Sunday, September 30, 2007

Bill O'Reilly's Take on the Pledge

A member of the studio audience has brought my attention to a posting that tells of some statements that Bill O'Reilly made concerning the Pledge protest held at a local high school.

At Boulder High School, a number of students walked out during the pledge ceremony on Thursday (and plan to do so every Thursday) to protest the use of school time to impose a religious ceremony on the students in violation of the Constitutional prohibitions on establishing religion.

One of my most popular posts has been A Perspective on the Pledge which argues in favor of students protesting the message contained within the Pledge.

As I argued in The Moral Case against 'under God', the claim that 'under God' is not meant to establish religion and denigrate atheists is as absurd as saying that 'indivisible' was not added to the pledge to promote Union over rebellion, or that 'with liberty and justice for all' merely says is consistent with claiming 'there is nothing wrong with tyranny and injustice'.

It is a laughable absurdity whereby standing in front of a court and making the claim that 'under God' is neutral with respect to religion is as absurd as standing before a court and saying '2 + 2 = 5'. When thinking people hear individuals giving this argument in court, and see the judges nodding in agreement, it makes one gape in wonder at what humans can will themselves to believe when they want to.

The special case of Bill O'Reilly's comments is that he substantially seems to have accepted these arguments, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "That is what is so good about the Pledge?"

[The words 'under God'] were inserted in the 1950s to separate the United States, as you rightly pointed out, founded under the banner of God - God gives us our inalienable rights - from the Communist hoards in Russia and China. The United States Congress said [that] we want to have a pledge that separates our Judeo Christian tradition from our enemies, who are totalitarian atheists. Now, do you think anybody from Boulder understands that?

Well, yes, it is very easy to understand.

In a fit of religious zealotry, the United States congress passed legislation to denigrate a group of peaceful Americans by linking their belief (that the proposition 'no god exists') to totalitarianism - a link that is just as unjust and absurd as claiming that all religious people (including, for example, the Amish) are responsible for 9/11.

And O'Reilly does not think that it is at all right to protest an official government denigration of people (such as myself) who happen to have this belief, quite independent of the fact that many atheists such as myself argue quite well against totalitarianism. We still (according to O'Reilly) must be deceptively and unjustly branded as pro-totalitarian.

This is in addition to the lie that American was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. It is sad to imagine how much greater the world have been if, instead of bringing the 10 Commandments (whichever of the three biblical versions one accepts) off of the mountain, Moses would have brought a tablet that said things like:

(1) Thou shalt not permit any law to be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

(5) Thou shalt not hold a person to answer for a capital or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury . . . nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

(8) Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

However, the 10 Commandments were invented by people who were as substantially ignorant about the facts of morality as they were about science - getting only a small percentage of their moral beliefs correct. It took the enlightenment, with its dedication to reason over scripture, to finally make some moral progress, and to bring forth the principles under which this country was founded.

Those principles can only be found in scripture under such pained and tortured interpretations that almost all Christians today simply ignore the immorality contained within the Bible, rather than try to make sense of it.

That itself is substantial evidence that Scripture came, not from a perfectly moral God, but from primitive, ignorant, humans.

[Note: In Doug Giles: Atheist Theft of Christian Morality, I explain where how the principles in the founding of this doctrine relate to the Judeo-Christian tradition which, actually, was the tradition of the Divine Right of Kings.]

Finally, there is the absurdity in O'Reilly's arguments that effectively says, "Our rights come from God; therefore, only those who believe in God have rights."

It has been a sad tradition in many religions to hold that members of their religion have an inherent 'God given' right to rule others, while those who do not belong to that religion lie outside of the realm of morality, and one may do whatever one pleases to them. Indeed, most scriptures speak about morality only when applied to another member of their religion, while biblical stories tell of untold horrors inflicted on any who lie outside of that religion.

This is simply a version of the argument that Christians used for 1300 years to defend "the Divine Right of Kings" - the doctrine that the Declaration of Independence argued against. This was the idea that the King obtained his right to rule from God, and any who challenged the King challenged God.

O'Reilly, and his guest radio talk show host Dan Caplis, seem to be argument that God gave special rights to the Christian majority, and that if one is not in the majority, one cannot be treated unjustly.

It is a doctrine immediately countered by recognizing the fact that the enslavement or murder of minorities would not be morally permissible regardless of the size of the majority defending it.

Nor is it morally permissible to take government money (that everybody must contribute to by force of law) and use it to promote one set of religious beliefs among others. A civic form should be a place where all peaceful individuals can come as equals to discuss how to live together in peace, not a place that Christians claim as their own where non-Christians must come to beg for indulgences.

If God gave every human rights, then it is possible (however much O'Reilly may want to deny it) for Christians to treat others unjustly, and those others have a right to protest this injustice. The Pledge of Allegiance as written unjustly denigrates a whole group of peaceful Americans by associating them with rebels, tyrants, and criminals. This is, in fact, an instance of the moral crime of 'bearing false witness'. And if this crime is indeed declared so by God, then on what grounds do people like O'Reilly defend, in the name of God, make an instance of 'bearing false witness' national policy unworthy of protest?

In closing, I want to ask the same question I asked a couple of days ago in the post, A Reason to Protest

We know full well that if any broadcaster were to go on air and state about any other group of peaceful citizens that the official policy of this country is one of denigration with the intent of eliminating them not only their own personal enemy, but America's enemy, as sanctioned by Congress, then the members of that group would scream bloody murder.

And, yet, I suspect that the atheist community - including those so-called 'militant' atheists, will remain substantially passive.

Will O’Reilly face the level of protest befitting his remarks?

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Individual vs. Group Responsibility

Yesterday, I mentioned that I have formed two impressions from watching the CNN broadcast, God’s Warriors. Yesterday, I addressed the issue of how religion fuels a desire in some people to behave in ways harmful to others – and that it is probably as important to address the desire to serve God as it is to address the belief that a God exists.

Today, I wish to address a second impression – the degree to which ‘God’s warriors’ like to speak in terms of group responsibility rather than individual responsibility. When addressing some crime or transgression, often they do not seek out the individuals who are responsible, but they lay the blame on a whole group and use this to justify doing harm to any and all members of the group.

For example, a member of Group X commits some crime – say, a group of blacks rape a white woman, a Irish Catholic blows up an Irish Protestant building, a Sunni Muslim blows up a Shiite mosque, a Palestinian sets off a suicide bomb inside an Israeli bus, some Native Americans rise up and kill some White settlers, Noah finds Ham drunk and naked and condemns all of his descendents to slavery, God finds Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and responds by declaring that all humans deserve punishment for this original sin.

The basic idea is that some individual has committed some moral transgression (or something alleged to have been a moral transgression). This means that some sort of punishment (retribution) is in order. However, for some reason people get it into their head that if Person A commits the crime, and Person B is related to Person A by race, by gender, by family membership, by church affiliation, or some other way, that justice can be served by doing harm to Person B.

So, Person B is then harmed as ‘punishment’ for Person A’s actions. Unfortunately, Person B himself, or Person B’s family and friends take the harm done to Person B as somehow unjust. Since an injustice has been done against Person B, some sort of retribution is in order. So, The Friends of Person B find Person C (who is in some way related to those who did harm to Person B) and they ‘obtain justice’ by doing harm to Person C.

Unfortunately, Person C has friends and family who consider this harm to be unjust . . .

In fact, everywhere where we see conflict ruining the lives of individuals, we hear speakers talking in terms of group responsibility, rather than individual responsibility. Everywhere we see peace, we see societies who, among other things, have a strong cultural dedication to ‘finding the person who was responsible for this.’ Anybody who was not responsible for the crime can rest assured that his or her life is secure. The fact that he or she shares some quality of race, gender, religion, family relationship, or some similar quality as the accused (other than the quality of being guilty), will not be used to condemn him or her.

Of course, this is a matter of degree. I am not talking here about societies that are completely given over to the doctrine of group responsibility, versus societies that are completely given over to the doctrine of individual responsibility. We will still hear people making ‘group responsibility’ claims in an ‘individual responsibility’ culture – and weak and feeble calls for peace from people making ‘individual responsibility’ claims in a ‘group responsibility’ culture. However, to the degree that we see a society descend into barbarism, I suggest that to this degree we see a society adopting a ‘group responsibility’ as their doctrine of ‘justice’.

Even within an individual, we can find cases where that individual is speaking the language of a ‘group responsibility’ adherent, versus speaking as an advocate of ‘individual responsibility’. Somebody who uses the doctrine of ‘individual responsibility’ will give specific names when speaking about transgressions, or speak in terms of those who actually commit transgressions (rapists, thieves, murderers, liars, sophists, bigots, people who shout into their cell phones while riding a public bus as if everybody else wants to be a part of her conversation). People who embrace the doctrine of ‘group responsibility’ use generic terms that are not conceptually linked to any transgression (atheist, liberal, conservative, sunni, black, white, gay, Muslim, Christian, secular, religious).

The series God’s Warriors presented interviews with Jews who became terrorists – one of which attempted to kill a number of Palestinian children at a girl’s school. Their plot failed, though they had gone as far as to plant the bomb near the school and to drive off. The moral doctrine behind this behavior was that it is permissible to seek ‘justice’ by doing harm (killing, maiming) people who had nothing at all to do with the transgressions against them.

We also see Israel adopting policies that do harm to all Palestinians equally. It does not seem to matter to them whether the Palestinian being harmed by their policies has anything to do with any transgressions within Israel. As long as one is a Palestinian, one may be legitimately harmed on this doctrine of ‘group responsibility’.

I am not going to even try to pretend that this is a ‘religious’ problem and that those who do not believe in God will not be tempted to adopt the doctrine of ‘group responsibility’. In fact, many of my previous posts have been very tightly focused on cases where I have discovered atheists speaking in terms of ‘group responsibility’ – condemning any and all people who believe in God as if they are all guilty (and can thus be punished) for the moral transgressions of the more fundamentalist theists.

I have had to remind atheist readers on a number of occasions that, “The proposition ‘at least one god exists’ is (almost certainly) true’, by itself has exactly the same moral implications as, “The proposition ‘at least one God exists’ is (almost certainly) false’. That is to say, none at all. In both cases, one needs to add a number of additional propositions – propositions about the nature of this god or these gods and their relationship to goodness in the first sense, propositions about the real-world facts about reasons for action in the second sense – before one can draw conclusions about morality.

Yet, at the same time, religion – particularly fundamentalist religion – seems to do a particularly poor job of teaching its follows to adopt a doctrine of ‘individual responsibility’ over ‘group responsibility’.

In recent years, we have heard a number of critics of the ‘new atheism’ refer to the writers in this genre as ‘atheist fundamentalists’. If we take the term ‘fundamentalist’ as ‘somebody who believes that some doctrine is beyond question and all who do not live their lives by strict interpretation of its doctrines are evil,’ then we can expect ‘atheist fundamentalists’ to be as common in the real world as ‘round squares’.

However, if we take the idea that ‘fundamentalism’ is somehow liked to ‘those who adopt an attitude of group responsibility – group credit for any who belong to their group, and group condemnation for all who do not belong,’ then this type of ‘atheist fundamentalist’ is certainly possible. This will be somebody who begins with a strong presumption that an agent is good merely because he is atheist and his action is just based solely on the fact that it targets theists. This can be held in contrast to somebody who begins with a strong presumption that an agent who mentions ‘Jesus’ favorably while speaking is a good person and that any policy that targets non-Christians is automatically just.

So, I worry that if the ‘new Atheism’ does not adopt a firm commitment to ‘individual responsibility’ over ‘group responsibility’ – of blaming and praising people by name or in terms conceptually linked to some wrongdoing – that, in the long run, they may not be any better than the people they condemn.

This is, in fact, one of my greatest worries about this ‘new Atheism’.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Passion of Religion

My schedule has not allowed me time to watch CNN’s special, God’s Warriors until recently. In watching it, there are two things that I have noticed.

Before I describe those two things, I want to give a caveat. All of us are prone to filter whatever we see through a lens of existing beliefs. Our habit is to see things that confirm our beliefs and mark them as significant, and to see things that conflict with our beliefs and mark them as aberrations or exceptions. My filter has been through the lens of desire utilitarianism, and this may well have distorted what I saw.

The two things that I noticed in this presentation are (1) that between ‘a belief in God’, and ‘a desire to serve God’, the latter has the greater influence and is the greatest threat, and (2) God’s warriors tend to speak in terms of group responsibility rather than individual responsibility.

Today, I wish to deal with the first of these issues.

Belief vs. Desire

Many people who challenge religion spend a great deal of time speaking about belief in God. They speak about the absurdities of holding that the proposition, “God exists,” to be true given the total lack of evidence, the contradictions, the fact that so many people have faith in so many different views about God that almost all of them have to be wrong, and that they offer no criteria for determining which beliefs are mistaken and which are not.

All of these are, indeed, serious problems when it comes to belief in God.

However, this brings up an important question – why are so many people blind to these considerations?

In watching God’s Warriors my mind turned repeatedly to the passion of those who believe in God – who believe in different gods. People of different religions speak about their devotion to different Gods and different scriptures, stating, “Anybody who is not living their life according to this book is wasting their life – their life has no meaning, and no purpose.” Yet, they refer to different books.

This should invite people to consider the following: “Well, if they say that no life can have meaning without devotion to their book, and I say that no life can have meaning without devotion to my book, then one of us is wrong. One of us must be living under the mere illusion of a meaningful life.”

To the degree that people consider this question, they almost universally come to the conclusion, “Their life is a life that only has the illusion of meaning and purpose. My life obviously does have meaning and purpose.”

How can they reach that conclusion?

It is because they can feel the meaning and purpose in their own life. And it is because they feel the emptiness of living a life without those elements in it. These feelings are extremely strong – overpowering.

These feelings have a narcotic like property of overriding rational thought, making total absurdities appear reasonable. The idea of living in a universe that does not have the qualities that one desires in it is so painful, so depressing, so agonizing, that one must come to believe that those properties are present in order to avoid this pain, depression, and agony. Any argument . . . any argument at all (including the claim that one does not need arguments but can accept a conclusion based on faith alone) is accepted, because of the tremendous emotional pain that comes from not accepting it.

Good and Bad Passion

The next question to ask is, “Is this passion a bad thing?”

Well, it depends. Does it cause a person to suffer such a break with reality that they cannot function as well as they otherwise could in the real world? Does it cause people to refuse life-saving medical procedures? Does it cause them to stand in the way of medical and scientific advances that have the promise to save lives – thus causing them to sacrifice the lives and health of others to their own good feelings? Does it cause them to want to kill or otherwise harm anybody who threatens their distorted view of reality? Does it cause them to devote their lives to pursuing legislation and other social parties harmful to others because doing so is the only way of avoiding the pain and agony associated with realizing that the world is not put together the way one wants it to be put together?

To the degree that one is passionate about such things, then that passion is not such a good thing. In fact, it is evil. It is harmful and destructive not only to those who suffer from it, but it makes those people a threat to others, and that is not a good thing.

One point that I want to stress here is that passion feeds the beliefs. Any attempt to deal with the beliefs that does not deal with the passion is doomed to fail. Accepting your arguments, no matter how rational or how well supported, is simply too painful for such people. They will become persuaded by reason and argument only to the degree that their passions will allow them to do so.

This suggests that atheists will be well advised to spend a little less time discussing the arguments for or against the existence of God or contradictions in scripture or the evidence against the truth of some interpretation of some holy book, and more time dealing directly with the passions that block people’s acceptance to reason.

This means tackling the “meaning of life” and “no morality without God” issues.

The Issue of Meaning

On the meaning of life issue, I have argued that living a religious life is like being hooked up to an experience machine – or living a life in a Star Trek style holodeck, where one is fed images of a life that one does not actually have. The person hooked up to such a machine may be made to believe that she is living in Africa devoting her life to fighting disease and saving the people who live there. Only, the people she is saving are merely ‘toons’ in an elaborate computer simulation. They are not accomplishing anything real. They are merely wasting away, accomplishing nothing.

Or, worse, they are actually doing harm while the experience machine feeds them lies about doing good. I described this scenario earlier, about being hooked up to an experience machine where, each time the person thinks he has helped others, the machine causes others great pain and suffering. Those who are advocating legislation harmful to the interests of others live in an experience machine that is feeding them the delusion that they are doing great things, when in fact they are causing unjustified harm and suffering to others with each ‘good thing’ that they accomplish.

“Do you want to live in the real world, helping real people with real problems, or do you want to live in a fantasy world where you are merely presented with the illusion of doing good while you actually do great harm?” This is an important question to ask to those people who think that their life can only have meaning within the context of one of these religious myths.

Addressing the Desire to Believe

Of course, this question will not likely penetrate the thoughts of those who are so locked into the experience machine of religion that they cannot be safely disconnected from it. Anybody who has watched much science fiction is familiar with this scenario. Some character or other has been hooked up to some machine to such an extent, “If we remove him, he will die.” In the case of religion, the heartbreak of being disconnected from the machine and discovering the real world may cause him to wish he were dead.

The question will likely be more meaningful for people who have not been hooked up to the machine for so long that they can no longer tolerate being without it, or who have not been hooked up to it but could serve to be warned of its dangers.

There is one chance for a meaningful life, and that is to spend it in the real world dealing with real-world issues, not in an imaginary playground filled with mythical heroes and monsters.

I would like those who read this blog and who have a habit of arguing that the proposition, “God does not exist” is not true, or pointing out the moral failings of some who do not believe in God, to spend some effort pointing out how a religious life is wasted. Ultimately, this may be the most effective starting point for addressing these other two concerns.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Role of Feelings

Much of my recent writings have seemed to focus on promoting the value of reason and denigrating the value of feelings in moral judgments. I want to take some time to clarify the relationship between reason and ‘feelings’ here.

I hold to a theory of value that says that reason alone can never tell us what is good and what is bad. Value exists as a real-world property. However, value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires such that, if no desires existed, then no value would exist either.

In saying this, the most common conclusion that readers will jump to is to think that I have just said, “Relationships between states of affairs and desires have intrinsic value.” They will then challenge me to prove this proposition and boast that I have been defeated if I do not do so.

So, I will quickly add, “The proposition, ‘Relationships between states of affairs and desires have intrinsic value’ is false.” I do not intend to defend it. In fact, I would challenge anybody to defend it. It is not what I said. I said that value consists of relationships between states of affairs and desires in that, if an A has a desire that P, and P is true in S, then A has a ‘reason for action’ to bring about or preserve S. That is to say, one of A’s goals or ends is any state of affairs in which P is true.

That’s it.

This means that desires cannot be evaluated, right? “If it feels good, do it.” If I desire to slaughter all of the Jews, then a state of affairs in which Jews are being slaughtered is one that has value to me, and nobody can criticize it on the basis of its being ‘intrinsically wrong’, right? Or, as some philosophers have maintained, we cannot reason about ends because reason alone cannot tell us which ends are ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’. We can only reason about means. Anybody who stands up and criticizes certain ends is guilty of arguing from false assumptions.


Well, yes and no. We cannot reason about ends as ends. If a person has a desire that P, we cannot apply reason to P alone and determine whether it is something that, because of its intrinsic qualities, deserves to be desired.

However, every end is also, at the same time, a means to the fulfillment of other ends. I have a desire for chocolate. A state of affairs in which I am eating chocolate is something I value as an end. However, my desire to eat chocolate is also, at the same time, a means that thwarts other ends – my end of living a long and healthy life, of maintaining my weight, of living without a constant struggle to thwart my desire for chocolate so that I can obtain these other ends. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with eating chocolate that reason alone can discover. However, reason is perfectly able to discover that the desire for chocolate thwarts other desires, and that I would be better off to be rid of it.

This, then, ties in to my criticism of ‘feelings’ as a form of moral argument. Feelings tell us what we like and do not like. Feelings do not tell us what we should like or should not like. In order to determine what we should or should not like we need to apply reason to those feelings and determine their value. This does not mean determining whether the object of our feelings has some type of intrinsic merit where they inherently ‘deserve’ certain attitudes towards them. This means determining whether the feeling we are talking about tends to thwart or to fulfill other desires – whether it is a good or bad means towards the fulfillment of those desires.

So, whenever somebody says that they get their morality from their ‘feelings’ I cough, sputter, and generally warn all who can hear to run away in fear. It should be quite obvious that a large majority of suicide bombers, crusaders, jihadists, inquisitors, Nazi guards, slave owner, child abuser, and the like trusted their feelings. When it comes to the quest for a reliable source of moral truth, ‘feelings’ are no more reliable than ‘scripture’, and people who decide to trust their feelings are just as dangerous as those who would trust scripture.

In order to get to morality, the right question to ask is not, “How do I feel about X?” The question we should be asking is, “How should people generally feel about X?” In answering that question, it would be a mistake to think that we can somehow divine or derive the intrinsic merit of X – whether X ‘deserves’ certain feelings entirely because of its own independent nature. The only option we have – because the only value that exists in the real world is in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires – is to ask whether a particular ‘feeling’ will tend to fulfill or thwart other desires.

Recall, if A has a desire that P, and P is true in S, then A has a ‘reason for action’ to bring about S. It is also the case that if R will bring about or preserve S that A also has reason to bring about or promote R, in order to obtain S. This ‘reason to bring about R’ has to do with instrumental value, or the value that R can have as a means to bring about S.

One possible member in the set R can well be that ‘people have a desire that Q’, for some Q. The most obvious example of this is a ‘desire to help others’. I have a desire that P. If you have a desire to help others then you have a desire to bring about a state of affairs in which the proposition, ‘I am helping others’ is true. That proposition would be true in any state of affairs in which you are helping me realize a state of affairs in which P is true.

Of course, if P itself is something that is helpful to others, your desire to help others will pay extra dividends if you choose to help me. Whereas if my desire does harm to others, your desire to help others might even lead you to conclude that you can do more to help others by actually hindering me.

This is a rather clear case. Other cases are not so clear. A desire to tell the truth is generally something that people have reason to promote. However, there are exceptions – such as telling the truth to Nazi SS soldiers about Jews hiding in the attic, or telling the truth to your sister about her surprise birthday party, or simply telling an entertaining story which is, essentially, a bunch of claims about things that did not happen.

The crux of the matter is that no person can tell what is right from what is wrong by measuring how he feels about things. His feelings will tell him what he likes and does not like, but not what he should like or should not like. The practice of determining moral value by searching one’s own feelings is as flaws as attempting to discover whether some claim is true or false by measuring whether or not one believes it. The inference, “I feel good about X; therefore, X must be moral,” is as flawed as, “I believe X; therefore, X must be true.” A person can feel good about something (the way a jihadist can feel good about killing infidels or a Christian in America can feel good about coercing children into praying to her God in public schools), without these being things that a person should feel good about. The person who uses his or her own feelings as a judge of right and wrong is, in essence making a fundamentally arrogant and presumptuous claim that, “In matters of ethics, I cannot be wrong; and if anybody disagrees with me, they must necessarily be wrong.”

The real question to be asking is not, “Do I feel good about doing X?” but “Should I feel good about doing X?” To answer this question, you have to ask, “What would our society be like if everybody felt good about doing X?” You cannot answer this question by searching your own feelings.

You can only answer this question by looking out at the world – at the real world relationships that exist quite independent of how you perceive them, and ask, “What are the effects of everybody feeling good about doing X?” If the effects are not so great, then it is quite possible that one is feeling good about something that one should not feel good about. Or you might not feel good about something that, if you were smart, you would realize that you have reason to cause everybody to feel good about.

So, then, this is the relationship between ‘feelings’, reason, and value. Desires determine what has value. Whether or not something has value requires an exercise of reason, but reason itself can answer this question only by discovering how an object of evaluation relates to certain desires.

However, this same capacity to use reason to answer questions about value can be used to answer questions about the value of having certain feelings. These questions – about whether it is a good or bad idea to be promoting certain feelings – are at heart of morality. People who use their own feelings to answer moral questions are making a mistake, just like those who use their own beliefs to determine what is true. Determining the effects of states in which certain feelings are more or less common and more or less powerful is not something that we can learn from merely thinking about a problem. It requires making empirical observations of the world around us. It requires the same techniques used in science, applied to real-world relationships between desires and other desires.

So, the morals of this story are: Feelings (desires) are essential for value. Desires determine the ends (goals) of our actions. We have no way to evaluate ends as ends. However, each and every end is also a means, and we do have ways of evaluating the rationality of ends as means. Morality is concerned primarily with evaluating ends as means and distinguishing good ends from bad ends. This requires reason. This also allows that how a person feels about something, and how he should feel about it, are not necessarily the same thing.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Reason to Protest

A member of the studio audience has brought an incident to my attention that was described as follows:

Ironic note on the poster of Atheist Symbols for the Atheist Alliance International convention: I went to have it made today, at a local shop which specializes in posters, worked happily with the designer – and then several hours later got a call to come back and pick my stuff up, no poster. They are Christians and cannot do it. Went to another place, same thing. It was simply a poster with symbols to vote on – but it was for atheists. And they are Christians. One person helpfully explained that they turned down the KKK too. So sorry. But they’re Christians.

Somebody wanting to point out the bigotry behind this behavior would likely ask the question of what the sentiment would be if a shop owner had refused service to a Jewish organization on these grounds.

However, there is a second part to this same question that is also particularly telling.

What would the reaction been of a Jewish organization who was given this type of treatment?

Atheists are talking about the need for less intolerance and discrimination against them. This is precisely the type of action that calls for some sort of visible protest. As a matter of fact, the above organization would immediately have launched a campaign of protest, calling up reporters and politically connected friends and associates to protest the behavior. They would organize some sort of action to the degree that, currently, no business would dare to refuse such service because of the publicity that would be generated.

The response that I have seen so far suggests that the Atheist reaction is expected to be the mumbling of a few complaints among themselves . . . nothing more.

When we think of atheists who are protesting that religious moderates are too tolerant of fundamentalism and are unwilling to take a stand against it, to let this type of behavior pass without protest is, at best, hypocritical. This makes it sound like ‘passionate atheists’ are willing to complain about others standing up to fundamentalism in ways that they are not willing to do so themselves.

Why not? Perhaps because it is too inconvenient to do so?

In organizing a proper protest, it would seem that the following steps would be required.

Of course, the first thing to do would be to contact the local police department and find out the terms and conditions required for holding a protest against the two businesses, then immediately begin whatever tasks are necessary to conform to those requirements.

The next thing to do would be to start to design a protest that would conform to those requirements but would still be effective. Perhaps a day gathered in front of each store in protest would be best.

The concept of ‘effectiveness’ requires some sort of goal or purpose. It will be important to select a goal that the group can actually meet, and that can best be reached through this type of protest.

For example, it would not be worthwhile to organize a protest with the expectation that you would be costing the business money or otherwise forcing some hardship on them. They may even receive more than enough donations from other fundamentalists to cover any financial damage. Nor would it be worthwhile to organize a protest for the purpose of forcing an apology from the owners.

On the other hand, a reasonable protest would be To make people aware of the discrimination that atheists are subject to in this community.

This objective would suggest, to whatever degree it is possible to do so, arranging a protest so that atheists who are capable of drawing the press would participate.

The Civil Rights sit-ins against discrimination did not seek to drive the discriminating business out of business or to force an apology. The objective was to call attention to a basic unfairness – to force the public to confront an issue that they had so far been far too willing to ignore. The same should be the case if people were to organize a protest of these businesses.

Another lesson from the civil rights movement is that this should not be made an atheist-only event. Any Jew, Wiccan, Buddhist, or anybody who recognizes the injustice and bigotry represented by this type of behavior should be permitted to express their support for the moral principles involved.

It would also be a good idea to have a prepared statement in advance. That prepared statement should be written in two parts. The first part would be a totally honest and accurate description of the event. The second part would be an account of the moral case against the owner – an argument explaining why a moral person would not have done such a thing, and would not support such a thing.

In making the moral case, I would include something the following:

Any person of good moral character would easily agree that this behavior is immoral.

If a Jew were to enter this business, and if the owner were to refuse to give service to the Jew because we are Christians, we know that they would be soundly condemned for this, and rightfully so. If a Christian were to walk into a business where the staff refused to seat them or to wait on them because they were Christians, the air waves would be filled with the sound of protest.

This is because people know that treating others this way, when those others are peaceful and law-abiding citizens, is entirely unfair, unjust, and immoral. We are simply saying what everybody knows, that this type of unprovoked and unjust hostility towards peaceful members of the community is the very essence of bigotry, and it is something that no person interested in forming a moral community can condone.

As for comparing us to the Ku Klux Klan or any similar organization, they offered this as some type of balm, as if it is somehow quite acceptable to be like the KKK. It is hard to imagine a greater insult. It’s about like being shot and having the shooter say, ‘Don’t feel bad, I would have done the same to Hitler.’ Of course you would have done the same to Hitler. So would we.

Do you know what a bigot is? A bigot is somebody who looks for excuses to hate other people – to denigrate them – to treat them as something less than what they are. Comparing us to the KKK is about as denigrating, demeaning, and bigoted a statement that a person can make.

I would suspect that such an issue would bring up the question of whether a company has a right to refuse service to organizations such as the KKK or the Nazi Party. On this issue, I would say,

The right to do something does not imply an immunity from criticism. It implies an immunity from violence. The right to publish Mein Kampf does not imply that nobody should criticize or condemn the author of such filth. It only implies that it is wrong to react with violence. I will say, here and now, that – unlike some Christians and a lot of Muslims – I condemn anybody who commits or even threatens to commit violence against these people. Whether it be by phoning in death threats, or vandalism against their property, or any type of physical harm to person or property, the only legitimate way to respond to an insult like this is with words and peaceful protest.

If people should plan such a protest, they should also be ready to respond to the remark, “What are a bunch of atheists doing talking about morality. Where do they get their morality from?”

That criticism should be met head on. “Rational people know the value of peace, justice, security, and freedom. Those who say otherwise are too often people who seek to profit from manufacturing fear and hatred of others, selling a boogyman image of atheists to frighten people into contributing to their ministries of hate.”

This might be a bit frightening – a bit scary. However, there are scarier things in the world. Consider the situation that Specialist Jeremy Hall put himself in. An example of Christians showing their ‘moral superiority’ by responding to speech with threats of violence. And listen to the silence from Christian leaders when it comes to condemning those acts.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

In the Year 1787

It has been four years since the French had helped the Americans defeat King George III. Since then, living conditions in America have changed considerably.

For one thing, the French have taken the best parts of New York and Charleston harbors and turned them into French military ports for their ships.

They have also taken the best part of Philadelphia and turned it into a walled up French compound called (for some strange reason) “The Green Zone.” Within its walls, they have a construction project going on that makes the palace at Versailles look like a hunting lodge. It’s an area that includes Independence Hall and, in fact, the new American government is almost entirely housed within French fortifications. It’s for their protection – from the ‘Tories’ who have threatened to disrupt the new government.

The French military has gone to great lengths to round up these Tories. They regularly send patrols out to villages that they suspect as having Tory sympathies. When they do so, they will typically round up everybody in the village and haul them off to French prisons for interrogation. Those who come out again tell of stories of torture and abuse.

Over time, the French have taken to use the word ‘Tory’ to refer to more than just the original supporters of King George, but anybody who is opposed to what some Americans call ‘The French Occupation’. The French say that they are not here to occupy the land and claim it as their own – that they will leave if the American government asks them to. Yet, it is difficult to imagine that they would actually leave the military installations they have created or the “Green Zone”. The French seem to be putting an awful lot of effort to make sure that they are never actually quite asked to leave, at least by the government that they recognize, which (as it turns out) is made up of people who are ‘easily persuaded’ into not extending that particular invitation.

Many of these ‘Tories’, as the French call them, were actually opposed to King George. They endorsed a list of grievances against him, such as his habit of sending soldiers door to door in massive sweeps to search people’s homes and arrest anybody they suspect as having anti-government sympathies, holding the accused indefinitely without charges filed against them, inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on those individuals while they were held in these prisons, and hauling them off to distant prisons to be tried according to ‘secret’ evidence, far from home and far from any evidence that can be collected in their favor.

Now, we have the French sending troops door to door in massive sweeps to search people’s homes and arrest anybody they suspect of having anti-French sympathies, holding the accused indefinitely without charges filed against them, inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on these people who were held in these prisons, and hauling them off to distant prisons to be tried according to ‘secret’ evidence, far from home and far from any evidence that can be collected in their favor.

Of course, the French propagandists only see two options. “Either you are with us, or you are against us. Either you are for the French, or you are for its enemy (the British).” Their propagandists cannot see – or, at least, cannot allow others to see that that somebody might simply be anti-arbitrary arrest, indefinite confinement, cruel and unusual punishment, or rigged trials based on secret evidence. Those people do not care who practices these wrongs – British or French. Whoever does so is evil.

The French have another problem in America. Besides the Americans who see the French Occupation as an affront to their liberty and have taken it upon themselves to kill French soldiers, the French are having to deal with the aftermath of the war in the South. That part of the Revolutionary War was substantially a civil war – Americans versus Americans. It was also a particularly bloody and cruel war, with a long list of the most heinous acts of barbarism one can find in war. This generated a great deal of hard feelings. Members of each group insist that they are entitled to ‘justice’ against the members Actually, what they want is revenge. They have adopted an ethic that if Person A in a town committed a crime against some member of their group, that ‘justice’ can be extracted from anybody in that town, regardless of their connection to the original act.

So, the French are not only dealing with Americans who want to kill the French. They are dealing with Americans who want to kill other Americans.

Much of this is a battle among different groups that want to control the government. There are the ‘federalists’ who want to establish a strong central government and who seem to have acquired the support of the French. And there are the ‘Democrats’ – made up mostly of Virginia plantation owners, who insist on a weaker form of government. In the chaos of French occupation (since the French were more interested in building secure bases for themselves than in figuring out how to deal with the Americans), this dispute also grew increasingly violent.

Of course, the English are not sitting back quietly watching all of this happen without comment and, wherever they think they can get away with it, without trying to find some way to do harm to the French. They have found ways to funnel money and supplies to the anti-French ‘Tories’. Even though some of those Americans were vehemently anti-British when the British ruled the country, they are not above taking money and supplies from whomever will provide them. Particularly since the only alternative would be to surrender and allow the French occupation, with all of the injustice that the French have so far exhibited in their country.

Now, I want you to imagine that you are in this land. You are living in Tranton, New Jersey. You have seen the French enter your town and take away whomever they thought might be anti-French. You have talked to some who have returned with horror stories about what the French did to them in prison. Some people never return. They are simply called, ‘the Disappeared’. The French seem skilled at making people ‘disappear’ when convenient. Other neighbors who have been captured and hauled away were taken off to Europe to face trial in secret courts where secret evidence will be presented against them.

Let’s assume that you have had a fleeting thought that there might be some merit to joining the people in the hills who are fighting the French occupation with British money and British supplies. If you should hint at these new sympathies to the wrong person, you could end up on one of those French prisons. But, heck, you could end up in one of those French prisons anyway, since the French are not arresting people based on anything more than the most casual evidence. All it would take is for one of the people that the French hauled away to give his captors your name in exchange for some water or a good night’s sleep – which they may well consider a small price to pay, since you are the one who would be paying it.

In the mean time, roaming bands of Virginia Democrats are hunting down any Federalist they can get their hands on, Virginia is not that far away. At the same time, New England Federalists are seeking revenge against Virgina Democrats. At any moment you could be identified with one group or the other and be killed (or worse), not by the French, but by another American.

This is your life, now. And yet the French are congratulating themselves for having rescued you from the British, as if they have done you some great favor.

This is the new America.

In the year 1787.

Monday, September 24, 2007


Imagine reading in the paper one morning that the police had come up with a new method for capturing ‘bad guys’. They would put a wallet on a park bench and, if anybody should pick up and walk away with the wallet, they would shoot him. Dead.

The paper this morning reported of a technique being used in Iraq, called Baiting where the American military would set up snipers, plant something that had a military use within line of sight of the snipers, and kill anybody who tried to walk away with it – assuming that the victim was somebody who would use the equipment against the Americans.

I do not know the details of this program. The report said that much of it is classified. Therefore, I am not going to jump up and shout that the military is certainly doing something wrong here. However, I am going to say that there are elements here that somebody should be looking into.

If it were me, I may not be able to tell the difference between something that was militarily useful and something that was not. If I saw a spool of primer cord laying on the side of the road – again, assuming a land as chaotic as Iraq is right now where there is a humanitarian crisis (no food, no water, no jobs, no security) of unimaginable proportions, I would probably take the cord home to use it for a clothes line, or to tie the door of my house back onto its frame, or to sell to my neighbors so they can do the same.

If I were able to recognize an object as having a military use . . . well, if I can find it, then my neighbors’ children can find it, or the insurgents can find it. Again, I would likely take it home and bury it in the back yard.

I would likely have not returned it to the Americans. After all, the Americans are an occupying army. Assume that, after the Revolutionary War, the French had decided to stay in large numbers, build military bases on American soil, and insist in having a roll in writing our Constitution and in the government that resulted, arresting (or killing) Americans at will that they thought were anti-French, imagine how far they would be able to get with the claim, “But we helped you get rid of the British. You owe us.”

Anyway, the point is, there are a lot of good reasons for good people to walk away with that military equipment. However, this article suggests that there are American military teams who are set up to assume that there are no good Iraqis, and that anybody who would pick up that equipment deserves death.

Just like the police, in the sting operation that I mentioned above, are assuming that no good person would pick up and walk away with a wallet he discovers on a park bench, assumes that the individual is guilty, holds a secret trial, renders a verdict in that trial, and then executes that verdict on the man walking away with the wallet.

It is hardly justice.

Military ‘Justice’

Then again, there can be no justice in a war zone. Imagine asking a soldier, before he shoots somebody, to read an enemy soldier his rights before firing his weapon. It is an absurdity, and no sane person could hope to defend such a policy.

One of the ways in which military procedures are separate from civilian justice is that the military has fewer safeguards for protecting the innocent. This is why military situations tend to result in a lot more civilian casualties. It is the nature of the beast. Yet, sooner or later we need to restore civilian institutions. Otherwise, the senseless slaughter of innocent people will never end.

The practice mentioned above came to light because soldiers, who are defending themselves from charges of murder, are referring to it in their defense. These soldiers have been accused of killing Iraqi civilians with insufficient provocation. In some cases, according to the testimony, evidence was then planted on the victim, where the soldier then claims that he was following the procedures described above. The soldier had killed a person who was attempting to walk away with militarily useful equipment.

The report tells of one instance in which an apparently unarmed civilian was approaching a site where American snipers were hidden. Now, a ‘hide’ is selected precisely because it is a place that the Americans judge would not cause others to think Americans are hiding there. The soldier shot the intruder, then planted a weapon on the body in order to give the case more legitimacy. In this case, the soldier had been given permission to fire anyway, so planting the weapon was unnecessary.

I am not going to say that this story is accurate. It doesn’t matter. For the purposes of this posting, we can easily imagine something like this happening and look at the implications.

Apparently, in Iraq, it is a capital offense to approach a place that was specifically selected for its ability to appear to be something that nobody should worry about approaching.

We can relate this story or another hypothetical story in which an Iraqi carrying a weapon approaches an American ‘hide’. In this context, we must remember that Iraqi is a lawless place. If one is a Sunni then, at any moment, a band of Shiites might show up to kill you. If one is a Shiite, then one’s life is also in danger. When anarchy is the order of the day, a lot of innocent people take to carrying weapons. I suspect that I would.

This can be compared to yet another type of situation. An American soldier goes out, simply to bag some Iraqis. All he wants to do is kill somebody. He has come to view all Iraqi as the enemy and thinks nothing more than that, the fewer Iraqis there are, the safer he will be. He simply sees this program of ‘baiting’ as a simple way to execute his plan without facing any sort of punishment.

It’s a messy situation . . . and that is precisely the problem with it. It results in a lot of innocent death. Worse, it does so in a substantially bigoted culture that believes in revenge. It is a culture that thinks that there is nothing wrong with the idea that, if somebody with trait X harms my family, then everybody with trait X deserves to suffer for it.

Establishing Peace

Ultimately, there is only one way to put an end to this type of random violence, which is to establish a principle of ‘presumed innocent until proven guilty’. It is a principle that says, ‘We are going to assume that your reasons for carrying out these actions are perfectly legitimate, unless and until we have sufficient evidence to believe otherwise. Only then, will we act.”

This presumption of innocence and presumption against harm unless wrongdoing can be proved requires devotion to a few other principles. One of these is the right of Habeas Corpus. This is literally nothing less than the right of a person to be free unless those who would do him harm can prove that the harm is justified. It is nothing less than the embodiment of that which separates civilian from military action – the presumption against doing harm.

It also requires a system where the objective is to capture wrongdoers and put them on trial, rather than to convict and execute (presumed) wrongdoers on the field. Even in the obvious case of entrapment captured in the example where a wallet is taken, the only justified response on the part of civil authorities is to apprehend the individual, arrest him, and give him his day in court. This outcome also requires a respect for law and for peaceful over violent (militaristic) solutions to disagreements among individuals. On this issue, President Bush served as a very poor role model. He went to great lengths to tell the world, “Civil institutions are impotent and are not to be used when a military solution is available,” by circumventing all of the civilian institutions that stood between him and violence. What we have seen in Iraq is what happens when the values that embody this administration – the love of violent solutions over political solutions – grips a whole nation, rather than just a small part of a nation. In our case, it is unfortunate that this small part that loves violence over politics gained the power to command the military.

Joint Blame

I fully blame Iraqis for the problems in Iraq. They choose this particular reaction to events. Each bomb that goes off in a public place killing innocent civilians was planted there by somebody who could have done something else. When Bush and Blair are blamed for the violence in Iraq, it shifts the blame away from the individuals that actually planted the bomb. Those people deserve the full measure of our condemnation.

However, the fact that the people of Iraq are fully responsible for the violence there, does not change the fact that Bush and Blair were guilty of the grossest negligence in launching the war. If I discover that a neighbor of mine is a serial killer, and I send my wife there to deliver a message, the serial killer is fully responsible for murdering my wife. Yet, this does not change the fact that I am also morally contemptible for putting my wife in a situation where she could probably get murdered.

The people of Iraq are the wrongdoer fully responsible for the denigration of their society. Yet, this does not change the fact that Bush and Blair are also fully responsible for giving these people the opportunity to commit the moral crimes that they routinely commit in Iraq. They have no excuse.

It would be nice if one thing that the Iraqis (and the rest of the world) could learn from us - though they are not going to learn it from this administration. That would be a traditional respect for the time-honored principles of justice. Instead, this administration seems most interested in providing the world with different examples of injustice.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Religion and Education

Two days ago in Morality and Religious Culture I argued for a distinction between ‘morality’ (prescriptions that can be forced on everybody), and ‘religious culture’ (prescriptions peculiar to a religion that may not be legitimately forced on anybody).

Yesterday in Intolerable Religions, I used these concepts to define ‘intolerable religions’ – religions that do not warrant respect because they violate morality. That is, they call upon their followers to murder, rape, enslave, or otherwise do harm to others. I applied this distinction to the First Amendment and showed how the moral principle behind the Amendment says, “Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religious culture or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Congress, of course, has every right to respect the establishment of morality – that is, to prohibit murder, rape, theft, slavery, lying, abuse, negligence, recklessness, and other actions where people may do harm to others.

Today, I would like to apply this distinction to the area where I first came up with this distinction about a week ago. I was reading the article, Same-sex talk in diversity video divides town” about a dispute over teaching diversity to children. That article contained the following:

“I think it’s the parents’ decision to decide to teach their children morality,” local parent Mike Quinn told NBC.

Imposing Morality in School

My immediate response was ‘nonsense’. It makes absolutely no sense for teachers to leave the schools to leave the teaching of morality to the parents. Schools need to impose certain standards of behavior on children in school or they would never be able to have a school.

If it is optional, if it is something that the parent can teach at home (or not), then it is not morality. It is something else. Let’s call it, ‘religious culture’.

Do not disrupt the class. Do not hit other students (or staff). Do not take what does not belong to you. Keep your promises. Do not lie. Wait your turn. These are all moral principles. These are principles describing what students ought and ought not to do. They define punishment for misbehavior and uses the concepts that punishment, where legitimate, must be deserved and just. The rules are supposed to apply toe everybody equally so that, if anybody gets special treatment, this is wrong and it, too, should be prohibited.

This is morality, and no school can run without it. Here, as I have been saying for the past two days, ‘morality’ is that which can be imposed on everybody regardless of what their religious beliefs are. No student can hit others or take what does not belong to them and claim, ‘religious discrimination’ if anybody tries to stop them. Legitimate religious practices do not include immoral practices such as these.

What schools do not have a right to impose students – what should be left up to the parents – is not ‘morality’ but ‘religious culture’. If there is a possibility of opting out of any rule, then we have quit talking about ‘morality’ and we started talking about ‘religious culture’ instead.

Some religions prohibit the eating of pork. Those students go to public school, where the school cafeteria serves pork, and other children eat it (as they are permitted to do). Parents who wish to teach a particular religious culture to their students have no right to demand that the school prohibit anything that is not a part of their culture. They need to figure out how to deal with the fact that they live among others who do not share their culture, and what to teach their children about those other cultures.

What the school needs to be teaching is that people have a moral obligation to live in peace with people of other cultures. The fact that the child next to you eats pork gives you no justification to try to do harm to him. The fact that the child next to you works on the Sabbath gives you no reason to interfere with his actions. Just because the child next to you lives with two parents who are both of the same gender gives you no reason to call for doing them harm.

All of these are actually quite equivalent on this model.

‘Immorality’ In the School

One popular area of protest is comes from parents who send their children to school, where they encounter others who do not share the same condemnation of homosexual acts, and some even have parents who are in homosexual relationships (or are in homosexual relationships themselves). Some religious parents find this intolerable, and insist that the school not say or do anything that can be taken as condoning homosexual relationships.

However, consider the parents who send their children to school, where they encounter others who do not share their views on the wrongness of eating pork, and some of them even eat pork. They talk openly about eating pork and speak as if there is nothing wrong with it. In fact, the school itself will sometimes serve pork in the school lunch. Imagine the parent protesting that this is ‘intolerable’ and who insists that the school not say or do anything that can be taken as condoning the eating of pork.

The proper response to such a parent is easy to see. “You, parents, have to decide how you are going to handle the fact that you live in a society where others do not share your religious prohibition on homosexual acts/eating pork. One of the places that your children are going to encounter people who do not share your religious culture is in the public school system. You are not going to turn the school into an instrument for enforcing your particular religious culture on others by making the school an instrument for condemning that which your religious culture condemns. That is not our job. Some people in this culture condone homosexual acts/the eating of pork. Live with it.”

A teacher or student should no more have to hide his or her homosexuality in school than they should be required to hide their hamburger from a Hindu, or female students should be required to hide their faces and bodies from Muslim students.

Teaching Religious Tolerance

One important implication of this is that children in public schools will learn a very important lesson. “These things over here are ‘morality’ – things that it makes sense to force on everybody, like prohibitions on murder, rape, and theft. Those things over there are ‘religious culture’ – things that are optional. And, more importantly, things that are not to be forced on everybody, because doing so is immoral.”

I suspect that a lot of religious parents would find this objectionable. This is because they have been raised in a tradition that takes their ‘religious culture’ to be morality and, as such, something that it is perfectly acceptable to force on others. Though we can listen to them scream when other people take a different ‘religious culture’ as ‘morality’ and tries to force it on them.

In fact, this is the very reason why people a couple of centuries ago decided to adopt rules against forcing religious culture on others or forcing others to give up their own religious culture. Because when two different religions take their ‘religious culture’ to be ‘morality’, and that which they can legitimately force on others, we end up with violent conflict – pretty much like we have today, and which we seem to be getting more and more of with each passing year.

We seem to have forgotten some of those lessons, and this lapse in memory is turning costly. We can teach that morality and religious culture are one and continue this endless conflict of people forcing their religious cultures on each other, or we can divorce religious culture from morality and allow people of different religious cultures to live side by side in peace.

From Where Comes Moral Rules?

A question may come up in a child’s mind, “How can we have moral rules that transcend moral culture?”

Is that really such a difficult question to answer? It does not take much to imagine what a school would be like without the rules properly called ‘morality’ rules that may be imposed on everybody regardless of their religion. It would not be hard to imagine a school without prohibitions on assaulting other students, lying, cheating, theft, and the like. Even an atheist would not want to go (or want their child to go) to such a school.

This shows the lie behind the common (bigoted, hate-mongering) claim that atheists have nothing to base morality on. They can base it on their own desire not to be (and not to have those they care about be) murdered, raped, robbed, lied to, cheated against, or otherwise harmed. The say some theists talk, one would think that a person who denies the existence of God becomes suddenly passively indifferent to having a knife shoved between his ribs or his checking account cleaned out.


So, then, when it comes to teaching morality in schools, we cannot have schools at all if we do not allow them to teach morality. There are limits to behavior that schools must impose on everyone (and everyone equally) for the school to run, and for the school to run well. One of those rules must include a prohibition on forcing ‘religious culture’ on others, and a condemnation of those who try.

To have peace in society, children need to learn that the student sitting next to them can have a different religious culture from theirs, and that is okay. Students taught to think that they have a right to call their religious culture ‘morality’ and force it on the students sitting next to them are going to grow up to be very poor neighbors and citizens.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Intolerable Religion

Yesterday, in "Morality and Religious Culture", I wrote about a distinction between ‘morality’ (prescriptions that which may be imposed on others regardless of what religion they belong to), and ‘religious culture’ (prescriptions that are inherent to a particular religion and which may not be imposed on others). I also wrote about how people’s safety and well-being is dependent on recognizing this distinction and opposing the common practice of elevating ‘religious culture’ into ‘morality’. Those who do so inevitably come to the conclusion that they may (or must) impose their ‘religious culture’ upon others.

This distinction leads to the concept of ‘intolerable religion’.

Religious tolerance is, itself, considered an important component of a peaceful society. Yet, clearly, there are limits to how far religious tolerance can go. It is not at all difficult to imagine religions that cross the line – that become religions that we do not, in fact, have any reason to tolerate.

Let us assume, for example, that there is a community in the mountains of Colorado that believes that their God commands them to go out into the community of non-believers (meaning, in this case, those who do not believe in their God), find a 10 year old boy, and offer him up as a human sacrifice. In doing this the faithful show their devotion to God, and God is then supposed to reward them with protection from terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

IF we were to discover such a community, they may try to defend their claim on the basis that “Congress shall pass no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion].” We would instead say, “Your religion does not count,” and we would not need a Constitutional Amendment to do so. This counts as an intolerable religion.

Or, let us assume that, in the mountains of Montana, there is a community that holds that Ghod gave the whole of the Earth to the Aryans to rule, and where Ghod populated the earth with other peoples, He made them so that they may serve as slaves to the Aryans, and to cultivate the lands and work the factories in their service. Let us assume that this community has captured and enslaved a number of Native Americans, the descendents of the original inhabitants of that land, as their religion tells them they may do.

Again, any First Amendment appeal that the government may not prohibit them from practicing this religion would (and should) go nowhere. This, too, counts as an intolerable religion.

This argument is actually meant for anybody who might think, superficially, that just because something is a religion, that is good enough reason to hold that it is something that we must tolerate. Such a person, if he thinks below the surface of this idea, should be forced to conclude, “As much as I do not like the idea, the fact is, there are some religions that qualify as ‘intolerable’.”

Once we recognize that some religions are intolerable, the next question is, “How do we distinguish those religions that can be tolerated, from those that cannot be tolerated?”

Intolerable Religions and Trans-Religion Morality

The distinction between tolerable and intolerable religions follows precisely the distinction between trans-religion morality (morality that can be forced on all people regardless of their religion or lack of religion) and religious culture. Where religious culture violates morality, we have an intolerable religion. Where religious culture remains on the near side of morality, we have a tolerable religion.

Yesterday, I defined ‘morality’ as rules that can be justifiably enforced on others regardless of their religion, such as prohibitions on murder, rape, theft, slavery, assault, and negligence. I defined ‘religious culture’ as rules that are unique to a religion and need not be enforced on everybody, such as what to eat, when to eat, where to worship, how to worship, where to live (‘homeland’ issues), and what to wear. An intolerable religion on this standard is one that declares that its members may violate these moral prescriptions, or who try to impose its religious culture as if they were moral prescriptions.

The First Amendment

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from establishing a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Before I go further, I want to remind the reader that this is not a legal blog. I am not here to interpret the law. However, I do hold that there are certain moral principles underlying the Bill of Rights. It is within the scope of this blog to examine those underlying moral principles. Whether those moral principles are captured within the law is a separate question.

When the First Amendment says that congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, this clearly does not prohibit the government from passing laws respecting the establishment of certain moral principles. Indeed, one of the most fundamental (if not the most fundamental) role of government is to impose ‘morality’ on its people – to prohibit murder and other forms of violence, theft, deception, recklessness, and the like, and to punish those who transgress these moral principles.

Morality, understood as ‘principles that may be forced on others regardless their religion,’ are the basis of the vast majority of our criminal laws. We even have the capacity to measure criminal laws as being ‘just’ or ‘unjust’ in accordance with whether those criminal laws are consistent with, or violate, morality itself.

The best way to understand the government’s moral prohibition on the establishment of a religion is in terms of a prohibition against the establishment of a particular ‘religious culture’. Religious cultures are those rules that cannot be legitimately enforced on others; not morality. At the same time, a government prohibition on the free practice of religion can best be understood as a government prohibition on the elements of any particular ‘religious culture’ except when those elements transcend morality. Elements of a ‘religious culture’ that involves the murder of children or enslavement of Native Americans can be banned because they transgress moral boundaries. However, individuals should be left free to follow whatever ‘religious culture’ they like that stays on this side of morality.

Again, the only sensible interpretation of the moral prohibition on Congress against the establishment of a religion and protecting the free exercise of religion depends on a recognition of the distinction between morality (that which governments may legitimately impose on its citizens), and ‘religious culture’ (that which governments can neither establish nor prohibit)..

Unlinking Morality and Religion

In what I have written so far, I have spoken about a trans-religious morality; a morality that crosses religious boundaries and even the boundary between the religious and non-religious. Is it possible to make sense of such a morality? Doesn’t such a morality require the existence of a God? Can a person sensibly assert that such a morality exists (independent of any scientific evidence for its existence), but dispute the legitimacy of having faith in a God?

Much of this blog, and that book mentioned in the top right side of this page called, A Better Place . . ., contain some detailed arguments against the idea that there is anything supernatural or mysterious about a morality that transcends all religion. All it takes is a recognition that some desires are malleable, and that people reason to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

A theist and an atheist may argue about how a particular tree came to be standing in a particular place, whether the tree came about through evolution or natural selection. However, neither should doubt the existence of the tree. Nor should the two have any difficulty coming to an agreement about its height, age, shape, or other features.

Similarly, a theist and an atheist may argue about how malleable desires that tend to fulfill or thwart other desires came into existence, whether they are a part of God’s design or they arose through evolutionary processes. However, these relationships between malleable desires and other desires certainly do exist, and it is a matter of fact that people have reason to promote some malleable desires and inhibit others.

That is to say, people generally have many and good reasons to inhibit desires that may lead to murder, rape, theft, assault, deception, neglect, and the like. These are aversions that people generally have reason to impose upon others and, for their own safety and the safety of those they care about, they may impose these on others through use of government law. They may impose these on others without regard to the religion that those others might adopt. Nobody has the right to claim that, in virtue of their religion, they may ignore these moral boundaries. Where their religion comes into conflict with morality, morality plays the trump card.

Yet, let’s not pretend that we cannot tell the difference between prescriptions that actually count as morality, and those that count as ‘religious culture’. The fact that morality consists of rules that can be imposed on others gives no religion the right to call its ‘religious culture’ a ‘morality’, and thereby impose it on others. The religion that cannot recognize this distinction and that violates its mandates makes itself an intolerable religion. It is a religion of people whose faith makes them a threat to others, and a religion that those threatened have a right to respond to accordingly.

I will, of course, leave this discussion with my standard disclaimer. The only legitimate response to words are words and private actions, and the only legitimate response to a political campaign in an open society is a counter-campaign. In such a society, private violence is never appropriate – not unless one wants to create a society the likes of Baghdad or Lebanon, where a culture of private violence has become dominant.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Morality and Religious Culture

In this post I want to discuss the relationship between religion, morality, and culture. Specifically, I want to present a way of conceiving of this relationship that will make explicit the source of a great deal of conflict and ways to avoid that conflict.

The view that I will present will divide religious prescriptions into two classes. One class is properly and correctly linked to ‘morality’. This is a class that transcends different religions and even non-religious belief. This is the class of prescriptions that can legitimately be forced upon others. The second class consists of those prescriptions that belong only to a particular religion. I am going to call this class ‘religious culture’. These are prescriptions that cannot be legitimately forced upon others.

We can begin to figure out how to classify the beliefs in a particular religion by asking about a person who is leaving that religion and going to some other religion, or giving up religion entirely. Our imaginary person can go down the list of prescriptions in that religion and ask, “Which of these am I obligated to take with me if I am going to be a productive member of society, and which of these can I leave behind?”

We can easily classify the prescriptions against murder, rape, child abuse, slavery, assault, theft, lying, ‘bearing false witness’, breaking promises or contracts, recklessness, negligence, and similar kinds of actions as prescriptions that the agent will have to take with him as he goes into society. People generally (atheists included) have no reason to excuse any fellow citizen who commits these types of actions, regardless of any religious affiliation. These are the prescriptions that properly fall under ‘morality’. These are also the prescriptions that people generally have reason to impose on its members.

We can just as easily identify a set of prescriptions that an agent can leave behind – where the fact that one religion may require these types of actions while another does not is of little social consequence. These prescriptions include what to eat or drink, when to eat or drink, where to live (the concept of ‘homeland’), when to pray, how to pray, to whom one is to pray, which scripture to read, when to work (or not work), what to wear. These are the prescriptions that I will put in the category of ‘religious culture’. These are prescriptions that the members of a religion may not impose on others.

A great deal of the conflict we see in the world today comes from a failure to make this distinction – to collapse both of these categories into one, even though they really are quite distinct.

One way to collapse these distinctions is to say that there is no such thing as ‘religious culture’ – that everything that a religion prescribes falls into the realm of morality. However, ‘morality’ is still taken to mean ‘that which may legitimately be forced upon others’. As a result, people who make this distinction devote a great deal of effort forcing elements of what are, in fact, religious culture upon others. Where different religions have different religious cultures, each claiming the right to force their culture on others, we have conflict – sometimes erupting into outright violence.

The other way to try to collapse these two is to take ‘morality’ and to try to collapse it into ‘religious culture’. As a part of ‘religious culture’, these prescriptions are then assumed to be things that one people may not impose on others. Taken to its logical conclusion, this theory would hold that there is no way to condemn murder, theft, rape, or slavery – that these can be nothing more than ‘religious culture’ and cannot be forced on a ‘religious culture’ that rejects them. Somebody who holds this view may well condemn the woman who resists rape on the grounds that she is forcing her non-rape views on her attacker, who obviously has different view of this issue. In fact, people who accept this view often do stand aside while ‘religious cultures’ commit any number of murders, abuses, assaults, deceptions, and injustices.

One may think that this second way of collapsing ‘morality’ into ‘religious culture’ avoids conflict. However, it does not do that at all. In fact, it allows a ‘religious culture’ that thrives and promotes conflict to continue to wage warfare against everybody else. They cannot be criticized because battling everybody else is merely a part of their religious culture. Interfering with this religion’s attempts to subdue other cultures is immediately branded as ‘attacking religion X’.

Both attempts to collapse these distinctions are not only flawed, they are tragically flawed. They contribute to a large surplus of death, injury, illness, and other forms of harm that we see in the world today.

The route to avoid these harms is to recognize and embrace this distinction – to recognize that there is a difference between the prescriptions that somebody leaving a religion must bring with him, and the prescriptions that somebody leaving a religion may permissibly leave behind.

In fact, the prescriptions that fall into the category of ‘morality’ that I described above are prescriptions that a religion must incorporate into its teachings – somehow – for the followers of that religion to be an acceptable part of society. People generally have no reason to tolerate a religion that tells its members that they must kill anybody they meet who do not belong to that religion, or that the rape of a woman is a holy rite, or that they may freely lie or break contracts to others who are not of their faith. The idea that we must be tolerant of all religions is nonsense where those religions teach its members to do harm to others. There is a line that distinguishes ‘religions that we can be tolerant of’ and ‘religions that we must not tolerate’. That line is found in the category called ‘morality’ above, and whether that religion teaches its members to obey (can be tolerated) or violate (cannot be tolerated) those prescriptions.

This is not a new distinction. It has been addressed in earlier generations as the difference between ‘public’ and ‘private’ morality. ‘Public morality’ represented the morality that can be legitimately forced on others, while ‘private morality’ represented the morality that cannot be legitimately enforced on others. The problem is that ‘private morality’ is a contradiction in terms. If something is truly ‘immoral’ than it is wrong for everybody to do – not just those who belong to a particular religion. Accordingly, if it is okay for somebody who belongs to a different religion to refuse to behave in a particular way, then it is nonsense to say that it is immoral. There is no such thing as a ‘private morality’. There is, instead, ‘religious culture.

One of the ways to promote recognition of this distinction is to protest anybody who uses the term ‘morality’ then they mean ‘religious culture’ whenever they are talking outside of the context of their religion. Whenever a person belonging these religions enters a public forum (as opposed to preaching to its own members from its own pulpit), and uses the term ‘morality’ to refer to prescriptions that are, in fact, ‘religious culture’, it is necessary to call them on it.

No, sir. What you are talking about is not morality at all. It is religious culture. Morality concerns those items that we must require of everybody, regardless of what religion they belong do. We can require that they not murder, rape, steel, lie, break promises, or negligently or recklessly put others at risk – no matter what religion they believe in. Religious culture – what you are talking about – are those things that can be left behind and that you have no right to force on others. It belongs in the same category as what to eat, what to wear, when to pray, and when to work. There is a difference, and refusing to recognize that difference as you have done here today has been a great source of much of the world’s conflict.

When confronted with this type of claim, I expect that many theists will reject the idea of demoting some of their prescriptions to the level of ‘mere religious culture’. They will insist that all of these prescriptions represent morality, clear and simple.

The answer to this is as follows:

Look, you have two options. Either you are claiming that you have the right to force others to accept your religious practices, or you are not. To claim that ‘religious culture’ actually represents morality is to say that you have the right to force others into your religion. This follows directly from the fact that ‘morality’ is ‘that which can be legitimately forced on others’. If you are denying that you have the right to force others into your religion, then you can’t sensibly at the same time say that these prescriptions represent any type of ‘morality’. Prescriptions that cannot be legitimately forced on others are not moral prescriptions, they are merely cultural prescriptions. Which do you claim? Do you claim the right to force others into your religion, or don’t you?

This distinction goes directly to the core of how religion leads to conflict. It is precisely because religions take matters of religious culture and assign them the status of morality. This means they acquire the status of ‘that which may be legitimately imposed on others’, which then invites the followers of that religion to enter into conflict with those who do not belong to that religion. If, instead, a particular religion were to recognize that some of their practices are merely religious culture, then they should not feel such a need to impose those prescriptions on others.

I do not expect that this approach will actually answer any of the genuine moral debates. People will still debate whether abortion is murder – where murder is clearly immoral even under the distinction given above. They would debate whether capital punishment is justice. On the other hand, it would be hard to argue that prohibitions on homosexual relationships are anything other than religious culture, and prayers in schools and at civic ceremonies are clearly examples of religious culture, rather than morality.

What it will do is put the actual source of many of the problems that spring from debate over religion squarely on the table so that everybody can see it and everybody can recognize it for what it is. It will weaken the habit that we have lived under for too long of hiding this particular truth behind an unwillingness to upset people who believe that scripture gives them the right to call all of their prescriptions ‘morality’, and thus claim the right to impose those prescriptions on everybody else.

All it takes is a willingness to take a theist’s talk of morality and saying, “No. Morality concerns things like murder, rape, and theft. What you’re talking about isn’t morality. It is religious culture. Culture means that it is okay to be different. Morality means that it is not okay to be different. That’s the part that you are not understanding.”

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Avoiding Free Ridership

In the last three days I have:

(1) Described the issue of free ridership in game-theory terms to show what the problem is and why it leaves us worse off than we would otherwise be.

(2) Discussed a political solution to the free rider problem and why it fails.

(3) Discussed a moral solution in technical game-theory terms and explained why it works.

(4) Listed a number of current political/social issues where the free rider problem exists and the stakes that are involved.

Today, I would like to explain the moral solution I presented in (3) in non-technical; non-game-theory terms for readers who might have gotten a headache as a result of the earlier discussion.

The conclusion that I defended is that people generally (meaning you and me) have reason to promote a desire to contributing to public goods (such as the items listed in yesterday’s post) and an aversion to not contributing. We also have reason to establish a system of rewards for those who contribute to the public good (praise, plaques, honors, and social status), and a system of sanctions for those who do not contribute (condemnation, ostracism, criminal penalties).

These policies will allow us as a society to harvest the value of “public goods” in ways that purely voluntary systems would not allow.

Go to the first post in this series for an explanation of why this is the case.

Game theorists have a tradition of calling a state where one person contributes to a public good when others do not to be the ‘sucker’ option. It is important for what they are focusing on to use a denigrating and derogatory term for those who would donate to the public good, because they need to preserve the problem that they are discussing. In fact, by using a denigrating term to refer to those who would contribute to the public good they make the option of contributing to the public good even less attractive – lowering the incentive to do so. This drives choices even more strongly towards the point where the public good goes unfunded and everybody loses the benefits that they could have otherwise obtained.

However, we, the people living in the real world who are talking about real-world harms and benefits, have no reason to drive choice towards the game theorist’s equilibrium point. Instead, we have reason to drive choices in exactly the opposite direction – to promote contributions to the public good so that we can harvest the benefits of those public goods.

In the example I used in Part 1 in this series, the outcome that the game theorist is trying to preserve is one where each of us in the community has $1000. The outcome that we are creating for ourselves in that example is one in which each of us has $1500. We certainly do not have any reason to adopt the game-theorist’s decision to apply denigrating terms to those who drive the outcome towards the “everybody has $1500” option.

Instead, we face the opposite motivation – to speak about those who do not contribute to the public good in terms of denigration and condemnation, and to speak about those who do contribute to the public good in terms of praise and commendation. The person who makes such a contribution shows civic virtue and deserves honors for what he has done. The person who hoards money and refuses to make a contribution deserves scorn and ridicule.

In doing this, what we are really trying to do is avoid the type of situation that makes free ridership possible. We want to do this by saying that those who contribute to the public good not only get his cut of the total social return, but he also gets to fulfill a desire to contribute to the public good. We are seeking to increase the value of contributing, while decreasing the value of refusing to contribute, in order to promote contributions and inhibit selfish restraint from making contributions.

Everybody has reason to contribute to these institutions, because everybody has reason to prefer the society where everybody has $1500 over the society where everybody has $1000. Please note, I am using money in these examples. However, the money is just a place holder for ‘getting what one wants.’ This is really a choice between a situation where everybody has a score of 1500 ‘getting what one wants’ versus a score of 1000 ‘getting what one wants’, Between these two options, the 1500 score is better (more of what one wants) by definition.

For example, there is a tendency of giving people who have served in the military some preference when it comes to electing community leaders. This makes sense. Somebody who has served in the military – particularly somebody who volunteers in times of war when the potential costs are particularly high and the payoffs certainly disbursed – has given us reason to believe that he has a desire to contribute to the public good.

Whereas, at the same time, if an agent shunned military service, and even took pains to avoid military service while others were serving (e.g., President Bush, Vice President Cheney), then we have reason to question whether the agent actually has much of a concern for the public good. Such an agent may be more interested in his or her own good, and may be quite willing to see the public good sacrificed for his or her benefit.

Of course, this is not an inviolable law. Somebody may fail to enter the military and yet still have a strong interest in making contributions to promote the public good. Similarly, somebody may see the military as merely another employment opportunity (particularly in times of peace) or as a way of making people think he or she cares about the public good. That is to say, they may see it as a stepping stone to public office.

The general principle is to be on the lookout for evidence that an individual sees value in contributing to the public good, and to hold those people up as role models for the next generation, while also finding examples of those who seem to care nothing for public goods and saying, “No good person will grow up to behave like that.”

Please note that I have been talking about two different ways in which the moral system avoids free-rider problems when it comes to public goods. One way is by providing an individual who contributes to public goods with praise and honors, and those who do not contribute with condemnation and dishonor. Praise and honor have positive value for most people, while condemnation and dishonor have negative value. Therefore, they increase the payoff of contributing to the public good, and decrease the payoff of not contributing. If these payoffs are sufficiently high, they eliminate the free rider problem.

In extreme cases, actual reward and punishment are possible, where ‘rewards’ of course are things that an individual desires that increase the value of contributing to the public good, while ‘punishment’ is something to which the agent is averse or has a reason to avoid, decreasing the value of not cooperating.

In addition, these types of institutions promote a desire to contribute to public goods and an aversion to not contributing to public goods that give these contributions a value independent of any rewards or honors that a person may receive. In this sense, “virtue is its own reward” in the sense that a person who has the virtue of a desires to contribute to the public good and who is contributing to the public good is in the same position as a person who desires to eat chocolate and who is eating chocolate.

Combined, these factors can do a significant amount of work in helping societies obtain the value of public goods by helping them to avoid the problem of free ridership.