Believers of theistic religions all regard themselves in possession of a moral code that is perfect and absolute (applicable to all times and places, without exception). These believers often further claim this moral code can only be found in their holy books.
It’s well-known that the moral codes of these believers conflict, not just across religions, but even within religions themselves, and not just in the present day within these religions, but across time as well. That is, on almost any moral question, a different answer will be given depending on the religion you query. And even if you inquire within the same religion, you’ll likely get a different answer. There’s even a good chance you’ll get a different answer if you asked a believer from the same religious sect today verses one 50 or a hundred years ago. These facts alone justify reasonable doubt in the claims of a theistic absolute morality.
Nonetheless, let’s assume for a moment there is an absolute morality as conveyed by an omnibenevolent, omniscient creator, and that one of the present religions is in possession of it. Is this progress? No!
The reason is because this creator is invisible and interacts with us in no discriminating way. We are thus at a loss to know whose believer’s absolute morality is the real one among all the pretenders. Every believer’s justification to elevate their own moral system over that of their competitors is either 1) question-begging or 2) non-discerning.
A common example of (1) is “Only my religion fully values the sanctity of human life.” But the believer is assuming the sanctity of human life is an inherent feature of the creator’s absolute morality, when in fact it may very well not be. To better understand this fallacy, let me rephrase the example: “Only my religion fully values the sanctity of cows.” The person is arguing for the objective superiority of their religious moral code by making reference to their religious moral code. It’s circular and shows nothing.
Similarly, someone may denigrate the moral code of another religion as a way to prove it cannot be divinely originated, pointing to, say, death by stoning for adultery. Same fallacy as before, but it’s also a fallacious appeal to emotion.
The other tact, an example of (2), is to stress the utilitarian results of their morality. “Look at all the clinics, shelters, and free kitchens we run,” a believer might say. While noble, altruistic action is observed in practically every religious tradition. It’s also observed among the non-religious, and even among non-humans. The Islamic terrorist organization Hamas provides a vast number of social services, so does that therefore mean Islam possesses the perfect moral code we all should follow?
Holy books, revered prophets, tradition, miracles, a radically changed life—all “proofs” the Divine Author allegedly employed to definitively mark the supernatural source of a believer’s morality. Except that, again, these are standard fare among the various theistic religions. To paraphrase a line from a great film, “When every morality is supernatural, none is.”
Believers who claim their particular religious morality reflects the will of some divine creator are thus caught in an intractable bind. Nothing they do or say can irrefutably, or even reasonably, prove their claim. This is evident in two ways: first, by the protracted failure to establish a single moral framework not just among religions, but even within a particular religion; second, by ever-shifting theistic views about just what is moral and immoral.
A divine creator who wanted us to follow an Absolute Moral Law could have easily avoided this situation. He could have poofed into existence an indestructible written codex containing all the moral knowledge we’d ever need. Heck, he could have simply inscribed the instructions into our genetic code, such that everyone, everywhere would know, for example, never to eat shellfish or pork without it having it to be drilled into their heads by other humans. A divine creator could do these things…or any number of other actions. But he hasn’t…
Instead, we have a situation that reflects the worst of all possible worlds. On the one hand, millions of people believe they’re following divine moral commands to which they stubbornly cling. On the other, there are significant disagreements among these moral commands, with no method or means given whatsoever to establish which originate from a divine source.
The tragic consequence is that moral advancement among such individuals occurs very grudgingly, and usually after they’ve inflicted much needless suffering. Slavery is perhaps the most infamous example. Long was this barbaric institution upheld by the very same believers who would later repudiate it, but not before millions of lives were ground up in its brutal grip, and wars which consumed many others were fought over it. One would think the sad lesson of slavery would teach believers to temper their uncompromising moral attitudes, but they make the same mistake with depressing regularity.
What if a believer just happens to have access to the genuine moral dictates of the creator? They’re not much better off. Since we’re imperfect beings – a fact believers readily admit to – moral belief and action cannot be guaranteed to reflect moral dictates. And life doesn’t present us with easy, black-and-white moral dilemmas. If a believer had to lie to save someone’s life, most (but, frighteningly, not all!) wouldn’t give it a second thought, despite lying being specifically prohibited in most theistic absolute moral systems. The bottom line is that such believers have no way to know whether they’ve interpreted the dictates perfectly, particularly in morally ambiguous situations, and every reason to doubt it.
Whether they care to admit it, theists are de facto moral relativists; as history has amply proved, their morality is contingent on time, circumstance, interpretation, or context. But since they refuse to acknowledge this truth, correcting a false or harmful moral view is nearly impossible to them. Until the creator of the Real Absolute Morality stands up and unmistakably presents it to us the presently living, believers with their conflicting moral absolutist codes will continue to be a drag on moral progress. Our only viable course is to apply our own human reason to discovering and establishing moral codes like secular humanism in ways that mimic how we uncover scientific truth. We’ll make mistakes, but acknowledging mistakes are possible makes swift remedies probable.