That is, does being morally wrong make something factually wrong? Specifically, does a religious demand for an immoral action or religious sanction of an immoral attitude show that the religion is false?
A little over a month ago, Hedyot posted one of his “Better Know A Kofer” interviews, this one with a woman who calls herself Derech Acheret. The interview implied that she had rejected Orthodox Judaism because she found its inherent misogyny immoral. My initial reaction was that this is not a valid reason to reject Judaism’s truth-claims.
About a week later I read a post by Brooklyn Wolf in which he discussed whether it is halachicly permissible to violate Shabbos to save a non-Jew’s life (and whether he would be able to adhere to halacha in that situation). Wolf asked if one witnessed a car crash on Shabbos, would one permitted to save the non-Jewish driver and his small child? According to a strict interpretation of halacha, it would seem not. (The consensus among the commenters was that there are sufficient loopholes to allow for saving the driver and child, and that practically speaking one should do so, but that’s somewhat beside the point.) Here, my instinctive reaction was, “This halacha is immoral! Another strike against Orthodoxy!”
A moment later I realized that my reaction ran counter to the position I had taken in the discussion on Hedyot’s blog. And so I began to think more about whether the immoral aspects of a religion is reason enough to reject its truth claims.
To begin with, there is the question of what makes something moral. Religion takes the stance that we can know what is moral by following what God tells us to do. The Euthyphro dilemma, the question of whether God’s commands are moral because they are what God commands or if God commands that which is moral by some other, objective standard is not relevant to this discussion. I am not concerned with how the morality of religious directives is derived. It is enough that they are assumed to be moral. Given that the religion is assumed to be moral, our personal sense of morality, influenced as it is by the culture into which we happen to be born, is irrelevant. If it is true that the religious dictate is moral, then our sense that it is immoral is simply wrong.
It is not enough, then, for our personal sense of morality to be at odds with religious teachings. After all, if it is true that an omniscient God handed down these commands from on high, who are we to disagree? Rather, it is necessary to deal with the underlying assumption that religious dictates are inherently moral. To do this, we need to address the basis for that assumed morality, the religion’s truth-claims about God.
Before I get to that, I want to address why we have the instinctive reaction that tells us that immoral (by our personal standards) religious dictates are proof that the religion is wrong. I think it comes from an assumption that religion teaches us what is what is good, and when its teachings outrage our moral sensibilities, we see that as evidence that the religion is wrong. The implicit argument can be laid out like this:
Premise A: Religion always teaches and commands us to do what is good.
Premise B: Therefore, a religion that demands something immoral cannot be true.
Premise C: The religion dictates something that is bad.
Conclusion: The religion is not true.
As I stated above, though, it is entirely plausible to argue that the religious teaching in fact embodies a timeless moral truth that we, unfortunately influenced by the culture we live in, wrongly perceive as immoral.
It is therefore necessary to address the foundations of the assumption that religious dictates are moral: The claim that they were handed down by God, Who only commands us to do that which is moral. This can be broken down into three premises:
1) God exists.
2) God handed down these religious commands.
3) God only commands that which is moral.
If any of these premises are false we have a valid reason for rejecting the religious commands. I think that 3 is largely irrelevant in a practical sense. Even if God were sadistic and commanded us to act immorally, we would be well advised to do as He says. We simply do not have the ability to defy an omnipotent Being and have it end well for us. You could argue that trusting such a Being to be good to us if we follow His commands is foolish, but I think trusting Him to make us miserable if we don’t is a safe bet. Practically, we would have no choice but to do as we’re told and hope for the best.
For the theist who objects to a given religious dictate, attacking premise 2 is the best way to go. If one can make a good argument that God never commanded the particular practice you object to, or that his commands were misunderstood, or that society has warped the true intention of the command and piled layers of unnecessary, objectionable practices on top of it, then the particular practice can be altered or abandoned without rejecting the overall religion.
For the atheist, showing that premise 2 is false in all cases would disprove a religion. Showing that Matan Torah probably wasn’t a historical event, for instance, and that the Torah was compiled later from extant mythology would be a valid reason for rejecting Judaism’s dictates. The lack of evidence for premise 1 would similarly be a valid reason for rejecting religious commands.
It seems that some people who reject religious claims do so because they find certain religious beliefs or practices immoral. Before recently noticing and giving thought to this tendency, I also often took immoral religious commands as evidence that the religion is wrong. But, to answer the question in the post’s title, that I think something is morally wrong doesn’t make it factually wrong. It could be that I’m mistaken about morality. It could be that I’m correct, but that God demands the immoral action, in which case it is in my best interest to comply.
I think that rejection of religion should rest upon rejection of its truth-claims, not on objections to its morality. At best, showing that religion is immoral only disproves one of its claims, the claim that religious dictates are good and guide one in leading a moral life. Far more important are the questions of God’s existence and His will. To reject a religion simply because you object to the demands it makes of its adherents or the culture it supports is an appeal to consequences: I don’t like it, therefore it’s not true.