Sunday, March 30, 2008

Atheism and Morality

For people who are raised with religion, it's hard to imagine morality without a god.

As a child I was told that God had a giant book with the names of every human being on Earth, and that he put a check next to your name every time you did something bad. Of course, since God is everywhere, even in your mind, you could get a check next to your name just for thinking something bad. When you die, I was told, God adds up all your check marks from your entire life and decides whether you go to Heaven or Hell.

This wasn't something I learned officially in Church, but for some reason, this was the version of God's judgment that made the most profound impact on me, probably because I'm a very visual person. Every time I even thought about doing something bad, I had a vision of God opening up that massive book and turning to the page with my name. This vision did a good job of keeping me from many little childhood sins like lying, stealing candy and what not (that's not to say that it worked perfectly).

But that's not morality. Refraining from doing bad things because you think someone can see what you're doing isn't the same as refraining from doing bad things because you're a good person.

As for bigger sins, like hurting others, I never had a desire to hurt anyone. When I hurt someone accidentally, I felt genuinely sorry for the hurt I caused that person. Fear of a god had nothing to do with it. So when people say things like, "Well, if you don't believe in God, then you can just rape and murder because there are no consequences," they are saying that their fear of a god is the only thing that keeps them from raping and murdering, and while that statement may be true for them, I don't think it applies to the majority of people.

The fact is that morality is hard-wired. On the broader points like rape, murder, or theft, we all know right from wrong. On the finer points like marriage or prostitution, opinions vary from person to person and culture to culture. How far an individual deviates from their own or their culture's accepted standards of behavior has nothing to do with any supernatural beings in the sky. Individuals, and sometimes entire communities, will either find a way to justify doing something they know is wrong, or they will feel guilty for doing it, but do it anyway. For people who are mentally ill, people whose hardwiring has short-circuited, no supernatural being can convince them to behave morally, even with the threat of eternal damnation. The BTK killer, for instance, was a pillar of Christ Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, as well as one of the most horrific serial killers in American history.

If gods and religion have no impact on a person's morality, and atheists are just as moral or immoral as anyone else, then how can I say that Atheism is superior to a supernatural belief system?

The aspect of Atheism that is superior to religion is that it is rooted in logic and reason.


Children raised with religion are told not to do bad things because their parents say so; because the preacher says so; because God says so! Faith in authority figures is valued over rational thought. As a result, many children are not given the opportunity to develop their rational mind. They are trained to be motivated primarily by their fear of the wrath of authority figures.

My children are told why something is right or wrong. They shouldn't steal because they're hurting the person from which they steal. They shouldn't lie to their parents because their parents have more experience with the world and wish to guide them through the rough spots; every punishment is done with love and for their benefit, so they must be honest about what they've done and accept the consequences because they will be stronger for the experience. They mustn't lie because lying is weakness. They mustn't lie because there will come a time in their life when all they have is their word, and if they don't have their word, they will have nothing at all.

It is profoundly more difficult to explain the logic behind the values you are trying to instill in your children than to say, "Because God says so," but instilling rational thought as well as morality in a child is immensely more beneficial to them.

In the end, my kids will probably lie or steal as much as the children of the Christians next door, but what my children will not do is believe what they are told without rational explanations. They will not be led into a war on flimsy justifications. They will not follow authority figures simply because they are afraid to question them. They will not be capable of blind faith. They will not shut-up and get in line.


They will be strong-willed and capable of leading others, not as shepherds of mindless sheep, but as leaders of intelligent human beings.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

(Guest Post?) Fighting Words: How to Humiliate -- and Convert -- a Right-Winger

[I don't remember whether this was a guest post, or an email someone sent me...]

By John Dolan, AlterNet

I'd like to suggest a very simple strategy for American liberals: Get mean. Stop policing the language and start using it to hurt our enemies. American liberals are so busy purging their speech of any words that might offend anyone that they have no notion of using language to cause some salutary pain.
Why, for example, not popularize slogans that mock the Bush loyalists as "suckers"? Something like, "There are two kinds of Republicans: millionaires and suckers." Put that on a few bumper stickers and I guarantee a lot of "South Park Republicans" will quit the GOP. They just smirk when you tsk-tsk at them for being disrespectful. They want to be disrespectful; every normal young male wants to be.
And this, of course, brings up a big issue: At some point liberal writers are going to have to decide if it's OK to be young and male at all. For better or for worse, millions of American men hold on to playground ethics long after they leave elementary school. For most of them, the 2004 election came down to a classic playground scene: Would John Kerry defend himself when attacked by bullies? Liberals, still stunned by the way a legitimate combat vet like Kerry was beaten by a combat-dodging spoiled brat like Bush, never understood that for millions of voters, the question wasn't how well Kerry fought in Vietnam but whether he would fight in 2004.
Would he defend himself when called out by the gang of disgusting bullies Bush had gathered around himself? It would have been so simple, so glorious, if he'd just turned on his accusers and reacted like a human being: "You're questioning my record on behalf of a skunk like Bush who spent the war with the Alabama National Guard, and then went AWOL from the Guard?"
Millions of American voters were waiting, hoping Kerry would react like any sane person would have. He never did. I don't know why not; I assume he was in the hands of some Clinton gurus who babbled about "rising above the fray." Well, that sure worked well.
And please, don't tell me you're above such gross playground considerations. The American people are the beneficiaries of centuries of serious Leftist violence, starting with the American Revolution and climaxing in the Civil War. Without brave Leftist warriors slaughtering British and Confederate soldiers in large numbers, the whole tradition of American liberalism would not exist.
And we are the sufferers from the most disastrous wimp-out in recent American history: Carter's debacle in response to the taking of American hostages in Iran in 1979. That refusal to use punitive force to free his country's diplomats may have made pacifists feel nice, but it was an expensive treat; it got Reagan elected, showed a host of evil right-wing PR staffers that all they had to do was talk tough to win, and convinced a huge number of disgusted American male voters that the liberals would not fight back.
Kerry could have turned that around in 2004; it was almost as if a Hollywood scriptwriter had arranged the perfect confrontation, in which the liberal champion could flatten his orc-like tormentors and show the voters that one can be a progressive without being a wimp. Instead, he confirmed a prevalent myth that liberals are "soft" on terrorism and the military -- in other words, like illustrator Gary Larson's Wimpodites: "Though skilled with their pillow arsenal, the Wimpodites were frequent targets of Viking attacks."
And so far, the liberal response, the liberal attempt to reach out to the guys in the big trucks is embarrassing "populist" essays using bad imitations of American slang. Let's be blunt here: "populism" is condescension. If you want male voters' respect, stop patronizing them. (It just creeps them out.) Far better to insult them -- to their face, in their face, telling them bluntly that the talk radio nonsense they parrot is pure crap. They know that themselves. Half of what they say is designed simply to reassure themselves and their friends that they're not the same sort of wimps their social studies teachers tried to make them into. So they're not afraid of being called cruel or insensitive; they're afraid of being suckers.
The minute we start calling them on their suckerdom, they'll change sides -- and we'll finally have some decent troops on our side. But as long as liberals speak in the language of Beavis and Butthead's Mister van Driessen, they'll despise you, even when they know you're right (which they do). We may not be the most systematically intellectual tribe on earth, but Americans are very verbally sensitive. They will not heed Mister van Driessen, even if he's telling them to evacuate a burning classroom. They'd sooner die. You may find this irrational, but when I think back to the progressive mindset I became familiar with UC Berkeley, I understand this reaction very well. I don't condone it, but damn! I sure do understand it.
Liberals aren't generally perceived as fighting the robber barons -- they appear as a secular clergy far more obsessed with cleaning up our gloriously obscene language than fighting back.
Note that I've used the word "fighting." Americans are a violent people -- and I mean that as a compliment. We are a magnificently violent people who value courage above all else. In this, the ordinary American is in total agreement with George Patton, John Paul Jones and John Brown. They were all violent leaders, who sent a lot of Redcoats, Nazis and secessionist slaveholders to an early grave. I consider that glorious; so do most Americans.
John Paul Jones said, "I intend to go in harm's way" and coined a boast that generations of Americans, and even Bugs Bunny himself, repeated with pride: "I have not yet begun to fight." John Brown killed and died to provoke a final conflict over slavery. When American liberals can appreciate, encourage and manipulate the violence of such people, maybe you can talk to your fellow Americans again.
A good first step would be accepting the fact that language is a weapon -- and using it effectively. Most liberals affect scorn for mere words, in the way that I affected scorn for mathematics after flunking algebra twice in high schools. And most of the hardcore academic progressives I've known have tin ears. Their sheer awfulness is adaptive within the academic ghetto, in the way that a lack of any olfactory ability is adaptive for carrion eaters; but it's disastrous when they try to talk to people outside their guild.
It's not really that hard, after all. Just stop trying to be "populists," because frankly you sound like North Korean infiltrators trying to pose as surfer dudes. Try smacking your South Park countrymen in their deluded heads with some bumper stickers of our own, just as down and dirty as theirs. Wanna get them out of their gas-guzzling Dodge extended-cab semis? Stop whining at them and try putting these four little words on the back bumper of your hybrid: "Big truck, small dick." Yeah, you might get yelled at at a stoplight; you might even get hit. You might even consider hitting back.
Liberals have always been good fighters, once they get going.
John Dolan is an editor of the Moscow-based English-language alternative paper, "The eXile." He is the author of, most recently, "Pleasant Hell" (Capricorn, 2005).

Friday, March 14, 2008

My Christian Duty

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. I immediately ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!”

“Why shouldn’t I?” he said.

I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”

“Like what?”

“Well … are you religious or atheist?”

“Religious.”

“Me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?”

“Christian.”

“Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”

“Protestant.”

“Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”

“Baptist.”

“Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”

“Baptist Church of God.”

“Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”

“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”

“Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?”

“Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!”

To which I said, “Then die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off.

[This is not mine. It was copied from somewhere on the web and emailed to me.]

Monday, March 10, 2008

Sunday, March 9, 2008