Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Atheists' Bleak Alternative?

What society loses when it discards Judeo-Christian faith and belief in God is something far more difficult to replace: the value system most likely to promote ethical behavior and sustain a decent society.

This is false.

It is a piece of fiction – worse, a piece of derogatory and bigoted fiction – that we see every day. When I read this, I decided that I would use this opportunity to write up my response. Then, whenever I find this type of statement in the future, I could refer them back to this post, and not have to recreate the wheel each time I could use one.

The sentence quoted above can be found in a column in the Boston Globe written by Jeff Jacoby called “Atheists’ Bleak Alternative.” In it, Jacoby lamented the fact that so few Christmas cards (in England) had a religious theme. This was taken to be evidence of a loss of religious faith (in Ameirca); a situation that, according to this author, signaled the end of civilization.

But belief tethered to clear ethical values -- Judeo-Christian monotheism -- is society's best bet for restraining our worst moral impulses and encouraging our best ones.

Again, this is false.

I am not making a subjectivist’s claim that there is no ‘right’ moral system and that I just don’t happen to like this one. My claim is that there are moral facts, just as there are scientific facts. Furthermore, just as religion has stood in the way of the discovery and teaching of scientific facts – holding science back by making it answer to a set of superstitions invented by primitive tribesmen, it has also stood in the way of discovering and promulgating moral facts – holding morality back by making it answer to a set of superstitions invented by primitive tribesmen.

In the realm of science, we can expect that a bunch of primitive tribesmen will get some basic physics and chemistry right. They will understand that water will flow down hill and what dense objects fall towards the ground. However, they are going to get a lot of the details – those scientific facts not immediately obvious – wrong.

The same is true in morals. Those tribesmen invented a crude, primitive moral system that allowed their societies to stick around. At the very least, those societies that did not meet some minimum moral standard would fail, and those that did meet that standard, even if accidentally, survived. However, even a society that survivied cannot reasonably be thought to get all the details in morals as in science right.

The problem with clinging on to these ancient moral beliefs is the same as the problem of clinging to ancient science beliefs – the vast majority of them are simply mistaken. It makes as little sense to say that The Bible is the final word in morals as it does to say that Hypocrates was the final word in medicine.

Clinging to primitive scientific error means that we will do a poorer job of explaining and predicting the world around us, making us less able to engineer buildings, fight disease, grow food, warm our homes, and basically keep ourselves alive and healthy.

Clinging to primitive moral error means that we will continue to act unjustly and unfairly to others – inflicting harm on others in the name of God that we really have no reason to inflict – harms that people believe are justified only because they are clinging on to errors borne from ignorance.

The history of the last 500 years in particular has been a history of fighting primitive moral errors.

There was the error that it is wrong to charge interest. In fact, charging interest is essential to a healthy economy. Interest rates carry a combination of information and incentive that helps to direct money (and, with it, human effort) into more useful direction. A society without interest is a society of waste, depravation, and misery. A society that allows the collection of interest is a society that . . . well, look around you.

There was the error that the government must use its power to force everybody’s allegiance to the same Church. For 1,500 years these traditional religious values demanded that heretics be killed and that nobody may be allowed to question the ‘truths’ handed to them from the church. This mental stagnation gave us the dark ages. And, when people started to wake up and actually think for themselves, these traditional values gave us crusades and ‘justified’ the slaughtering of whole cities full of people and, in later years, wars that depopulated vast regions of Europe. The concept of freedom of religion did not come from any Bible. It came from secular sources – from people desperate to end religious violence by forcing religions not to fight.

People who replaced, “Thou shalt have no God before me,” with “Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” did not get their morality from any Judeo-Christian source. The First Amendment to the Constitution is not a quote out of the Bible. The First Amendment to the Constitution does nothing less than repeal the First Commandment.

In fact, none of the Bill of Rights, nor the principles in the Declaration of Independence, were derived from any religious source. They were parts of a system of secular morality that did not look to the Bible for mral guidance. Instead, they imagined man in a “state of nature” and asked a very simple question. “What rules would it be reasonable for man in a state of nature to adopt to better secure their safety and happiness?”

The rules that better secure our safety and happiness do not require a God. And the rules we tend to get from God (or, more precisely, from those primitive tribesmen prone to error on account of their ignorance) tend not to be useful rules for securing our safety and happiness.

There was the error of the divine right of kings. This is the idea that governments are formed by God and that the people had a duty to obey (and worship) their monarchs in the same way they would obey (and worship) God. Judeo-Christians had thousands of years to explain that this was a mistake – that people had inalienable rights and that governments are not created by God, but by people.

There was also the moral error of slavery – condoned and even commanded in biblical text. This is yet another Judeo-Christian moral error discovered once people started looking at ethics rationally and at the rules that would actually best secure our safely and happiness. During the Civil War, it was the South – as it is now – that clung most tightly to their Bibles and claimed the need to defend Judeo-Christian Bibles. That is not to say that the North denied the existence of God. However, they did affirm that we find moral truth by looking at things other than scripture and, if reason contradicted scripture, then it was scripture that was to be thrown out, not reason.

The same pattern continues today. We are still fighting the moral errors of primitive tribesmen. The prohibitions that many religious fundamentalists fight for – prohibitions on homosexual marriage, early term abortion, stem cell research; and requirements for prayer in school, separating populations between a ‘we’ who trust in God and ‘they’ who do not, and forcing schools to teach science fiction of ‘intelligent design’ and ‘young earth’ in place of science fact, are simply the most recent examples of moral error derived from a Judeo-Christian source. We have people fighting against peace in the Middle East, feeding violent conflict between Arabs and Jews because they think that The Bible requires that Israel be restored to its original borders.

This list are not elements of “the value system most likely to promote ethical behavior and sustain a decent society.” They are 21st century representatives of a history of harm and injustice inflicted on good people – ripping apart their lives - allegedly in the name of God.

Let us not forget that the most religious President we have had, with the greatest support from the Religious Right, is the same President that brought us a war of aggression, torture, rendition, secret prisons, a repeal of habeas corpus, and a President who claims the ability to bypass the legislature and the courts effectively writing his own laws through signing statements and executive orders.

One would expect that a group touted as holding “the value system most likely to promote ethical behavior and sustain a decent society” would be the first to abandon a leader who showed such fundamental disregard for the principles of ethical behavior and upon which decent societies are built. Yet, to this day, the religious right remains the unflinching defenders of Bush’s doctrine of tyranny and unchecked executive authority.

There leads us to another, related problem that deserves mention that speaks against the ‘value’ of this Judeo-Christian value system.

The backwards thinking that allows people to blind themselves to the overwhelming evidence that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and humans evolved on this planet during that time is the same backwards thinking that allows them to blind themselves to the fact that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and that marching into the country was a foolish idea.

It is the same backwards thinking that allows people to blind themselves to the evidence that humans are creating global climate problems that risks tens of trillions of dollars worth of damage to the world economy per year – with the majority of those costs falling on those who can least afford them.

It is the same backwards thinking that allows people to blind themselves to the overwhelming evidence that the “beliefs” that they take to be divine commandments that they use to justify actions that do such tremendous harm to others, are the bigotries, prejudices, and superstitious guesses of primitive tribesmen who were basically ignorant of the world in which they lived.

It is the same backwards thinking that leads somebody to believe, “The atheist alternative is a world in which right and wrong are ultimately matters of opinion, and in which we are finally accountable to no one but ourselves,” as if to say that an atheist could find no reason to pull his hand out of a bed of burning coals or to create a society in which his child can grow up safe and happy. It is an absurdity, but those who think backwards find it easy to accept such absurdities, particularly when they allow the person to ‘justify’ in his own mind the hate that he feels towards others.

These are not innocent mistakes, like missing a word on a spelling test. These are mistakes that bring death, disease, and destruction on a national – even a global scale. These are mistakes that destroy lives. These are not, by any stretch of the imagination, society's best bet for restraining our worst moral impulses and encouraging our best ones.

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