February 17, 2019

evolutionary cousinsQuite often I find myself in conversations with folks who feel that I left my religion simply because I wasn’t asked the right questions. Two of the most common questions I (still) receive are “How do you cope with the difficulties of life without believing in God?” and “If you don’t believe in God, how do you determine what’s right and wrong?”

That first subject was most recently brought up at a vulnerable moment by someone who had no idea what my religious affiliations are. I’ll save my response to that for next time when I’m not so personally upset by it; but as for the latter, I can easily tackle that one.

The question usually goes something like this: If there is no God, where does your basis of morality come from?

To answer this question, I must go very far back in time – approximately 40,000 to 100,000 years ago or so. The following may be hard to accept for anyone who doesn’t understand or accept human evolution. But if you want to know where my basis for morality comes from, you’ll have to read on.

Learning to Care

When humans first started doing humanish things, like making tools and drawing cave paintings, we were not much different from the other animals living around us. Give or take a few thousand years, around this time we were learning to live together in tribes, trying to create meaning and reason out of what we were experiencing and observing. We know this because there is evidence that we were creating art and burying our dead in ceremonies. The pressure to survive was great, but our brains were developing the ability to think past our survival instincts. Like many other developed mammals, we were developing characteristics that we still see today in nature – one of which was altruism.

We were beginning to understand that if we care for our young, they will grow up to be useful to our group. We also were evolving toward a tendency to pair-bond. We were discovering that when you treat members of your tribe well, they won’t try to kill you. We were beginning to understand that in order to survive, we must work as a team, hunting and gathering for food, and protecting each other from other bands of humans. As survival became the tiniest bit more certain, the constant fight to stay alive occasionally gave way to moments of leisure. We were then able to wonder and contemplate and notice that we felt something which we would one day call “empathy.”

While altruism and even empathy can be seen in other animals (other primates especially), human development of these traits was exceptional. Through caring for our young, banding together within our tribes, and protecting our families against outside threats, we got better at developing our relationships, which in turn caused our brains to develop even further. We developed the ability to feel someone else’s pain – whether it be sympathy for the cry of our offspring or the satisfaction of bonding with another human in the sadness of a death within the tribe. And sure, we had no issue killing other people from other tribes who had no relevance to us, but within our own groups we were at least learning to do good to one another.

So where does the basis of our morality come from? It comes from the very empathy and altruism that brought our species alive and well into the present day. It has become ingrained in us; it is part of our fabric…maybe it’s even in our DNA.

Learning to Rule Ourselves

As our brains developed further and as we began forming larger societies, we began making rules. These rules kept us alive, kept us from killing each other. A side effect of this rule-making was an increased measure of safety and of leisure. Then with leisure came thinking and wondering. We began to wonder what we are. We began to wonder why we are here. Societies developed into cultures, and cultures developed religions.

Some societies looked at the sun—which gave both life-saving warmth and life-killing heat and caused food to grow or to die—and those people believed the sun was the reason we are here, so they worshiped it. Other societies found other natural phenomena to be the answer for why we are here. Then some societies began thinking even more “out of the box.” Perhaps there were invisible forces that put us here, we said to ourselves, and we should worship them. We called these “gods.”

We had already learned that rules keep us safe, so it easily followed that those rules were actually the rules of the gods. And if God’s rules keep us safe (eventually it became easier just to chose one), God must want us to be safe. We had learned that we keep our offspring and fellow tribesmen safe because we care about them – maybe even love them – so perhaps God keeps us safe with rules because he loves us, too. And so forth and so on. As we evaluated our own experiences, we personified the idea of a person-like God, projecting our own values onto an impersonal cosmos in order to make it something to which we could better relate.

At this point, we had a code of morality which consisted of basics like “don’t kill people” because killing people destroyed our chances of survival. As early as our written record can show, we had other laws like “don’t steal” because stealing seemed to have bad side effects for our society as well (that often went back to the whole trying-not-to-get-killed thing). But we did other things that later generations would find highly immoral:

We stoned people for doing things of which we did not approve. We cut off people’s hands for stealing (causing more harm than the stealing itself). We raped and pillaged other societies in order to take their land and belongings…because most of those rules only really mattered within the tribe, anyway. We were moral relativists from the start. We had no problem stealing from other tribes because their survival meant nothing to us.

So while we had a basic underlying basis of “morality,” the specifics of what we considered moral were very different from what we have today. The specifics would go on to change again and again and again from generation to generation (yes, even among those who swear that God’s standards are unchanging).

Changing the Rules

At first we were happy mutilating, punishing, and killing people who did not belong to us, but we continued to progress and rethink some of our previous behaviors. We made new laws about not raping and not pillaging. We began making peace treaties with other tribes, because doing so actually turned out to be advantageous for both parties. But if a tribe didn’t have anything of value to offer us, we still did horrible things to them.

We even wrote these standards into laws. For instance, if a tribe did not believe in the same god as you, it was okay to kill every man, woman, and child in that tribe and take all of their things (See: the Old Testament). We considered ourselves living morally because, for that time, that’s what was considered acceptable.

Now let’s fast forward out of the ancient era and into the 1700-1800s. It’s easier to think of morality in real terms when we bring it into our own recent history. During this time period, humans with paler skin believed it was perfectly fine to steal humans with darker skin from their land and force them to work for no gain of their own. We beat them, raped them, mutilated them, starved them, and traded them, working them literally to death while feeling no remorse for it. It wasn’t “immoral” to us at that point.

Nor did our religions stop us. In fact, our religions saw no problem with ownership of other human beings, as long as there were one or two caveats, which were conveniently ignored.  We thought ourselves quite moral and God-fearing even as we tore the flesh off other human beings.

Thankfully we continued to progress (slowly) and eventually slavery was considered immoral. We stopped owning people – at least in a literal, lawful sense. But we still refused to give those Africans we had stolen from their homes in the first place an equal place in our society. It wasn’t advantageous for those in power do so. African lives were still threatened every single day, but we weren’t really concerned with that because we felt we had done the moral thing by abolishing slavery. We considered ourselves very moral people at that time.

Now fast forward again to the present day. What was considered moral only a few decades ago is now considered barbaric and completely unacceptable for an enlightened society. Only a few decades ago, white people were still lynching black people. A few decades ago, (presumably) heterosexual people chemically castrated homosexual people.

Today those practices are utterly deplorable, and yet many still think that interracial marriages or same-sex marriages are immoral and have no place in a proper, “moral” society like ours. Give us only a few more decades, though, and maybe it will seem as deplorable to us then to prevent people from marrying for either of these reasons as our old Jim Crow laws appear to us now. The recent revival of white nationalism and alt-right activism leaves me somewhat pessimistic about that, however.

The bottom line is this: Morality simply is not consistent. Morality is relative. It just is. There are moral laws that we have been abiding by for as long as we have human record – do not kill, do not steal, do not lie – because they have helped ensure our survival and a peaceful and just society. But the nuances are forever changing.

The Rules Serve Us (Not Vice Versa)

Whether you believe the world is billions of years old or only thousands, there is still more than enough evidence in human history to prove that moral laws are constantly changing. Even evangelical Christians today will admit that many of the biblical laws are obsolete (Mixed fabrics, anyone? Tattoos? Marrying outside your tribe? Cropped hair for women?).

The Ten Commandments themselves are largely made not of actual moral laws but religious ones: do not serve false gods, do not put other gods before God, keep the Sabbath, etc. These are not universal moral codes like “do not murder” and “do not steal.” They do not constitute what is universally agreed upon as morality.

And the Ten Commandments are not, as many evangelicals assume, the basis of our legal system despite how many stone structures idolizing them keep popping up on state capitol grounds. The First Commandment (have no other gods) and the First Amendment (no god gets special treatment) are diametrically opposed to each other, and women are no longer considered the personal property of men. Our rules are there for our benefit; it’s not the other way around.

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” —Jesus

Let us also not forget that all ancient societies had moral codes; Judaism was not unique in that. The Assyrians, the Hittites, the Greeks, the Egyptians, all had laws dictating what was moral and good. Even societies that did not worship gods had moral codes.

To sum up, God is not the reason we have morals. If anything, morals are the reason we have God.

The morals of human beings come to us from tens of thousands of years of experience, empathy-building, and rule-abiding. Why do I not go around doing terrible things if I have no god to stop me? Because I have empathy and an understanding of cause-and-effect. I do not want to hurt other people. I do not want to hurt myself. And furthermore, as a 21st century human living in the developed world, I am so safe and so unconcerned with my personal survival, relatively speaking, that I get to spend copious amounts of time contemplating and wondering and imagining what a world without rules and empathy would look like, and I do not want any part of a world like that.

I do not need a god-figure to scare me out of doing evil. Thanks to the billions of humans before me, I have come to realize that doing good is far better for me, for my loved ones, and for my society than doing harm. The specifics of my morals, however, will often change – and I certainly hope they do, for the better.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

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Lori Arnold is a writer, overachiever, and Oxford Comma enthusiast living in Arkansas with her three children and vindictive cat. She writes about the struggles she once faced as an evangelical Christian and those she faces now as an openly atheist, divorced young professional living in the Bible Belt. You can visit her blog here and order her memoir, The Last Petal Falling, here.

March 6, 2016

Morality, See no Evil Hear no Evil Speak no Evil, Monkey, ThreeReformed pastor Tim Keller devotes Chapter 9 of The Reason for God to regurgitating the “Argument from Morality,” which essentially states that without a belief in a Supreme Being, there can be no basis for moral restraint among human beings. This argument usually goes in one of two directions:

Argument 1: People who don’t profess faith in a Supreme Being behave less morally than those who do, or

Argument 2: Philosophically, they simply cannot elucidate good reasons to be moral apart from a belief in a Supreme Being.

Both claims are wrong, and frankly I’m beyond tired of explaining why neither claim can be substantiated. But I’ll do it again here since Keller made this the focus of an entire chapter.

We’re Not Actually Less Moral

The problem with Argument 1 is that it is simply not true that non-theists behave less morally than theists. Globally speaking, by all measures of governmental and cultural health, non-theistic democracies fare much better than their theistic counterparts. One need look no further than Scandanavia to see what it looks like for a region to be relatively free from religion but quite healthy on every measure for success we can devise. By contrast, the United States is the most religious of all industrialized countries and it has the highest rates of all the things you don’t want to see like incarcerations, gun deaths, infant mortality, income inequality, mental health problems, and even obesity.

This same pattern holds true within the United States as well. Those states which are the least religious have the lowest rates of things like poverty, gun violence, teen pregnancy, STD’s, and incarceration while those states consistently scoring the highest on measures of religious devotion (as in the Deep South) have the highest rates of all the things you don’t want. My home state of Mississippi is the poster child for this phenomenon, topping the list for religious devotion but bottoming out on measures of education, economic health, mental health, and even physical well-being. Granted, technically none of these things necessarily relate to the question of morality…but is it really that much of a stretch to assert that there should be a connection?

If it were true that atheism leads to immorality, then shouldn’t less religious countries almost always be worse places to live?

I contend that when religious people say you can’t have morality without religion, they are offering a conclusion that comes from within their own ideological prejudice, and not from empirical observation. Having once been a Christian myself and now an atheist, I have not observed a significant decrease in moral restraint among those who do not believe in gods.

For what it’s worth, neither am I ready to assert that atheists are more ethical or morally upright than their religious counterparts. Each subculture has its own inherent strengths and weaknesses. I’ve seen far too much already to know that atheism doesn’t make you a better person. But I’ve also seen enough to know it doesn’t make you worse, either.

The first problem with Argument 2 is that everything I just said above should render this second point moot. If atheists don’t actually exhibit significantly less moral behavior than believers, then why are we arguing about this again? Does it really make sense to say that you cannot be moral without a belief in God if you’re surrounded by atheists who appear to be doing just fine thankyouverymuch? Clearly a belief in deities isn’t required, as people everywhere are showing they can be “good without God.”

But Keller says we’re lying, either to ourselves or at least to everyone else. He says that deep down every one of us who says we don’t believe in invisible beings really do:

I have a radical thesis. I think people in our culture know unavoidably that there is a God, but they are repressing what they know. (p.151)

I feel like a broken record addressing this, again. I talked about this in my most recent post in which fellow Reformed pastor John Piper completely dodged a sincere request to explain the empirical basis for this assertion. The bottom line is that it’s not a “radical thesis” at all. It’s an ideological prejudice based on a Bible verse, and if you’ve ever tried to argue with an evangelical Christian about the reliability of anything the Bible says, you know what a formidable task that is.

In this chapter, which encapsulates everything that is wrong with Presuppositional apologetics, Keller exhibits a familiar strategy:

Step 1:  Misrepresent what non-theists actually think.

Step 2:  Choose exactly the worst moral issues to demonstrate the superiority of your own worldview.

Step 3:  Pretend that the only alternative to the other guy’s worldview is your own.

Step 4:  Restate what the Bible says in your own words, and proceed as if the case is closed. Begin preaching.

As I walk you through his process, the other problems with Argument 2 should become readily apparent. Keller’s own system of belief doesn’t yield nearly as objective a sense of morality as he would have us believe, and in the end even his reasons for doing good fall short.

Not-So-Objective Morality

As I’ve mentioned before, Keller loves to accuse non-theists of being relativists. He insists that if you don’t believe that God determines what is right and what is wrong, your only alternative is to subject all moral questions to the whims of your own personal preferences.

If there is no God, then there is no way to say any one action is “moral” and another “immoral” but only “I like this.” (p.159)

Keller cannot seem to understand that humanistic ethics are not individualistic but communal, even societal. They seek to find the greatest good for the most people possible. They aren’t based on a “me” but a “we.” He never seems to acknowledge that.

What’s more, I challenge the notion that theism provides a superior path to objective (in this case meaning transcendent) morality. In the end, all systems of morality are man-made whether we realize it or not. You can say a moral guideline originates from a deity but it’s not that simple, nor is the result so reliable. For starters, which deity? Allah, Yahweh, Brahma or Vishnu? People can’t even agree on which one is the right one (or even that there should be only one), so how is this to yield a reliable basis for figuring out right from wrong?

And even if you could get everyone to agree on the same God (good luck with that one), would everyone agree that we can know what she, he, or it really wants? Does it even communicate with humans? Once it does, will humans agree on what was said? Will they agree on a common method of interpretation? Have they ever?

Keller would say we have to look to the Bible, but even the Bible says different things depending on where you look. Is it okay to kill your own child to appease a deity?  Well, it depends, doesn’t it? If the Bible is to be your guide, there are occasions during which killing your child is exactly what God is asking you to do. What about killing a village full of people? Again, it depends. One time Yahweh instructed his own people to drive out an entire nation, killing anyone who wouldn’t turn over their land to the Israelites, including women, children, and even the unborn.

The Bible even claims that one time God wiped out almost every living thing himself because he was so angry at people. Evidently for the biblical worldview, genocide can be justified under the right circumstances.

Doing Right for All the Wrong Reasons

Not only does Keller root his reasons for moral behavior in a standard which is far from consistent, but even his reasons for doing good reveal a major weakness of his own perspective.

We all live as if it is better to seek peace instead of war, to tell the truth instead of lying, to care and nurture rather than to destroy. We believe that these choices are not pointless, that it matters which way we choose to live. Yet if the Cosmic Bench is truly empty, then “who sez” that one choice is better than the others?…

If the Bench is truly empty…There will be no one around to remember any of it. Whether we are loving or cruel in the end would make no difference at all. (p.163)

No difference at all? Really? So that’s it?  In the end it’s all about getting a gold star? Is that really our only—or our best—motivation for cooperating and connecting, for showing compassion and mercy to those around us?

How bankrupt in the end must your moral system be if it can find no reason for doing good besides hope of reward after you die? Granted, Calvinists like Keller would rather argue that what is “right” and what is “good” depend upon what pleases God rather than what rewards man. But under the circumstances that would be a bit too question-begging to be of any use to anyone outside of his own theological tribe. But then, that is part of the problem, isn’t it?

Statements like the one in the quote above reveal that in the end religions like Christianity utterly depend on appealing to people’s selfishness, their desire to earn rewards and avoid punishment. It cannot ultimately escape tapping into the shallowest of motivational levels, failing to root moral and ethical decisions in what is truly useful to the entire human race and to the ecosystem as a whole.

Choosing the Worst Examples

I have to add here that Keller’s selective vision of Christian history astounds me. I’ve already written about how he conveniently claims for his own side the progressive victories of the abolitionists and civil rights activists even though his own tradition bitterly opposed those movements in their own time.

[Read “Setting the Record Straight: Correcting Tim Keller’s Faulty Historical Vision“]

He is the one who then brings up the subject of genocide (bad move) and suggests that non-theists would have no basis for opposing the violent actions of Nazi Germany (p. 152). I find this highly ironic for at least three reasons: 1) Hitler wasn’t an atheist but a deist, albeit according his own idiosyncratic construct, 2) Hitler’s Germany was majority Christian, except the state church essentially looked the other way, and 3) We’ve already established that genocide is something the Bible says is okay under the right circumstances. Talk about relativism.

Keller kicks off this whole chapter by bringing up the role of women, which is a huge mistake. He relays a conversation which ironically illustrates the impotence of his own worldview toward determining how we should view the place of women in the world today.

A young couple once came to me for some spiritual direction…I asked them to tell me about something they felt was really, really wrong. The woman immediately spoke out against practices that marginalized women. I said I agreed with her fully since I was a Christian…She responded,”Women are human beings and human beings have rights. It is wrong to trample on someone’s rights.” I asked her how she knew that. (p.149)

Considering how Keller’s denomination doesn’t allow the ordination of women, I’m guessing her answer is NOT going to be “By attending your church.”

Keller chooses this, of all topics, as his springboard for asserting that the only way we can have any basis for discerning right from wrong is…ultimately…the Bible. Keller takes her moral outrage at the marginalization of women and appropriates it for his own use, arguing that her sense of injustice comes from the same God who, according his tradition, supports the differential treatment of women.

But of course, keeping women out of the ministry isn’t marginalizing them. Insert neo-Calvinist justification here. Something about showing women the respect and care they truly need by keeping them out of positions of real power. Don’t get me started. It’s not good for my blood pressure. Keller’s worldview does precisely what he describes elsewhere as “transcendentalizing ordinary cultural differences,” lifting ancient views on the place of women in society out of their original historical context and placing them onto women today with very little recontextualization.

Keller is on thin ice venturing into any discussion on “rights” in the first place since, strictly speaking, no such vocabulary exists within his tradition. I did my graduate work at one of the seminaries affiliated with his denomination, and I distinctly remember at least two of my professors making a point of saying “You don’t have rights. All rights belong to God.” This opinion closely follows that of the apostle Paul who once asked:

Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?

Keller’s theological tradition doesn’t envision human beings as somehow possessing inalienable rights. It views people as valuable in a derivative sense wherein all human worth comes, not from humans themselves, but from what someone else does for them. According to the Bible, if God decides that some of them are only valuable as fuel for an everlasting fire, he alone possesses the right to make that decision. Humans have no rights of their own. They don’t even own their own bodies.

What’s more, I find it incredibly arrogant and inconsiderate of the vast diversity of religious belief in the world that Keller would present his readers with a false dichotomy, as if the only two choices we have are between “Youmanism” (his misrepresentation of what humanists actually believe) and Reformed trinitarian inerrantist Abrahamic monotheism.

There is only one way out of this conundrum. We can pick the biblical account of things and see if it explains our moral sense any better than the secular view. (p.162)

Really, only one way out? So those are are only two options? Surely we are missing a step or two in there somewhere. This is a common vulnerability of the presuppositionalist apologetic.

The Moral Awareness of the Animal Kingdom

Finally, because Keller’s grasp of evolution is incorrect as well, he doesn’t appear to realize that science paints a much richer picture of our ancestral past than what you will hear from an evangelical pulpit:

Evolution…cannot account for the origin of our moral feelings, let alone for the fact that we all believe there are external moral standards by which moral feelings are evaluated. (p. 154)

Clearly he has never read how prevalent altruism is among the species, particularly among mammals. Elsewhere in this chapter Keller discloses that he believes “nature [is] completely ruled by one central principle—violence by the strong against the weak” (p.161). But that’s a gross oversimplification of the way that Nature works. The struggle for survival depends not only on brute force and violence but also on things like cooperation, solidarity, and empathy.

Dolphins will rescue distressed members of other species, and they will flank their own injured, swimming alongside them for days until they are better. An elephant was once observed trying to push a dying friend into an upright position, and when that didn’t work, she simply stood by her for support for days, refusing food.

In his book The Atheist and the Bonobo, Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal explains that primates in particular have an amazingly well-developed sense of empathy, not only for their own species, but for others as well. Chimps will refuse rewards that are undeserved, and when one of them loses a child, the others will spend extra time grooming the mourning parent. Bonobos will share food even across tribal lines. Rhesus macaques have been observed catering to the special needs of a mentally disabled macaque toddler. The examples go on and on.

The point is that empathy and compassion are deeply woven into our evolutionary past, so humans do not have a corner on the market where morality is concerned. We share that element with the rest of the animal kingdom. Religious ideologies like Christianity view humans as unique in this respect, but an honest and thorough look at Nature doesn’t corroborate this perspective. Because empathy, compassion, and solidarity predate religion in our evolutionary history, they appear to be its roots, not its fruits.

In the end arguments from morality such as this one fall flat on their faces, for they depend on a misrepresentation of secular ethics, ignorance of the pre-religious evolutionary roots of human compassion, and a presumptuous false dichotomy between their own narrow preconceptions of truth and whatever they misunderstand about what other people really believe—people who are living lives which are at least as morally sound as the ones making the argument in the first place.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

(Other Posts in this Series)

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February 17, 2015

trainingwheelsFor those who would genuinely like to know how atheists can have morals, I’d like to attempt to offer my best explanation.  I’m no career philosopher or ethicist, so I’m sure this could be done better by someone else,1 but I’ll give it my best shot.  One problem is that the term “atheist” isn’t descriptive enough because all that signifies is what you don’t believe, but it doesn’t say anything about what you do believe.  Among non-believers-in-gods you will find both naturalists and supernaturalists, conspiracy theorists and skeptics, neo-pagans and new age spiritualists, and everything in between.  The variety is endless.  I couldn’t possibly address how all of them think (nor would I care to), but I will address how most atheists I personally know would answer this question. Most of my skeptical friends and acquaintances are philosophical naturalists, which means they don’t see any valid reasons for believing in supernatural things (ghosts, goblins, demons, magic, fairies, spirits or gods).  They see the natural world as reality and everything else as make-believe.  How can such people live moral lives without some transcendent Being telling them what to do?

First you must be clear about which question you’re really asking.  Are you asking, “Do non-theists live moral lives?” because if you are, the simple answer is “Yes.” Non-theists live lives just as guided by moral principle as theists, even though the two sets of principles don’t always agree with each other.  For example, while much of Christian moral teaching stresses comparatively narrow definitions of “proper” sexuality (married heteros only!), non-religious thinking on the same subject begins in a different place and therefore arrives at different definitions of acceptable sexuality.  But both systems of thought condemn exploitative sex or sex that brings harm to another (e.g. pedophilia, rape, and pretty much everything about the relationships in Fifty Shades of Grey, albeit for different reasons).  Both will stress the importance of mutual respect within intimate relationships and both will value honesty and condemn deceit.  I know this because I’ve discussed these things with people from both camps and the same underlying values are clearly there.  The same similarities could be demonstrated for pretty much any other topic we could discuss, even when the particular outworkings vary.

Furthermore, if you will listen to what naturalists have to say about those values (especially the humanists among them), you will notice they can be quite passionate about what they believe about how we should treat one another.  They care a great deal about their moral values, and nothing insults them more than to be told they don’t have any simply because someone else disagrees about the what those values should be.  This is bigotry, plain and simple.  If the critics of skepticism would only learn to listen with mutual respect, they would see that what separates our moral values isn’t as great as what unites them.  I’m disappointed to say the failure to show respect happens on both sides of this ideological divide so that neither is above reproach.  But you can disagree without insulting people’s character.  We need more role models on both sides demonstrating how this is done.

The Basis for Human Morality

Once you can accept that atheists do have morals, and that they already live moral lives (even if the particulars don’t match your own), the next questions are “How?” and “Why?”  The starting point for answering these questions is pretty simple:  The original impetus for human moral reasoning is empathy, and empathy is a natural product of our biological evolution.  When a species takes care of its own, it thrives; when it does not, it fails and dies away.  That’s where we start, and that serves as the foundation upon which our moral systems are built.  Empathy alone won’t be enough to guide all of our actions, but it’s where it all starts.

Imagine two groups of animals, one hunting and sleeping and grooming in groups and the other riding solo, living as loners.  Which group will survive and thrive and live to pass its genes to the next generation?  The ones who take care of their own will fare better, and years down the road their kind will be the only ones around.  Apply the same concept to the long history of hominid development and you’ll find that solidarity—identifying with one another—lies at the heart of our evolutionary survival.  That’s why virtually all major philosophies and religions throughout human history (including those predating the Abrahamic religions by many centuries) have expressed some form of the golden rule:  treat others how you want to be treated.  All moral reasoning starts here, and humans share this value regardless of creed.  Atheists and fundamentalists alike believe in caring for one another, even if how they work that out varies wildly.

Humans aren’t the only species which exhibits empathy and altruism, though.  Most members of the animal kingdom will protect their young even to the point of self-sacrifice, and most will look out for the other members of their group.  But many animals have even displayed empathy and altruistic behavior toward members of species besides their own.  Dolphins have been known to protect swimmers from nearby sharks and a beluga whale was once observed helping a swimmer when his legs cramped up at a theme park in China.  Well-controlled experiments and observations of many kinds have demonstrated that many animals—especially the closer they come to our own species (e.g. primates)—show a clear sense of fairness, equality, sharing and cooperation (I’d recommend The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal for a thorough investigation of this).  Rats will help each other out of cages when there’s nothing in it for them personally, even if it means giving up a reward like chocolate.  What this tells us is that empathy and morality aren’t products of religion; if anything, the reverse may be true.  It may very well be that our biologically ingrained sense of “do this but don’t do that” gave rise to, or at least reinforced, the many systems of belief in invisible spirits watching over us to ensure we are doing what we’re supposed to do.

Just-So Stories that Keep Us in Line

Think about how readily parents picked up the practice of telling their children that somehow Santa Claus “sees you when you’re sleeping, [and] knows when you’re awake.”  Those of us who perpetuate this untruth know this is a lie but we keep doing it anyway because it works.  Not infallibly, of course, but it does help keep the kids in line while also sprinkling a season of the year with a bit of magic and wonder.  Ironically the song goes on to say they should “be good for goodness’ sake,” but then we turn around and promise them they will get things in return for being good.  For children, that’s a much more powerful motivator.  Santa’s virtual invisibility only makes him more powerful because now he can be anywhere and everywhere at once, and because you cannot disprove a being you can’t even see.  Clearly we are not above fabricating stories that are untrue in order to elicit the desired behaviors from our children. We will use whatever works.  That, I believe, explains how religious belief began.

But grown-ups put these childish fables away, right?  I mean, once you’re grown you should have internalized your codes of conduct so that you will essentially follow them even after you’ve learned that Santa is make-believe, right?  Well, sort of.  Most will agree that once you reach a certain age these threats become silly and inappropriate.  But even as grown-ups we are still being told that an invisible Person is watching us while we’re sleeping and while we’re awake, and that he will punish us for our bad deeds and reward us for the good ones after we die. What after all are Heaven and Hell if not Christmas morning taken to the extreme? Many would argue that we must always keep this story around because without it people will go crazy.  They insist we will all become addicted to porn and begin raping and murdering and stealing from nursing homes.  I think that’s nonsense.  People want to do good because it’s wired into them by millions of years of natural selection.  Even when they fail to follow this instinct, most normal people are still driven by it most of the time.  Dropping the Giant Invisible Man story won’t reverse that any more than removing training wheels will make a prepared child unable to ride a bike.  There comes a time when you “put childish things away” as one guy once said.

So is this morality—this “goodness”—rooted in something transcendent and objective?  Is it wired into the universe?  Yes and no.  Empathy is woven into the fabric of our psychology by natural selection but we also build ethical systems on top of that and make the world we want to live in.  Like with most traits of the animal kingdom, humans like to take things to a wholly different level.  Birds sing songs while humans compose entire symphonies.  Beavers build stick huts while people build skyscrapers.  Dolphins carry one another for days if they’re injured while people organize international relief efforts when a typhoon hits a region on the opposite side of the planet.  We like to use our developed cerebral cortexes to devise highly complex systems to accomplish the same things our animal cousins already do, only much bigger.  And while other animals situate themselves into primal hierarchies of leadership, complete with their own well-established roles, we develop legal societies and civilizations in which human capacities and resources can be optimally distributed for the good of our own species (and hopefully one day for the rest of our ecosystem, on which we interdepend).

Man-Made But Still Useful

We create human society, with its complex systems of rules and ethics.  It is a social construct, and its particulars will vary from place to place and from time to time.  The systems of morality we construct within those societies and cultures are our own inventions, and they are intended to arrange our lives the way we want them.  We like sleeping in our own beds, safe in houses not in danger of armed thieves, so we invent laws and law enforcement.  These are human inventions but they accomplish what we want to accomplish for ourselves, so we keep doing it.  We aren’t doing this because our religions tell us to; we do it because we want to do it in order to make our world a better place according to how we see it, and we work toward codifying those principles which will enable the most people possible to enjoy that same benefit.  We would rather not live in fear of being eaten by other animals so we arrange our lives in such a way that this becomes less and less of a possibility.  So on the one hand, our highly developed sense of morals is artificial because we are in fact the creators of these systems.  But on the other hand, they are rooted in the most basic instinct, which is the survival of our own species, and that is wired into us by millions of years of natural selection. That creates a common functional basis on which our societies can build common systems of ethics.

Despite its many flaws, we could look at the American system of government as one of the first and longest-lasting social experiments in which a system of laws was devised without reference to one religion or another (in fact, it expressly forbids the intermingling of the two).  The U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention any gods at all2 because it’s not predicated upon any religion, despite what many today would have us believe.  It has survived for more than two centuries even though it is secular by design.  The reason this worked is that after thousands of years of formation, by the time of the Enlightenment human moral reasoning had finally reached the point at which it no longer required fear of the gods in order to bolster an ethical system.  It was time for the training wheels to come off, so they did.  That can be a scary thing, just like riding a bike for the first time.  People accustomed to the familiar supports of religion still fight the notion of a secular society, insisting it cannot work.  Yet here we are, still functioning under the framework of laws scribbled down more than 200 years earlier.  That says an awful lot.  In time more and more countries have followed this example and have built secular governments for themselves.  It appears to be working just fine for them.

We don’t need the gods in order to be moral.  Our moral instincts predate the invention of religion by millions of years, and they will move forward from this point on without the assistance of religion in the foreseeable future.  It’s time to put away childish things.  It’s time we grew up.

_______

1. For a much more detailed breakdown of the philosophical issues surrounding this topic you can mosey on over to Camels With Hammers, the blog of Dan Fincke, who undoubtedly will want to “tweak” a good deal of what you see in this article.

2. Whenever you say the Constitution doesn’t mention God, some smart-a** always chimes in and says that since they followed the dating convention of the time they made reference at the very end of the document to “the year of our Lord,” as if that negates my point above.  This reminds me of my students who, when I point out that their page is still blank after 20 minutes of dawdling and doing nothing at all, tell me “Nuh uh!  See?  I wrote my name on the page!”  [eyeroll]

February 16, 2015

shutterstock_88446496When someone asks me “How can atheists have morals?” he is typically doing one of two things: 1) He may be genuinely trying to understand how I can make moral decisions without believing in a transcendent, supernatural Lawgiver because he’s never given it much thought, or 2) he is not genuinely trying to understand me but rather is picking a fight, challenging me and accusing me of holding a worldview which is inferior to his. I would like to address each motive separately (starting with the fight-pickers) because my answer depends on what my inquisitor is trying to do. Incidentally, it’s too bad I usually don’t know which I’m dealing with when people ask me this. Often I think it’s a combination of both. I’m beginning to suspect that the life of faith inclines people to such an unease about their own doubts that it compels them to continually prove to themselves that their view of the world is superior.

Some Who Ask This Are Just Picking a Fight

The fight-pickers are not genuinely trying to understand why my morals remain intact without belief in supernatural beings, an afterlife, or Heaven and Hell. They are asking a question that’s not really a question. They are making an assertion that people cannot have morals without believing in a deity of some kind (preferably their own). The facts don’t support this prejudice, but I’ll get to that in a second. First I must point out how insulting this non-question really is to a person like me. When you do this, you are accusing me of being an immoral person. Perhaps you have never stopped to consider that this is what you are doing. Privilege blindness can be a nasty thing, and it’s far too easy to think less of people who don’t deserve it simply because they see things differently from you. If you have observed my behavior and have seen worse behavior from me than you see from people with your own belief system, then please point that out to me. If not, then perhaps you should rethink your assumptions about what makes people “moral.”

Can we also dispense with debates about dictators, please? The problem with citing atypical individuals (like despots) is that, unlike groups, individuals can be psychotic, which makes them a very poor choice of reference for discussions about human nature. Psychotics can be found in every belief system (in fact, many psychotics are very religious…some of them may have been responsible for founding new religions of their own). It takes a certain kind of person to run a dictatorship, and this person poses a problem for both theists and non-theists alike. Mass killers have come from both camps. For every Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong (all non-theists), you’ve also got Cromwell, Sindikubwabo of Rwanda, and Hitler (all theists). Debates about these go nowhere, trust me. It’s better to stick to large groups when discussing normal human nature. Normal people don’t go around killing folks and abnormal people don’t make good representative samples for generalizing about morality. So let’s not waste any more time on that, please?

Statistically speaking, what is the outcome of non-belief on large populations? Internationally speaking, those countries with the lowest crime rates (like the Scandavian countries and Japan) are among the least religious in the world. On the other hand, the country with by far the highest crime rate (the U.S.) is among the most religious among developed countries. The same pattern holds true for states within the U.S. as well. Those states with the lowest crime rates (e.g. in New England and the Pacific Northwest) rank among the least religious, while the highest crime rates afflict the Deep South (aka “The Bible Belt”). If disbelieving in a divine Lawgiver led to immorality/amorality, these results should be reversed, and our prison populations would show a higher proportion of atheists than can be found in the general population. In reality, however, surveys of prisoners have shown that less than half of one percent of prisoners identify with atheism. So either atheists are in fact less inclined to criminal behavior or else they are significantly better at getting away with it.

The Charge of Moral Relativism

Another favorite charge of the fight-pickers is that without a transcendent Lawgiver, your morals become subjective and therefore hopelessly mired in moral relativism. I see two major problems with this. First of all, the morals of a theist are nowhere near as objective as they’d like to think. The truth is that everyone’s morals are subjective—some just don’t realize it as well as others. While it may comfort you to think that your distinctions between right and wrong are transcendent and rooted in something immovable, even yours have moved quite a bit over time and where the lines are drawn now is likely very different from where they used to be many years ago. Appealing to a deity doesn’t really solve this problem because you have to first get people to agree which deity to consult in the first place (you do know there are others besides yours, right?), and those competing deities do not agree with one another, nor do their respective holy books. In fact, if you wanted, you could even limit the conversation to people of your religion alone, all using the same scriptures, and yet they will still arrive at wildly different judgments about basic things like sexual orientations, the place of women in society, and the concept of a “just war.” If sharing a common deity and a common scriptural canon provided a solid basis for decision making, there would not be 41,000 denominations of that one religion unable to even worship in the same room with one another.

As for moral relativism, I can think of few squishier concepts than Divine Command Theory, which states that “good” is defined as “whatever God says is good.” The first problem with that concept is that if you believe people can make mistakes, you must also acknowledge that they can miscalculate or misperceive what this deity is telling them to do. You certainly can’t run an entire country on “God spoke to me and told me we should all do this.” I hope that anyone can see the danger inherent in that arrangement.

The second problem is that under this theory absolutely anything can be called good or moral, no matter how repugnant it may be. Should you sacrifice your middle-schooler on an altar? Depends. If God tells you to, then it’s good, amirite? The Bible teaches that God was pleased with Abraham, not because Abraham didn’t finally kill his own son, but because he was going to. That’s what earned Yahweh’s praise. Should you run swords through women and children living on land that you want for yourself? Absolutely, if God tells you to. That makes it right. In fact, if God tells you to kill some people and you don’t, your resistance to his command is now “evil” and the killing is now “good.” I’m not making this up—these two instances both came from the Bible and they are defended daily by Christians. I’ve already explained how people’s treatment of the story of the conquest of Canaan settles this “objective morality” question once and for all. I find it the height of hypocrisy that anyone can defend the murder of the Canaanites and then call me a moral relativist. I have never been able to find an atheist willing to defend genocide (again, I don’t interview psychopaths from either camp) but I wouldn’t have to look very long to find several dozen of my own Christian friends ready to justify it as long as “God said to do it.” You can’t get any more relativistic than that.

Why Do You Think We’re Immoral?

And yet people still accuse atheists of moral relativism, immorality, and amorality, but why? Clearly this judgment doesn’t arise from empirical observation, so why do they keep saying this? I can think of three reasons. First, I think it originates from the same basic xenophobia which says that anyone who is different from you—not “one of us”—must be inferior. This is a natural human trait and while looking out for your own kind has its benefits, it can also help our larger human society to think bigger than that. Learn to expand your horizons a bit and identify with people not entirely like you. It’s a growing experience and I highly recommend it.

Second, I think this prejudice toward atheists (for that’s what it is) gets reinforced every time a Bible teacher asserts that goodness can only come from the active presence of the Holy Spirit within the believer. I know that while growing up I was taught that humans are morally weak and fallen, prone to wickedness apart from the saving presence of God. “You must have Jesus in your heart” they always say. Congratulations, you have just declared yourselves better than all other people on the planet. “Oh no!” they tell me, “It’s not us, it’s God who does the work!” On paper this sounds like it fixes the humility problem, but you’ve still just written off billions of people because they don’t have the right religion. According to this theology, the Muslim and the Hindu are just as incapable of goodness or morality as the atheist. Perhaps it makes you feel better that you only believe this because a book tells you that you’re supposed to, but I say that is only a good excuse when you’re too young to think for yourself. By now you should have passed the point where you uncritically accept what you were taught as a small child. If you had been born in Saudi Arabia, you would be defending Islam and the Koran instead of the Bible right now.

Third, I think the fight-pickers keep asking this non-question because they’ve learned to do this from Christian apologists trying to protect their faith from a worldview which they feel threatens them. I’ve written about this before, but there is something fundamentally scary to a Christian about atheism. They feel uniquely threatened by it more so than any other ideology because it implicitly questions the very core of their religion: faith itself. Other religions don’t do that—they share a common belief in belief itself. What makes atheism different is that it rejects the notion of faith, which undermines everything the believer holds dear. In fact, they feel so threatened by the mere existence of atheism that the skeptic need not ever say a negative word about the Christian religion—simply knowing the atheist is out there is intrinsically offensive and threatening. If you don’t believe me, I’ll refer you to the outrage expressed over a billboard in Texas which asserts little more than that atheists exist. Calls and letters pour in over even non-confrontational advertisements like these, often getting them taken down because even that is too much for many to hear. Talk about touchy! How fragile must faith be that even the existence of an atheist is perceived as a dire threat?

One last consideration and then I’ll go on in my next post to answer the question “Where Do Atheists Get Their Morals?” for the benefit of that first group of inquisitors who sincerely want to know. When a fight-picker asks me this question, I’ve learned to first ask him:  If I demonstrated that atheists live moral lives too, would that really mean anything to you? Since you clearly believe atheist immorality would be evidence against our worldview, would you concede that goodness among atheists is evidence against yours? His answer will either be “Yes” (in which case good luck with that conversation because now his entire belief system depends on demonstrating that you’re a moral monster), or else he will say “No” (which leads me to ask “Then why are we even having this conversation?”). More often than not, this question is a red herring, a distraction devised to divert attention away from whatever people don’t really want to talk about, like the messiness of the Bible or the subjectivity of religious belief in general. Honestly, I’d rather not waste much time having this discussion if that’s all this turns out to be.

But some genuinely want help thinking through this question, so for those folks I’ll post part two tomorrow, attempting to explain why atheists are just as moral as everyone else.

November 12, 2013

trainingwheelsFor those who would genuinely like to know how atheists can have morals, I’d like to attempt to offer my best explanation.  I’m no career philosopher or ethicist, so I’m sure this could be done better by someone else (like Dan Fincke of Camels with Hammers), but I’ll give it my best shot.  One problem is that the term “atheist” isn’t descriptive enough because all that signifies is what you don’t believe, but it doesn’t say anything about what you do believe.  Among non-believers-in-gods you will find both naturalists and supernaturalists, conspiracy theorists and skeptics, neo-pagans and new age spiritualists, and everything in between.  The variety is endless.  I couldn’t possibly address how all of them think (nor would I care to), but I will address how most atheists I know would answer this question. Most of my skeptical friends and acquaintances are philosophical naturalists, which means they don’t see any valid reasons for believing in supernatural things (ghosts, goblins, demons, magic, fairies, spirits or gods).  They see the natural world as reality and everything else as make-believe.  How can such people live moral lives without some transcendent Being telling them what to do?

First you must be clear about which question you’re really asking.  Are you asking, “Do non-theists live moral lives?” because if you are, the simple answer is “Yes.” Non-theists live lives just as guided by moral principle as theists, even though the two sets of principles often don’t agree with each other.  For example, while much of Christian moral teaching stresses comparatively narrow definitions of “proper” sexuality (married heteros only!), non-religious thinking on the same subject begins in a different place and therefore arrives at different definitions of acceptable sexuality.  But both systems of thought condemn exploitative sex or sex that brings harm to another (e.g. pedophilia, rape).  Both will stress the importance of mutual respect within intimate relationships and both will value honesty and condemn deceit.  I know this because I’ve discussed these things with more people from both camps than I could possibly count and the same underlying values are clearly there.  The same similarities could be demonstrated for pretty much any other topic we could discuss, even when the particular outworkings vary.

Furthermore, if you will listen to what naturalists have to say about those values (especially the humanists among them), you will often hear great passion for those principles saturating their speech, and you will see it in their eyes, too.  They care a great deal about their moral values, and nothing insults them more than to be told they don’t have any simply because someone else disagrees about the what those values should be.  This is bigotry, plain and simple.  If the critics of skepticism would only learn to listen with mutual respect, they will see that what separates their moral values isn’t as great as what unites them.  I’m disappointed to say the failure to show respect happens on both sides of this ideological divide so that neither is above reproach.  But you can disagree without insulting people’s character.  We need more role models on both sides demonstrating how this is done.

Once you can accept that atheists do have morals, and that they already live moral lives (even if the particulars don’t match your own), the next questions are “How?” and “Why?”  The answers to those questions could easily fill books but the essence of the answer is refreshingly simple:  The basis of all human moral reasoning is empathy, and empathy is a natural product of our biological evolution.  When a species takes care of its own, it thrives; when it does not, it fails and dies away.  Imagine two groups of animals, one hunting and sleeping and grooming in groups and the other riding solo, living as loners.  Which group will survive and thrive and live to pass its genes to the next generation?  The ones who take care of their own will fare better, and years down the road their kind will be the only ones around.  Apply the same concept to the long history of hominid development and you’ll find that solidarity—identifying with one another—lies at the heart of our evolutionary survival.  That’s why virtually all major philosophies and religions throughout human history (including those predating the Abrahamic religions by many centuries) have expressed some form of the golden rule:  treat others how you want to be treated.  All moral reasoning starts here, and humans share this value regardless of creed.  Atheists and Fundamentalists alike believe in caring for one another, even if how they work that out varies wildly.

Humans aren’t the only species which exhibits empathy and altruism, though.  Most members of the animal kingdom will protect their young even to the point of self-sacrifice, and most will look out for the other members of their group.  But many animals have even displayed empathy and altruistic behavior towards members of species besides their own.  Dolphins have been known to protect swimmers from nearby sharks and a beluga whale was once observed helping a swimmer when his legs cramped up at a theme park in China.  Well-controlled experiments and observations of many kinds have demonstrated that many animals—especially the closer they come to our own species (e.g. primates)—show a clear sense of fairness, equality, sharing and cooperation (I’d recommend The Bonobo and the Atheist by de Waal for a thorough investigation of this).  Rats will help each other out of cages when there’s nothing in it for them personally, even if it means giving up a reward like chocolate.  What this tells us is that empathy and morality aren’t products of religion; if anything, the reverse may be true.  It may very well be that our biologically ingrained sense of “do this but don’t do that” gave rise to, or at least reinforced, the many systems of belief in invisible spirits watching over us to ensure we are doing what we’re supposed to do.

Think about how readily parents picked up the practice of telling their children that somehow Santa Claus “sees you when you’re sleeping, [and] knows when you’re awake.”  Those of us who perpetuate this untruth know this is a lie but we keep doing it anyway because it works.  Not infallibly, of course, but it does help keep the kids in line while also sprinkling a season with a bit of magic and wonder.  Ironically the song goes on to say they should “be good for goodness’ sake,” but then we turn around and promise them they will get things in return for being good.  For children, that’s a much more powerful motivator.  Santa’s virtual invisibility only makes him more powerful both because now he can be somehow anywhere and everywhere at once, and because you cannot disprove a being you can’t even see.  Clearly we are not above fabricating stories that are untrue in order to elicit the desired behaviors from our children.  Have you ever heard a parent tell a child at a restaurant to watch out for the manager because he can see how they’re behaving?  What exactly is the child supposed to think the restaurant manager will do to him?  It’s never really specified, but the feeling of dread it produces seems to be its own justification.  We will use whatever works.  That, I believe, explains how religious belief began.

But grown-ups put these childish fables away, right?  I mean, once you’re grown you should have internalized your codes of conduct so that you will essentially follow them even after you’ve learned that Santa is make-believe and that the restaurant manager isn’t going to beat you for talking too loudly at the dinner table, right?  Well, sort of.  Most will agree that once you reach a certain age these threats become silly and inappropriate.  But even as grown-ups we are still being told that an invisible Person is watching us while we’re sleeping and while we’re awake, and that he will punish us for our bad deeds and reward us for the good ones after we die. What, after all, are Heaven and Hell if not Christmas morning taken to the extreme? Many would argue that we must always keep this story around because without it people will go crazy.  They will all become addicted to porn and begin raping and murdering and stealing from nursing homes.  I think that’s nonsense.  People want to do good because it’s wired into them by millions of years of natural selection.  Even when they fail to follow this instinct, most normal people are still driven by it most of the time.  Dropping the Giant Invisible Man story won’t reverse that any more than removing training wheels will make a prepared child unable to ride a bike.  There comes a time when you “put childish things away” as one guy once said ;)

So is this morality, this “goodness,” rooted in something transcendent and objective?  Is it wired into the universe?  Yes and no.  Empathy is woven into the fabric of our psychology by natural selection but we also build on that and make the world we want to live in.  Like most traits of the animal kingdom, humans like to take things to a wholly different level.  Birds sing songs while humans compose symphonies.  Beavers build stick huts while people build skyscrapers.  Dolphins carry one another for days if they’re injured while people organize international relief efforts when a typhoon hits a region on the opposite side of the planet.  We like to use our developed cerebral cortexes to devise highly complex systems to accomplish the same things our animal cousins already do, only much bigger.  And while other animals situate themselves into primal hierarchies of leadership, complete with their own well-established rules, we develop legal societies and civilizations in which human capacities and resources can be optimally distributed for the good of our own species (and hopefully one day for the rest of our ecosystem, on which we interdepend).

We create human society, with its complex systems of rules and ethics.  It is a social construct, and its particulars will vary from place to place and from time to time.  The systems of morality we construct within those societies and cultures are our own inventions, and they are intended to arrange our lives the way we want them.  We like sleeping in our own beds, safe in houses not in danger of armed thieves, so we invent laws and law enforcement.  These are human inventions but they accomplish what we want to accomplish for ourselves, so we keep doing it.  We aren’t doing it because of a divine design; we do it because we want to do it in order to make our world a better place as we see it.  We would rather not fear being eaten by other animals so we arrange our lives in such a way that this becomes less and less of a possibility.  So on the one hand, our highly developed sense of morals is subjective because we are in fact the creators of these systems.  But on the other hand, they are rooted in the most basic instinct, which is the survival of our own species, and that is wired into us by millions of years of natural selection.

Despite its many flaws, we could look at the American system of government as one of the first and longest-lasting social experiments in which a system of laws was devised without reference to one religion or another (in fact, it expressly forbids the intermingling of the two).  The U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention any gods at all* because it’s not predicated upon any religion, despite what many today would have us believe.  It has survived for more than two centuries even though it is secular by design.  The reason this worked is that after thousands of years of formation, human moral reasoning had finally reached the point at which it no longer required fear of the gods in order to bolster an ethical system.  It was time for the training wheels to come off, so they did.  That can be a scary thing, just like riding a bike for the first time.  People accustomed to the familiar supports of religion still fight the notion of a secular society, insisting it cannot work.  Yet here we are, still functioning under the framework of laws scribbled down more than 200 years earlier.  That says an awful lot.

We don’t need the gods in order to be moral.  Our moral instincts predate the invention of religion by millions of years, and they will move forward from this point on without the assistance of religion in the foreseeable future.  It’s time to put away childish things.  It’s time we grew up.

_______

*Whenever you say the Constitution doesn’t mention God, some smart-a** always chimes in and says that since they followed the dating convention of the time they made reference at the very end of the document to “the year of our Lord,” as if that negates my point above.  This reminds me of my students who, when I point out that their page is still blank after 20 minutes of dawdling and doing nothing at all, tell me “Nuh uh!  See?  I wrote my name on the page!”  [eyeroll]

November 8, 2013

accusationWhen someone asks me “How can atheists have morals?” they are typically doing one of two things: 1) They may be genuinely trying to understand how I can make moral decisions without believing in a transcendent, supernatural Lawgiver because they’ve never given it much thought, or 2) they are not genuinely trying to understand me but rather are picking a fight, challenging me and accusing me of holding a worldview which is inferior to theirs. I would like to address each motive separately (starting with the fight-pickers) because my answer depends on what my inquisitor is trying to do. Incidentally, it’s too bad I usually don’t know which I’m dealing with when people ask me this. Often I think it’s a combination of both. I’m beginning to suspect that the life of faith inclines people to such an unease about their own doubts that it compels them to continually prove to themselves that their view of the world is superior. I could be wrong, though ;)

The fight-pickers are not genuinely trying to understand why my morals remain intact without belief in supernatural beings, an afterlife, or Heaven and Hell. They are asking a question that’s not really a question. They are making an assertion that people cannot have morals without believing in a deity of some kind (preferably their own). The facts don’t support this prejudice, but I’ll get to that in a second. First I must point out how insulting this non-question really is to a person like me. When you do this, you are accusing me of being an immoral person. Perhaps you have never stopped to consider that this is what you are doing. Privilege blindness can be a nasty thing, and it’s far too easy to think less of people who don’t deserve it simply because they see things differently from you. If you have observed my behavior and have seen worse behavior from me than you see from people with your own belief system, then please point that out to me. If not, then perhaps you should rethink your assumptions about what makes people “moral.”

Can we also dispense with debates about dictators, please? See, the problem with citing unique individuals (like despots) is that, unlike groups, individuals can be psychotic, which makes them a very poor choice of reference for discussions about human nature. Psychotics can be found in every belief system (in fact, many psychotics are very religious…some of them may have been responsible for founding new religions of their own). It takes a certain kind of person to run a dictatorship, and this person poses a problem for both theists and non-theists alike. Mass killers have come from both camps. For every Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong (all non-theists), you’ve also got Cromwell, Sindikubwabo of Rwanda, and Hitler (all theists). Debates about these go nowhere, trust me. It’s better to stick to large groups when discussing normal human nature. Normal people don’t go around killing folks and abnormal people don’t make good representative samples for generalizing about morality. So let’s not waste any more time on that, please?

Statistically speaking, what is the outcome of non-belief on large populations? Internationally speaking, those countries with the lowest crime rates (like the Scandavian countries and Japan) are among the least religious in the world. On the other hand, the country with by far the highest crime rate (the U.S.) is among the most religious, particularly among developed countries. The same pattern holds true for states within the U.S. as well. Those states with the lowest crime rates (e.g. in New England and the Pacific Northwest) rank among the least religious, while the highest crime rates afflict the Deep South (aka “The Bible Belt”). If disbelieving in a divine Lawgiver led to immorality/amorality, these results should be reversed, and our prison populations would show a higher proportion of atheists than can be found in the general population. In reality, however, surveys of prisoners have shown that less than half of one percent of prisoners identify with atheism. So either atheists are in fact less inclined to criminal behavior or else they are significantly better at getting away with it ;)

Another favorite charge of the fight-pickers is that without a transcendent Lawgiver, your morals become subjective and therefore hopelessly mired in moral relativism. I see two major problems with this. First of all, the morals of a theist are nowhere near as objective as they’d like to think. The truth is that everyone’s morals are subjective—some just don’t realize it as well as others. While it may comfort you to think that your distinctions between right and wrong are transcendent and rooted in something immovable, even yours have moved quite a bit over time and where the lines are drawn now is likely very different from where they used to be many years ago. Appealing to a deity doesn’t really solve this “problem” because you have to first get people to agree which deity to consult in the first place (you do know there are others besides yours, right?), and those competing deities do not agree with one another, nor do their respective holy books. In fact, if you wanted, you could even limit the conversation to people of your religion alone, all using the same scriptures, and yet they will still arrive at wildly different judgments about basic things like sexual orientations, the place of women in society, and the concept of a “just war.” If sharing a common deity and a common scriptural canon provided a solid basis for decision making, there would not be 41,000 denominations of that one religion unable to even worship in the same room with one another.

As for moral relativism, I can think of few squishier concepts than Divine Command Theory, which states that “good” is defined as “whatever God says is good.” The first problem with that concept is that if you believe people can make mistakes, you must also acknowledge that they can miscalculate or misperceive what this deity is telling them to do. You certainly can’t run an entire country on “God spoke to me and told me we should all do this.” I hope that anyone can see the danger inherent in that arrangement. The second problem is that under this theory absolutely anything can be called good or moral, no matter how repugnant it may be. Should you sacrifice your middle-schooler on an altar? Depends. If God tells you to, then it’s good, amirite? The Bible teaches that God was pleased with Abraham, not because Abraham didn’t finally kill his own son, but because he was going to. That’s what earned Yahweh’s praise. Should you run swords through women and children living on land that you want for yourself? Absolutely, if God tells you to. That makes it right. In fact, if God tells you to kill some people and you don’t, your resistance to his command is now “evil” and the killing is now “good.” I’m not making this up—these two instances both came from the Bible and they are defended daily by Christians. I’ve already explained how people’s treatment of the story of the conquest of Canaan settles this “objective morality” question once and for all. I find it the height of hypocrisy that anyone can defend the murder of the Canaanites and then call me a moral relativist. I have never been able to find an atheist willing to defend genocide (again, I don’t interview psychopaths from either camp) but I wouldn’t have to look very long to find several dozen of my own Christian friends ready to justify it as long as “God said to do it.” You can’t get any more relativistic than that.

And yet people still accuse atheists of moral relativism, immorality, and amorality, but why? Clearly this judgment doesn’t arise from empirical observation, so why do they keep saying this? I can think of three reasons. First, I think it originates from the same basic xenophobia which says that anyone who is different from you—not “one of us”—must be inferior. This is a natural human trait and while looking out for your own kind has its benefits, it can also help our larger human society to think bigger than that. Learn to expand your horizons a bit and identify with people not entirely like you. It’s a growing experience and I highly recommend it.

Second, I think this prejudice toward atheists (for that’s what it is) gets reinforced every time a Bible teacher asserts that goodness can only come from the active presence of the Holy Spirit within the believer. I know that while growing up I was taught that humans are morally weak and fallen, prone to wickedness apart from the saving presence of God. “You must have Jesus in your heart” they always say. Congratulations, you have just declared yourselves better than all other people on the planet. “Oh no!” they tell me, “It’s not us, it’s God who does the work!” On paper this sounds like it fixes the humility problem, but you’ve still just written off billions of people because they don’t have the right religion. According to this theology, the Muslim and the Hindu are just as incapable of goodness or morality as the atheist. Perhaps it makes you feel better that you only believe this because a book tells you that you’re supposed to, but I say that is only a good excuse when you’re too young to think for yourself. By now you should have passed the point where you uncritically accept what you were taught as a small child. If you had been born in Saudi Arabia, you would be defending Islam and the Koran instead of the Bible right now.

Third, I think the fight-pickers keep asking this non-question because they’ve learned to do this from Christian apologists trying to protect their faith from a worldview which they feel threatens them more than any other out there. I’ll write more about this another day but there is something fundamentally scary to a Christian about atheism. They feel uniquely threatened by it more so than anything else because it implicitly questions the very core of their religion: faith itself. Other religions don’t do that. They share a common belief in belief itself. What makes atheism different is that it rejects the notion of faith, which undermines everything the believer holds dear. In fact, they feel so threatened by the mere existence of atheism that the skeptic need not ever say a negative word about the Christian religion—simply knowing the atheist is out there is intrinsically offensive and threatening. If you don’t believe me, I’ll refer you to the outrage expressed over a billboard in Texas which asserts little more than that atheists exist. Calls and letters pour in over even non-confrontational advertisements like these, often getting them taken down because even that is too much for many to hear. Talk about touchy! How fragile must faith be that even the existence of an atheist is perceived as a dire threat?

One last consideration and then I’ll go on in my next post to answer the question “Where Do Atheists Get Their Morals?” for the benefit of that first group of inquisitors who sincerely want to know. When a fight-picker asks me this question, I’ve learned to first ask him: If I demonstrated that atheists live moral lives too, would that really mean anything to you? Since you clearly believe atheist immorality would be evidence against our worldview, would you concede that goodness among atheists is evidence against yours? His answer will either be “Yes” (in which case good luck with that conversation because now his entire belief system depends on demonstrating that you’re a moral monster), or else he will say “No” (which leads me to ask “Then why are we even having this conversation?”). More often than not, this question is a red herring, a distraction devised to divert attention away from whatever people don’t really want to talk about, like the messiness of the Bible or the subjectivity of religious belief in general. Honestly, I’d rather not waste much time having this discussion if that’s all this turns out to be.

But some genuinely want help thinking through this question, so for those folks I’ll post part two soon, attempting to explain why atheists are just as moral as everyone else.

February 27, 2019

rainbow heartYesterday the United Methodist Church decided to revert back to a hardline stance against same-sex relationships, and many of my friends are heartbroken by this move by the second largest Protestant denomination (trailing only my own family’s Southern Baptist Convention, which has never accepted gay marriage). Backtracking like this almost certainly means a major split is on the way, and I’ve gone through a series of conflicting emotions as I read their expressions of pain and sorrow. Witnessing their pain unfolding in real time, I cannot help but revisit some of my own disappointments with the church over the years in the wake of it.

Part of me wants to jump on a desk and scream, “Well, what did you expect? A miracle?!” But then I recall that many people still believe there is an Invisible Force responsible for bringing justice to the world, an all-powerful Person who watches over the affairs of the church and cares what happens inside of it. I remember still clinging to that hope myself, which tempers my condescension to some degree.

Then it occurs to me how many people there must be within the UMC who, like their counterparts in the Anglican church, no longer possess anything like what the rest of their tradition would call “faith.” They are essentially agnostic like me, but they stay in the church because it’s where everyone they care about worships. Sometimes I wish I came from a tradition where that would have worked for me, but I didn’t.

I find I cannot celebrate yet another major Christian denomination splitting over yet another thing that should have never been an issue because people are hurting, and it’s never a happy thing when friends and coworkers decide they can no longer remain “in fellowship” with one another. Even though I no longer subscribe to the Christian religion, I hate this for them because it still sucks donkey testicles, so to speak.

A Road Less Travelled

I wasn’t a Christian very long before I realized my own tradition bore little resemblance to the early Christians whom I was taught to emulate, and that cured me of at least some of my idealism (which for me seems to be a renewable resource). They told me to read the Bible, so I did. What I realized after doing that was that the church of my upbringing looked far more like the traditions Jesus criticized than it did anything else, and it wasn’t long before my study of the Bible and of the early Church led me right out of Southern Baptist life.

I spent the next ten years of my life in a small but international network of “home churches,” chasing a dream of recovering something of the pristine beauty of early Christianity (in reality it was quite messy). I have many stories to tell from that phase of my life which I’ve never written about because I feel like they would seem so foreign to most people that they wouldn’t identify with them. But I did learn a few things along the way with which I think others would readily relate.

For example, I learned that people are the same no matter where you go, and the political pressures that make people do mean, manipulative things to each other reach into every single subgroup of humanity without exception. That applies to the church as well as it does to groups of atheists (don’t get me started), so let’s dispense with any sense of moral superiority, please. I have little patience for it.

During my days in the house church movement, I watched as people who had given up everything and had faced head-on the disdain and judgment of traditional Christianity turned around and did some of the same things to each other as did those whom they criticized. The hero worship, the tribalism, the tendency toward groupthink and mental laziness…all of those things were there no matter where I went. Having left the church behind, I can now certify that these traits show up everywhere you go.

The problem isn’t the systems we create; the problem is us. We just do really dumb, despicable things, especially in large groups. I realize I sound like a terrible humanist when I say that. But contrary to popular misconception, humanism doesn’t assert that people are fundamentally good; it asserts that we are equally capable of goodness and evil, and it challenges us to choose that which accomplishes the most good and inflicts the least harm on those within our sphere of influence. It acknowledges that we are our own worst enemies, but it also affirms that we are the only ones who can make anything better.

An Odd Fixation

As long as I live, I don’t think I will ever understand how so many people can believe that whichever sex you find attractive indicates anything at all about your moral character. I just don’t get how so many people see those two things as integrally connected. You say you want to commit your life to another person? The horror! Evidently this fundamentally undermines the Christian message, somehow.

What you do with your genitals isn’t the most important thing about you, and I don’t understand people who think it is. Remember when Jesus said it wasn’t what you put into your body that makes you unclean? Does that only apply to one orifice and none of the others?

When I read the New Testament, I see Jesus caring a great deal more about how people treated the marginalized and the less fortunate than he did about what people did in their bedrooms. He was more comfortable around sex workers than he was around preachers; and besides, I believe historians of antiquity have concluded that people at that time were nowhere near as dead-set against same-sex relationships as people are today, no matter what a small handful of texts seem to suggest.

All I can figure is that the church knows its survival depends on controlling the means of reproduction and by extension the structure of the family itself. The church must feel fundamentally threatened by the prospect of sexual autonomy, and it continues to demonstrate that it is willing to split itself into a million pieces over the matter.

Put It On the Pile

As an atheist, I know all too well that this fissure in the church will become yet another blow to people’s faith, and this moment will likely turn up in people’s stories when they begin listing all the reasons they finally gave up on the Christian religion. There was nothing magical or supernatural about it at all, it turns out, and in the end they discovered as I did that their earnest expectations for divine intervention in the decisions of their ecclesiastical hierarchy were misplaced.

I still hurt for those who are losing a place to be themselves, to be accepted for who they are. I know something about losing a spiritual community, and I can tell you that it hurts. I can’t feel good at all about yet another major split in American church because it deeply impacts people’s lives.

But I can still tell you this: Things like this will keep happening as long as human beings are involved, and over time it will continue to become more and more obvious that there is nothing special about this particular religion among all the others. No special magic will keep them from fighting each other over things that should have never been an issue, and each century will produce more and more evidence that when Jesus banked his credibility on the unity of the church, it was the most failed prayer in history.

Related:The Most Fantastically Failed Prayer in History

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February 20, 2019

I’ve struggled a lot with precisely how to view religion, but I may have finally turned a corner on one particular facet of the question.

My opinion of religion is perhaps more complicated than that of most people. I don’t subscribe to any particular religions (anymore), but I also don’t agree with those who talk as if religion is something than can be eradicated from the planet. I think it’s more a feature than a bug; at this point I believe it is wired into who we are.

I suspect if we wiped out all of our gods today, we would invent new ones tomorrow because they are a key part of how our species tries to transcend itself. We crave something higher than ourselves to trust and to emulate, something that inspires enough awe to create social cohesion and motivate personal sacrifice.

Personally, I think the “higher power” we really need is our own future selves, which keep trying to assert themselves in our dreams, our aspirations, and even in our own internal dialogue. But that’s a discussion for another post.

I’ve noticed groups who boast of their freedom from religion often exhibit some of the same traits they denigrate in others: the tribalistic superiority, the hero worship, the quest for ideological purity, and the compulsive language policing. Our desire for a higher intelligence to come save us finds its way into just about every subculture I’ve inhabited, whether it takes the form of gods, or superheroes, aliens, or artificial intelligence.

One way or another, we know we need something bigger and better than what we currently are in order to survive and thrive in the long term. This realization almost leads me to decide people like me should just leave religions alone and let them do their thing. Let them have their magic feather because without it they won’t ever attempt greater things.

But I worry giving God credit for our salvation creates more problems than it solves. To explain what I mean, perhaps I should first stop and explain how I view religion as a phenomenon.

What Are Religions For?

I think religion is just one expression or form of culture among many. Maybe it’s a whole category of cultural expression, even. I agree with those who argue that religion is a kind of technology—it is a tool we developed along the way for preserving and transmitting values, memories, and artifacts to future generations. It’s simply one way among many to try and save our collective identities from extinction.

That’s what all cultures are for, really. They are the collection of memories, beliefs, language, songs, art, rituals, and traditions which each generation wants to pass down to the next in order to preserve their sense of social identity. Religion is just one kind of cultural technology we’ve created over the years and it has survived as long as it has because it works very well. Putting our own words into to mouths of our gods has a way of making them last much, much longer.

But there’s at least one big problem with this: When you attribute divine authority to your beliefs and practices, it makes them harder to critique and evaluate. This conundrum showed up this past weekend in a discussion with a friend on the origins of morality.

On Sunday, I posted Lori‘s article entitled “Where Do Morals Come From?” arguing that they evolved from our common need to care for our own for the survival of the species. A Christian friend later commented:

Obviously the super conservative southern Christians you’ve encountered wouldn’t affirm this, but there *is* in Christian history the notion that all good (no matter who accomplishes it) is of God. This ties to theological notions of omnipresence, the imago dei, and Luke 9:49-50.

She is right that Christians won’t agree on this. But then, Christians disagree about all kinds of things. Her point here is that some strains of Christianity are generous enough to acknowledge that non-Christians—people without the Holy Spirit—are just as capable of demonstrating goodness as are “believers.” Some won’t even give us that much, but those who do still demand something in return:

God must get credit for our goodness somehow, both in the knowing and in the doing. That’s the one non-negotiable for them. Either morality comes through “common grace” or it comes through some vestigial trait left over from being created “in God’s image.” The details are less important than the fact that humans must never get the ultimate credit for their own goodness no matter what. Lose this, and you lose the whole premise of Christianity.

As far as I can tell, the one thing that all forms of Christianity cannot spare is the insistence that humans are not and cannot be the source of their own goodness. The source of their own evil, sure, of their own weakness and brokenness, yes. But never the source of our own goodness. God must get the credit always. And even the moral standards themselves must originate with God, otherwise they couldn’t be timeless (Narrator: they’re not).

The Problem with Gods

My Christian friend felt the need to assert that even if our evolutionary past is responsible for the development of our morality, we must ultimately give credit to God for that awareness. I see one problem with that, though. I summed it up as concisely as I could:

But why the need to attribute it to gods? What’s wrong with simply acknowledging that we ourselves are the ones making these rules?

If our constantly changing morals keep getting attributed to the same unchanging source, at what point does the attribution become nonsensical? At some point, shouldn’t who or what gets the credit for our goodness become less important than figuring out how to sort out for ourselves which standards of goodness are really worth adhering to and which ones aren’t?

If anything, the tendency to attribute goodness to gods only makes us less likely to question them.

And that right there is the gist of my problem with religion in general and Christianity in particular. It strongly discourages people from questioning the rules we live by when we keep putting the rules that we make into the mouth of God. I mean, how can God be wrong? Any being who knows more than we do should be trusted implicitly, right?

The reality, however, is that we ourselves are making these rules. And no matter how convinced we are that we’ve got them right, there will come a day when we see that at least something about our rules didn’t really stand the test of time. The more we learn and grow as a species, the more we realize that the things we used to see as clearly good or clearly evil are not entirely either one. Morality is far more situational than most of us will ever accept.

Furthermore, we will never agree on basic principles around which a government can survive and thrive without finding neutral ground on which to build our society, ground that is fundamentally nonsectarian. We can’t even have a productive conversation as long as it always ends with, “but God said…”

We won’t even be able to agree which God is right, much less whether or not gods are real things. And we certainly will never agree on how best to hear or respond as a group. We’re going to need something more stable and steady than gods if we’re going to make it as a species.

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January 23, 2019

Lauren DaigleLately I can’t seem to listen to my streaming music app without hearing Lauren Daigle‘s “You Say” at least half a dozen times a day. What makes this significant (other than the fact that it’s a beautiful song) is that it’s a song by a Christian artist…except I’m not listening to a Christian station.

Living in the Deep South affords me several local options for contemporary Christian music broadcasts, but I didn’t choose any of them, so this song keeps catching me off guard. One minute I’m listening to Ariana Grande and Cardi B and the next I feel like I’ve landed back in church just in time to hear the song that comes right before the preacher gets up to preach.

Like most Christian songs that successfully cross over into the non-religious market, this song hardly mentions anything explicitly Jesus-y at all. Even the word “God” is deleted from one of the lines in the popular radio version, but people like me immediately know the message we are hearing. We’d recognize it anywhere.

I know it’s meant to be an encouraging song, I do. And I’ll get to that part in just a second. But first I feel compelled to express the nagging cognitive dissonance I feel at moments like this. The easiest way I know to do this is to break down a few lines of the song and then look at the Bible to see how the message of her song tracks with what you’ll find there.

Whence Cometh Your Worth?

Let’s start with the first two lines:

I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I’m not enough
Every single lie that tells me I will never measure up

First of all, I know those voices well. I figure just about everyone alive knows this struggle save for a few narcissists who truly believe they have no flaws. Some of these insecurities are just natural to our species—we’re basically apes with anxiety—but some messages in particular throw fuel onto that fire and put this whole condition on steroids. For example, messages like these:

“Even your best deeds are like soiled menstrual rags to God.” —Isaiah

“Apart from me, you can do nothing.” —Jesus

Growing up evangelical, this is the message that Daigle heard about herself. It’s no wonder she struggles with believing she’s not enough: that message comes to her straight out of the Bible. And it’s not a tangential aside, either. Magnifying human inadequacy is key to the Christian message; it’s the “bad news” on which the “good news” of salvation is predicated. She goes on to ask:

Am I more than just the sum of every high and every low?
Remind me once again just who I am, because I need to know

The search for one’s own identity is central to the human experience, and Daigle here turns to God to find out what her identity is. She puts her dependence on him right out there in plain language at the start of the second verse:

The only thing that matters now is everything You think of me
In You I find my worth, in You I find my identity

IMAGINE FOR A MOMENT if your teenage daughter turned to a boy and said, “The only thing that matters is what you think of me…my worth comes entirely from you.” How would that strike you as a parent? Would that sound like a healthy relationship, or would that disclosure set off an alarm somewhere inside of you?

What if the boy to whom she turned for her worth and identity happened to be the same boy who told her that she is incapable of doing anything right without his help? How would you judge that relationship?

My undergraduate work was in Psychology, so this language about self-worth and identity is very familiar to me. I feel fairly safe in saying that any therapist worth his or her salt will tell you that it’s unhealthy for a grown adult to derive his or her worth and identity from someone else. That’s a recipe for abuse.

But what if you ask a Christian therapist? Chances are, you’ll hear something radically different…especially if you happen to be a woman. According to evangelical Christianity, a woman derives her identity from the man to whom she is married. Prior to that, she gets it from her father.

The apostle Paul lifted that ancient understanding of female identity from his surrounding culture and applied it metaphorically to all Christians regardless of sex. He considered all followers of Jesus to collectively make up “the bride of Christ,” and according to him Christ is the ruler of the Church in the same way that a man was the ruler of his wife. In his culture and time, women were still technically counted among a man’s property. That’s why the groom had to pay money to her father to get her. She was a financial asset.

Modern, post-industrial societies see this as barbaric, but the mentality remains alive and well within the confines of the religious world in which Lauren Daigle grew up. In the evangelical world, talk like this is perfectly normal…especially if it’s said or sung to God in prayer.

Good Cop/Bad Cop

The chorus continues pitting the words of God against…the words of God…by making him both the “bad cop” and the “good cop” at the same time.

You say I am loved when I can’t feel a thing
You say I am strong when I think I am weak

Does the God of Christianity in fact say that she is strong? Or does he say that he is strong while she is weak? I’ve read the Bible quite a few times, and what I find there is a message that magnifies the weakness and ineptitude of the believer in the interest of giving all credit for success to God. It’s kind of a central point.

And I believe, oh I believe
What You say of me
I believe

Does he say it, though? Is that really being honest?

I am sure Daigle means well, as do the people who raised her to use her platform to communicate this unhealthy sentiment so beautifully. But it’s actually quite misleading to say that God says she is strong when in reality the book that purports to speak for him says exactly the opposite.

And of course I’m just being mean for pointing that out, aren’t I? Because it’s such a beautiful song and why can’t I just let people have nice things? Even if it’s really just a beautifully-adorned message of self-hatred disguised as an act of graciousness?

Related:The Dark Side of Grace

It’s quite convenient that the God of Christianity gets to be both the condemner and the advocate for the same imaginary crimes. It’s a sort of protection racket that’s been going on for centuries, and the Church has had thousands of years to perfect its sleight of hand. What people fail to remember, though, is that both the good cop and the bad cop on are on the same side. It’s all just an act.

The Magic Feather

I said at the beginning that “You Say” is meant to be an encouraging song, and it certainly is to those who love it. I’m sure thousands have already played the song on repeat, weeping as they sing the words alongside Daigle. It means something to them that you probably wouldn’t understand if you weren’t raised in the culture in which she was raised.

But I do understand. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, I heard an old song from my younger days that flooded my eyes so quickly I didn’t even make it past the first couple of lines before I had to turn it off so that I could see the road to drive. It was about the exact same thing that Daigle’s song is about, and the trusting sentiment it expressed was identical. I can still feel what it felt like to internalize that message.

What I know from past experience is that the evangelical Christian message of human ineptitude is meant to drive you to Jesus, asking for his help. In exchange for your admission of spiritual and moral impotence, you are then promised that his strength will become your strength in some existential fashion. But even then, it remains crucial to the formula that you take pains to distance yourself from that accomplishment, giving all credit to him instead of to yourself.

It’s like Dumbo’s magic feather which he was given to make him believe he could fly. The feather itself wasn’t actually magic. Dumbo himself was the source of the power, but something had to make him believe he could do it, so they gave him a feather and told him the feather was what made him fly. Hey, whatever works, right?

Except it was a lie.

It was a little white lie, of course, and Mama says they don’t hurt anybody, so what’s the harm, right?

Well, in the story of Dumbo (soon to be released in live action by Disney this Spring), there came a point at which Dumbo needed to realize that he himself was the source of his own abilities, not some feather plucked from a bird. The little white lie served a purpose for a while, but eventually it became necessary for Dumbo to learn the truth: that the feather was just a placebo.

Read:Faith and the Power of a Magic Feather

That’s what Jesus is for Christians like Lauren Daigle. He’s a magic feather that enables you to get up in the morning and tackle the day’s activities with the belief that you can handle whatever life throws your way. Only Jesus isn’t really the one who does, well…anything. You yourself have to do it all. But you need something to enable you to get over your insecurities, so here’s your solution. Jesus can be “your strength.” Really, it’s just you…but whatever works, right?

I suppose I have mixed feelings about this. I’m truly torn about how to look at it. Should I just let people enjoy whatever helps them sleep at night? Or should I call out this toxic mentality that predicates all successes on the premise that you yourself are an abject failure?

My gut tells me that like in Dumbo’s story there will come a time when you will have to realize that you yourself are the only source of whatever you need in order to succeed in life, and that you will never really get where you want to be until you finally grasp that. And if that is the case, it behooves me to tell you that no matter how beautiful the chords and vocal inflections of this talented young recording artist, the message she inherited has a fatal flaw in it.

Religions like Christianity need you to think less of yourself. If you don’t, you’ll never buy what they’re selling.

I cannot make myself okay with that. I’ve tried, I promise. It just goes against my most basic instincts. And if I’ve learned anything in the last 40+ years, it’s that you should trust your instincts more.

[Image Source: Centricity Music]

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January 15, 2019

Statue of LibertyWhat if I told you the book of Revelation really does have something to say to our current political situation?

In post-Christian discussion groups online, people often ask what we are to make of this confusing book now that we’ve left our faith, and it turns out at the moment that it might be the most relevant book in the whole Bible.

What’s Revelation About?

So much has been said about this book over the centuries, and most of it is fanciful nonsense. But the book isn’t actually as mysterious as people make it out to be. It’s just that people have been using it as a tool for their own purposes for so long that people don’t know what to think about it anymore.

The “book” of Revelation is really just a circular letter written to seven churches in Asia Minor sometime toward the end of the First Century C.E. How do I know that? Because it says so in the fourth sentence of the letter. It even lists the seven churches in the next two chapters.

The point of the book isn’t really a mystery, either. The language and imagery may be fantastically colorful, but it’s merely following an ancient literary genre we call apocalyptic literature. In ancient Mediterranean cultures, apocalyptic writing was used as a way to speak in code about present geopolitical realities they couldn’t openly talk about without encountering retribution from “the powers that be.” And in the life and times of these seven churches in Asia Minor (roughly modern day Turkey), that power belonged to the all-powerful Roman Empire.

Simply put, the book of Revelation was a circular letter written to seven specific historical churches to remind them that their first loyalty lies with their God rather than with Caesar, and that in the spiritual battle going on between the two, they should trust that God will ultimately win.

That’s it. It’s that simple. The whole letter is a call for the Church to stand up to increasing pressure to participate in the imperial cult of Rome. Now you understand the book of Revelation, whether you know what each exotic image and symbol in the book stands for or not. I’ll explain why that’s relevant today in just a moment (if you haven’t already guessed).

What’s the Mark of the Beast?

We already know what many of the symbols in the book are intended to signify. For example, it’s no mystery that the “Great Harlot” at the center of the epic battle in the author’s vision is the city of Rome itself. We know this because he says it’s a city on seven hills, and that happened to be the very empire demanding the kind of worship that the Church was supposed to reserve for Jesus himself and not for Caesar.

We even know what the mark of the beast represents. And no, it’s not a futuristic vision of microchips being implanted under our skin, nor is it the internet itself (the 6th letter of the Hebrew alphabet looks like a “W”), nor is it smart phones like a Russian Orthodox Patriarch said last week. Most historians of antiquity agree that it was a coded way of naming the Emperor of Rome without actually saying his name.

Back in those days it was customary to use the numerical value of a person’s name as a shorthand way to reference them. Excavators at the site of ancient Pompeii discovered numerous gematria preserved on the walls like the graffiti they found declaring young love for “the woman whose number is 545.” Now guess what the number of Caesar Nero‘s name added up to once you transliterated it from Greek in to Hebrew? That’s right…666. Figured a slightly different way, it adds up to 616, which as it turns out appears in early variants of the text of Revelation found in a library in Egypt.

Meanwhile evangelical preachers rifle through daily news headlines looking for the next Eastern European politician or whatever to fulfill this prophecy or that one from a letter written to people who died twenty centuries ago. Back when I was a kid the Bogeyman was supposed to come from Russia, but here lately evangelicals seem to trust Russian leaders more than they do American ones.

Related:Deconstructing the End of the World

Oh, and as for the “mark” being on their foreheads or on the back of their hands…if you’ve read much of the Old Testament, you know that it tells them to take the commandments of God and “bind” them onto those same two places as a symbol of their faithfulness. Rabbinic Judaism maintains this tradition even to this day, as you may have seen those little black boxes strapped onto the heads of Orthodox Jews preparing to worship.

All this imagery in the book of Revelation is indicating that the people in question have exchanged their loyalty to God for loyalty to a man. Once there was a time when I would have found that unlikely for the very devout, but recent developments have changed my mind about this.

What Does It Matter Today?

So what does any of this have to do with us today?

American Christians today could use a heavy infusion of the “screw the Emperor” message we find in the book of Revelation. Their leaders have allowed politics and religion to blend for so many years that they seem to have decided that rendering unto Caesar is rendering unto God.

Just last week, a reporter with The Washington Post asked Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. if there is anything that his choice for president, Donald Trump, could do to lose his support, and he answered quite abruptly “No.” End of answer. When later asked why he doesn’t demand a higher moral standard in his choice for Commander-in-Chief, Falwell suggested that it may be immoral not to support him.

Evangelical leaders like Falwell, Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson have all not only offered their undying support for the thrice-married owner of casinos with strip clubs, but they have tirelessly stumped for him at every turn using their influential platforms to rally the support of millions for any and every move the president makes.

As perplexing as this turn of events may be to many, the complete identification of evangelical Christianity with the Republican Party is a marriage of convenience that has been a generation in the making. At this point in the life of American Christianity, politics and religion have become so thoroughly blended that the attributes of each have rubbed off on the other so that you can hardly tell them apart.

For example, when I was a kid evangelical churches didn’t equate either fiscal conservatism or opposition to immigration and same-sex relationships with the core message of the gospel itself. And when Roe v. Wade was originally handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, W.A. Criswell (ironically Robert Jeffress’s predecessor at First Baptist, Dallas), fully supported it.

Read:What Does the Bible Say About Abortion?

Over the course of the last 40 years, however, a sprawling, massively expensive campaign forging a common political platform merging the interests of the Republican Party with those of evangelical Christianity has so equated the two that their fates have become completely indistinguishable.

An Emperor by Any Other Name…

The message and symbols of the book of Revelation self-consciously mimic those of the Old Testament prophets, who were always calling the people of Israel back to faith in God rather than in kings who promised them military might for the low, low price of the forfeiture of their souls.

They were never really okay with a ruler they couldn’t see, so they asked instead for a human king who would make them feel like legitimate players on the world stage, and according to the prophets this displeased God a great deal. When God’s judgment finally came on the nation of Israel in the Old Testament (usually in the form of another nation taking them over), the prophets laid the blame at the feet of Israel for forgetting they weren’t supposed to put their trust in human leaders.

The book of Revelation likewise picks up this theme and reminds God’s people not to trust in an empire, no matter how big or how strong. The consequence for doing so, ultimately, is destruction. Why? Because kings will ultimately do what is best for themselves and their own children and because, according to the prophets, God is a jealous God who doesn’t like sharing his position with others. Any country who chooses a king over him just gets wiped out, according to the Bible.

Now guess what biblical image evangelical Christians today have taken to using in justifying their support for Donald Trump? That of a king. Specifically, they have taken to comparing him to King Cyrus, who shared none of Israel’s values but who made decisions that Israel liked anyway.

It seems lost on evangelicals that kings aren’t chosen as freely as presidents are, nor do they seem to care how antithetical to democracy it is to have someone run a country the way you would a kingdom (or even a business). But then again, the Christian faith isn’t really the source of democracy as much as American pastors today like to pretend it is. Early Christians like Paul didn’t discuss what being a follower of Jesus would look like in a country in which people got to choose their own leaders. That makes the whole Cyrus comparison that much more incoherent and indefensible for Christians in America.

A Coming Judgment?

Now, I no longer believe the Bible is a magic book that can predict the future, particularly when it comes to portions within it which were never intended to be interpreted futuristically in the first place. But if I did, I would have to do an awful lot of soul-searching about the book of Revelation since it appears to contain one of the most relevant words today for those who claim to have no king but God.

If as a Christian I heard my leaders proclaiming their unconditional support for someone who bullies others, calls his political opponents derogatory nicknames, brags about sexual assault, and consistently says one thing but does another, I would have no other choice but to decide my leaders have lost their way. In many ways, in fact, that’s exactly what I did almost a decade ago. I would have been tempted to conclude that the great deception spoken of by both Jesus and Paul had already come to pass and that I had no choice but to defect from evangelical Christianity once and for all.

Whether the mess that lies ahead of us is divine judgment or just the consequences of an incredibly foolish decision by hordes of followers unable or unwilling to think for themselves, the unravelling is virtually assured. I’m not looking forward to it, but until then I would love to see at least a few of them realize what they didn’t see before it all happens.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

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If you’re new to Godless In Dixie, be sure to check out The Beginner’s Guide for 200+ links categorized topically on a single page.

And if you like what you read on Godless in Dixie, please consider sponsoring me on Patreon, or else you can give to help me keep doing what I’m doing. Every bit helps, and is greatly appreciated.

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