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Confessions of a failed axe murderer who queried religious ethics

by Graeme Davidson 13 January 2007

If God would never tell me to do something others think is wrong, then God isn’t the authority on right and wrong and ethics aren’t God-given. What’s right and wrong doesn’t depend on what God thinks, or even what the Church, the state or parents think. So, morality isn’t what those in authority want after all.

..I confess. I’m a failed axe murderer. After weeks of incessant taunts from the girl next door, I finally snapped. My parents looked on aghast as their four-year-old wrenched the axe from the chopping block and brought it down on the little devil they assumed was a cute six-year-old. The axe hit the clothesline. At my second attempt to split her in two, the parental SWAT team pounced. I was disarmed and, without fair trial, condemned to my room with the stern rebuke that no matter what the provocation, “killing people is wrong”.
...“But you went to war to kill people,” I later argued back at my father. That was different; he got medals. I would go to gaol, or (in those days) to the hangman’s noose. “Then the hangman is a killer. Someone would have to hang him too,” I reasoned. “They’d have to hang all hangmen until there were none left.” That earned me an extended sentence in solitary.
...Upon release, I had to pick flowers, take them to my tormentor, apologise and give her a kiss, a clear case of one-sided restorative injustice if ever there was one. That confirmed in my young mind that public morality is irrational, arbitrary and all about obeying those in authority or else you suffer.
...My moral education now began in earnest. I learned that humans have a God-given conscience so we can know the difference between right and wrong. And as my parents were determined to educate that conscience, I learned by rote the Sixth Commandment: “Thou shalt not murder”.
...Soon, I was asking, “What if God wanted me to send that girl next door to heaven so she couldn’t be mean?” The answer was predictable. “God wouldn’t want you to do such an evil thing.”
...That got me thinking. If God would never tell me to do something others think is wrong, then God isn’t the authority on right and wrong and ethics aren’t God-given. What’s right and wrong doesn’t depend on what God thinks, or even what the Church, the state or parents think. So, morality isn’t what those in authority want after all.
...Next came bible class, where I learned of the Bible’s inconsistent ethics. Soon after he gave Moses the 10 Commandments, including that one about not murdering, God ordered Moses to slaughter 3000 unfaithful Israelites for idol worship. Many practices the Bible condones are abhorrent, like ethnic cleansing, slavery and the killing of witches, homosexuals and magicians. Maybe religious ethics are relative to a culture and its historical setting. They obviously change to reflect enlightened attitudes. We now tolerate magicians.
...It was only fitting that I became a prison psychologist – a failed axe murderer helping failed criminals, including psychopaths. Psychopaths are superficially charming but use intimidation and force for selfish ends as they lack conscience, remorse or feeling for others. Did God skip giving these people moral scruples in the same way some of us are colour blind? Maybe we don’t have a God-given conscience after all. Perhaps moral education is like learning anything else. Some of us have a better aptitude for ethical behaviour than others, while a few lack it altogether.
...After my efforts with the axe, my parents also painstakingly instilled in me the Golden Rule. It appears in many cultures and religious texts, including the Book of Leviticus and in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, where Jesus says, “do to others what you would have them do to you”. But what about the sado-masochist prisoner who’d tortured his victim? When I asked whether he’d want others to do that to him, he answered, “Sure. I enjoy pain.” The Golden Rule works only if empathy with others is alive and well.
...Did I learn anything from my immersion in religious ethics? Definitely. Religion provides ethical principles, guidelines and precedents. It gives the faithful historical perspective to decide what is right and avoid making mistakes like those of the Crusaders, the Spanish Inquisitors and other fanatics. Naturally, the precedents, ethical interpretations and debates are going to differ as much from faith to faith and between cultures as they do in secular law.
...I also learned that a key religious motive for behaving ethically is to please God and show his love to others, which is why I now confess that my venture into axe murdering was indeed wrong.




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