Secular Morality

The presupposition for many Christians is that there can be no morality without God, and, like-it-or-not, God is the moral compass by which we navigate our lives, and he created the framework within which we exist.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I can’t prove this God character *didn’t* exist, but then again, there are a lot of things I can’t disprove, such as invisible garden gnomes or transparent fire-breathing dragons.  Luckily, I don’t believe it’s my burden to justify my disbelief in those fantasies.

I suppose the best we can do is to put forward the question:  can we define a moral code without invoking God, religion, or any of its byproducts?

There are a lot of people who are more articulate about this matter than I am (eg Matt Dillahunty, Daniel Fincke), but for me, I think that a moral way to live is to try to identify what is best for everyone, in terms of their physical and emotional well-being, and to do our best to maximize everyone’s well-being, while simultaneously minimizing harm.  Details for how to maximize benefit and minimize harm can be demonstrated via empirical evidence, buiding models, comparing inputs and outputs, and identifying best practices.

Of course, this framework creates dilemmas from time-to-time, but last time I checked, we live in a complicated world which is exacerbated by social relationships and competing interests, and this dilemma is not unique to the faith-less.  But the advantage this framework gives is that it has the capacity to identify a conflict of interest when it exists, and it does not create a hierarchy such that one party is always prone to benefit while others are always prone to being harmed, such as the case with various implementations of Christianity.

The other advantage of this agile implementation of morality is that it does not have a rigid ruleset.  It is self-correcting.  It does not presuppose that text in a particular document is an absolute standard for behavior, because behavior is relative to the time and situation.  It always has the capacity to improve or adjust in the event of moral or logical inconsistency.

The hazard of an implementation like this is that models are never perfect – their predictive capacity can diminish under certain circumstances.  For example, a society might conclude that what is most beneficial for the majority is that we should kill minority groups who some claim are detrimental to society.  If there are 95 in the majority, and 5 in the minority, it’s quite clear how to maximize benefit if the majority is convinced that the minority is harmful.  Indeed, various historical figures have successfully convinced the masses that some minority group (or even a majority group) is harmful to the overall well-being of society, and used that argument to justify mass killings.

I have a couple responses to this concern:

1.  It’s not like that claim is isolated to non-theistic societies.  There have been a lot of religious claims put forward over the past couple millenia to justify mass extermination.

2.  In an agile moral framework which forces people to consider well-being and harm for all competing interests, it would be quite difficult to gloss over harm caused by mass extermination, especially when there is no rigid text that condones this sort of thing.  The Christian bible, on the other hand, has several examples that justify mass extermination.  Rigid textual frameworks are the antithesis to secularism’s agility.

People can be duped, and people can be convinced that “the other” causes them harm, even if they’ve never even met “the other”.  This is a human failing, and it’s a theme across cultures, religions, and time.  Humans have a difficult time getting along, and religion often exacerbates this, as does resource scarcity and desire for power.

Secular morality is a better solution, because it doesn’t create a framework that give peoples license to claim themselves “chosen” or more innately good because of their birthplace, tribe, or family.

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The Christian Bible and Morality

A person could go their whole life attending church and not come to the conclusion that the Christian bible is an immoral document.  One of the reasons for this is because church sermons tend to cherry pick passages that don’t appear immoral; the other reason is because sometimes it takes a bit of consideration to realize a passage is immoral.

For instance, in Deuteronomy 3, it’s pretty clear the following statement is immoral:  “So the LORD our God handed King Og and all his people over to us, and we killed them all.  We conquered all sixty of his towns, the entire Argob region in his kingdom of Bashan…We destroyed all the people in every town we conquered – men, women, and children alike.  But we kept all the livestock for ourselves and took plunder from all the towns”.

Some excerpts, such as from 1 Peter, may take a bit more consideration: “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and equitable but also to those who are perverse”.  To a modern-day westerner, it probably doesn’t occur to them that this statement literally condones and facilitates a culture of slavery.  It’s easy to skim past things like that.

Zechariah 14 gives insight into its authors’ mentality:  “Lo, a day shall come for the Lord when the spoils shall be divided in your midst.  And I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem for battle: the city shall be taken, houses plundered, women ravished…”.

These passages are the tip of a very large iceberg in the Christian bible, and tons of examples of this gross immorality can be found across both the old and new testaments.

Christians tend to cherry-pick the bible and only find passages that seem consistent with their version of faith that was taught to them; however, doing so ignores a logical dilemma:  if the bible is the ultimate source of morality, and the teachings in the bible come directly from God, how could parts of the bible be immoral?  How could the bible have immorality if it is the foundation of morality?

The practical answer to this is that people have a moral compass that tells them if something is moral or immoral.  But then, why do Christians need the bible if they already have an internal mechanism to show them right from wrong?  An alternative answer to the question is that all the depictions of God in the bible are indeed moral.  In that event, God is a monster.

Honestly, this was never a dilemma for me when I was a Christian, because I always saw the bible as part fairy tale and part truth; in fact, the problems of immorality in the bible weren’t even a main factor in my deconversion.  It was always quite clear to me that the most zealous Christians were teetering on, and often falling off, the edge between reason and lunacy.

But I do find it interesting when Christians have to grapple with these questions, because in my opinion, they do not have the upper hand in the argument:  if you have to cherry-pick a philosophy, that means the philosophy is, at best, imperfect.  The more cherry-picking you have to do, the more imperfect the philosophy is.  The only way a person can conclude that the bible (and by extension, Christianity) is moral is by cherry picking, or by rejecting their innate sense of right and wrong.

My Alternative Hypothesis On Religion

I think it’s a reasonable statement that the general position of atheists is that they reject claims made by theists; atheists make no claim in their rejection of the theist’s claim, and therefore, they own no burden of proof to demonstrate their claims.  To put it another way, the burden of proof is on a person making a claim that something exists…not on the person rejecting the claim that something exists.

That seems reasonable to me, even though I think it’s a bit of a cop-out.  I think it’s easy to get lost in logical misdirection when talking about asserting whether a claim is true or false.  Atheists indeed do make claims, but there’s a bigger point and a bigger underlying philosophy that doesn’t lend itself well to easy dialog.  Below is a list of the claims that I feel are easily demonstrable and make it clear why an atheist might be skeptical of the God claim.

1.  We belong to a species that evolved from more primitive species over the course of many millions of years.  Over the course of that evolution, we developed behavioral and social patterns that gave rise to a ubiquitous inclination to provide supernatural explanations for complicated physical and natural phenomena.  These behavioral and social patterns include superstition, hyperbole, social hierarchy, self-reflection, emotional turbulence, and pattern seeking.

2.  Religious institutions, regardless of how formalized they are, are ubiquitous across cultures because they cater to inherent desires of humanity, including socialization, a sense of belonging, and simple explanations of natural phenomena, regardless of whether they are true or not.  They also tend to provide psychological support for a number of psychologically distressful phenomena, including death and disease.

3.  The inclination to invoke supernatural explanations is reinforced by a variety of social and religious institutions, and human beings have historically gotten very little pushback when they have appealed to the supernatural, particularly when these explanations agreed with preconceived notions of God or gods.

4.  Many of the existential questions to which human beings lacked explanations during the rise of modern theisms have now been answered.  These questions include:  How did we get here?  Why are we here?  Why does the sun rise?  Why does the weather change?  Why do people I care about die?  Why do babies die?  Why is there suffering?

These questions are answered in our understanding of various fields including medicine, biology, evolutionary biology, germ theory of disease, chemistry, physics, quantum mechanics, cosmology, meteorology, and sound deductive logic.

5.  Answers and explanations provided in various religions, specifically Christianity, tend to be very simplistic, and are appealing to people who are poor and uneducated.  This would have been particularly true for people who could not read, which would have represented the overwhelming majority of Christians up until the late-1800s.  Subsequent discoveries that reveal religion’s profound failures to accurately explain natural phenomena have given rise to the rejection of its claims.  The writing was on the proverbial wall beginning in the 1400s, after western Europe was reintroduced to Aristotle and other Greek philosophers.   In 1633, Galileo Galilei was put on house arrest for the rest of his life for heresy because of his assertion that the Earth rotates and revolves around the sun.  Other Renaissance and Enlightenment figures who, sometimes inadvertently, introduced skepticism towards supernatural explanations include Leonardo da Vinci, Giordano Bruno, Nicolaus Copernicus, and Baruch Spinoza.  Interestingly, the amount of Catholic Church pushback increased around the same time as natural understanding of the world began to increase.  This is demonstrated by examples such as the Spanish inquisition, which began in 1478, and witch burnings, which killed tens-of-thousands of people across multiple contents over the course of several hundred years, from 1450-1750.

6.  There are natural phenomenon that are not well-explained by science, including events that gave rise to the big bang, and abiogenesis.  Our lack of clarity about these specific phenomena, along with a fiercely anti-intellectual population who reject well-supported scientific claims, are the engine of perpetuity for modern religions.

These supporting facts and claims support my hypothesis that religion is man-made, and is therefore an instrument people use to explain the world.  There are a lot of reasons why religion fits well into human models of the world, and this explains why people are slow to let go of those ideas, even in the presence of better explanations for the phenomena that gave rise to religion in the first place.

19 Kids and Counting

Evidently, there is a movement to get TLC’s show “19 Kids and Counting” cancelled because of statements the Duggar family made about the LGBT community.

I’ve long since stopped watching TLC, mostly because they air trashy shows like “19 kids and counting” (I think it’s horribly unethical to have that many kids, but I’ll skip the diatriabe on that).

There’s a point to be made in terms of how fundamentalists view LGBT people, and I think the point is that religion, and in this case Christianity, facilitates irrational hatred and bigotry.  In fact, this hatred is celebrated within some denominations.  And this theme of intolerance is not reserved for the LGBT community – it’s directed at anyone who holds different beliefs.

I think it’s interesting that religion facilitates this sort of distrust of “the other”, because it’s such a common them across humanity and with animals.  If evolution is real (which it is), irrational fear of people that are different is exactly what you’d expect – it’s how evolution would manifest, because fear is a survival tool, and fear helps animals protect themselves and their community.

Animals exhibit fear-based behavior towards other animals, especially if the other animal is as big or bigger than them.  It is only after the other animal has exhibited benignity that fear decreases.  Consider your neighborhood squirrel.  Squirrels can be trained to take food from your hand.  Similarly, this is how dogs were domesticated from wolves.  Clearly, humans must have experienced this at some point as well, considering that 2-4% of the human genome comes from Neanderthals.

Most people who have irrational fear towards LBGT people have never even met an openly gay person, although it’s quite likely they’ve met closeted gay people.  So they don’t really know what they’re talking about, except to say that their bible told them that gay people are immoral.

I don’t really have a conclusion here – I think TLC, and most of the original shows on it are awful, and I think people like the Duggars are close-minded bigots who’ve really found the perfect symbiosis with a TV network as trashy as they are.

Life Without Heaven

Imagine I live in a place that’s never been exposed to Christianity.  Then I go somewhere, learn about it, and convert to it.  Then I try to go back to the place I live, to share Christianity with my wife, kids, and other family and friends.  But on the way home, I die.  In this event, I might get to heaven, but all my loved ones are going to hell, because they never got converted and baptized.  Now I’m stuck in this heaven place, worshipping a God who rejects everyone who meant anything to me during my life, even if they were decent and moral people.

Most Christians I’ve met have little doubt that their post-death destination will be heaven.  It is only fair, after all, that they should get eternal reward for going to church, following the commandments, and treating other’s well.  When I was a Christian, I saw heaven as a primary reinforcement for my faith.

One of the side effects of shedding your faith is that you have to let go of the parts of faith that weren’t all that bad, at least on the surface.  The celestial theme park described to me as a child didn’t seem too shabby.  How could eternal life and freedom from pain and suffering be bad?  How could an alternative to the finality of death be unpleasant?  After all, arrested existence seems quite scary.

One of the things that makes me feel better about the finality of death is that, on second thought, heaven doesn’t seem so great.  It seems like a place you go to drone on and on about the same thing for eternity.  There’s no challenge and no stimulation.  Heaven means worshiping and revering a single being for all of eternity, regardless of your thoughts on the matter, and regardless of the moral failings of God as described in the Christian bible.

Why would I want to permanently worship a being who sent my loved ones to hell for not believing strongly enough or for committing minor infractions?  What makes such a rigid and mean-spirited being, who created evil in the first place, worthy of such reverence?  If the Christian bible is true, then I think I’d rather burn in hell than worship a God who would torture someone so permanently after they committed a minor, temporary offense.

Heaven seems worse than a prison – at least in prison, I can receive visits from the people who mean anything to me, and at least I’m free of prison after I’ve died.  The heaven described by Christianity is a place where one sheds their humanity, forgets about the people they loved that fell short, and surrenders to their inner robot.  Aside from hell, I can’t imagine a worse place.

Don Lemon

Don Lemon apparently asked Bill Cosby’s alleged victim why she didn’t bite his penis as a defense measure during their sexual encounter.

I don’t really have much to say about this specific interview, because I think Lemon’s question speaks for itself, and you can read into it how you want.  But, several years ago, it occurred to me how bad CNN was getting.  Poor journalism and a weird point of view.

Personally, I’m not really looking for a bias or slant on the news I receive.  I want facts, and I don’t want journalists to tell me how to feel about something; apparently, I’m in the minority, because loud-mouthed asshole preaching is all you really get in prime time cable news.  But I think mainstream news is much worse than it’s ever been, in terms of its failure to expose the truth, and its reporting on matters that ought to mean something to people.

I get it that Fox news occupies the mainstream conservative wing, and MSNBC supposedly occupies the left; but neither of these realities gives any justification for CNN to be as bad as it is.

Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager goes something like this:  The cost of not-believing in God and being wrong is much greater than the cost of believing in God and being wrong.  Therefore, you might as well believe.  This dichotomy suggests you’ve got a 50% chance of getting into heaven.

I think there are a lot of problems with this wager.  For instance, what does [not believing] in God entail?  If the cost of not believing is eternal hell-fire, then you must believe in one of the religions that defines a hell.  But what about the religions that don’t have hell?  And what about the religions that have different prerequisites for entering heaven, or different violations that lead to hell?

It seems to me that there are pretty stark contrasts between religious implementations, because standards for behavior differ quite a bit between them.  Further, it seems that there are a lot of different God concepts, including polytheisms, where there are multiple Gods.  On top of that, there are religions that once existed, but no longer do.

Most of the religions that define heaven and hell are pretty adamant that they have identified the correct God, and the standards for behavior by which one enters heaven or hell.

If there is a God, and he commands particular behavior as a prerequisite for entry into heaven, how do you know which religion’s behaviors are correct?  How do you know that a religion that no longer exists wasn’t the right religion to practice.  Why do you think the answer to this question is in one of the world’s most popular religions?

If you’re a Christian, what about the hundreds of denominations that define diametrically opposed standards of behavior as a prerequisite for entry into heaven?  Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims have a similar dilemma.

In this case, one might even pick the correct God, and still fail to enter heaven, because they didn’t interpret that God correctly.

There are billions of people who practice religions that most people on Earth have never heard of, and each of the major religions has denominations that disqualify other denominations.  That doesn’t even include practitioners of thousands of now-defunct religions over the course of human history who were either right or wrong.

How did Pascal’s Wager work out for them?  It seems to me that Pascal’s Wager doesn’t carry very good odds.