Saturday, February 18, 2006

Morality and Teddy’s Big Stick

This post is in response to one made here, opening a discussion between the Streetapologist and me. This was originally intended to be a comment to his post, but the questions asked of me required a long answer that is not all that simple to articulate. I would ask anyone who reads this to comment on whether or not it is understandable, and then of course feel free to state their own opinion. My response is kind of convoluted, but I know of no other way to express it.

First, a little about me in response to Streetapologist’s sharing his background. This has actually been the hardest part of this post. If you have ever seen the TV show “Connections”, you will understand my problem. There are so many small and large experiences and discoveries in my life that contributed to my belief system that I could write at least two book chapter’s worth of material. Every time I started to relate an abridged version, I found myself wandering down the various corridors of past experience and stopped when I heard the guitar chord intro from “Alice’s Restaurant” playing in my head.

The Short-Short Version:

I was raised in a Christian household and actively participated in the church as a member of the choir from the 3rd grade until my senior year in High School. In addition, I went to Sunday School, Bible studies classes, and went through the Confirmation process. In 1976, I was offered a scholarship to a religious college for the ultimate purpose of becoming a Methodist Minister. Among a myriad of other influences, I grew up a Protestant in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood, and was subjected to some stupid and most incomprehensible discrimination. I had Jewish friends that were treated even worse. This left some unanswered questions about faith and belief. I politely declined the scholarship, and left the church without ever having practiced ritual cannibalism. I set out to find out about other faiths, finding both strong belief and whimsy along the way. I have also seen ritualistic behavior that fills some people’s need for such without being strictly religious. An abridged time line of my travels can be found here. What is missing is all of the religious studies that I did not identify with, my forays into Psychology, Theatre Arts, and History. Interesting fact: The early Christian church condemned the theatre. They didn’t like the competition, and recognized that it gave away too much of the “production” (theatrical) aspects of the average church service.

As I told the Streetapologist, I cannot agree with his assertion that Morality is the Achilles Heel of this atheist. He asks the following questions:

1. On what epistemic foundation(s) does the atheist base his morality?

2. How can any morality be objective based on the answer to the first question.

To the first question, I must say that I can only answer for myself. “The atheist” is as mythical a creature as “the Arab”, or “the Urban Black Male”, or “the Christian”, for that matter. I don’t think this was an intentional attempt to stereotype, so I will rephrase to what I think you meant. How does an atheist find an epistemological foundation for morality? Damn good question. I have yet to find two exactly alike. I tend toward Empiricism with nods toward Realism and Rationalism. When the cultural meme of Loki descends upon me, I play with Relativism (fnord). I do not actually espouse Relativism, but it leads to some heated debates. My nods toward Rationalism arise from a recognition that man is an animal, and no matter how dominant our forebrain becomes, we still have instincts. Call this genetically transmitted knowledge. This might also serve as the basis for an alternative explanation for what religious people identify as innate good or evil. My nods toward Realism arise from the fact that it is simpler to accept that we are participating in a common reality than it is to concoct alternative explanations.

To the second question, I must say, “Damn tough question!” I must consider objectivity in this arena as a matter of degree. What I mean by this is that the mature thinker will not impose standards of morality on the animal kingdom. Since standards of morality are only imposed upon humans, this makes the entire concept subjective to that degree at least. Further, some mentally impaired, and those few humans in modern times that have been raised in feral conditions have been exempted from moral judgments. This reduces moral consideration to those who are deemed capable of developing an internal “moral compass”. This can also be stated as a “moral framework”, or “moral sensibilities”. Western legal systems have been very discriminating on this point, providing a narrow definition for the acceptance of the “insanity defense”.

Objectivity is defined as the capacity to assess situations or circumstances shrewdly and to draw sound conclusions. If one does not believe in SuperAlpha, invisible Ultra-being, one must begin with an assumption that what is being observed has a different cause, no matter what the stated cause or apparent effect. The proponents of God have a lot of rules. Besides believing that they have been ordered to live by these rules by an incomprehensively superior being with a peculiar attraction to us lesser beings, they also believe in the inherent rightness of these rules. In contrast, when the voices inside David Berkowitz’s head told him how to behave, the rest of society was quick to disagree with the perceived rightness of those actions.

If you believe that there is no god, then the god’s rules become the clergy’s rules. Seen in this way, they are rules made by men for men. In that context, they are subject to the attribution of noble, noble but misguided, or base motives. These motives might include forging a cohesive society with a strong sense of identity for mutual protection. These motives might also include limiting the power of the alpha-monarch, staying close to the seats of power, and glomming some of that power for the clergy itself. The Vatican, and folksy folks like Jimmy Swaggert, Pat Robertson, and Billy Graham all have something in common: lots of tax-exempt money to play with, and other earthly luxuries. This owes more to Paul’s attempts to make a name for himself, and out-competing other pagan religions than it does to some ascetic holy man with a posse that got hung by the Romans for harvesting (stealing) other people’s grain on the Sabbath. That is, of course, if it ever actually happened. I tend to think that some of it did. I also think that most urban legends have a grain of truth, however much distorted it becomes later.

If the god’s rules are just the clergy’s rules, then what is the god in that perspective? The Enforcer. The Big Threat. That which is uncontestable. The god can be a seal of approval, or a trump card. Attribute your will to the god, and those who oppose become blasphemers or infidels! Can you feel the power? What then is morality in this context? It is the morality of a five-year old. If you don’t do what you are told, you will be punished. Piaget has this to say on the subject:

Stage of intellectual development: Intuitive Phase, age 4-7 years. “Speech becomes more social, less egocentric. The child has an intuitive grasp of logical concepts in some areas. However, there is still a tendency to focus attention on one aspect of an object while ignoring others. Concepts formed are crude and irreversible. Easy to believe in magical increase, decrease, disappearance. Reality not firm. Perceptions dominate judgment.

In moral-ethical realm, the child is not able to show principles underlying best behavior. Rules of a game not developed, only uses simple do's and don'ts imposed by authority.”

This is also the period of development that Erikson identifies as the time when a growing child goes through the second, third, and fourth crises of psychological development: learning autonomy versus shame, initiative versus guilt, and industry versus inferiority. Coincidentally, this is also the time in one’s life when religious indoctrination begins. In Christian Sunday School, a young child learns shame (Adam and Eve and the fig leaf), universal guilt (original sin), and inferiority (we are the unworthy creations of a vastly more powerful being, so don’t piss Him off). All this, and we have only looked at the book of Genesis. Without getting too far afield in the discussion of morality, I’ll just point out that the effect of this indoctrination is to create an insecure group that is trained to defer to those that are perceived to be in positions of power or authority. Those who have feelings of entitlement can and do cut a relentless swath through groups of people so emotionally prepared (disturbed). This greatly enhances a police officer’s ability to take control of a situation, a government’s ability to form armies, and a swindler’s ability to commit bunko.

So, upon what basis does an Empiricist build a moral structure? I believe that I am sharing this planet with many others like myself. I believe that peaceful social cooperation is constructive and mutually beneficial. I believe that all forms of coercion are hostile acts that create inequity and/or injustice and anger. In contrast, a mutually agreed-upon contract is one where the value of goods or services exchanged is perceived to be equal or nearly so. In all negotiations, one side or the other must go first. The only exception to this is when both sides make the first move together. I perceive it to be in my best interest not to perpetrate what could be interpreted as a hostile act against the Houses of my neighbors. My neighbors, for the most part, afford me the same respect. David Berkowitz is an extreme example, but generally speaking, people don’t have much difficulty figuring out what is and what is not socially appropriate behavior. Our parents, elders, and peers teach us many of these things at an early age by shaping our behavior. Some of what they teach us is cultural bias, or prejudice, like the “dirty hand” concept in many Eastern societies. Much of it though is just common sense, like “don’t take things that don’t belong to you”, including another person’s life. Did Moses really need a super being to tell him that? If so, he was the second biggest idiot leader of all time. That goes for messing with someone else’s spouse, or molesting their kids too. It hardly takes a genius to notice that this can create a homicidal rage in the more possessive/protective citizens among us. If this all sounds a bit like the Golden Rule, that should not be surprising. The Golden Rule is an axiom of societal living. It is true that I was first exposed to this notion in Sunday school, but the church has no ownership of this concept. The church was filling a need as a socialization instrument, and in part bending that need to fit the needs of the church. Nowhere does the Golden Rule say, “or God will get you!”

Living a moral life because you perceive this to be the dictate of a supreme being, and because you fear the punishment of eternal damnation is not morality. This is obedience at best, and pain avoidance at worst. It is fear of a stick so big that Teddy Roosevelt could only dream of such power. It is also a stick that is not of this world, dealing with the alleged afterlife as it does. Therefore, those that assert the existence of eternal damnation neither can, nor have to (by their doctrine), prove its existence.

In order to have an internal moral framework, one must work out for one’s self why some behaviors are proper and some are improper. That’s not to say you can’t have help putting it together, but one must understand and accept the reasons behind the rules in order to make informed decisions and not just live by another’s rules. In fairness to the many intellegent religious people I have known, I must add that they are as capable of internalizing a moral structure as I am. Only some religious and some non-religious people remain stuck in the basic "carrot and stick" incentive toward moral conduct. The lessons of the Bible that speak about punishment and damnation are speaking to this crude and coercive form of moral enforcement. Like training wheels on a bicycle, consequence-based morality needs to be outgrown and discarded in order for real, individual moral growth to take place.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Response to Streetapologist

I would be happy to start an e-mail dialogue with you. The lateness of this response should give you some indication of how busy I am right now. Between projects at work requiring research, the usual demands of New England Winter, and the IRS, I am not finding a lot of spare time. A few things you might like to know up front:

I don’t expect to change your mind about anything, and I don’t expect that you will change mine. My purpose for this dialogue is to better understand your position, and to see if a less adversarial coexistence is possible. If your goals are equally modest, then perhaps neither one of us will be disappointed.

My responses might be very long in coming.

If you have read any of my previous posts, you know that I am about exposing the tools of confusion, or how some people gain power or advantage over others and the price we all pay, or the self-empowerment we cede when we make these social bargains. Some social bargains are ethical, and some are not. Some fall into a gray area and there are supporting arguments for either position. This usually happens when there are both positive and negative consequences to said bargain. Evaluating the comparative worth of those consequences can be the subject of lively debate.

I would be a fool not to recognize the high value that many of my fellow humans place on their religious beliefs. All else aside, this is a traditional way of life with both real and perceived benefits that believers find helpful and/or comforting. It would also be insensitive on my part to deny another’s right to live life as they saw fit. Society places logical limits on this, I don’t have to. All I have to do is to voice my opinion if I think that the limits are going overboard in one direction or another. If enough people feel the same way, things change. Wherever the lines are drawn, it is important to leave some room inside them. If this were not true, then why are the most restrictive societies also the most brutal and violent?

Why do I argue for atheism if I do not expect to change the mind of the apologist? I argue to present an opposing point of view, so that the curious and undecided will have to work to reach a decision. “Religion, Inc.” presents a relentless infomercial upholding their point of view. The number of ways that people profit from, and reinforce superstitious beliefs is staggering. The world of the scientific naturalist is mundane by comparison and lacks dramatic appeal.

I am also interested to see if the communication barrier I perceive (see here and here ) is real and if it can be overcome. I also have a personal interest. One of my best friends no longer speaks to me, presumably because his Fundy beliefs tell him that I’m going to Hell (link). It might surprise some people to know that this godless atheist cares about a little thing like that and finds it emotionally painful.