Thursday, February 5, 2009

Moral Conundrum

Atheism is simply stated not believing in the existence of a God or gods. Any characterizations of atheism or of atheists that may be made beyond this point are not essential to the atheist platform. Yet, many often attribute a number of other ideologies or paradigms to atheism. For example, it is generally assumed that atheism has an inherent bias toward non-capitalistic economic systems. This is not true as demonstrated by the disagreement between Philosobot who leans more in favor of free-market capitalism and me who leans somewhat away from the same. In a similar vein Shermer (2006) defends capitalism as a healthy fitness-inducing economic system based on his application of evolutionary mechanics to economics. There are hence atheist representatives on many points of the political, economic, and moral spectrum. The issue of abortion is no different.

Though it might be immediately assumed that all atheists are in favor of pro-choice, abortion rights to women, this is not the case. As Philosobot and I are sometimes on different ends of the spectrum in our views, we disagree on the the matter of pro-choice or pro-life morality. We disagree on this issue and discuss it from time to time. Despite our polarity on this issue, we do agree that the issue is rather gray. The biblical theist might argue that our lack of a moral compass such as the Bible is the reason for the grayness that we perceive on this matter. To this I respond that the Bible is ironically quite gray on the matter of the moral or legal status of abortion.

Search from cover to cover in the Bible and there will not be found a clear and explicit imperative against abortion. Be she a Catholic, a Protestant, a Muslim, etc. the theist today considers the abortion of a fetus to be the killing or the murder of an unborn person. However, despite the numerable case laws against specific murder situations (e.g., self protection in the dark, self protection in the light, accidental murder, deliberate murder, the finding of a slain person without an accused, the killing of a person by your ox, etc.), never is the issue of abortion addressed. For how outspoken the Christian community is against abortion, the Bible is oddly silent on this matter.

There is, however, one passage in the book of Exodus that touches on ethical priorities related to the modern moral dilemma of abortion. The passage is as follows:

And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Exodus 21:22-25).

The above passage is the only legal case that touches on the legal-ethical status of the unborn in the Pentateuch. Other passages touch on the ceremonial status of the new born--conferring an innately more impure status to the female infant over the male (see Leviticus 12); yet, none but this pericope contain legal-ethical material about the status of the unborn. Note, this passage is unclear. It is not clear as to whether or not the "...yet no harm follow," relates to the mother or to the infant, and a case can be made for both. In fact, the Jews, the masters of Pentateuchal jurisprudence, disagree on this matter.

The nearly uniform voice in Rabbinic interpretation of this passage asserts that the mother is the sole subject of harm. There is no consideration given for the unborn fetus--dead or alive. Philo and a number of Medieval Karaite Jewish interpreters favor the position that the injured party is the premature child. Both schools of interpretation raise significant textual arguments in favor of their positions; however, the text is markedly unclear over the identity of the injured party.

For the amount of attention and contempt that American Christians exhibit toward abortion or the pro-choice platform, it is ironic that the only passage in the Bible possibly touching on the ethical-legal status of the unborn relates to an obscure case law with conditions that frankly do not apply today. We no longer, for example, apply the Lex Talionis of "eye for eye and tooth for tooth" nor can we apply it in the context of modern punitive systems that rely less and less on corporeal punishment.

There are several significant moral issues that Christians adhere to strongly today that have mere hairs of biblical support. There is obvious biblical room for disagreement on the matter of abortion due to the silence of the Bible on the same. This again is an example of where the theist is really left "to lean on his own understanding" because the Bible is a poor and irrelevant ethical workbook. The Bible Christian theist with her Bible must use her own instinct, conditioning, and reasoning to forge her ethical conclusions on the issue of abortion. Maybe she will finally recognize how gray this issue is so that she will stop trying to use the arm of political clout to legislate black-and-white morality into the world of gray.


  1. Just as people make false assumptions grouping atheists together they also make false assumptions grouping Christians together. A Christian is defined as a person who believes in Jesus Christ. I personally do not fit into what you describe a Christian as. I agree that the Bible really doesn't take a clear position on abortion but I don't see the Bible as an all inclusive moral guide on everything. I don't think abortion should be illegal in the United States. I still grieve over children I have lost to miscarriage and would never want a child of mine aborted.

  2. Yes, Zee, I was overly universal about Christian beliefs regarding abortion. I realized that after posting...and I expected you or someone to recognize this. I agree, I doubt that I would abort a child in the context of marriage.

  3. Your point is still valid and I agree with it. I just found it ironic how you started with what an atheist is compared to how they are charactorized.

  4. It should be noted that when Scriptulicious and I were blogging independently, we only had one "Watcher" of our respective blogs besides ourselves. So, if we stereotype Christians, it is quite possibly because we are in the bad habit of posting for the "benefit" of that one person. But, in fairness to us, I don't think that that one person was necessarily of a minority opinion among Christians.

  5. Hey Philo,

    Thank you for the rescue (not that Zee would tare off my head for the oversight). I need to broaden my understanding of potential readers. Philo and I used to write for the "benefit" of a particular Christian reader. She is still around and welcome to contribute, but she is no longer the only Christian perspective to consider.

  6. Thanks for the clarification. From now on I will assume any stereotype is refering to the typcial ignorant Christian who doesn't think for themself. Speaking of which didn't you have a few commenting earlier? What happened to them?

  7. Hello Zee,

    I don't know where they went. I often find that launching a new blog draws the attention of people that eventually either "give up" because they can't tolerate other perspectives or they just get bored. For now on, I will try to avoid stereotypes. I will nuance the categories that I discuss.

  8. Shrug... I find it a good compliment to YouTube for killing time. What is life without intellectually stimulating material as well as videos of Christian Bale mashed with a kid drugged leaving the dentist?