Monday, March 22, 2010

Morality and the Bible

For the third year in a row, my friend Jerry invited me to speak at The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills. This talk is titled "Morality and the Bible".

Direct link to the MP3 here. The service was moderated by Howard Richman, who gave a perfect introduction that included two scriptures that I reference in the talk:

"If you remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me, I will multiply your afflictions seven times over, as your sins deserve. I will send wild animals against you, and they will rob you of your children, destroy your cattle and make you so few in number that your roads will be deserted.
"If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over. You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters. I will destroy your high places, cut down your incense altars and pile your dead bodies on the lifeless forms of your idols, and I will abhor you."
- Leviticus 26:21-22,27-30 (NIV)

"From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. 'Go on up, you baldhead!' they said. 'Go on up, you baldhead!' He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths."
- II Kings 2:23-24 (NIV) (Read my previous commentary on this passage)

Funny enough, after the discussion Howard had prepared a joke from the comedian Emo Philips, the same comedian I quoted! What a hilarious coincidence! I had just read it to my wife last night:

When I was a kid, I used to pray every night for a new bike. Then I realised, the Lord doesn't work that way. So I just stole one and asked Him to forgive me ... and I got it!

In my presentation, I refer to some quotes from the 19th century by advocates of slavery; arguments derived directly from biblical morality. Here are those quotes and some additional ones:

"[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts." Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America

"There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral." Rev. Alexander Campbell

"The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example." Rev. R. Furman, D.D., Baptist, of South Carolina

"The doom of Ham has been branded on the form and features of his African descendants. The hand of fate has united his color and destiny. Man cannot separate what God hath joined." United States Senator James Henry Hammond.

"If we apply sola scriptura to slavery, I'm afraid the abolitionists are on relatively weak ground. Nowhere is slavery in the Bible lambasted as an oppressive and evil institution: Vaughn Roste, United Church of Canada staff.

"... under the same protection as any other species of lawful property...That the Ten Commandments are the word of G-d, and as such, of the very highest authority, is acknowledged by Christians as well as by Jews...How dare you, in the face of the sanction and protection afforded to slave property in the Ten Commandments--how dare you denounce slaveholding as a sin? When you remember that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Job--the men with whom the Almighty conversed, with whose names he emphatically connects his own most holy name, and to whom He vouchsafed to give the character of 'perfect, upright, fearing G-d and eschewing evil' (Job 1:8)--that all these men were slaveholders, does it not strike you that you are guilty of something very little short of blasphemy?" - Rabbi M.J. Raphall (circa 1861)

Another point I'd like to make here that I did not address in the talk is one that Sam Harris has made. Any person reading this, simply by virtue of being born in the 21st century, is eminently more qualified in knowledge about how the world works than any author of the Bible. The authors of the scriptures had no more access to information than any of us do. In fact, they had far less.

One of my favorite things about the Unitarian Church is that they provide time after the talk for a question and answer session. We never got to ask the pastor questions about his sermon (certainly not in front of the congregation) when I was growing up! A couple good points came up about the golden rule, which I neglected to address in my already-overly-long talk. It doesn't work for masochists (who enjoy pain being inflicted on them), and in general someone else may not appreciate having done to them what you want done to you. It could be a generally better heuristic to try to think in terms of what the other person would want and do that, or simply ask them. As Howard summed up with another classic joke:

Before you criticize your enemies, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, you're a mile away and you have their shoes.