Is Bill Maher Right on Religion?

What is the source of moral progress? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out!

Recently, an article showed up in Salon saying Bill Maher is right about religion. Maher is of course the man behind Religulous, which we have reviewed earlier on this blog. Michael Shermer who wrote the article is a well-known skeptic and I have actually seen him in debate. So let’s go through and see what Michael Shermer has to say. Is he right about his claims on moral progress?

Most people believe that moral progress has primarily been due to the guiding light of religious teachings, the activities of spiritual leaders, and the power of faith-based initiatives. In “The Moral Arc” I argue that this is not the case, and that most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment. Once moral progress in a particular area is underway, most religions eventually get on board—as in the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, women’s rights in the 20th century, and gay rights in the 21st century—but this often happens after a shamefully protracted lag time. Why?

Okay. I’ll go on and say I haven’t got a chance to read the book. My to-read list right now is extensive and I’m saving my money, but let’s see if Shermer can provide evidence here. Right now, I see some problems right at the start. For instance, many of the church fathers were strong opponents of slavery based on Christian teachings and indeed, the church did put an end to slavery. Rodney Stark shows this in The Victory of Reason with telling how Bathilda, the wife of Clovis II, was instrumental in this regard. Did slavery start again later on? It did, and sadly many Christians took part, but many ended it as well. Wilberforce was a strong voice to ending it and the abolitionists over here who were using the Bible were the Bible scholars of their day, in response to the literalists, which would sadly fit the way many atheists read the Bible today.  I suspect Shermer would fall into that camp.

As for women’s rights, once again, the church has been the strong champion of this. Too often we can look at a passage such as “Wives, submit to your husbands.” Instead, consider how husbands were to love their wives. They were to be willing to die for them. This would have been unheard of in Paul’s day. Normally, the commands given were to everyone else to tell how to support the head of the household, the man. Paul has most of his commands on house rules to go to the men instead. For more on this also, listen to my interview with Lynn Cohick on Jesus and women.

The Old Testament starts out with men and women both being in the image of God. In the New Testament, we are told in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ there is neither male nor female among other things. When women have been involved in the sex trade, such as in Thailand, Christians have been there to end it. David Marshall documents this very well in his book How Jesus Passes The Outsider Test. I have reviewed that book here.

Of course, if Shermer wants to say that this is about abortion, then I do not think we should see that as progress. The same applies to what he calls “Gay rights.” This is part of an idea of progress to be just saying that we want something and then when we get it, say that that is progress. What has to be established is that this is good in each case. Color me skeptical that redefining the family and allowing women to kill their children in the womb should be counted as progress.

if Shermer wants to say this came from the Enlightenment, then I would like to know what new truths he thinks we discovered in that time. It is after all since the Enlightenment that we have had two world wars take place and in fact, we could easily say Nietzsche was right about the 20th century being the bloodiest century of all. Much of this also took place under atheistic regimes or at least anti-Christian ones, which would include Hitler. No. He wasn’t an atheist, but he sure wasn’t a friend of Christianity.

The rules that were dreamt up and enshrined by the various religions over the millennia did not have as their goal the expansion of the moral sphere to include other sentient beings. Moses did not come down from the mountain with a detailed list of the ways in which the Israelites could make life better for the Moabites, the Edomites, the Midianites, or for any other tribe of people that happened not to be them. One justification for this constricted sphere can be found in the Old Testament injunction to “Love thy neighbor,” who at that time was one’s immediate kin and kind, which was admittedly an evolutionary stratagem appropriate for the time. It would be suicidal to love thy neighbor as thyself when thy neighbor would like nothing better than to exterminate you, which was often the case for the Bronze Age peoples of the Old Testament. What good would have come of the Israelites loving, for example, the Midianites as themselves? The results would have been catastrophic given that the Midianites were allied with the Moabites in their desire to see the Israelites wiped off the face of the earth.

I wonder how much of the OT Shermer is really familiar with. Most of the battles Israel fought prior to the Promised Land were defensive wars. Let’s consider the Midianites. The Midianites were constantly trying to destroy Israel. Now we don’t have details on individual interactions between Israelites and Midianites, and that is what the law applies to. On a national level, Israel did have to defend themselves.

And yet, anyone was welcomed to be part of Israelite society. We have Ruth who is a Moabitess who ends up being part of the lineage of David and of Christ. We have Rahab of Jericho who has the same thing happen to her despite being a prostitute. We also have instructions on how foreigners were to be treated who sojourned among the Israelites. Anyone who wanted to come to the God of Israel was welcome.

Shermer can also say the command to love your neighbor applies only to one’s immediate kin and kind, but what evidence has been given of this? It has just been asserted. He might have some in his book to be sure, but what evidence has he given here? Could he have not at least referenced some paper or the work of some scholar that would attempt to argue this? Of course, the Israelites could have seen it that way, but we need some evidence.

And certainly, there is the mention of Bronze Age people, but we wonder how much study Shermer has really done on Bronze Age society. Has he really thought about how they lived or has he simply imposed his own culture on to them too often? One of the rules of studying another culture is to realize that that culture is different from yours and the harsh realities of life are different.

Today, of course, most Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that moral principles are universal and apply to everyone, but this is because they have inculcated into their moral thinking the modern Enlightenment goal of broadening and redefining the parameters of moral consideration. But by their nature the world’s religions are tribal and xenophobic, serving to regulate moral rules within the community but not seeking to embrace humanity outside their circle. Religion, by definition, forms an identity of those like us, in sharp distinction from those not us, those heathens, those unbelievers. Most religions were pulled into the modern Enlightenment with their fingernails dug into the past. Change in religious beliefs and practices, when it happens at all, is slow and cumbersome, and it is almost always in response to the church or its leaders facing outside political or cultural forces.

Again, no evidence is given of this. Most believe in universal moral principles because of the Enlightenment? Really? Does that include Saint Paul in Romans 2 telling us about the law written on the heart? Does that include the thinkers from Aristotle to Aquinas and beyond who believed in Natural Law thinking? Has Shermer even seen that a large part of the Summa is devoted to moral questions and the reason for the arguments goes far beyond “God says so.”?

Shermer also talks about religion by definition. Whose definition? Religion is notoriously difficult to define and in fact, we could say that that message of outsiders has been followed by atheistic regimes who didn’t mind killing Christians who were outsiders and did not believe in the progress that would come through the Marxist revolutions. We also have to wonder how this Enlightenment revolution came about. Was it through the bloody French Revolution for instance?

It is as if Shermer has never read anything any theist has to say about Natural Law, which could be the truth. Now of course Natural Law thinking could be wrong, but that is not the same as saying that the theists did not have an explanation for moral principles being universal and applying to everyone. This was believed long before the Enlightenment was around and it was believed largely in part thanks to Christians who brought a theistic belief and a religious belief together.

The history of Mormonism is a case in point. In the 1830s the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, received a revelation from God to enact what he euphemistically called “celestial marriage,” more accurately described as “plural marriage”—the rest of the world calls it polygamy—just about the time he found a new love interest while married to another woman. Once Smith caught the Solomonic fever for multiple wives (King Solomon had 700), he couldn’t stop himself or his brethren from spreading their seed, along with the practice, which in 1852 was codified into Mormon law through its sacred “Doctrines and Covenants.” Until 1890, that is, when the people of Utah—desirous for their territory to become a state in the union—were told by the United States federal government that polygamy would not be tolerated.

Conveniently, God issued a new revelation to the Mormon leaders, instructing them that a plurality of wives was no longer a celestial blessing, and that instead monogamy was now the One True Way. As well, Mormon policy forbade African Americans to be priests in the church. The reason, Joseph Smith had decreed, was that they are not actually from Africa but instead are descendants of the evil Lamanites, whom God cursed by making their skin black after they lost the war against the good Nephites, both clans of which were descendants of two of the lost tribes of Israel. Naturally, since the evil Lamanites were prohibited from having sexual relations with the good Nephites, interracial marriage was also banned. This racist nonsense lasted a century and a half until it collided with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Finally, in 1978, the Church head Spencer W. Kimball announced that he had received a new revelation from God instructing him to drop the racial restrictions and adopt a more inclusive attitude.

Okay. Not much problem here….

But what are we to draw from this? One religious movement was like this, therefore all of them are? Does Shermer really think he can point to Mormonism and say “Since Mormonism is like this, all religions are like this.”? This is a hasty generalization at its best. It also is not the way Christians, Jews, or Muslims act since most of us do believe in a closed canon. Shermer could find a sect out there with different beliefs, but that would not represent the main three monotheistic faiths as a whole.

There are three reasons for the sclerotic nature of religion: (1) The foundation of the belief in an absolute morality is the belief in an absolute religion grounded in the One True God. This inexorably leads to the conclusion that anyone who believes differently has departed from this truth and thus is unprotected by our moral obligations. (2) Unlike science, religion has no systematic process and no empirical method to employ to determine the verisimilitude of its claims and beliefs, much less right and wrong. (3) The morality of holy books—most notably the Bible—is not the morality any of us would wish to live by, and thus it is not possible for the religious doctrines derived from holy books to be the catalyst for moral evolvement.

The first one does not follow. I can fully believe someone has departed from the Christian faith and does not follow the one true God, but they are still my neighbor and I am still obligated to love them as myself. For #2, while we do not have the same methodology of science, this does not mean the claims are just faith claims entirely. They are established through different methods. Want to know who Jesus was, what He said and did, and if He rose again? Then study history. Want to know if God exists? Study philosophy and metaphysics. Want to know if the New Testament documents have been handed down accurately? Study textual criticism. Of course, in each area there are many more areas that can be studied. Shermer should know this having debated some Christian apologists, yet he chooses to not mention this.

In fact, we could ask for #2 if there was a systematic process or empirical method to determine that a claim must have a systematic process or empirical method to determine its truth. Shermer has made a claim that is not scientific all the while making a claim that puts science on the highest branch of knowledge. Those who take a position always take such a position on grounds that are not scientific. For #3, we will look at this later.

Many Jews and Christians say that they get their morality from the Bible, but this cannot be true because as holy books go the Bible is possibly the most unhelpful guide ever written for determining right from wrong. It’s chockfull of bizarre stories about dysfunctional families, advice about how to beat your slaves, how to kill your headstrong kids, how to sell your virgin daughters, and other clearly outdated practices that most cultures gave up centuries ago.

There is a lot of misinformation in here, and a lot of misunderstanding. For instance, are there stories of dysfunctional families. Yes. These stories also show up on the evening news and in the newspaper. Does that mean these are prescriptive, telling us how we should live, or does that mean that they are descriptive, telling us simply what it was that happened and letting them be object lessons for us?

How to beat your slaves? I don’t think so. There’s no passage that says “Now take your rod and aim straight for the back first. That’s the place that you want to start!” Now it does say that some would, but this was also the kind of discipline that was around back then and would also apply to children. Yet how much could someone be disciplined? If they even lose a tooth, they go free and guess who has to give them ample resources when they go free. That’s right. The master. Guess also who will lose honor in the community and not have people come to him willing to work? Same answer.

What is forgotten is that slavery was not Civil War slavery and was closer to our employer-employee system. An employer cannot beat you today, true, but they can just as easily lay you off and have you out of work. Your livelihood is gone in that moment. In the ancient world, you couldn’t just go down the street to Wal-Mart and get a job. You had to work for someone else and this was the language used to describe it. It was also something that was done willingly among the Hebrews. For more on this, I recommend Scripture and Slavery.

How to kill your headstrong kids? Really? The passage in question is Deuteronomy 21:18-21. I have dealt with it earlier, but let’s put it up here:

18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, 19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. 20 They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.

This is not a case of little Johnny won’t clean up his room so let’s kill him. This is a drunkard and a glutton, which means someone of mature age who knows better and refuses to listen to discipline. Is the penalty harsh? Yes. It’s also known in advance and the one living this way is one who cares nothing for the good of the community. This might be hard for an individualist like Shermer to understand, but the Majority World would consider his views to be the ones that are out of sync. After all, why should you sacrifice the good of the whole for the good of the one?

For selling virgin daughters, in the ancient world, marriages were arranged and a dowry was expected to be given. That’s because families were being united. Since this would involve financial loss, there would be a dowry to be expected to be paid.

Shermer can say these are outdated, but at the same time, for a period of time in parts of the world, this was necessary, and some could be necessary still in some parts of the world. This was done to maintain the social order and have a functioning society. Again, one wonders just how much Shermer has actually studied the Ancient Near East, or if he’s just reading it like a modern individualist.

In order to make the Bible relevant, believers must pick and choose biblical passages that suit their needs; thus the game of cherry picking from the Bible generally works to the advantage of the pickers. In the Old Testament, the believer might find guidance in Deuteronomy 5:17, which says, explicitly, “Thou shalt not kill”; or in Exodus 22:21, a verse that delivers a straightforward and indisputable prohibition: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

These verses seem to set a high moral bar, but the handful of positive moral commands in the Old Testament are desultory and scattered among a sea of violent stories of murder, rape, torture, slavery, and all manner of violence, including capital punishment for a variety of acts:

Maher acts like cherry-picking is going on, but is this the view of Christian scholarship? Is it not the case that we realize some laws were civil and ceremonial and applied to a theocratic system whereas they don’t today? Even in the case of a universal moral law, we do not live in that kind of theocracy and so even if the moral principle is still upheld, the way it is dealt with is different. If we are cherry-picking, then what about Shermer talking about parts of the Bible that he thinks uphold a high moral standard? Is he not cherry-picking as well?

Let’s see what he says about a variety of acts that have capital punishment as their sentence.

Blaspheming or cursing of the Lord: “And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:13-16)

• Worshiping another God: “He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed.” (Exodus 22:20)

Both of these are because Israel was in a covenant relationship with God. Going against God would lead to the destruction of the covenant and the penalties that followed. If Bill Maher or Michael Shermer think this is ridiculous, then I suggest they go on live television and try to make a joke about killing the president and see how long it takes before the Secret Service shows up at their door. Treason is still a serious crime, in fact, one of two crimes specifically mentioned in the Constitution.

• Witchcraft and wizardry: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18)

This is the same kind of thing. It’s an act of treason calling on another deity and if these kinds of beings are real, then it is putting everyone else around the person in danger.

• Female loss of virginity before marriage: “If any man take a wife [and find] her not a maid … Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die.” (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)

The OT law is didactic in nature. Stoning was a possibility, but it was not the only one. This would be left for the judges to decide or for the disgraced husband to request. A woman was prized for her virginity and the man had essentially entered into an agreement with the father-in-law about the bride. While under the father’s supervision, he was to protect her virginity. If he didn’t, then it was as if he deceived the son-in-law. He could ask for any money back that had been exchanged and he could have the woman live with her father, a burden on him as no one would want to marry her then. There were numerous other methods that could be used. The husband is not seeking to kill the bride but just end the marriage. If he was wrong of course, he would be shamed greatly by a flogging. If not, then the shame came on the bride and her family.

• Homosexuality: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13)

I am sure Shermer wants to see homosexuality as either morally neutral or maybe even positive but we need more of a reason than “Modern people think so.” If that is the case, it is no more of a reason to accept it than for Shermer to hear something like “God says so” from our side. We need to look at the data. In a theocracy like ancient Israel, this was an immoral practice tied also to immoral practices of the pagans, that would have led to treason against God. The same penalty applies. Sexual matters were taken seriously I suspect because humanity normally has a hard time controlling their sex drive.

• Working on the Sabbath: “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.” (Exodus 35:2)

Again, this was also part of the covenant agreement. Note also that anyone who did work could use it as a way to get ahead of their neighbors financially. In essence, doing something like this was a way of cheating your neighbors. This is also not a universal law as other nations were allowed to work on the Sabbath, but this was to be a special sign of the covenant with Israel.

Most modern Christians, however, respond to arguments like this by saying that the Old Testament’s cruel and fortunately outdated laws have nothing to do with how they live their lives or the moral precepts that guide them today. The angry, vengeful God Yahweh of the Old Testament, they claim, was displaced by the kinder, gentler New Testament God in the form of Jesus, who two millennia ago introduced a new and improved moral code. Turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, forgiving sinners, and giving to the poor is a great leap forward from the capricious commands and copious capital punishment found in the Old Testament.

Unfortunately, this could be the case that too many Christians have a Marcionite attitude towards God. I would prefer instead to say we answer it by actually studying the Old Testament culture. Shermer seems to look through the Bible and says “I find something I deem offensive, therefore it is wrong” without bothering to really understand the culture that he is speaking about.

That may be, but nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus revoke God’s death sentences or ludicrous laws. In fact, quite the opposite (Matthew 5:17-30 passim): “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” He doesn’t even try to edit the commandments or soften them up: “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.” In fact, if anything, Jesus’ morality is even more draconian than that of the Old Testament: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.”

This is true in part. Jesus does come to fulfill the Law, but what does that mean? This is one of the extremely debated passages in the NT to decide what is meant by it and Shermer posts it like it’s just patently obvious. Let’s see what else he says about this.

In other words, even thinking about killing someone is a capital offense. In fact, Jesus elevated thought crimes to an Orwellian level (Matthew 9:28-29): “Ye have heard it was said by them of old time, Though shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” And if you don’t think you can control your sexual impulses Jesus has a practical solution: “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”

Shermer’s problem here is that Jesus is not saying the judges of Israel have the right to judge a fault crime. Jesus is saying that before God, who does know one’s thoughts, one is guilty. Note also the problem is not having a desire. A desire cannot necessarily be helped. Note Jesus says that if you look at a woman to lust, you have already committed adultery in your heart. Looking and lusting is something that could be difficult to help, but looking to lust is something specific. If you look at a woman just to desire her and treat her like an object, you’ve already defiled her in your mind.

Yet nowhere does it say that Israel gives capital punishment. It says one is in danger before God. Jesus is telling us all to shape up and say not to look at a woman to lust after her. (And here I thought Christianity was supposed to be against women and yet here is Jesus telling us not to look at women as sex objects and apparently Shermer is complaining about that as well.)

As for Jesus’s own family values, he never married, never had children, and he turned away his own mother time and again. For example, at a wedding feast Jesus says to her (John 2:4): “Woman, what have I to do with you?” One biblical anecdote recounts the time that Mary waited patiently off to the side for Jesus to finish speaking so that she could have a moment with him, but Jesus told his disciples, “Send her away, you are my family now,” adding (Luke 14:26): “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

It is curious to know how never marrying and never having children means that one does not have good family values. Of course, one cannot demonstrate how to be a good spouse or a good parent without having a spouse or without having children, but it does not one mean one cannot have good views on the matter. But for now, let’s look at the Scriptures that Shermer cites.

What Jesus said to his woman first off in calling her woman, was a typical way of addressing women in the ancient culture. It was not a disrespectful way. The latter part of the phrase could be, but it could also just be a case of saying “This is really none of my business.” Still, it’s important to note that Jesus does do what His mother asks of Him at this point, which is hardly an example of turning her away.

Shermer also claims Jesus tells his disciples to send his mother away as the disciples are his family now. Really? Let’s look first at Matthew 12:

46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

And Luke 8:

19 Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. 20 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.”

21 He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.”

And Mark 3:

31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

We are not told how the story ends, but nowhere do we have Jesus telling the disciples to send his mother away. Jesus is instead making a point about loyalty. It is no longer among family lines, but is in relation to God.

This is especially so with Luke 14:26. Too many skeptics of Christianity jump up and down like they’ve found buried treasure when they come across this verse. Meanwhile, most of us who are not fully sold out on literalism and know how to recognize a hyperbole when we see one do just that. We know that Jesus is making a comparative statement between different things. He is saying that if you love anything more than you love Him, you are not worthy to be His disciple. He is not encouraging you to go out and actively hate your family.

Even sincere Christians cannot agree on Jesus’ morality and the moral codes in the New Testament, holding legitimate differences of opinion on a number of moral issues that remain unresolved based on biblical scripture alone. These include dietary restrictions and the use of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine; masturbation, pre-marital sex, contraception, and abortion; marriage, divorce, and sexuality; the role of women; capital punishment and voluntary euthanasia; gambling and other vices; international and civil wars; and many other matters of contention that were nowhere in sight when the Bible was written, such as stem-cell research, gay marriage, and the like. Indeed, the fact that Christians, as a community, keep arguing over their own contemporary question “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do?) is evidence that the New Testament is silent on the answer.

Are some things not clear and simple? Obviously. Some things are. Some are not. That’s the nature of the beast. It also gives the impression that the purpose of the NT is to tell us all moral precepts. It’s not. Most of these are to be known anyway. Still, I find this paragraph amusing. Here Christians are so often accused of not knowing how to think for themselves, and then the other accusation we get is one like this one that we don’t agree among ourselves. I can’t help but wonder which is it to be.

All this means is that there is work to be involved. That involves Scriptural study, as well as study in ethics and philosophy. Christian academics for the most part have not been opposed to such.

If God really believes in equal rights for all of his people, one would think that He would have said something about them in his holy book. But such sentiments are nowhere to be found in the Bible. The closest thing to a modern moral value is in Galatians 3:28, when the apostle Paul says: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” That sounds ecumenical, but the surrounding verses demonstrate clearly what Paul is up to: (Galatians 3:1) “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?” And what is this truth, according to Paul? The truth is that “[T]he Jew in becoming a Christian did not need to become a Greek, nor the Greek a Jew. The slave might continue to serve his master, and “male” and “female” retained each its function in the ongoing stream of life.”

The notion of equal rights for all people is one that makes sense in an individualistic society, but not in the ancient society where people would not stand up and say “I have rights! I am an individual!” Yet Shermer’s look at Galatians is just confusing. What is the truth being argued for in Galatians 3? It’s that circumcision is not required to show you are part of the covenant of God. What makes you righteous before God? It’s not being a Jew or a Greek. It’s not being a male or a female. It’s not being a slave or a freeman. Jews were still Jews. Greeks were still Greeks. Men and women were still men and women. Slaves and masters were still slaves and masters, but their new identity was to be in Christ. Being in Christ does not depend on either of those.

That is about as ecumenical as you can get. Want to be a Christian? Anyone can. It does not matter your station in life, your nationality, or your gender. You can be part of the family of God. God welcomes all. Shermer’s reading of the text quite frankly is just confusing and it is one that I do not think any Biblical scholar would uphold.

In other words, Paul is saying that you can carry on as you are. If you’re Greek, there’s no need to become a Jew—a significant dispensation, given that a man converting to Judaism often had to submit to adult circumcision, and this is just the kind of thing that puts a guy off the whole idea. Paul was not a revolutionary advocating violence, and he most assuredly wasn’t ghostwriting the U.S. Constitution. He was saying that if you’re a slave, you must keep on being a slave; if you’re a wife, must continue being regarded as property; no matter who you are, you can still worship Jesus Christ and be abused by your culture in whatever manner is customary for someone of your breeding and station.  And in any case, slaves remained slaves for eighteen more centuries, and women remained little more than property for nineteen more centuries in Christian countries around the world. Clearly, even if Paul’s message were interpreted to mean that we’re all equal, no one took it seriously. But what Paul’s passage really meant was that anyone can go to heaven by accepting Jesus as the Christ (as instructed in John 3:16), and that’s the message of universalism—not equal treatment in this world, but in the next world.

Shermer again assumes his mindset of Paul as if Paul was happy with women being seen as property. In 1 Cor. 7, Paul tells slaves that if they can get their freedom, go for it. Paul nowhere says a woman must put up with abuse and be treated as property. But let’s look and use slavery as an example. No one saw any problem with slavery until the time of the Civil War? (And it would be recommended that Shermer read Noll’s The Civil War As A Theological Crisis which I have also reviewed.

How about the epistle of Clement of Rome?

1Clem 55:2
We know that many among ourselves have delivered themselves to
bondage, that they might ransom others. Many have sold themselves to
slavery, and receiving the price paid for themselves have fed others.

Ignatius to Polycarp:

4:3 Despise not slaves, whether men or women. Yet
let not these again be puffed up, but let them serve
the more faithfully to the glory of God, that they may
obtain a better freedom from God. Let them not desire
to be set free at the public cost, lest they be found
slaves of lust.

We later find clearer evidence of this in the Apostolic Constitutions that Christians were in the business of gathering funds to set free slaves. Ignatius is saying that slaves should not expect they are owed such, but the slaves are not to be despised.

In fact, on page 298 of Pagans and Christians, Robin Lane Fox says

“Christian masters were not specially encouraged to set a slave free, although Christians were most numerous in the setting of urban households where freeing was most frequent: our pagan evidence for the practice is overwhelmingly evidence for the freeing of slaves in urban and domestic service…Among Christians, we know that the freeing of slaves was performed in church in the presence of the bishop: early laws from Constantine, after his conversion, permit this as an existing practice.”

We can simply wonder if Shermer has been looking at history or not. Perhaps if he does, he will realize that his so-called Enlightement morality is simply stealing what the Christians had all along and proclaiming it as his own.

I suppose Enlightenment morality does justify stealing then.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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2 Responses to “Is Bill Maher Right on Religion?”

  1. labreuer Says:
    In “The Moral Arc” I argue that this is not the case, and that most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment.

    Heh, Shermer thinks that most moral progress has occurred during the last 400 years, and that very little foundation for it existed prior to the Enlightenment. It is as if he doesn’t know that Genesis 1’s imago Dei is likely a polemical response to creation myths such as the Babylonian’s Enûma Eliš, where humans are the slaves of the gods with emperors conveniently being divine image-bearers, with the right to order humans about as they please. We can see this difference playing out in Israel’s history:

    There turned out to be enormous ethical implications to this proto-individuation. It is very clearly expressed in the dramatic confrontation between King David and the prophet Nathan recounted in the twelfth chapter of the Second Book of Samuel. David had caused the murder of Bathsheba’s husband in order to incorporate her in his harem—a perfectly acceptable expression of royal prerogative in terms of oriental conceptions of kingship. After Nathan cleverly leads David to condemn a man who shows no pity in destroying what another man loves, the prophet tells David that he is just such a man—”You are the man.” This sentence sovereignly ignores all the communal legitimations of kingship in the ancient Near East. Indeed, it ignores all the social constructions of the self as understood at that time. It passes normative judgment on David the man—a naked man, a man divested of all the trappings of a community, a man alone. I believe that this view of the relation between God and man, and therefore among men, continues to be normative for a Christian understanding of the human condition. (A Far Glory, 99–100)

    Without stuff like this, the Enlightenment wouldn’t even be a valid thought in the mind of man. We would be stuck with the Aristotelian concept of justice, whereby it is just to treat the equal equally, and the unequal unequally. I wonder if Shermer’s work is considered as worth reading by actual scholars. You know, people like Joshua A. Berman who wrote Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, or Nicholas Wolterstorff who wrote Justice: Rights and Wrongs.

    It strikes me that what Shermer is actually doing is engaged in the process of legitimating secularism by demonizing religion, like William Cavanaugh describes The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. Better to die in the name of the State than in the name of one’s religion, right? I mean, just look at the glory that this shift in loyalty brings!

  2. Vincent S Artale Jr Says:

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging and commented:
    Excellent piece!

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