Friday, June 1, 2007

A question of morality .

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion. ~ Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in physics

A few years ago, I covered a murder trail for the newspaper I work for. A father had stabbed his infant child to death.

It was, even by the standards of a full time crime reporter, a particularly nasty event. The man, Lawrence Mends,
was hopelessly mentally ill. He heard voices in his head.

During his trial he told the court the voice told him to take a butcher knife and stab his baby, which he had placed on the kitchen floor. He stabbed the child so hard and so many times, the blade wasdented on the kitchen floor after passing through the child's body.

Most people would recognize that a man, mentally ill or otherwise, killing his own child has something very seriously wrong with him indeed. At best, he is a person to be pitied because of his illness. Most often, however, we feel an instinctive sense of horror and revulsion - as we should. No one in their right mind would say it was a good thing he listened to the voices in his head.

But we don't always. At least, not when the discussion turns to morality and the supposed role that religion plays in it. Followers of the three great monotheisms - Judaism, Islam and Christianity - often claim that our morals come FROM religion. Without religion we have no morality, and therefore we can do whatever we want with no resistant. "Why be good without god," they often say. Indeed, why not just kill your own child without the objective rules of right and wrong presented in the common stories of all three of these religions?

Yet, a closer look at the morality of the Old Testament in particular - from which all three faiths find their religious foundations - reveals a morality that would, at best, make us feel the same way we feel about Mr. Mends.

Take the story of Abraham and Issac. It is a foundational story of all three faiths, and regarded as a story that shows the proper devotion to the almighty that all followers should strive for. God, because in the scriptures he is forever meddling with individual human lives in a way that would make even Zeus blush, decides its time to test Abraham's faith. God evidently needs the constant reassurance that his creation will do his bidding, no matter how insane - and this test is just about as insane as it gets. (One could also probably write a paper on the Divine's constant need to be worshiped.) Abraham is told that he is has to kill his own son Issac as a sacrifice to god. And Abraham, virtually without question, obeys. He hog-ties the kid, and pulls out a knife. And just as he is about to plunge the blade into the body of the boy, god sends one of his angels down to stop it.

"Just kidding," Abraham is told. "God just wanted to see if you would do it. Sorry about that old chum!"

Find for me, please, the great morality of this story. What makes Abraham any different than Lawrence Mends, other than that in the fictional case, the son isn't murdered?

The faithful of course, present several arguments, often taking the form of the old "god works in mysterious ways," argument. Essentially, god has a plan, we pitiful human don't know it. So if god tells you to kill your kid, you kill your kid because obedience to god is what is important. So its "thou shalt not kill...unless god says it's ok."

The test of faith is more like the test of loyalty used by criminal gangs. Go forth and kill to prove you are really going to be loyal to the family. And of course, the only way to really prove that loyalty is to murder someone you care about. God is little more than a sadistic mafia don here.

And then there is Abraham himself. You know, the guy hearing voices in his head? Had he an ounce of real morality in his body, he would have told god where to stick the whole idea of killing Issac. But he doesn't. He goes through with it because he was "following orders". ( Curiously enough, that was the excuse used by Nazi soldiers after World War Two. We didn't buy it then, and shouldn't buy it just because it is written down in the Bible or Koran. )

The point is, there is nothing admirable about a man willing to murder his own child. There is nothing worthy of worship in a god that would order such a terrible action as a "test".

If Abraham was in that court room a few years ago, he would have been as guilty as Lawrence Mends. And rightly so.

And this isn't the only story of this kind of dubious morality. For instance, this break down on the story of the bible's sorriest bastard, Job:

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