Thursday, October 15, 2015

Atheist Morality

One of the charges atheists sometimes get is that without the theist framework, there is no morality... (but) if God is the determinant of right and wrong, then that moral framework seems hardly inseparable from subjectivity. For could not God decide tomorrow that murder is acceptable?

This is quote from an essay by Brett Milam, and it's why I have such a hard time with people that say, "If you don't believe in God, then you don't have a moral compass. Anything goes!"

Christianity, Islam, and other religions, as they are practised by millions right now, today, justify rape, the subjugation of women, the oppression of non-believers or different believers, the denial of full rights and services to certain groups, and slavery. I am an atheist, and I am opposed to all of those practices - yet Christians and Muslims will say that I'm the one that lacks a moral compass because I'm an atheist?

I believe that morality is rooted in humanity, in our humanness - not in religion. Religion is a reflection of that morality, filtered through a belief in a super powerful all-knowing magical invisible being who is in control of the universe. Morality actually comes from our human capacity for empathy and from reality. I have no desire to kill a person, but if someone did have that desire, they have a choice before them, if they think about the act: kill that person, cause suffering to the remaining family, and, perhaps, go into incarceration for the act if it is deemed by society to be unlawful, OR, don't kill. It's not only the legal consequences that keep people from killing another human; it's also the moral and ethical consequences. People who have a desire to kill and then do it believe they are justified in doing so, for whatever reason, often despite what the law or their religious leaders say.

All of the religions that adhere to the Old Testament - Jews, Christians and Muslims - have no religious prohibitions against incest. The Old Testament does not prohibit incest; Lot had sex with his daughters, and had children by them, and neither he nor they are ever condemned for such. Based on their religion's teachings, based on what they believe God has said and done, incest should not be immoral for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Yet, it is - at least for most believers. Why? Mechanisms to avoid incest are widespread both in nature and across human societies - as Psychology Today points out, "the incest taboo is about as close to a universal law as human moral rules get." Humans must have seen rather early on that having sex close with relatives creates an astonishingly high chance that offspring will be born with a serious birth defect. In addition, certain sexless relationships have proven fundamental to our positive development in life, as humans; a trusting, supportive relationship with a mother, a father, a sibling, a step-father, a step-mother, a grandparent, etc. would be absolutely destroyed by sex. Even certain friendships and professional relationships can be destroyed by sexual relations, which is why most people aren't out trying to have sex with everyone in their lives, and many professional settings prohibit teachers, executives, coaches and others from having sex with subordinates. In short, societies' abhorrence to incest comes not from religion, but from our humanity and reality.

So morality for atheists is so much more than "whatever feels right." Our morality is often rooted in a sense of compassion that most humans are born with (the exception being sociopaths). So many of my atheists friends study philosophy, formally and informally - and through such, have developed strong critical thinking skills, and have a strong sense of social responsibility, and a strong concern for global and humanitarian issues - qualities that I just don't find among people who approach work and life from a particular religion. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, philosopher, novelist and author of Plato at the Googleplex, recently told The Atlantic that studying philosophy helps make a student "a citizen in this world." She also says "It makes life so much more interesting. It’s us at our most human. And it helps us increase our humanity. No matter what you do, that’s an asset."

Morals are fluid, to a degree - what you believed as a child, or even in your 20s, may not be what you believe now. Maybe you thought divorce was unethical and should be prohibited by law when you were younger, following the teachings of Jesus, but now, years later, you yourself are divorced - still reading the Bible, still a Christian, but you have committed a sin in the eyes of Jesus. You altered your moral compass, however, based on reality, and probably based on what was best for you and your family. I sometimes change my mind about the ethics of something for similar reasons - or because of reading about different perspectives.

When I was trying to be a Christian, I was bothered by how all emphasis was on accepting Jesus as God in order to be saved in the afterlife, but there was little said about this life, the here and now, and the importance of compassion, of empathy and of love. I was told again and again how this life on Earth just didn't matter at all - I should be concerned with the afterlife. Sad about people going hungry? Don't worry - Jesus said the poor would always be with us, it's in his hands, just focus on Jesus as your savior so you can make it to Heaven some day.

When I stopped trying to be a Christian, I felt so much more free - to pursue friendships, to act on my sense of social responsibility, to fight against injustice, to explore different ideas, to offer help to others, even to love. I like the Biblical stories of the Good Samaritan (my favorite Bible story, in fact), and the Sermon on the Mount. I like the story of the "Companions in the Cave" in the Quran - also known as the Sleepers of Ephesus, who hid inside a cave to escape a persecution, and took in a dog with them - it seems to me the point is not only their faithfulness, but also that we should treat dogs kindly, as members of our family. I like that one of the Pillars of Islam is Zakāt, the believe that it is the personal responsibility of each Muslim to ease the economic hardship of others and to strive towards eliminating inequality. I love that the Jewish term mitzvah has also come to express an act of human kindness, not just a duty to a god. But I don't believe these ideas come from the magical invisible friend - the one that also says you can kill and rape others. These particular ideas I've named from these three religions make sense. Kindness makes sense. The benefits of kindness, in the long run, are worth the work of being kind. Kindess is universally good - without God.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Frances Farmer's 1931 essay from high school, "God Dies"

Film star Frances Farmer (1913-1970) was a senior at West Seattle High School in April 1931 when she wrote this essay, titled "God Dies." The essay won first place and a prize of $100 in a contest sponsored by The Scholastic, a magazine for high school students. Here is her essay, as published in The Scholastic on May 2, 1931.


"God Dies"

No one ever came to me and said, "You're a fool. There isn't such a thing as God. Somebody's been stuffing you." It wasn't a murder. I think God just died of old age. And when I realized that he wasn't any more, it didn't shock me. It seemed natural and right.

Maybe it was because I was never properly impressed with a religion. I went to Sunday school and liked the stories about Christ and the Christmas star. They were beautiful. They made you warm and happy to think about. But I didn't believe them. The Sunday School teacher talked too much in the way our grade school teacher used to when she told us about George Washington. Pleasant, pretty stories, but not true.

Religion was too vague. God was different. He was something real, something I could feel. But there were only certain times when I could feel it. I used to lie between cool, clean sheets at night after I'd had a bath, after I had washed my hair and scrubbed my knuckles and finger nails and teeth. Then I could lie quite still in the dark with my face to the window with the trees in it, and talk to God. "I am clean, now. I've never been as clean. I'll never be cleaner." And somehow, it was God. I wasn't sure that it was … just something cool and dark and clean.

That wasn't religion, though. There was too much of the physical about it. I couldn't get that same feeling during the day, with my hands in dirty dish water and the hard sun showing up the dirtiness on the roof-tops. And after a time, even at night, the feeling of God didn't last. I began to wonder what the minister meant when he said, "God, the father, sees even the smallest sparrow fall. He watches over all his children." That jumbled it all up for me. But I was sure of one thing. If God were a father, with children, that cleanliness I had been feeling wasn't God. So at night, when I went to bed, I would think, "I am clean. I am sleepy." And then I went to sleep. It didn't keep me from enjoying the cleanness any less. I just knew that God wasn't there. He was a man on a throne in Heaven, so he was easy to forget.

Sometimes I found he was useful to remember; especially when I lost things that were important. After slamming through the house, panicky and breathless from searching, I could stop in the middle of a room and shut my eyes. "Please God, let me find my red hat with the blue trimmings." It usually worked. God became a super-father that couldn't spank me. But if I wanted a thing badly enough, he arranged it.

That satisfied me until I began to figure that if God loved all his children equally, why did he bother about my red hat and let other people lose their fathers and mothers for always? I began to see that he didn't have much to do about hats, people dying or anything. They happened whether he wanted them to or not, and he stayed in heaven and pretended not to notice. I wondered a little why God was such a useless thing. It seemed a waste of time to have him. After that he became less and less, until he was…nothingness.

I felt rather proud to think that I had found the truth myself, without help from any one. It puzzled me that other people hadn't found out, too. God was gone. We were younger. We had reached past him. Why couldn’t they see it? It still puzzles me.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Self Help Cults & Their Leaders Ruining My Day

Today, I watched a rerun of an ABC 20/20 episode from 2010, called Deadly Devotion, about self-help guru / cult leader, James Arthur Ray. He is a proponent of the so-called "Law of Attraction" from the oh-so-deceitful book, The Secret, which says that, if you want whatever it is you want hard enough, and visualize it, you'll get it. And if bad things happen to you, it's because you didn't visualize a good life hard enough. He was featured on Oprah's talk show - she's also an advocate for this way of thinking.

Colleen Conaway, James Shore, Kirby Brown, and Liz Neuman are all dead because of their devotion to Ray's philosophy. Conaway jumped off a roof during an exercise where she was supposed to pretend to be homeless - she'd been directed to pretend this by Ray, as part of a seminar she was attending, and paid a substantial sum to attend. The other three were killed during a sweat lodge exercise lead by Ray. This article from The Verge chronicles these deaths and the activities and methods of this dangerous man.

When you read articles and see clips of Ray talking, you will read about and see methods you've heard before, by Jim Jones, Marshall ApplewhiteJoseph Di Mambro, and the Church of Scientology: intense physical experiences, extreme fasting, isolation, and other exercises that can alter a person's mental state and make them more pliable by a charismatic leader. You will see delivery in the style of Tony Robbins and Joel Osteen, and it's really easy to draw parallels between the philosophy promoted by The Secret and the Christian prosperity theology. Just want something badly enough, just visualize it, and follow the rules set out for you by Mr. Successful, and you, too, can achieve all you desire.

When you hear people that follow, or followed, Ray, you hear from people who are, or were, vulnerable in some way psychologically or emotionally - and with a lot of money. They are looking for something - they often aren't even sure what - and they think they can find it in a seminar or video or magic book. They paid, or are still paying, hundreds, even thousands of dollars to Ray - he's not doing anything charitable. These people are intelligent, often with university degrees, but they are also emotionally-hungry, even damaged, people who get caught up in this scam, this cult, and some, even after the deaths of Conaway, Shore, Brown and Neuman, still follow him. Arthur Deikman, a San Francisco psychiatrist, wrote The Wrong Way Home, and in it, he says, as quoted on this page: “I began to see that cults form and thrive not because people are crazy, but because people have two kinds of wishes. They want a meaningful life, to serve God or humanity, and they want to be taken care of, to feel protected and secure, to find a home.”

I guess the reason this piece on Ray is really bothering me in particular is because I've recently been coaching a dear friend who regularly attends spiritual retreats lead by various folks, and who became involved with a group in Costa Rica I'm convinced is scam at best and a cult in the making at worst. He lost a few thousand dollars to the two leaders of this "retreat," and I fear he could have lost much more had he stayed - and fear it's only a matter of time that more people do. These two retreat leaders frame their oh-so-remote location as a place to volunteer, to interact with local people, to work and live simply, in nature, to get back in touch with simplicity, and blah blah blah blah blah. In truth, they are just like Ray: they take some ceremonial practices by Native Americans and twist them into activities that may leave participants feeling fulfilled or weakened and even more vulnerable - either way, perfect prey for exploitation. They isolate. They push people to engage in hard physical labor and then berate them for not doing the activity "correctly." They probe deeply into a person's past, asking lots of incredibly intimate questions. They lash out at those who question, and if a person leaves the retreat in anger, they paint that person as negative, as someone that needed to leave before he or she brought the others down.

My friend is a warm, giving, talented, intelligent person, but he's also fragile in some ways and is looking to come to terms with some horrific events in his past, to heal emotionally. I have to be careful how I coach him through this - I can't shake him and say "Stop this nonsense!" I can't make him feel stupid. I have to be gentle in my encouragement of him - I encourage him to ask questions, to never assume someone's goodness just because they have a fancy web page or a book, to look to medical professionals to address the dark spots in his soul, to look for all of the many happy people around him who don't follow any gurus, and to believe that honest inspiration doesn't come with an expensive retreat or subscription to something. There are healthy ways to cultivate friendships, to create your own identity, to feel secure, and to be a part of something larger than yourself that don't require you to humiliate yourself, to learn a special language or to adhere to some creed filled with lots of psycho babble. It's a tough assignment - he'd be offended that I just called what he believed in psycho babble.

There was one bright spot in all this: this episode of 20/20, renamed "Deadly Devotion", was shown on Oprah's network, OWN. So, there's that, at least.

I look around me and I see dozens of ways to cultivate friendships, create an identity or definition for myself, to feel secure, and to feel a part of something large than myself: nonprofits with events I can attend and with volunteering opportunities in which I can participate, a community theatre company with productions I could audition for or just work behind the scenes or in the front of hour on event night, a citizens academy run twice yearly by the local police, all sorts of civic groups (Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, etc.), a farmer's market that would welcome me in any way I wanted to help each week, events at the library, a jazzercise class, a karaoke night, and on and on. I invite my neighbors over for a cookout and corn hole. I walk my dog through the neighborhood and say howdy to anyone I pass. It feels good, real, authentic. It brings beautiful people into my life. And I never have to use my credit card for any of it.

If someone you know is reading books or watching videos by James Arthur Ray - yes, after being let out of prison, he's back in business - show them this blog. Show them this article from The Verge. Such people are reckless at best and deviant at worst.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A secular humanist / atheist response to the Charleston shootings

I'm sure I'm not the only atheist/humanist crying this morning regarding the murders at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. in Charleston, South Carolina.

This is an assault on our entire human family. That's what terrorism is, at its heart.

I keep thinking about how the shooter was probably welcomed into the building, kindly invited to sit down to that latest meeting of a loving weekly community...

These murders are beyond what human language can describe. And the only response that truly counters terrorism is a call for our full humanity - our benevolence, our hope for all people, no matter their religion, or lack there of, and our support of each other, across social constructs of race, culture and religion.

I do not pray for Charleston, but I vow to stand with those working for peace, working for understanding, working for something far beyond tolerance - working for the embracing of the potential value and goodness of all human beings and all that we have in common.


Friday, May 15, 2015

What I expected from the Bible - & didn't get

It’s often said that the fastest way to turn Christians into atheists is to have them read the Bible cover to cover. The atrocities committed by God and his chosen people, the bizarre rituals, the vague prophecies, the blatant contradictions, the primitive morals, and the religious hysteria all make it seem like the Bible was written by violent, racist, sexist, intolerant, superstitious fanatics. I, myself, had my faith shaken many times while reading the Bible...

If God is all-knowing and all-powerful and infinitely intelligent, his book should be the most amazing piece of literature in history. It should be so brilliant and so glorious that no human author could write anything that compares. Instead, the Bible appears to be nothing more than a bunch of ancient myths, ritual instructions, mediocre poems, strange legends, religious letters, and deluded ramblings that were cobbled together by Jewish and Roman men a long time ago.

So what would we expect to find in a book that was written by God (or “divinely inspired”)? Here are seven suggestions.

The rest of the awesome blog from Southern Skeptic.

Also see I think I like my heart the way it is.

Monday, May 11, 2015

warning for religious folks: demand more of humans representing your god

I’m looking at the web site of a church that many of my friends are joining. It's a new church, just a few years old. Its web site is one of the slickest I’ve ever seen. It’s gorgeous - there's no way this was designed by just a helpful congregation member. This is a professionally-designed web site. 

I’m deeply suspicious of this church, both because of their quick rise in numbers and because of the oh-so-slick web site that lacks of information about who is behind this institution. There are:
  • no names of pastors/leaders or other staff listed
  • no biographies of pastors/leaders or other staff, including where the leaders studied theology, where else they have lived, what other religious communities they have lead, etc. 
  • no info about how money they raise for the church, temple, mosque, community is used (what percentage goes to property rent/mortgage/upkeep? to salaries? to cover costs incurred by volunteers/to support volunteers? to charities, nonprofits or overseas missions? to congregants in need?)

How are you supposed to know if this organization is fiscally responsible? And how are you supposed to know if the people leading this religious community:
  • have the credentials to lead a religious community?
  • have the knowledge to lead a religious community?
  • haven’t been convicted or arrested, or involved in any scandal elsewhere?

I wonder what would happen if someone went to the leadership of this church and asked for this information to be posted publicly… maybe someone has? It would be interesting to see if the church embraced the idea and posted the info, or avoided doing it - and has been avoiding doing it. I find it odd that the site is otherwise SO well-designed.

Even if the pastors were listed, along with their credentials, I'd do some more digging, as I’ve looked at other web sites of churches and mosques, and often, the name of institute where someone says they studied theology cannot be found on a web search, or the institute has no accreditation by a recognized body. 

Surely you would want appropriate credentials of your accountant, teachers at your kids' school, the person that designed your in-ground pool, etc. Why not those that are telling you how to live?

Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Jains, whatever: do you really want to believe that transparency isn’t necessary for churches, mosques, temples and other religious communities? Do you think your magical, invisible friend that won’t protect children from being raped will, however, protect the people going to your church/mosque/temple/whatever and you don’t need to do a little digging into these people that are telling you how to live, what to believe, and to give them money?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

"Would Satan tempt me through the kindness of macaroni and cheese?"

From “I just don’t believe this anymore”: Why I abandoned my faith:

We had neighbors, two men who lived caddy-corner across the alley. We kept our children away from their children because they had a flag that I thought was satanic. Now I know it was just pagan. They would have bonfires in their back yard, and it was terrifying to me.

After I got home from the church, there was a knock at the door and it was one of the guys from across the alley way. He said, “We don’t talk much but I know there’s a lot going on for you guys and here is a casserole.” It was one of the more surreal moments in my life. I remember standing there and in my mind asking God what he was trying to tell me. Would Satan tempt me through the kindness of macaroni and cheese?

From an interview in Salon with Sarah Morehead, executive director of Recovering From Religion, who talks about why her work is a personal passion and about the recovery hotline itself. It's a terrific article about the transition for some people who leave their religion, and the growing number of resources to support such people.