Ideas have consequences, often devastating. E=MC2 is an obvious one, along with the effects of medicine and morality. The purpose of a belief, a certain kind of idea, is to represent reality in one’s mind. The representation is used to be certain of the future, and we know that there are certain cause and effect relationships, so we try our best to supplant this web of cause and effect known as “reality” into our heads.
Many people have spent their lives supplanting a reality that existed in the minds of demagogues who lived almost two millennia ago. Do we pretend to believe that people who existed in the time of Christ had anything to say about physics? Biology? Morality? Perhaps they knew something about the last one, but the evidence of their knowledge shows that their behavior, based on their beliefs, led to unnecessary suffering. This is especially true in the case of slavery. Accepting that the careful study of cause and effect relationships best determines the nature of reality, why do we believe that people of the Iron Age knew the best there is to know on the subject of conscious well being?
Take, for instance, the recent story out of Alabama. Were the decisions of adults that led to the paddling of 17 young women motivated out of genuine compassion? Did these people spend time researching the effects of corporal punishment? Did they come to the conclusion that this practice is beneficial to the people’s future well being because of this research? I have no doubt that there are answers to these questions, and that the answers are all “no”. How, then, did these adults come to this decision?
The answer is simple: The Bible. More specifically, Proverbs 13:13, 15, 17, 24, and many more.
That’s the argument. The creator of the universe himself has not only given permission, but has ordered us to beat children for their indiscretions. Where in the book these people got their dress code is another question entirely.
The brutality and irrationality of this practice is likely to be obvious to most readers, yet at the same time most readers will maintain the position that differences of opinion in questions of morality must be respected, even if the morality is derived from a text written by iron age humans.
Do we respect differences of opinion in physics or biology? No. We evaluate reasons. To respect some one’s opinion on biology would lead to respecting the behavior of families practicing their own methods of medical care on their children, using leeches or bleeding them. There is no difference when it comes to morality. There are right and wrong answers to the question of human well-being, even if (like health) the state of maximum well-being is undefined and can take many different shapes. Just because there are many kinds of good food does not mean there is no difference between food and poison.
Religious moderates are the impediment to our discourse of morality being transformed to a scientific discourse. I bet that the adults making the decisions that lead to the barbarous behavior in 21 states of this nation consider themselves religious moderates, and to them Muslim terrorists are the extremists. Where does one draw the line? The problems with religious moderation are numerous, and I will focus on those that pertain to this subject. I address the following points directly to the religious moderate.
First off, you are providing cover for those who wish to use the book to justify their behavior. To endorse the book as the source of morality is not only a logical fallacy, but has the very practical effect of allowing anything on the spectrum of extremism because the books themselves are extreme. The reason that the book as a source of moral decisions is a fallacy is simple causation. When you read the book, you come across lines that tell you to kill people for various acts, and you ignore them. You read things like the golden rule (treat others as you would like to be treated) and decide to take them as truth.
This process of deciding what to keep and what to discard is based on your own ethical intuitions and the intuitions of others around you. The intuition of those in the 21 states allows for the beating of children because the divine creator demands it. The intuition that leads to the decisions of the suicide bomber is no different, only further out on the same spectrum.
Until you stop holding up the Bible as having been written by the creator of the universe, until you let go of faith, we cannot have a conversation about ethical questions that can lead anywhere meaningful.
Faith is a conversation stopper that must be ended by ignoring those who use it.
We do this every time we come across someone with faith in Poseidon, Elvis’ eminent return, or any other version of Russell’s Teapot. Every time someone professes their belief in something based upon bad evidence, they pay a price immediately. Claim you think Elvis is still alive at a job interview, and you will pay a price. Claim you think that the creator himself authored a certain piece of literature and you get a pass. That needs to change.
Faith is a reason to not have a reason. By maintaining this tradition, you are creating an environment in which the Dalai Lama can have nothing to say that should convince Ted Bundy that his raping and killing young women is truly wrong. Your reasoning says that they simply have a difference of opinion about right and wrong. This is obviously false, and therefore since you must admit that there are right and wrong answers to how to maximize human well-being, we have now entered the domain of facts, which is the domain of Science.
The second reason that your moderation is destroying the world is that you have a hard time thinking that the fundamentalist really believes what they believe, and therefore you create the idea that the suicide bomber must be suffering from a military occupation, poor health, lack of economic opportunity, etc., and that it is these factors, not religion, that led to their behavior. It is the geographic region and general stupidity of southerners that led to their beating of children. Not only are these ideas false and derogatory, they miss the point at our own peril.
Every one of the 19 hijackers had a college education. Many had their PhD. I’d venture a guess that the people on the school boards of those mostly southern districts follow the same pattern.
That’s right. You can be educated enough to build an atomic bomb and still believe you will get the 72 virgins after you detonate it.
I will admit that culture shapes interpretation of the book so that some behave one way and others behave differently, but it is the book that is being interpreted under the assumption of infallibility and these books include some pretty nasty suggestions.
If these books were taken as the equivalent of The Odyssey or Iliad, then no one would have to go through the process that you do, or the suicide bomber does. They would be left having to act on their intuition and the intuition of others, guided by rational discovery through the scientific process. When you make a decision about what to believe about physics, biology, history, and mathematics, you take your advice from experts in these realms of knowledge. Moral advice can come from experts who arrived at their position in society through the same course of rational discovery offered by science.
The third reason I give for your moderation being a danger to our future is that we are reaching a breaking point. The collision of incompatible religious beliefs with ever more prevalent destructive technology is occurring at an increasing rate. You can, by simply rejecting faith as a reasonable tool of discussion, leave the fundamentalists wide open to criticism.
This does not mean you have to become an atheist. I do not consider myself an atheist just like I do not consider myself to be a non-astrologer. I do not have to start every day by recognizing my lack of belief that the world is flat, or consoling myself as part of a group of Zeus deniers.
No one can be an atheist. It is impossible to be a not. You cannot be by not being something.
Did we have to label ourselves non-racist to marginalize the idea of racism? Did the Christians of the third century ever label the believers in Zeus atheist? By their definition, they are also atheists with respect to the god of Mohammad, and the plethora of other gods who have gone from our collective consciousness for the same reasons that the current ones will. So start calling your religious friends atheists, if not for any other reason than to give the word its deservedly absurd meaning. Don’t become a not, become what you already are by letting go of what you cannot be yet strive for out of a yearning for cultural acceptance. Become a rational thinker. Become reasonable. Reason Able.
Every year in the United States of America, over 200,000 Children are beaten in school.
This practice is largely a religious phenomenon and without this cover it would be critically analyzed for its effect on human well being just like any other phenomena of our experience. So long as you cling to your moderation, you keep the conversation from being free of an out through faith. You shield irrational behavior from the realm of objective criticism.
You allow the dirty old man to claim he is paddling a seventeen year old girl because if he didn’t she would burn in hell for an eternity, or he would be committing sin himself for sparing the rod, or that the creator of the universe has told him that this practice will foster proper behavior by the girl in the future.
It’s ok to not have an answer to the big questions. You do not have to claim that you have all the answers and they are located in a certain text that was authored by the creator, or by a man through the creator. To do so is to deny any ability to move foreword to a unified human society, as these divine texts are mutually incompatible. It is wrong to lie to yourself, and especially cruel to pass this mental affliction to children.
Several passages in this piece were inspired by the lectures of Sam Harris.