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.

Relics

So, I saw this sign outside a church last week.
I thought that had more to do with the Church of Scientology.
I wasn’t familiar with that particular passage, so I decided to look it up. I was more than a little shocked at what I found:

Call him a relic, call him what you will.

Matthew 25:14-15: Just take those old records off the shelf. I’ll sit and listen to ’em by myself.

You know, he did hang out with a prostitute...

Matthew 25:16-17: Today’s music ain’t got the same soul. I like that old time rock ‘n’ roll.

Jesus was the original rock 'n' roller!

Matthew 25: 18-21: Don’t try to take me to a disco. You’ll never even get me out on the floor. In ten minutes, I’ll be late for the door. I like that old time rock ‘n’ roll.

Matthew 25: 22-30: Still like that old time rock ‘n’ roll. That kind of music just soothes the soul. I reminisce about the days of old, with that old time rock ‘n’ roll. [Guitar solo].

And, just for kicks: