Tag Archives: sacred books

External authority and why I’m not a fan

One of the accusations levelled against Pagans and atheists alike is that we can’t have a moral compass because we don’t have a sacred text to refer back to.

In practice, the person without a sacred text can only use their reason and personal sense of fairness to make moral judgements. It means you know that you are responsible for what you do and say, what you think and how you come to conclusions. As far as I can see, this is the most honest and most responsible position to hold.

Of course a person can have a sacred book, use it for inspiration and take the same process of coming to reasoned positions. So long as the book isn’t considered the literal word of God and to be followed in all ways, a person can use it to help them navigate while still remaining consciously in charge of their own choices.

However, when a sacred book becomes a substitute for thinking, it becomes dangerous. Anything in a book is at risk of going out of date. What makes sense in one time and place may be far less sensible or fair in another. Dogmatic insistence on the primacy of an out of date book clearly isn’t going to work well.

I note that the people who seem most fanatical about sticking with the text are often the ones calling for the least kind outcomes. The sort of people who would make a child rape victim carry a baby to term, and oblige them to marry their attacker. The sort of people for whom being ‘immodest’ in dress (however they choose to measure that) is a greater spiritual offence than physically attacking someone. What I think happens here is that people outsource their morality so they don’t have to question the real implications of their apparently spiritual beliefs.

This kind of dogma is really convenient for anyone with a nasty agenda.

I don’t think the problem here is books – a decent human being can read a book and make informed decisions about what to work with and what to reject. We do this all the time with the stories of our Pagan ancestors. I’ve never seen a modern Pagan suggest that tricking someone into a bag and then beating them until they let you have things your way is a sensible way of getting things done, for example. If you know that a story is just a story, you can work with it in whatever way makes sense. It’s when you decide that the story has authority, and then, having given it authority, negate your own responsibility to be a decent person, that we get into trouble.

It’s not the presence or absence of a sacred book, or books, that gives people a moral compass. The morality does not lie in the book. It never has.