Morality & Politics

Biblical Morality: Religious Freedom

If we insist on taking the Bible literally, then we can say goodbye to religious freedom, because its message on pacifism and plurality is not encouraging. We saw in the previous page that the Ten Commandments are the source of much Judeo-Christian fundamentalist bigotry, but they are just the start of a long and bloody story.

"Wonderful things were to be seen. Numbers of the Saracens were beheaded ... others were shot with arrows, or forced to jump from the towers; others were tortured for several days, then burned with fIames. In the streets were seen piles of heads and hands and feet. One rode about everywhere amid the corpses of men and horses. In the temple of Solomon, the horses waded in the blood up to their knees, nay, up to the bridle. It was a just and marvelous judgment of God, that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers."- Raymond of Aguilers, on the massacre of Muslim and Jewish prisoners of war following the capture of Jerusalem on July 15, 1099. Quoted from the "Holy Horrors" page on

In Ezekiel 9:5 among many similar incidents, God outlined his prescribed treatment for idol-worshippers: "show no pity; slay old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women" (and we wonder why the Jews were not well liked at the time). Real or imagined witches fared no better: in Exodus 22:18, he stated: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live", and since the Bible never defined precisely what a "witch" is, this opened the door for all kinds of persecutions. God's own murderous rampages against those who refused to follow him were even worse, including the total destruction of two cities (Sodom and Gomorrah), and eventually escalating to the extermination of the entire human race except for Noah and his family!

The Bible's message on tolerance is best demonstrated by examining Joshua 6, which describes the fall of Jericho at the hands of Joshua's army:

Joshua 6:17-21 (NIV): The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the LORD ... But keep away from the devoted things ... All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the LORD and must go into his treasury. When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it--men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

These kinds of atrocities are typical of the Old Testament, and it would be frankly impractical to list all of the atrocities contained therein. Suffice it to say that religious intolerance is generally considered a largely western phenomenon, and that leaders like Joshua and Gideon have been named by many scholars as the men who set the heinous example. In any case, the most revealing part is yet to come. After the events described in Joshua 6, some of the Israelites disobeyed orders and kept some of the plunder for themselves, and in Joshua 7:11, God raged at Joshua: "Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions." In other words, Israel did not sin when they murdered the helpless women and children of Jericho. Israel did not sin when they laid waste to the city and plundered its riches. But Israel did sin when they failed to give all the plunder to the church. That is the message which runs throughout all of the Book of Joshua, and most of the Old Testament: crush God's enemies, show them no mercy, commit any atrocity you wish, but obey God and give your money to the church.

Deuteronomy 20:16-18 (NIV): However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them--the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites--as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.

The justification for massacres given in Deuteronomy 20 is a perfect example of the mentality of which I write: apparently, it's acceptable to murder "anything that breathes" if you're afraid that they'll teach you competing religious ideas! God makes it very clear that he considers the act of failing to worship him a crime sufficiently heinous to merit the following punishment:

Deuteronomy 32:21-25 They made me jealous by what is no god and angered me with their worthless idols. I will make them envious by those who are not a people ... a fire has been kindled by my wrath, one that burns to the realm of death below. It will devour the earth and its harvests and set afire the foundations of the mountains. I will heap calamities upon them and spend my arrows against them. I will send wasting famine against them, consuming pestilence and deadly plague; I will send against them the fangs of wild beasts, the venom of vipers that glide in the dust. In the street the sword will make them childless; in their homes terror will reign. Young men and young women will perish, infants and gray-haired men.

By modern, humanistic values which are based on human rights and the good of mankind, these are hardly the actions of a "righteous" God! The persecution of heretics is a violation of human rights (specifically, freedom of religion), the merciless slaughter of heretics is obviously even more strongly prohibited, and it goes without saying that genocide is unacceptable for any reason. The slaughter of prisoners of war is banned by the Geneva Convention, and the massacre of helpless civilian prisoners would be considered a "crime against humanity". But we're not done yet. It seems that not only is it "righteous" to slaughter unbelievers, but it is considered such a heinous sin to hold back from slaying unbelievers that if you fail to join your fellow Israelites in their atrocities, then you will share the unbelievers' fate!

Judges 21:8-10 (NIV): Then they asked, "Which one of the tribes of Israel failed to assemble before the LORD at Mizpah?" They discovered that no one from Jabesh Gilead had come to the camp for the assembly. For when they counted the people, they found that none of the people of Jabesh Gilead were there. So the assembly sent twelve thousand fighting men with instructions to go to Jabesh Gilead and put to the sword those living there, including the women and children.

The typical fundamentalist's response to this litany of horrors is to simply say that Jesus improved upon all of that, but Jesus' attempt to rectify the inhumane legalism of the past was far too vague to accomplish the task of correcting the wrongs of the Old Testament, or preventing them in future (as demonstrated by the medieval Catholics). He never explicitly repudiated God's laws; he only attempted to re-interpret them in a more humane, favourable light, arguing that we cannot be the executioners of that law because only "he who is without sin" should cast stones, and no one is without sin. He rebuked the legalist Pharisees while continuing to praise the God that had committed such horrifying atrocities in the past. He did say some good things, but he continued to preach the Old Testament mantra that God's followers should hate members of other religions, thus preserving the motivation for holy wars for all time. It is often said that Jesus died for the sins of humanity against God, but who pays for the sins of God against humanity?

Jesus' most prized contribution to Biblical morality is his version of the Golden Rule that you should "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". However, that was nothing new (versions of the ethical principle of reciprocity have been found in ancient texts from cultures all around the world since long before Jesus was born), and in fact, that sentiment is also found in Leviticus 19:18, which also instructs that children must be put to death if they curse at their parents. The important question is not whether some of Jesus' statements can be interpreted in a positive light, but whether he really wanted to end religious bigotry and conflict, as so many have suggested. His actions are more revealing than his preaching (more on that later), and in Matthew 10:34, Jesus clarified his position by saying: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the Earth. I did not come to bring peace; but a sword", going on to explain that all unbelievers, even those in your own family, should be considered "enemies". So much for ending religious hatred; one does not describe those of other faiths as "enemies" if one's goal is to end religious hatred! The only area where Jesus explicitly improved upon the Old Testament was his apparent advocacy of non-violent religious hatred, as opposed to the Old Testament brand of blood-soaked religious hatred. That's an improvement to be sure, but it's hardly plurality.

Continue to 3. Racism

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