Better than God
At the beginning of this class, a question was posed to us in the “introduction” section of the blog posts asking whether each of us thought we were a good person. Upon reading that question, for a moment or two, I found myself reliving a flashback from my failed-religious upbringing. The question immediately struck me as that conversational tactic that Evangelical Christians use to convert—not only non-believers or those of other faiths—but believers who have yet to be “born-again.” This translates into an unrelenting never-good-enough or much-less-than-perfect mindset that is dictated by self-interested parties from “on high.” This inaccessible ambition puts the theist in a psychologically advantageous and potentially manipulative position over their unassuming mark. The theist, wielding guilt like a bludgeon against those who pursue this unattainable platitude, plants their first seeds that, if firmly rooted, reap an almost eternal harvest of perpetual submission and control. All that is required for one to enlist themselves into this capitulation is simply say: “I believe.” The theist is not concerned whether one actually believes or not, the slippery slope of submission is all that matters. If a believer will take the bait, the dogma will do the rest.
Although that wasn’t remotely the motivation for the blog entry, the question of personal morality is still a very important one. It didn't take long for me to engage in an exercise of "the examined life" and see that I'm in need of some improvement. But self-improvement doesn’t have to come at the crippling cost of drinking someone else’s Kool-Aid.
Religious belief eerily parallels the Stockholm syndrome. This phenomenon is where hostages eventually feel empathy for their captors, and some will even resort to violence to defend their oppressors. Prescribed violence can be found as a source of retribution in the so-called “holy” books—even at a cursory glance.
So the question is: do we really need to give our minds away to be good? You have to ask yourself if you think you wouldn’t know right from wrong without a Bible or Quran? Would we be at sea without the Ten Commandments, Genesis, Leviticus, or Deuteronomy? Would we be confused about the moral implications of torture, killing, rape, and perjury without religion? One would hardly think so. In fact, it’s almost to the contrary. Therefore, like the introductory question, I now ask myself: am I a good person? Well, I will argue that not only can one be a good person without religion; all things being equal, one could be considered a morally superior person by denouncing the shackles of religion and rejecting the dogma commanded by imaginary gods. Given all the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, and Pol Pot— even they didn’t flood the entire planet. Religion is precariously poised against all of humanity.
“Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” —Stephen Weinberg, Nobel Prize winning physicist.
Religion is not only an insult to human dignity: it’s an insult to human morality. Religion affords evil a safe refuge from the storms of our better nature because it pompously parades institutional tyranny and personal prejudices—wrought from unverifiable personal revelation—as Divine validation for injustice.
Radical relativism ultimately lies in the hands of the believer. Theistic accusations of moral relativism are simply a product of psychological projection. Theists believe only their particular brand of god is the path to “Truth,” and, if they hold that “Truth,” then the thoughts in their head commanding their actions are necessarily from their particular god. E.g., this is a logically valid argument for personal revelation:
1. If I hear thoughts in my head and I hold the truth, then God is speaking to me.
2. I hear thoughts in my head and I hold the truth.
3. Therefore, God is speaking to me.
It’s that easy. This argument is completely valid but non-believers would immediately challenge the truth of the premises. The trouble is, all of that evidence is in the theist’s head and completely inaccessible to independent verification.
So, to put it loosely, here’s the rub: all (well…most) of us have thoughts in our head. Theists simply claim theirs are directly from God. As Weinberg noted, good people will do good things and bad people will do bad things. Doing good things happens all the time. People, believers and non-believers alike, help the poor, donate to charity, care for the sick, etc. because they feel they have a “calling” (from thoughts in their head or a feeling in their heart) to do good things. Regardless whether one believes, Zeus or no Zeus, these thoughts and feelings prevail. But on the other side of that same coin lies a terrible beast itching to be awakened—a Divine license for injustice.
When good people unremorsefully do bad things it takes something to justify their actions. God is the perfect alibi. Since each believer is searching for “revealed truth,” bigotry and personal prejudices are easily and naturally confirmed (my god is speaking to me) by one’s own thoughts and feelings. Then, Divine authorization takes each individual believer’s beliefs to the absolute regardless of what the consequences. When this happens, the believer has certainty in their intuitions, no matter how repugnant, because God has spoken and it is so. But this is not Divine revelation—it’s evil so carefully cloaked in theology. Immorality is prescription whereas evil is conscription; it has a life of it’s own and it’s knocking on your door.
But how does this make the non-believer better than the believer? The non-believer’s morality is grounded in humanity and the believer’s morality is grounded in personal preferences. The proof for the absence of absolutes is evident in the complete lack of consensus on what a god might want, say, or command. This alone is radical relativism. As Plato’s Socrates pointed out: If thing are good because God commanded them, then good is arbitrary. The only constant in theology is the voice of God inside the believer’s head whose commands command no common consensus.
When someone says they put God first they are really saying they put themselves first. And where are all these gods anyway? Well, they’re right there in the theist’s head. So, if one puts God (themselves) first, guess what comes after that? Everything: family, friends, neighbors, loved ones, etc. But what is most significant—theists place God above humanity. The stark reality is we need humanity; we don’t need a god.
One important aspect of atheism is that non-believers have to answer for their own actions. They also have to justify morality with humanity down here on earth where it counts. Also, they can’t pretend to hold some truth that is beyond humanity and hold humanity to some incoherent standard. Further, bigots, racists, misogynists, and fascists have to answer for themselves rather than hide behind some Divine, transparent veil of protection. A not-so-distant example is justification for slavery cannot be grounded in the punishment of the children of Ham.
But being personally responsible for one’s own actions alone is does not make a person better but it certainly sets the stage. If I take responsibility for my own actions and ground my morality in humanity instead of some supernatural confirmation of prejudice, here’s a short list of what I’m not capable of:
1. Telling children they will burn in hell for eternity if they don’t believe in my superstition.
2. Denying others their rights because they think or act differently than those in my tribe.
3. Lying to people about what a god wants them to do.
4. Cheating people out of 10% of their money for proselytizing under the guise of “helping others.”
5. Putting my invisible friend first in my life instead of my family, friends, neighbors and anything else that is important in one’s life.
6. Spending Sundays worshiping something that doesn’t exist and reading from morally repugnant book.
7. Apologizing for genocide, rape, torture, slavery, and a host of other unthinkable crimes against humanity in a book written by bronze-age sheepherders.
8. Telling people that I don’t judge them but my invisible friend will condemn them to hell.
9. Pretending I’m special or “chosen” just because of my beliefs.
10. Holding food hostage from the hungry in order to proselyte about my invisible friend.
11. Killing or beheading those who insult my god.
12. Telling others that I think their loved ones may be in “in the wrong place” after they die because they didn’t adopt my particular myth.
13. Justifying the killing of my children because they “dishonored” my family name.
14. Telling women when, how, where, in what position, and under what circumstances they can have sex.
15. Denying people who love one another—regardless of sexual orientation—the right to marry.
16. Praying for someone and thinking I’m actually doing something useful for them.
So, am I a good person? I certainly try to be. But of one thing I am certain: I’m a better person than any fundamental theist and definitely much better than the any of the gods they worship.
True morality lies in the hearts of those who carefully consider the hopes, dreams, and needs of his fellow man—not at an arm’s length—but deep in shadows of his soul.