Trigger warning: Burning at the stake and other torture
It is odd therefore that Cosmos focuses almost exclusively on the marginal case of Giordano Bruno. Of course, I am not defending Bruno’s persecution and death—no decent human being now would ever condone burning a person alive for any reason. Moreover, in 2014 we view legitimate theological dissent very differently than did our ancestors.
But the circumstances were quite different 400 years ago. According to the 16th century Italian legal code and the customs of Renaissance politics, Bruno was judged by an ecclesiastical court to be an obdurate heretic for refusing to cease in promulgating his theological ideas. As such he was deserving of capital punishment and was turned over for execution by the civil arm in Rome. In the 21st century we inhabit a very different era, a religiously pluralistic age of largely secular states in which the nature and exercise of authority are vastly different than they were in Post-Reformation Italy.
-Peter Hess, co-author of Catholicism and Science, for the NCSE blog, commenting on the new TV show, “Cosmos”
I see. Circumstances were different 400 years ago. According to the 16th century Italian legal code. We inhabit a very different era. So therefore, it’s not reasonable or fair to criticize the Catholic Church of the 16th century for burning Giordano Bruno at the stake.
It’s hard not to read this, and think about all the religious believers who insist that without belief in God, we would have no solid foundation for morality.
It hadn’t occurred to me before in quite this way. But religious fundamentalism and dogma doesn’t just often end up being morally relativistic in some screwed-up ways. It positively demands it. If you’re going to insist that a holy book written hundreds or thousands of years ago is the permanent and perfect moral guidebook written by God — then you’re stuck with defending behaviors that were considered ethical and even admirable at the time they were written, but that we now recognize as morally repulsive.
It’s a funny thing. Religious believers — especially the fundamentalist ones, or the ones attached to specific religious dogma or an authoritative religious structure — are always going on about the horrors of secular moral relativism. They’re always going on about how, without a belief in an ultimate divine moral arbiter, we would be morally lost: unmoored, unanchored, unable to distinguish right from wrong, basing our moral choices solely on what we find immediately self-serving or convenient.
But it isn’t the atheists who are excusing, defending, minimizing, and rationalizing the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno.
It isn’t the atheists saying, “Well, sure, burning people at the stake isn’t morally excellent — but you have to take into account the time that this happened. People got burned at the stake all the time. At the time, it was considered a fair and reasonable punishment. Anyway, he wasn’t really a scientist (Andrew Sullivan got in on that one, too), so it’s totes not fair to say that burning him at the stake was a brutal, terrorizing suppression of free scientific thought. And after all, Bruno was convicted of heresy by a legally-recognized court system, and he could have recanted. So it’s not fair to be so harsh on the Catholic Church for tying him to a stake in a public square and burning him alive. Of course we’re not defending it or anything. We’re just, you know, defending it. Hey, shit happens.”
It’s true that most atheists do have some recognition and acceptance of some degree of moral relativism. We have an understanding that at least some moral guidelines are not absolute, and that what’s reasonably considered right and wrong can shift somewhat depending on circumstance and culture. Most atheists understand that morality is something that evolved in us as a social species, and that our core moral values often come into conflict with each other in ways that can be difficult to resolve.
And yet, atheists are perfectly capable of saying, “Setting fire to people is wrong. It is wrong now, and it has always been wrong. Yes, people did that in the 16th century, and they thought it was the right thing to do — but they were wrong about that. Wrong, wrong, wrong. R-O-N-G Rong. Setting fire to someone is morally repugnant. And setting fire to someone deliberately, cold-bloodedly, with careful planning ahead of time — putting someone in prison so you can later set fire to them, carefully deliberating before you come to the decision to set fire to them, carefully placing sufficient fuel under their feet to be sure the fire will burn, parading them through the street so the populace can mock them on their way to being burned alive, ramming spikes through their cheeks and lips so they can’t speak on their way to being burned alive, tying them to a stake so they can’t escape when they start to burn, doing it in a public square so everyone can watch and cheer while the flames consume their flesh — that is a special kind of moral repugnance. That is nineteen thousand kinds of messed up. Yes, some moral guidelines are culturally relative — but ‘don’t burn people alive’ is bloody well not one of them.”
Yes, atheists recognize that our moral values do not come from an ultimate invisible moral arbiter: they evolved in us as a social species. And we can therefore look at what exactly those moral values are, and what the foundational core is supporting them. and decide on that basis whether our current morality is consistent or screwed-up. We can recognize that our morality is evolving, refining, improving, as we come to a better understanding of those moral values and how they play out in the real world. We can see how our understanding of the core philosophical foundation of morality — the idea that other people matter to themselves as much as we matter to ourselves, and that from an objective point of view none of that mattering is more important than any other — has expanded over the centuries, to encompass more and more people. We can see how our morality has expanded to encompass women, to encompass children, to encompass people of different races and nationalities from our own, to begin to encompass non-human animals, as beings whose consciousness and volition matters just as much as our own.
And we have no need to see our forbears as perfect. We have no attachment to seeing the Holy Mother Church as a special sacred vessel of the word of God, and its highest leaders as morally infallible. We can see our forbears, the people we get ideas from, as human beings: good in some ways, flawed in others, limited by their own cultural blinders in many ways, able to see past them in others. We can say, “Yes, Charles Darwin had some racist ideas — and he was wrong to do so. He was a brilliant man in many ways, and we respect and admire that brilliance, but he also shared some of the racist ideas commonly held at the time — and he was wrong to do so.”
I’m not saying that atheists are morally perfect. Boy, howdy, am I ever not saying that. I am all too aware of the existence of atheists who are assholes. I’m not even saying that atheists never rationalize our own bad behavior or that of people we admire: that is a basic human trait, and we all do it. I’m saying that when people attach themselves to a fundamentalist, dogmatic, or authoritarian religion, this attachment, by necessity, forces them into an indefensible form of cultural relativism that they themselves, in theory, would decry.
The minute you start saying that your holy book or religious leaders are infallible, you start inflexibly attaching yourself to moral positions held by those leaders or that book. And as a result, you start contorting your morality to defend the indefensible. You start going on about how slavery was okay in the Old Testament days, even though isn’t okay now — and that somehow, even though God’s word is unshakeable, his opinion about this nevertheless changed over time. You start coming up with excuses for why slavery, or stoning adulterers, or setting people on fire and burning them alive, really wasn’t all that bad, and it’s not fair to criticize the people who did it. You cut yourself loose from the actual foundation of your morality — your innate sense of fairness and honesty and loyalty and not hurting people that evolved in you as a member of a social species. And in doing so, you take on even more moral relativism, and some particularly vile forms of moral relativism, than the secularists you despise.
Atheism does not require this. We can see our forbears as human, and fallible. And we therefore do not have to twist our morality into a pretzel, and insist that up is down, and left is right, and setting fire to people isn’t really that bad because that’s just what people did back then.