeland are, therefore, agents of persecution from this perspective. They must be expelled because they, in essence, are an occupying force. Regardless of the current state, therefore, the occupation is a result of an invasion, and the Jews are morally justified in returning in force.

The 613 Mitzvot extend the notion of lawful killing to the nations that inhabited the Promised Land, commanding to exterminate them completely. Deuteronomy 20:10–18 establishes rules on killing civilians in warfare:

the population of cities outside of the Promised Land, if they surrender, should be made tributaries and left alive (20:10–11)

those cities outside of the Promised Land that resist should be besieged, and once they fall, the male population should be exterminated, but the women and children should be left alive (10:12–15)

of those cities that were within the Promised Land, however, the population should be exterminated entirely (10:16–18), specifically “the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (10:16–18). Deuteronomy 25:19 further commands the extermination of the Amalekites.(source)

The promised land represents everything lost by the Hebrew people – and those that are there are those that took advantage of the slavery of their people. The law in Deuteronomy, therefore, is a manifestation of, in essence, cultural victimization, explained and reinforced by the best and most reasonable information they had at the time. The law is not a metaphor, it is literal. But to say it is true is to misunderstand that it is not right, although it may have been understandable that people thought it was true at the time.

The militaristic commands of god can therefore be understood in this context as, regardless of the elements of divine inspiration, the meaning is influenced by what people see around them at the time. When the culture has been demoralized, that creates a high probability of a lens and translation more bitter than clear.

So when we look back at the writings, we are to understand the people who wrote it. We are to strip away the human aspects to find the truth. Laws, in the end, come at the end, where the truth has been most distorted by the limitations of perception, historical rhetoric, and personal psychology. And when you consider the NT, the insularity and militant aspects of the Hebrew people are questioned from the spiritual perspective from a new viewpoint: in essence…“we have been fighting against everyone for so long. We have attempted to separate for so long. We consider ourselves right. And we have focused our laws on reinforcing all of this. God wants us to get to truth. Therefore, we must shift our understanding of ourselves as chosen, and therefore provided a divine right that we can only lose through failing to do what the law tells us, to being provided a divine opportunity, available because we are all man, and we are meant to seek God and determine meaning rather than assume it and obey without actual belief.”

It does say what it says. These commandments are what they are. I never, ever said that it meant anything other than what it said.

But that doesn’t mean it’s what God meant to say. It could be the only way it could have been said to those people at the time. Does that mean it should mean that we do that now? Well, no…because so much of it refers to people and things which are no longer around. And the passage gains no different meaning because you believe or not. It does become clear why it was written, however, the more critically it is examined.

Qingu's avatar

@iamthemob, you said, “Claims regarding how things occur, when examined through this lens, should be considered metaphorical when perception was limited or impossible, and credible and therefore believable until proven untrue.”

I strongly, strongly disagree with this. Aristotle had limited perception; he didn’t have telescopes or microscopes, he didn’t have the entire edifice of modern science to build his perceptions on. Nevertheless, when Aristotle wrote “gravity is caused by tortured downward motion to the element earth,” or “the sun revolves around the earth in one of seven celestial spheres,” he wasn’t being metaphorical, he was just plain wrong.

Metaphors are not a function of how educated or perceptive the writer is. Metaphors are a specific, intentional literary technique. “The wine-dark sea” is a metaphor; Homer knew the sea wasn’t wine, but they wanted to compare the color to it. On the other hand, Homer was not being metaphorical when he described the basic structure of the earth as a flat world surrounded by a sea or great river, Oceanus. He was just wrong, though everyone at the time would have believed he was speaking factually.

The Bible is full of similar incorrect statements that are often weirdly called “metaphors” when they have nothing to do with metaphors. The Bible claims that Yahweh created the earth before the sun; this is factually incorrect, obviously, but it’s not a metaphor. The Hebrews really believed this is how it went down. Likewise, Yahweh created humans by animating clay. Not a metaphor! This was an entirely common belief in ancient Mesopotamia. The Bible (along with other Mesopotamian myths) describes a huge flood that destroys the earth. Not a metaphor—the flood story makes complete literal sense if you understand the world as the Hebrews did—as a flat plate, surrounded by a solid dome (the sky) that holds up an ocean above it. And this worldview actually makes a good deal of sense if you are a bronze-age nomad with no knowledge of abstract science. It’s wrong, but everyone in Mesopotamia, including the Hebrews, thought it was true in a literal sense, because they were ignorant.

You can’t say “metaphor,” when you really mean “incorrect due to ignorance or lack of technology.”


The rest of your post applies equally well to the emergence and tenets of Nazism.

I’m sorry to sound to flippant (and to pull a Godwin), but it’s absolutely true.

iamthemob's avatar


You keep confounding the perspectives. It’s incredibly difficult, I’m going to admit, to communicate this, though – so let me clarify.

Aristotle worked in a different sphere than the spiritual, when it comes down to it. Examining the claims of Aristotle as metaphorical would be improper – as it is in the Biblical sense when I stated that the laws in Deuteronomy are not metaphorical, but based on concepts that were. It was based on an understanding of the world that was metaphorical even if they didn’t think it was back then. Since we have more information now, we can understand them to be.

I have to use “metaphor” because it is the best term I know of, but it’s a double-edged sword. Metaphorical here is the standard that we use now. It is not how it might have been viewed back then. So, we might assume that at the time all thought it was literal when written. But learning makes us analyze why we thought something was fact, as people, back then. So, it was literal truth to them, but we see it as an attempt to get the world to make sense through the very flawed lens of human understanding with limited knowledge now.

But metaphor is how we all perceive the world all the time. Language is a metaphor. Sight is a metaphor. Hearing is a metaphor. We translate the world into understandable terms because we have to. In science we talk about dark matter and dark energy. This will be understood to be archaic, and metaphorical essentially, at some point in the future when we have the tools to describe those things as they actually are.

So don’t focus on metaphor in its literal sense. If you insist on doing so, we have nothing to discuss. Accept that when I say metaphor, I mean it what we can see to reveal the subconscious expression of people regarding something understood to be or believed to be or thought to be true at the time that seemed to describe the world in an accurate way from the speaker’s cultural perspective given available knowledge.

The bible was wrong about the science of how the world was made. It was wrong about a lot of the history. But you didn’t ask me about that in the last question. You asked me to show how certain laws might be metaphorical. That required us to examine the different claims in the Bible and where those came from. I stated that the claims about science and history were incorrect because they had to be. We were wrong about gravity until about 100 years ago because we had to be. We may still be wrong. So we look at what they thought to be true, and the psychology of a diaspora people recently escaping slavery and trying to rebuild a culture that would not be revictimized, and we can see why their laws were what they were.

Things stated in the Bible are literal. I agree. Things stated in the Bible are wrong. I agree. And once that’s admitted, and we understand why, we can see how the literal statements and claims in the Bible can be shown to reveal a metaphorical story about how human beings universally struggle to determine what their spiritual relationship to the world and whatever god they believe in is.

To say that the rest of my post equally applies to Nazism is to be both 100% accurate and, it seems, miss the point entirely. Nazism made sense to German people at the time because they had been devastated and needed to feel powerful again. That same cultural psychology totally applies reasonably to a post-exodus Hebrew people. So the laws are, in many ways, fascist. Then we get these holocausts because we don’t really understand what’s right because we’re afraid, in danger, and vulnerable – and lash out at another if possible to make us feel safe again.

The important thing is that the OT was about establishing the power and difference of the Hebrew people. The NT, from it’s perspective, tries to show how the OT went wrong. In many ways, we can read the NT as a criticism of the OT. And if we can do that, then we can now read a new criticism of the NT as well.

Read the Bible as literal. Assume that it was meant to be by all parties. But to say it mandates the same behavior now as it did then is an uncritical view of it. It says the same thing, but through NT criticism there was an attempt to gain a new understanding of why the OT said what it did. With what we know now, we can gain an even better understanding. Refusing to allow that as a possibility is ensuring that all we’ll have is religious conservatism and fundamentalism v. the world.

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