Apologetics Fail #16
Absolute Morality

Most religions assert some absolute morality, whether it’s moral laws handed down by God in Islam or Christianity, karma and reincarnation as presented by Hinduism, &c.

As such, religious apologists decry the secular position that morality is relative to the time and society asserting morals.

I’ve dealt with the argument from the X Commandments on “thou shalt not kill.” The line is pretty clear: it allows no wiggle room (aside from the “get out of jail free” card Christianity and Islam offer if you sincerely repent your sin). I dealt with that as the issue in which I was aboard USS America (CV-66) when we were ordered into combat to stop the Bosnian Muslim genocide by Serbia and its allies. Is stopping mass murder by killing the murderers with military force a violation of that command in the X Commandments? (We’ll skip for the moment there are two different sets of X Commandments, one in Exodus and one in Deuteronomy, and there are actually 523 commands, not just the Big Ten, and different Christian faiths actually use different X Commandments.)

If the command “thou shalt not kill” is a moral absolute, then we were guilty under God’s law in the Old Testament for killing. The reason does not matter in moral absolutes. All reasons are a faulty defence against God’s Law.

Similarly, if someone is holding a knife to your child’s throat and the only way to stop that person is to kill him or her, is that moral relativism? Yes. According to the X Commandments, it is a violation of God’s law (it says nothing in the X Commandments about defence of another).

Even in the notoriously pacifistic Quaker faith there are moral relativists. The shipwright who designed the first warships for the fledgling US Navy was a Quaker. President Nixon was a Quaker while prosecuting the Vietnam War. (To be fair to Quakers, as I understand their faith, they allow such relativism as individual direction after prayer and meditation. Quakers have also served in the Armed Forces.)

Part of the reason we were ordered into battle was President Clinton’s position that his worst foreign-policy failure was failure to intervene the previous year in the Rwandan genocide of Tutsis. Numerous treaties to which the USA is a signatory, along with United Nations resolutions, makes it clear that genocide is a crime against humanity and a war crime. That genocide was finally stopped when France intervened. That informed his decision when he ordered our task force into battle.

So if morality is absolute, I am guilty of the command “thou shalt not kill” because I was aboard a warship directly involved in killing people, even though those attacks saved countless more civilians than the militias and military personnel we killed.

Most secular people would argue that in the overwhelming majority of cases, theft is bad because it harms the person from whom you steal. It does not advance the common weal, and therefore is socially unacceptable.

An atheist gave a specific example of theft as a counter to the moral absolute argument of theft. He gave the following argument as a thought experiment:

As an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency, you’ve successfully embedded yourself into a terrorist organisation to disrupt its plans and give intelligence to the CIA. In the course of your participation in this terrorist group, you learn they are planning to blow up hundreds of elementary schools across the USA.

After learning of this plot, you find the papers, plans, instructions, &c that will be sent to the saboteurs to carry it out.

You are now left with a moral dilemma: Do you steal the plans and save the lives of tens of thousands of children, potentially leading to the arrest of the saboteurs?

The apologist in that case danced all around the question, because that example shows the failure of a position of absolute morality. If theft is always morally wrong, stealing the information of the plot is morally wrong. He tried to redirect to Jesus, other arguments, anything but answer the question.

The reason he couldn’t answer the question is he is wrong and he knows it. There are no absolute morals, and faced with the idea of theft saving the lives of thousands, his faith derailed.

Slavery in this country used to be considered moral (to slaveholders, not to slaves or abolitionists). During the Civil War, every Confederate state cited in its secession documents the Bible justifying slaveholding (forget all that revisionist crap about tariffs or states’ rights today). Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens’s Cornerstone Speech, which gave the reasons for the Confederacy to rebel, also used the Bible to justify chattel slavery. (Part of those 523 commands in the Bible are about the rules of holding slaves, and the New Testament tells slaves to obey their masters, even the cruel ones.)

If there were absolute morals handed down from an Absolute Lawgiver, there would not be differing interpretations of those absolute morals (holding slaves, justified warfare, killing in defence of yourself or another, &c). There would not be differing morals between different nations, or different times.

Those all stand as irrefutable evidence against absolute morality, and when faced with an example that refutes an assertion of absolute morality, the apologist must deflect to protect his or her faith from uncomfortable truth.

(The theft apologetic came from the Atheist Community of Austin television show “The Atheist Experience.”)

Today’s atheist inspirational quote:

"Don't swallow your moral code in tablet form." —Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)


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