Book Plunge: The Moral Arc

What do I think of Michael Shermer’s book published by Henry Holt and Company? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Michael Shermer’s book is a massive work on the topic of morality. Unlike many atheistic writings today, this one isn’t a total rant on the topic. It also actually has a serious bibliography. There are several interesting points in fact that theists could agree with. Some stories in the chapters on forgiveness can be incredibly moving and remind those of us who are Christians of what we need to be doing.

While there is plenty of food for thought, there are some major areas of concern. I do not plan on touching on all of them. I do find it interesting that Shermer will say infanticide isn’t the worst evil and will state there are some cases where it could be understandable and spends a couple of pages doing this. When he comes to the holocaust though, he talks about how the Germans and others convinced themselves that the Jews had been effectively dehumanized and killing them wasn’t that big a deal. For all Shermer’s talk about how we can fool ourselves, you think he would speak more on this.

Shermer also thinks that having more science (And by fiat he throws reason in there as being under the rubric of science without an argument) will lead to more morality. All these nations that were engaging in evil had pseudo-science, under which he includes creationism. That would be fascinating to see in a country like Russia, that were our competitors and with their pseudo-science managed to launch a satellite and send a man into space before us. Sure, we landed on the moon first, but it was a tight race. Russia was also highly atheistic with that. Germany also was a highly intellectual society. It’s not just a matter of reason that leads to morality.

Still, there is one chapter I want to focus on. It’s noteworthy that when he does a chapter asking if religion is responsible for morality, that this is the one that does not have interaction hardly with the best authorities. Shermer will meticulously document everything in other chapters, In this one, it is just pretty much throwing out everything that has been thrown out in other atheist books.

Shermer rightly points out the good that has been done in the name of Christianity. Not only has the good been done, but Jesus has been the greatest exemplar for living a moral life. No one else has had such an impact on the morality of mankind as Jesus has. One thinks Shermer is too quick to discount this.

Immediately Shermer shifts to moral problems of the church. No doubt, the church has not been perfect, but Shermer would have you think these issues are cut and dry. The Crusades are first brought up, although Shermer says nothing about them being wars to liberate people who had been held captive by Muslims for hundreds of years prior. The Inquisitions are brought up, although nothing is said about them being supported by the state and even by people who weren’t Christians as a way of providing law and order. Not a single scholar of the Crusades or the Inquisition is cited. Again, the silence of references is deafening.

After that, there are a list of wars that are supposed to be all about religion. (Because we know that the English Civil War was fought over the proper method of baptism.) The American Civil War is also included although that was fought over far more than just slavery. World War One is also somehow turned into a religious war. How? Beats me.

Naturally, Shermer says that German soldiers even had God With Us on their belt buckles. By this logic, Americans having “In God We Trust” means that every war we’ve engaged in has automatically been a religious war. Apparently, Shermer is unaware of the effects of political slogans.

Shermer also talks about the idea of loving your neighbor meaning to only love someone of your own tribe. He cites the exact same person that Dawkins cites in The God Delusion. He also makes the exact same mistake that Dawkins makes. He never brings up how Jesus interpreted this passage and how that’s mandatory for Christians today.

Shermer of course brings up Numbers 31. He says that at one point one can imagine the virgins who were spared saying “God told you to do that? Yeah right.” Of course, a specific order from God is not mentioned in the text. Furthermore, Shermer will complain if God kills everyone. Then if God spares the innocent, well He’s still responsible. Shermer also assumes the only reason they would spare a virgin is for sexual reasons. Hardly. Sex-crazed Israelite soldiers would not be cutting themselves off from the community for fighting in war before engaging in any intercourse.

Shermer also argues that the Bible is one of the most immoral works in all of literature. Shermer claims the Bible mistreats women, yet in the Bible, men and women are said to be equally in the image of God. You have women making an impact like Ruth, Deborah, Rahab, and Esther. Women increasingly gain more and more favor in the Bible. Perhaps Shermer could familiarize himself with a book like Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals.

Shermer then says that God banished Adam and Eve for choosing knowledge over ignorance. Not really. What the crime was was trying to claim the wisdom of God outside of God. To say one would have knowledge of good and evil, was a way of saying you would in fact be like God in knowledge. You could practically usurp Him. God was holding out on them supposedly. Again, Shermer does not bother looking at any commentaries or Old Testament scholars.

Of course, you have the usual rant about the flood, but after that Shermer says YHWH gave his favorite warlords multiple wives. It would be good to see where this happened. If we look at the patriarchs, Abraham had a concubine but after that, he was a one-woman man. Isaac we are told only had Rebekkah. Jacob had the most with four different partners in his lifetime. Joseph we are told of only one lover.

In fact, when polygamy shows up in the Bible, it usually does not end well. It leads to more chaos and is thoroughly done with by the time we get to Jesus. Shermer also says the women are never asked how they feel about the arrangement. Probably because the question would be nonsensical to them. “How do we feel about it?” The women were not internalists who spent their lives analyzing their inner being. They were more focused on survival.

Shermer says believers have to cherry pick what we will do from the Bible. Not really. We just have to know how to interpret it. Shermer doesn’t and he doesn’t show any interaction with Biblical scholars on this. This would be like me writing a chapter in a book critiquing evolution and not citing a single evolutionary biologist. You can make any position look ridiculous if you only give one side of the story.

Shermer also has statements about crimes for which YHWH ordered the death penalty. What is forgotten is that Israel had these laws and Israel was to be a nation sold out to YHWH and living to honor Him, just like any nation would honor its gods and its rulers. A little bit of leaven works through the whole dough as it were and ignoring the covenant was treated severely.

Let’s look at a favorite passage of Shermer’s. That’s Deuteronomy 22:28-29.

“If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.”

Shermer asks if anyone would want to do this today. Nope. I wouldn’t. So what? Shermer would have you think that the purpose of the OT Law was to bring Utopia and that things could never get better. No. The Law was great for the time and a step forward, but there was still work to do. What is happening here is that a woman had been violated and because of that, few would want to take her. Being with the person who violated her could be something that she’d want to maintain some honor. (See Tamar when she was raped for instance.) The father would be paid because he would have lost a dowry. The man meanwhile would have to provide for this woman forever. In other words, if you really want this woman, you’d better be prepared to have her for all time.

Shermer then goes to the great Biblical scholar, comedienne Julia Sweeney. For her, the story of Abraham offering up Isaac was a truly wicked story. Of course, Sweeney talked about reacting like this in childhood and seems to have not moved past a childhood understanding at all. Abraham’s test was asking “Do you believe I’m able to complete my promise to you if you offer up Isaac?” The result of God stopping Abraham is also a way of saying to all the other people “I am not like the pagan gods. I will stop you from offering up your children.”

Sweeney goes on to list other preposterous commandments. One is that if two men are in a fight and the wife of one grabs the genitals of the other, cut off her hand. Of course, Sweeney doesn’t realize that cutting off ones ability to reproduce was cutting off their livelihood in being able to produce for their family and provide and destroying their honor. It’s enough to say “I find this offensive!” and not bother to understand it.

Shermer says some will say some laws have been revoked, but Jesus said He came to fulfill the Law and not destroy it. In fact, He did do just that. That’s why it’s basic NT to understand the Old Testament Law doesn’t apply to us today and we were never under it. Shermer incredibly says Jesus’s morality is even worse than the OT.

For instance, Jesus says that if you hate your brother in your heart, you deserve the death penalty. Shermer misses why Jesus is so hard on such hatred. He is because it really means that if you thought you could get away with it, you would murder someone. That’s where hatred gets you. You don’t do it often because the costs outweigh the benefits. Turn that around and you are quite likely to do it. Shermer says similar about Jesus’s commandment on lust and says Jesus has a practical solution about plucking out your eye. Is Shermer so blinded by his anti-religious stance that he can’t understand that Jews spoke in hyperbole? This is an extreme measure and Jesus is not recommending one literally do this.

Shermer also says Jesus never married and had a family but turned away his own mother, such as in John 2. Of course, he ignores that Jesus did do what His mother asked. He just latches on Jesus referring to her as woman, which in Josephus is a term used to refer to a beloved wife and the way Jesus typically addressed women. It can be a term of disrespect sometimes, but the context tells you whether it is or not.

Shermer also tells of a story where Mary and his family wants to see him and Jesus says to His disciples “Send them away. You are my family now.” I must have missed that part. I don’t remember Him ever saying to send her away. Naturally, we also have the same misunderstanding about Luke 14 and hating your mother and father. It always amazes me when atheists lambaste literalism and then engage in it themselves.

Shermer of course buys into the Dark Ages myth and acts like Christianity had nothing to do with the advancements of that time since Homer and the seven wonders of the world knew nothing about Christianity. Of course, these achievements of theirs weren’t done in an effort to better understand the world. Christians were interested in that. Since the world was made by a rational God, we could expect it to be rational. Shermer will also ignore how during this time slavery was abolished for the first time and not just by Galatians 3:28, but because men and women were in the image of God.

Shermer also finds capitalism to be opposed to the Bible. Why? Well Jesus sent away the rich young ruler. Jesus never though condemned the owning of wealth. He condemned being owned by wealth. Jesus Himself was supported by some wealthy patrons, such as in Luke 8. Jesus spoke warnings to the rich often because the rich were assumed to have the blessing of God, but Jesus said this was not necessarily so. You can have money, but you should not have the love of money.

Finally, let’s look at Shermer’s look at the Ten Commandments.

The first one is to have no other gods before Him. Now in all of these, Shermer ignores that this was part of the society of the time and not meant to be applied everywhere. He starts by saying this one violates the first amendment and restricts freedom of religion. It’s unbelievable to see someone say something like this. Sorry Shermer, but this isn’t the way ancient societies wrote and God started where His chosen people were. If you are under His patronage, you are to be loyal to Him.

The second is about idols and again Shermer, says this violates freedom of religious expression, but also what about Christians who have crosses on their necklaces? What about it? Last I saw we aren’t worshiping them. Shermer then says if Jews had little golden gas chambers the reaction would be shocking. Indeed. That’s the point. Christians took an emblem of shame and turned it into one of victory.

He then looks at God as a jealous God saying this explains all the bloodbaths that took place. Actually, jealousy could be an honorable trait. It meant that one was to be recognized as having exclusive rights to what they were jealous for. This is what a husband is supposed to be for his wife. He alone has exclusive rights to her. Would Shermer consider me to be noble if I wanted to share my wife with my neighbor?

The third is about not taking God’s name in vain. Of course, Shermer sees this as the same violation and probably relates it to profanity. Instead, it means to treat YHWH honorably. It wasn’t about cussing, but about taking the name of God lightly and dishonoring His reputation.

The fourth is the Sabbath. Shermer says this has nothing to say about morality. Assuming that is correct, what of it? The Sabbath was a great way Israel was to set themselves apart from others. They would be saying that they were trusting that YHWH would provide on that one day they didn’t work, quite a big deal for a day-laborer society.

The fifth is about honoring your father and mother, and yet Shermer finds this one problematic. Why? Because one is commanded to honor. Shouldn’t that come about naturally? Well let’s see if Shermer would want to live this way. Don’t tell your children right from wrong and tell them what to do and not to do. Let it come about naturally. See how well that works.

The sixth one is not to kill for Shermer and here he finds a problem. Isn’t it arbitrary about when killing is allowed and not. Actually, the word is murder and it refers to an attitude and way of killing specifically. The Hebrews had several words for different actions that constituted killing. That doesn’t mean that each counted as murder. Shermer speaks about several biblical scholars and theologians here. Unfortunately, he never cites one.

The seventh is adultery. Shermer says this is rich coming from a deity who knocked up someone else’s fiance, but it doesn’t take into account the lifestyles people find themselves in. Should we limit what two adults want to do together? Perhaps we should because sex is something sacred and to be honored. This is one problem of Shermer’s Moral Arc. He assumes where he is is good and it’s good entirely by focusing on saying “We are more tolerant” to the disregard of other virtues, like honoring one another sexually.

The eighth is to not steal and Shermer says “Do we need a deity to tell us this?” No. Who said we did? This is just an example of something that is to be followed. We can say these are defining characteristics of Israel.

Finally with the commandment to not lie, at least here Shermer agrees with this one. Of course, his reason is about how it is for us to be lied to or gossiped about. Perhaps it should have been something about the love of truth.

We conclude with coveting. Shermer says this goes against capitalism. Not really. Coveting is saying you want the specific good your neighbor has and not just one of your own. Of course, he says a man’s wife is thrown in with everything else. This is like saying that when you go to the store if you have a list that says “Eggs, bread, soap, butter, fish, and bananas” that that means that soap is included as something edible. The list in the Bible is a list of things that are coveted and yes, it is possible to covet the wife or husband of your neighbor.

Shermer’s book is better than some, but still lacking overall. I do not think he makes a case and one of the big problems is no major foundation ontologically or metaphysically is given for goodness at all. Still, I have chosen to focus on this one chapter. One would hope Shermer would interact with biblical scholars here and Natural Law theorists elsewhere, but he does not.

In Christ,
Nick Peters