There is a double-standard that is inherent in any theist’s accusations against non-theists regarding the idea of “moral relativism.” I need not go too much into the argument itself, because it is particularly old hat. It argues in favor of the universality of religion-based morals, and is repeated ad nauseum by proponents of religious belief who, at most, read the Cliff notes for Plato’s Euthyphro and suddenly think themselves experts on moral philosophy.
Basically, the argument runs thusly: If you do not have God telling you what is morally right or wrong, and instead rely on society’s best efforts to enforce moral behavior, the relative difference from culture to culture and society to society creates an environment where potentially everything is permissible, to the extent that even the moral precepts against murder, theft, and child abuse (which are seemingly innate to every normal human being) can be sanctioned in some form or another.
But theists who foolishly put forward this trope walk blithely into the trap that illustrates the painfully obvious double-standard inherent in the argument. To be specific, religion is the best example of moral relativism that is ever to be found in the history of civilized culture. It is a fact that every religion legislates for its adherents what it declares to be “universal morality.” It is also a fact that every religion claims special exceptions to the very same universal, unbreakable moral code that everyone is supposed to follow.
Let me repeat: ALL of the major theistic religions claim exclusive declaratory rights to impose universal morality upon the whole of humankind while at the same time claiming special exceptions to or exemptions from truly universal adherence to its own supposedly universal morality.
I’ll go even further by stating unequivocally that it is religion, and not reasonable non-theistic beliefs, that have repeatedly justified exceptions to those innate human moral precepts I mentioned before. Namely, do not kill, do not steal, and do not hurt children.
Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all have committed atrocious acts of murder and genocide on each other as well as their own people so as to make even the paranoid-schizophrenic bloodlust of Ivan the Terrible seem positively benign. All have institutionalized torture in the past (as well as in contemporary times) in order to enforce each’s particular interpretation of the “Will of God.”
And all, too, have killed in the name of God’s will.
From the Crusades to the Inquisition, from Joshua's conquest of Canaan to David Ben-Gurion's Zion, and from Mohammed's sack of Mecca to the current (and numerous) fatwas calling for the destruction of Israel and the whole of western civilization, all of which point to the unbridled malice and wanton destruction wrought by religion’s callous disregard for any kind of universal proscription against murder, much less their own. Further, it is only by religion’s bloody hand that the innate biological proscription against murder (as well as theft and child abuse) is overcome. As physicist Steven Weinberg beautifully expressed it: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things; but for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
A brief digression must be made to counter the arguments of those who would point out that it is sometimes necessary to kill in order to defend one’s self and others from aggression. The most contemporary expression of this maxim is the favourite of bumper-sticker philosophers across
All three religions, too, have stolen in the name of God, with the Roman Catholic Church undoubtedly claiming the crown of greediest and most methodical in its acquisition of purloined and extorted riches. But Jews and Muslims, too, have stolen their own great treasures and hoarded them away. Jews have (twice) claimed land occupied by others: the original settlement of the “promised land” (found in the Torah) and the current “re-settlement” that has been taking place in the
I don’t wish to linger too long on examples of institutionalized child abuse by religious authority, because my own sensibilities recoil in outrage at the discussion of them (one need only read the newspaper stories about forced female circumcision or watch Amy Berg’s disturbing documentary “Deliver Us From Evil,” which focuses acutely on the Catholic Church’s nefarious conduct during the recent scandals involving pedophile priests). However, I do wish to mention that child abuse is institutionalized in religion because religious belief is, by its very nature, something that must be indoctrinated into adherents in order to ensure its own enduring existence, and there is no more susceptible and vulnerable type of person than a child. Religious authorities know this, and so focus much of their attention on the young, frightening them into submission with tales of hellfire and death in order to craft them into ciphers; willing instruments of God’s will, fanatically devoted to carrying out whatever God (or, more appropriately, “God’s” self-proclaimed representatives i.e. bishops, imams, rabbis) instructs them to do, up to and including murdering others and themselves. I am reminded of my encounter with the Phelps family of the Westboro Baptist Church in 2005, where I found it remarkable that, while they held signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags,” two of the young boys talked on about race cars. They were no different from any other pre-adolescent boys in
Religious morals are relative. They are relative not only to each other, as religions vary from culture to culture, but they are also relative in the context of each religion’s different iteration of declared universal morality. Don’t kill—unless they’re heathens or heretics. The maxim “Thou shalt not steal” has the same caveat. And the supposed “care” of the young that all three religions claim as among their chief responsibilities instead has led to the ritual mutilation of the body (particularly the genitals), the institutionalization of rape, and the enslavement of the mind. Given this, it will be only the most feeble-minded and willfully ignorant of theists who continue to argue for their respective dogmatic belief system’s exclusive claim on “universal” morality.
Morality is a human construction, just like religion. But unlike religion, morality does not suffer from the application of reason and rationality. As Sam Harris has repeatedly said, no society has ever suffered or committed evil because it was “too rational.” Rather, it is the absence or breakdown of reason and rationality that is often the chief cause of conflict and misery. And in all the breadth of human imagination and experience, there is nothing more unreasonable or irrational than organized religion.