A moral yardstick

Hi Josh et al!  Thank you all for taking the time to read this – I appreciate the honest dialogue.

Note: If you’re new here you should probably check out the following first:

My original blog entry from when I deconverted – http://disconnector.googlepages.com

And here’a a quick link to the blog post that I’m replying to – http://www.sanitys-cove.com/2017/01/dear-rich-response-to-my-atheist-youth.html?spref=fb

First of all let me make a small point about why my first entry was so roundabout and really didn’t touch on the points that you made in your blog.  The deal is this – we need to decide on a yardstick (or meter stick for everyone else in the world outside of the US, parts of Liberia, and Burma) for measurement.  We all know that without common ground we can never have any sort of agreement so it’s important for me to state categorically where I stand – otherwise we will have confusion later.

The entire point of that first entry was that we need to decide on objectively measurable and provable metrics to define what is real and what is not real – and what is moral and amoral.  This isn’t an anti-spiritualist or areligious statement. I think that most Christians would say precisely the same thing about their beliefs – they believe because they have what they feel to be highly reasoned and reasonable proof of what they believe.  Anyone who didn’t would be a fool to waste their time with a belief system that made so little sense.  Respectfully I have to say that most Christians have not fully thought through the contents of their own holy book.

My issue is that fact that although you feel that I am reading the Bible ahistorically and out of context there is a far larger issue that respectfully I think you are missing – the fact that by your own admission there is an ahistorical character present throughout this entire narrative – God himself.

God is not a historical character.  By his own and the classical definition he stands outside of the time stream as a conductor stands outside of an orchestra.  He is as present right now in the past as he is in the future as he is in the present moment.  It’s the same god that at right this moment is speaking to Abraham that’s also the god that you spoke to in your devotions this AM.  And by those standards this being is either incredibly corrupt, inconceivably hypocritical, or – the most likely for me – non existent.

A moral yardstick is a moral yardstick regardless of time in history.  I’m not talking about whether guys wear skirts (which as a kilt wearer I am firmly PRO), which hand you eat with, or how you worship your god(s) but basic and fundamental ideas of justice and mercy.  There aren’t many of these to be honest and frankly many of them are preserved in Mose’s law – an act for which the Western world should be grateful to Judaism.  One that is not spoken yet is felt in most religions (explicitly in Jainism!) and creeds is the following:

Needless suffering of innocents is wrong and should be avoided 

Why is this a universal yardstick?  Because if it’s not we have to face the fact that one day Auschwitz may be accepted as righteous and good.  And objective reality has shown us that Auschwitz was not good – it brought nothing into our world but pain and suffering. If this is not a universal truth then where can we stand on anything?  Can we agree on this – that Auschwitz and the Shoah by Gas and Bullets wrong and will never be right?  If so then we can continue.

Wait though!  I can hear the knives being whet with that last statement – “How can you have *universal morality* without a universal being?  The trap is sprung!  Mwahahahahaa . . . someone get CS Lewis and warm up WordPress!”.   The truth is this – we don’t need an all-powerful being to have an internalized sense of right and wrong.  The very ideas of “right” and “wrong” (without pressing to any specific examples at this point) exist because of simple evolutionary pressures that are part of any system.  Now I’m sure we’ll chat about this later in more detail but for now let me leave it at this – there are distinct evolutionary origins for human (and animal) altruism and right/wrong modeling.  There are reasons that all humans act as though there is a word “written on their hearts” even though there is no writer other than natural selection.  Like I said – we’ll discuss this later but for now please reference Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God, Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, or pretty much any author referenced in this article.  Fundamental universal morality is possible without any sort of divine being.

So – if there is a universal moral code (be it from God or from natural selection) then how does that apply here?

If there is a real universal basic moral code that defines right and wrong it will not be time dependent.  Either an action is *right* within this context or it will be *wrong*.  If we let morality be defined by the epoch or era it was committed in then we stand on a slippery slope indeed.

Let me give you an example:

Ghengis Khan and the sons that followed him were easily the worlds most ruthless and successful conquerers.  It has been estimated that he and his armies killed between 5 -10% of the entire earth’s population during his conquests.  His Golden Horde depopulated entire segments of the world leaving nothing but literal mountains of corpses.  It was an empire that is still unmatched in size and scope.  How did they do this?  Well I recommend that you read Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford for the details – but one thing that stood out for me was the army’s unremitting cruelty.

In the spring when the Great Khan rode to war from his fastness in Mongolia he would send out emissaries to the cities along his line of march.  These men would give each city a chance to surrender and offer a token of subjugation. If they did they would be treated equitably – which meant that they preserved their customs, religions, and most of their leadership as long as a tithe and tribute was sent once a year to the leader of the Golden Horde.

But . . .

If you were unfortunate to reside in a city that decide to fight back you were doomed. After the Mongol army had defeated your army in the field (because of their mastery of horse archery and their keen understanding of large scale tactics from centuries of herding horses and cattle on the steppe) they would lay siege to your town with the worlds best siege engineers.  The Mongols made a policy that engineers and architects were to be captured and pressed into the Mongol army, treated well, and sent to a far part of the empire so they wouldn’t be laying siege to peoples that they would be sympathetic to.  Once the walls came down – and they pretty much always did – no quarter was offered or expected.  Every man, woman, and child was put to the sword or sold into slavery.  Some of the fertile crescent and Han Chinese cities that were put to the sword (generally for rebellion after the fact) were cities of *major* size – for example Merv was a city of at least 700,000 to 1.3 million people which Tolui (son of the Great Khan) ordered razed except for 400 people.  This was done with an army of less than 100,000 actual combatants – and all of this slaughter was accomplished with just swords, knives, and bows.  This was slaughter on an unimaginable industrial scale that made Hitler and Himmler look like the fumbling rank amateurs that they were.  How did they do this?

History tells us that each and every Mongol soldier was given a certain number of individuals to kill.  Depending on rank and ability each soldier would be given a group of older men, women, and children (the young men were usually killed out of hand) to personally execute. This was done over a period of days – but once it started it could not end until all of the captives were dead.  The soldiers killed their captives in whatever way they saw fit.  Most were just butchered with swords but many were used for archery practice or set beneath the floor of the dining hall for slow death by crushing.  Ata-Malik Juvayni who was a historian of this times and witnessed this while with the Mongol Army stated it this way:

“The Mongols ordered that, apart from four hundred artisans. .., the whole population, including the women and children, should be killed, and no one, whether woman or man, be spared. To each [Mongol soldier] was allotted the execution of three or four hundred Persians. So many had been killed by nightfall that the mountains became hillocks, and the plain was soaked with the blood of the mighty.”

Cold historical facts right?  This is a real event that happened to real people though Josh.  This isn’t an allegory or a story – it was the cold-blooded slaughter of so many people that it changed the demographics of the entire world.  Imagine for a moment being a captive sitting in a horse corral (where Mongols kept their prisoners) with perhaps your wife and kids listening to the screams of everyone you know being brutally stabbed, clubbed, run down by horses, shot with arrows, thrown alive down wells, or just simply raped then murdered.  You can’t protect your kids.  You can’t protect your wife.  You and everyone you know is going to die a horrific death and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it except for wait for the executioner that’s drawn your lot to come and take the lives of you and your family.  This is real.

A simple question then.  By Mongol ethics and mores this was completely acceptable and normal.  Resistance to the great Khan was a religious offense against the Eternal Blue Sky and rated nothing other than death. To them this was normal and part of life.  But can we say that this was wrong?  We have two choices:

  1.  It wasn’t wrong because of the moral and ethical environment of the times.  It was a terrible thing to happen but because of the standards of the time we must say that it was ok . . .  it was cold and heartless but just part of the landscape of the Mongol Empire.  Plus lots of good came out of it!  The depopulation gave smaller landowners that came later the ability to create more wealth in fewer hands and created the idea of a middle class. This is sad but it’s part of the creation of the modern world.  Ghengis was just doing what folks did back then.
  2. It was wrong.  There is no compelling reason not to judge the brutal execution of innocent non-combatants as indefensible and morally corrupt.  Regardless of the times that this occurred in or any good that came from it the act itself was wrong and indefensible.

You must choose one or the other – there is no middle ground here.  This is not “cultural imperialism” or lack of knowledge of the NME world.  I have studied that part of the world and am actually decently knowledgable about its history and culture.  But it is right or it is wrong to kill innocent people regardless of your place in time.  I believe that we have the moral right and power to judge certain acts regardless of the environment it was committed in.

Here’s the catch Josh – If you accept number 1 then you *must* accept that Hitler and his cabal were not wrong for what he did to the Jews – in his world the Jews were considered to be bent on the destruction and subjugation of the entire world.  They sincerely and deeply felt that they were right and that they were on the side of world history.  Himmler once said –

Anti-Semitism is exactly the same as delousing. Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology, it is a matter of cleanliness. In just this same way anti-Semitism for us has not been a question of ideology but a matter of cleanliness.

Or Hitler –

If only one country, for whatever reason, tolerates a Jewish family in it, that family will become the germ center for fresh sedition. If one little Jewish boy survives without any Jewish education, with no synagogue and no Hebrew school, it [Judaism] is in his soul. Even if there had never been a synagogue or a Jewish school or an Old Testament, the Jewish spirit would still exist and exert its influence. It has been there from the beginning and there is no Jew, not a single one, who does not personify it.

They believed they were right.  Were they?

Of course not.  It’s a stupid question right?  So – we do have a universal moral imperative that we can stand on – the murder of innocents is wrong. Period.  Full stop. We can apply it to the Nazi criminal system and well as the Mongols – and to anyone that threatens harm to an innocent.  Even if the threat is not carried out the reality is still there – doing or requesting the harming of an innocent is morally indefensible.

Which brings us full circle back to Abraham and Isaac.

The very same god that you claim came and died for your sins and created what you feel is the greatest moral law is the *same* being that asked Abraham to sacrifice his son.  If this is a true story (as it must be if we are to take the Bible seriously) then he was asked to kill his own flesh and blood to show fealty to an invisible god.  It’s not recorded what Abraham thought – whether god would send another sacrifice or that it would be stopped but in the end Abraham bound his own son and placed him on the altar.  Like I pointed out in my blog – if we accept this as a historical fact then it leaves anyone that believes in this particular in a bit of a pickle.  If we accept that harming of innocents is wrong then I would say that a powerful force *requiring* someone of lesser power to prove their loyalty via the death of an innocent is morally wrong.  Period.  Full stop.  Regardless of time or culture.

This is especially true when you remember that this is *god* – a being that exists in all times and places simultaneously.  Are little bits of him bronze age Near Middle Eastern and follow NME ethics and mores and other little bits of him somehow modern and worried about Syrian refugees?  Either god is a moral force that can suggest a universal morality or he is not.  If he is not then he is either

  • corrupt (I’ll change the rules for people that I like in certain times)
  • hypocritical (I’ll change the rules for myself when I wish but not for others)
  • non-existent (the story is a justification of Bronze age barbarism)

Out of that list I choose non-existent.

And remember – Abraham didn’t even sacrifice Isaac.  I’m basing an argument on the *threat* of violence that Abraham offered Isaac.  I think even that is immoral.  

Now let’s look at people that actually got the knife in the ribs.

Think about this passage from Numbers and then think about what the Germans did in Poland and the Ukraine just 60 years ago:

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,  “Take full vengeance for the sons of Israel on the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered to your people.”  And Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian, to execute the Lord’s  vengeance on Midian.  

. . .

And Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the congregation went out to meet them outside the camp. And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. And Moses said to them, “Have you spared all the women?  “Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord.  “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately.  “But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves.  

and of human beings, of the women who had not known man intimately, all the persons were 32,000.  

So Josh – 32,000 young women who had watched their families be butchered and bled out were left for what?  I know this wasn’t the explicit command of God in this passage but Deuteronomy 20:10 (quoted later) states that this was exactly correct by god’s own word.  If it was wrong somehow he certainly didn’t put a stop to it like he did every other time the Israelites wandered too far.  Where were the miracles and mercy for these people?  Did every single one of them deserve the sword or a lifetime of bondage?  Even the male infants?

Or let’s not forget god’s explicit command in Deuteronomy 20:10:

When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

16 However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy[a]them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. 18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.

That sounds almost precisely like something right out of the Mongol playbook.  So it’s cool to commit genocide as long as your god agrees and your society accepts it?

I have a feeling that what you’re thinking now is “wait Rich – god needed to protect Israel from the vengeance of these folks when they grow up.  He had to clean house to make way for his chosen people. They *had* to kill them or risk all of Israel later!  Think of all of the good that came out of those people’s sacrifices!”.   I’m going to ignore the fact that god is supposedly omnipotent and could have simply convinced them all to just move or teleported them to some far away land – by the character and person of god all of this was avoidable.  But what I really want you to think about is this little quote from Heinrich Himmler –

I ask of you that what I say in this circle you really only hear and never speak of. We come to the question: how is it with the women and the children? I have resolved even here on a completely clear solution. That is to say I do not consider myself justified in eradicating the men – so to speak killing or ordering them killed – and allowing the avengers in the shape of the children to grow up for our sons and grandsons. The difficult decision has to be taken, to cause this Volk [people] to disappear from the earth.

Sounds exactly the same to me.  Same thought process and same reasoning – but somehow the Israelites were justified and the Nazis were not.  If you justify the slaughter of innocents for your beliefs then it is an a priori reason for anyone else to justify it for their beliefs.  You simply cannot have it both ways.  So- what’s god’s excuse?

You ask how I have the right to judge god.  I judge the history that he supposedly left by the light of a universal moral code that we all know to be true regardless of time or place.  Just because you were told to commit an immoral act by some higher power does not make that act moral.  When I read these accounts they revolt me as they should any moral human being.  If I accept them as true then I have to accept that god is monster on the level of Hitler or Pol Pot.  I’d rather just not believe in god’s existence – but frankly I’ve got a pile of other reasons for that 😉

Thanks for your time – I’m looking forward to your reply!

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3 thoughts on “A moral yardstick

  1. Rich,
    You make a good arguement. I myself do believe in God and have questioned how he could slaughter a whole nation or tribe. In my point of view these things I would ask God the purpose of the text. Is it how it really happened or is it miscued from what really happened. For all I know these nations where like the muslim extremist of today. But I do choose to believe and if I am wrong then I am wrong. I am the type to try to see all sides of a subject and make my own decisions. I feel like we are alike in ways especially when it comes to gathering information. Just because one person says it doesnt make it 100% true.

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  2. Rich, your eloquent comparison of the Mongols slaughtering millions and God’s commands to the Israelites give food for thought. Your “universal moral yardstick”, (strangely enough derived from Jainism) was that needless suffering of innocents was wrong and should be avoided? Have you read the first book of Augustine of Hippo’s “Confessions” ? If so would you consider it and then answer the question “what is an innocent?”
    Many thanks!

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