There was an old sinner in the eighteenth century who declared that, if there were no God, he would have to be invented.
– Fyodor Dostoyevski from Brother’s Karamazov
Often misattributed as “”If God does not exist, everything is permitted,” this is a contention that is either stated or implied in a lot of pro-religion arguments. Namely, that without religion as a source of positive moral values — or at least without the unseen hand of God influencing the acts of men — good things and good behavior is not possible. That in the absence of religion, society would be incapable of doing the right thing and existence would be downright intolerable.
Despite the fact that many periods in history seem to demonstrate that under one religiously influenced or empowered regime after another life has been quite intolerable indeed, you could still make a reasonable argument that in some primitive societies, religious values have served as a moral compass to help maintain order and improve behavior in such societies. But what about modern society?
Argumentum ad Nauseum
If you have ever had the misfortune to get into a semantic debate on specific verses of the bible, you will often run into the various ‘interpretation’ arguments.
- Was Jonah really swallowed by a fish?
- Did Noah really have 2 of EVERY animal on earth on his ark as the ENTIRE planet was flooded?
- Were there really giants living in Jericho?
Any semi-reasonable Christian or Hebrew will say ‘of course not!’ and point out that such lessons are allegorical or parables.
You also run into the anochronistic-relevancy type argument when addressing various rules or verses. “Well that applied to tribal societies in the desert, not to modern life in a technological age.”
The general answer that you get from people who admit to not taking the ‘entire’ bible as rote is that the stories told in the bible are often times symbolic or serve as period-specific lessons that can be related to real life, even present day scenarios. (yet, the same people will often rely on ‘certain’ verses to the letter when addressing specific things they do not like and want to demonize or change)
But Jesus re-wrote the book!
Even if you buy into the argument that Jesus brought forth a new age via the New Testament, there are still many verses of that testament which people do not take literally or follow as absolute rules governing their behavior.
For example, you will not find many modern Christian women that abide by the verses in 1st Peter chapter 3 that tell them to be submissive to their husbands and not wear adornments such as jewelry and make-up or to style their hair.
Another example is the focus on ‘family values’ predominant in western Christianity which seems to disregard the message of Jesus to a gathering crowd in Luke 14:25-33. He tells them that if you are to truly be a disciple of Christ, you must hate everyone else in comparison — even your own family and even your own life.
Yet another example is the complete disregard of the lessons of selflessness and altruism repeated throughout the preachings of Christ, but especially repeated in Acts and 2nd Corinthians. Multiple passages implore the followers (of Christ) to sell all their belongings to give to the poor, often times based specifically on ‘need’. You don’t see too many people on the religious right repeating these verses as they condemn the social redistribution policies of their political opponents on the left.
This differentiation between old testament vs. new testament dogma is just further support of the kind of thing that I am referring to. Determining which verses are relevant and should be taken literally and which are symbolic or dated and should only serve as a metaphorical lesson are ‘choices’ — either of the individual believer or of the particular denomination or theologian.
It’s all a matter a choice
So what does this mean amidst a culture that often uses religion as a justification for banning gay marriage or effecting the healthcare decisions between a woman and her doctor? What does it say for a society that still fights with pockets of antisemitism and a growing xenophobia toward followers of Islam?  What does it say for a culture that still struggles between views of creationism and theories of evolution and natural selection?
The reality is that most people ‘will‘ tell you that verses in the bible are often symbolic or open to interpretation. They ‘will‘ say many are allegorical in nature or speak of only references to philosophical or moral and ethical lessons and truths. Yet, as mentioned, the religious will still cite specific references to support their arguments on various topics. Often when challenged on those topics. And generally such notions are challenged due to a question as to the moral right or ethical good of a given behavior or philosophical view.
What I am getting at is, that when it comes to some choices regarding what the bible seems to regard as being a ‘good Christian’ — such as selling all of your possessions, disowning your family and humbling yourself before God — the ‘believer’ makes a choice to disregard those parts of the Bible that do not suit them or the culture and age in which they live. They choose to see such concepts as metaphorical. The same person then abdicates their choice in reference to other passages, deferring to ‘the will of God’ in support of that which might not be as acceptable outside of the context of the religion.
When such a person skims through the Old Testament they choose to see the instructions to stone the infidels or to cut the throats of adulterers as ‘dated’ concepts but then call upon the lines in Deuteronomy to condemn same-sex relationships or rules in Leviticus to demonize abortion procedures and those that participate in their practice.
By their fruits you shall know them…
History is full of examples where religious ideals or specific biblical passages have been and still are used to justify genocide, slavery, segregation, rape, barbarism, sexual and racial discrimination and many other concepts that are no longer considered [chosen] to be acceptable today by the majority of civilized society.
The word ‘chosen‘ is the important thing here. People choose what they seek to identify with as as good moral behavior or good ethical decision making. And the religious choose to see a verse as a referential lesson rather than a firm law from God. And when they do so, they choose to instead include observations of reality as a means to determine what really is truly good and what should be deemed bad.
The important thing to observe, which is why I keep repeating it, is that the same religious people will willingly quote from their book verbatim to justify that which they do not consider to be a choice — as justification for that which might be subject to challenge by the others in the society in which they live. They defer to the bible rather than exercise the responsibility to prove their case for those questions which are most likely to be seen by others in our society as questionable.
The ‘Good’ stems from choice, the bad relies on dogma
As someone who uses reality as a compass for my moral code, I am of course going to assert that when you utilize your senses and your capacity for reason that you will arrive at more accurate premises and conclusions when it comes to moral and ethical decisions. People can and should question anything presented to them ‘as fact’, seeking proof of said fact for themselves. (especially when such things come without a basis of evidence to support them)
Thus I think it is a reasonable thing to assert, religion is not a source of good moral behavior or sound ethical lessons. Even the Christians demonstrate that they choose what is ‘good’ for themselves. But when it comes to ‘bad’ behavior, what better source than the Bible (or the Torah, Koran, book of the Dead, etc.) to rationalize it, justify it and make it ‘seem’ reasonable.
In other words, people ‘choose’ what they see as good, they use the ‘bible’ to justify what others know is bad.
 Yes, I am aware that there are sound reasons to be critical of fundamentalist Islam and even Islam as a whole for not condemning the extremists under their fold. But what I refer to specifically is, given the history of both Christianity and Judaism, do people speaking from either of those religious perspectives have the integrity to criticize Islam for fundamentalist extremes?