Continuing my new series about misunderstandings, I want to address an issue that has popped up in an on-going debate I’m having on Facebook. Unlike in my last post, I won’t be linking to anything because it’s all happening on a personal page of a friend (which is probably private anyway), nor will I give out any names.

So, the debate I’m having is wide-ranging and there’s a lot to address in it, but I want to focus on one specific area: whether religion is a force for good or evil. I had a twopart post back in November where I argued that people do good things because of their human nature, but what allows for evil acts is the scourge that is faith, otherwise known as belief without evidence:

If a large premise of religion (and belief in God) is that one doesn’t need to use reason and rationality to come to bold conclusions, then what stops a person from going a step further and saying that God wants his followers to take x’s land, or oppress y’s people, or kill people of belief z? Indeed, arguments leading to these conclusions have all been made using religion – Christian and Muslim invasions, Christian-based slavery, 9/11. It may be argued that these are incorrect conclusions, but 1) there’s no objective way to determine that and 2) if the religion says faith is a virtue, then there is no need to enter something as wacky as reasons into the debate, is there?

Faith is simply not a valid basis for believing anything by virtue of its very nature. This is what underpins religion and, thus, undermines our good nature.

The misunderstanding of this came when I was accused of implying that human nature does not lead people to do bad things. Of course, I never argued such a thing. Just as our evolutionary history helps to explain why we might be motivated to do good acts, it also helps to explain why we’re sometimes outright bastards. After all, sometimes being greedy can pay off. Theft occasionally pans out, whether it happened 100,000 years ago on the African plains or 10 minutes ago at the local gas station. Some people manage to commit murder, not get caught, and actually improve their lot in life (again, whether tens of thousands of years ago or yesterday). However, none of this undermines my argument that religion is an influencing factor for bad deeds. People still believe crazy things on the basis of the nothingness of faith, thus allowing and sometimes even encouraging them to do heinous things.

Religion is not a motivator for good, part 1

This image caused a kerfuffle over at the Atheists of Maine Facebook page last week:

The point of the image is simple: Science has a practical utility whereas religion often has a petty focus. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who don’t want to understand that. Some were Christian trolls (who had to be banned), others were atheist/agnostic trolls (one of whom was almost banned), and still another was an accomodationist (that is, a person who does everything in his power to promote the effects of religion without actually believing in its core ideas). This last person responded with this link:

As hundreds of thousands of East Coast residents evacuated to seek shelter from Hurricane Sandy, the Christian humanitarian relief organization World Vision scaled up its emergency response to provide immediate relief supplies to families and children impacted by the storm.

Three rapid assessment teams will deploy in New York, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia this week while additional staff will remain on standby to begin distributing emergency supplies to the hardest-hit areas.

“Why, there you are!”, the argument goes. “Religion does have an important role to play. Just look at how much good it has motivated!”

I think it’s a patronizing and lazy argument.

It’s patronizing if only because it was made with the posting of a link, as if it isn’t common knowledge that people do good things all the time under the banner of religion. It’s lazy, if not because it was nothing more than the posting of a link, then because it doesn’t take into account human nature, evolutionary history, different forms of selection, and overwhelming evidence from other animals around us. Let me clarify.

People do good deeds in the name of religion all the time. That isn’t a secret, with or without the above link. But that does not therefore mean religion is a motivating force for that good. That argument was never made, and whereas that’s the point being argued, it’s the height of intellectual laziness to engage in this arena of discussion without even considering anything about motivation. Let me clarify further.

There is a key difference between a motivating force and an influencing factor. The former is the direct cause for something that happens (or said, thought, etc) and the latter is an indirect cause. To put it into other terms, my hunger is a motivating force for why I might buy a sandwich. An influencing factor, however, would be a commercial I saw for Subway. My procurement of food is directly motivated by my hunger, but my specific purchase is influenced by another factor – that is, my motivation exists independently of a given influence. So now let me connect this to the point I want to make.

The motivation to do good in the world is an inherent human characteristic. We have ample evidence for why this is so, ranging from the extrapolation of kin selection into an environment with large, non-tribal populations to the way other animals exhibit moral behavior to studies which compare how different cultures respond to the same moral problems. For example on this last point, the Trolley Problem was posed to remote tribes that had never been exposed to Western, Christian, or most other modern ideas. The specifics of the thought experiment were tailored to make sense to these isolated groups, but the results were stunningly in line with what we see all over the world. A sense of right and wrong would appear to not only be inherent in humans, but it can often result in similar outcomes in disparate groups.

The position I am putting forward then is that religion is an influencing factor that often operates on this inherent motivation to do good. A more robust argument can be made for this, but the rough outline is here (and it’s an outline I don’t think accomodationists and many others have even considered). Religion itself, however, is not a motivator to do good. Just ask yourself, Who honestly believes that good deeds would cease without religion? And for those that do believe that, how do they explain people who are good and do good without it? One might say that religion is just one of many motivators for good, but that’s basically saying that there exists some other basis for doing good. That basis, I am arguing, must be the reason people do good things. I happen to believe we have a lot of quality reasons for looking to our evolutionary past and status as social animals to figure out the nature of this basis, but even if I’m wrong, it still follows that religion is an influencing factor in doing good, not a motivating force.

In part 2 to this post I am going to address how religion’s status as an influencing factor and one of its prime characteristics (the promotion of faith) opens the door for it to cause harm in the world.

Punching bags

Aaaand the very first winner of my new series Punching Bags is Wintery Knight. Congratulations, Mr. Knight! This is the probably the greatest thing you’re ever going to accomplish in your blogging career.

There’s a lot of silliness out there, but what really grabbed my attention by standing heads and shoulders above the rest was a series of posts by Wintery Knight about atheism and morality. It’s astonishing just how poorly pieced together it all is. Let’s take a peek at WK’s methods:

First of all, I wrote up a list of questions to use to interview atheists about their views.

Second, I posted the raw results of my survey.

Third, I listed the minimal requirements that any worldview must support for in order to ground rational morality.

Fourth, I argued that atheism does not ground any of these requirements.

Fifth, I argued that Christian theism does ground all of these requirements.

Sixth, I posted my own answers to the questions.

I really recommend taking a look at that first link; the arrogance and snobbery drip from every word:

Who is safe to talk to?

In this post, I am going to explain to you clearly how to engage your atheist friends on these issues. But be careful. Some atheists have fascist tendencies – when they feel offended, some of them want to bring state to bear against those who make them feel bad. Atheists struggle with morality, it just doesn’t sit well on their worldview, even though they sense God’s law on their hearts, like we do.

1) Thank goodness WK is here to help everyone know which atheists are okay. Some of us bite, don’t you know.

2) It’s good to know he has already defined morality when he declares that atheists struggle with it. Of course, we all know this is just another case of a theist assuming “objective” in front of “morality”.

3) Of course atheists sense God’s law in their hearts. Just like how Christians really hate science and reason deep down, amirite?

But WK’s interviews appear to be entirely irrelevant. They aren’t necessary to any of his further posts in any way. Besides that, his questions are statistically meaningless since he, um, doesn’t obtain any statistics; his ‘survey’ holds no value and is nothing more than an exercise in condescension. Let’s move on.

His next move (third link) is to try and tell us what is required for “rational moral behavior”. Gee, I wonder if he’s going to assume “objective” anywhere, gaming the issue in his favor.

1) Objective moral values

There needs to be a way to distinguish what is good from what is bad. For example, the moral standard might specify that being kind to children is good, but torturing them for fun is bad. If the standard is purely subjective, then people could believe anything and each person would be justified in doing right in their own eyes. Even a “social contract” is just based on people’s opinions. So we need a standard that applies regardless of what people’s individual and collective opinions are.

Whoa! My whole world view has been devastated! And in only 5 sentences. How could I have been missing something so obvious?!

Oh. Wait. Woulddya look at that. We need a way to tell good from bad. Well, wouldn’t that require that there is an objective good and bad in the first place? Or maybe WK is just making an assumption, causing him to beg the question. Could it be that our ideas of “good” and “bad” have a basis in our cultures and societies and human nature and our emotions and physical bodies and relationships and intelligence? And if so, couldn’t we use ethical and moral theories, applying them to the facts of the world and our derived definitions of “good” and “bad”, thus shaping how we behave? And wouldn’t this be the very definition of rational? (Hint: The answer to all of my questions is “yes”.)

But despite being so far off, WK trudges onward:

What difference does it make to you [an evil stupid dumb butt atheist] if you just go ahead and disregard your moral obligations to whomever? Is there any reward or punishment for your choice to do right or do wrong? What’s in it for you?

Bracketed clarification added.

I’m not so sure I would trust someone who thought the point of morality was to get something for himself. (Oh, who am I kidding. I trust a ton of Christians and they all necessarily believe that the point of being good is to get a big pretty prize at the end of the road.) I guess I just prefer to act out of genuine reasons, not for the sake of enriching myself in some unevidenced afterlife.

Anyway. WK goes on and on with his blog, sometimes saying dumb things about evolution, other times promoting science that makes him feel special. He’s an old Earth creationist, perhaps the most nebulous of all creationists (tell me again, when did humanity begin?), but in the end he’s just another punching bag.

Don’t forget to submit other potential punching bags.

Uganda is a terrible place

It’s just awful.

More than 20 homosexuals have been attacked over the last year in Uganda, and an additional 17 have been arrested and are in prison, said Frank Mugisha, the chairman of Sexual Minorities Uganda. Those numbers are up from the same period two years ago, when about 10 homosexuals were attacked, he said.

This all has come after the introduction of an anti-gay bill that would have imposed the death penalty on gays. (The bill eventually died.) By attacking the basic rights of gays, the legislators in Uganda have incited an increasing uprising against them; pretend like gays should have fewer or different rights than heterosexuals and you’re asking for discrimination. We see it all the time in the United States; Uganda has taken it to the extreme.

But you say you aren’t convinced of the similarities between what happens here and what happens in Uganda? How about the perpetuation of myths, then?

The Oct. 9 article in a Ugandan newspaper called Rolling Stone – not the American magazine – came out five days before the one-year anniversary of the controversial legislation. The article claimed that an unknown but deadly disease was attacking homosexuals in Uganda, and said that gays were recruiting 1 million children by raiding schools, a common smear used in Uganda.

Sounds an awful lot like that dastardly HOMOSEXUAL AGENDA!!ONE1!!, doesn’t it? Oh, but maybe it’s just one of them there backward places, huh? Well…

Rolling Stone does not have a large following in Uganda, a country of 32 million where about 85 percent of people are Christian and 12 percent are Muslim.

They do have very strong backwards thinking, but it derives from the same place as much of the backwards thinking in the U.S.

Examining Deuteronomy 22

I was glancing through Deueronomy 22 and noticed a few odd items. The first is that the dual use of an oxen and a donkey while plowing is prohibited by God (22:10). It displeases him. The second is God’s Sarah Palin-like attitude toward rape victims.

23 If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her;

24 Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour’s wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you.

I guess God’s rape kit is a handful of stones and a pocket full of hatred.

Here’s the clear interpretation of this: a man who rapes a woman in a city should be stoned to death. Okay, immoral enough reaction in itself, but there’s more. The woman, because she did not scream for help, should be stoned to death as well.

and people claim God is a source of morality? I wonder if the guy even has a clear idea of what constitutes a moral system. Life is not being black & white (as most conservatives think it is, incidentally). Aside from being a rape victim, the woman could have been afraid, mute, gagged, or threatened. God seems to assume by not screaming that the woman liked it. Illogical fella, no?

But, this deity isn’t all evil. He has some empathy for country rape.

25 But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die.

26 But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter:

27 For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her.

Since the woman couldn’t scream out for help, she’s in the clear. What if there was a farmer? Shouldn’t the woman have screamed to him? Simply being in a field does not necessarily change the situation. The principle in 22:23-24 seemed to be that the woman had help available to her yet did not seek it. Given that not all fields are empty and devoid of humans, she should have screamed out, even if it was to no avail. It’s almost as if people who lived in highly rural areas where it would be uncommon – in their personal experience – to see a farmer wrote this. Hey, crazy idea! Maybe people did write this fundamental evil? I’d expect God to cover a few more angles. Like, all of them.

So let’s break down what’s important here. It’s perfectly fine for my point to grant that the coming of Jesus somehow changes the immorality we see here. It’s a common tactic of Christians: the Old Testament should be interpreted through the lenses of the New Testament. Okay, sure, whatever. But there still remains the problem that at some point in time, God was telling people to stone rape victims. Even if it is granted that the New Testament changes how we should interpret these words insofar as how we should act now (i.e., we do not stone rape victims because we recognize that as evil), there still remains the problem that God told people to murder women who were raped. He still did these things. God is still guilty of these crimes, even if he corrected his misbehavior down the line.

Goodbye evil

Evil exits

Taking morality back

There are far too many claims coming from atheists and humanists that the religious do not have the sole claim to morality. It’s true, of course, they don’t. But that argument is getting old. What’s more interesting is that the morality of the religious, if anything, is lesser than that of the secular.

As time marches forward, secular thought prevails more and more in public policy. The religious often claim credit for these things, but they’ve long been known as liars (see intelligent design). It’s merely a matter of time until a large roadblock to equal rights is quashed; homosexuals will have the right to marry in most parts of the country within the next two decades. It’s simply an inevitability. The religious zealots never win these arguments. Their basis is weak (i.e., belief in superstition). They have no good grounding for their bigotry. Interestingly, it will be discrimination on the basis of gender that actually falls. That is, the government does not make distinctions on the basis of gender in deciding who can enter into a contract. It’s clearly illegal. That is precisely what is happening with this “one man, one woman” bigotry that pervades the country, most notably the backward-thinking south.

It is with the secular that we see an increase in our morality as a nation. The secular progressiveness of Europe has shown itself with a strong repudiation of torturing. It has shown itself with its higher regard for animal rights. Perhaps most importantly of all, it has shown itself in the fact that the vast majority of the continent’s nations have outlawed the death penalty, a punishment based upon the desire for revenge, a petty and callous reasoning.

The argument atheists and humanists should be putting forth is not that the religious do not have the only say in morality. It’s that they have very little. They have a distorted view of reality. They are not interested in freedom, equality, and being good people. They wish to pursue their largely evil gods at the expense of everyone else. It is the religious who must present a case for why anyone should listen to their version of ‘morality’, not the atheists and humanists.