By L. Alfred James
In my last post, we saw how the Bible has been the most important factor in the development of Western culture’s attitudes regarding human life, dignity, freedom, and equality. Even an atheistic historian like Tom Holland admits that Christianity has been the greatest social force for making the world a better place.
That is an interesting historical observation. But it prompts an important question: Why? Why would the Bible have that effect? Why would the Bible lead to a reverence for human life? Why would the Bible inspire the political doctrine of human rights?
Is it merely an accident of history that Christianity was widespread in those cultures that came to reject slavery, reject the oppression of women, and reject the exploitation of lower classes? Is it all just a huge coincidence?
If you consider the matter from a philosophical perspective, the reasons for the Bible’s impact become very obvious.
The Bible Provides A Foundation For Human Worth
Perhaps you are, like me, inclined towards skepticism. You might be thinking, “Why do we need the Bible to strengthen society’s belief in human value? I believe in God. But I don’t believe the Bible is true. And I value human beings every bit as much as any Christian. So why should I think that the Bible has been influencing society to value human beings?”
Yes, I agree that you probably have an intuitive sense of the worth of human beings. You have a feeling. But the problem is that you cannot justify your belief in their worth without some kind of supernatural revelation. All you can say is, “I have a feeling that human beings are valuable.” To which someone can respond, “So what? Aren’t we supposed to be guided by reason and logic? Are you saying we should be guided by our feelings? What about my feelings of anger that make me want to punch my jerk of a neighbor? Should I be guided by those feelings? Which feelings do I yield to? Any?”
Without belief in some kind of transcendent source of truth (like the Bible) there is no way to intellectually justify your belief in the exceptional value of human beings over other species of life on this planet. According to evolutionary psychology, these feelings (about human worth) are just an accidental byproduct of the evolutionary processes that produced us. In other words, our moral beliefs are merely illusions that give our species a survival advantage. For instance, consider what Michael Ruse says about morality:
The position of the modern evolutionist…is that humans have an awareness of morality [only] because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth…Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” they think they are referring above and beyond themselves…Nevertheless, …such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, …and any deeper meaning is illusory.1
According to Ruse, human beings accidentally evolved a sense of morality. But it was a fortuitous accident, a stroke of good luck. Since humans with a conscience are averse to murdering each other, the sense of morality (which just happened to evolve by luck) increased the number of ancient humans who survived. This also meant that more and more humans were born with consciences, since those with consciences survived long enough to produce babies who would grow up with consciences. Thus—according to Ruse’s story—the moral sense became widespread. Moral beliefs became firmly lodged into the conscious experience of humanity.
(Before I get to my main point, I need to point out that Ruse’s story, of course, is logically possible. However, logical possibilities come cheap. Heck, it’s logically possible that the earth was created by God only five minutes ago and he inserted a bunch of false memories into our brains to make us think we’ve been alive for a long time. There is no logical contradiction in making this assertion. Thus, logical possibilities are not just cheap, they are pathetically cheap. Fact: There is absolutely no evidence to support this story that Ruse tells. It is merely a logical possibility that assumes human beings are the product of evolution. For more on this issue, see an earlier series here.
Here is the point: If there is no revelation from God—even if God exists—then we have no justification for disagreeing with Ruse. If God exists, but he has not spoken, we can’t prove Ruse wrong. Ruse might really be correct. Our internal sense of moral values and our sense of right and wrong really might be delusions fobbed off on us by our brains. Without the Bible, we have no reason for trusting our natural moral convictions, our consciences. Worse, we have no reason for believing human beings have any more value than apes, pigs, chickens, caterpillars, trees, or bacteria. Believing that humans have greater worth than these other species is just an example of bias towards one’s own species. This is called speciesism. Similar to racism, it is an unjustifiable bias towards one own species. And in a world with no revelation from God it is just as evil as racism.
To be sure, if God has not spoken, it might be pragmatically useful for society if human beings believe that murder is morally wrong. But such pragmatic usefulness does absolutely nothing to prove that murder is really wrong. It just proves that we have certain emotions and beliefs that encourage the growth of the human population on the planet. However, since we have no good reason for thinking individual human beings have any special worth, we have no good reason for thinking that a larger population of them, even a flourishing population. is a good thing. If a single grain of dirt has no moral worth, piling a bunch of them together into a mound does not suddenly create something with moral value. A mound of dirt, lots and lots of dirt, has no more moral value than a single grain of dirt. Likewise, a huge population of worthless human beings has no more value than a single worthless human being.
Finally, subjective feelings and beliefs regarding human worth are not a useful argument for dissuading angry people from harming others. To see this played out dramatically, check out Brian Godawa’s seven-minute film called Cruel Logic.
If the Bible really is a revelation from God, then we have a strong foundation for believing that human beings are intrinsically valuable. Namely, the fact that they are made in the image of God. This is what makes murder wrong (see Genesis 9:6). And this biblical doctrine is the historical basis for believing in human rights. You can trace the notion of human rights directly back to European intellectuals who had a high regard for scripture.
But if God has not spoken, even if he/she/it exists, we have no justification for our belief in the unique value of human beings, or anything like human rights. We have no reason to believe that human beings are made in the image of God. In fact, we have no reason to believe that human beings are any more valuable than any other creature, including bacteria. When it comes to morality, a silent God is no better than no God at all.
Understanding this helps us to see why the Bible has played such an important role in making the West into a culture that aspires to value all human beings, regardless of their social status, gender, or ethnicity.
1. I am indebted to William Lane Craig’s book, Reasonable Faith, for this quote. (Page 174).