Morality and Atheism

12 12 2008

If I wrote a post every time CBN had an exceedingly stupid comment in one of their “news” articles, I would have enough content to fill a second blog, so I generally try to avoid the temptation. In this case I’m going to make an exception.

In the “news” article entitled “Atheists Rollout Anti-God Campaign“, American Family Association president Tim Wildmon says “”How do we define ‘good’ if we don’t believe in God? God in his word, the Bible, tells us what’s good and bad and right and wrong. If we are each ourselves defining what’s good, it’s going to be a crazy world.” In other words, the only absolute moral code is in the Bible; all other moral codes are arbitrary and relative.

This is false on two levels; first, the Bible by itself does not provide an absolute moral code in many cases, and second, non-Biblical moral codes can be just as absolute as he alleges the Biblical code is.

First, does the Bible provide an absolute moral code? Certainly Jews and Christians draw very different conclusions from the same text. Is it immoral to mix milk and meat? Is it immoral to paint portraits? Is it immoral to drive on the Sabbath? Different religious scholars have drawn extremely varied conclusions from studying the same exact texts. Seems to me to be a case of “each [religion] ourselves defining what’s good” based on their own belief structure.

Perhaps Tim was only referring to the Christian Bible, implying that non-Christians can’t have a good moral code. That doesn’t solve the problem either; the recent split in the Episcopal Church shows that even two groups of clergy in the same denomination can derive two different moral codes from the same Christian Bible, at least in one area. One of the two defined gay bishops as ‘right’, while the other defined it as ‘wrong’.  Each congregant now needs to define for themselves which they believe is right, so they can determine which denomination they will affiliate with. Sounds like “each ourselves defining what’s good” again.

Different interpretations of the Bible aside, there is another problem. The Bible, being very old, does not provide much guidance about modern moral questions. There are many conservative Christians that claim that cloning is evil, but I’m not exactly sure why. Certainly the Bible doesn’t mention cloning. There is mention of the sanctity of life, but which takes priority — the source of the cloned cells or the life of the person who will be healed by those cells? Several positions can be well-supported by the Bible; because someone who came to a different conclusion than you does not mean they don’t believe in the same Bible you do. Hmm… “each ourselves defining what’s good”.

Another interpretation of what Tim said is that all moral codes derived from a monotheistic Bible are (at least) not arbitrary, because despite some differences they all share a common core. This too is questionable. Some Orthodox Rabbis have derived a moral code that condones assassinating the Israeli Prime Minister, with lots of textual support from the Bible. Catholics and Protestants have been killing each other for hundreds of years in the name of Christianity.  What exactly is this common core, this so-called “Judeo-Christian” ethic that conservative Christians like to refer to?

And then there’s the notion that non-Biblically-based moral codes are arbitrary. Such a clam can only be made out of ignorance. Kantian ethics is based on the Categorical Imperative, which forms a basis for deriving what is and is not moral. Objectivism, too, is based around a core set of principles which is used to derive a moral code. I’m not claiming that all Objectivists or or Kantians derive the same moral code, but as I have shown neither do all theists, or even all Christians. In all three cases — Kantian ethics, Objectivism, Christianity — “each ourselves defines what’s good” using their guiding principles and writings as a starting point.

Also, if non-Biblically-based moral codes are arbitrary, shouldn’t we expect that a larger percentage of atheists would be criminals? Are divorce rate higher among atheists? Are marital infidelity rates higher among atheists? Are theft rates higher among atheists? There doesn’t seem to be any evidence supporting any of these statements. Tim’s “crazy world” prediction doesn’t seem to bear out.

At core, I think Tim is making a much simpler claim: (His version of) Christianity is correct; everyone else is wrong. He certainly has the right to believe that. Stating “it’s going to be a crazy world” if the world didn’t share his beliefs, though, is a bit much.



Turnabout Is Fair Play

11 15 2008

After years of threatening abortion providers, boycotting companies that provide domestic partner benefits, protesting children’s shows with imagined subversive content (Teletubbies), disrupting military funerals, and proclaiming the wrath of God against anyone who votes contrary to their beliefs, why are some conservative Christian groups so surprised and offended when same-sex-marriage proponents start using the same techniques against the biggest Prop 8 supporters? Especially when Prop 8 stripped many of them of some of their civil rights? (And please don’t claim that Prop 8 wasn’t about removing a right from a class of people; before Prop 8 passed they could get married; now they can’t. If that isn’t the removal of a right, what is?)



Gay Marriage and Cheeseburgers

10 11 2008

One of the many jobs of a parent is to teach your kids right from wrong. Don’t steal. Don’t kill. Don’t lie to your parents. Don’t eat cheeseburgers.

Don’t eat cheeseburgers? In the more conservative branches of Judaism, eating cheeseburgers is immoral; it’s one of many things that are prohibited by the Bible. A traditional Jew must teach his kids that God does not want people to mix meat and dairy in one meal. This is not a “nice to have” or a “try your best”; it’s a commandment from God, just like the Ten Commandments and other laws in the Bible.  It’s wrong; on par with robbery, cursing the name of God, or violating the Sabbath.

Can you imagine trying to transmit this to your kids, in today’s society? There are McDonald’s and Burger Kings on every corner. TV commercials and ads frequently show people mixing milk & meat. If your kid goes to a secular school, most of her friends will eat cheeseburgers all the time. How do you explain to your child that this common behavior that’s all around her in secular society is immoral, and must be avoided? Is it any surprise, then, that many Orthodox Jews isolate themselves into closed neighborhoods, and avoid contact with the outside world as much as possible?

Conservative Christians believe that gay marriage is immoral. (I’m not exactly sure how conservative Christians decide which parts of Leviticus to follow, but that’s not really the point.) Today, that’s still a relatively easy value to teach; few states allow it, and unless you live in one of the very liberal parts of the country, still something that most people oppose.

If gay marriage continues its march towards nationwide recognition, then what? In 20 or 40 years, there will be many gay couples. Most public schools will have kids that are either being raised by a gay couple, or that are friends with a gay couple. Even the term gay marriage will fade away, because it wouldn’t be considered that strange or unusual. If you’re a conservative Christian parent in that environment, how do you teach your kids that gay marriage is immoral?

Many conservative Christian articles refer to the “Gay Agenda”. Liberals usually scoff at the notion, treating it like an absurd conspiracy theory. From the conservative Christian point of view, though, they are right — there is a “Gay Agenda”. This “radical Gay Agenda” is the push for normality; that gay couples are not treated any different than straight couples. If that happened, it would threaten the ability of conservative Christian parents to instill in their kids the immorality of homosexuality. In order to perpuate their beliefs, they must prevent secular society from treating gay couples as anything other than immoral deviants, and thus they strongly (fanatically?) support Prop 8 and other anti-gay-marriage initiatives. The alternative for them is to end up like the Orthodox Jew trying to teach his kids about the immorality of eating cheeseburgers.



Politician’s Fallacy

10 03 2008

The debate around the bailout bill reminds me of the politician’s fallacy:

  1. We must do something
  2. Passing this bill is doing something
  3. Therefore, we must pass this bill!


My Body, My Choice

07 30 2008

With the new LA ban on fast food restaurants with heat lamps or drive-up windows(http://www.cnn.com/2008/US/07/29/fast.food.ban.ap/index.html) and the California-wide ban on trans fats (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/07/15/MN0111OTUA.DTL) , the goverment around here has decided that it needs to force us to eat healthy. Within a few years, I expect the goverment will require cholesterol tests before being allowed to order steak.

What ever happened to, “My body, my choice”?