Broadly speaking, there are two prominent, opposing views to the role of religion generally, and Christianity particularly, in ethics. One view suggests that ethics in society disintegrate when they are deprived of their religious foundation. Leo Tolstoy expressed this view:
The attempts to found a morality apart from religion are like the attempts of children who, wishing to transplant a flower that pleases them, pluck it from the roots that seem to them unpleasing and superfluous, and stick it rootless into the ground. Without religion there can be no real, sincere morality, just as without roots there can be no real flower (1964, pp. 31-32; cf. Lipe, n.d., p. 4).
Religion, on this view, is essential to the perpetuation of a healthy moral condition in society (e.g., Miller, 2003). The investigation of both meta-ethics and normative theory can grow and become more helpful for mankind, if such inquiry acknowledges and proceeds in a way consistent with its religious roots. A Christian is specific in the application of this thesis, proposing that Christianity is the exclusively necessary religion.
Some, however, have adopted an opposite stance concerning religion’s role in the development of ethics. Simon Blackburn is a professor of metaphysics, ethics, and philosophy of mind and language at the University of Cambridge and at the University of North Carolina (“Simon Blackburn,” 2008; “Simon Blackburn,” 2010). He edited the scholarly journal Mind from 1984 to 1990, and his influence has been widened by his production of popular works about philosophical topics. One of these is his book Being Good (2001), a text regularly encountered by undergraduates in introductory ethics classes. In this book, Blackburn addressed several items that have been purported to be threats to meaningful ethical inquiry, showing that each item may not be a real threat to ethics after all. One of these potential threats is the dismissal of God as an authority source, which Blackburn calls “the death of God.” Insofar as religion can serve as a myth that showcases the symbolic expression of our beliefs, Blackburn thinks that religion serves a good purpose (p. 18). However, Blackburn argues that religion “is not the foundation of ethics,” noting that religions have serviced both good and bad morals.
Of course, in light of the multitude of religions, with their contradictory ideologies and implications, it is impossible to endorse all of them as productive of good ethics. Almost any kind of act is sanctioned by one faith or another. However, Blackburn made a fatal mistake when he ruled out the possibility of any religion whatever serving as an ethical foundation, because in so doing, he eliminated biblical Christianity (pp. 10-14). With little argumentation, Blackburn provided a list of biblical passages and ideas, the ethical implications of which he thought so outrageous as to convince his readers to abandon the pursuit of biblical ethics altogether. The speed with which Blackburn flew through his allegations against the biblical text is breathtaking. However, Blackburn’s erroneous dismissal of biblical principle means that he failed to prove that religion is necessarily a threat to ethics.
Blackburn cited a number of Mosaic laws and asked how we could possibly be expected to obey such commands today (pp. 11-12). For example, Blackburn implied that biblical adherents are being inconsistent if they do not carry out the biblical penalty for working on the Sabbath—death—when they come across someone working on Saturday (Exodus 35:2; cf. Blackburn, p. 11). Of course, New Testament Christians do not claim to follow the Old Testament, because Christ has replaced it with His law (Colossians 2:14; Galatians 3:24-29; 5:1-6). In a similar vein, Blackburn failed to appreciate that those who burned alive “tens or hundreds of thousands of women in Europe and America between 1450 and 1780,” due to charges of witchcraft, were not subject to Exodus 22:18, the text which prescribed the killing of those who practiced sorcery (p. 13). [God’s desire to keep his people pure in a world of superstitious, immoral idolatry led Him to institute decisive, swift punishment on those who would introduce threatening practices.]
Blackburn objected to other laws (from both the Old and New Testaments) which he thought reflect immorality on the part of God, including the following:
He found problematic that God allowed for some types of slavery in some contexts, as revealed in the Old Testament (e.g., Exodus 22:1-3; cf. Blackburn, p. 11). We have already dealt with this argument (see Butt, 2005). The biblical treatment of slavery is not an indictment of God.
He implied that it is ridiculous that the Mosaic Law calls both the eating of certain animals and homosexuality an abomination (e.g., Leviticus 10:10; 11:10ff.; cf. Leviticus 18:22-30; 20:13; Blackburn, p. 12). There is no logical inconsistency with both being immoral, but merely a conflict with an author’s preferences. Blackburn has ignored ancient health concerns related to the eating of certain animals during a time when cooking techniques were less attuned to the elimination of disease. He has also ignored that these regulations had a special purpose as part of a system that sanctified the Israelites as God’s chosen people (e.g., Deuteronomy 14:21).
Similarly, he questioned the fairness of the Mosaic injunction against men with vision impairments approaching the altar of the Lord (Leviticus 21:20; cf. Blackburn, p. 12). But Blackburn failed to notice that such men still could serve as priests and fulfill many priestly functions. He also failed to recognize a point made by Matthew Henry: “This provision God made for the preserving of the reputation of his altar, that it might not at any time fall under contempt. It was for the credit of the sanctuary...” (n.d.). God had reasonable motivation for restricting who could serve at the altar.
He questioned the Mosaic injunction against contact with a woman during menstruation (Leviticus 15:19-24; 20:18; cf. Blackburn, p. 11). However, God’s concern for the health of the Israelites and His protection of women are reasonable explanations for this law, especially during ancient times. The ritualistic cleansing rites connected to intercourse during female menses were confined to Israel, for specific reasons, and for a limited time (see Miller, 2004).
Jesus, according to Blackburn, was a sectarian because He told His disciples, “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6). He has failed to acknowledge the progressive revelation of Jesus’ mission during His ministry (it was only for a limited time that the Gospel was preached primarily to the Jews; Acts 3:26), and also Jesus’ intent that the Gospel eventually be preached to the entire world (Matthew 28:19). Furthermore, Jesus Himself taught those who were not Jews (John 4:7-29; Mark 7:26-30).
Jesus, according to Blackburn, made a racist remark when He told the Canaanite woman that “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs” (p. 12; Matthew 15:26). Blackburn failed to appreciate the impossibility of proving that Jesus’ statement would have been interpreted as cruel or racist in the context of that period’s idiomatic usage (see Butt, 2006). Blackburn also failed to see that Jesus was testing the woman, providing her an opportunity to exercise her faith and humility. Jesus’ lesson on this occasion was successful in the life of His student, who was emboldened rather than offended.
Allegedly, Jesus “wants us to be gentle, meek, and mild, but he himself is far from it: ‘Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ (Matt. 23:33)” (Blackburn, pp. 12-13, parenthetical item in orig.). Jesus did use striking language; His condemnation of sin and conviction of its practitioners is powerful. Yet, when we recognize the degree to which the scribes and Pharisees had maligned the Old Law, and their brazen attitude, we can see that Jesus was justified to speak very plainly about their spiritual state (see Bales, n.d., pp. 11ff.). This was His best effort to help these particular sinners to reform, and teaches us the gravity of the situation when one imposes his own will, instead of honestly interpreting the Word of God.
Blackburn denied the possibility of demon possession in the first century (p. 13). However, he offered no argument for this denial in Being Good. We must assume that he takes a purely naturalistic stance overall (see pp. 37-43), against which we have argued elsewhere (see Jackson, n.d.).
Blackburn wrote that “The events of the fig tree in Bethany (Mark 11:12-21) would make any environmentalist’s hair stand on end” (p. 13, parenthetical item in orig.). Perhaps it would, but such does not mean that Jesus’ withering of the fig tree was wrong. The lesson of the fig tree is of far more value than the tree itself. By the same token, do not environmentalists read from books that came only at the price of trees?
Blackburn alleged that Jesus ignored property rights when he sent demons into the bodies of swine (Luke 8:27-33, p. 13). However, the Bible does not reveal that the pigs belonged to anyone. Also, Jesus knew people’s thoughts (John 2:25; Mark 2:8), and could have known that the owner of the pigs would be happy to forfeit the pigs if it meant that the demonized man (who had been unsuccessfully bound) could be relieved. At any rate, no one accused Jesus of stealing pigs on this occasion.
Without citing biblical passages, Blackburn attempted to cast a blanket of doubt upon the ethics of the entire Bible: “All in all, then, the Bible can be read as giving us a carte blanche for harsh attitudes to children, the mentally handicapped, animals, the environment, the divorced, unbelievers, people with various sexual habits, and elderly women. It encourages harsh attitudes to ourselves” (p. 13). To the contrary, the Bible teaches that all things are to be done in love (1 Corinthians 16:14). We can only surmise that Blackburn mistook regulation for unkindness.
Blackburn’s strategy is typical of atheistic philosophers who dismiss biblical Christianity as a meaningful source of understanding and guidance. As might be expected, Blackburn used the so-called “Euthyphro dilemma” to argue that even were we to acknowledge the existence of a god much better than the god Blackburn has characterized, it still would be impossible to look to that god as an authority source (pp. 14-16). We have dealt with the Euthyphro dilemma previously (see Colley, 2010). Good ethical philosophy, when it utilizes the Bible, will involve a close study of the text and its historical context prior to a dismissal of its precepts as being wrong.
Bales, J.D., Woe Unto You? (Searcy, AR: College Bookstore and Press).
Blackburn, Simon (2001), Being Good (New York: Oxford University Press).
Butt, Kyle (2005), “Defending the Bible’s Position on Slavery,” URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/368.
Butt, Kyle (2006), “Jesus, the Syrophoenician Woman, and Little Dogs,” URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/3070.
Colley, Caleb (2010), “Why is Good Good?,” URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/240402.
Henry, Matthew (n.d.), Commentary on Leviticus (Electronic Database: MacSword).
Jackson, Wayne (n.d.), “Evolution—Fact or Theory,” URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/rr/reprints/Evolution-Fact-or-Theory.pdf.
Lipe, David, “The Foundations of Morality,” URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/rr/reprints/Foundations-of-Morality.pdf.
Miller, Dave (2003), “America, the Ten Commandments, and the Culture War,” URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2355.
Miller, Dave (2004), “Homosexuality and Female Menses,” URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2645.
“Simon Blackburn” (2008), Cambridge University, URL: http://www.phil.cam.ac.uk/teaching_staff/blackburn/blackburn_index.html.
“Simon Blackburn” (2010), UNC College of Arts & Sciences, URL: http://philosophy.unc.edu/people/faculty/simon-blackburn.
Tolstoy, Leo (1964), “Religion and Morality,” Selected Essays, trans. Aylmer Maude (New York: Random House).
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