I took this picture today of a sign outside of a local church.
And the first thing that came to my mind was the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac and their family altar in Genesis 22.
- And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
- And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Mori’ah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
- And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
- Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.
- And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
- And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.
- And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
- And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
- And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
- And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
Of course, we know what happens next. An angel appears and says: “Stop! God was only testing you”.
This story is always told as an allegory that it was a great thing that Abraham loved and feared his god so much, that he would do anything, including killing his son, to appease him.
The Bible includes many tales of murder, rape, genocide, and incest ordered by this god. None of these has ever hit so close to home as this command to Abraham to sacrifice his own son. Ever since my first child was born 29 years ago, I have been extremely protective of him, and later his siblings. If anyone threatened harm to any of them, my general pacifism would take a back seat to my familial protectionism. I most certainly would not do any harm myself, especially at the insistence of an imaginary being. Am I a more moral person than Abraham? By today’s standards I am, by the standards of Abraham, perhaps not.
Bob Seidensticker, at Cross Examined, has been having a discussion on relative versus objective morality with several other bloggers at Patheos. Bob is an atheist, and two of the others, Leah Libresco and Dwight Longenecker are Roman Catholics.
I am not a philosopher, and I tend to look at philosophical issues in a simple manner. So here, in my simpleminded manner, are my thoughts.
Bob’s ideas of relative morality takes into consideration situations such as those of Abraham and Isaac, as well as genocide, slavery, sexism, and racism. These are all areas that, in the past, had the strength of morality behind them. Over vast times, we can find large groups of people who, backed by ethicists, argued that these were moral actions. Now we see things differently. Essentially, our morals have ‘evolved’ to change as society has changed.
Leah and Dwight argue for a ‘natural’ or ‘objective’ morality, and it is on these types of evolving moral issues that I get lost. If these, or any other, actions are immoral now, then they must always have been. If commanded by god, or some external entity, what changed? Why do we see these as wrong now? Have our scholars merely learned to interpret the natural laws differently?
Following this, we find that these objective laws must be interpreted by human beings. Immediately we are faced with determining which human interpretation is the correct, or objective, one. The differing sects of Islam and Christianity do not align on many moral issues of today, yet virtually all will claim that their laws have, in some way, been handed down by god. Some believe that a woman’s place is barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen, others may see more equality between with some restrictions; and others still see no difference between genders whatsoever. Views on the rights of homosexuals follow a similar pattern.
Even if we believe in an objective set of morals, we still must subjectively determine which we choose to follow. With relativist morals, this is the starting point. Today, our western society is highly interactive with open discussions among educated people on the most appropriate course of action. The commands of a priesthood have less impact than they did in centuries past, and debates among we great unwashed have weight in the world of ethics.
I am not going to discuss, at this time anyway, the idea that relative morality allows any behaviours whatsoever. I find this charge spurious at best. In the end, we are only responsible to ourselves for our moral decisions.