Morality’s Ruby Slippers

Near the end of the movie The Wizard of Oz, after the wizard has been exposed as a fraud, he still tries to grant the requests of Dorothy and her friends. The scarecrow wanted brains, the lion courage, and the tin man a heart. To the scarecrow, the wizard gives a diploma; to the lion, a medal labeled “Courage”; and to the tin man, a pocket watch shaped like a heart. They’re delighted, but the wizard doesn’t give them what they wanted. Instead, he gives them only an acknowledgment of what they already had.

Throughout their journey these characters had already been developing the very traits that they said that they wanted most of all. Though the wizard no longer stands behind a curtain pretending to be what he isn’t, he still takes credit for giving everyone what they already had.

God as wizard

Sound like Someone we know? Christians tell us that God gives us morality, purpose, logic, and meaning, though this is the same morality, purpose, logic, and meaning that other believers get from their god(s) and that atheists get from reality.

The Christian may respond that objective or absolute version of these traits must come from a supernatural source, but until the Christian shows that there are objective versions of these traits, this is an empty claim.

No, these are traits that we have always had. They’re borrowed by Christianity, and much is made of God’s generously giving us back what we already had.

Christianity’s most generous gesture would be to drop the imaginary gatekeeper role. Draw back the curtain to show Christians that the power to improve or destroy is (and has always been) ours, not God’s. Help Christians grow and reject their dependence on the supernatural.

Want a better society? It’ll happen only as a result of our hard work. Want to improve yourself? There’s no higher power guiding your progress in AA or any other self-help program. If you went through such a program and have gotten rid of some dependence, congratulations, because it was you (with the help of supportive friends and family) that made that radical change. God did nothing.

Use your ruby slippers

At the end of the movie, it’s Dorothy’s turn. Glinda the good witch tells Dorothy that her ruby slippers can return her home. She had been able to get what she wanted all the along.

And so it is with us. Morality and meaning are to us what Dorothy’s ruby slippers were to her. We’ve always had the answer. We just need to realize it.

Dorothy: You’re a very bad man.

Wizard: Oh, no, my dear; I’m a very good man.
I’m just a very bad wizard.

Photo credit: video

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  • Y. A. Warren

    Tell me about whether you believe that humanity has any powers not available to other species of animals.

    • None come to mind. We have more sharply focused or higher level versions of what other animals have, as well as many skills in which we rank much lower down, but I can’t think of anything unique.

      What were you thinking of?

      • Y. A. Warren

        It seems to me unique that many humans can choose which of our skills we can focus on refining.

        • MNb

          Prove that no other animals can, assuming that choice (ie free will) is a meaningful concept.

        • Y. A. Warren

          Humans seem to have the unique ability to empathize with many other species to the point where we can thrive in many different environments by creating our own adaptations to the different conditions. The fact that we abuse this ability does not mean that it has no meaning.

        • MNb

          Nothing unique here.

          Ants are very good at adapting their environments for this purpose as well:

          Of course it’s easy to find abusive counterparts as well.

        • Y. A. Warren

          I’m curious. Is the point of atheism to find ways to disprove any specialness about people? Religions have been doing a very good job of that for centuries.

        • Really? Christianity is perhaps the best counterexample of that, claiming not only that God created the world and all living things on it for human use, but later sends his son down to die just for us. At the same time, we’re said to be naturally sinful, ungrateful worms, so it’s something of a mixed message, but even so.

        • Good point. The Christian worldview is that all things exist as an act of God’s love. Humans are broken, and therefore subject to doing terrible things to themselves and others, but can be healed and made well.

        • Y. A. Warren

          The problem with the perversion of religions is that they creates intermediaries that “control” the “healing” of the “Children of god.” People are more like pets than individual adult humans.

        • Understood. In the worst possible configuration of a ‘church’ and its members, that can occur. Cults come to mind – Jim Jones and Heaven’s Gate are extreme examples.

        • Y. A. Warren

          It seems to me that all religions that teach fear as a motivator, with leaders with the power to placate and protect the masses from the angry deities are setting up cults. Before I was taught to fear “God” I simply wanted to be nice enough to make Jesus happy.

        • Jason Wexler

          Pursuant to the brief defense of your claim I sent to moderator, many species are very adaptable, part of what makes our adaptability so unusual, is that we are flexible in large communities. So far we haven’t found any other species which is both flexible and can create large communities, but all species seem to be able to do one or the other. However empathy seems to be very common among mammals, so that part of your claim is suspect as MNb suggests.

        • Humans are unique. But then so are all the other species.

          We’re not the fastest. We’re not the strongest. Can’t fly. No armor. Decent endurance, but not the best. And so on.

          We have the biggest brain, but (as I’m sure you know) that’s a double-edged sword.

          If you’re going somewhere, let me know.

        • Jason Wexler

          A quick Wikipedia/Google search disagrees with the claim that we have the largest brain. Sperm whales unsurprisingly being the largest animal in the world has the largest brain, while the shrew (Wikipedia is unclear as to the exact species of shrew) has the greatest brain to body ratio.

        • Good catch.

        • Castilliano

          Having a concept of time gives us a better understanding of having a future. We can focus with that in mind, refining toward goals, but that doesn’t mean animals can’t do that on a limited basis.
          Animals do teach their young, and social animals often have roles. It’d be surprising if there weren’t preferences too, though I doubt they have the self-awareness to think in terms of skill sets or personal development.
          With so few options to animals, I doubt if we’d ever witness any of this except perhaps in those long-term primate studies where some astounding behaviors have been found, like prostitution.

      • Jason Wexler

        This of course isn’t my claim to have to defend but I believe that Y.A. Warren may be right. We aren’t 100% certain of this but the general consensus among cognitive scientists and anthropologists, is that we have a unique cognitive ability, relating to abstraction, which gave us complex language, art and music (also potentially mathematics although that might not be unique).

    • Castilliano

      Here’s an essay by David Brin I like that touches on the subject:

      • Intriguing essay. Is this doctrine that otherness is important just an American thing? Not a Western (broader) or liberal (narrower) thing?

        • Castilliano

          My take is he was reflecting on the U.S., but that’s working off a first impression from 20+ years ago. In other essays, and his stories, he shows he does have a broader mindset, so maybe Western societies in general.
          As for liberal/conservative linkage I’d be at a loss, I doubt Dr. Brin was headed there, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be an applicable demarcation. The Tea Party conservatives, who seem not to grasp plurality, they may not embrace otherness quite as much, but that’s just conjecture.

      • Y. A. Warren

        Great essay! I most enjoy conversations sharing personal experience and researched opinion among people with different points of view. I don’t enjoy argument simply for the sake of humiliating another (gotchas!).

        • Castilliano

          As I just posted today on another of Bob’s posts:
          I argue to explore, not to conquer.

    • smrnda

      I think an issue is that we’re really only just figuring out how to properly measure human and animal cognition and other abilities. I *do think* we have some abilities that are way beyond other animals, but I also think that we’ve underrated animals in the past.

      Then again, we’ve also been wrong about the cognitive abilities of infants and young children, and finding ways to test or measure these things can be rather difficult.

      • Y. A. Warren

        I must admit that my worldview finds humans more interesting than I find animals, mainly because I understand more of their communication techniques.

        • smrnda

          True. I like animals, but I kind of imagine their internal mental life is a bit limited, or incomprehensible. If I see primates, I *kind of* get a bit of what they’re doing, but something like a snake? An ant? A squid? Your comment reminds me of the Wittgenstein quote “If a lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand what it said, because we don’t inhabit the world of a lion.” Paraphrased of course there.

  • KarlUdy

    Sound like Someone we know? Christians tell us that God gives us morality, purpose, logic, and meaning, though this is the same morality, purpose, logic, and meaning that other believers get from their god(s) and that atheists get from reality.

    The Christian may respond that objective or absolute version of these traits must come from a supernatural source, but until the Christian shows that there are objective versions of these traits, this is an empty claim.

    No, these are traits that we have always had. They’re borrowed by Christianity, and much is made of God’s generously giving us back what we already had.

    Bob, I think you have got things a little confused in your arguments.

    The Christian position is not that people did not have morality, purpose, logic and meaning until Christianity came along. The Christian position actually agrees with you that these are things we have always had. Where you and I differ is in explaining how and why humans came to possess such things.

    These gifts from God are not analogous to those trinkets given by the Wizard of Oz, they are instead more analogous to those given by the author, where in that case, Frank L Baum leads the characters on a journey which he has ordained to develop the real gifts the characters sought.

    • OK. I think I understand your position. I’m just drawing a distinction between the Christian position and where the evidence points us.

      The Christian position that I’ve seen often is that there is no objective purpose or morality without God. That works for me, because I see no evidence for objective purpose or morality (just the regular kind).

      • KarlUdy

        Again, I think your argument is confused.

        The standard Christian argument you would get is along the lines of “objective purpose or morality imply the existence of God”.

        This is logically equivalent to “no God implies no objective purpose or morality”

        However, it is not related at all to the point you seem to be arguing, which is “no objective purpose or morality implies no God”. I don’t think that argument holds.

        • When I can, I avoid speaking for all Christians. Many will say that purpose and morality are objective. Period. And then they’ll demand an explanation.

          That doesn’t work for me, as you can imagine.

          No, I’m not saying that the lack of objectiveness behind purpose and morality proves no god. So on this point, we’re in agreement.

  • wtfwjtd

    I really like your Wizard of Oz analogy Bob, and I think you can even take it a little farther. The wizard wasn’t exposed as a fraud to everyone, just those who were really, really seeking his help(and asking questions). Most of the folks in Oz-land seemed to just go about their lives after the balloon went up, not knowing or really caring that the man behind the curtain was no longer there. Since no one had ever met him in person, it seemingly made little difference to many of them, whether he was actually there or not. After all, everyone around them believed in the wizard, and all those people couldn’t be wrong, could they? Could they?
    To me, this sounds very familiar…

    • Kingasaurus

      Taking it another step:

      The dialogue when Dorothy and her friends are talking to the door-keeper at the Emerald City…

      “You can’t see the Wizard! Nobody sees the Wizard! Even I’ve never seen him!”

      “Well, then how do you know there is one?”

      “Errr…uhhh…stop wasting my time!”

    • Great points. I’d seen just one aspect, but this expands the analogy nicely.

      BTW, just saw the traveling exhibit of “Hollywood Costume,” including the ruby slippers (a reproduction, unfortunately).

      • wtfwjtd

        The ruby slippers were fake? You mean kinda like Christianity’s ruby slippers of absolute morality are (cheap) reproductions of humankind’s shared morality? 🙂
        I’ve often wondered what L Frank Baum really had in mind when he wrote this story. I’ve wondered the same thing about some of Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” cartoons–especially the whole saga of the Great Pumpkin. I’ve always felt that this was his way of backhandedly commenting on religion, using the guise of the “Great Pumpkin” in order to do so in plain view.

        • I’ve been puzzled by Shultz’s position on religion. You’ve got Bible quotes on one hand, and yet I thought I’d heard interviews where he says that he’s not especially religious. Anyone heard a definitive statement of his position?

  • Reflecting on this blog, I found that the Wizard of Oz is a parable, but not a Biblical one:

    “The Wizard of Oz is a wonderful and enjoyable story with a great deal of wisdom, but if one understands the symbolism, it is a historically rooted, howling, political satire on the American scene.

    “The work was written in 1900, about the time of the collapse of the Populist party that was based on an alliance of Midwestern farmers and industrial workers who challenged bankers and economic interests and also wanted a silver standard to replace gold.

    “The scarecrow represents the Midwestern farmers, the tin man the industrial workers, the cowardly lion who can roar but little else represents reformers like William Jennings Bryan (the orator who failed in his presidential campaign), and Dorothy the common person.

    “They all travel along the yellow brick road (the gold standard) to Oz (the abbreviation for ounce) to seek favors from the wizard (the president), who is just a common man who has power by deception.”

    Here is the link (this quote is in the footnotes, page 3).

    I think there are other sources that credit Baum with criticizing politics in his story, but this one seemed like a good summary.

    Oz is seen in a whole different light by the gay community, and Time did a nice write up last year: