Failing the smell test

Catching up?

Have you ever had that moment when you pull a quart of milk out of the fridge, scratch your head, and wonder if the fine folks at the factory were serious about this “expiration date” thingy?  Yep – the story of my life before 30.  You slosh the milk around looking for clumps or any unusual stickiness in the container but unless it’s really-far-gone-fuzzy-horror level nasty it’s hard to tell.  After pouring liquid cheese on more than one bowl of cereal I learned a simple thing to do – you use the smell test.

You know – the smell test.  Crack the lid a little and take a sniff and see if that jug smells “off”.  It’s usually quickly apparent that your nose can tell you things that your eyes and ears can’t.

I think that many of the moral issues that we face in life can be treated the same way.  If you’re not sure try another sense and see what it tells you . . . in this case I’d like you to apply your reason to a moral issue.  Not presumed faith or a flannelboard version of Christianity that you learned in Sunday school – but to apply your real mind and it’s sense of right and wrong to an event that helped to define the birth of three of the major world faiths . . . Judiasm, Islam, and Christianity.

In my last blog entry I argued that I believe that there is an evolutionary imperative that leads humans to a sense of right and wrong in the narrow sense of the avoidance of suffering for innocents.  I then reflected this back to several events which supposedly occurred in the Old Testament that I felt reflected poorly on the morals of the individuals and deities involved.  I don’t want to restate that argument here (read it here)- but I did leave a fairly large gaping hole that I feel that I need to fill.

Mr. Rob Cherry and a few others pointed out on other forums that this seemed like an incongruous argument considering how cruelly people have treated each other through human history.  What I’d like to do in this post is further clarify this idea – and thank you all for your constructive comments in this regard.  Nothing sharpens ideas better than honest debate.

I think that the evidence shows that every human (and many animal!) societies have the concept of mercy and justice ingrained into them.  I don’t believe in and the evidence doesn’t support a fully Hobbesian / Lord of the Flies existence for any society that has had time to stabilize.  Every society has laws and mores that reflect this idea – that there is an obligation to protect certain members of the society or that certain actions are right or wrong.  This can be explained partially by kin selection  via Hamilton’s Rule but this is actually a burgeoning field in evolutionary psychology.

I feel that these built-in moral imperatives that are shown in our everyday lives (kids shouting ‘that’s not fair!’) and in our law system.  I believe that I have evidence that we have attained this via evolution (I have a post cooking to address this).  But as a Christian or a theist you can fall back on a  CS Lewisian argument for moral objectivity.  Regardless of the method that this gets implanted into our subconscious I feel that we have proof for some sort of framework for civilization imprinted on our genes.  Of course that last sentence which gives away my opinion of how we gain this ability. 🙂

But . . . .

Ever society has the *concept* of “right action”- the question is *who does it apply to*?

Every society also has the concept of “insider” and “outsider”. Insiders could be your nation, your Volk (Nazis again – we hit Godwin’s Law early here), your fellow believers, etc. Outsiders vary in scope – they could be innocuous (the Belgians in pretty much every European conflict since 1900) or despised and hated (Tutsi and Hutu come to mind here).

Every society has the concept of justice and some sort of differing of treatment for those inside versus inside. This can be as low level as “we can be friends because you’re white and on the inside of my social relationships – black folks need not apply” for a someone of racist bent in a civil society all the way to “hey get your machete and lets hack the neighbors to death because they are Hutus”.

I feel that religion has done more to create groups of insiders and outsiders than any other force in human history.  This might be a post for later – but for now please reflect upon my first post if you have the time.

We all treat insiders and outsiders differently. That’s human nature as well.

The Nazis treated their own children well and would have prosecuted anyone who abused a child within their group – at the same time they were sending Jewish children to their deaths in places like Babi Yar and the Warsaw Ghetto.  The Mongols had incredibly strict and detailed rules about how to treat people within their clans – and very detailed rules about how to treat those outside of them.  To a Mongol the idea of spilling the blood of a relative was literally abhorrent to the point that assassination within the Mongol tribe was defined by very specific rules.  I’m sure that any of these rulers or common people would have died to protect their children or wives from harm as well.  But at the same time they were creating mountains of dead in their brutal conquests of Eastern Europe and Han China.  These two sets of world views do not contradict each other – in fact they reinforce the idea that we have an innate morality.  Otherwise we would not see evidence of special rules for insiders in every single society on Earth.

I know that I keep on talking about National Socialists and the Mongols – but I don’t want to muddy the water with other groups.  The point stays the same regardless.

This is simply human nature.  It’s just applied to people who nature or ideology has decided is part of our “in” group.  There are tremendous evolutionary reasons for altruism within your group – they are fewer for those outside our group.  But the moral imperative remains regardless.

Anyway . . .

The difference that I’m trying to focus on within my last post  is that we are dealing with a being that is supposedly above this characterization. The idea of the Christian god that I have (which may be wrong) is that he is transcendental, omnipotent, and eternal – which should place him far above petty human skin color and societal differences.  Is god an anthromorphic figure – or a transcendental deity?  Remember – we aren’t trying to prove or disprove that people are dicks to others that are different.  This is revealed to be true throughout history – what we are trying to prove is if there is an ineffable being over it all.

If the eternal god of the universe was writing the rules shouldn’t he have asked the people he chose to act in a way in accord with his nature?

Why didn’t he point out his standard of conduct to the Israelites? If he had a chosen people why not use his godly power to move those Midianites or convince Abraham without the horror and bloodshed?  Why did god need to traumatize a young man – or entire civilizations?  Why not accomplish his will without death and slavery?  Isn’t that what a god that is eternal and loving would do?

Instead you see him giving the same commands to the Israelites that Ghengis Khan and Adolph Hitler gave to his armies – we judge some as horrible, rapacious, and morally indefensible but the other as just the Chosen People doing what needed to be done and morally defensible.  And remember who supposedly told them to act this way . . .

Wait – I know what you’re thinking here – “But god had to reach those people where they were in the world they knew!  Genocide was just the way of things back then.  Those people wouldn’t have understood anything other than this!”

And that’s where we return to the smell test for morality.  If you honestly step back does this feel right to you?  When you think about these options do they feel right to you in light of your innate morality?

You have three logical options to choose from for this event –

  1.  The event happened as stated
    1. God was involved
    2. God wasn’t involved
  2. The event didn’t happen as stated

Let’s break this down and quickly examine the outcome of each logical branch –

1.1 – The event happened as stated and god was involved.

If this is true (and I feel strongly that it is NOT) then the eternal god of the universe is a dick just like the rest of us.  His morality is situational and he espouses a set of laws no better than that of Himmler or Ghengis.  He might have cleaned it all up later (read the New Testament) but back then it was all fire and brimstone.  Those Midianite, Hittite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite and Jebusite bastards deserved to die – even the new born infants.

Occasionally the good lord allowed his people to keep the virgins for a life of slavery – whether it was sexual or not is up for debate.  If it wasn’t sexual then why reference virginity though?

If this is true then how do you presupposed any sort of moral belief?  If the very god of the universe can decide that *this* group can run around and act like a bunch of genocidal barbarians who are we to determine that he didn’t tell the Nazi’s the same thing on the sly?  Or the Mongols?  Or the Hutus and Tutsis?  Or Pol Pot?  Or any other bunch of murdering scum?  Either a moral rule is real or it is not – you can’t have it both ways without committing a serious act of doublethink.  Writing it down in a holy book doesn’t make an immoral action moral.

Let’s look at an example that’s in the news today  – ISIS.  ISIS claims that they have permission from god to enslave and rape peoples of certain faiths, murder those that oppose them, and have god-given right to take land and establish a religious nation.  Their methods and justification is exactly the same as the Israelites in the Old Testament – yet one group we vilify as demons in human flesh and the other we hold up as god’s chosen people.  I ask anyone of good conscience to morally distinguish these acts from one another.

Does this pass your moral smell test?  

Continuing . .

1.2 – The event happened as stated and god wasn’t involved.  This is functionally the same as 2.1.


2.1 – This event didn’t happen as stated

If either of these are true than any Christian believer is caught is a fairly epic conundrum.  If this event didn’t happen as stated then you have to accept the fact that you cannot know with any certainty *anything* about god from the Bible.  You can’t cherry pick the parts you like or don’t like – because who gets to do the picking?  Catholics actually have a place to fall back to here with Papal Infallibility – my Protestant friends are kinda stuck in my opinion if they choose this option.

(Unstated) option 3 – Of course you can be free to just say that all of this is beyond our small human ability to understand and that god has a plan that we can’t judge or even understand.  If you feel that to be true then I’d like to refer you to this page as well as this one.  If there is a god out there that gave us a moral sense then he expects us to exercise it.  It’s not our fault if he fails his own quizzes – and any god that fails his own moral guidance is no god at all.

Do any of these options pass the smell test for any person who chooses to exercise their own conscience?

Of course there’s another way to think about this that removes all of the ambiguities and difficulties.  We can apply Occam’s Razor – which simply stated says that “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected”.  We can jump through theological hoops, argue about the innocence of the Midianites, or discuss the authority of god to set moral law – or we can simply say that no god had any place in this event and this account is a later justification for a barbarous event.  

Of course – thats the beginning of another discussion entirely.

Which explanation passes your personal smell test?

PS >>>  Hi James!  Yes I have read “Confessions” – I was a theology student and graduated with a BS in Bible (whatever that means).  We read and debated Confessions in detail.  Even at the time I felt that Augustine was a bit over the top – that was a lot of heaping condemnation of self for stealing a few apples.  Personally I feel that the idea of original sin being a stain on human beings that only a higher power can remove to be a perfect example of the self justifying nature of any religion.  People are born bad – therefore they cannot ever achieve real goodness – therefore we need god is an argument designed to remove any ability for any man to achieve goodness without god.  Yet we see folks doing real good every day regardless of their belief system.  I think that original sin is a Pauline invention (see Romans) to create the need for redemption and thereby the need for a god.


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