I am having one of those days in which I would rather chat than write about any subject in details.
The item which has my attention now is a clip on Bill Moyers’ Journal “Keeping the Faith” about the graduates at Regent University. This is Pat Robertson’s university, whose objective is to create a cadre of lawyers who are particularly devoted to Christianity.
Cherry Picking and the Sources of Morality
I have written recently on the “cherry picking” that religious people do with respect to biblical moral principles. I find it difficult to think that we could ever revert back to a form of barbarity that would come from true biblical fundamentalism. That is to say, I see very little real-world possibility that we will become a country that executes those who work on the Sabbath or children who talk back to their parents.
These people do not, strictly speaking, get their morality from biblical sources. They get their morality from something else, using religion as a cover when it is useful to do so, and otherwise simply ignoring or rewriting scripture that they do not like.
One question to ask is, "What is this 'something else'?" Where do these people actually get their morality?
Bluntly, the “something else” is the political whim of the leaders of a group. The leaders decide what they like and dislike, and the group blindly follows. All the leaders need to do is find a boogey man and point.
Now, I am not talking about a conspiracy, headed by people who are fully aware that the claims they make are nonsense and whose only goal is personal power. The mind is more subtle than that. The leaders, too, think they are doing good. However, they do not get their ideas of goodness from scripture (which we know for the reasons given above). They get their measure of good and evil from their own 'hearts'. This means that they get their sense of good and evil from their own likes and dislikes.
They think that their ‘hearts’ tell them the word of God. What their ‘hearts’ really tell them is what they have learned (through their culture) to like and dislike. They dislike homosexuality, so they brand it as evil, and use scripture for cover when it is available. They do not dislike people working on the day of the Sabbath, and they particularly do not dislike the business of banking or the charging of interest, so they ignore scripture in these cases. The differences here is not a difference between what scripture says and does not say. The difference is what the preacher likes and does not like.
Another part of the dynamic, for getting the sheep to huddle together into a single mass, is to identify some threat - some group of them that are the source of all of our problems. In this case, them are homosexuals, feminists, atheists, and liberals.
At this point, I think that it is important to note that atheists are capable of the same type of thinking. There is no law of nature that prevents atheists from getting involved in the same type of social dynamics, where a small numbers decide what is good and bad by listening to their own hearts (only, they may call this an evolved sense of right and wrong), and uniting their followers behind them by pointing out some group of them as the enemy. When this sort of dynamic takes over, no atrocity will seem undeserved or unjustified against them who are the source of all of our problems.
And, yes, this does concern me from time to time. Atheists are human. (Or, at least, all of them that I know are.) As such, the psychological facts that make these the dynamics I warned about above possible are facts about humans. A serious study of the forces that lead to these types of attrocities should show that a belief in God is only one way that they can manifest themselves. Those who put too much attention on the idea that religion is the root of this evil, rather than a convenient scape goat for some manifestations of it, may not recognize in themselves their own potential for the same type of attrocities. To avoid these attrocities, harms, it is important to recognize and respond to the psycho-social facts that make these types of acts possible in any group.
Anyway, that concern is for a future time. Today, my concern is with the fact that we have this flock of graduates heading out in the world dedicated to doing things that they (wrongfully) think as good, who will in fact be living their lives delivering endles harm to others. They will do so in the name of God and for the greater glory of their not-quite mortal leaders.
How do we deal with these threats? How do we protect people from the harms that these people will inflict?
I see a lot of electrons being spilled on the questions of how to organize atheists or whether atheists should form alliances with others.
Which reminds me . . .
Richard Dawkins: The Roosevelt and Churchill Analogy
I read (or, rather, heard, since I do much of my reading over the head phones as I exercise) Dawkins discussing arguments about whether to form alliances with other groups. Dawkins addressed the argument that Roosevelt and Churchill, during World War II, saw fit to ally with Stalin to defeat Hitler. It was a wise move.
Dawkins’ response was to say that the situation he is concerned with is different. His enemy is religion itself. It makes no sense to form an alliance with those who say that science is compatible with religion if what one wants to do away with is religion.
Yet, Dawkins ignored (or did not allow himself to see) the obvious counter-reply. Roosevelt and Churchill could have said, “Our enemy is against tyranny itself. Therefore, it is more important to us that we sever our alliances with China and Russia and drive them into the hands of the enemy, so that we end up fighting them, too.”
Yes, it would have been a good plan . . . to refuse to give any help whatsoever to Russia and China, because they, too, were ‘the enemy’. It would have been a perfect plan, assuming that Roosevelt and Churchill wanted to loose the war and to help Hitler and the Japanese Empire take control of the bulk of the world. Assuming that it was important to actually stop Hitler and Imperial Japan, allying with China and Russia was not an entirely a foolish idea.
I have argued in the past that I see no particularly great value in organizing atheists, because atheism does not entail any particular moral view. A more important goal is to tackle the actual issues facing the country and the world today. In doing so, I would argue that it is important (vital and necessary) to point out where religious thinking is the cause of great harms. Yet, the goal remains, not to end religious thinking, but to end great harms.
If an atheist were to join a gay rights group, and speak forcefully about the stupidity of drawing anti-homosexual bigotry out of the Bible, one would probably find a lot of people receptive to that message. If one were to join an environmental group, and ridicule and attack the argument that the impending rapture means that we can ignore environmental concerns and go ahead and destroy our planet one would likely find people willing to listen.
Go to the environmentalist organizations, join them, and form and strengthen a subgroup there whose main argument is how this same millennial thinking is putting every species on the planet (including humans) at risk of great harm.
Join a group that is fighting Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s, or diabetes, and let them know how religious thinking is killing the people they love.
Join an anti-war group and complain about how the backwards thinking of the Bush Administration – its religious disposition to take certain facts as given and accept or reject evidence based solely on whether it supports a pre-drawn conclusion – has gotten so many Americans killed or wounded and cost us hundreds of billions of dollars.
In all of these cases, one would be fighting religion where religion is doing some significant real-world harms, and talking to people who have a real stake, in terms of life, health, and quality of life, in listening to the message.
Atheism does not entail any particular position on any of these issues. I draw my moral conclusions, not from atheism but from desire utilitarianism. However, atheists in all camps have a unique position for fighting arguments that effecitively boil down to, “The harm that comes from our policies is harm that we inflict in the name of God, so it is justified.”
It is, I think, quite important to try to say something that will let people like those graduating from Regent University see the magnitude of the gap between the type of person they want to be, and the type of person they have been trained to become. They could be somebody who does good in the (real) world. Instead, they are being trained to be people who will live their lives delivering harms to others, blind to the harms that they do. I think it is important to speak, not strictly (or even mainly) to the existence of God, but to the existence of great harm.