Earlier today, a friend of mine included the following line in an email to me:
"I can surpress the urge to curse old ladies, steal candy from convenience stores and kill anyone who cuts in front of me in the check-out line without relying on a Supreme Being for help."
In response, I wrote:
"In my bible study last night, I told the story of Hagar, Sarah's slave. I pointed out that having a slave disqualified Sarah from being a good person. The bible and the god of the bible are not always good sources for ethical behavior. In fact, the most ghastly things ever done by man to man, man to woman, man to child, man to environment, etc. have almost always been done by religious people! So, I can think of a few good reasons to be religious, but ethics don't make the list. In fact, if ethics were my primary concern, I could probably NOT be religious."
It's true. Slavery, child abuse, misogyny, war, religious bigotry, and other atrocities fill the pages of the bible. Such heinous acts are usually not condemned and sometimes even glorified. The bible cannot be for people of conscience a rule book of behavior. Rather, the bible is a collection of sacred stories from ancient peoples. As we engage, diologue with, struggle with, argue with, and contemplate the scriptures, they become our stories and we become part of the story. The experience is a useful one and can lead to spiritual growth. But the bible is not a rule book that can be relied upon to tell us what is and isn't good behavior. The bible can be relied upon to show us how flawed but devout people can search for meaning in life and remain as faithful as possible in good times and bad. Once we become clear about what the bible is and what it isn't, then it can no longer be used as a weapon of oppression against us or others.
For ethics, use your common sense. For an example of people in their own cultural and historical context trying to understand the mysteries of life, read the bible.