Is morality driven by faith? Few things unite believers and atheists more firmly than the suggestion that moral judgments draw their strength from religion. To be sure, many a virtuous atheist has denied it, and with good reason. The old saw that we would have to invent God if He didn’t exist implies a view of moral motivation that’s suitable for four-year-olds. If you follow these commandments you’ll go to heaven, and if you don’t you’ll burn in hell is just a spectacular version of the bribes and threats we use to raise our children: If you clean up your room you’ll go to the playground and if not you’ll stay inside. Few serious thinkers, secular or religious, view us as moral infants in need of sacred carrots and sticks. Still their remains a lurking suspicion that religion is what gives moral convictions their backbone. Just watch the difference between believers and atheists defending an ethical standpoint. When most atheists use words like evil, moral, or nobility, they incline to put some distance between themselves and their language with an air-quote. It’s the ultimate post-modern gesture, wiggling fingers to express doubt and discomfort about making moral judgments at all. Most believers, by contrast, keep their hands in their laps.
In a world where politicians invoke God’s command to start a war in the absence of other reasons for doing so, we may wish more believers would express self-doubt. Here both sides would benefit from a closer look at the Bible. Consider Sodom and Gomorrah, traditional focus of a favorite fundamentalist message of the carrot and stick variety. Most people think the story is simple: the Sodomites sinned – through homosexual behavior, or sexual licentiousness in general – and God destroyed them, turning a thriving town into a pile of rubble and a wistful woman into a pillar of salt. But you needn’t be a fundamentalist to abhor the sin that did in the Sodomites: it was in fact their attempt to gang-rape two strangers to death. The strangers turned out to be angels, which was the Sodomites’ undoing, and their violation of ancient rules of hospitality turned moral law upside down. Concerned that total annihilation might be too severe a punishment even for gang-raping one”s guests, Jewish legends expand on the account in Genesis: the Sodomites made xenophobia a matter of principle, and punished those who helped strangers with death.
But the most important part of the story is what happens before the cities are leveled. God reveals His destructive plans to Abraham, and Abraham speaks up. What if there are fifty righteous people among the sinners? Surely the God of justice would not judge the innocent and guilty alike? The God of justice agrees; for fifty righteous people He will leave the cities alone. But is the Lord a pedant? Surely He won’t destroy the city for the want of just five? Abraham bargains God down to ten, and several things about his actions should serve as a model.
First, they’re universalistic. Abraham’s interest is not confined to his tribe or his neighbors, but to the lives of innocents everywhere. Second, Abraham is clearly frightened. In a world where even ordinary sovereigns are ill-inclined to debate their actions with their subjects, he dares remind the King of Kings that He’s about to violate moral law. Third, both parties acknowledge that morality is not a matter of absolute principles, but of paying attention to detail. (God might have answered: Save the town for the sake of fifty? Next he’ll be wanting to let the’ whole bunch go scot-free!) But despite a refusal to trade in absolutes, two moral judgments emerge perfectly clear: rape is a criminal action, and so is collateral damage.
What’s most important about this story, however, is what it says about the source of moral judgment. Whatever it is, it isn’t divine authority. We have moral needs so strong they can override our instincts for self-preservation. Even those with a direct line to God cannot depend on it to yield moral certainty. Abraham was as true a man of faith as religion ever knew, yet he used his own moral reason – even at the risk of God’s wrath.
For conservative believers, the message is a warning: morality can be expressed through faith, but it cannot be based on it. Sometimes questioning religious authority can be a moral action, as the Bible itself reveals. This story of Abraham suggests that if God gave us reason, He meant us to use it – even if that means challenging the very highest commands.
For secular citizens, the message should be welcome: among the many pieces of wisdom to be found in the Bible is the acknowledgment that no moral judgment is infallible – and all of us are required to do our best nonetheless. You can stand firm even without the belief that God’s own voice is directing you – so long as you rely on principles of justice which have guided the better angels of our nature from ancient days to our own. There’s much more to be said about those principles themselves, but finding common ground on which believers and secularists can stand is the first and crucial step.
Susan Neiman, Director of the Einstein Forum, is the author of “Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists.”