The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 19: Revelation, Genesis and Jesus

Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 20: Ethics
Last modified on Sun Jun 26 17:30:08 2022


This is the twentieth post in a series on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. In this chapter I discuss his seventh chapter, Do our values come from God?

The moral argument for God runs along the following lines,

  1. Objective moral values either require or imply the existence of God.
  2. There are objective moral values.
  3. Therefore God exists.

Obviously this argument is not watertight as it stands -- one could always deny premise 2 and accept moral nihilism. I'm not convinced that that is a good idea, but in one sense I could respect someone who chose that option. Although, in another sense, I could well be very cautious towards them: we all know what horrors denying moral values can lead to. Of course, the most evil people in history generally have not denied moral values: they wrongly believed themselves to be doing good, and persuaded others of the same. Their problem was not a lack of moral values, but distorted moral values. Individual moral nihilists could do some horrific things -- although they need not -- but are unlikely to win others to their own particular cause and create a mass movement.

But it is the first of these premises which makes Professor Stenger nervous. He states that the religions of the world have made themselves arbiters of human behaviour, and give themselves the right to declare what is right and what is wrong. This gives the impression that atheists and humanists are undesirable. Professor Stenger disagrees, noting some statistics that states that child abuse and wife-beating are more common among religious conservatives. He also notes that some Christian commentators have lamented that evangelical Christians are likely to lead very similar lives to their unchurched neighbours. This is in terms of their materialistic lifestyles, divorce, and sexual immorality.

Professor Stenger states at the start of this chapter that he, as a scientist, does not wish to say what people ought to do. He simply wants to observe what people in fact do. In this sense, he rejects the notion that science has nothing to say about ethics. Towards the end of the chapter he defines moral standards in terms of the general beliefs of the population, and offers an evolutionary explanation for these beliefs. He also asserts that many of those beliefs are out of step with traditional Christian teaching, and that therefore traditional Christian teaching is wrong. I'll discuss those proposals in detail later in the post.

The moral argument for God

Before discussing what Professor Stenger wrote, though, I ought to lay some groundwork.

I do not know if Professor Stenger's statistics are accurate, but I have no good reason to doubt them. However, they are also an example of missing the point. The question of moral values is not about what people do, but what people ought to do. This works in two ways. Firstly, a Christian does not invalidate the Christian moral standard by breaking it. It shows that they are a bad Christian -- perhaps they have been badly instructed (which is quite possible given the state of contemporary evangelicalism, particularly American evangelicalism), or perhaps they have been well instructed but simply moved away. Nor does it invalidate Christianity. The New Testament is quite clear that there is no one who has done good, and that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3). Equally, it is clear that, although Christians ought to try to avoid sin (Romans 6, for example), this won't completely cure the problem (Romans 7:14 and following, 1 John 1:8, and so on). Against this, there is the promise of sanctification, or being made more holy. But this is a process; it doesn't happen overnight, and there can be reverses in the direction. The promise is just that Christians should become better than they would have been without the actions of the indwelling Holy Spirit. So to say that Christians fail to live up to their standards is what we should expect if Christianity is true. That's lamentable, but its life. It does not undermine the standards or the target we ought to be aiming at.

On the other hand, the Christian moral argument does not say that atheists are necessarily morally bad people (or at least, any worse than others). The claim is simply that there is an inconsistency between an atheistic metaphysics and any objective ethical theory. There is nothing to stop an atheist holding contradictory beliefs. There is nothing to stop an atheist absorbing moral values from a post-Christian culture which are still generally sound and good. There is nothing to stop an atheist from living by those values to a better than average degree (none of us fulfil those values perfectly). The issue is not about how people act, but about underlying logical consistency.

I ought to outline why someone might accept the first premise of the moral argument. I usually start my discussion with two ideas drawn from secular philosophy: Hume's Is/Ought dichotomy, and Moore's naturalistic fallacy. And I think that they are particularly pertinent when discussing this chapter of Professor Stenger's work.

The Is/Ought dichotomy was raised by Hume observing that in his day people jumped from a discussion of what something is to a statement of moral value. He saw no justification for this jump in logic. As soon as we admit that there is evil in the world and that not everything is as it ought to be, then there is a difference between describing what something is -- this can be done by the scientist -- and describing what it ought to be. We cannot, the argument goes, determine what something ought to be by observing it or its behaviour, because that observation does not tell us if what it is or does is good or evil. For example, we can observe that most people do not commit murder. But we also observe that some people do commit murder. This is a statement of fact. But how do we jump from this to saying that people ought not to commit murder? That somebody does something, or even that many people do something, does not mean that they were right to do it. There is nothing in the physical mechanism of stabbing someone (for example) which tells us whether or not that action is right or wrong. We can describe in detail the movement of the knife and the forces that were applied to it and the effect that it has on the body, but none of this contains any statement of moral value. To obtain any statement of moral value, we have to go beyond basic empirical observation. For Hume, as an empiricist, this was a big problem.

It doesn't matter whether we observe a single person or a crowd of people. The force of the argument remains the same. It doesn't matter what people believe. There still remains the question of whether they ought to believe that, and given that we are imperfect, we cannot determine this from a simple statement of what is believed. For example, there was a time (indeed, most of human history) when the majority of people believed that slavery was good and justified. Does that mean that slavery was then right? That the abolitionists, in working against popular opinion, were in fact working an act of great evil, until they managed to persuade that single person that gave them a majority, when they suddenly switched to being great moral heroes? It is very difficult to argue against this if you take your moral values from what people generally believe. Today most people believe that slavery is a moral evil. Does that mean that moral standards changed when opinion changed? If so, they can hardly be considered objective.

Of course, Hume's objection is only insurmountable if you accept his empiricist philosophy. You can still believe in objective moral standards if you accept a source of those standards which does not rely on observations of how people think or act.

So this brings me to the naturalistic fallacy, introduced by the Philosopher Moore at the start of the twentieth century. This is similar in some respects to Hume's argument, but is more rigorous since it is not tied to Hume's philosophy. The naturalistic fallacy notes that at the center of any ethical system is the notion of goodness. It states that most (or perhaps all) moral philosophers have committed the fallacy of equivocation when defining what they mean by goodness. In other words, they define goodness in two different ways. Firstly, as the moral standard: what we ought to be, or what we ought to do. Secondly, as something more practically useful, for example in terms of the pursuit of happiness or the avoidance of suffering, or even what the majority of people in the society believe. Moore simply pointed out that these two definitions are not the same. But people jump from one definition to the other, without any justification for that jump.

Moore doesn't formally prove that his argument holds absolutely, that it is impossible to have a practical definition of goodness that also coincides with an absolute moral standard. What he does is work through numerous examples that people have tried, and shows that in each case those people have committed this fallacy.

There was, however, one method of defining goodness which Moore did not discuss, and that I will discuss below.

The word ought implies a target which should be aimed at. Every target is intimately connected with a purpose. The target might be defined as the fulfilment of the purpose, or it might give rise to a purpose (i.e. to hit the target), but in either case to have a moral standard implies that there is an underlying purpose for the moral agent and those things he interacts with. I use the word purpose here more broadly than is common in contemporary English. Most people when they think of purpose think of a goal that is established in a mind, an intellectual purpose. And this is one sense which we could use for the moral standard. But it can also be defined in terms of natural inherent tendencies. For example, a plant has the inherent tendency to grow towards sunlight. It will do so unless prevented from doing so. This isn't the result of any conscious decision (if we exclude God's role in designing and sustaining the plant), but simply the application of the laws of physics to the plant. This tendency is objectively tied to the underlying nature of the plant. But it still represents a movement towards an goal, and thus counts as a purpose. So we also have natural purposes defined by tendencies such as this.

We can consider the use of the word good in other contexts to illustrate this principle. For example, a teacher's job description is defined by the purpose of instructing students. A good teacher is one who does this well, a bad teacher one who is by temperament or ability ill-suited to the task. A student, on the other hand, is defined by the purpose of being taught. Again a good student is one whose character and abilities make them well suited to fulfil this purpose, while a bad student is one ill-suited to the task. Note that it is not the results that define whether one is good and bad, but a matter of temperament, character and skill. A good teacher with bad students can produce worse results than a bad teacher with good students. But the good teacher remains the better teacher, because he or she has better skills. The definition of goodness also does not refer to the actions of the teacher, but the quality of the teacher themselves. Actions are only good or bad indirectly, in that they are the sort of thing that a good or bad teacher would do in that circumstance. Thus this definition of goodness most naturally leads to a virtue ethics.

But what of goodness in general? Humanity, as a species, is defined in terms of certain inherent tendencies. For example, we are living organisms. That entails tendencies towards growth, metastasis and reproduction, for example. We are also intellectual beings, which is defined in terms of the tendency towards being able to engage in sound abstract reasoning and to understand the truth. We are also social beings, which is defined in terms of the tendency to live together in a mutually beneficial society. And this is only a sample. Now we can choose to work against these tendencies. For example, we can choose to refuse to fulfil our intellectual purposes by deliberately not studying, or by believing lies. But to do so undermines what it means to be human. We would be, in effect, denying what we are: an intellectual being, and this is irrational. In this case, there is moral guilt. We can also fail to work towards these goals because of things outside our conscious control: some form of external impediment, or a unconscious or habitual desire or attraction. In this case, the guilt does not lie with the agent prevented from achieving his natural purpose, though perhaps it does in any moral agent, if there is one, preventing him from doing so. (Sometimes we are prevented from achieving our purposes by circumstances outside anyone's control, in which case there is no moral guilt.)

Thus the definition of being human contains within it a certain set of intrinsic tendencies, which define a moral purpose and thus a moral target. We are good if our skills and character are well-suited towards fulfilling these purposes, and bad otherwise. This standard is objective and common to humanity.

This understanding of ethics was first (to my knowledge) articulated by Aristotle in an incomplete form. Aristotle focused on the intellectual and social goods, and neglected the animal and vegetative goods. The complete ethical theory gives none of these goods priority over others.

The problem for the atheist with this approach to ethics is that it states that human life has an inherent purpose and meaning. In particular, the concept of inherent natural tendencies relies on the concept of final causality. And as Aquinas showed in his fifth way, the concept of final causality implies the existence of God. Equally, all contemporary metaphysical approaches favoured by atheists, being children of the enlightenment, deny final causality, and thus that there is an inherent and objective purpose and meaning to human life. An atheist therefore cannot consistently appeal to this ethical theory.

The second option is to define goodness in terms of an intellectual purpose. For example, we can ask what makes a good car. In this case the car in an artefact, designed by some engineer, and built by some factory workers. The engineer designed the car to fulfil what he regarded as a particular need in society. So he had a vision of what the vehicle was to be used for, and how it was meant to function, and this vision defines a standard of goodness for the car.

This sort of argument can only be applied to humanity if we suppose that we too are the result of design by some non-human intelligence. That non-human intelligence would have to ultimately be God (maybe working through a number of intermediaries). This leads us to divine command theory, the belief that the moral standard is defined by the intentions and purposes of God in creating mankind. This definition of goodness is unacceptable to the atheist for obvious reasons.

Thirdly, we have the possibility that human moral standards are defined by a purpose that arises from the human intellect. In other words, we define the moral standard for ourselves. This gives rise to moral relativism. The problem with this is that it ultimately reduces to either circularity or nihilism. How do we know that our thoughts about ethics are good, if those thoughts determine the standard of goodness? One would either have to conclude that everything is good, in which case there is no ethical standard (which presupposes that there is both good and evil), or get wrapped up in a bizarre mental recursion which never reaches an end, or reach out to something beyond ourselves to judge whether the values we decide for ourselves are good or not. Thus moral relativism is a dead end, and does not evade the naturalistic fallacy.

This objection does not apply to God. Since God is simple and incapable of change, there is no possibility of evil within God. To have a standard of goodness which can be reached but happens not to be implies that there are at least two possible states of being: at least one which satisfies the standard of goodness (which is described in terms of the definition of the being, so is always present), and at least one where the being fails to meet that standard. Since God only has one state of being, God is necessarily good, so whatever God determines is also good. This argument does not apply to individual people, who can be either good or bad.

The best known form of this objection to a moral code arising from authority is known as the Euthyphro dilemma, which is usually expressed as an argument against divine command theory. The dilemma rests on two horns. Does God declare something to be evil because there is an objective reason for declaring it to be evil, or does God's declaration of something as evil make it evil. In the first case, there is an objective definition of good and evil independent of God, which makes divine command theory redundant. In the second case, what is good and evil is entirely arbitrary, and we cannot expect to see any consistency or hard and fast rules. This argument isn't, however, successful against the God of classical theism. We have to ask what we mean by an objective standard of goodness. It would be one that is derived from certain premises. And what are these premises? They would depend on the basic laws of logic, and the natures of the good and evil beings. This is something we can observe, and thus (in principle, and assuming Hume's objections can be circumvented) know independently of God. But ultimately, those attributes of the being which give rise to the moral values come from God's choices in designing of the creature. In other words, the "objective standard" is not independent of God. But neither is it something which God can change. In part due to God's immutability, but mainly if the purposes which give rise to the moral standard are tied to the essence of the being, then to change those purposes what being is being discussed. In other words, the standard of goodness for men (for example) is fixed by the nature of man. God could change that standard (e.g. to create a culture where the rule is You shall commit adultery rather than You shall not commit adultery), but, to maintain consistency, to do so would be to simultaneously change what it is to be a man. So the moral rules themselves would not change. Thus the dilemma, as a response to divine command theory, fails firstly because any objective standard of goodness would still be dependent on God's will, and because God's standard of goodness is not arbitary, but tied in with the nature of creation, and it is not changeable, in part because of God's immutability and thus the unchanging nature of His choices, and in part because it is tied in with the essence of God's creatures.

Finally, one could try to derive moral standards from pure reason. This helps a bit. One can demand that an objective moral standard has to be self-consistent and able to be universally applied, for example. This narrows down the range of possible ethical theories. But it is widely accepted to be insufficient.

In other words, there are only two possible grounds for an objective moral standard. One of these depends on the existence of God. The other implies the existence of God, and directly denies the most common atheistic metaphysics. In either way, atheism is in trouble.

Christian ethics combines both approaches to ethics. Many ethical truths are known from reasoning about natural purposes. Others are purely revealed, such as our moral duty to give glory to God in all that we do. Others are to be found from both natural reasoning and divine revelation, such as the commandment not to commit murder. For others, we use natural reasoning to build on what is divinely revealed. So Christian ethics is partly from natural reasoning (and thus accessible to everyone, no matter which culture they come from), partly from divine revelation, and partly a mixture of the two.

Once again, that is not to say that the atheist is necessarily immoral. Most atheists have arisen from either a Christian or Confucian/Buddhist cultural background. From this background, they inherited a set of moral standards (which are, generally speaking, in line with our natural purposes). Because there is no fixed anchor in sound reasoning, we can expect these moral standards to degrade over time. In particular, it is difficult for the atheist to pass them on without a good reason to support them. But nonetheless, atheists still absorb a good, if imperfect, set of moral standards, and perhaps are capable of keeping to them better than many Christians. But atheist ethical theories are generally unfounded, incoherent, or not consistent with their wider world-view, and this creates problems in a purely atheistic society.

So that is a summary of the moral argument for God. It is only a summary -- there are many details I have skipped over. The underlying ethical theory has been articulated well by people more capable than I. I would recommend the works of Alasdair MacIntyre, David Oderberg, and there are many others who have outline the ethical theory in detail. So with the argument he is opposing in place, how does Professor Stenger respond to it?

Common Standards

Professor Stenger seems to have a limited understanding of Christian ethics, believing that it just reduces to a simplified form of divine command theory. So he asks the question if moral values just come from the particular God worshipped by whoever is making the moral claim, then how come different cultures, including atheistic ones, have adopted similar moral standards? He cites things such as the universal admiration for courage, that people generally don't try to harm others, are sympathetic to those in distress, have prohibitions against stealing, and so on. While some of these are constrained by law, people don't generally follow these principles because they are compelled to by law.

He also cites differences between different groups in Conservative Christians, he alleges, use the commandment against killing to oppose abortion but support the death penalty; Roman Catholics oppose abortion and the death penalty; liberal Christians oppose the death penalty and do not generally oppose abortion. He points out that with regards to the abortion debate, both sides agree that murder is immoral, but disagree about whether abortion constitutes murder.

His conclusion seems to be that if moral values came from God, we would expect to see differences between different religions (with their different understandings of God), and commonality within religions; while what we observe is, to a certain extend, the opposite.

With regards to the differences of opinion between Christians, I would take some issues with what he wrote. Firstly, his views seem to be very US-centred. As a conservative protestant myself, I don't see the death penalty as a big issue here in the UK among conservative protestants. Most people are, as far as I can see, either opposed to it in principle or accepting the principle (accepting that there are crimes which justly deserve death) but opposing the practice (i.e. that just because we would be justified in applying the death penalty doesn't mean that we should do so). Whether the conservative protestant ought to fall into one of those two camps is a question which goes beyond the scope of this post. In this Christians are obviously influenced by wider society, since there is an almost universal condemnation of the death penalty in secular UK society. I hear that there are indeed a few supporters of capital punishment, in the UK, but if I have encountered any of them they haven't made those views public. In the US the situation is different, although I suspect that it depends on where in the US you are. Of course, conservative evangelicalism in the US and UK differ in quite a few ways, not just this. Among Roman Catholics, again, opinion is divided. I imagine that Edward Feser in particular would be surprised to learn that Roman Catholicism has traditionally opposed the death penalty. Although, obviously, there are Roman Catholics who oppose Professor Feser and support it. I would agree that just about all conservative Christians oppose abortion except as a last result to defend the life of another, whether Protestant, Roman, or Eastern Orthodoxy both here and in the US and those I have encountered elsewhere in the world. Nonetheless, there is certainly division between conservative Christians on ethical issues, but not on the lines that Professor Stenger draws. And it is not on many things; aside from the death penalty, the only difference in moral practicalities I can think of between orthodox Christians surrounds contraception. Perhaps there are a few others as well. In terms of moral theory, conservative protestants probably more favour divine command theory, while Romans will place a stronger emphasis on the natural law, but again you will find supporters of both views in both camps (and indeed people who combine both traditions).

Liberal Christians obviously distance themselves from the orthodox in numerous ways, but since they start from the premise that the Bible (in its traditional interpretations) got some things wrong which the secular world has got right, I don't really consider their views particularly relevant to this discussion (or any other discussion, for that matter).

So there are differences between Christians on moral issues, though few of them. Does that invalidate Christian ethics? No. There are differences of opinion between historians; even between physicists. Does that invalidate history or physics? Of course not. It merely means that the subjects are difficult; people can interpret evidence in different ways or come into it with different presuppositions beyond the agreed evidence base; or people incorrectly account for imprecision and uncertainty. And, of course, many people don't properly think about these things, but just drift more than they realise with the common cultural flow. It does not mean there is no true God-approved ethical theory. It just means that some people are wrong about some details. We are human. It happens.

I would agree with Professor Stenger that there is a great deal of commonality between the ethical theories of different cultures. Not complete commonality, of course, and differences tend to be significantly larger than within definite religious or cultural groups. It is also notable that many cultures make a distinction between "insiders" and "outsiders," with the "insiders" to be treated according to strict standards, and the "outsiders" with more lenient standards. Not all cultures; in particular I would say that Christian values are largely universal: Christians are to love and work for the good of everyone, regardless of whether or not they are part of the same tribe or religion. (The one exception to this that I can think of is that we are to hold fellow members of the Church to a higher standard; e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:9-13.)

Does this offer evidence that moral values don't come from God? That's the wrong question. The question is whether a consistent moral theory implies the existence of God. I should state that Paul's argument in Romans 1 assumes that there is a certain commonality in moral standards; that everyone in principle (even if they are too lazy to do it) can derive for themselves enough of the moral law to condemn themselves.

There are several reasons why moral values can be shared between different cultures. I will mention two.

  1. The existence of the natural law. In other words, at least some moral principles are deducible from natural principles, and the steps are quite obvious once you start. Of course, this doesn't mean that different cultures have all worked out a fully developed natural law theory in the same way as in the classical European tradition. Some would just adopt the principles unconsciously; others would work from slightly different premises but still end up in a similar place. But they all work from the same common humanity, and similar notions of goodness, and naturally end in a similar place, even if the process of getting there is expressed in different terms.
  2. Natural selection. Societies are shaped by their ethical principles. Some cultures are stronger than others. A weak culture or sub-culture will generally suffer economic or social collapse in the face of environmental challenges or interactions with outsiders, while a strong one will persevere. The underlying ethics has a great deal of influence on whether a society strengthens or weakens over time. Naturally those sub-cultures with a better ethical theory (in the sense of survival) will come to dominate over those with a weaker one. Mutations to the ethical principles which make society weaker will die out over a few generations if they are only affect a small portion of the society; if they rapidly take over the entire civilisation before the sub-culture dies out then the society as a whole will collapse (this has happened numerous times in human history). Mutations which make society stronger will grow and prosper, and gradually (again, over generations) come to be accepted by the whole of society. Thus there is a gradual process of optimisation of moral values towards a set which maximise the chance that the civilisation will survive and pass on those values to the next generation. In this way, all civilisations will converge towards similar moral values.

    Of course, there is still the question of whether the natural law or divine command ethical theory will lead to a stable and prosperous society that is likely to pass on its values in the competition between different cultures. But it seems that they would, when worked out properly. Natural law theory incorporates goods derived from our societal nature, which encourage us to work together for mutual benefit. Such as society will be stable; the disharmonious societies where people work for their own good regardless of its adverse effects on other people are the ones likely to decay over time, as people in general become either less prosperous or in worse health or more selfish. From the divine command perspective, As God wants his people to prosper, this optimum set of moral values with respect to societal survival will be in line with those derived from divine commands. But note it is not whether ethical codes lead to a stable society that makes them true; rather it is that the true ethical code happens to also be generally advantageous (though not necessarily the most advantageous) from the perspective of natural selection. To say that a set of ethical values are good just because they lead to a stronger society falls to the naturalistic fallacy.

In short, there are explanations as to why different cultures with different religions have similar moral values. These explanations do not undermine the arguments that ultimately a consistent ethical framework either relies on or implies the existence of God.

What about those with no religion? Does commonality between the moral codes of the irreligious and the religious show that you don't need God? No. For one thing, for most of human history atheism has been a minority pursuit. There have been plenty of people who have been only nominally religious, but few who have stood up and publicly opposed the gods. Atheists have lived in cultures which have had religiously derived moral values, have been influenced by and adopted that culture, and have lacked the numbers to change it. Obviously, in recent times that has changed, and we have seen the first societies where atheism generally dominates. Even here, the societies were first of all either Christian or Confucian/Buddhist, and thus the atheists started out from a sound moral code. It takes time to change it, and shed aside that cultural influence.

But now the atheists have been running the academies for a few generations, and we do start to see the effects. Almost Universally, there has been an attack on the natural family; approval of abortion, and a a degeneracy in sexual morality. This was a feature of Engel's writing, and attacks on the family were first of all strongly implemented in the Soviet Union. Pragmatism later caused the most extreme of these to be abandoned. In communist China, things were different, but the one child policy was a clear example of how the state believed itself to have the right to control the family. I need not point out the attacks on traditional sexual morality that have taken place in the modern West. Other degeneracy varies from society to society. In Nazi Germany and most communist countries, political leaders had few compulsions against the murder of their enemies, or against lying. Some atheistic societies have enabled sloth and envy; our own turns a blind eye to greed.

In other words, although we only have a small sample of them, atheistic nations do gradually tend to abandon the traditional ethical values. This has happened in different ways in different nations. In the West, there has been a tendency to hedonism, moral relativism, and the will to power.

This is not a good thing, and it is not going to last. See my point earlier about natural selection; wholesale changes to an optimal ethical code will inevitably weaken society (we can already see this happening, although it still needs a few more generations to fully run its course), and, unless they are reversed, will lead to either economic and social collapse not seen in Europe since the end of the Western Roman Empire, or the absorption of Western lands into a stronger culture.

So trying to maintain moral values without God has not been a success.

Picking and Choosing

Professor Stenger notes that there are many good and noble ideas in the Bible and the Qu'ran. He picks on the golden rule (Do unto others as you would have others do unto you), and the commandment to love one's enemies. He states that these are not original to the New Testament, but can be found in other religions such as Buddhism. In other words, he claims that there are no uniquely Christian moral values. He cites a historian who claimed that Jesus revealed no new moral truth, but everything had its roots in either the Old Testament or elsewhere. The values were pre-existing, but did not originate with the commands written in the Bible.

I don't see why this is an objection to Christianity. It would be an objection to a religion where Jesus was simply a moral teacher, and the commandments were just arbitrarily made up by God on the spot, but that's not Christianity. The commandments are simply God telling the rules to a particular group of people; the rules did not originate with the telling, and there is no reason why God could not also have revealed them to others at other times and places (for example earlier times and places). The moral commandments are what they are regardless of whether God has told them to us, and they are accessible to a large extent through natural law reasoning. There is no claim in the Old Testament that I am aware of that the moral law revealed to Moses is new. It is just God making clear so that even the Israelites should be able to understand the conditions of His covenant.

As for Jesus' purpose in coming, I perhaps ought to let him explain it in his own words.

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28 ESV)

Certainly there were reminders of the moral law, and clarifications, and a practical example to follow, but the New Testament is quite clear that Jesus' primary mission was elsewhere. The law is a reminder of our sin; Jesus came to save us from our sin through the call to repentance, atonement, resurrection to new life, to make the Holy Spirit available, and union with Christ through the Holy Spirit and the sacraments to enjoy the benefits of the atonement and resurrection. The problem which Jesus answers is that of human sin. First we need to be aware of our sin, which can be through the Old Testament law or other means. Then we need to realise that it is a problem. Then we become aware that we can't overcome it by our own efforts. Then we come to Jesus as the only solution by which we can be put right with God. Finally, Jesus will return, this time as judge, and people will be resurrected to either a blissful life with God or a less than blissful life apart from Him. That, in a very simplified form, is the Christian story. Nowhere does it demand that Jesus' moral teachings are original. Indeed, it presupposes that they are not: we need to know our failings before we come to Jesus.

But Professor Stenger also claims that there are many Biblical and Qu'ranic laws which are either not necessary or downright immoral, or irrelevant to our own age. Especially compared to others of their time. For example, the ten commandments are not followed in contemporary law. Christian and Islamic societies have been known to be authoritative, and disallow individual freedom and justice. He claims that nowhere in the Bible are the principles of democracy and justice to be found.

On the other hand, he claims that the Bible clearly promotes slavery, citing passages from the start of Exodus 21. Jesus never condemned slavery, and Paul affirmed the practice. Prior to the US civil war, the Bible was widely used to justify the use of slavery. While Christians held onto their slaves as long as possible, he cites one secular humanist who freed his slaves starting from the late 18th century. The Roman Church apparently did not condemn slavery until 1888. He finds this particularly galling because the Roman Church claims that it has never made changes to its moral principles. He admits that the campaigns to abolish slavery were lead by Christians, but thinks it clear that their religion played no role in their activism.

Finally, quoting Ephesians 5, he states that Paul taught that women were lesser human beings.

There are a number of accusations here to unpack. To begin, I need to make a general point. When somebody declares that Christian belief is immoral, there are several possibilities. Firstly, he could be correct, and Christian belief is indeed immoral. Secondly, he might have misunderstood or misrepresented Christian belief; perhaps the situation is more complex or nuanced than he realises. Thirdly, it might be that Christian belief is correct, and his own views are the immoral ones. Fourthly, it might be that both Christianity and his own views are immoral. That third point is, of course, crucial. If Christianity is true, authentic Christian beliefs will represent the mind of God. When asked to choose between God's vision of ethics and that of some random bloke with no religious or philosophical training, then I would go with God every time. Even if that is distasteful to our current culture. Of course, there are reasons behind the commandments: they are not irrational. The natural law theorists have developed one possible basis for the commandments; but even if they have some details wrong, that is not to say that there is no rational justification for the commandments. Particularly since so many of the ethical assumptions that underlie contemporary culture are distinctly dubious themselves.

So the Bible provides no justification for modern democracy or justice? If by justice, he means the postmodern or Marxist conceptions of that term, then no, but that's a good thing since those conceptions are based on false premises of collective identity. If he means a more rational approach to justice, then that is surely false. The Bible frequently implores people to refuse bribes (e.g. Exodus 18:21), dishonest weights (e.g. Proverbs 20:23); for judges to evaluate the merits of the case rather than favouring people based on their status (e.g. Leviticus 19:15). There are constant refrains to help the poor, widows, sojourners, and immigrants. Acts of injustice are reported and condemned.

True, the Bible does not promote democracy. But why should it? Representative democracy is far from perfect. Either you have a range of parties, forced to form a coalition which nobody voted for and which is frequently unstable, or you are left with a choice between two parties. One of which promises to favour its own interests, suppress the working poor, waste resources that ought to be used wisely for the common good, indulge in their own scandalous behaviours while condemning the slightest indiscretion by others, ruin the economy by following flawed models and corruption, prevent people from doing business and creating wealth, burden everyone with extra costs, and (these days) suppress all thoughts they disagree with. While the other party has all the same flaws, only with slightly higher taxes. How we choose the government is less important than how that government behaves. The Bible (e.g. much of the book of proverbs) contains plenty of advice for good governance, and plenty of examples of bad governance and its consequences for us to avoid.

In the New Testament, there is no discussion of the right form of government (except with regards to the Kingdom established after Jesus' return), but this is not surprising. The early Church held no political power, had no prospect of gaining it, and didn't particularly want to gain it. It had more important priorities. In the Old Testament, the originally preferred form of government seems to be one of subsidiarity, where "Everyone did as they saw good in their own eyes." There was a law which people were meant to hold to, judges appointed to settle disputes, and a central priesthood to oversee the religious obligations. There would have been some role for tribal and clan leaders, but this would have been limited. This system of government (or lack of government) collapsed; in part because the people kept falling into idolatry, but mainly because ancient Israel was under constant attack from its neighbours, and the people demanded a King to judge over them like the other nations and to centralise their national defence (1 Samuel 8:5, 1 Samuel 12:12). Even as the King is appointed, it is warned that it is not the system of government that will secure their future, but the righteousness of the people and the King. The rest of the Old Testament can be viewed as a demonstration of the failures (and occasional successes) of monarchy. A few good Kings did well for the nation. But the majority of the Kings and foreign Emperors were rotten, and eventually led to the destruction of the nation.

Of course, the most important aspect of democracy is not that we vote to choose our government, but that government is limited in its power and subject to laws external to it. Without that respect for a rightly given divine law a democracy will collapse into tyranny. (Of course, the law has to be truly from God -- Islamic societies also claim to follow a divine law, only one that was not truly from God but from the imagination of one of the most obviously false self-proclaimed prophets in human history.) This principle, even if not always followed, originated in the Old Testament (e.g. 1 Samuel 10:25). Other ancient societies had laws and law codes, but they were determined by the government rather than the government (in principle) being subject to them. In a just democracy the leaders are servants rather than masters of the people (Mark 10:42-45). The fundamental freedoms required for a democracy include freedom of speech, namely that a government should not be able to restrict criticism of itself (while nobody else has the power to restrict criticism). While not explicitly endorsed in the Old Testament (at least as far as I am aware), it is implicit, in the way that prophets had authority to come up and criticise Kings, and in the way that the evil Kings were condemned for turning on these critics and persecuting them. Against this, of course, are commands such as those saying that false prophets were to be put to death (e.g. Deuteronomy 18:20). Then there is the need that the population should be well informed and educated, which is also encouraged throughout the Old Testament. I am not going to pretend that the ideal Old Testament society was a perfect precursor of a libertarian or classical liberal modern society. Some of those laws we might view as harsh were put in place due to historical circumstance and the means available at the time; others as a concession to people's impure nature. But as a Christian, if we don't like the laws, we still have to say that we are more likely to be wrong for that particular historical context and the needs of that society than God. But neither was this Old Testament system of government, when implemented properly, the authoritarian nightmare of Professor Stenger's imagining. Neither is our modern system of government the unrestrained good that Professor Stenger seems to imagine. I am perfectly willing to accept representative democracy as the least bad of the various options, but unless the people and their leaders are righteous it will fail and is failing.

And, of course, the foundations of our modern democracies, and everything good about them, were laid in medieval Christian Europe. Yes, the ancient Greeks had an influence, although it is notable that the most influential of them, Plato, did not favour democracy, but saw it only as a stepping stone to tyranny. Precisely because it saw all people as equal even when they weren't and gave them license to indulge their passions, and then try to irrationally justify them. Ancient Athenian democracy was not the same as the representative democracies that began their gradual development from Medieval Europe (for one thing, it was still a society based around slavery). Greek philosophy certainly influenced the initial development of our modern systems of government, but so did Christian thought as it had developed over time.

So Professor Stenger's criticism that our modern system of government was not inspired by Biblical principle, and therefore Biblical principle is wrong, fails in numerous ways. Firstly, our modern system of government is flawed and far from being perfect. It's good points do tend to be extrapolated from Biblical principles. It's failures are often due to not following those principles. But the New Testament is not intended to contain a guide for how to run a government, being concerned with far more important issues such as individual morality. The Old Testament does contain principles for governance, but (as a Christian) I would argue that its civil commandments were developed to serve the needs of that particular society in its historical context, and the context of the part it had to play in God's salvation plan. And I would say that the government proposed in the Old Testament law and practised (in principle) during the Judges period would, if the law had actually have been followed, have been no worse than our own.

Professor Stenger cites Ephesians 5, and claims that this indicates that women ought to be treated as less than human and subject to men. This is the full passage in context, starting from verse 21:

[Submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

The word translated "love" here is agape, the desire for goodness, rather than the emotional feeling of romantic love we commonly associate with relationships. So by selectively quoting only the first few verses of the passage, Professor Stenger made it seem that the wife was a slave to her husband and a lesser human. But the submission is to be mutual. The burden on the husband is, if anything, even more onerous than that of the wife. This passage is about maintaining a godly order in the family, not about the wife having lesser status. Passages which do discuss worth or status in the eyes of Christ, such as Galatians 3:28, are distinctly egalitarian. Yes, Ephesians 5 and other passages give the man and woman different roles in the family and also Church organisation. The family roles arise ultimately from human biology, and the differences in the Church roles arise in part out of the family organisation, and in part so that those who take the place of Christ in the sacraments properly represent his character , including his male character. But that doesn't mean that the female roles in the family or the Church are inferior to the male roles; or (even worse) that women are lesser than men. It means that women are far too precious, and their natural roles in the Church far too important, for them to waste themselves trying to do the work of both sexes (since men are far too useless to fulfil the equally important roles given to the women). The Biblical picture is, then, a vision of the sexes working in harmony with each other, to build each other up, and together build up the family, the Church, and wider society. It does not devalue either men or women, nor their roles. Neither does it make the mistake of supposing that men and women are interchangeable. The position is one of the complementarity of men and women, acknowledging that they are both distinct in how they ought to relate to each other, but also that they are of equal importance and worth in the family, the Church, and wider human society.

So the Christian view (or at least this contemporary way of expressing a traditional Christian view) which I have briefly summarised is neither the modern doctrine of sexlessness and interchangeability, nor it is the hierarchical patriarchy built on the suppression and the unjust enforcement of power which post-modernists love to criticise. It is a view that both acknowledges the reality that people are different in some respects, equal in others, but most of all are to work together harmoniously, acknowledging and celebrating the unique skills of the other, and not seek to demand their own power or superiority.

Again, this might be out of step with modern sensibilities. But then we have to ask whether it is the Christian faith which is wrong, or those modern sensibilities. And given the mess we are making of our society, only a fool would assert with full confidence that it is the modern view which is superior.

So now we come to the issue of slavery.

The problem here is that the term slavery covers a range of meanings. When modern people (at least in the West) think of slavery, they tend to think of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In this form of slavery, known as chattel slavery, people are deemed as the property of someone else. There is no choice in becoming a slave; you might be born into slavery or taken into slavery against your will. There is no hope of release; the slave can be harshly treated and is ultimately disposable. Slaves can also be kidnapped into slavery, or captured as prizes in war. The European traders did not kidnap Africans as slaves. African tribal leaders kidnapped people from rival tribes, and then sold them to the Europeans for a nice profit.

Chattel slavery is widely condemned in the Bible. The best example of it is the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt, which is never spoken of well. Kidnapping people to sell them as slaves was condemned by Paul in 1 Timothy 1:10. I have no hesitation in condemning this type of slavery, and in this I think I stand firmly in the line of Christian tradition.

Secondly, there is debt slavery. Here, if a man falls into debt which he cannot repay, he has the option of selling himself or a member of his family. They would then repay their debt through their labour. This is for a fixed time period, voluntary (albeit that the alternative is starving to death), and there regulations in principle preventing the mistreatment of slaves. Upon release, the slave is to be provided with enough to set himself up as a freeman. This is the type of slavery that is found in the Old Testament law. Granted there are some passages which make me uncomfortable. For example around the treatment of slave girls (Exodus 21:7), or the provision that the slave should leave a wife provided to him during his slavery when granted his freedom (Exodus 21:3). But equally I have to admit that I am not fully aware of the historical context for these laws. Neither is anyone else alive today.

So, is this type of slavery good? The key thing here is how we judge what is and is not good. Many people today, perhaps in reaction to the 18th and 19th century slave trade, treat individual freedom as the highest good. I would disagree with that. Not that I take the opposite view that it is no good at all. We are are, after all, rational beings with a free will, and the natural end of the free will is to make decisions for ourselves, and any form of slavery is a hindrance to that. But there are other considerations; we should not abuse the free will to promote evil. There are other evils which are greater and more significant than constraining somebody's free will. I struggle to think of any other evils which are suffered by a slave who is treated with respect and without abuse -- as they would have been had the Old Testament law been followed. What were the options to debt slavery? Let the person starve? Let them live of the charity of others -- this was actually commanded in the Old Testament law (Deuteronomy 15:7), but do you really want to establish the principle that prudent people are forced to take on somebody else's reckless and potentially unlimited debt? There are limits to what charity can achieve, and giving out handouts is not always the best way to combat poverty if that poverty is caused by more structural problems than merely a run of bad luck. What I am saying is that there is no good solution to the problem of debt -- other than to not fall into debt in the first place -- that do not create problems either to the people directly involved or to the wider economy. It is a choice between bad options.

The question then becomes whether debt slavery (as permitted in the Old Testament law) is the least bad option available to an ancient society, which lacked the various institutions and balances which are available today. This is harder to judge, because while it is relatively easy to identify evils, it is much harder to judge which one is worse in a given context. Clearly the Christian has to judge that God got the balance right. I am not going to defend that here, but I am going to suggest that it is trickier than the atheist might think to prove that God got it wrong.

So what of slavery in the New Testament period? This was a mixture of debt and chattel slavery. Some people were better off as slaves than as freemen. The economy was built upon slavery, and given the sheer number of slaves, the Empire was deeply concerned about slave rebellions and revolts. It was thus illegal to aid an escaped slave, or to encourage one to be set free or to escape.

This is the context in which the apostles were writing. They did not have the power to call for an end to slavery, and had they done so they would have been persecuted. They might well have believed that a society without slaves was an economic impossibility -- certainly everyone else at the time did. So when writing about slavery, they focused on dealing with the situation as it was. The focus was on avoiding the abuses of slavery. Christian masters were taught to treat their slaves as human beings (e.g. Ephesians 6:9) -- this would have been revolutionary at the time. Slaves, in turn, were to work hard for their masters, as they were obliged to do. There was an acknowledgement that this could involve suffering (e.g. 1 Peter 2:16). But suffering as a Christian, particularly in a society hostile to Christian values, is to be expected. A Christian should always set an example to others -- to evangelise with their actions as well as their words -- and the best way for a slave to gain the respect of those above him with the hope of changing them for the better was to work hard and endure any unjust punishment with forgiveness. Not easy, but there are worse things than being a living slave. For example, one could be a dead slave, which is what would have happened had Paul and Peter called on them to resist their slavery.

But that doesn't mean that the apostles would not have preferred the slaves to be free. Note 1 Corinthians 7:19:

Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.

Equally, the letter to Philemon concerns an escaped slave of a Christian master, who runs into Paul and is converted to Christianity. Paul sends the slave back to Philemon, as he was legally obliged to do. But he went as far as he could to request that Philemon to not punish the slave and even to set him free. Paul had no authority to free the slave himself. But he could ask Philemon to do so, and that is what Paul did.

So the New Testament treatment of slavery is nuanced. Slavery was a reality in that society, and the apostles had to deal with that reality as best they could. Even if they had desired abolition (which we don't know -- it is unlikely that they thought about it, or could imagine how society could be organised without slavery, as nothing else had been tried), they had no authority to request it. And it was a secondary issue to the gospel they preached. It would have been a distraction from the more important issues they concentrated on. They were more concerned with people's relationship with God and their internal righteousness, and being a slave did not affect that one way or another. After all, one cannot enact social change without first changing the character and attitudes of the people within that society. So first of all teach that slaves are not inferior, and universal love, and then in time the rest will take care of itself. Preach abolition to a society not ready for the message, and you will only create enemies, including the full power of the Roman government.

Indeed, there are two more types of slavery mentioned in the New Testament: slavery to sin and slavery to righteousness. These are, of course, used in a figurative sense. But the fundamental point is that all people, except those redeemed by Christ, are enslaved to sin: compelled to do what is evil and wrong by this power that sits over them. This is far worse a condition than being enslaved to a man. (Indeed, today we would say that desiring to take somebody as a slave is a consequence of the slavery to sin.) Freedom from this type of slavery is one of the main concern of the New Testament writers. But the alternative to being a slave to sin is not unlimited freedom, but to become a different type of slave: a slave to righteousness. And this type of slavery is good; it is a figurative way of saying that we have become a virtuous and ultimately happy character.

Slavery has existed throughout human history in pretty much every culture. Our contemporary world is the exception. Actually it is not completely an exception -- there are still far too many slaves even today. But our time and society still remains exceptional in that slavery is illegal in almost every country even if it is still practised illegally. But how did people justify one man taking another, ultimately his equal, as property? In the classical period the answer was recorded by, for example, Aristotle. It was not admitted that all men are equal in worth. Slaves were simply by nature a lower class of human being, and thus justly deserved their status. Thus slavery was justified by the inherent superiority of some people over others. In the classical period, this had nothing to do with the categories that some people obsess over today, such as race. The inferior and superior people were to be found in every nation, group, language, and so on. It was something inherent to the individual; perhaps inherited from their fathers, or perhaps just their own fault. Slavery in the Americas was also driven by this sense of inferior people, only this time based on race.

And this is where the New Testament really comes into its own in the battle against slavery. It refuses to acknowledge that people are of different inherent worth. Slaves are treated as equally human to their masters. The key verse where this is stated explicitly is Galatians 3:28, but it comes through in every discussion of slavery in the New Testament. Equally the New Testament dispels the notion that societal hierarchy, or difference in roles, entails inherent superiority. I usually cite Matthew 20:25 to make this point, where those in temporal authority are called to be servants, and whoever would make themselves first in life is in actuality last. The principle that "All men are equal" might seem natural to us, but that is only because we live in a post-Christian society. We forget how utterly revolutionary the concept is. And as such, the New Testament, while it doesn't directly call for abolition, still undermines the foundations of slavery. And this is why I think that the movement to abolish slavery was instituted in a Christian context. I think I read somewhere that some Buddhists also had a similar attempt, but not many of them and it didn't last long.

Of course it took time for the Church to recognise this. I cannot think of any Church Fathers who regarded slavery as good. A few called for outright abolition -- Gregory of Nyssa is the obvious example -- but most regarded it as a necessary evil, required for the good running of the economy. It was not uncommon for Christians in the late Roman Empire to have a mass freeing of their slaves, or to seek to purchase slaves for the purpose of freeing them.

Then came political collapse, turmoil and invasion. The movement for abolition in Western Europe stalled until political stability was restored -- which it was, eventually, at least in the North. Southern Europe was still subject to raids from newly Islamic North Africa and Spain. Many of these raids were to kidnap slaves -- Islam has no hesitation in taking slaves in raids or war, since Mohamed himself did so and encouraged his followers to do the same. But in the North, things largely settled down, and the abolitionist movement started again, led this time by the Medieval Roman Catholic Church. There was still the economic problem to resolve -- how does one create a functioning economy without slaves? Nobody had tried it until then -- and the initial solution of feudalism was perhaps not the best. But from the 11th century and early 12th century, slavery was formally condemned by a series of local Church councils. This only had a moral rather than legal authority, and it took maybe another century for slavery to die out, but a firm opposition to slavery was embedded in Northern European culture. Eventually feudalism itself was gradually replaced by the primitive forms of a capitalist economy.

Then came the Renaissance, the corruption of the Church, and the beginning of a more secular and classical outlook, and the downgrading of all things Medieval. People looked back to the classical period, and for some that included its acceptance of slavery. Of course, it was forbidden to take a Christian European into slavery -- but maybe people of other races, such as the Moors and sub-Saharan Africans could qualify as the sub-humans that the Roman and Greek writers had referenced. Slavery had never been fully abolished in Spain due to its contact with Islam. During the age of exploration, the Canary Islands were discovered by the Spanish. Initially in 1435 a Papal Bull was issued reiterating the traditional position of the Church, and condemning slavery in the Canary Islands. However, an unfortunate Papal Bull of 1454, confirmed and extended to the Portuguese in 1456, 1481, 1493 and then 1514 permitted the slavery of non-Christians in the lands discovered by the Iberian Kingdoms. Native Americans proved to be poor choices of slaves, because of the susceptibility to European disease, and the process began of purchasing slaves from Africa to transport across to the New World.

As a Protestant, I have no interest in defending the Renaissance Roman Church. This was just one of numerous moral and theological abuses of the time. The reformation and counter-reformation would soon come to put things back in order. But it should not be thought that support for slavery was universal in Spain and Portugal. There are many people to mention, but I will highlight las Casas who in particular urged for abolition of the slave trade based on Christian principles. The abolitionists won the argument, and in 1537 a papal bull was issued banning the slavery of native Americans. This was intended as the start of a general teaching document against slavery in general. Further bulls were issued in 1591, 1639, 1686, 1741, 1839, and 1888 (which was the one mentioned by Professor Stenger). In 1815, the Roman Church joined with the British in urging the Congress of Vienna to include a prohibition of slavery.

These pronouncements effectively banned Catholic Southern Europe from continuing the slave trade (although it did not formally end slavery in South America, as many just ignored the prohibitions). Unfortunately, various enterprising businessmen from Protestant Northern Europe saw this as an opportunity. The Dutch, and in particular the British, took over the slave trade. This began in earnest in the seventeenth century (aside from a few participants in the 1550s). Of course, this was not without opposition. In particular, by the 18th century, a large movement of abolitionists, led by evangelical Anglicans and Quakers, fought against the trade and swayed public opinion. A key ruling in 1772 by Lord Chief Justice William Mansfield confirmed the Medieval tradition that it was illegal to hold a slave in Britain. This has been suggested as one cause of the American Revolution: some founding fathers of the US were afraid that the ruling would be extended to them, and chose to revolt rather than be forced to give up their slaves. While wars in France and vested interests slowed down the campaign, in 1807 the slave trade was finally abolished and 1834 slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. At this time, Britain had an evangelical and moral revival. Subsequently, the Royal Navy and the global power of Britain worked to abolish slavery everywhere in the world. The other European powers supported this, but Britain led the way. The British Empire was not a universal good, but this accomplishment balances against any evil that it perpetuated. The one place outside its reach was the United States, which (as always) was something of an anomaly in the Western world, and not always in a good way.

So I have nothing to be ashamed of from the Christian approach to slavery. Slavery was a universal across human societies. Up until the 18th or 19th century, when a few secular philosophers started to belatedly jump on the bandwagon -- and, back then, they were still influenced by Christianity -- the only people to oppose slavery were Christians and perhaps a small number of Buddhists. This opposition, unlike their opponents who were inspired by secular philosophy, was based on Christian teachings stretching back to principles drawn from the New Testament. From the start, Christian theologians were also near universal in regarding slavery as an evil; the only contention being whether abolition would be even worse in its economic damage. There were, of course, exceptions. The Papacy of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is one of those. But the Renaissance papacy is the last place I would look for genuine Christian leadership and morals; this wasn't the only problem with it by far. Then, as Professor Stenger noted, there were several 18th and 19th century US theologians (both Protestant and Catholic) who advocated for slavery. There were at this time Christian institutions who benefited from slavery and owned slaves. I cannot defend them; but can only say that in this regard they stand against rather than within mainstream Christian tradition. Being a Christian is no guarantee of being perfect. We have seen that throughout Church history on other issues, and, unfortunately, occasionally on this issue as well.

Natural morality

So if our values do not arise from God, where do they come from? Professor Stenger critiques religious believers who claim to get their values from an internal light. They pick and choose which parts of the Bible to follow. He cites how US Catholics' beliefs are out of step with official Vatican teaching. He also states that Vatican teaching is out of step with the Bible, which does not directly condemn abortion. He also states that searches for the historical Jesus invariably reveal a Jesus who matches the prejudices of the person conducting the search. In other words, these Christians are getting their moral values from something other than divine revelation, and then selecting what parts of the Bible they want to follow on the basis of their pre-conceived and non-Biblical notions.

Of course, to a certain extent much of this is correct. It is also irrelevant. All it does is show that there are many bad Christians out there. Some of these are theological liberals, particularly those who search for a "historical Jesus" who usually has very little resemblance to the real figure of history. I define a theological liberal as someone who accepts modern culture, particularly enlightenment (modernist or post-modernist) philosophy, and tries to adapt their interpretation of the Bible to match it, rather than trying to revise their philosophy so that it matches the Bible (and apostolic tradition). Of course, this has the effect of making liberal Christianity ultimately incoherent. In its strongest forms, it accepts the premises of atheism, but rejects the conclusion. But not every Christian, even today, is liberal, or significantly influenced by liberalism; and distinctions should be made between orthodox Christianity and liberalism. They are in many respects two different religions.

With regards to the charge of picking and choosing which passages to follow, it should not be forgotten that the Christian regards the Bible as containing numerous covenants. The old covenant is binding between God and the Jews; the new covenant between God and Christians. The terms of those covenants are not the same, as outlined in the New Testament. But, with that in mind, orthodox Christians, whether Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant have been consistent in their moral values, and remain so to this day. Even if we don't always live up to those values. It is a tenet of Christianity that nobody is perfect.

With regards to abortion and the Bible, Professor Stenger is not really correct. While these is no direct condemnation in the Bible (although Exodus 21:22-23 comes close), it can be deduced from the commandment against murder combined with the various statements that human life begins in the womb, and in particular at conception. It is likely that there was no explicit commandment because it was never a thing in Jewish culture. As soon as Christians emerged into the Greco-Roman world, they would have encountered abortion, and immediately condemned it (as seen in Didache 2, one of the earliest and most influential Christian writings outside the New Testament). There were, of course, debates about when ensoulment occurred, although modern embryology has settled those. The position of the Roman Catholic Church, also held by other orthodox Christians, is demanded by the implications of the Biblical text combined with modern science, and backed up by the earliest Christian traditions.

Professor Stenger prefers a naturalistic explanation to the origin of moral values. He sees examples of social animals working together as a prototype for moral values. Morality is thus instinctive, built into our genes by biological and cultural evolution. Darwinian selection then favours those groups whose moral values best favour the survival of the species. These then become accepted.

I do have a little sympathy for this argument. I do think that different moral values which could be adopted by a civilisation can influence how successful or powerful that society can become. As stated above, I think that this is a reasonable explanation of why different cultures from across the world have converged on similar moral values. Other cultures from different parts of the world tried different codes, but were not able to compete. This also forms a strong argument against changing traditional moral values if we are interested in the survival of our civilisation. If it was honed by evolution to something that worked well (in the sense of being able to propagate itself), then modifying it will thus be to the detriment of society. We are unfortunate enough in contemporary Western society to be involved in a large scale test of this hypothesis, and given the societal decay we observe the hypothesis appears to be passing that test.

This cannot be a philosophically satisfying answer to the question. It begs the question of why the survival of a human culture should be considered good. It tries to extrapolate from what people do to what they ought to do. As Such, it fails to both Hume's and Moore's criticisms. Evaluating history is a good way to predict the consequences of various moral systems, but it does not tell us objectively which of those systems should be pursued without begging the question for an ultimate moral goal. For example, I criticised our contemporary shift in morality because, if history is any guide, it is likely to weaken Western civilisation. But you could argue that Western civilisation ought to be weakened. Indeed, that might have been the goal of the early postmodernists, hoping that it would usher in a socialist or communist revolution. I think they will be disappointed in that; more likely is either anarchy, a plain old fashioned tyranny, or absorption by a more powerful (perhaps Islamic) culture. (I mean more powerful and coherent than Postmodern culture, not than traditional Western culture.) Professor Stenger's naturalistic morality is not a viable alternative to natural law or divine command ethics.

The immoral God

I agree that one of the biggest difficulties facing Christians is the violence of the Old Testament. Of course, much of this happened against God's will. The Old Testament is, after all, the story of how Israel swayed between godlessness and piety, and even during the periods of piety they were far from perfect. This is part of the Christian message: it is not enough for God to merely give us a law, and some prophets, and hope that we will obey it. Even when (like David) we want to obey the law, we will still fall short. The problem of human sin requires a far more radical solution. So for many of the examples of immorality in the Old Testament the message is that "Yes, it's evil and horrible. That's what people are like when they disobey God. And you (the reader) are no different. You would do the same things in those circumstances." Many of the military campaigns were in defence.

But that's not a complete answer. There are times when God Himself commands the carnage. We have the command to destroy the Canaanites in the books of Numbers through to Joshua. Even if the Israelites didn't manage to carry it out, it is the command itself which is the apparent problem. Then, in 1 Samuel 15, King Saul is commanded to wipe out the Amalekites. His failure to fully obey led to the Kingdom being stripped from him and his descendants. There are other examples; judgements by Elijah and Elisha on people who offended them come to mind. Then the direct acts of God: the destruction of Sodom, and the global destruction by the flood.

It is true. We have sympathy for the Canaanites, the Amalekites, and those who come under God's wrath. Modern acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing burn fresh in the memory. And it is difficult, particularly with the New Testament emphasis on charitable love.

There is however one question to ask. Is God wrong in doing these things, or are we wrong by being appalled by them? We have to consider that it could be our disgust which is in error. Indeed, if we accept divine command theory, we have no choice but to accept that God was in the right. The reason given for these acts in the Old Testament is the application of divine justice. Justice is not incompatible with love. Justice is applied love. I usually use Romans 12:9 to define what is meant by love:

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.

Justice is about raising up the good and pushing down what is evil. The Sodomites; the Canaanites, and so on were just too far gone. There was no hope for those cultures to be restored. So they were to be taken out to give hope for the good to prosper. Sometimes God acted directly to cut out the infection; at other times he used an agent, such as the Israelites in the case of the Canaanites, or the Assyrians and Babylonians when Israel herself passed the point of no return. Those stories are in the scriptures to horrify us; but not out of sympathy with the Canaanites or Sodomites, but because they offer the reminder that the same fate could happen to us if God fails to find ten righteous men among us. God is a God of judgement and He is not to be trifled with. The New Testament is much more appealing with its message of divine mercy. But mercy is only mercy if there was a previously a threat of punishment. These stories in the Old Testament show us that threat.

But is God just playing tricks on us? He comes up with this big threat, and then offers mercy, expecting us to be grateful, when he was the one waving the sword at us in the first place? Wouldn't it be better if God was just nice to us from the start? No, it wouldn't be better. The justice is in response to the corruption of our character, and that has to be resolved, willingly. It is not loving to allow somebody to continue in self-destruction. The threat of judgement is not God being arbitrary; it is the natural consequence of human sin. God loves us too much to allow sin to go unpunished. Equally, there is the need to reward the righteous. The reward is what the righteous want most of all: a society free from sin and its effects. That can't be achieved without first of all removing the unrighteous. That is one possible reason for why we face judgement. There is a bigger picture than just those being judged.

We cannot condemn something as evil unless we first have a well defined and objective understanding of good and evil. We cannot balance different goods, and determine which is more important, or different evils, to discover which is worse, without understanding the mind of God. Natural law and divine command ethics allow us to say what is good and what is evil; they don't tell us which evils are worse. That's the problem with condemnations of these Biblical passages. We are replacing objectivity with a subjective feeling and then blaming God. We can see why God could have done these things. The destruction of evil is an act of good. Did the good achieved outweigh the suffering of the Sodomites or Canaanites? As a Christian, we just have to trust that God got it right.

Still doesn't make it an easier, though.

Professor Stenger also makes a lot out of Matthew 10:34-37.

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

His critique is not so much on the first verse, but on the apparent denial of family values, contrary to what most Christians teach. Of course, this has to be drawn against other passages such as Matthew 19:1-9 and Matthew 15:1-9, which emphasise the importance and the permanence of marriage and honouring parents. The emphasis across the New Testament is on either "family values" (if not necessarily what is meant by that term today) or celibacy so one can concentrate on divine service. There are a few passages which might be used as counter-examples: this one and its parallel in Luke 12:51, Matthew 19:29 and its parallels in Mark and Luke, or Luke 9:61. Those are the examples I can think of; there might be others I have missed.

But, of course, they aren't counter-examples. They are, however, good lessons in how to read a text faithfully. Firstly, we have to check for any significant textual variations. In the case of Matthew 10, there aren't any, which is good since it makes things easier. Secondly, we should read the passages in the light of their context within the New Testament, both the gospels (reflecting Jesus' teaching) and the other books (reflecting how the closest disciples of Jesus applied Jesus' teaching). As stated, the overall thrust of the New Testament is on the importance of maintaining "family values." Other passages in the New Testament make it clear that Christians should abhor violence, and instead work to do good even for their enemies and those who persecute them. If there are two possible interpretations of the passage, one consistent with this broader picture and one inconsistent with it, the consistent interpretation should be preferred. Professor Stenger's interpretation runs against this bigger picture, and as such should be disfavoured if there is an alternative way of looking at the passage consistent with that picture.

Thirdly, the passages should be interpreted within the context of their genre. They are sayings of Jesus contained within a gospel narrative, which is a form of Greco-Roman biography. Jesus frequently used imagery, exaggeration, hyperbole and so on to make his points. Thus when Jesus referred to a "sword", it does not necessarily literally mean a sword, but could be a metaphor for lesser violence, verbal abuse, more subtle forms of persecution, or (as Luke has it in his parallel account) division. Fourthly, it has to be interpreted within the historical context, namely late second temple Judaism, a society which put great emphasis on the importance of family. Fifthly, we have to consider the range of possible interpretations, and not just jump to the first that comes to mind. None of the passages I cited state that being close to one's family is unimportant. What they say is that following Jesus is even more important. Indeed, the passages lose their potency if family values are unimportant. They only make sense if there is an accepted background that honouring one's father, mother and children are of supreme importance. Then saying that being faithful to Jesus is of even greater importance than that really brings home the point.

Then, one has to discuss their context within the passage. Here I will restrict my discussion to Matthew 10. Matthew 10 starts with the calling of the 12 apostles, and Jesus sends them out to the various towns and villages to preach Jesus' message. The rest of the chapter contains Jesus' final instructions to them before they go. It gives practical advice concerning how they are to sustain themselves, and to treat the people they encounter, both those who accept them and those who reject them. Then from verse 16 it states that they should expect persecution and to be treated with disdain and violence. Then some words allegedly of encouragement: don't fear them even if they start killing you. If you give up and deny your calling you will suffer even more. Then we come to this passage. Then another warning that you would have to take up your cross (i.e. they will try to crucify you) and should be prepared to lose your life because of what you are preaching. Finally, there is a word about the rewards for those who do accept their message. Then Jesus finishes instructing them and sends them out, while he himself goes on to teach in the cities.

In other words, the immediate context of Matthew 10:34 and following concerns the persecution of Christians, and these verses have to be read as part of that message. But surely Jesus has come to proclaim peace? Yes, he has -- but he also knows that the world will respond to that message with violence. The consequence of Jesus' ministry will be a (metaphorical) sword, but not one held by Christians, but waged against Christians. Similarly, it is not the Christians who will break up the family, but their family members who will turn against them, and force them out. Jesus is saying that if you are given an ultimatum between their family and Himself, then they should choose Jesus. He is not saying that they should turn against their family, but that their families might turn against them.

Finally, we should compare the passage with its parallels and allusions. There is a shortened version in Luke 12, where he tones down the message a little and discusses "division" rather than the more powerful language of Matthew. Possible Luke made a meaning-for-meaning translation from the Aramaic, while Matthew used a more literal translation. Less well noticed is the allusion to Micah 7:

2 The godly has perished from the earth, and there is no one upright among mankind; they all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts the other with a net. 3 Their hands are on what is evil, to do it well; the prince and the judge ask for a bribe,and the great man utters the evil desire of his soul; thus they weave it together. 4 The best of them is like a brier, the most upright of them a thorn hedge. The day of your watchmen, of your punishment, has come; now their confusion is at hand. 5 Put no trust in a neighbour; have no confidence in a friend; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your arms; 6 for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man's enemies are the men of his own house. 7 But as for me, I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. 8 Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.

The New Testament contains many such allusions to the Old, where a particular choice of words or a phrase is intended to encourage someone to cast their minds back to a particular Old Testament passage. In this case that is Micah 7:6. While not a direct quote, it clearly mirrors various phrases within the passage. These allusions are deliberate and well-chosen; the wider context of the Old Testament verse can be used to interpret and shed extra light on the New Testament passage. In this case, the context, both of this chapter and the book as a whole, is how the world is dominated by evil people who plot to do violence, even against their own household, and in particular against the people of God (including the prophet itself). The second focus of this passage (and the wider context of Micah as a whole) is on the judgement of God; how the evil will ultimately be punished and the righteous rewarded. This fits in well with the message of Matthew 10, and confirms that it is to be understood as persecution of Christians by both people in the wider community, and even their own families.

So Professor Stenger has misread and misinterpreted the passage. He has taken one interpretation, and assumed it to be correct without looking at the full picture. Of course, many others do the same, but that is still no excuse for intellectual laziness.

Professor Stenger's final point is to look at how Christians have behaved throughout the centuries. He sees a history of violence sanctioned by the Church. He mentions the crusades, persecution of the Cathars, abortion clinic bombers, and list of abuses in Islam or committed by Muslims in adherence to their faith. I can easily add to this list -- I can cite counts of greed, corruption, prostitution, sexual abuse, adultery: Bishops throughout history have provided great examples of how a Christian ought not to behave. It is certainly true that some people have done some shockingly evil things in what they claim is the name of Christianity. Today, fortunately, at least with regards to Christianity, these tend not to be violent; but the recent sexual abuse scandals among Roman Catholics and Protestants, including prominent figures, and (just as bad) the attempts to cover them up are utterly disgusting. I cannot blame anyone for looking at that and feeling the urge to turn against the Church and Christians in general.

In some cases I can offer some defence. The crusades, for example, were in response to some 400 years of Islamic aggression on Christians. Even Rome was sacked at one point. Syria, North Africa, Spain, France, Sicily: in all of these places, the Muslims had come in with bloodshed and devastated Christian communities. They were stopped in France (albeit at the cost of much innocent French blood), but continued to raid the coasts of Europe. Until the 11th century, Western Europe lacked the capacity to defend itself. Now it did, and it had to. It also had a population of newly converted Vikings who were itching for a fight, but now weren't allowed to attack Christians. The ultimate trigger for the crusades was the defeat and loss of Asia Minor by the Byzantines, and attacks on Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem. Christianity is not (quite) pacifist: it does allow conflict in some circumstances in defence of oneself or an ally, or to prevent oppression. Today, we might look back at the second world war, and many would argue that the Western allies were justified in trying to stop the Nazis and the Japanese, even at the huge cost of that war. The crusaders faced an enemy no less bloodthirsty, aggressive and evil. They did not, however, pursue their conflict in a just manner, or (in some cases) strategically sensible manner. I can't defend everything the crusaders did, or every word spoken by the Popes to motivate them, but there is mitigation in the context.

Similarly, one can look at the inquisition, and note that they were more lenient than the secular authorities at the time.

Plus, of course, it is wrong to look at the evil done in the name of Christianity, but not at the good. There are very many Christians who have come close to living up to the standards expected of them: who have founded schools, hospitals, or given up all they have to help the poor; who have worked for peace and spoken out against injustice and evil. The bad guys get more attention -- history remembers those who waged a war in which countless thousands died better than it remembers those who gave shelter to a poor man -- but it should not be thought that they are the typical Christian.

But this is all beating around the edges. For a religion built on repentance and sanctification, there are far too many acts of evil associated with Churchmen. Tertillian in the early third century wrote, to those who were persecuting Christians just for being Christians,

Yes, and no one considers what the loss is to the common good — a loss as great as it is real, no one estimates the injury entailed upon the state, when, men of virtue as we are, we are put to death in such numbers; when so many of the truly good suffer the last penalty. And here we call your own acts to witness, you who are daily presiding at the trials of prisoners, and passing sentence upon crimes. Well, in your long lists of those accused of many and various atrocities, has any assassin, any cut-purse, any man guilty of sacrilege, or seduction, or stealing bathers' clothes, his name entered as being a Christian too? Or when Christians are brought before you on the mere ground of their name, is there ever found among them an ill-doer of the sort? It is always with your folk the prison is steaming, the mines are sighing, the wild beasts are fed: it is from you the exhibitors of gladiatorial shows always get their herds of criminals to feed up for the occasion. You find no Christian there, except simply as being such; or if one is there as something else, a Christian he is no longer. We, then, alone are without crime.

Those were simpler days. But we no longer live in them.

Do you not think that the acts of those who have prevented me from using the same defence of Christianity are not even a more abhorrence to me than they are to the atheist? For the atheist, they are merely crimes against humanity. For me, they are both crimes against humanity and the Church which, despite all its flaws, I love. And indeed, they are crimes against Christ.

There have been evil people calling themselves Christian, just as there have been evil people naming themselves after every religion and philosophy. Some of those evil people calling themselves Christian have achieved positions of authority in the Church, just as evil people outside the Church have achieved positions of authority. Many of these evil Christians no doubt sincerely accepted Christian doctrine, except for those moral commandments they broke, and were in other ways quite devout. They certainly fooled many until news of their crimes broke. Others were quite public about it, and got away with it, perhaps because people of their time, or at least those with the authority to act, just didn't care.

The question is whether this is a valid argument against Christianity.

Firstly, there is a difference between what Christians have done and what Christianity teaches. Christianity ought to be judged on its own merits. That some people have abused it does not negate that. If Christianity taught that it was OK for priests to abuse young children in their care, then by all means condemn it for that. But it doesn't. It teaches the opposite. If it teaches that sexual abuse scandals ought to be covered up, and that the perpetuates simply moved around so they can repeat their crimes, then by all means condemn Christianity for it. But Christianity teaches that errant Christians, including Christian leaders, who do such things ought to be publicly shamed, disowned and expelled. That certain priests have done so is a double failing; firstly the crime itself, and secondly their hypocrisy in not living up to the standards which they are meant to be teaching. The failure is the responsibility of the priest, and (if appropriate) the wider church organisation for failing to discipline them or stop it from happening. But you can't blame the innocent for the acts of the guilty. You can't blame the rules when people break them. You can't blame Christianity or Christians as a whole because of the failures of some Christians.

Secondly, Christianity teaches that such abuses will happen. Firstly, because nobody is perfect.

None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good,not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Romans 3:10-18, quoting various Old Testament passages)

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. (Romans 7:14-19)

Christians are human. One of the central themes of the Christian message is that all human beings are capable of great evil. Only supernatural intervention can save us from that. Christians are not immune to this, as the history of the Church confirms. Throughout the Old Testament, we see people falling short of God's standard. They are part of the covenant community; they have and know the law; are warned by the prophets, but still fall away. Some more than others; some to evil comparable to that seen in Church history. The message is that just calling yourself a Christian (or Jew) and holding to some of its beliefs is not a guarantee that you won't fall away. Just like calling yourself an atheist or agnostic does not guarantee that you won't perform great acts of evil -- even if you don't realise that it is an evil.

And this has been going on from the beginning. We see an example of it in the Corinthian Church in the New Testament:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife. (1 Corinthians 5:1)

Not the same sin as the examples we see today, but again we have a Christian bringing disgrace to the Church among the pagans. And until Paul wrote, the Church tolerated it. Of course, there are differences to the more recent examples. There is no indication that this man was a Church leader, and the contemporary Church did not act as Paul commanded, which was to immediately cut out the problem from the Church. The problem is, once again, that Church leaders have not followed Christian doctrine, but instead either tried to cover up or even approved of the evil practice rather than acting swiftly against it.

Secondly, there are warnings such as this:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20:28)

Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?" And then will I declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness." (Matthew 7:21)

In other words, there will be people coming into the church, even into positions of influence, who will not hold to the true faith but draw people away from it. And this has happened. Those people might have meant well at first, but perhaps fell away and abandoned the faith but not their position. Others were drawn into the church because it held power in society. Power both corrupts and attracts corrupt people. Today we see Church leaders who are more interested in looking good to society, and holding acceptable views to society, than they are in genuine preaching of and adherence to the gospel.

So why stick with the Church? Firstly, because there is good mixed in with the bad. Even in those denominations (such as my own) where the leadership is largely a mixture of the incompetent and the heretical (or, in most cases, both), there are still good churches to be found, good clergy and the underlying church doctrine is still sound (at least, from my classical Protestant perspective; Roman Catholics will disagree). There is still a hope, even if it is diminishing, that the denomination can be rescued. Secondly, because we need the Church. It remains the organisation set up to protect the doctrine, build the community, and administer the sacraments. Of course, theological soundness is not a guarantee that you will not have moral scandal: it is not just theological liberals who have committed these evil acts. We have work to do to get the Church back into shape. But everyone who falls short and does not repent or stand back from their ministry is at some level stepping outside Christian doctrine, even if they are orthodox in other respects.

So yes, Christians, including Church leaders, have done evil things. So have people from every other religion and philosophy. I don't see any evidence that the Church has attracted more utter scoundrels than other groups with similar prestige and power. With regards to Christians, partly this is because people in general are evil, and Christians are still people, and partly because historically the Church has held societal power and prestige, and this attracts people who might not be so interested in living the Christian life. But the very fact that these worst offenders go against Christian doctrine (by which I mean that which was taught to the apostles by Jesus, as recorded in the New and Old Testaments and early Church Fathers, together with what follows from force of logic from such teachings) means that it is not Christian doctrine or Christianity that is at fault, but individual people.

A counter to this would be that doesn't Christianity teach sanctification, that people with the Holy Spirit indwelling will gradually become better? And if so, shouldn't the worst offenders be remade into less bad offenders and then good people by the time that they rise up the hierarchy? Yes, Christianity does teach sanctification. And it has been observed for many people. But it is a gradual process, and dependent on the repentance and faith of the person involved. A bad person who upon accepting Christianity will not always immediately become a good person. Their sinful urges will not immediately be cured. And if those urges are indulged in rather than regretted, they might not be cured at all. This isn't going to stop people with evil inclinations from progressing through the Church. Neither does it stop people with evil inclinations, who don't really believe in its doctrines, joining the Church, in order to gain prestige and influence. That will probably become less prevalent in the future as being a Christian is likely to decrease one's regard in general society. Nor will it prevent genuine Christians being turned by poor instruction into not taking Christian values seriously. And, of course, once such people gain an influence, and control over assessing vocations and appointments, then standards could well become laxer.

The Church is not a company of perfectly good people. It never has been (except, perhaps, in its earliest days, if Tertillian is to be believed). It never will be, at least until Christ's return. It is a congregation of flawed people. That's the point. With some considerably more flawed than others.

But, despite all those caveats and excuses, I have to say that I do agree in part with Professor Stenger. There are far too many Christians in public view, and even more outside public view, both people claiming to be Christian and those who genuinely hold to otherwise orthodox doctrines, who have behaved in ways which would make even the pagans blush. Thus is more of an argument against the contemporary Church than it is against Christianity. The Church is too important to abandon -- one should not let the stories of such evil people in its midst and even leadership let one forget that they are very much the exception, just as people like that are the exception in wider society. One should not be distracted to miss the good that is done by and by people in the Church, which overwhelms the evil.

But I can quite understand why someone who has doubts about Christianity would look at these scandals and be turned away. And this is something which for Christians is entirely self-inflicted. It is not something I can adequately defend.


In this post, I have looked at the moral argument for and against Christianity. I have first of all outlined the moral argument, and suggested that if there is an objective standard of goodness then it implies that there must be a purpose linked to the essence of a being. If this is an extrinsic purpose then you are left with divine command theory, which presupposes the existence of God. If it an intrinsic purpose, then you are left with natural law theory, which indirectly implies the existence of God. The only alternative is moral nihilism, where there is no objective standard of goodness. Moral relativism, which posits a subjective standard of goodness, fails to adequately answer the question of whether or not people's choice of moral standards is itself good, and thus collapses into either moral nihilism, incoherence or unevidenced assertion.

I have also shown how Professor Stenger's attempts to derive an ethical theory from naturalistic principles fails to the secular arguments of Hume and Moore.

Professor Stenger also pointed out that many professed Christians accept secular rather than Christian ethical values. This, however, is not an argument against Christianity, but only of the Church for failing to make its case strongly enough even to its own people. People are naturally pushed to conform to their society. It is an indictment of the contemporary Church that it has not well enough inoculated its members against this pressure. But it is not an indictment of Christian moral principles, which (as has been shown at the academic level) is based on sounder foundations than the views of contemporary liberal society.

The question then shifts to whether the Christian vision of morality is incorrect. Do Christian values promote evil? I have argued that some of the cases used to attack the Church are misguided: Christian values are actually the opposite of what the critiques assume. In other cases, one can only call Christian ethics evil if one has an independent objective standard of ethics apart from God. In that case, the question arises whether it is the Christian ethical perspective which promotes evil, or the perspective of Christianity's critic. The problem for the critic is that ultimately it is God who determines what is good or evil (either by direct command, or in Natural Law theory through the design and construction of human beings), and so if you get into a argument about ethics with God you are going to lose.

The next question is whether Christians themselves have lived up to their own standards, and behaved well. I consider it indisputable that many Christians, both historically and in recent times, have been seriously evil people, and performed deeds which are by any standards and especially those of Christianity utterly unacceptable. Here I think that Professor Stenger does have a valid point. However, they are directed against those individual Christians, and others in Church leadership who have turned a blind eye to the crimes, and not against Christian ethics itself.

Next time: the problem of evil.

Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 21: The problem of evil

Reader Comments:

1. Highboi
Posted at 17:18:56 Monday July 18 2022

Reddit on essentially ordered series

What do you think? Did they disprove the existence of an essentially ordered series? The main point essentially boil down to the fact that special relativity says that information can't travel faster than light. Hence, the stick<-hand<-arm<-.... extends back in time due to the time delay. Hence, the stone would move without the contact of the stick. They've also made a point about cause and effect being forces or something like that.

2. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 23:23:27 Wednesday July 20 2022

Essentially/Accidentally ordered series.

Generally speaking, I agree with the criticisms of the argument made by "classical theist" lower down the thread.

This premise of the argument is incorrect:

So you can see here that time is an important part of these examples. Essentially ordered series are said to be non-temporal, i.e. they don't stretch "back" in time but rather stretch "down" in the present, i.e. they are about a single moment of time. It is claimed that these series are vertical, not horizontal.

The key things that distinguish essentially ordered series are

a) dependence

b) a clear direction between cause and effect (which could be but need not be temporal)

c) That the members of the series we observe are not capable of generating the effect from their own internal power (unless they have been put into a particular state from their cause).

An accidental series is when one of these conditions is not satisfied. In particular, if the typical cause has the inherent power to generate the effect.

[I note, however, that in the typical examples there is also a fourth premise, d), which is that the system has a natural equilibrium state and it is out of equilibrium. For example, the stones would naturally come to rest if they were not pushed; from this we conclude that if they are in motion they must have been pushed.]

There is no requirement for the changes to be simultaneous (even if some writers might have given this impression). So, yes, in the case of the stick moving the stone, the motion isn't instantaneous. There is a small compression in the part of the stone in contact with the stick, which then expands and compresses the next layer of stone, and so on, until the whole stone moves. This process is not instantaneous (it will proceed at the speed of sound through in the stone I think, although not completely sure -- been a while since I looked at this sort of thing), but it doesn't matter for the argument. Each layer of the stone cannot push the next part unless it has previously been compressed; and it can only be compressed if it has been pushed by something else, which in turn would either be able to generate the effect from its own power or would be pushed by something else.

I have used the example of train carriages myself. The point is that if you see the carriages in motion (and there is friction slowing them down), there must be a force to counteract that friction. The carriages are not capable of generating that force. Therefore there must be something capable of generating the force in the series that isn't a train carriage. Even if there is an infinite series of train carriages, there cannot be an infinite series of only train carriages.

In the case of the cosmological argument, the issue concerns the actualising of potentia (related to the change from one physical state to another). Only something which is actual can actualise a potentia. Potentia cannot actualise themselves. Nor can there be a circular chain where A actualises B which actualises C which actualises A. Except for something which is pure actuality, everything is required to be actualised in order to induce a change in something else (or itself). So here we have a series where there is dependence, a direction of causality, and the individual members of the chain cannot by their own power generate the effect, but can only pass on the actual nature down the chain (unless there is something essentially actual, or of pure actuality).

The chain of actualisers need not be simultaneous. B actualises C at one moment in time (which might entail B ceasing to exist, or changing to another state), but there is no need for B to be actualised at that time. It could have happened earlier.

So the argument is that no matter how long the chain of cause and effect is, there has to be something there which is capable of actualising others without being actualised itself. This remains true even when we take the limit that there are an infinite number of non-purely actual members in the chain of causes. Without the purely actual being, there would be nothing to explain why the chain of causes is actual, since none of the members of the chain, nor any set of them, would be able to generate that actuality in themselves.

3. Highboi
Posted at 07:10:57 Thursday July 21 2022

True. If I remember correctly we can define simultaneous as meaning being on the same light cone. I think you discussed this your Aquinas and modern physics article.

One of the determining factors of whether a series was hierarchical or accidental was simultaneity of cause and effect. However, in special relativity (and Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism is taking us to special relativity), the concept of two events at different places being at the same time is a difficult one to define. The naive interpretation, inherited from Galileo (and Aristotle) posits an absolute time, which is the same across all space. However, measurement of duration depends on choice of coordinate system, and this is not absolute. Each observer can choose their own system. Given that the speed of light is absolute (the same in all inertial reference frames), observers travelling at different speeds experience time differently. This contradicts the notion of an absolute time; and without that, we lose the naive notion of things being simultaneous at different locations. However, we can define simultaneous as meaning being on the same light cone (this was Einstein's definition when developing special relativity). That two things are on the same light cone is not observer dependent. In this sense, we can say that the movement of the field by the first particle is simultaneous with the movement of the second particle by the field. The movement of the third particle by the field will be simultaneous with the movement of the field by the second particle. However, the interaction between the third particle and the field need not be simultaneous with the interaction between the first particle and the field. That concept is not intuitive, but when you turn to non-Euclidean geometry you get a lot of concepts which are not intuitive but happen to be right. We changed the definition of simultaneous; some of the logic associated with the old way of thinking about it is no longer valid. Thus we have local simultaneity between neighbours of the chain, but not global simultaneity between every member of the chain. But I would say that that is enough to maintain the nature of a hierarchical series.

4. Highboi
Posted at 07:28:44 Thursday July 21 2022

Causality from the outskirts of time

If you want you can check out this slide show about Causality from outside of time.

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