The Bible is Not an Objective Moral Standard

Why yes, this is my go-to image for discussions of morality. Why do you ask?Reading posts by Rhology have made me realize some of the problems involved in talking to people who believe their morals come from the Bible. There are several common refrains involved when arguing about this–“atheists have no basis for morality,” “without an objective morality/absolute moral code, you can’t judge other people’s morals,” “everyone has inborn morals from God, even if they don’t believe in him”–all of which are bound to pop up in any argument about secular morals. These all generally lead back to the point that God (and/or/through the Bible) provides a perfect and objective moral standard, without any of the problems that come from trying to define and justify a moral system in the absence of a deity. This idea is simply false: the Bible is emphatically not an objective moral standard; in fact, it fails in each of those points.

We’ll tackle “standard” first, since it’s the easiest. What moral standard does the Bible provide? Do we take our morals only from the explicit commandments, or should we learn by example from the various heroes and virtuous people?

If we are to learn only from the explicit commandments, then we run into a problem right away: there are an awful lot of apparent moral quandaries that never get discussed in the Bible. Are there moral implications of genetic engineering? Cybernetics? Overpopulation? Pollution? Birth control? Phone sex? Organ transplants? Euthanasia? Where the Bible touches on these issues, it does so only in the most broad, vague, and tangential fashions; there are no specific instructions on whether or not children should be given mood-altering drugs, no specific answers to questions about the introduction of novel organisms into foreign ecosystems. Are we to assume that the only moral issues are the ones that the Bible discusses directly? Is the choice to vaccinate your child morally neutral and equivalent to the choice to leave them unvaccinated? These are serious questions of real-life issues, on which the Bible is silent, preferring instead to tell us how best to combine goats and milk (Ex. 34:26) and the taxonomy of eunuchs (Mt. 19:12). Is there really no morally preferable choice in any of those situations?

So, perhaps we are meant to also learn from example. If that’s the case, then what lessons should we take away from the heroes’ stories? Take Jephthah, for instance. He makes a deal with God that if God helps him win in battle against the Ammonites, then he’ll sacrifice the first thing that comes through his doorway when he returns home. Naturally, after the successful battle, his daughter comes out to greet him. There’s no Abraham/Isaac cop-out in this story: Jephthah follows through with his promise to God. So do we read this story as a cautionary tale about the price of testing God, or do we read it as a positive example of what the faithful should be willing to do in the name of the Lord? There’s enough material outside the story to support both interpretations; which moral should we be receiving?

We could find similar quandaries with any number of Biblical characters–Joseph, Elisha, Solomon, Samson, etc.–maybe we shouldn’t be learning from all of their examples. So which characters should we be learning from? I suspect that Christians would say we ought not be following in the footsteps of Thomas, refusing to believe in the extraordinary until extraordinary evidence is provided to support the claims (despite the corroborating commandment of 1 Thessalonians 5:21). There are a litany of characters who are willing–even eager–to sacrifice their children based on God’s say-so, from Lot to Abraham to Jephthah to Yahweh, which suggests to me that according to Biblical morals, there’s nothing wrong with what Deanna Laney or Andrea Yates Dena Schlosser did*. Or perhaps we shouldn’t be learning from those particular examples. And what about the big guy himself? Should we be taking lesssons from God’s actions, or is he a “do as I say, not as I do” sort of father figure? After all, God does some pretty nasty stuff over the course of the Bible, commanding and committing genocide and inflicting plagues and so forth. Even the “do as I say” bit is difficult, given all the places where God issues direct commands that conflict with earlier laws and commandments (such as the various exhortations to kill women and children, contradicting the whole “thou shalt not murder” bit). Do you do as he said before, or as he’s saying now–what was written in stone, or what was given in a vision? This would be a lot easier if each of the real commandments started with “Simon Says.”

Hitting on that point of contradictory commandments, we see quite a few such things throughout the Bible. There are places where some moral imperatives issued by the book contradict others, there are places where heroes’ explicit flaunting of those imperatives is cast in a positive light, and then there are places where God issues edicts that directly conflict with previously-issued laws and edicts. How can we call this set of morals a “standard” if it is internally inconsistent, and if God can change it on a whim? Or is the only standard “what God says goes”? If it’s the latter point, then how do we determine what God’s message is, given contradictory passages in the Bible and stories with ambiguous moral teachings? How do we distinguish between actual commands from God and paranoid delusions? After all, Dena Schlosser believed that God had told her to cut off her daughter’s arms, which isn’t exactly out of character for the God of the Bible (Mark 9:43, for instance); can we say with any degree of certainty whether or not she was actually receiving instructions from Yahweh?

This segues nicely into the issue of objectivity**. In short, there isn’t any. In long, we have to make some distinctions here. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there is an omnipotent universe-creating God who has some idea of morality in his big giant head, and cares whether or not we follow it. To this end, he communicates with some Middle Eastern nomads through bushes and tablets, plays some role in their writing of a bunch of books full of teachings and laws, then later comes down himself to tell stories and make pronouncements which also eventually get written down. At this point, we could conceivably have three distinct moral codes: What-God-Thinks, What-God-Said, and What-Got-Recorded. In any human communication, these three things would be different–perhaps only subtly, but certainly different. What one thinks might be more nuanced and detailed than what one says, which may lose some inflection or connotation in the transition to writing (or may gain additional ones through the addition of punctuation and other conventions), not to mention that the writers are filtering what-one-says through their own perceptions. But, for the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume that God is super-awesome and communicated everything pertinent about his thoughts on morality to his various followers, who recorded these thoughts accurately–to make things simple (too late), we’ll assume that the Bible (as it was written) accurately and completely represents God’s moral codes, that What-God-Thinks and What-Got-Recorded are the same.

That’s all well and good, but it’s certainly not the end of the story. Even assuming that God is perfect and infallible and a fantastic communicator, and assuming that his secretaries were all very thorough and accurate, the morals aren’t doing much good until they’re read. The process of reading is where any lingering objectivity goes right out the window. I’ll refer you to my post on communication for the lengthy discussion. Suffice it to say, each person who reads the Bible is going to read it in the particular context of their own knowledge, culture, and experiences. These contextual differences are going to have profound impacts on the message that the person receives***.

Take, for example, Exodus 20:13: “Thou shalt not murder.” On the face of it, that’s pretty straightforward. “Murder” is a more specific term than, say, “kill” (which some translations use instead); “murder” implies some degree of intent, ruling out accidental deaths, and is usually reserved for humans, ruling out killing animals and plants and the like. It would seem that the Sixth Commandment is pretty cut-and-dry.

It’s not. It doesn’t take more than a brief application of common sense to realize that, either. Even legally, “murder” is a broad term, and the difference between it and manslaughter is often a matter of prosecutorial discretion.

Consider this: is it murder to kill someone who is trying to kill you? Legally, it isn’t; it’s self-defense. What if you’re killing someone who is trying to kill someone else, some innocent? If you could demonstrate that that person was a clear and present danger, then it’d be a pretty clear case of justifiable homicide. Is it murder to kill someone who is not attacking you, but has threatened or promised to kill you? Is there such a thing as pre-emptive self-defense? What if you think they’ve threatened you, or you just feel threatened by them? Is there a hard-and-fast line where it isn’t self-defense anymore? What if someone’s mere existence threatens your life–if you’re trapped on a raft or in the wilderness with another person, with only enough resources for one of you to survive, is it murder to kill the other person? Is it murder to continue living, ensuring that person’s death?

This is, of course, ignoring other pertinent questions–is it murder to kill an enemy in war? What about the unborn? Is abortion murder? Is it murder to dispose of unused frozen zygotes from in vitro fertilization? Is execution murder? Is it murder if you don’t act to prevent someone’s death when it’s in your power to do so? If someone who is already facing imminent-but-painful death begs you for a quick and painless one that you are able to provide, would it be murder to kill them? Would it be wrong? I guarantee, for nearly all of these questions, that one can easily find Bible-believing Christians on every conceivable side.

Some of this may seem like splitting hairs, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about moral philosophy, it’s that it exists specifically to split those hairs. The whole point of moral philosophy is to provide answers–or at least reasoned arguments–regarding these tough hair-splitting moral questions. We don’t generally have much problem reasoning out the right thing to do in the obvious situations; it’s the ones that walk the lines, the no-win scenarios, and whatnot that cause moral anxiety.

Can the Bible be an objective moral standard if it doesn’t provide specific guidance on these questions? If it doesn’t provide a specific, detailed definition of murder (for instance), then how are we to determine what we shalt not do in these difficult situations? We started by assuming that God included his morals, completely and perfectly, in the Bible, but can any moral system be considered complete or perfect under any reasonable definition of either term if it leaves so much open to subjective interpretation?

It ends up being like the disagreement between Creationists regarding where to draw the line between “fully ape” and “fully human” when presented with the progression of transitional hominids. When a worldview that only admits binary options is presented with a continuum, dividing that spectrum up into those two absolute options is a subjective and arbitrary process. If the Bible had said “So God created man in his own image, which was upright and somewhat hairy and with a prominent sloping brow, and…,” those Creationists might have had more agreement. Similarly, if the Bible said “Thou shalt not murder, which includes but is not limited to…,” these questions might be answered more objectively within Biblical morality.

Or, rather than presenting us with the broad, general rules and expecting us to deduce the specifics, the more useful moral standard would provide us with a litany of specific situations and allow us to induce the generalizations. Sure, it would make the Bible exponentially longer, but after three hundred pages of various specific killing scenarios, it’d be pretty easy to reason “wow, God doesn’t much seem to like murder.” Instead, we have the general statement, which leaves us wondering “gee, what does God think about euthanasia?” and the like.

And this is where the Bible fails on the “moral” point. Even disregarding the bits of the Bible that no sane person would call “moral,” the Bible fails as a moral guide because it provides no clear guidance on any of these moral issues. Even if the Bible is a full and accurate description of God’s moral sense, it is not a complete guide to the morals that a human would need. We face moral issues that are apparently beneath God’s notice, and in these cases we must make our own decisions, we must determine the moral options for ourselves. And the fact that we are able to do this on an individual level (e.g., euthanasia) and on a social one (e.g., self-defense and justifiable homicide legal exceptions) completely invalidates the supposed need for an objective moral standard. The Christian’s claim that morality requires the Bible falls apart once one realizes that we routinely face moral quandaries for which the Bible offers no clear answer. The moral decisions we are required to make on our own are far more varied, nuanced, and difficult than the morals that are prescribed in the Bible; if we can make moral decisions in the vast gray areas and unpleasant scenarios of the real world, then I can’t see how the broad generalizations like “thou shalt not murder” would present any sort of problem. As I mentioned above, it would be much easier to induce the general rules from the specific situations than to deduce the moral options in specific situations from a general rule. The morals provided by the Bible are the simplest building blocks, the things we can all agree on and end up at independently (and, incidentally, things that most cultures have done independently), based on the much more complex situations we run across in the real world.

Where in the Bible we are meant to find morals is unclear; the stories are ambiguous, the commandments are overly general and often irrelevant, and there is little (if any) consistency. Most of the moral-making is ultimately left up to subjective interpretation, and the application of those morals is a matter for personal and social determination. The Bible does not provide the objective moral standard which so many of its adherents proclaim, and the notion that it is a necessary component for humans to have morals is self-refuting as a result. Moral philosophy, cultural anthropology, sociology, and biology have given us insights into how we make morals on the levels of the individual and as a society, and how moral codes and consciences developed in social animals. They have provided us with a way to develop our own systems of values, which then provide a way of distinguishing right from wrong in those situations where the division is indistinct. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they have allowed us the freedom to do what people do (and indeed must do, regardless of their religious convictions) already–examine and evaluate their own values and come to their own conclusions–without the threat of damnation hanging over them should they make the wrong choice. Morals come not from above, but from within; they are a result of our individual instincts and our interactions with one another. Consequently, we are held responsible, made to account for our moral decisions, by ourselves and each other, not some external arbiter. The only “objective moral standard” is the one we set ourselves.

*Some theists would likely say that these people were not actually receiving instructions from God, even though they believed they were. I’d like to know how they make that distinction. After all, can’t the same be said for Jephthah or Abraham? If you accept those stories, then you certainly can’t claim that it’s not within God’s character to demand a parent to sacrifice his or her child–Abraham certainly believed that this was something that God would command, and the Jephthah story confirms Abraham’s conviction. On what grounds can we claim with any kind of certainty that Abraham and Jephthah were actually receiving instructions from God to violate the “thou shalt not murder” commandment, while Dena Schlosser and Andrea Yates were schizophrenic or otherwise mentally ill?

**There’s a further issue here with the definition of “objective,” which could probably warrant its own post. Generally, things that are “objective” are the things that can be verified through application of fact or reason. “Chocolate is brown” is an objective fact (admittedly with some definition-associated wiggle room), subject to verification or falsification; “chocolate is delicious” is a subjective opinion, which is not subject to proof or disproof. What, precisely, makes God’s opinion on morals objective? Why would his opinion be any less subjective than anyone else’s? Yes, God is more powerful, but what application of power can make subjective opinion into objective fact? God’s opinions are not subject to verification or falsification; they are as inaccessible to us as anyone else’s opinions. We can know them only by being told directly, by the subject, what the opinions are–and that runs us again into the problem of communication and interpretation.

Yeah, this is definitely fodder for another post.

***I’ve omitted here another pertinent issue: the matter of translation and copying. Long before anyone reading it today can get a chance to interpret the Bible, it has already been filtered through multiple interpreters. We know from the historical record that the Bible has been subject to multiple alterations (intentional and unintentional) through the copying process, many of which were due to various dogmas and ideologies of centuries past. The translators are working from copies that are many generations removed from any originals, and which have built into them many of the copying errors and alterations from the past. Those translators must then make their own interpretations when choosing the best words in one language to convey ideas expressed in another. There is rarely (if ever) a 1=1 correspondence between languages, especially ones as distantly related as modern English and ancient Greek. Each idea in the original could be phrased any number of ways in the translation, and each translated version will be different depending on what the translator decided to emphasize–was her intent to preserve the closest literal meaning of the text, or to convey the poetry, or to try to present the concepts as clearly as possible with less regard to the particular language, or did she have another motive for her choices? For an example of how much impact this kind of interpretive choice has on a text, try opening up up any two versions of “The Iliad.”

On moderate and liberal Christians

Update: I’ve submitted this post to the Carnival of the Godless, partially in hopes of getting more feedback. I’ll be honest that I’m not entirely happy with how the post turned out (I don’t know that it fits the title, for instance, and I never really got to the point), but I also think it’s an honest examination of my somewhat-muddled and uninformed thought process on the matter. My point is that I’d like to get as many corrections, elaborations, and other responses as possible, so feel free (nay, encouraged) to leave comments.

The comment thread on this post at the Atheist Experience blog got too long, too fast, for me to weigh in on the subject there. It’s something I’ve given some thought to (but not enough to keep this post from rambling, I’m afraid), so I’m going to write about it here.

Conventional wisdom says that the fundamentalist, conservative, literalist Christians have the more legitimate claim to the label of Christianity–that they are more the “True Christians” than the liberals and moderates. Conversely, conventional wisdom says that the moderates are the more reasonable Christians, recognizing that the Bible is the product of humans at a particular time, and thus tailoring their beliefs to a changed (and changing) society.

I don’t think either one of these is quite the case–at the very least, I don’t think that’s the whole story.

First, there’s the conservatives’ claim to being the “True Christians,” interpreting the bible “literally” and trumpeting mantras like “God said it, I believe it” and so forth. This notion–like the notion that conservative Christians have a monopoly on “family values” and are “traditional”–is one that the fundamentalists have worked very hard to cultivate. The “tradition” of modern conservatism, though it clearly has earlier roots, is really only about a century old–kind of gives the lie to “True Christianity,” I would think. Wouldn’t the Catholics have the most legitimate claim to that? Or the Greek Orthodox church?

As I mentioned before, there’s no such thing as a “literal” interpretation of any text. The nature of communication makes it damn near impossible. The truth is that fundamentalist Christians and moderate-to-liberal Christians both approach the Bible in basically the same way: picking and choosing passages to cite in order to prop up their pre-existing beliefs. That particular bit reminds me of that Anne Lamott quotation: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” That applies on a broader level–each Christian has a different concept of God, based on some mish-mash combination of what they believe from (and about) the Bible, what they believe from their church and pulpits, what they believe from the culture, what they believe from personal experience, and what they think ought to be the case. Fundies tend to center on believing that God punishes the wicked, rewards the virtuous, and that the events and teachings in the Bible are more or less accurate–at least, the Old Testament, Revelation, Acts, and the bits written by Paul, anyway. Moderate and liberal Christians tend to seize more on the “loving God” motif, and believe that the “core” teachings of the Bible are valuable, even if some of the more specific bits are the products of outdated politics, dogma, and prejudice. This “core” is largely summed up in the Sermon on the Mount and some of the other red-letter bits, and such Christians use this to handwave away much of the Old Testament (except Psalms, Proverbs, and selected other bits) and some of the Pauline books (mostly the more misogynistic and homophobic parts).

I don’t feel entirely informed enough to make this distinction, but I’m going to give it a try anyway. For the Dispensationalist Christian (like Tim LaHaye), it seems that the focal point of the Bible is Revelation, and the primary Gospel is Matthew–because it’s the one written to claim thatwhere Jesus fulfills all the Old Testament prophecies. Consequently (or perhaps the other way around), they read the Bible the way Nostradamus’s fans read his works–as a book of otherwise unrelated words and phrases that can be strung together to form accurate prophecies. If you haven’t read anything Fred Clark has to say about the Dispensationalist mindset, you should. They’ll twist, pull, cut, and reinterpret phrases from all over the Bible to create their Rapture/Antichrist/Armageddon narrative. In arguments, this type of Christian tends to pull out the “fulfilled and to-be-fulfilled prophecy” card, citing Jesus’s fulfillment of OT prophecy, prophecies in Isaiah which were said to have been fulfilled in Isaiah, and vague prophecies of the End Times, which have been coming “any day now” for at least a century (and in earlier configurations, two millennia). Things that don’t fit are ignored as applying to a future ‘dispensation,’ whereas things that other Christians would recognize as directed at specific people are almost always talking to the current generation, no matter when that current generation exists.

For the general conservative fundamentalist, I’d think that the focal book might be Genesis or Exodus (insert snarky comment here about how they never got any farther), but it’s far more likely that their favorite book of the Bible is actually “The Case for Christ” or “Evidence that Demands a Verdict.” Their primary Gospel is John (of which they’ve really only read one passage). Alternately, the preferred Gospel might be Mark, since that’s the one that talks about all the miracles that believers can perform (or even post-Gospel Acts, with Pentecost and speaking in tongues), but again, it depends on the fundie flavor (which I imagine is a lot like Bertie Botts’ every-flavor beans, except without the good ones). These fundies more often in arguments pull out the standard cards–Pascal’s Wager, “look at the trees,” “your God is evolution,” and so forth. I’m pretty sure that these folks are the source of bumper-sticker Christianity–their beliefs are mostly easily summed up in pithy phrases, their arguments for those beliefs are equally pithy, and their knowledge of Christian dogma comes mostly secondhand, from preachers promoting a particular interpretation. They’re casual believers; they haven’t put much thought into why they believe what they believe, or even the details and conclusions that follow from what they believe, but they know that they believe it, and they do so passionately. They can tell you that abortion should be illegal, but not what should happen to mothers who get illegal abortions. They can tell you that homosexuality is a sin, but aren’t familiar with similar sins like shellfish-eating and wearing blended fabric. They’re prepared to defend their beliefs and spread the gospel, so long as they don’t have to answer any follow-up questions. Watch most Atheist Experience episodes to get a feel for this kind of Christian*.

The moderate Christians tend to be the recipients of the “casual Christian” label, though they certainly aren’t the only ones who deserve it. The conservative fundamentalists generally have shallow, unexamined beliefs, but they believe them fervently; the moderates have similarly shallow, unexamined beliefs, but they are fairly apathetic about it. They might go to church occasionally, or go to a moderate church, and they’ll probably put up some kind of show of faith at Christmas and Easter. Their central Bible book is Psalms, or more likely, “Mere Christianity,” and their favorite Gospel is split between the bits of John that they know (3:16, probably 1:1) and the bits of Luke that they know (mostly the stuff from Luke 2:10-12, or more famously, from Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”). In arguments, these folks often pull the same standard cards as the conservatives, at least to start–Pascal’s Wager, “look at the trees”–but usually end up going down the “well, you can’t know for sure” and “what’s the harm” path rather than the more threatening route of their conservative counterparts. They have their bumper stickers too, and billboards, but they’re more of the simple “God is love” sort of thing.

I’m going to pause for a moment here to draw a bit more distinction between the conservative and moderate Christians. While I think both groups seize on the same common, popular Bible verses, I think they put different emphases on them. John 3:16, for instance; I’d say that conservatives read it as

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.

Moderates and liberals, on the other hand, I think read it as

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.

** Incidentally, I think Catholics read it as

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.

Those wacky Catholics and their guilt.

The liberal Christians, as I said before, look primarily to the Sermon on the Mount as their focal point for the Bible. There’s a gospel-centeredness to this, which makes it difficult (with my limited knowledge) to speculate on the gospel of choice; my guess would be John, since it’s the pretty one, but it’s possible that (at least among the more historically-savvy ones) it’s Mark, the earliest. They look for what they see as the “core message” of the Bible, which involves as much (if not more) picking and choosing bits as the Dispensationalists, though the bits they pick and choose and twist and reinterpret, obviously, are different ones. The liberals tend to be more informed–directly or indirectly–about the thoughts of various church fathers, classic theologians, and religious philosophers. Or perhaps they’re just informed about different ones; I suppose the average Dispensationalist might know as much about Scofield and Paley as the liberal knows about Weber and Augustine. Liberals generally accept the conclusions of historians and scientists, and they generally adhere to the moral codes of the modern age. They seize onto Jesus’s message of love and acceptance, apply it as much as they can to the rest of the Bible, and handwave away the rest. For Dispensationalists, the stuff they disagree with applies to some other dispensation; for liberals, the stuff they disagree with was mortal flaws that made their way into the book, or matters that applied in another day and time, or just don’t fit with the core message of the Bible. They tend to be less ostentatious with their faith. This is in part because they go with the flow of society, and thus aren’t trying to hold back or turn back progress, so they aren’t constantly waging war on modernism; in part, this is because they actually read the bit where Jesus said not to pray as the hypocrites do, but in the closets, and so they live and let live; in part, this is because they follow some variation of the Protestant ethic, in that they recognize that the best way to glorify God and to win converts is to live well and be a good example for others. I have had very few arguments with such Christians, and I’ve found that they’re most likely to agree with you on most points; they may pull out some theological arguments that propose a Deist god (i.e., any Cosmological or Transcendental argument); they may tell you that the Fundamentalists aren’t “real Christians,” that they “follow Jesus, not the Bible,” and that the Bible was written by people, but they’re just as likely to quote G.K. Chesterton for some reason.

I think it’s a mistake to think that any of these groups has any claim to the title “True Christian;” in fact, I’m not even sure what such a person would be. Jesus and the Biblical authors wrote so many conflicting things that it’s impossible to pull any coherent philosophy of life from the book without ignoring large swaths of it, and we’re only helping the fundamentalists if we don’t recognize that they’re ignoring just as much of the book as the liberals are. For every “it is an abomination” that the liberals ignore, there’s a “judge not” that the conservatives discard. They’re all “salad bar” Christians, they’re just on different sides of the bar, and the Liberals are willing to say “that cottage cheese has gone bad,” while the fundies will say “that cottage cheese is perfectly fine, but I’m going to let someone else try it.”

Part of the problem, part of why this is so widespread (I think), is that we’ve gotten to the point where even the liberals and moderates seem tacitly to accept the fundamentalists’ claim to the term. Perhaps it’s just because the liberal position is more complicated and more difficult to communicate; when push comes to shove, the fundies can point to the passage in the Bible and say “God says it, I believe it, no more questions.” At that point, the liberal has to explain that the Bible isn’t meant to be taken ‘literally,’ or that Jesus said otherwise, or that they’re ignoring the context, or something, and I think to the casual viewer, that’s tantamount to them cutting off the branch they’re sitting on. I can see very few good ways for a liberal Christian to easily call into doubt the Fundamentalist positions on most things without undermining their own position and making them look like wishy-washy quasi-believers. There are some matters on which the liberal position is more clearly the correct one, dogmatically and textually–once again, see the Dispensationalist End Times narrative–but it’s hard to argue that the Levitican and Deuteronomian laws against homosexuality don’t apply in light of one verse in Galatians and Jesus’s general message of love. I think, to some degree, the liberals recognize this difficulty–and perhaps even internalize the fundamentalists’ claims to some degree, causing some measure of self-doubt and insecurity–and that combines with their general non-confrontational stance regarding their faith to prevent them from speaking out against the loud fundamentalists in large numbers.

Which moves us on to the problem of which position is the more reasonable one. The conventional wisdom is that the liberal position has that claim, but I don’t know that I agree. I imagine the people who make this claim are the people who consider themselves most rational, and so we assume that “reasonable” means “generally comes to the same conclusions we’ve come to.” But we have to remember that reason can take you to any conclusion depending on what your premises are. Through one method or another, both the left and right wings of Christianity have come to*** the same basic premise: the God of the Bible exists, came to the Earth as Jesus Christ, then died on the cross for the sins of humanity, and promises Heaven for some and Hell for others****. Following from this premise, though, they end up at wildly different courses of action.

The right-leaning Christians take this premise, realize that the Bible is their only source for what God thinks, what Jesus said, and what the secret password into Heaven is, and conclude that they ought to be following what’s in the Bible as closely as they can in order to avoid Hell. There are a number of different logical avenues which can lead from this point to the belief that the Bible is a true, accurate, and perfect representation of what God wants, but I think it boils down to the point that, since it’s the only source for what God says, they have to treat it as perfect even if it isn’t. Christians of this sort will sometimes admit (usually when condemning Christians of the more liberal variety) that if you treat any part of the Bible as metaphorical or symbolic or otherwise not-true, then you might as well toss out the whole thing: either it’s all true, or none of it is true. This is a fallacy, to be sure, but underlying it is a valid concern and criticism for their liberal brethren: if it’s not all true, then how do you know what parts of it are true? The fundamentalist (ostensibly) never needs to face this quandary, since they (ostensibly) accept all of the Bible as “literally” true.

Their other traits follow from that conclusion. Knowing the threat of Hell, they work tirelessly to convince others that Hell is real and that they know how to avoid it. They’ve been saved from its fiery jaws, and they’re going to try to make sure that everyone else gets saved too (and the ones they can’t save–the ones working against them–are already in its grip and beyond their help). They dedicate as much of their lives as they can to praising and glorifying God with all the energy and volume of a castaway trying to signal a passing cargo plane, as though trying to draw the attention of the omnipotent and earn his approval. They’ve saturated their lives with worship and work to wedge it into everyone else’s lives, through sermons and tracts and street-corner preaching and legislation and education and media punditry and social mores and any other outlet they can find, in hopes that doing so will demonstrate their devotion, glorify their deity, increase their numbers, and protect them from annihilation and damnation should God decide that America looks an awful lot like Gomorrah.

On the other hand, you have the liberal and moderate Christians. Again, they’ve arrived at the same basic premises as the conservatives with regard to God’s nature and existence, and the importance of Jesus. There’s a chicken-and-egg situation with the next bit, though, where I’m not sure what precedes what. Moderate and liberal Christians have somehow come to a largely different set of premises in addition to the ones they share with the fundies, the sort of premises that I imagine we’d consider average for people in the 21st century western world: they value freedom and equality, they think science and senses are generally reliable, they generally accept the morals of the society around them, and so forth. They also have a different take on the Bible; though it’s the only primary source that discusses (with any authority) the mind of God and the story of Jesus, they think that it’s only somewhat reliable and accurate–certainly not the icon of perfection that the fundamentalists elevate it to. They read the Bible for its ‘core message’ and justify or ignore the parts that don’t fit. In addition to the Bible, such Christians tend to accept another source for their beliefs: alternately called “faith” or “a personal relationship with God/Christ,” who typically speaks to them “in their heart.”

Like I said, there’s a chicken/egg issue here: did the belief in the God relationship come first, allowing them to decide what parts of the Bible no longer apply and what God’s real opinions are, or did the acceptance of modern morals and science and such lead to the belief that such conclusions were the result of a personal connection to the divine? I can’t say, though I suspect it’s not a simple causal relationship.

Anyway, this connection to God makes each liberal Christian his or her own Pope, able to update the canon and dogma as necessary, on a personal level. Each claims that their pronouncements have some divine weight behind them, though they may come to different conclusions, but that’s certainly not a problem faced by liberals alone. They are able, through their relationship with God, to determine what the “core message” of the Bible is, what that means for the other parts, and what God’s message for the modern age must be. God, apparently, is pretty cool with the trappings of modern society that the fundamentalists reject; he thinks that believers shouldn’t be ostentatious about their faith, he sees virtuous living and skillful craftsmanship in his followers’ vocations as glorification of him, and he might even accept other routes to Heaven than through Jesus. He puts some emphasis on works as a key to salvation, loves his creations, and encourages them above all things to love one another. Consequently, they generally adopt a live-and-let-live philosophy toward people of other faiths, rather than the obvious and constant proselytization of the conservatives. They don’t see the need to enact their beliefs into law, since religion is a personal thing, to be done in the closets and not out in the open as the hypocrites. God said “love thy neighbor,” not “force thy neighbor to act in accordance with thy beliefs.”

Anyway, back to the main point of all this: who’s more reasonable? While the liberal position is the one most in line with what modern society would consider reasonable, I’m not sure how well it logically follows from their beliefs. It’s easy to see the logical progression of fundamentalism; if you believed in the sort of God that they do, you’d want to make sure that no one–particularly yourself–got on his bad side. The liberals have a more difficult progression, and I think it’s here that some of the fundamentalist criticisms hold water. The Bible is, for better or worse, the closest thing we have to a primary source on the life and teachings of Jesus. It is also the only generally-agreed-upon testimony of the morals, acts, and commandments of the Christian God. And yet, the liberals actively dismiss parts of it as metaphor or parable or mistake or outdated teaching, in favor of impressions and feelings they get internally, which they believe to be divine. This poses a problem: do they assert that the fundamentalists, conservatives, and others who come to different conclusions lack a personal rapport with the divine? By what right and authority can they make such a distinction? Wouldn’t such an argument boil down to diametrically-opposed shouts of “God told me I’m right”? Or do they recognize the legitimacy of the conservatives’ claim to personal relationships with God, but acknowledge that he’s telling them different things?

Moreover, how do the liberals know that their relationship is with God at all? The fundamentalists are likely to say that any voice speaking in their hearts things that contradict the Bible must be the trickery of Satan; how do the liberals know that this voice which tells them things they want to hear but conflict with the Bible is the voice of the divine and not the damned?

Those would be the criticisms from the fundamentalists, and I’m not entirely sure how the liberal Christian would respond to them, except to cite again the “core message” of the Bible. I don’t think that would convince the fundamentalists; their approaches to the Bible are vastly different, and any response about the “core message” is going to fall well outside of the fundamentalists’ framework. But I have another criticism, one which others (both atheists and theists) have leveled: if you have a personal relationship with God through which he shares his teachings and prescriptions, and if much of the Bible is flawed and outdated, then why do you need the Bible at all? Having God give you the straight scoop on his up-to-the-minute revised revelations makes the Bible an outdated edition, several generations removed from what’s currently available, and not even particularly useful for the end-of-chapter questions. Why would liberal Christians assign any significance to the Bible at all? Sentimentality? Why justify any part of it? Why use it as an authoritative reference? If you’re acknowledging that it was written and assembled and translated by flawed people, and if you’re asserting that your personal revelation trumps theirs, then why even consult it? Or at the very least, why give it any more prominence than the writings of the similarly-inspired theologians, poets, and other writers who inform your faith?

Or, to unite this with the fundamentalist critique: if you don’t believe all of the Bible, why believe any of it?

Now, lest we think that the fundamentalists have the monopoly on criticism here, their devotion to the Bible opens them up to a criticism from the liberals. The liberals accept the history of the Bible, the sordid tales of copyists and committees, of discarded books and dogmas past that are attested to by all the available evidence (not that that would be convincing for some). They accept–even assert–that the book is not perfect, that it was transcribed, copied, and translated by imperfect humans who may have even been imperfectly interpreting their divine inspiration. I think the liberal, in general, would be likely to say that no human’s interpretation of the divine is perfect, that no human work is perfect, and that their own apprehension of both divine and mundane may be imperfect. They’d be likely, I think, to say that only God is perfect, and that elevating the Bible (or anything else of this mortal world) to the status of perfection is idolatry. Were they particularly savvy, they might point out that even if the Bible were perfect, the people reading and interpreting it are not, and thus the fundamentalist is not merely asserting the Bible’s perfection, but their own as well. They are engaging in self-idolatry, declaring themselves perfectly able to sort out the will and mind of God from the imperfect writings of first-century preachers. I’m not sure, but I don’t think most liberal Christians pretend to the kind of certainty approaching personal infallibility that the fundamentalists so often do.

And you’d think that the fundies would be all over this, what with their general acceptance (and promotion) of the idea that this Earth is fallen, tainted, imperfect, and potentially even ruled by Satan. Why is the Bible excepted from this assessment? Accepting its history should fit perfectly into their worldview. Instead, not only will they deny it, defend its unity, and proclaim its perfection, but in many cases they’ll claim that one particular arbitrary version is the only perfect one, above all others. They accomplish this through an amazing display of compartmentalization, denial, and Olympic-level quality gymnastics, when they’d only have to apply their worldview consistently to make the whole mess fit.

So I think there are significant failures of reason on both sides, some more fundamental than others. Inasmuch as the beliefs and practices follow logically from the premises, I think the edge might indeed go to the conservatives, though I think both sides have some pretty distinct fallacies to deal with. Both, as far as I’m concerned, are dealing with unsound premises–and I think the unsound premises of the conservative position are far more fundamental–and the other problems spiral out of that. Either way, I know which group I’d rather associate with.

I recognize that all of this is a mishmash of speculation, subjective experience, armchair psychology, barely-informed theology, and broad generalizing, but I think there may be something to all this. I won’t say that these categories are entirely distinct, accurately named, or all-inclusive. I’m drawing very vague lines here, between very large and overlapping categories, and if I’m making some obvious errors, feel free to correct me. But what I’ve tried to accomplish with this overlong screed is a fairly fine and simple response to the two common claims I mentioned above. To say that either the liberals or conservatives has a more legitimate claim to the term “True Christian” is problematic at best, and tends to fallaciously favor the fundamentalists. To say that either conservative or liberal Christianity is more “reasonable” entirely depends on whether you mean “reasonable” in a casual sense of “not crazy,” or “reasonable” in the more specific and accurate sense of “well-reasoned.” In that case, it really relies upon counting the fallacies leading from unsound premises to invalid conclusions, and I’d have to see a side-by-side array of the different specific arguments, with premises and conclusions laid out specifically, in order to make such a distinction (though my inclination is that the conservative position may follow more directly from the flawed premises).

In other words, neither claim is accurate, and we (atheists and moderate/liberal theists alike) should consider being more careful with the assumptions we make and the assumptions our language betrays with regard to who are the real and reasonable Christians. To do less risks granting prestige and legitimacy to those who haven’t earned it.

*I think the modern conservative Christians have a lot in common with the medieval Catholic laity and the 17th Century Protestant laity. In all three cases, the vast majority have read little, if any, of the Bible; the old Catholics weren’t allowed to, the early Protestants were largely illiterate, and the modern group is a little of both, with apathy, short attention span, and arrogant ignorance mixed in. Like those early protestants, the modern conservatives get their beliefs mostly from popular reinterpretations–four hundred years ago, if a family owned two books, they were the Bible and “Pilgrim’s Progress,” which uses tortuously obvious metaphor to turn the Christian experience into a narrative. Today, I suspect that “Evidence that Demands a Verdict,” “The Case for Christ,” “Mere Christianity,” and “Left Behind” (among other books) have supplanted Bunyan in most conservative Christians’ homes. Like those lay Catholics of the middle ages, conservative Christians tend to often look to God and the trappings of Christianity as a source of magic. This theme comes up repeatedly in Fred Clark’s analysis of “Left Behind,” particularly toward the end. Where the medieval laity would steal communion wafers and use corrupted versions of Latin phrases to try to conduct more-or-less Pagan magic rituals, the modern conservative seems to view prayer as something akin to calling upon a finicky genie, and being saved binds God to the believer, forming a magical shield which protects them against Chaotic Evil. As long as you say the right magic words, God will reveal himself to you and protect you, but only if you do it right (see also: the Sinner’s Prayer).

And if the conservatives are modern-day Catholic or Protestant laity, then the Dispensationalists are modern-day Gnostics. I wrote a historically and theologically inept paper to that end in undergrad, but that thesis only becomes more and more apparent as I look into the blatant exclusivist Manicheanism practiced by the likes of Tim LaHaye.

**It’s even more nuanced than this, I think–Dispensationalists and other End-Timers, with their fixation on the Rapture as an (otherwise indistinguishable) alternative to death, would put even more emphasis on the “shall not perish,” while the other conservatives (with similar fears but different fixations) would emphasize the “have everlasting life.”

***I say “come to” because these beliefs aren’t (necessarily) axiomatic. Some Christians of either bent may consider the premise that God exists and loves us to be foundational, axiomatic, transcendent, or something along those lines, but they still initially arrived at that premise through some other method–being told by parents, being convinced by arguments, etc. That method of first convincing had to follow some other path of reasoning, relying on other axioms–Mommy is always right, if a belief is comforting then I should believe it, if an argument is convincing then it must be true, etc.

****Of course, there are Christians with different takes on this–non-Trinitarians, universal salvationists, folks who deny that Hell is a real place, and so forth. I’m drawing broad generalizations again.

Hail to the king, baby.

This is where the joke about Deadite Jesus goes.This is probably going to come off as rude, condescending, and generally disrespectful. I apologize, and I invoke Hanlon’s Razor in my defense.

It’s that time of year again, though I wasn’t sure until I Googled it. I’d been seeing ads for fish sandwiches at places that normally don’t advertise their fish, so I figured Lent was coming up. Yesterday, they mentioned on the radio that it was Fat Tuesday, and therefore Mardi Gras. Much later in the day, the thought occurred to me: “Didn’t that mean something about Ash Wednesday? Is that the day following Fat Tuesday, or the day preceding Maundy Thursday, which I’m pretty sure is the day before Good Friday, which is right before Easter?” I Googled Ash Wednesday, and it came up at the top: February 25th, 2009.

For the first time in years, I was forewarned.

See, I don’t know that I’ve ever celebrated Ash Wednesday in any particular fashion. I’ve certainly never participated in Lent, and I don’t even remember hearing about it until I was in High School. Since then, and especially since I’ve been an atheist, I’ve thought of Ash Wednesday as “the day when it’s rude to tell someone they’ve got a little dirt on their face.”

I don’t mean anything by it, really. It’s not me flaunting my heathenness, it’s not about belittling anyone’s faith–as I confessed some time ago, I just don’t realize it’s intentional until after I say something. Open mouth, insert foot, hope there’s no palm fronds on the bottom of it.

This year, that could potentially cause actual problems, since I’m working as a government employee around plenty of churchgoers of various sorts, and trying to be inconspicuous when I mumble over that one line of the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. So, for the first time in quite awhile, I enter into Ash Wednesday with the knowledge that it’s Ash Wednesday, rather than figuring it out at 6:30 in the evening after seeing the seventh person in a row at Wal-Mart in need of a damp washcloth.

Incidentally, while the rest of the nation is getting monochromatic face-painting, I’ll be spending my afternoon judging a Science Fair. Good? Bad? I’m the guy with the clipboard.

More suffering

I was rereading this post tonight, when a thought occurred to me. The thought’s not going to mean much unless you go read the old post, so I’m putting it below the fold.

Job suffered more than Jesus did. Going along the thought toward the end of that old post, wouldn’t suffering on the level of Job’s have been more the sort of thing that we’d expect for someone suffering for all of humanity, past, present and future? Wouldn’t it be more in line with scriptural precedent for Jesus to have suffered like Job did? Rather than having to torture some passage about “piercing” as though it were a prophecy of crucifixion, Christians trying to demonstrate prophecies about Jesus could point to the Book of Job and say “look!”

I can imagine it now, with Christ amassing a following, starting his church in defiance of the Pharisees, marrying and starting a family, and ultimately making it to the apex of his life when God starts taking things away from him–first his followers, then his children, then his wife, then his health (but not so much that he is actually close to dying, to joining his family in the afterlife). Finally, his former friends betray him, the Pharisees force him to recant his message and deny his teachings before the masses, then betray him again to the Romans. Finally as he rots, broken and bullied and impotent in a Roman dungeon, Jesus looks toward the sky through a barred window. Job had the patience of a saint, but Jesus has the patience of a man, and he cries out–“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” And unlike Job, he curses God, unable to remain loyal when he has lost so much. That’s the kind of suffering that I’d expect from someone who’s suffering for everyone. It seems like ending the Jesus story with him losing faith, committing the unforgivable sin–with God denying God–would be the more poignant and powerful resolution.

More and more, it seems like God just doesn’t understand good writing.

Not Sold on the Solstice

I realize that it’s a week or three too late, but this thought has been rolling around my head for a few days: I have some serious misgivings about the winter solstice.

On one hand–specifically, the hand that was getting frostbitten, scraped, and sore as I spent December 21st packing up and moving out of my apartment–ultimately a four-day job that I did in three–I frigging hate it. It’s cold, it gets dark way too early, and damn it, I like sunlight. A day with less sunlight than any other all year? I might as well just sleep through it.

As a reason for celebration, though, I like it. It’s a rational, physical justification for celebrating at this time of year. The worst part of the winter is over; from this point on, it’s a general trend of increasing warmth and daylight. The sun has once again been unconquered, and so we celebrate its rebirth with feasts and signifiers of the coming spring–evergreen trees, holly leaves, and so forth. In some fashion, the religious festivals of wintertime trace back to this reasoning. It’s nice to skip over all the magic and mysticism, celebrating something that has both objective physical reality and a history that predates the modern religious celebrations. Sure, in these days of heating and insulation and preservatives and refrigeration, there’s too not much chance of people freezing or starving to death en masse. Modern medicine and sanitation even mitigate the problem of disease devastating populations of largely cooped-up people. Winter doesn’t generally represent the sort of existential uncertainty and lethal foreboding that it once did. Like an abominable snowman after meeting a polar elf with orthodontic aspirations, winter has been rendered largely toothless. Still, it’s a decent tradition with a rational, if somewhat arbitrary, justification.

But then people start talking about it, and this is where I cringe. See, it seems there are two groups of people who celebrate the solstice: Pagans and atheists*. The latter do it as a secular alternative to the ubiquitous religious winter celebrations; the former do it as their own religious celebration, laden with the touchy-feely newage woo-woo of neo-Paganism. In general, I think, the word is more associated with the neo-Pagans, since, after all, the Solstice was a Pagan holiday. Where it gets messy, I think, is when atheists celebrate the solstice and talk about the way Christians co-opted the holiday from earlier Pagan festivals. For instance, this statement by Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Dan Barker, on a news station in Washington:

It’s to remind people that the month of December is a natural holiday. It’s not a Christian holiday; Christians basically co-opted–or some would say stole–the, uh, the Pagan symbols for the Christian religion.

They played it on an episode of Freethought Radio that was all about the Solstice, but that bit toward the beginning was the first thing to set my teeth on edge. I’m having a hard time verbalizing my discomfort, but I think my reasoning goes like this: when atheists celebrate Solstice and talk about how Solstice is a pagan holiday, it makes a connection between atheists and Pagans**. To me, it makes it sound like atheists and Pagans share some common belief system, or at the very least some kind of newage nature worship. I don’t think this is a good thing.

Atheists are already misunderstood. There’s a large class of people who think we worship Satan. I don’t think it’s a good idea to contribute to the confusion by making it sound like we worship Mother Nature. Nature’s beautiful and vast and astounding, but it’s not much for those motherly qualities like compassion and warmth***, and while healthy reverence is deserved, worship seems a few steps too far.

The solstice provides a secular justification for celebration, but citing the Pagans doesn’t say anything about that secular justification. The Pagans celebrate for religious reasons just as the Christians and Jews do–or at least, quasi-religious reasons. If atheists are going to reclaim the Solstice, let’s be explicit about the reasons. It has nothing to do with the Pagans or other religions, and everything to do with a real-life event and an excuse to be with real-life families and friends. The only commonality is that we all share the same ultimate justification–recognizing that the worst of winter is over, and it’s all downhill and up-temperature from here. They dress it up with god-men and candlesticks, but the root is the same; if you’re going to justify celebrating the solstice, refer to that, and not just some other solstice-celebrating religious group.

*This is an oversimplification, I know, since I’m sure plenty of those Pagans are technically atheists. Here, I’m using the term atheist in the more specific sense of the atheist community and movement, which the newagers tend not to consider themselves a part of.
**Which, technically, is true, since “pagan” is just a catch-all term for non-Christians. But, again, I’m talking more specifically about the neo-Pagan groups, who self-identify as “Pagan” or some more vague nature-oriented quasi-religion.
***Except, of course, in the most literal sense of the term.

More on Rhology

You may recall that I once had an exchange with Rhology, the resident brick wall down at the Atheist Experience blog, some time ago. Apparently, he responded, if you can call “posting while ignoring the vast majority of what I said” a response. Naturally, I responded to his blatantly dishonest, cherry-picking, quote-mining, strawman-building façade of a response in the comments there, but I figured I’d reproduce it here, since it’s epic in length. To his credit, at least Rhology apologized for not directing me to the response. Clicky-click below the fold.
Sorry to come into this so late. I blame Rhology’s lack of netiquette.

But what is his argument that being killed does not depend on one’s worthiness? I don’t grant that at all.

The matter was not “worthy of being killed” but “worthy of death.” “Death” has nothing to do with worthiness; every living thing dies, regardless of any judgment of virtue. As I said in the original thread: “I see a major difference between ‘you deserve death’ and ‘you deserve to be killed.’ The latter has some meaning; it implies that the target should encounter death before they otherwise would, which is indeed a punishment (at least, by my reckoning). If that’s what Rhology meant, then that has some practical meaning. I’d like to know what his criteria are for determining who deserves to be killed, and how he arrived at that conclusion, and chances are I would disagree.”

Incidentally, rather than offering any such criteria or your reasoning behind such a statement, you decided to play armchair psychologist and pretend you had any understanding whatsoever of morals that aren’t derived from an arbitrarily chosen ancient book.

This bleeds over into the “worthy of death” vs “worthy of being killed” thing. Apparently, it’s by Tom Foss’ arbitrary fiat that these two statements are of different quality. But why should anyone be more consistent with Tom’s method than he himself is being?

It’s not “arbitrary fiat.” One statement is meaningful, the other one is not. Death occurs to the “worthy” and “unworthy” alike (no matter what your standards for worthiness are). Whether or not one meets an arbitrary standard of virtue has no bearing on whether or not that person will die. Saying “you are worthy of death” is nonsensical.

Saying “you are worthy of being killed” has some meaning, as I said above. It implies a punishment rather than an inevitability. Again, you’ve offered no standards to judge anyone’s worthiness of being killed, nor have you offered any reasoning behind that statement. It’s you who’ve made the “arbitrary fiat.”

Apparently, the basis for Tom’s morality is society – it all starts there.

Starts there? No, though that’s close to the start. The start is the set of facts that require society to exist: namely, our desire for survival, our natural empathy for one another, and our mutual interdependence.

Simple humanism, really.

Um, no, not really. Simple reality.

Ah, the dangers of making man the focus!

Ah, the dangers of making an ancient book the focus! These days, “man” rarely advocates slavery or stoning unruly children.

And what can this say to someone who doesn’t like society? Who doesn’t think there should BE a society? Call them a sociopath, throw them in jail, whatever – that’s just might makes right, the imposition of morality by force, the shoving of his moralistic views down another’s throat.

I (and my commenters) already addressed this point. It didn’t stand then, it doesn’t stand now, and repeating it shows that you’ve run out of actual points.

What is his argument for this assertion?

What “assertion”?

Feeding someone is not merely allowing eating to take place; feeding someone necessarily implies that the feeding would not have otherwise taken place at that moment.
So what?

So what? You just refuted your point: “putting someone to death is simply enabling a natural process to take place. It’s the same as giving someone a carrot to eat.” Half of that is accurate (to a degree)–killing someone is the same as giving them a carrot to eat, in that it’s making an inevitable thing happen immediately (assuming that the person would inevitably have eaten the carrot). The half that’s wrong is that it’s “enabling a natural process to take place.” It’s not; it’s forcing a natural process to take place immediately rather than inevitably. Here in the real world, there’s this thing called “time,” and it has significance with regard to these natural processes.

1) There’s no necessity that society exist.
There is if the species is to continue.

Let me restate my #1 then.
1) There’s no necessity that the human species exist.

Agreed. There is no necessity that the human species exist; we, as humans, however, would generally prefer existence to nonexistence. The necessity of society comes out of our desire to continue living.

Well, who would argue that?
The question is: Society exists. What are our moral obligations?
Where is the prescription?

The prescription is this: given the facts that society exists, that we live in it, and that we generally benefit from it, our moral obligations are determined by the principles that ensure the continued existence of society, and thus assist our continued survival and benefit.

If someone wants to be free of those moral prescriptions, they’re free to leave the society, so long as they’re willing to give up those benefits.

Again, all this was generally covered in the post you’re supposedly responding to.

Humans could take the approach from other animals, like eagles and lions – raise the young for a bit and then send them out on their own.

Do you have any idea what you’re talking about at all? Lions live in prides, in social groups where the individuals mutually benefit from the collective protections and resources of their society. Eagles migrate in groups (again, providing mutually protection), and some species mate for life. Neither of your examples “send [the young] out on their own,” cut off from any and all of the resources and protections of the society–after all, they’re social animals.

Let’s say that humans did just that: raise the young until they’re adults, then send them out. Where would we send them? Someplace that doesn’t have the various benefits and protections of the human society, but still allows them to find a mate when they need to? Where, exactly, would that be? The two locales are more or less mutually exclusive; there were no hot babes at Walden Pond.

Again I have to bring up the So What? On your view, humans could have evolved so that we live together in societies or live apart as individuals, either way. What does that say about morality, about telling us what we OUGHT to do, what we OUGHT to value, how we OUGHT to think, what we OUGHT to hold dear?

No, in my view, humans couldn’t have evolved otherwise–not and still be recognizable as humans. We come from a long lineage of animals with increasingly complex societies. We don’t have the necessary traits to survive as a purely individualistic species.

However, that’s beside the point: if things had happened differently, then our moral sense might be different. Things happened according to one set of circumstances, and those circumstances dictate our morality. Society exists, we benefit from it. In order to continue receiving those benefits, we need to act in a manner consistent with the continued existence of society. If we act in a manner against the continued existence of society, then society will remove our access to those benefits.

In other words, if we want to continue to survive and benefit from the comforts of society, then we ought to act in accordance with society’s rules. If we don’t want to act in accordance with society’s rules, then we ought to leave. We can’t have our benefits and shirk the rules too.

You’re confusing categories – IS and OUGHT.

I’m not confusing anything. I’m explaining that “ought” comes from “is.” Our morals depend on the facts of our existence.

I’m not questioning THAT societies have general scruples. I’m questioning the prescriptive power of said scruples.

Ah, right. Pressure from other individuals, threat of punishment (and execution of such threats), social norms, and individual conscience have no power to affect individuals’ behavior. And none of those things have any basis in the values of society.

The simple fact that most people hold that, say, it is morally right to shove Jews into ovens doesn’t mean that I should believe that such is right. But apparently Tom thinks that if the society believes that to be true, it’s true.

You’re confusing “things I didn’t say” with “arguments against my position.” Allow me to repeat, from the post you’re responding to: “On a personal level, Rhology, I would say that these ‘astray’ societies were obviously doing morally wrong things, since I, and the society of which I am a part, consider oppression, murder, pogroms, and so on to be morally reprehensible.

But what about those societies at the time? Certainly in 1945 we could have judged Nazi Germany to be in the wrong; their actions were–again–contrary to the moral values that we hold in the US. Moreover, they were contrary to the foundational values that are necessary for society: killing bad. Applying the same metric we used for the mountain men, we can imagine that a society where folks went around killing anyone they didn’t like would fall apart pretty quickly. So maybe they wanted to get together and make an arbitrary guideline about when an exception would be warranted–and they did, making an arbitrary exception to the “no killing” rule that applied to anyone who wasn’t Aryan. And we, and others, were able to judge that arbitrary decision to be morally incorrect, based on our own values and some pretty basic applications of reason and logic.

I’m curious, though, how much the actions of Nazi Germany actually fell in line with the moral consensus. Just because a government does something or codifies a law doesn’t mean that those actions or codes are in line with the moral consensus of the people.”

The decision to kill Jews wasn’t the result of moral consensus, but of arbitrary fiat (yes, this is a clear oversimplification). It was contrary to the moral necessities of society and inconsistent with the general values of the society.

If it evolved that way, that’s the moral right. Thus the danger of basing one’s morality on humanity.

Where on Earth did anyone say that? Your straw man is getting threadbare.

If humanity had evolved and flourished with that behavior as its model, would Tom now be arguing that such behavior fits very well within his moral framework?

“If things were radically different, would Tom be arguing for something radically different?” Yes, Rhology, when the facts change, I change my position. What do you do?

For instance, I think it’s safe to say that the prevailing value in my country would be that it’s morally wrong to kill and eat dogs. I agree: I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to eat my dog. In a different set of circumstances, however–say, in a region where food was less plentiful and dogs weren’t generally given the same kind of prestigious place that they are in our families, I might argue that eating dogs would be necessary for survival. In a society where dogs were common hunting partners, necessary to procure food for the whole community, I might argue that killing dogs–which would likely result in the community going without food–should be a heavily punishable crime. Different social circumstances may require different moral judgments.

If not, why should anyone respect a system that can only support such inconsistent and arbitrary appeals?

As opposed to what? A system based on what an arbitrarily chosen deity supposedly said? A system which says “thou shalt not murder” but also repeatedly encourages people to slaughter women and children? Yes, inconsistency and arbitrariness are a real problem for at least one of these moral systems.

1) Neither are women property in the Bible. Ignorant statements like this don’t help anyone.

Ah, okay, I’ll just ignore the places where wives are listed alongside servants and livestock as belongings, or where women are purchased. Instead, let’s go with something we can both agree on: unlike in the Bible, the industrialized west doesn’t generally consider women to be inferior and subordinate to men. Surely you wouldn’t be ridiculous enough to call that an “ignorant statement.”

2) One wonders whether Tom realises the nature of biblical, Old Testament slavery, which is more properly termed ‘indentured servitude’, with all sorts of legal rights and protections.

Semantics. I don’t give a fig about legal rights and protections (protections like ‘if you beat your slave to death, you’ll be punished, unless the slave lives for a day or two after the beating, because after all, it’s your money‘). Owning people is wrong, full stop. Any book which says otherwise is an inferior source of morality.

Tom also shows unfamiliarity with the ‘stoning children to death’ thing in the OT, tipping his hand that he’s probably reciting Hitchensian or ironchariots talking points or something.

I’ve not read any Hitchens, so it can’t be that.

It was not young children who were subject to this penalty, but rather grown children.

And this is better…how?

Tom might be well-served to read the entire passage in question

What, this passage?

“If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his hometown. “They shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ “Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear {of it} and fear.”

So according to your Bible, disobedience, stubbornness, rebelliousness, gluttony, and alcoholism are crimes worthy of the death penalty? And you think this is somehow better than what I was saying? You’ve made my point for me, Rhology: any book that advocates public execution as a punishment for laziness and rebellion is morally reprehensible.

And of course, he shows his gross inconsistency right here. Apparently, for Tom, societal evolution determines morality except when it makes Tom uncomfortable and militates against his own morality. In that case, suddenly, it’s NOT OK.
Inconsistency is the sign of a failed argument.

I don’t even know where to begin; that’s not even a straw man, because that would imply that it bears some resemblance to my arguments. Nothing in what you just said represents anything I’ve said at all. If that’s how carefully you read posts you’re responding to, then I wonder how carefully you could possibly be reading your favorite holy book. Maybe that’s why you think “stoning my adult son because he’s a bum” is somehow superior to “stoning my son because he’s unruly.”

Of course, that you pull the word “adult” out of there, in a passage which never specifies the age of the child in question, is pretty much a testament to your careless reading. And if inconsistency is the sign of a failed argument, then what must we think of a moral system which says that gluttony and drunkenness are punishable by death, but also that punishments should be proportional to the crime?

If you actually care what I think about morality, try reading what I’ve already written. I don’t see any need to repeat myself yet again.

But society is not unanimous about anything. Thus, I introduced the question of %. Apparently Tom is more interested in making naked assertions that sound good at first and then back off of them when challenged.

Where am I backing off? Try reading the next line, where I elaborate: “It’s [the moral consensus is] represented in the ongoing conversations about rights, the progression of laws, and the overall changing social attitude.” I ought to probably include socail mores in that list, though I would imagine they fall under “social attitude.” Explicitly, the social consensus is represented in the law, though that’s not always an accurate depiction of social values (see, for instance, Prohibition). Less explicitly, there are things that, morally, a given society takes for granted, and things that we discuss and debate. On and off within the past few decades, it’s been a generally-accepted premise that the use of drugs is a very bad thing. More recently, the discussion of legalizing marijuana has gained some traction, and the drug doesn’t have the same stigma it did, say, fifty years ago. A few decades ago, homosexuality was generally assumed to be morally wrong; today, the social conversation is far, far more divided, and the consensus is shifting toward the contrary position.

You want a percentage? Take a damn poll. That’ll give you some idea, depending on how you ask the questions, and the size and composition of your sample group. Otherwise, you can just pay attention: what kinds of moral issues are being debated in the society? What kinds of laws are being drafted, voted on, or challenged? What kinds of people, issues, and relationships are portrayed in the media? The consensus, rough and changing as it is, builds out of those things.

I made no guess or hypothesis one way or the other. I was waiting for him to explain it to everyone, and I’m disappointed.

I’m disappointed by your quote-mining, Rho. You want to know what I think? Then don’t cherry-pick bits of my post and ignore the parts that answer your questions.

1) They’re still part of society, though.

They’re part of a society, not necessarily the parent society. Assuming, of course, that we’re talking about a “they” and not a “single kook going completely off the grid.”

Perhaps that’s what you’re not quite getting: societies come in different levels and flavors. There’s a global society, which is becoming increasingly homogeneous with regard to morals, but which only really agrees on the broad and basic points. There are large societies, like nations, which agree on more points and are more homogeneous still. Within those, we may define sub-societies–regions like “the north” and “the south,” or individual states; we may talk about “city values” and “country values,” describing different sub-societies that aren’t necessarily connected by common location. These groups will agree on still more moral points.

And then there are tight-knit mini-societies like the YFZ compound or Amish communities or hippie communes. These little societies fall along a spectrum of how much they depend on, participate in, and benefit from the larger society around them, and this largely determines how closely they have to follow the rules of the parent society. The Amish, for instance, are exempted from some taxes, child labor laws, and education laws, for various reasons owing to their general separation from the outside society. On the other hand, they can vote, they use the public roadways, and they receive protection from the U.S., so they’re required to pay some taxes, put safety reflectors on their carriages, and so forth.

So, with the crazed mountain men, they may secede and form their own society; they might still be considered part of some version of the parent society (certainly they’d be included in the global society), but they wouldn’t necessarily be part of the society they’re rebelling against. If they band together and form their own independent group, they can form their own rules and live however they want.

2) This speaks not at all to the question of whether it’s morally OK to secede.

Who was asking that question? What moral arguments are there against secession?

3) One wonders at what point someone ceases to be part of “society”. I’ll venture a guess – it’s whenever their presence IN society stops discomfiting Tom’s argument.

Um, how about “when they’re alone and no longer benefiting from or contributing to a larger group.” You know, like I said.

And one of these small secluded societies might conceivably come to believe that it is a moral obligation to seek out and murder all humanists who have first names that begin with “T”. And Tom Foss would presumably call them immoral to do so. But why?

1) When did I call myself a humanist?
2) I would consider it immoral to do so, because my values, and the values necessary for any society to exist would consider murder to be immoral. Apparently you missed that basic point. So I’d wonder what arguments they have for that exception to their rule, and I suspect that it’d be totally arbitrary. As I’ve said a couple of times, the totally arbitrary exceptions to and demarcations of various moral codes are the places where debate and discussion most readily occur.

But they can consider that their moral obligation all they want, and that’s their right–up until they invade some society where the morals disagree. When values clash, it’s sometimes violent.

Well and good, but is it OK to rape children?
I don’t care whether anyone BELIEVES it’s OK to rape children. I want to know WHETHER it is OK.

Considering that it generally goes against the values necessary for individuals and society to continue existing, that it fails the “what if everyone did it” test, and that it represents an arbitrary exception to their existing morality (I imagine Warren Jeffs wouldn’t find it morally correct to rape elderly men, so rape can’t always be permissible in their society), I think we can safely say that raping children is wrong. Heck, I can go so far as to say that it ought to be commanded. Strange that no particular deities have thought to include “thou shalt not rape” on their verboten lists. You’d think that’d be more important than taking names in vain or taking days off of work.

Not at all. As we’ve seen, these ‘absolutes’ are arbitrary and inconsistent. Tom has failed.

Darn those arbitrary fiats again, Rhology.

God-defined moral absolutes, however, are absolute and right by definition, AND they are backed up by disciplinary and punitive authority and force.

Which God? Which moral absolutes? I’m sorry, if you think “publicly execute drunkards” is “right by definition,” then you’re as morally reprehensible as your arbitrarily-chosen genocide-ordering, baby-murdering deity.

Even this, his “most basic” of precepts, is hopelessly misaligned. Apparently it is now immoral to kill a guy who is holding a knife to my wife’s throat after breaking in to my bedroom and trying to kill me.
Or to shoot a terrorist who is about to blow up a schoolbus with a bomb belt.

Yes, that’s absolutely what I said right there, totally, and not a blatant misrepresentation of what I’ve said up to that point. Yes, it is immoral to kill the guy who is holding the knife to your wife’s throat–if society is to continue existing, if we all want to survive, then we can’t go around killing one another willy-nilly. It is, of course, morally correct to save your wife’s life–if society is to continue existing, if we all want to survive, then we should go around making sure that each other survives, particularly the people with whom we’re going to mate. So we have a situation where we must choose–horrors–the lesser of two evils! And given the moral imperative to save one another’s lives, and the likelihood that a knife-wielding murderer will probably go on to murder again, the more moral act should be quite clear.

Of course, if you can stop the attacker without killing him, thus allowing the system we have for enforcing our morals to do its work, then you’ve skirted the immorality issue almost entirely

See, once again, the circumstances determine the moral judgments. It would be morally wrong to hold someone captive against their will, keeping them confined to a single room for most of the day and refusing them human contact. If, however, that person is a convicted serial killer, then we must weigh the immorality of holding people captive against the immorality of allowing serial killers to roam free and transgress against the basic morals that hold society together. And so, since they’ve acted against society’s interests, we remove their access to the benefits of society, as the more morally correct action.

Real-world morals don’t provide blanket black-and-white, always-right/always-wrong judgments. They provide guidelines to make moral decisions based on individual circumstances. Actions which would be morally reprehensible in most situations (taking a life, for instance) may be morally required in a certain set of circumstances (like the ones you’ve outlined above).

Tom must not watch the news. Is it really possible for someone in the modern age, who uses the Internet, to be this hopelessly naive? I guess so.

What the hell does this even mean? Do you really think that you can’t reasonably trust most people not to kill you when you turn your back? Really? Because you must not live in any place that resembles the actual world. Surprisingly enough, “man doesn’t kill woman on subway” doesn’t often make the 9 o’clock news cycle, despite it being what happens in the vast majority of instances. Is it really possible for someone to interact with other human beings and be this hopelessly cynical? I guess so.

Tom apparently does not realise that morality exists not only to tell us what we ought to do, but to tell apart good from bad and correct action and desire from incorrect action and desire. It serves to protect us against bad people. If everyone were perfect, there’s really no need for law, nor law enforcement.

What exactly do you mean by “morality” here? Because I have the feeling that we’re defining the terms in somewhat different ways.

What are “correct and incorrect desires”? Are you talking thoughtcrime? I guess I don’t realize that morality exists to shield us from things that aren’t threats in any way.

And how do you define “bad people”?

And, finally, where am I suggesting that people are “perfect”? Have I said anything of the sort? Because I certainly don’t see it, nor do I think so.

It seems like you think all morality needs to come from outside, like people couldn’t figure out “killing bad” on their own.

Everyone knows deep down that God’s Law exists and condemns them as sinners (Romans 2:14-16).

Ah, here we are, with the baseless statements. Well, I’ll grant that your religious laws exist (all 613 or so), but I haven’t seen any evidence that your God exists, or any reason to follow his laws as opposed to the laws of any of the other myriad deities. Seems like choosing any particular god to follow is pretty arbitrary, as are what your God considers “sins.” I mean, I find it morally reprehensible to punish children for what their parents and ancestors did in the past, but apparently that’s just a-okay with Yahweh.

We’ll simply ignore the fact that your statement here is incorrect: no, not everyone knows, deep down or otherwise, that your god’s law exists or that he thinks we’re all really naughty.

This is one of the reasons why Tom, while embracing a humanist morality at one level, also tries to bind others’ consciences to moral judgments as if they SHOULD follow them.

No, it isn’t. First, you say “humanist morality” like you know what it means, when you clearly don’t (heck, I’m not even sure it’s a meaningful phrase). Second, you’ve just completely ignored anything I’ve said and returned to your original arugment (that we have no justification for telling others how to behave). I’ve explained the basis of morality, using the basic facts of human existence and of how moral codes change over time. Your model of “morality as defined in an arbitrary ancient book” doesn’t provide any explanation as to why we can look at slavery and murdering drunkards and committing genocide and say “hey, those things are wrong” today, when your book still endorses them. Your model of morality doesn’t explain why God thought it was so important to tell us how goats and goat milk should be combined when cooking, but neglected to mention anything about, say, cloning or equality or pollution or any of the other moral issues that we’re facing today. Why is it that the morals outlined in your book aren’t any different from the morals practiced by Bronze Age nomads and first-century religious fanatics?

Finally, without evidence that your God exists, you have no justification for binding others’ consciences to moral judgments as if they SHOULD follow them. Why should I follow Jehovah over Allah or Zeus or Odin? What reason do I have to think that any of their contradictory sets of laws apply to me, or that their various condemnations of me hold any weight? I have proof that society exists, and I have proof that society can punish me, and I have proof that societies possess different moral codes, and I know that I like living, want to continue living, and like receiving benefits from the society. Why should I follow any arbitrary deity when I can derive morals from the things I know exist?

Once again, we have to ask: When and where did “society” get together and establish this moral agreement? Where would “society” do so in the future?
Tom has not answered this question. He tells us that it’s in evolution, in development.

I guess your “perfect moral code” doesn’t cover bearing false witness, Rhology, since I answered precisely that in the passage you mined for that quote. You were being obtuse before, now you’re just being blatantly dishonest.

Let the reader judge whether presuming that Tom would think that the Nazi genocide was a bad thing was a mean and nasty thing for me to do. Tom seems a little prickly on this topic. Will we be frightened by what we’ll find about his thoughts?

Yes, let the reader of what I said judge that. I’ll just link it again; this post is long enough without repeating myself.

Well well, I was right.
And I love it – “on a personal level”.

That’s right. My first statement was “on a personal level. And after that, I explained it on an impersonal, objective level. But you chose to ignore that, because it was inconvenient for your screed.

Fine then. On a personal level, I would say that hunting down and murdering all humanists whose first names begin with the letter “T” is obviously morally RIGHT, since I, and the society (which my society and I have defined) of which I am a part, consider their existence morally reprehensible. We’re right back at the beginning – I have decided that he is worthy of death.

Yes, you’re back at the beginning: speaking nonsense.

Don’t wriggle out of this. Answer the question.

I’m not wriggling out of anything. I’ve answered your questions, you chose to ignore the answers.

Taking the easy way out is no way to make quality, substantial arguments.

You owe me a new irony meter.

So these decisions are “made” during an unobservable and unexaminable period of time by an amorphous, undefined group in an undefined area on undefined questions. Pardon me if I’m not bowled over in wonder at the fecundity of societal moral reasoning.

Right, as opposed to decisions made during an unobservable and unexaminable period of time by an invisible, undefined God working through an amorphous, undefined group of writers in an undefined area on undefined questions. Your method is so much more reasonable.

The point to all this is to demonstrate the vacuity, the void, of the alternatives to the Christian worldview, where the living God is the source of morality.

Really? Because to me you’ve demonstrated the vacuousness, the cynicism, the intellectual dishonesty, and the density of those promoting the Christian worldview, who have to ignore inconvenient points, blatantly misrepresent opposing positions, and flat-out lie in order to support their claims that their perfect God laid out a perfect source of morality, which is totally consistent (despite commanding proportional punishment alongside stoning drunkards) and right by definition (despite forcing rape victims to marry their attackers, for instance) and in no need of reinterpretation or progress.

The distinction is more than obvious, and given Tom and Anon’s terrible confusion and inconsistency, thank God for it!

What’s more than obvious, Rhology, is your inability to engage in any kind of honest discussion. You’re certainly a credit to your religion.

Hardcore Atheism

The Friendly Atheist has started a meme about how hardcore an atheist one is. I wouldn’t have posted this, but I was a little surprised by how many I hit. So, here are the guidelines:

Copy and paste the list below on your own site, boldfacing the things you’ve done. (Feel free to add your own elaboration and commentary to each item!)

And here’s the list:

1. Participated in the Blasphemy Challenge.
2. Met at least one of the “Four Horsemen” (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris) in person.
3. Created an atheist blog.
4. Used the Flying Spaghetti Monster in a religious debate with someone.
5. Gotten offended when someone called you an agnostic. (Depends on what they mean by “called you;” I’m a little offended at Ray Comfort’s equivocation on the term, but he’s never called me specifically an agnostic)
6. Been unable to watch Growing Pains reruns because of Kirk Cameron.
7. Own more Bibles than most Christians you know. (How many Bibles do most Christians own? Depending on how you count, I own between two and four).
8. Have at least one Bible with your personal annotations regarding contradictions, disturbing parts, etc. (It peters out a couple of pages into Genesis).
9. Have come out as an atheist to your family.
10. Attended a campus or off-campus atheist gathering.
11. Are a member of an organized atheist/Humanist/etc. organization. (I’m going to assume that “etc.” includes the JREF).
12. Had a Humanist wedding ceremony.
13. Donated money to an atheist organization. (I don’t know; I’ve donated to the NCSE and PMomma, and I’ve bought stuff from the Richard Dawkins Foundation, but I haven’t made a pure donation to a specifically atheist organization).
14. Have a bookshelf dedicated solely to Richard Dawkins. (It’d be closer if Ancestor’s Tale and God Delusion fit on the same shelf as Unweaving the Rainbow and Blind Watchmaker)
15. Lost the friendship of someone you know because of your non-theism.
16. Tried to argue or have a discussion with someone who stopped you on the street to proselytize.
17. Had to hide your atheist beliefs on a first date because you didn’t want to scare him/her away. (No fair! I haven’t had a first date since before I was an atheist).
18. Own a stockpile of atheist paraphernalia (bumper stickers, buttons, shirts, etc).
19. Attended a protest that involved religion.
20. Attended an atheist conference.
21. Subscribe to Pat Condell’s YouTube channel.
22. Started an atheist group in your area or school.
23. Successfully “de-converted” someone to atheism.
24. Have already made plans to donate your body to science after you die. (I’m not sure about the “donating to science,” but I plan to donate my organs, and medicine is a science).
25. Told someone you’re an atheist only because you wanted to see the person’s reaction.
26. Had to think twice before screaming “Oh God!” during sex. Or you said something else in its place.
27. Lost a job because of your atheism.
28. Formed a bond with someone specifically because of your mutual atheism (meeting this person at a local gathering or conference doesn’t count).
29. Have crossed “In God We Trust” off of — or put a pro-church-state-separation stamp on — dollar bills.
30. Refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
31. Said “Gesundheit!” (or nothing at all) after someone sneezed because you didn’t want to say “Bless you!” (I’ve re-trained myself on this one).
32. Have ever chosen not to clasp your hands together out of fear someone might think you’re praying.
33. Have turned on Christian TV because you need something entertaining to watch. (Fundie Friday on TBN!)
34. Are a 2nd or 3rd (or more) generation atheist.
35. Have “atheism” listed on your Facebook or dating profile — and not a euphemistic variant.
36. Attended an atheist’s funeral (i.e. a non-religious service).
37. Subscribe to an freethought magazine (e.g. Free Inquiry, Skeptic)
38. Have been interviewed by a reporter because of your atheism.
39. Written a letter-to-the-editor about an issue related to your non-belief in God.
40. Gave a friend or acquaintance a New Atheist book as a gift.
41. Wear pro-atheist clothing in public.
42. Have invited Mormons/Jehovah’s Witnesses into your house specifically because you wanted to argue with them. (I’ve told Mormons that I’d invite them in to chat, except I was heading out to work, but I haven’t gotten the real thing yet).
43. Have been physically threatened (or beaten up) because you didn’t believe in God.
44. Receive Google Alerts on “atheism” (or variants).
45. Received fewer Christmas presents than expected because people assumed you didn’t celebrate it.
46. Visited The Creation Museum or saw Ben Stein’s Expelled just so you could keep tabs on the “enemy.” (This is somewhat pre-emptive, but I’ve had Expelled from Netflix for a month or so, waiting for a time when Jon and I can watch it together).
47. Refuse to tell anyone what your “sign” is… because it doesn’t matter at all.
48. Are on a mailing list for a Christian organization just so you can see what they’re up to…
49. Have kept your eyes open while you watched others around you pray.
50. Avoid even Unitarian churches because they’re too close to religion for you. (Almost true; I’d like to go to a Unitarian service at some point, but I don’t want to do it alone, I don’t like getting up on Sundays, and I don’t care for church).

On Suffering and Sacrifice

Denis Loubet, host of my favorite Podcast, The Non-Prophets, has a question he likes to ask Christians. Here it is, from a comment he left on Pharyngula:

If you could go back in time and successfully rescue Jesus from the crucifixion, would you do it?

This doesn't look like a quarry...I think it’s a really interesting question, particularly since he (last I heard) has yet to receive an affirmative answer from a believer. It’s no difficult task to find some of the responses (just search posts on the alt.atheism newsgroup), and it’s amazing the sort of linguistic gymnastics they pull to justify saying “no,” usually invoking restrictions on free will (and thus ignoring the “successfully” qualifier in the question). Some candidly invoke the point that dying on the cross was the purpose of Jesus’s life, suffering for mankind’s sins and so forth. In other words, ends justify means, and so forth. It’s all right to let an innocent man suffer terribly, when it’s in your power to stop it, so long as it means that believers thereafter will get their divine rewards. I don’t know about the rest of you, but that seems a pretty twisted morality to me–not least because a supposedly just God is the one who supposedly required this situation.

I’ve argued before against the theology that sees the crucifixion as the most (or only) important part of Jesus’s life. While I don’t necessarily agree with the wishy-washiness of some of those early posts, I think my point stands: Jesus (assuming he actually existed) would have been utterly forgotten if he had been just another Jewish criminal executed by crucifixion. No one remembers the names of the men who were supposedly crucified alongside Jesus, nor does anyone know the names of the men crucified on Maundy Thursday or Nameless Saturday. While I’m not sure there’s much more than luck involved with why people remember Jesus at all, as opposed to one of the other messianic figures who ran around at the time, I have little doubt that he’d be less than a footnote in the history books if he hadn’t been gathering followers and preaching a moderately apocalyptic anti-establishment message.

Denis’s question, I think, approaches that problem (or a similar one) from a different perspective. The theology which says “the point of Jesus’s life was that he had to die” asks us not only to consider what it would have been like if he lived a different life, but also if he died a different death. Even if you could successfully rescue Jesus from the cross, basic biology suggests that he’s going to die at some point (and presumably, if the stories are to be believed, wake up at the end of the weekend). Wouldn’t he still be dying for everyone’s sins if he died of old age?

“Oh ho!” Says the apologist. “You’re missing the point: Jesus needed to suffer for our sins!” Okay, fine then. I submit that being beaten for the better part of a day and hung out to dry is less suffering than what a person can accumulate over a lifetime of, say, 65 years. Would Jesus have suffered any less if he’d died of a slowly metastasizing cancer? Would Jesus have suffered any less from acute appendicitis or a burst gall bladder? Would Jesus have suffered any less if he’d died of infection due to passing a couple of large kidney stones without anesthesia or antiseptic? Jesus could have lived a lifetime of suffering for the sins of mankind, if he hadn’t died on the cross.

And what about the time before his suffering-ridden death? Perhaps he could have refined his message, actually written things himself, left some kind of evidence of his existence, so the future people he’d be dying for wouldn’t have to believe with such ridiculously small amounts of evidence. Perhaps he could have fallen in love (plenty of room for suffering there too), raised a family of his own, and actually experienced some semblance of a normal human life. Perhaps he could have put those amazing divine miracle-powers to wider use than the occasional wedding, speech, and isolated resurrection. Perhaps he could have distributed loaves and fishes and wine all across the Middle East; perhaps he could have healed all the ill among the Romans and Pharisees; perhaps he could have made allies of his enemies by giving them direct and indisputable evidence of his claims. I don’t mean to second-guess the Maker’s divine plan, but it seems like it could have been a lot more wide-reaching. Then again, maybe knowing about his inability to do all these things would have caused him to suffer as well…but how much of that omniscience did Jesus retain in his human form? Would this death have been an unexpected hitch in his greater plans? Or would it have been the known end, as various stories and theologies would suggest?

And even if a youthful death would have caused that suffering, then why wait ’til he was 33? Why not have him strung up at 20, before building his ministry? Why not have the priests drag him out of the temple when he was twelve, certain that he was a heretic and potentially possessed by demons, and stone him to death then and there? Perhaps his mother and adopted father would join in with the mob, fearful of his behavior, of being duped by what was obviously an emissary of Satan. Certainly that would have been suffering as great as any at the hands of the Roman soldiers.

So why the cross? Why young, but not so young that he had not been able to build a following, nor so old that his following were large and self-sufficient? What’s the importance of that specific death?

‘Tis (Almost) the Season

For me, it started on Halloween (or possibly the day before), when I walked into a Wal-Mart and saw employees decorating a large Christmas Tree right in front of a display filled with witches and pumpkins. I know it’s cliché to complain about Christmas starting earlier and earlier each year, but really?

Anyway, that’s not the reason for the post–or at least, not all of it. It’s just that since then, I’ve heard increasing amounts of Christmas music. The retail stores are the main places, but I’m always a little miffed at the radio stations that completely change formats for over a month in order to play Christmas music 24/7. I got out of the car for a meeting today while one version of “The Christmas Song” was playing, and re-entered the car not quite an hour later to hear another version of “The Christmas Song.” And neither one was the Nat King Cole version, the only version anyone ever needs to hear or play.

See, I’ve realized this season that I really like Christmas music, but I like it on my terms. For a week or two around this time, I crank up the Christmas playlist on my computer and listen to the particular songs and versions of songs that I really enjoy. Songs like these:
Auld Lang Syne: Basically the honorable mention spot, since I consider it a New Year’s song more than a Christmas one. But, hey, they sang it in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” so it must be part of the season, right? I don’t have a particular preferred recording, but I do change my cell phone ringtone over to this around New Year’s each year. And then around January 6th, people will ask me if my phone’s ringing, and I’ll say “no, that’s not my ringtone” a couple of times before I realize I haven’t changed it back yet. It’s a good song about renewal and friendship, I think, but I’ve never been quite clear on what the lyrics mean. I guess it’s kind of the “Louie Louie” of holiday songs.

Holly Jolly Christmas: Burl Ives and only Burl Ives, straight out of the snowman’s mouth. The Rankin-Bass “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a classic, even if the whole thing comes out of crass commercialism. Then again, I have a soft spot in my heart for the He-Man/She-Ra Christmas Special:There are a lot of songs like this one (“Jingle Bell Rock” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” have obvious similarities), but I think “Holly Jolly Christmas” generally does a better job of conveying the fun and spirit of the season.

All I Want for Christmas is You: The Olivia Olson version, from “Love Actually,” not Mariah Carey. I have some shame. “Love Actually” has rapidly become one of my favorite Christmas films; it’s joined my “watch each year” pantheon alongside “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Scrooged,” and “Ghostbusters II,” the greatest Christmas movie of all time. As for the song, it’s catchy, it’s sweet, and it’s great to hear an eleven-year-old out-diva-ing Mariah.

Baby It’s Cold Outside: On my playlist, I have both the Johnny Mercer/Margaret Whiting version and a Louis Armstrong/Velma Middleton version, and each has distinct charms. The latter’s great for the live ad-libbing and innuendo, while the former is worth it just for the surprise in Whiting’s voice when she sings, “hey, what’s in this drink?” I like Christmas songs that are about the greatest gift of all: nookie. This may be the most festive song ever written about date rape. At least it’s not as dark as “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen: This one, however, is that dark. As far as I know, “Gentlemen” is the only mainstream Christmas carol to explicitly mention Satan. Not surprisingly, it’s one of the earlier carols, and it’s one of the few in a minor key. I don’t have a favorite particular recording, though I like the Barenaked Ladies/Sarah McLachlan version. I prefer versions that bring out the age of the song, though, versions that are deep-voiced as though sung between sips of hot cider from a flagon in a great hall. This is the Christmas carol that Vikings would have sung…if, you know, they were Christian.

The Night Santa Went Crazy: At either level of goriness, this song’s fantastic. And every time I hear “Mama I’m Comin’ Home” start, I hold out a little hope that it’s Weird Al instead of Ozzy.

Good King Wenceslas: It is damn hard to find a decent recording of this song online. I just spent half an hour and three dollars on iTunes, trying to find versions that didn’t kill the tune with high-pitched voices or slow tempos. The tempo for this one has to be pretty brisk, or the song just plods. I like the sound of it for much the same reason that I like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” but I really like the content of this one. Shock of shocks, it’s a Christmas song that’s actually about the much-vaunted Christmas spirit of helping those less fortunate. I can really get behind that.

Angels We Have Heard on High: This is probably my favorite classic Christmas song, and not just because of its island rhythms. I think it’s also the most overtly religious song on my personal list. Let it never be said that my beliefs impede my ability to enjoy good music. I just all-around love this song; when I was a kid, it was one of two hymns I actually looked forward to singing in church (before you ask, I can’t remember the other one–though seeing one of my old church’s hymnals for less than a dollar on Amazon has me tempted to find out). Like “Good King Wenceslas,” a slow tempo simply kills this song, but I’m less picky with the pitch. Plus, it’s partially in Latin, so that’s cool too.

That’s my list; what’s yours?

The Awesome Creed

We believe in one God,
The Father, the Originator,
maker of sex and drums,
and rock and roll.

We believe in one Personal Jesus,
begotten of the father,
flesh and bone, by the telephone.
Through him, all things were made:
He said, “let there be light, sound, drums, guitar.”
For us and our salvation,
He came down the Stairway from Rock and Roll Heaven:
By the power of the Spirit in the Sky
It came to pass that Rock and Roll was born,
And He put it in the soul of everyone.
For our sake, the music died.
The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast.
But there is more to the picture
Than meets the eye:
Rock and Roll will never die.

We believe in the Spirit in the Sky, the friend, the giver of rest,
Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
He has spoken through the Prophets
Who have written on the subway walls.
We believe in one holy diver,
We acknowledge one messiah,
Who doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
But is close enough for rock and roll. Amen.