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Moral Compass

Science is great for describing physical reality and how things got the way they are (see previous KIOSK article, The Nature of Reality, and Vice Versa). But it has nothing to say in other areas, areas that are critically important because they determine how well human beings can live together. Science does not tell us how to behave; it does not address morals and ethics. Religion, however, has a lot to say about those things. How can we decide if the messages we get from religion are good?

Unfortunately I don’t think there is an adequate answer to that question. In order to sort things out when we get into areas not addressed by science, we have to rely on our inherent morals, consciences, and common sense. But the collective morals and conscience of societies have varied widely over time, and vary widely between individuals at any one time. And one person’s common sense may seem to another person to be nonsense. We seem to be stuck with a type of subject in which opinions and arguments don’t yield to objective resolution.

But perhaps we can make some progress by looking at specific examples of important questions that religions address. Then we can use these examples to attempt to understand how to find our moral compass.

Birth Control

The Catholic opposition to birth control is a moral teaching that deserves close scrutiny because of its profound influence on the lives of millions of people. Basically, the Catholic ban on the use of contraceptives evolved from the early Christian church’s unease with sex in general, and in particular from the views that sex was not for enjoyment, must not be practiced outside of marriage, and even within marriage was only allowed for the purpose of procreation. Those views moderated over the centuries to the extent that today most Protestant denominations support the use of contraceptive methods of birth control.

However, the Catholic Church still maintains that contraception is a sin. Their justification for this doctrine is based on a passage from the Bible that is misrepresented and is often quoted out of context.

The passage concerns Judah’s son, Onan, and Onan’s duty to impregnate the widow of his deceased brother, Er. That duty may sound strange to modern ears, but at the time and place of the biblical account it was a common practice intended to allow a childless widow to have a descendant to provide for her and carry on her family line. The practice is sufficiently important to be included in the many laws that God gave to Moses. We’re familiar with Moses’ Ten Commandments, but he imposed many other laws as well, including the requirement for a man to father a child with the wife of his dead brother if she had no children yet (see Deuteronomy 25:5-6).

With that background let’s look at the complete story of Onan starting at Genesis 38:7:

But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord killed him. Then Judah said to Onan, “Have sexual relations with your brother’s wife and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her so that you may raise up a descendant for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be considered his [in a legal sense, since under the system in effect at that time and place the child would be considered the child of his dead brother]. So whenever he had sexual relations with his brother’s wife, he withdrew prematurely so as not to give his brother a descendant. What he did was evil in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord killed him too.

Onan disobeyed God’s law by refusing to give his sister-in-law a descendant, which is what God saw as evil. According to the thinking of the time, he was indeed evil, or at least unpardonably selfish. He knew that any child he might father with his sister-in-law would spread thinner an eventual inheritance from Judah; the result would be a lesser share for any sons or daughters he had with his wife, the only offspring legally recognized as his. The story is clear about what aroused God’s wrath–Onan’s selfish disobedience of one of God’s sacred laws. The chain of events started when Onan’s father told him to obey the law. Onan then reflected on the unfavorable consequences to his true offspring if he were to obey the law. Then, when he disobeyed the law, his reason for doing so is explicitly stated. And finally that disobedience was what God saw as evil.

Catholic commentators ignore or obfuscate Onan’s purposeful disobedience of God’s law. They conclude that God killed Onan solely because he withdrew prematurely. This is a remarkable conclusion, as there is no basis to suppose that the act of premature withdrawal in itself was what God found to be evil. It is that “he withdrew prematurely so as not to give his brother a descendant.” Onan’s action violated a law God had imposed that was intended to provide childless widows with an heir.

• • • • •

I find it interesting that religious authorities have used the same passage from Genesis that is quoted above to argue that masturbation is a sin in God’s eyes. (This interpretation is more obvious in other Bible versions that substitute “spilled his seed on the ground” for “withdrew prematurely.”) In fact, the word “onanism” is a churchy bowdlerism for “masturbation.” While I admire the economy of getting two sins on the record from one passage, I think this shows the ease of claiming arbitrary interpretations that were never intended.

But no matter how you interpret this passage there is another overwhelming consideration that makes the birth control interpretation ludicrous, which is simply that the Bible could have easily condemned birth control as sinful if, in fact, that was the intended message. The Bible does contain long and comprehensive lists of unambiguous rules, clearly stated, that cover every aspect of behavior you can think of, from major issues such as murder down to minutia such as what to do about nocturnal emissions of a soldier in camp (Deuteronomy 23:9-11)–and nowhere in all these multitudinous rules is there anything related to birth control. God was certainly able to get into the Bible a comprehensive list of clear rules for everything his people might conceivably encounter. Given that, God would have to be awfully bumbling to have omitted a stricture against birth control if he had really considered it to be a problem.

The arbitrary nature of the Church’s stance on birth control is also revealed by a simple truth–although the Church enforces a made-up law concerning contraception, it does not enforce numerous actual laws from God. Consider a small sampling of God’s laws:

  • God: “If anyone curses his father and mother he must be put to death.” (Leviticus 20:9)
  • Jesus: “Whoever insults his father or mother must be put to death.” (Mark 7:10)

    Although the commandment to honor ones father and mother is worthy, the Catholic Church ignores the clear requirement of the death penalty for disobedience.

  • God: “If a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, both the adulterer and adulteress must be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10).
  • Jesus was even sterner: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away!” (Matthew 5:27-29)

    If that were obeyed, there would be a lot of one-eyed guys walking around.

  • God: “If a man has sexual intercourse with a male … they must be put to death.” (Leviticus 20:13)

    The Catholic Church does not enforce that.

  • God: “If any man curses his God he will bear responsibility for his sin, and one who misuses the name of the Lord must surely be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:15-16)

    Catholics don’t follow this command to impose the death penalty.

  • “When the Israelites were in the wilderness they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses … Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘The man must surely be put to death; the whole community must stone him …'” (Numbers 15:32-35)

    I don’t think the Catholic Church even cares whether its followers work on the Sabbath, certainly not to the extent of putting them to death for it.

  • If a man discovers and can prove that his wife was not a virgin prior to marrying him, “the men of her city must bring the young woman to the door of her father’s house and stone her to death.” (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)

    Yet another dictate ignored by the Catholic Church.

Those are clear commands given by God that are not imposed by the Catholic Church on its followers. By contrast, the Church fabricates a prohibition against birth control and does impose that. The Church shows a disturbing lack of integrity by condemning birth control based on a bogus interpretation of a passage in the Bible while ignoring any number of actual laws that the Bible says must be obeyed.

Of course, many of God’s laws given in the Bible are unacceptable in today’s society. Nobody thinks stoning someone to death for working on the Sabbath or for not being a virgin when married are good ideas anymore (if they ever were). Even though God imposes those laws, the Church has no choice but to ignore them. So the Church winds up arbitrarily enforcing some things while ignoring others. Which is particularly relevant to the story of Onan. The whole point of the story is to show God’s displeasure about someone disobeying one of his commands, a command to impregnate one’s brother’s wife if the brother dies childless. Unlike God, the Church does not consider it a sin to disobey that command–and, in fact, would no doubt consider it a sin to obey God on that score–and instead makes up a sin from an unsupportable interpretation of the same story. That is the height of hypocrisy.

Another indication of the arbitrary nature of the Catholic stance on birth control is the Church’s approval of abstinence and the (unreliable) rhythm method to prevent conception. The result of abstinence is, sooner or later, a wet dream with sperm not fulfilling their reproductive potential because they’re in the pajamas. The result of the rhythm method, theoretically, is the sperm being in the right place but at the wrong time to find an egg and have any reproductive success. In either case, a conscious decision is made to ensure that sperm doesn’t meet egg. How are these different, in any meaningful moral sense, from the use of a condom or contraceptive pill? Clearly there is no moral difference–abstinence, the rhythm method, condoms, and the pill all work on the same principle–they keep sperm away from egg.

In any of these methods, a choice is made to prevent a potential life from getting started by ensuring that an egg is either not produced or leaves the womb without meeting sperm. The sole outcome is that an egg doesn’t get fertilized. The Church does not say that outcome is wrong. But it does arbitrarily accept some methods of achieving it and condemns other methods, which is nonsensical.

• • • • •

I’ve gone on at length about the Catholic Church’s stance on birth control because of its considerable harm. It is particularly unjust because it affects primarily the poor and the poorly educated. In developed countries, surveys consistently show that over 95% of Catholics use contraceptives, with little difference in the rate of use between Catholics and non-Catholics. However, in many developing countries the Church still has the power to block distribution of family planning information and curtail access to contraceptives. The most disadvantaged of the world’s people, the ones with families already too big to feed, are the ones the Catholic Church really hurts. Here’s an AP article I saw in the paper recently:

New Delhi

Worried about its dwindling numbers, the Roman Catholic Church in southern India is exhorting its flock to have more children … The strategy comes as India’s population tops 1.2 billion …

It speaks for itself.

The insane thing about a policy against contraception is that sooner or later it is guaranteed to lead to disaster. As we all well know, the human reproductive urge is geared to a time when people died much younger, many of them during childbirth and many more before reaching puberty. With relatively recent medical advances and improved standards of living, the world’s population has exploded. Here are some simple, unarguable facts:

  • The earth has a finite size and a finite supply of resources. A finite earth cannot sustain an unlimited number of people.
  • Without contraception, the earth’s population will continue to grow indefinitely. Any strategies that attempt to limit fertility without employing contraceptives, such as abstinence or the rhythm method, are no match for healthy human instincts. Clerics who are able to get through life without succumbing to sexual desire may find it difficult to understand the strength of the sex drive, but they need to realize they are in a small minority. Just look at any segment of today’s society that is denied birth control; invariably, the birth rate is well above replacement level, even in the midst of grinding poverty, and even though a majority of people in those circumstances desperately want to avoid enlarging their already suffering families.
  • As resources become spread over more and more people, the quality of life will inevitably degrade. Those with power will maintain what they can, with resource conflicts being the inevitable result. But ultimately, all will suffer.

Presently, almost one billion people are malnourished, and the number is growing. Most of these are in areas where the availability of contraceptives is limited. How is it possible for the Catholic Church to turn a blind eye on the suffering that it is causing?

I got a first-hand look at how dysfunctional the Catholic Church is on the issue of contraception when I attended a mass with Catholic friends a number of years ago. During the service the priest had survey sheets passed around and asked the members of the congregation to sign them to acknowledge they believed the use of contraceptives to be sinful and to attest they did not use contraceptives. As a sheet went down our aisle I noticed that everyone was signing it, which aroused my curiosity. After the mass I asked my friends about the survey. They confirmed my suspicion that they did, in fact, use contraceptives. But they said they signed anyway because “it doesn’t really matter”, or “I didn’t think much about it”, or “it’s not important and it makes the priest happy.”

That’s how it works in our society–Catholics pay lip service to the Church’s dictates but follow their own consciences. But in the slums of the third world this kind of sophisticated (for want of a better word) thinking is in short supply, as is the supply of affordable contraceptives, thanks in large part to the Catholic Church.

To spread the blame a little, it’s not just the Catholic Church; there are other denominations that also fight birth control. But the Catholic Church does seem to be the standard bearer in this fight, a fight that perpetuates misery and suffering in much of the world, and, long term, ensures that the finite resources of our world can no longer sustain humanity.


Abortion opponents seem to feel they are in a war with everyone who thinks differently about abortion rights than they do. They miss an important point: at bottom, everybody feels the same way about abortion–everybody would like to see lower abortion rates, ideally zero. Everybody agrees on the goal. The question is how to achieve it.

Making abortion illegal is not the answer. A recent study published in one of the world’s leading medical journals, The Lancet, concluded that abortion rates are actually higher in countries where the procedure is illegal. That may seem counterintuitive, but a significant contributing factor is that women in those countries also tend to have poor access to contraceptives. The fact remains that the major effect of outlawing abortions is to change them from safe to dangerous procedures (often self-induced and unreported).

The right answer is based on a blindingly obvious fact: if every pregnancy was intended–if every woman knew before she got pregnant that she wanted to have a baby and had the means to raise it–the abortion rate would crater. Just as obvious is what is needed to give women the best chance of avoiding an unintended pregnancy–ready access to family planning information and affordable contraceptives.

These common sense ideas are backed up by a recent study reported by Dr. Jeffrey Peipert of Washington University in St. Louis. The study compared the abortion rates of 9000 women who were given free contraceptives to the abortion rates of women of similar age, economic status, and race who lived in the same area. The group that received free contraceptives had over 50% fewer abortions. The teenaged subgroup showed an even larger reduction in the abortion rate, and also showed a birth rate more than 80% lower than the national birth rate for teens.

Catholics and evangelicals voice strident demands to make abortion illegal, knowing full well that the result would be a large increase in illegal abortions, which in turn would result in the deaths of many mothers (as well as their fetuses). At the same time, these religious groups make every effort to restrict access to contraceptives and family planning information, knowing full well that such efforts guarantee many more unwanted pregnancies and therefore higher abortion rates. Clinging to unfounded religious dogma about contraception and muddled thinking about abortion causes suffering for millions of women worldwide. There are over 400,000 abortions a year in the Philippines alone, where the influence of the Catholic Church has severely limited access to contraceptives and has kept abortion completely illegal.


Unlike the situation with birth control, the Bible really does come down hard on homosexuality. God destroyed Sodom because its inhabitants were sinful, and the biblical account makes clear that the main sin of concern was male homosexuality. Just to make sure the point is understood, one of God’s laws states that men who have sexual intercourse with each other must be put to death (see the Leviticus passage quoted above). And the apostle Paul says that homosexuals are among those who will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

So, should we seek out and kill all practicing homosexuals, as the Bible commands? Or, since this is a more enlightened age, should we at least stigmatize them by declaring them to be sinful, as the Catholic Church, Islam, and many conservative Protestant and Jewish denominations do? Hopefully common sense dictates otherwise.

Common sense says that since many parts of the Bible are clearly wrong there is no reason to single out the parts that condemn homosexuality and consider them to be right. Of course, such reasoning doesn’t work for a Bible literalist who considers everything in the Bible to be right. But if you ever do any work on the Sabbath or you at least don’t stone to death people you see working on the Sabbath, then you are not really an obedient Bible literalist, and hopefully you can give homosexuals as much slack as you give the Sabbath desecrators.

Common sense also says that religions (or states, or other authorities) have no business telling individuals what to do in their private lives, as long as their behavior causes no harm. Of course, no one should be allowed to force another person to do anything against their will, and individuals must attain a certain age and maturity to have sufficiently solid self-knowledge to make good choices about certain behaviors. But consenting adults should be free to determine how they want to live their lives.

I’ve always found the keen religious interest in sexual behavior to be odd. Why do religions fret so much about masturbation, virginity, sex between unmarried partners, same-sex sex, and–in back of it all–the enjoyment of sex in any context? Religions seem to think our interest in the many fun aspects of sex is wrong. I think the religious interest in our sexual practices is wrong–it verges on voyeurism.


The story about Sodom has a small part that reveals a great deal about the Bible’s attitude toward women. In the story, the two (male) angels sent by God to check out Sodom are spending the night at Lot’s house, prior to entering the city to determine if it is actually sufficiently sinful to warrant its destruction. The men of Sodom had seen the angels enter Lot’s house, and they surround it and demand that Lot bring out the angels so they can have sex with them. Lot is horrified that such a thing might happen to his distinguished guests, so he tells the crowd that if they leave the angels alone he will bring out his two virgin daughters and the men “can do to them whatever you please.” (Genesis 19:8)

Although the men of Sodom don’t accept Lot’s offer, there is every indication he would have gone through with it if they had. There is no condemnation in the Bible, indeed no elaboration of any kind, related to Lot’s offer. Evidently the biblical author didn’t feel it was unreasonable enough to warrant comment.

A similar story concerns a Levite man who is a guest in the house of a Benjamin resident. Some men of the city surround the house and demand that the owner send out the guest so they can have sex with him. The owner begs them not to do such a thing to a guest of his, and says, “Here are my virgin daughter and my guest’s concubine. I will send them out and you can abuse them and do to them whatever you like. But don’t do such a disgraceful thing to the man!” (Judges 19:24) That last sentence nicely contrasts the value attached to a man compared to the lack of value of the women that is evident in the previous sentence.

In the finale to this story the guest throws his concubine out to the crowd, who rape and abuse her all night. The next morning the guest finds her dead, which makes him quite angry, but he’s not at all repentant about the fact that he caused her death by considering her of such little value that he gave her to a crowd he knew would rape and abuse her.

Those stories are bad enough, but one of God’s laws given to Moses goes even further by lowering women to the level of plunder for victorious soldiers:

When you go out to do battle with your enemies and the Lord your God allows you to prevail and you take prisoners, if you should see among them an attractive woman whom you wish to take as a wife, you may bring her back to your house. … After that you may have sexual relations with her and become her husband and she your wife. If you are not pleased with her, then you must let her go where she pleases. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14)

The Bible’s attitude toward women: to the victors go the spoils.

In a less dramatic vein, here’s an insight from Numbers 30: God relates through Moses that if a man makes a vow or takes an oath, he is responsible for his action and must do whatever he has promised. However, a woman is not considered competent enough to have the final responsibility for a vow she might make or oath she might take; rather, her father or husband can overrule her as he sees fit. There are also several other laws related by Moses that treat women as second-class citizens.

Another indication of women’s second-class status is the common practice of polygamy that is condoned by the Bible. Men have multiple wives, and often concubines as well. For example, Jacob marries two sisters, Leah and Rachel (who happen to be his uncle’s daughters). They each give Jacob their servant to have sex with. Jacob has children with all four of them, and his twelve sons become the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. God smiled on Jacob. But what about a woman who would try having multiple husbands, or who is not a virgin when she unites with a husband? She is to be stoned to death.

The apostle Paul says this about a wife’s rights: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church–he himself being the savior of the body. But as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:22-24) Paul further says: “A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet.” (1 Timothy 2:11-12)

And finally, because Eve got humanity kicked out of Eden, a strong undercurrent of religious tradition has considered all women ever since to be tainted. Women are barred by the Catholic Church from being priests, by Orthodox Jews from being rabbis, by much of the Muslim world from being imams, and by Mormons from being church leaders. Mormon men speak directly to God; a Mormon wife’s channel to God is through her husband.


The Bible condones and legitimizes the practice of slavery. That may come as a surprise to many people since most religious leaders these days are careful to avoid mentioning the Bible’s approval of slavery, and I doubt the passages that legitimize slavery are the focus of many Bible discussion groups. Nevertheless, the support of slavery is there, embarrassing though it may be. Here are some instructions about slavery that God gave to Moses:

  • As for your male and female slaves who may belong to you–you may buy male and female slaves from the nations all around you. Also you may buy slaves from the children of the foreigners who reside with you and from their families that are with you, whom they have fathered in your land, they may become your property. You may give them as inheritance to your children after you to possess as property. (Leviticus 25:44-46)
  • If a man strikes his male servant or his female servant with a staff so that he or she dies as a result of the blow, he will surely be punished. However, if the injured servant survives one or two days, the owner will not be punished, for he has suffered the loss. (Exodus 21:20-21)

Here is what the apostle Paul said on the subject:

Slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart as to Christ, not like those who do their work only when someone is watching–as people-pleasers–but as slaves of Christ doing the will of God from the heart. Obey with enthusiasm, as though serving the Lord and not people, because you know that each person, whether slave or free, if he does something good, this will be rewarded by the Lord. (Ephesians 6:5-8)

And a contribution from Jesus:

Blessed is that slave whom his master finds at work when he returns. I tell you the truth, the master will put him in charge of all his possessions … That servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or do what his master asked will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know his master’s will and did things worthy of punishment will receive a light beating. (Luke 12:43-48)

There are many other places in the Bible where slavery is treated as an accepted practice; nowhere in the Bible is it condemned.

An excuse employed by some biblical commentators for the Bible’s proslavery attitude is that the Bible merely reflects prevailing practices from the time it was written, practices the people of the time viewed as completely acceptable. That’s not a credible excuse–the biblical accounts do not merely report on the practice of slavery, they codify it. God gave Moses detailed rules about slaves, even down to the fine points. It’s one thing to comment on a practice; it’s quite another thing to set up rules and regulations to govern and legitimize it.

Today, religions condemn slavery. But it does not appear that religions led the way in the reversal of attitudes. Although some religious leaders were in tune with the evolving opinions of secular society that denounced slavery, others steadfastly defended slavery right up to (and in a few cases, beyond) the Civil War. Whether you look to the teachings of the Bible or the teachings of religious authorities, religion has been a deficient guide to the moral questions posed by slavery. In fact, given the explicit support of slavery throughout the Bible, it is fair to assume that religion delayed its eventual rejection.


God doesn’t just tolerate conquest of the nations that are in the way of his chosen people’s expansion into the lands he has promised them; he demands these nations be completely wiped out. Here is a look at some of God’s demands:

They fought against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses, and they killed every male. … The Israelites took the women of Midian captives along with their little ones, and took all their herds, all their flocks, and all their goods as plunder. They burned all their towns where they lived and all their encampments. They took all the plunder and all the spoils, both people and animals. They brought the captives and the spoils and the plunder to Moses… But Moses was furious with the officers of the army… Moses said to them, “Have you allowed all the women to live? Look, these people through the counsel of Balaam caused the Israelites to act treacherously against the Lord in the matter of Peor–which resulted in the plague among the community of the Lord! Now therefore kill every boy, and kill every woman who has had sexual intercourse with a man. But all the young women who have not had sexual intercourse with a man will be yours.” (Numbers 31:7-18)

In obedience to God’s directives to Moses, the Israelites killed every man, woman (except for the virgins), and child. They plundered all the towns and burned them. They completely destroyed an entire people.

And note the reason given for killing all the boys and nonvirgin women–“the matter of Peor”–which was simply this: Some Israelite men had had sex with Moab women (Moab and Midian refer to the same nation), who invited the men to ceremonies for their pagan gods (Numbers 25). Naturally God didn’t like his people getting cozy with pagans, but the Israelite men were at least as much at fault as the pagan women. Nevertheless, on this slim pretext, God ordered the slaughter to be complete.

In other examples, Moses warms up the Israelites for their coming battle to acquire the promised land:

  • When the Lord your God brings you to the land that you are going to occupy and forces out many nations before you–Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and powerful than you–and he delivers them over to you and you attack them, you must utterly annihilate them. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy! (Deuteronomy 7:1-2) )
  • As for the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is going to give you as an inheritance, you must not allow a single living thing to survive. Instead you must utterly annihilate them–the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites–just as the Lord your God has commanded you … (Deuteronomy 20:16-17) )
  • You must destroy all the people whom the Lord your God is about to deliver over to you; you must not pity them or worship their gods, for that will be a snare to you. (Deuteronomy 7:16) )
  • Listen, Israel: Today you are about to cross the Jordan so you can dispossess the nations there… Understand today that the Lord your God who goes before you is a devouring fire; he will defeat and subdue them before you. You will dispossess and destroy them quickly just as he has told you. … It is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out ahead of you. (Deuteronomy 9:1-4)

God justifies Israel’s destruction of these nations by declaring them to be wicked. Tyrants bent on conquest have used this same kind of justification over the ages–the branding of an entire people as evil in some sense so the vanquishing armies will feel justified and motivated to destroy them. Civilization has only recently, and only just barely, gotten to the point where most of us understand that the vast majority of people in any place at any time are not evil, at least not any more than you or I. It is disturbing to see how the Bible counters this trend toward objective tolerance.

We should also consider that when the Bible describes a nation as wicked or evil, it typically means they are pagan. The Bible makes it clear that if a people are pagan it is good to wipe them out. Bringing this view to the present day, Christians, Jews, or Muslims would be perfectly justified in exterminating the Hindus. Presumably God would look with favor on such an endeavor.

Following the tradition set by Moses, Joshua carries on with extensive conquests. After Joshua defeats Jericho, “They annihilated with the sword everything that breathed in the city, including men and women, young and old, as well as cattle, sheep, and donkeys.” (Joshua 6:21) Joshua then defeats Ai, and, as before, all the inhabitants are killed, the cattle and goods are plundered “in accordance with the Lord’s orders to Joshua” (Joshua 8:27), and the city is burned. The same fate is inflicted on numerous other cities. Finally, “Joshua defeated the whole land… He left no survivors. He annihilated everything that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel had commanded.” (Joshua 10:40) “The Israelites plundered all the goods of these cities and the cattle, but they totally destroyed all the people and allowed no one who breathed to live.” (Joshua 11:14)

It’s difficult to keep track of how many nations are eradicated by the will of God. After Joshua makes further conquests, we get a look at God’s thinking: “No city made peace with the Israelites (except the Hivites living in Gibeon); they had to conquer all of them, for the Lord determined to make them obstinate so they would attack Israel. He wanted Israel to annihilate them without mercy [my emphasis], as he had instructed Moses.” (Joshua 11:19-20) Those slaughters didn’t have to happen; they happened because God wanted them to happen. God purposely engineered things to ensure that genocide would be the result.

Then we get a bit of insight into God’s views about war. After Joshua’s reign, some nations remained unconquered. Why? “[God] left those nations simply because he wanted to teach the subsequent generations of Israelites, who had not experienced the earlier battles, how to conduct holy war.” (Judges 3:2) Holy war, crusades, jihad, whatever you want to call it, God approves it. He not only approves it, he wants to make it perpetual.

Joshua wasn’t the only other nation destroyer. Here is Samuel’s charge to Saul: “Here is what the Lord of hosts says: ‘I carefully observed how the Amalekites opposed Israel along the way when Israel came up from Egypt. So go now and strike down the Amalekites. Destroy everything that they have. Don’t spare them. Put them to death–man, woman, child, infant, ox, sheep, camel, and donkey alike.'” (Samuel 15:2:3)

The opposition of the Amalekites referred to in the above passage occurred during the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. No reason is given for this opposition, and it doesn’t seem that much harm resulted. In any event, Israel prevailed in this earlier encounter: “So Joshua destroyed Amalek and his army with the sword.” (Exodus 17:13) But note that God does not forgive or forget–even though the Israelites defeated the Amalekites in the earlier encounter, he later holds enough of a grudge to order Saul to completely annihilate them.

• • • • •

Even religious apologists agree that the ruthless slaughter promoted by God throughout much of the Bible is not a good thing, but they still manage to excuse it and hold God blameless

One excuse, similar to the excuse for the biblical support of slavery, is that total annihilation of the enemy was common practice in the biblical era and was not considered to be the monstrous evil we consider it today. True, there are many other historical accounts of armies completely destroying conquered states, similar to the accounts in the Bible. But that is no excuse. Are we to think that God agreed with the prevailing opinion and didn’t consider genocide to be evil in biblical times? When did he change his mind? Or did he? Keep in mind that God wasn’t just accepting an existing practice; he was actively promoting it. He wanted the destruction so badly that he messed with the minds of Israel’s enemies to ensure that they would attack the Israelites. God did not want peaceful coexistence. He wanted annihilation.

Another excuse given by religious commentators for God’s penchant for genocide is that his worldview is completely different from ours. He has seen every death of every human since the beginning of time, so the occasional genocide is just a drop in the bucket. With our limited lifetimes we don’t see the big picture.

My bald statement of that excuse doesn’t do much for its persuasiveness, but even dressed up with rhetoric as it usually is, it remains pretty hollow. Although it’s true that deaths from genocide are fewer than deaths of all people over all time from all other causes, I still think we are correct to view with horror the slaughter of an entire people. Saying that God is so numbed by the vast numbers of deaths of all sorts that he can’t be concerned about the relatively few who are slaughtered in genocides (at least if it’s a genocide he instigates) takes away from God any moral goodness whatsoever.

As we’ve seen, God engineers genocide over and over, and even religious apologists acknowledge that there is no other way to interpret the biblical accounts. In spite of the attempts by the apologists to gloss over those slaughters, I can’t see any excuse for a god who considers genocide to be acceptable policy.


As we’ve just seen, the Bible condones persecution of homosexuals, domination of women by men, slavery, genocide, and perpetual warfare. In light of this, can we consider the Bible, or a religion whose basis is the Bible, to be a reliable guide for our moral choices? It doesn’t seem so.

Of course, the Bible does teach much that is good: treat others as you would want them to treat you, honor your father and mother, follow the example of the good Samaritan, and many others. Messages like those feel right; they are obviously good. But the morality of other messages is not so obvious. Many messages considered to be unacceptable by some are considered correct and are practiced by others. How should we decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong in such cases?

Aside from the Bible, religious institutions themselves are an unreliable guide. Catholics view homosexuality as a sin, and some fundamentalist Christian denominations heap enough villainy on homosexuals to encourage their physical abuse. As already mentioned, slavery was condoned by Christian religions into the 1800’s. Women in much of the world have gradually won their rights in the face of consistent resistance from religions, but in Islamic states this struggle is barely beginning, many Christian evangelical denominations are keen to scale back the rights that women have won, and Israel requires women to sit in the back of buses that pass through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Each religious denomination typically teaches that it is better than other denominations, which generates intolerance that often escalates to hatred and killing. It’s foolish to expect answers to be found within religion for problems that are caused or at least exacerbated by religion.

In the end, I can’t discern a good general tactic for guidance in the complicated arena of morals, ethics and behavior. Perhaps the best we can do is think carefully about our beliefs in these areas: where did we get our beliefs, what are their justifications, what are the effects of practicing our beliefs on others and on society in general, what might alternative beliefs be, and what are the arguments for one alternative versus another? The world would be a better place if we’d all put some effort into this kind of introspection, at least occasionally–or even once!

Each individual needs to find his or her own moral compass, because this is the only guard against indoctrination of beliefs by authority figures for their own purposes. But distrust of a central authority does not in the least mean that, because different individuals may arrive at different conclusions, there are no moral absolutes. It simply means that more harm than good can come from ceding a religious (or state) institution the authority to determine moral behavior; laws that enforce moral behavior receive their legitimacy through agreement by the governed, not by authoritarian fiat.

I am certain there is a definite foundation of best moral principles. The progress of civilization, albeit with many detours down the wrong paths, comes from the gradual realization and accumulation of those principles in the collective consciousness of all of us.

(This article is excerpted from Heading for the Light: Dispelling the Shadows of Religion, a free e-book available in pdf and other e-reader formats at smashwords.com)