When the Internet Gives you Lemons…

What is not OK?

A long time ago, someone made an Internet video reading an e-mail I had written to them during an e-mail exchange. Everything was fine until they reached a point in the letter where what they were “reading” was not what I had written. I defended myself here at the blog because they were claiming I had made substantially hateful comments about homosexuals. Because it was defamatory and untrue, this expression was slanderous and illegal. And after a few nasty days of TAE working with this individual toward a resolution, the person was finally compelled to remove the content and issue an apology and clarification that I had never issued such comments.

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Matt Slick defends “honor killing”: a woman’s hymen is worth more than her life

By way of introduction, some of you will remember Matt Dillahunty’s on-air debate with apologist Matt Slick of the CARM website, which was recorded on February 22, 2009. If you missed it, here you go. Keep in mind this is the first of nine parts.

Recently one of our viewers emailed us about a rather alarming article by Slick on the CARM site that stands as an exemplar of just how religion’s confused notions of what constitutes “morality” has led religion to be the foremost enabler of atrocity in history. In brief, when Christians insist that morality itself is impossible without Christianity, and atheists reply by rattling off endless examples both from scripture and real life of the devout behaving badly, the spin machine kicks into gear so fast you can practically see the Higgs boson particles zinging off it in all directions. Justify, justify, justify, is the order of the day.

Here, Slick justifies what may be one of the most appalling crimes there is: the “honor killing” of daughters (yes, it’s always daughters) who are not acceptably virginal in the eyes of their fathers and grooms. In this context, “father” and “groom” is a term interchangeable with “owner.”

Slick begins by quoting a lengthy passage from Deuteronomy in which God’s laws for dealing with an insufficiently chaste bride are detailed. The passage first declares that any groom who is caught trying to weasel out of his marriage by lying that his bride was not a virgin will be fined 100 shekels and then forbidden from ever divorcing his wife as long as he lives (which I imagine is considered the worse punishment). On the other hand, if it turns out that the bride was indeed not a virgin at her nuptials, then the skanky ho is to be taken out and stoned to death.

So let’s review. Man at fault = fined money. Woman at fault = murdered. Yeah, that sounds ever so egalitarian!

To attempt to defend a practice so primitive, inhumane and frankly monstrous, one would, you’d think, have to be not only an idiot, but someone plumbing hitherto unexamined depths of idiocy just to see how far he could go before imploding into something like a black hole of idiocy so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape. Well, folks, we have that intrepid explorer right here. Step right up, Mr. Slick.

When you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose, and so Slick leads with his worst punch.

Critics of the Bible must be careful not to impose their present day moral system upon that of an ancient culture found in Scripture and then judge Scripture as though it is inferior to their own subjective morality. The above verses were written 3,000 years ago in a very different culture and location.

Uhhh…yeah. Let’s see, how do I explain this to someone so intellectually impacted?

What is at issue here is the notion of treating a human being as property, denied any sense of personal agency. By slipping in that favorite of all apologetic weasel phrases, “subjective morality,” Slick doubtless believes he’s scored a home run right out of the dugout, when in fact it’s a pop fly. If anyone here is exhibiting “subjective” morality, it’s Slick, making the above quote one of the most awesome irony-meter-melting sentences you’re likely to read from an apologetics source.

Slick appears to accept that our moral precepts are different from those of 3000 years ago. Thus he suggests that while we may be right to be appalled at savage acts of cruelty towards young women in 2011 CE, we have no reason to be appalled by the same acts in 989 BCE. (Yeah, I used a calculator.) I guess time heals all wounds, eh? And yet, Slick gives us no reason why we should suspend our “subjective” morality in this way. Beyond basically saying “This is how they rolled back then,” we are given no valid moral justification (hell, I’d have even taken a mildly coherent one) for why we should think misogynist brutality is A-okay as long as it happened long long ago.

Moreover, is there a statute of limitations (maybe in the fine print at the bottom of the decalogue tablets) for this kind of thing? Is there a cutoff period where my “subjective” morality just becomes straight-up morality and it’s okay for me to call an atrocity an atrocity? Can I just look at American slavery and say, “Well, I must must be careful not to impose my present day moral system on the culture of 160 years ago.” Or is it too soon?

Let us briefly consider what is involved in stoning someone to death.

Matt Frauenfelder at Boing Boing (too many Matts in this piece, I must say) has helpfully provided us with an illustrated guide. This graphic shows how they do it in the Muslim world, which is the only contemporary culture I know of still goat-fucking barbaric enough to pull this crap. The details might have been different when the ancient Jews did it, but I suspect the results were the same: a dead girl.

First the victim is partially buried standing up, because it’s no fun if the stonee is running around frantically for her life. You might miss and hit your mom or something. Then, the actual process of killing the victim can take anywhere from 20 minutes to a couple of hours, depending on, I don’t know, whether the victim’s skull is especially thick, or whether the stones are nice and hard or soft and crumbly, or maybe it’s just a matter of how goddamned sadistic the killers are feeling that day.

Imagine being in the pit. You can see nothing, but you hear the deafening roar of the crowd’s bloodlust. Your pulse is hammering, and you have probably already shit yourself in blind terror. Then, after what seems like an agonizing eternity, the first rock clips you. Maybe it hurts like a bastard, but wasn’t hard enough to kill you. (In Islamist countries, there is in fact a law that the rocks used cannot be so heavy and large as to kill with the first blow. Not nice spoiling everyone’s fun.) But after the explosion of pain, you start feeling light-headed, dizzy. A few more blows, and you go into shock. Your vital signs plunge, your whole body begins to feel cold, and if you haven’t shit yourself already, now you do. You slip out of consciousness. If you’re lucky, you’ll die very soon after this.

I suspect this is as terrifying and brutal a way to die 3000 years ago as it is today. I see no reason to think a young girl experiencing the above back in the distant past would have felt any less horror, agony and despair than her modern-day counterpart. So why is Slick telling me that it’s okay to be appalled by modern-day stonings, but that I’m out of line for being appalled by 3000-year-old stonings? Is there some “moral absolute” at play that I’m just not Christian enough to get here?

Anyway, let your imagination run with all this as you continue to read Slick’s apologia. Remember the above is what he’s defending.

Sexual purity was very highly valued, unlike today, and when a man would marry a woman, her virginity was critical. In ancient times a dowry was paid to the father of the bride and the rightful expectation was that the bride would be a virgin.

So there, you see? She’s his property, so that makes it okay. And notice the snide aside about “sexual purity [being] highly valued, unlike today.” Yeah, because we all know a woman’s hymen is of more value to her male owner than her fucking life. There’s your religious “morality,” gang.

When you’re in a hole, stop digging, unless you’re a Christian apologist. Slick goes on yet some more, reiterating that really, it’s just all about teh mehnz.

In the culture of the time it was the father who was charged with the covering, care, and well-being of his daughter. Her sexual purity was representative of the father’s ability to raise her according to the laws God. Therefore, in that culture, a man’s reputation, as well as the family’s reputation in the community, could be adversely affected by the fornication of his daughter. If his daughter had been promised to a man to be married, and a dowry had been paid, there was every expectation from the bridegroom that she would be a virgin. If the contrary was discovered after the marriage, then the implication is that there had been a deception in which the father could be implicated, or it would mean that he was unaware of her sin and this would bring great shame to the family and the community, not to mention it being a display of outright rebellion against God’s law. In this case, to insure the integrity of the family, and to remove the evil of adulterous/fornication from the community, stoning was advocated.

Again with the “in that culture” business. Here is why Matt Slick is a moral imbecile: S.F.W. if this activity was the norm “in that culture”; does Slick think it’s right or wrong to do this to another human being, period? Especially — especially — for reasons as pitifully selfish and banal as your own “shame.” Slick steadfastly avoids passing any moral judgment upon the killing, while telling “critics of the Bible” they are in no position to pass a moral judgment either, which is itself a moral judgment. Somehow, you can’t condemn death by stoning (if it’s ancient and Biblical, that is, because something tells me Slick would flip-flop in a picosecond when presented with the spectacle of modern-day Islamist stonings), but you can condemn those who’d condemn it, on the ground that they are somehow applying “subjective” moral standards.

So what is the Godly “moral absolute” on this issue then, Mr. Slick? Can young women be treated as chattel by their fathers and husbands, or not? Can they be murdered for making men embarrassed about their pee-pees, or not? If a “morally subjective” approach is the wrong way to think about all this, then clearly a “morally absolute” approach is the right way. So what does the absolute moral lawgiver have to say, Mr. Slick? Is he pissed off that we no longer stone our women to death? If his morals are absolute, shouldn’t this still be common practice today?

I think I’ve said enough. If any article demonstrates better than this one how badly religion can screw up a human being’s fundamental sense of right and wrong, I’ve managed to miss it. Religion, far from providing anything like morality, simply sets a list of arbitrary rules that allow any number of vile acts to be visited upon the helpless, and it is all elaborately justified with feeble rhetoric later. Secular morality may not be perfect either, but it is immeasurably stronger for being rooted in basic human empathy and reason. Not only do I not need a God to tell me that “honor killings” are a horrible evil, but it appears that people who do have a God don’t think it’s all that evil after all. Lord, protect me from your followers!

(That was sarcasm.)

From the mailbag: Getting away with it

If an individual lives a life of getting away with murder, rape, pillaging, and really anything against a simple human moral code and never gets caught, do you feel that the person just simply got away with it? I’m sure the answer is yes, but I’m curious as to where the barrier of living out our darkest desires and why we would bother with morality if we knew there was some way to simply not get caught for the things we do?

I have a few separate points to make about this. The first is that justice is important to people, which is why we establish laws for people to follow, penalties if they don’t, and a system that is impartial as possible to keep people following those laws. So your question about what would happen if nobody got caught for doing harmful things doesn’t apply in modern society. It’s not a perfect system, but it tends to work pretty well keeping me safe most of the time.

Second, you’d be wrong to assume that fear of punishment is the only thing that keeps people from committing crimes. One thing is empathy for other people. Should I go on a killing spree? Why would I want to? I care about other people, and I would feel bad if they died because of me. It wouldn’t be particularly pleasurable for me, I wouldn’t get any benefit from it, and there’s that pesky human justice system that would make the rest of my life unpleasant.

Third, maybe there is some doctrine out there that promises justice that distinguishes between people’s good and bad actions… but Christianity is not that doctrine. I don’t know what sect you follow, but many of the ones I’m aware of claim that we are saved through faith and not through good works. Most Protestants assert that we are all terrible sinners regardless of what particular things we’ve done, and every single person deserves eternal torture equally. A preacher like Ray Comfort doesn’t draw a distinction between a guy like me, who just doesn’t believe in God, and someone who (as you say) gets away with murder, rape, and pillaging. In fact, according to some preachers, this hypothetical murderer could experience a sincere conversion moments before he died, and he’d go to heaven.

So in promoting Christianity, I think you’re really asking whether I feel bad that I won’t ever experience eternal suffering as the just punishment for my own crime of not believing in your God. And the answer is no.

Mechanisms of Religious Evil (Lecture)

We haven’t had a show since before the holidays, so maybe everyone’s ready for a little dose of video atheism. I gave this lecture Sunday as part of the Atheist Community of Austin Lecture Series.

In the lecture, I explore what religious evil is, where it comes from, and how it can be mitigated. Please feel free to critique the lecture with your comments. I promise to read everything and use it to improve the lecture in future versions.

If lectures are not your cup of tea, The Atheist Experience will be back on the air Sunday, January 9th at the usual time.


Don Baker on “Mechanisms of Religious Evil”

Mp3 audio is available here and the PowerPoint slides are available here.

On changing minds

In a previous thread, someone wrote: “While debating with a theist can be as invigorating as playing chess, one should bear in mind that it’s doing them harm. It’s driving them deeper into their psychosis.”

This is simply not true, and yet it’s unfortunately a very common meme among the “Don’t be a dick” crowd. As a counterpoint, I’d like to share a letter we received a few months ago. I don’t post stuff like this often, as it would come across as too self-congratulatory, but I do want to remind everyone that people sometimes change their minds.


For context: This guy originally wrote to us in January. He wrote that seeing the show was causing serious doubts in his own Christian beliefs. He then went on to say:

I was wondering, if there is no higher power, how you would justify morality in an atheist at all? Please don’t misunderstand, as a young person on the verge of apostasy, I’m not saying that atheists have no morals, although I have met ‘christians’ who have claimed as much. After all, if there is no higher power, then there is no objective truth, ergo no objective morality, meaning all morality is subjective. If that is the case, then to say that a murderer is immoral is surely a fallacy, as he no doubt acted as his morals saw fit. If morality is subjective, then he is as moral for acting out the murder he saw as moral as you are for not acting out a murder you saw as immoral.



I wrote back and we discussed the morality issue for a while. The angle I took on this was the Euthyphro Dilemma, though I usually don’t refer to it by name. I like to explore the concept that a God-given morality is somehow objective in a way that human consensus-derived morality is not. In the course of three more exchanges between us, and some messages from Tracie thrown in, we discussed slavery; we discussed the story of Jephthah; we talked about what kind of commands God could issue that would be considered by this person to be immoral.

After a while he said that they were hard questions but he still felt like there must be a god. The conversation petered out.

In September I received this:



Hi, Mr. Glasser,


I doubt you remember me, but we had a discussion about religion and so on just under a year ago. I have since become an atheist and I thought I’d drop you an e-mail to thank you. The video I e-mailed about in the first place was the first real faith-shaking material I had come into contact with, and from there I kept investigating my religion scientifically, historically and morally. Obviously, I found it wanting and, as I said earlier, have since renounced it. I thought I’d let you know a few of the final arguments in convincing me that the bible, at least, is wrong, not really in case you hadn’t heard them (I’m sure you have), but rather because, since our discussion must have been frustrating for you, I’d like you to know. One is that the God of the bible forced us into sin, and therefore knowingly and willingly condemned literally billions of people to hell by creating the Eden situation in the first place, for he knew what would happen but did nothing to change it. This is an act of incredible cruelty, and is unjustifiable, giving trouble even to my own father (a minister). That’s a moral argument, I suppose, but also shows a biblical contradiction (if God is all loving and unchanging then this act (among dozens of notable others) should be impossible). The second is the fallibility of the bible. I wonder if you knew that Luke, in his gospel, lists 28 generations between Joseph, Jesus’ father, and David, whereas Matthew gives 41. On top of that, the census Luke wrote about never happened, and the local census upon which it may have been based happened long after Herod’s death.

Those are just a few, but anyway, thanks again for showing me another way of thinking, and it’s thanks in part to you guys and what you’re doing that I am being fascinated and amazed every day by the way that the world works without resorting to the ‘Don’t ask questions, God did it’ train of thought.





So. I have been asked, on a few occasions, whether arguing with people about atheism ever changes people’s minds. My answer is always “Very rarely, and the changes are usually minor but positive.” This is what I would consider a happy exception.

Is everything about religion bad?

Someone wrote recently to ask “Is everything about religion bad?” My reply was that religion can be used to channel the good or the bad in some people. But it has the additional downside of channeling some good people toward bad. So, I would rather advocate promoting good using reason than using religion which comes at a heavy cost.

His reply was not an uncommon one, basically that when good comes out of religious work we should credit religion, but when bad comes out of religious work, we should not credit religion. This boils down to “When people do what I would do in the name of religion, they’re interpreting it correctly; when they don’t do what I would do in the name of religion, they are clearly interpreting something wrong.” Bear in mind the people “incorrectly interpreting” it say the person making this accusation is the person incorrectly interpreting it.

In this particular case, the writer noted that religion is subject to interpretation, is produced by flawed ancient men, and that it should both (1) be given to uneducated people to give them hope, but (2) not be expected to be understood accurately by uneducated people who sometimes are inspired by it to do what it actually says (that is kill gays, instruct people not to wear condoms, thwart education, be misogynistic, and so on).

I pointed out that I had no way to determine who, if anyone, was able to correctly “interpret” a Bible. We can’t all be right—but we can all be wrong. He replied: “I don’t care if it’s wrong” (only whether or not it inspires good).

Think of that: I take a religious book that says that it’s good to love others and also that it’s good to kill others. I don’t know if anything in the book is true, and more to the point, I don’t care if it’s true. But I advocate giving that religion to people for the good it does. When some people say they love others because of the religion, I praise the religion, for the love it inspires. But when people say they’re killing others because of the religion, I say it’s not the religion’s fault, because clearly this group doesn’t know how to interpret the holy book that says to both love and kill one another. Further, by filtering reality this way, I can keep handing this religion to everyone, and claiming it only does good.

In other words: I don’t care if we submit a lie to people. I don’t care if that lie goes to many people who I already know will have trouble understanding it’s a lie—and who will most likely believe it—in all its authoritative and brutal entirety. And when these people hear religion’s instructions to hate and kill, and actually do hate and kill, I don’t have to think for a moment it’s due to this lie, or to me advocating and spreading it.

Whatever helps you sleep at night, I suppose?

On the heels of this letter was another from a young atheist who described his religious parents as doing what they think is right, and then interpreting their religion in such a way as to make sure god agrees with what they’re doing. In fact, we have all seen this quite often. And my original correspondent actually is a prime example of this. He indicated that where the Bible says it’s OK to hate and pillage, people ought to understand it was ignorant people producing these texts and not believe these things are “good” ideas. In other words, do what you reason is right—and then make the Bible agree with whatever you’d like it to say.

This is surely one common style of Christian. But I can’t simply ignore that there are others.

Surely we have examples throughout history and even today of people who use religion to justify their hate and aggression. I agree it’s possible these sorts would be horrible people even without religion. They’d certainly have opportunities to find political ideologies or social hate groups to glom onto. No doubt all the bad in the world cannot be attributed to religion, I will agree.

But there is a third category of Christian that this defender is not considering, and won’t consider, in fact. This Christian is the main problem, the collateral damage. This is the sincere person, wanting to do good, who believes these texts in full. This would be the Christian who says that, “I wouldn’t normally call my gay son an abomination, or shun my mother for divorcing my dad, or vote down someone else’s civil rights, but god says to do it, and as a mere mortal the Bible says I cannot question the all-knowing, all-mighty god who is the author of morality and this book (and must have a greater good in mind when he tells me to do these things that are counter to my personal moral sense).”

These are not extremists. In fact, this represents a great many indoctrinated people. People who have been raised to disregard and doubt their own judgment and simply obey—because that is “good.”

On our show, we have demonstrated that there are “good Christians” who will agree to torture their own children without requiring an explanation, if god asks them to do so. They’re not always comfortable admitting this, but they will confess it once you get past the “god would never ask this,” defense. Not surprisingly, the AETV e-list has been able in correspondence to get people, who write to inform us that religion is actually a net good, to say this exact thing as well. Consider what it would take for a parent to willingly torture their own child. And yet, with no explanation, and on god’s word alone, those who would harm their own children for god are writing to explain we’re missing the “good” part of religion’s impact on people. These two ideas exist, somehow at peace, within the same mind.

My point to this writer was that if “good” comes out of religion only when good people filter out the horror it suggests they do, why promote the full lie? Why keep using the Bible if you’re going to only adhere to the parts that suggest what you already were going to do anyway? How is that not simply doing whatever you, personally, think is right? Why not admit you’re using your own human morality, that you, clearly by your actions, demonstrate you deem superior to the morality espoused in this “holy” religion?

And if we agree that a literal reading is a major headache for humanity, and we agree that the many parts that instruct evil are inherently flawed and should be rejected, and if the only parts we’re going to use are the parts we can justify by using our own reasoning capacity—why not just stick to the reasoning capacity we’re relying upon, and stop imposing this textual source of confusion (you demonstrate people don’t need) upon human beings who are all but bound to read it as literal and holy truth in a great many areas of the globe, and who are, in their minds, commanded by god to act upon it in every regard?

If we can inspire good without the superstitious and demonstrably dangerous ambiguity, what is the reason for maintaining that mode?

I guess the irony to me is that I was asked if everything about religion was bad. I answered “no,” that it’s good mixed with bad. That clearly wasn’t good enough. The right answer could only be that religion is all good and there is nothing bad about it. And this person accused me of simplifying this issue.

Can we be moral without god?

A young man has written to the list a few times. He seems to be “atheist curious” and apparently is being influenced by religion. But rather than blindly accept what he’s being told, he is sending the apologetics to us to say “What do you all think of this?”

Whenever I’ve replied, he’s been extremely polite and expressed gratitude. And in his last correspondence, he asked a common question: If atheism offers no beliefs or guidance in life, on what grounds does an atheist tell anyone else they’re behaving morally incorrectly?

Here is my reply:

This is a very involved question with a lot of angles. I’m going to include some links, and explain why I believe they are relevant. This is a question many different people in many different cultures through time have attempted to address. In the end, as with all such questions, you are going to have to process the data and try to draw the best conclusion you can based on your observations and values.

First of all, let’s start with the prior base [which he had already agreed to in a previous e-mail], that humans are demonstrably social animals. You can see we are. We live in societies all around the globe. Other social animals we observe include lions, wolves, dogs, and so onany animal that lives in a community and requires cooperation, generally, to survive. Lots of animals aren’t social, but we can see when they are; and humans clearly are.

This means we have evolved things like compassion, guilt, concern, and so on. We have all the individual survival instincts, but also instincts that cause us to care about others to some degree. People will have these to different degrees. Some will be so compassionate they won’t hurt a fly. Others will be so uncaring they will be labeled as sociopaths. Nearly all physical traits, whether they affect our minds or bodies [obviously not intended in the dualistic sense, but in context of a discussion on morality], will be spread through the population on a bell curve, where there will be a “normal” range, where most of us fall, but then extremes on either end. So, we see most people have brown eyes around the world, or cholesterol that falls in a certain range, or are within a normal weight range, or have normal intelligence, etc. And there are always people who fall within more or less “normal” ranges. This diversity is actually beneficial to us as a species, because adaptability depends on being able to move the population in different directions. The “normal” ranges for us now are simply “where we’re at” currently, but people can, for example, get to be “taller” on average than they were 200 years back.

So, we have these basic sets of normal emotional ranges that encompass our interactions with other people. But they are very basic. You can see this in domestic dogs. We are able to train dogs easily because, like us, they are highly social. So, they have some of the same emotional ranges we do when it comes to understanding “right” from “wrong” behaviors. People can easily get a dog to understand good behaviors by rewarding the dog. And likewise, we can train a dog that certain things are “wrong”—such as biting people or jumping on the sofa. If the dog “knows” it can’t jump on the sofa, it will display behaviors of submission if you catch it on the sofa. So, it may put a tail down, or whimper or slump—to show you it knows it did what you don’t want it to do. The dog is socialized, and this is why it is easy for people to train and work with dogs.

People are similar. We have basic sets of underlying feelings about cooperative interactions. Some authors talk about an underlying sense of “fairness.” You can see this at an early age. If a child possesses a thing it likes, and you grab it away, the child becomes upset. Nobody likes to have something they like taken from them. That’s a basic feeling most of us share. Also, nobody likes pain. And to a high degree, if we’re healthy and well, most of us prefer living to dying.

Now, in reality, there are societies where “fair” includes things that here in the U.S. we don’t think are fair at all. For example, in some areas of the globe, if a woman walks down the street unescorted, she might be killed, and it’s actually sometimes considered correct for people to harm or kill her for that behavior.

The question you are asking is: What do we do when we think it’s wrong to treat a woman this way—but an entire other society thinks it’s OK? How is that resolved?

But the problem is the same within a culture, as well as between cultures. Here in the US, we have disputes about whether or not many things are OK, or not OK, for people to do. There are a lot of arguments about whether drug use should be criminal or whether abortion should be legal. And you probably have seen or heard people arguing about these things.

You are absolutely correct that atheism does not resolve any of this. Atheism only means you don’t believe a god exists. So, atheism really would not be the right place to look if you wanted to know about something like “what is moral action?” For that, you’d want to consult behavioral psychology or even philosophy. You’d have to do a lot of reading and thinking to figure out what you think is right and what you think is best.

Here are some links as examples:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Psychology-t.html?_r=2&ref=science

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_philosophy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_dilemmas

For myself, I tend to think that if I wouldn’t want to be treated badly, it’s best not to treat others badly. Jesus used the Golden Rule, and a man named Stephen Covey used a Platinum Rule. Jesus said it was best to treat people how you’d like to be treated. Stephen said it’s actually better to treat the other person how the other person would like to be treated, since he or she may not like the same things you do. Other societies have used other versions of this idea, with things like “don’t do things to people you wouldn’t want done to you.”

Additionally, there is a question of how much control we should have over others. If what you do doesn’t hurt me or cause social harm, should I pass laws to stop you from doing it? This is at the heart of arguments about things like gay marriage.

If you don’t believe a god is telling you what to do, that means you become responsible for trying to figure out morality on your own and for coming up with the best ideas you can about how you ought to treat others.

In the end, people make the rules for human society. And we must all ask ourselves how much we want to be involved in that. If there is a vote for gay marriage in my area, will I vote for it, against it, or do nothing? That’s what I have to decide for myself. Do I want to help them? Impede them? Or do nothing and leave it to others to decide?

And then we have the question of societies and whether or not they should interfere with one another. This is also a personal question each of us is responsible for answering. If a neighboring culture is rounding up Jews into prison camps, and torturing and killing them—do we care? Do we intervene? There is a lot of debate and heated argument over things like this. For a long time, the U.S. hesitated to become involved in WWII. Should we have done something sooner? Should we have done nothing? That’s a question each person must answer for him/herself. Do you push your legislators to get involved? Do you tell them not to get involved? Do you do nothing and leave it to others to decide?

What are your values? What do you want from life and other people? What sort of world do you want to live in? What do you feel are your obligations toward others? What is your tolerance for personal suffering, or for the suffering of others?

These aren’t easy questions. But religion tries to pretend they are.

It is very easy to say “God’s will be done…” and leave it other people to do the work in this world.

I know you did not specifically ask about the following, but I want to offer it, just as something to consider. And I hope it’s OK.

Often when Christians ask something like you just did, they mean something like this: “I get my morality from god/the Bible; but without those, where would I get morality?” I know this is not what you said specifically; but it reminds me of this question in some ways. And there is an additional dilemma here that many religious people fail to consider. Long ago a man named Euthyphro had a thought that went like this:

“Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”

What he is asking, is whether there is such a thing as “morality,” or if morality only means “doing whatever god says.”

The problem comes in with verses in the Bible like these:

1 Samuel 15:2-3: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

Exodus 21: 20-21: “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.

Leviticus 20:13 “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

So, in the Bible, we have Old Testament passages that state clearly that god told people to go and commit genocide against their neighbors—even killing infants and animals. Then, we have two passages from the Law of God, one that describes how it’s OK to have a slave and beat the slave near to death, and another that says we should execute gay men.

Obviously today, we would never consider these acts anything less than barbaric. If a country committed genocide, they would be globally condemned. If a country sanctioned slavery, we’d condemn that as well. And in Uganda, where they actually are passing laws to execute gays, there is an outcry against that law as an atrocity.

So, the question is, is there anything really wrong with killing gays, infants, and beating people near to death?

If morality is simply “whatever god says,” that means these things aren’t actually wrong. It means that sometimes it’s right to do these things. Any Christian who says “That was the old testament” is plainly saying “I agree that sometimes it’s right. When god said it back then, it was right. I agree it should have been done.”

Unless they’re willing to say it was wrong in the Old Testament—even if god said to do it—then they’re claiming some
times it’s OK to have slaves and beat them, kill gay people, and slaughter infants in droves.

Were these things ever OK to do to other human beings? If a person answers “yes,” then they have no moral compass. They are saying any action can be moral or immoral, all it takes is for god to say “do it” to make it “right.”

If they say that actions are not moral “just because god says to do them,” then the response is that these verses I just used demonstrate Yahweh tells people to do immoral things. A moral person would want to stop a person from beating another near to death as “property.” A moral person would want to stop a person from slaughtering babies out of pure vindictiveness. A moral person wouldn’t ever stand by and let someone kill someone else simply because they’re gay.

Usually the Christian response is that god knows better, and when god tells people to do horrible things, there is a greater good at work. We’re told we can’t recognize the larger plan, because we’re just humans, and not gods. But the problem there is: If you can’t tell a good action from an evil action, then how do you know it’s good if god says to go kill babies? It sounds evil—so what makes a person accept it’s good?

And it appears to come down to this:

If god says to do something awful, should you do it?

And here is my answer:

If I can’t understand how it’s good, and it seems evil, I can’t do it. Ultimately I am responsible for my actions. And if I don’t do this action, at least I can justify to you why I didn’t do it—why I judged it was evil. But if I blindly trust an authority, even when the action appears clearly to be evil, how do I know what I’ve done really wasn’t the evil it appeared to be? How can I justify my actions in that scenario? I can’t. I can only hope the atrocity I committed wasn’t really the atrocity it seemed.

And I couldn’t live with that level of irresponsibility. I need to know what I’m doing and why if someone wants me to do something I cannot justify as moral.

Again, I hope any of this is helpful.

Boobquake is Coming!

An Iranian cleric has discovered the cause of catastrophic earthquakes, and it’s not plate tectonics after all. Nope, it’s women’s immodesty. According to Hojjat ol-eslam Kazem Sediqi,

“Many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray and spread adultery in society which increases earthquakes,” he explained.

Huh. Who knew my girls were so dangerous. I have to admit that when I first heard about this, my initial response was to keep them under wraps. I just didn’t want to be responsible for all that human suffering. Since then, Jen McCreight over at Blag Hag has convinced me that an experiment is necessary to test this new theory. The experiment must, of course, be photographed.

Boobquake 2010 will take place on April 26th. On that date, you are encouraged to show as much or as little cleavage as you have. If you prefer not to show cleavage, Mr. Sediqi warns that tight-fitting clothing will piss off Allah as well. He issues the following admonishment:

“What can we do to avoid being buried under the rubble? There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam’s moral codes,” he said.

Let’s give this a fair test, shall we? I say we all get out there and rock the planet on April 26th. I should also point out that women going shirtless is technically not illegal in Austin – but feel free to engage in your preferred brand of immodesty and unrepentant degeneracy that day.

Oh, one last thing – science requires that observations be repeatable, so we might have to do this again next year. Just sayin’.

Excerpts from a Conversation

I recently had an exchange with a fellow atheist, and wrote quite a bit about a lot of different topics. A few observations I made could be of interest on this list, so I decided to post one or two things from that dialog. Well, that and I felt a need to prove I can post a “normal sized” blog entry.

On Anti-Atheist Prejudice
We get regular letters from young people (and on occasion older ones) who say they’re afraid to “come out”–in the same way a child might be scared to tell his parents he’s gay. Or they say they’ve lost their faith, and now their spouse has withdrawn from them, and their relationship is frozen. People who believe don’t understand there is this deep-seated prejudice. They think “nobody’s forcing you to believe anything–stop your whining.” But they don’t understand their son or daughter is in their bedroom upstairs writing to a group of atheist strangers on the Internet they’ve seen on Youtube saying, “I think my parents will throw me out of the house if I tell them I don’t believe in god.” And the kid is writing to us because he can tell us about his deepest beliefs–but he can’t speak to his own parents about his thoughts and feelings. How sad is that, really? If I were a parent, I don’t think anything would make me feel more like a failure than to find out my child was confiding in absolute strangers rather than me, because I had convinced him through my comments and prejudices that I would despise him if he told me what he really believes or who he really is. But I can guarantee you that if these parents found these letters–they’d hammer the kid about contacting us, and not reflect on their own views that made their kid so distrustful of their capacity to accept and love him despite any ideological differences. This is the stuff that really breaks my heart when I read it.

On Missing the Forest for the Trees
[A particular theist] won’t move toward replacing [religion] with Humanism, because he accepts there is a god. In one conversation he defends the idea of considering it a miracle if there is a horrible plane crash where everyone, except one child, dies. Focus on the child who survived–not the 200 people who just lost their lives. This sort of microscopic focus is par for the course with religious people. I once likened the Intelligent Design argument to Wile E. Coyote’s inventions. The believer has this amazing capacity to focus on a few specks of things and make them meaningful–totally disregarding this ridiculously vast universe in which we float amid vacuums, and radiation, and supernovas and hurtling comets–just a mess of chaos held together through physical laws. Somehow they are able to drill down to “people” and say that demonstrates a “purpose” to the whole mechanism. That would represent one of the most inefficient designs ever produced–if people on Earth really are the point of this whole universe. All this for some speck of existence in some far corner? And yet they see this as crystal clear. If you believe god exists and is good, and you can discount 200 dead bodies (and 99.9 percent of the universe) for one child–what ratio of bad to good would it take even to get you to say, “Even if this god exists, what a monster”?

On Responsibility
I like that you break down Euthyphro briefly as well. Christians rarely break this down. They seem to just have some amorphous surface sense of getting morality from god/the Bible–but don’t really consider it as a question of how that mechanism would function. After talking to them, you get to a point where they assert basically that you can use your personal (presumably god-given) morality to judge god as good, but you can’t judge god as bad. In my own mind, if I can’t fathom how a command could be moral, then I shouldn’t follow it, regardless of who issued it. To do so is immoral because to do so is irresponsible–but that’s faith, right? Kill your own child if god requests it. What I would say is that I can’t take responsibility for a thing if I don’t understand what I’m being asked to do. “Just following orders” is not an example of personal responsibility. But the Christian sees a “responsibility to god” as being on a higher order. They see the atheist exercising personal responsibility as wrong–since the atheist is not shouldering his “responsibility to god.” We end up being “irresponsible” for wanting to know exactly what we’re doing and what the reasons and implications are for the action, before we’ll do it.

The skeptic, however, looks at it like this: If it seems bad to kill my own child, I need to ask for an explanation–and refuse to comply until I get it. If I’m going to commit an atrocity, I think it’s fair to at least ask to know why I’m being asked to commit it. To you and I, that’s reasonable. The idea anyone would object to it is mystifying.

However, the theist sees this as presumptuous and arrogant. I will admit there may be some good reason I hadn’t thought of that would get me to comply; but I can’t say I’m “taking responsibility for my actions” if I’m simply deferring to a fiat-style command with no personal understanding of what I’m doing. In no other context, outside religion, would either the theist or the atheist consider that a description of “being responsible.”

So, in Christianity, if you want to take real responsibility for your actions, by understanding thoroughly what you’re doing, you end up being labeled someone who “does what he wants” because he doesn’t like responsibility–you refuse to own up to your “responsibility to god.”

Summary
In the end, I added notes about what I posted previously–that the doctrine of total depravity makes it more “sensible” to trust people who say you can’t trust them, than people who consider themselves and others fairly trustworthy. And I noted how in the post on hymns, the idea of a brutal human sacrifice is trotted out as an example of unmatched love and mercy. Ultimately I ended the exchange with this thought:

What would it take to screw a person’s head on this “wrongly”? I submit it takes the first several years of their life spent in a Sunday School with mom and/or dad endorsing the entire process.