There is an immensely common view among social liberals and many religious believers that holy books do not contain any harmful messages and that religions based upon the alleged moral authority of a deity and its revelations – which we possess in the form of holy texts – do not have any harmful effects.
Their inevitable claim is that the meanings of any statements in a religious text – and consequently, the ethics espoused by it – are entirely subject to personal “interpretation” which they think is not in any way influenced by the statements and wording in the text itself (this view is the position of people like Reza Aslan and media groups like ThinkProgress). And from this they conclude that there is no fundamental problem with, or harm that ever results from, believing that a religious text holds moral authority.
However, their view is highly flawed. There are inherent problems with believing that our most fundamental beliefs and deepest moral convictions should be based upon a particular set of religious texts. In this article I will focus on Islam: the belief that God dictates what is right and wrong, and that Muhammad is the last prophet of G9od whose revelations are written in the Quran.
1. First consider that in an ethical system that is not based upon belief in the moral authority of religious texts, the actual effects of different doctrines on the well-being of sentient beings is how we judge which ideas should be adopted and followed. Morality is ultimately based upon our feelings of empathy and evidence we gather about the world. No person or text has authority to which morality and ethics must adhere.
But in a belief system where adherents gain their moral attitudes and ethical doctrines from religious texts, those texts will always have priority. The statements and messages in those texts, and their particular wording, will always be what dictates what beliefs, feelings, and doctrines should be adopted by adherents of that belief system. In such belief systems, the debate is not whether the messages are moral or not, but rather, what interpretation of some arbitrary document happens to be correct.
Different believers have other influences in life that sway their moral beliefs and attitudes, but the words of a holy book in such a belief system can be a powerful factor for the reason I have described.
This creates a fundamental problem in the very concept of believing that certain holy texts hold moral authority. It inherently obstructs reform and makes the religion susceptible to backsliding into immoral dogmas because all interpretations of the text are constrained by the nature of the statements expressed in those texts in crucial ways which I will describe in the following sections.
2. The belief that God possess moral authority and that Muhammad informs us of God’s will creates an absurd situation where any believer will always view statements and teachings from Muhammad as morally good. Any statements attributed to Muhammad cannot be outright dismissed as morally wrong based upon their actual content and potential for harm. Consider messages such as these in Islamic texts:
Example verses"The Hour will not be established until you fight with the Jews, and the stone behind which a Jew will be hiding will say. "O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, so kill him." - Sahih al-Bukhari
Ali burnt some people and this news reached Ibn 'Abbas, who said, "Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, 'Don't punish (anybody) with Allah's Punishment.' No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, 'If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.' " - Sahih al-Bukhari
Khadija died three years before the Prophet departed to Medina. He stayed there for two years or so and then he married 'Aisha when she was a girl of six years of age, and he consummated that marriage when she was nine years old. - Sahih al-Bukhari
Say, "Obey Allah and the Messenger." But if they turn away - then indeed, Allah does not like the disbelievers. - Quran 3:32
"As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter, nor will they have anyone to help." - Quran 3:56
And whoever desires a religion other than Islam, it shall not be accepted from him, and in the hereafter he shall be one of the losers. - Quran 3:85
Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance - [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand. - Quran 4:34
These two (believers and unbelievers) are disputants, who contend about their Lord. But they who disbelieve will be fitted out with garments of flames. Boiling water will be poured down over their heads Which will dissolve everything within their bellies, and their skins. There are iron maces for them. As often as they try to escape from its anguish they would be put back into (the fire), and taste the torment of burning. - Quran 22:19-22
(Remember) Lot, when he said to his people: "Why do you indulge in obscenities when you know (it is evil)? 55. You lust after men in place of women. You are indeed a stolid people." - Quran 27:54-55
And (remember) Lot when he said to his people: "You indulge in lecherous acts which none of the creatures had done before you. You commit unnatural acts with men and cut off the way (of procreation), and commit obscenities in your gatherings." The only answer his people made was: "Bring the punishment of God, if you are truthful." - Quran 29:28-29
Those who deny the signs of God and the meeting with Him, cannot have hope of My mercy. There is a painful punishment for them. - Quran 29:23
No one denies Our revelations except those who are unjust. - Quran 29:49
"Who is more wicked than he who is reminded of his Lord's revelations yet turns away from them; We will surely requite the sinners." - Quran 32:22
Those who deny the Book and what We have sent down with Our apostles, will soon come to know when, with (iron) collars and chains around their necks, they will be dragged through boiling water, and then burnt in the Fire. - Quran 40:70-72
"Muhammad is the Prophet of God; and those who are with him are severe with infidels but compassionate among themselves." - Quran 48:29
Verily, those who disbelieve (in the religion of Islam, the Quran and Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him)) from among the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) and Al-Mushrikun will abide in the Fire of Hell. They are the worst of creatures. - Quran 98:6
These statements will always be there and cannot be rejected based on what they say because all that matters is whether they derive from a source with moral authority. This is absurd. Any or all of them can be considered morally good because the belief system itself does not judge the goodness of actions according to their affect on other beings. Its standard for moral goodness is simply whether it is commanded by the moral authority or not.
There are of course, other nicer statements in Islamic texts as well, but that does not change the issue. The problem is that the horrible messages should not be there at all. Whether they become an influential part of one’s belief system should not depend merely upon determining whether a certain person or text in history expressed them.
Thus believers are stuck in the absurd situation of always debating interpretation of the meaning of these passages, whether they are really from Muhammad or not, debating issues such as whether or not they have been overridden by later rules, and so on, rather than simply rejecting these awful messages as having no valid place in a moral belief system period.
This also means that if you argue that belief in a moral authority – such as Muhammad and his words in the Quran – is harmless and good as a means to make ethical decisions, then you validate all harmful beliefs, practices, and ideologies derived from interpretations of prophets and holy books (i.e. divine moral authority). You lose any fundamental basis on which to assert that harmful views based upon those beliefs are actually ethically wrong. Your own position logically views their ethical beliefs as being equally “moral” and correct, simply because they are potential interpretations of a holy text.
So it is dangerous to spread the idea that moral authority is fine and only needs us to “interpret” it. That has always been a dominant religious position. It does not reduce harm – it validates it.
3. The problem is compounded by the fact that many terrible messages in holy texts are not merely vague and can just as clearly and directly support numerous diverse and opposite moral positions.
Many verses are quite straightforward and clear. A harmful idea may even be the verifiably correct, accurate interpretation. This makes it very difficult to argue that they mean something other than how they appear. Attempts to claim that such verses do not mean what they clearly state appear very transparently dishonest, weak, and are easy for others to refute to expose your mistakes. As a result, believers are swayed toward adopting certain ethical positions, such as those viewing homosexuality as sinful or that all sinners and non-Muslims will be thrown into Hell.
Holy texts were intended to teach and send messages according to certain people’s views. So of course not all the verses are utterly vague and meaningless. There are plenty of verses and messages that clearly promote certain ideas and condemn other ones. These verses remain a constant barrier and recurring issue for any group of believers who insists that moral goodness derives from such texts rather than rational consideration of the effects of different ideas on well-being.
Furthermore, there are some other verses that initially appear to mean one thing (that nonbelievers would consider harmful) but were in fact intended to mean something quite different (which nonbelievers would consider good). These verses can require more complex explanations (or are sometimes dependent upon inaccurate, preumptive interpretations of other verses) and as a result, the verse can end up having a harmful influence on the doctrines and beliefs adopted by believers anyway. So this presents yet another problem for interpeting moral authority: being locked into the particular wording of messages and ideas.
Whereas, if these people used a rational basis for morality instead of the concept of moral authority, then they would not feel inclined to believe in them. They could more readily reject those verses and adopt new ones worded in ways that much more clearly express a particular moral sentiment.
The best solution to these problems is to simply reject the concept of any being’s word having inherent moral authority at all – be they Muhammad, Jesus, or a god. this places us in the position of having to consider and debate the actual merits and effects of different beliefs and practices on the happiness and suffering of living beings.
And I think this view can be slowly adopted by existing religions, to transform them in a much more effective way than claims of mere “interpretation”.
Many people will argue that adopting this position would be to remove the most fundamental belief that defines any religion and makes it a distinct ethical system. In some ways that may be true. But not only is it crucial to do make this moral progress, but also, I do not think it would truly erase religious identity and benefits.
Different ideologies would maintain some different aesthetic and ritualistic practices that would would be distinct from each other in meaningful ways, but that are less ethically divisive. For example, different traditions may place a focus on personal reflection and training one’s mental states, helping the poor and providing healthcare; and they may include different artistic styles such as utilizing beautiful and complex patterns to express amazement at nature and the interconnection of life, as well as different types of clothing including hijab, or styles that appeal to people who enjoy other subcultures and have a different way of viewing life.
As this sort of view grows (it already has been growing for many years among secular-leaning people of religious and non-religious identities) people will tend to agree on more important ethical issues and have fewer arbitrary differences.
In this way, the world can create a new form of Islam and other belief systems that are truly religions of peace which facilitate the goodness that reformers desire and are currently struggling to achieve.