May 23, 2016

On Fundamentalist Evangelical Morality and How It Messes With Your Head

I’ve talked about sin before on the blog and how I struggled with conceptualizing it as a Christian.

One of the features of the doctrines dealing with sin that always stood out to me was the lack of distinction among different types of sin. I was thinking about this recently as I read this passage in a blog post:

He told host Vic Eliason of Voice of Christian Youth America that much like “people who are on death row for murder who get saved and will be in Heaven, we need to apply that love to people struggling with homosexuality or embracing that sin.”

Here, the speaker is equating homosexuality with murder. Homosexuality, which hurts no one, with murder, where the victim dies.

This is a common theme in biblical morality. Consider Exodus 20: 4-6, the third of the Ten Commandments:

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 
You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,
but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

These are often held up as an example of the quality of moral instruction. How in the world would we know not to kill each other, after all, if the Ten Commandments didn’t tell us not to?

And yet here, God says he himself will punish “the children for the sin of the parents” for those that worship graven images. Again, a victimless crime, and yet, the punishment is more stringent than for murder, where only the perpetrator is punished for the crime, and then only by human means.

This is a truly intolerant approach to morality. That’s not a popular thing to say, but it’s true. When you don’t consider the degrees of human behavior, you effectively make yourself judge, jury, and executioner.

And it reflects in the attitudes of so many outspoken Christians today. It consistently shocks me to hear the opinions of these people, especially politicians. Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism touched on this point last year when she quoted comments by Republican John Johnston of Indiana. Here’s what Libby Anne quoted (emphasis hers):

For almost three generations people, in some cases, have been given handouts. They have been ‘enabled’ so much that their paradigm in life is simply being given the stuff of life, however meager.

What you see is a setting for a life of misery is life to them never-the-less. No one has the guts to just let them wither and die. No one who wants votes is willing to call a spade a spade. As long as the Dems can get their votes the enabling will continue. The Republicans need their votes and dare not cut the fiscal tether. It is really a political Catch-22.

She contrasted this, quite aptly, with a passage from Matthews 19. I really do recommend clicking the linking and visiting the piece—it was truly well-done.

Libby Anne also said:

As I’ve noted before the Bible says a lot of things, some of which are contradictory, and can be interpreted many different ways. But at the very least, evangelical Christians who adopt tea party positions need to be willing to admit that there is some ambiguity here. And yet, they don’t. Instead, they present their position as the obvious godly biblical position, and all other positions as anti-Christian.

Part of this intolerance stems from that inability to look at the circumstances of a situation and consider the degrees of morality and the complexities involved.

For instance, abortion, right or wrong? In the eyes of many conservative Christians, there’s only one answer: Wrong.

What about rape exceptions? There it gets a little cloudy, but you’ll often hear the refrain that the child shouldn’t pay for the sins of the father—and that flies in direct contradiction to three different biblical passages. One, we quoted above. In the Ten Commandments, God is more than willing to visit the sins of the father on the children—it’s right there, in black and white. In another, God punishes Canaan for the sins of his father. In yet another, Numbers 5, a ritualized abortion is proposed for women who are suspected of becoming pregnant during an infidelity. In all of those passages, the child—in two of the three cases, actual born children, in fact—is punished for the sins of the parents.

But above and beyond the direct biblical contradiction, there’s also an inability to conceptualize the experiences of others. Consider this quote, from a Mommyish piece, “Anonymous Mom: My Child Is a Product ofRape":

Every child a wanted child: it’s a beautiful idea. An idea for a perfect world. That’s not the world that we live in. The world we live in is messy and chaotic. It’s dangerous, and it’s hard. In the world that we live in, the right to choose is paramount. Reproductive freedom is paramount.  It should be guarded at all costs. The only person who has the right to decide whether to keep or terminate a pregnancy is the person carrying the child. The only person who had the right to make that decision for me, was me.

The anonymous author detailed her experience, and the reasons why she opted not to have an abortion—but came back to the same point. Not every experience is the same, and only the individual affected by the circumstances understands the full repercussions of the decision.

But on a moral scale that doesn’t differentiate, circumstances mean nothing, and this lumps a variety of situations together. It's why the same people who claim that children born of rape are always a gift or a blessing can also penalize rape survivors at their Christian colleges.

This is a logical effect of some basic and widely accepted Christian doctrines. The idea of eternal damnation, that can be avoided by repenting and accepting Christ—those doctrines set people up for intolerance, often in direct contradiction with their Messiah.

Why is this? Because belief is the only requirement for morality in this system. It’s presupposed that if you believe, you will act morally, because of that belief—but we know this is far from true. I hate dredging up what’s already been covered so many times, but the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic church is a key example of this. Of course, in the churches that I grew up in, Catholics were not “real Christians”...

One of my favorite quotes comes from Will Durant, and it addresses this subject so perfectly:

Tolerance grows only when faith loses certainty; certainty is murderous.

When we are so sure that our way is the right way, based on the Absolute Truth™, we run a significant risk of blocking out other voices. When we accept that there is such a thing as an Absolute, Objective Morality, we increase that risk.

People are not paper dolls. You can’t dress us up, and move us how you’d like. We’re individuals, with different thoughts, feelings, motivations, and experiences. We hold different beliefs and prioritize those beliefs in different ways.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s not an invitation for all hell to break loose. Even with those wide variety of differences, we often arrive at the same conclusions—you won’t find very many communities, for instance, that accept lying, or murder, or thievery. Those are fundamental moral issues that we very nearly come to a consensus on anyway.

But most of us would accept that there are degrees of morality in there. For instance, do you consider a mother stealing bread to feed her children the same as a Wall Street banker that takes millions from his employees’ retirement accounts? We also define “Thou shalt not kill” in terms of circumstances—there’s a difference between war for instance, and murder, and self-defense, and accidental death. These are degrees of morality that we widely accept.

Christian morality does this too, but in a slightly round about way. Elizabeth Anderson writes in “If God Is Dead, Is EverythingPermitted?”:

 Far from being a truly independent guide to moral conduct, the Bible is more like a Rorschach test: which passages people choose to emphasize reflects as much as it shapes their moral character and interests.

And it’s true. Different interpretations of the Bible call for differing moralities. A very strict reading of the Bible leads to much less compassion for those that come from different backgrounds or circumstances and what might have brought them to make the decisions that they make. On the other hand, a more progressive reading will yield a god who is understanding and forgiving.

The idea of an objective standard of morality from biblical teachings is pretty laughable. Like any system, there’s give and take in what believers accept and reject. However, particularly in fundamentalist sects, nailing down the morality makes for a very stringent policing of ethical and moral standards based on fairly arbitrary guidelines.

One of the aspects of humanism that I love so much is how it enables me to look at morality and ethics differently than my fundamentalist background does. I’m starting from a very different point now—looking at humans as capable creatures able to reason and make good ethical choices versus as broken creatures incapable of understanding morality without supernatural guidance—and it necessarily guides me to different conclusions. Overall, though, the conclusions that I come to are more compassionate than those that I would have come to from my prior starting point.

And really, who am I to argue with that?

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