Archive for the ‘morality’ Category

this-above-all

The idea that atheists are incapable of being moral is a very common misconception. Many, many articles, books, and even scientific papers have been written on this topic, and it all stems from the inability of the religious to comprehend from where an atheist can derive their views on morality.

You see, to the faithful, all that is good comes from God. People are inherently sinful, and God has to provide laws, commandments, and rules for us to follow to keep us on the “straight and narrow” and prevent us succumbing to the “natural man”. We even have numerous examples of famous Christians who’ve challenged atheist morality with their own misguided musings, such as this theoretical scenario proposed by Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson:

I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if [there] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’

If it happened to them they probably would say, ‘something about this just ain’t right.

The problem with this presumptuous scenario is the assumption that a lack of belief in God also equates to a lack of belief in right and wrong, or rather, a lack of morality. When you believe that morality MUST come from God, of course removing God from the equation would dissolve into chaos. But it’s a rather scary thought that some believers even entertain such notions, presumably only holding back out of devotion to their faith and fear of divine punishment. As is made apparent in the oft repeated question, from multiple believers, when given an opportunity to question an atheist:

If there is no God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want?

Penn Jillette’s response to this question is wonderful and often quoted:

I do rape all I want, and the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine.

Atheists are just as capable of being moral as are believers, because morality does NOT come from a God. It comes from within. Certainly, with atheism, there cannot be any “objective” morality, because morality cannot be derived from any singular outside source. But there’s nothing wrong with morality being subjective either, because the morality of the majority will be supported by social norms and expectations. Morality has evolved with us. It is advantageous for species living in social structures and communities to exhibit moral behavior, because being able to feel empathy and extend sympathy to others allows individuals to maintain the protections and benefits of social acceptance.

While I can study the benefits of morality, statistically, and it’s development through evolutionary history, exhibited even in other species, and while I can statistically measure the majority standing for what is considered morally right or wrong in any given scenario, it still ultimately boils down to how I personally feel inside. When I was a religious follower, I believed that those internal feelings came from the spirit. Now I recognize them as my own, but they are no different.

I still consider rape wrong. I still follow the golden rule. I still consider blackmailing wrong. Stealing wrong. Cheating wrong. etc. And more than anything else, both then and now, I’ve strongly adhered to honesty and integrity. I’ve held truth above all things, and because of that, I’ve been on an educational journey that has transformed my life and which I know will continue to enrich, enhance, and inspire.

When it comes to facing a moral dilemma though, things are rather different. As a believer, when I felt my conscience tugged, I would turn to scripture, to doctrine, to the religious teachings of my upbringing. When I first read Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I knew upon reading these words of Polonius that I had found a new life motto:

This above all, to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, thou can’st not then be false to any man.

And as a Mormon, being true to myself meant being true to my upbringing, true to scripture, true to the standards as set by my prophets, etc. I was devout and strong in my belief, and I did my best to adhere to all Mormon teachings. But when it was the teachings of the church that seemed to conflict with my conscience, I found myself faced with intense moral dilemmas. I had to listen to my inner self and find a way to balance what I *felt* to be right and wrong with what I was being taught. And my efforts to maintain this balance led to an increased devotion to studying the “faith” in full.

I wanted to know and understand everything. I wanted to dig as deep as I could and rely on my personal spiritual revelations to guide my study. Because I wanted to uncover truth, my journey eventually led me away from the Mormon church. I was able to let go of moral views that had been trained into me based on nothing more than religious teachings and indoctrination, but my conscience remained. Most moral dilemmas became much easier to handle, because there was no longer any conflict between self and religion. I could finally, really, TRULY, be true to myself.

Moral decisions are far simpler, but it can still sometimes get complicated, because there are still competing factors. As per the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, my morality is driven very heavily by empathy. My ability to connect with and relate to others. To understand their personal pains and sufferings. To engage in sympathetic musings or putting myself “in their shoes” to try and understand another point of view. Empathy is what makes it very easy to state that rape is WRONG. Murder is WRONG. Cheating is WRONG. etc.

Then there is integrity, driven by the words of Polonius, and a desire to be true to myself. I have a strong, deeply rooted need to be honest in all things. To present myself as… myself. No lies. No deceptions. No masks. And though it doesn’t happen often, there are situations where empathy and integrity clash. And such is the root of an atheist’s moral dilemmas.

The empathy I feel for my mother, for example, clashes with my desire to maintain integrity about my atheism and my gender orientation. In this instance, empathy trumps integrity (for now), as I put on a mask in interactions with my family and hide the changes that have brought me so much peace. The conflict between empathy and integrity clashes when I’m around my family, and I feel morally ill. Eventually, I’ll need to resolve that conflict, and I hope I can do so in a way that does not leave me ill in the opposite direction, for letting integrity trump empathy. I hope to be able to strike a balance and find a sense of peace as it relates to my family.

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the-power-of-prayer

Prayer is an essential part of the life of a Christian. It is seen as an opportunity to communicate with our maker, our creator God, our Heavenly Father. For some, prayer comes easy. My younger brother, for example, always has words that flow freely when he bows his head in prayer, and he is always so selfless. Always thinking of others. Always asking for blessings for the sick, the elderly, the missionaries… He thinks of everyone who’s crossed his path and asks for blessings for them by name. His prayers are wonderful and heartfelt.

For me, prayer was more difficult. While I had a wonderful imagination, it was difficult to “talk” to someone I couldn’t see, and it was even more difficult to think of what to talk to him about. He was God. Which meant He watched over me everyday. He knew my struggles, he knew my accomplishments. He knew my sorrows and pains, and he knew my joys and goals. He knew my thoughts and dreams. He knew me better than I knew myself… So what was the point?

I struggled so much with prayer, and when I struggle with something it becomes a puzzle. A challenge to be overcome. So studying and understanding the purpose of prayer, how best to pray, etc became a kind of obsession. I came to understand that prayer was more for our own benefit than it was for God’s. While he already knew what we went through every day, he wanted to hear from us, and sharing with him would give us an opportunity to express gratitude and look upon our day with introspection. Essentially, it was a form of meditation.

I came to understand the benefit of taking time out of a busy life to turn inward. To reflect on my *self*. To dialogue my experiences, my challenges, and my plans. To visualize my success. To verbally acknowledge my mistakes. And yet… I still struggled with the concept of telling all this to “God”. I had trouble framing my meditation into the form of a prayer, picturing myself speaking with someone and sharing my innermost thoughts (even though God already knew them). So my journey of understanding continued as I strove to piece together the puzzle.

The next piece was one I really struggled to wrap my head around. Prayer is seen as an opportunity to ask for blessings. While God delights to bless His children, some blessings have specific requirements we must meet before He can dish them out to us, and one of those basic requirements is to ask Him. Of course, getting any kind of divine intervention isn’t easy. It needs to be a humble request. A righteous request. It has to be something God already desires to give us and is just waiting for us to ask Him. It needs to be something that will be for our greater benefit. It needs to be something we’ve struggled to obtain on our own and we just need a little something “more” to get it.

The story of “Where the Red Fern Grows” provided a wonderful example I really related to as a child. The protagonist in the story was a young boy who wanted a pair of hounds. His family did not have much and could not afford to get him a dog. He prayed and prayed and prayed, and felt like his prayers weren’t being answered. He spoke with his grandfather about his disappointment, and his grandfather told him that he needed to do his part to meet God halfway if he really wanted his prayer to be answered. After thinking about it, the boy determined that his part in meeting God halfway was to earn the money that would pay for the hounds, and God’s part was to provide the dogs.

So, this boy set to work. He took every job a boy his age could work and he ran himself ragged, until one day an add for a pair of red bone pups came up in the paper, and he asked his grandfather to take his money to order them. He got his dogs. I saw this story as an inspiration and felt that I should treat prayer likewise. When there was something I desired so badly that I would do anything to obtain it, I had to push and work and struggle to do everything in my power to earn it, pray, and God would do his part to see it was provided.

There weren’t many things in life I really wanted that badly. I can think of only three specific examples in my life where prayer like this came into play. The first was while I was rather young. I’d constructed a diorama for a school project and spent an enormous amount of time into seeing that it was the best I could make it. When it came time to bring it to school, it was pouring down rain and that rain would ruin my project if I stepped out of the car to bring it into the school. On the ride there, I prayed my heart out for the Lord to see to it that the rain would stop, at least long enough for me to get my project into the building, because I’d done everything I could do and the only way my project would remain intact was if that rain stopped. Well, that rain stopped when we pulled up, and I ran inside, and when the school door shut, it started pouring down rain again.

In example number two, I wanted nothing more than to attend my college of choice and pursue a degree in veterinary medicine. I knew my parents could not afford to pay for my schooling, and I knew I did not have any particular sporting or other extracurricular talents that would get me scholarships. What I did have was book smarts. So I worked my butt off to get straight A’s in high school completing higher level courses and AP classes so that I would have an excellent academic record. I then applied for every scholarship I could find. I wrote essay after essay. Filled out survey after survey. And I prayed and prayed. I received a full-ride scholarship to my college of choice.

The final example did not have a happy ending. During my third year of college, I met and fell in love with who I thought was “the one”. He reeled me in, however, with manipulation until I was wrapped around his finger, and he started becoming very physically abusive. Completely submissive to his control, we married and I became pregnant. When I was approximately five months along in the pregnancy, he had a severe tooth infection that woke him in the middle of the night in screaming pain and agony. He asked me to pray with him for God to take his pain away so that he could get some sleep before we saw the dentist in the morning.

I felt that we’d done everything in our power to relieve his pain. We’d already been to a doctor, been given an antibiotic and pain medication. Certainly God would answer our prayer and take the pain away. So, we prayed together and nothing happened. My husband became irate and insisted that either God was not there or He did not love him. I insisted that that was not true, that sometimes the answer to a prayer is “no”, and that if He wasn’t taking away the pain it was for a good reason. I defended God and refused to deny Him, and in return my husband became furious for disagreeing with him. He beat me, bit me, punched me, slapped me, and choked me in his fury.

For a long time, I held on to that experience as a testimony building experience. I clung to my faith and the fact that I’d defended God in the midst of adversity as a kind of badge of honor. I felt that despite what I’d suffered, I’d felt His spirit comforting me. Little did I know that my experiences with prayer could all be easily explained.. without God.

The first was mere coincidence. It happens. It really does. Must we attribute a superstitious explanation to every coincidence in our lives? The second was the result of my own hard work and determination, no divine intervention necessary. And the third – well the third was nothing. I suffered a beating because there was no loving God there to hear my plea.

As I started thinking about the claims of prayer more critically, I realized that there are far more unanswered prayers than answered. And many of the “answered” prayers are over trivial nonsense.

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I was thanking God for stopping the rain to save my diorama. And I was thanking God for helping me get a full-ride scholarship to college. Meanwhile, millions of children around the world were dying from starvation. Thousands of women were being beaten by their husbands. Hundreds of transgender and homosexual teens were being disowned by their families and left on the streets. What about their prayers? Was a desire to eat not more righteous than my desire to keep my school project intact? Was a desire for the violence to stop not more righteous than my desire for a free education? Was a desire to be loved for who you are and accepted by your family not more righteous than my husbands desire for a night’s rest without pain?

Why does God pick and choose so haphazardly who he answers? Why are His blessings so random? Why isn’t the influence of his intervention greater than that of scientific advancements in medicine and technology? Why can’t he heal amputees? Why doesn’t he stop rape? Why doesn’t he stop murder? Why doesn’t he intervene when a helpless child is sold into sexual slavery? Why?

I dug deep looking for answers to these questions after suffering the turmoil of an abusive marriage. Surely, somehow, someway, something would make it all make sense. Surely the loving image of a Father in Heaven desiring to bless his children wasn’t a lie. In scripture, I found claims that God permits evil and suffering to exist for a “greater purpose”. I found that His desire for us to have and exercise our free will trumped his desire to intervene when one of his children was suffering. I found that all of the pain we endure is supposedly “nothing” compared to the pain Christ endured in our stead. And I found that all our experiences are meant to make us stronger, more loving, more compassionate, and will be “for our good”. I found comfort in these answers… until I really took the time to analyze them with an example.

Pretend for a moment that you are God. You have more power than can possibly be imagined. You are omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. YOUR daughter’s boyfriend has just forced himself on her. She refused his advances and asked him to go home. In response, he slapped her, grabbed her by the hair and thrust her onto the bed. When she moved to rise, he slapped her again grabbed her wrists to pin her to the bed and started to remove her clothing. When she screamed, he covered her mouth and nose so that her eyes went wide with the effort to gasp in air and he cursed her out for wearing such suggestive clothing, for getting him all worked up and then telling him “no”. He then proceeds to undress and rape her.

As he does so, your terrified daughter is praying for someone to hear what is happening, to open her bedroom door and come in and save her. You could intervene. You’re all powerful. You helped one of your other children find their car keys that morning. You saved little Billy from getting hit by a car that afternoon. You helped another child remember all she’d studied so she could do well on her test. But not this time… This time you watch, and you cry. Because you won’t interfere with free will. Even though you “could”. You won’t.

Now tell me. What “purpose” could this rape possibly serve? Don’t you DARE belittle this girl’s pain and call it “nothing”. Don’t you DARE suggest it will “make her stronger”. Don’t you DARE…

Any sane, loving human witnessing a rape would tear that man off that girl and kick his ass. So why doesn’t God? There are countless, COUNTLESS atrocities that are transpired by evil men, and God sits back and does NOTHING. That is NOT a loving God. If he can help find car keys, he can stop a rape. But he chooses not to. The only plausible explanation is that He simply does not exist. And that makes it so much easier to explain –

No need to excuse these atrocities as part of some higher purpose, as part of some greater plan. No need to suggest that somehow it will all be made right “in the end”. No need to imply that the very real and horrible pain and suffering people endure is minute and unimportant. When you remove God from the equation, it becomes far easier to take a stand and say these deeds are WRONG. The pain is REAL. And we will do everything in our power to right those wrongs, to lift up those who suffer, and make the world a better place.

I have always had a very strong sense of morality. As a child, this actually proved somewhat problematic, as I wanted the world around me to reflect what I thought was “fair”. Trusting my instincts in distinguishing between right and wrong came naturally, but determining the best route for obtaining fairness, equality was not so easy. This is because nothing in the world is distributed evenly. That’s just part of nature. For every resource, tangible and intangible, the distribution ranges from a tropical rain forest of wealth and diversity to the scarcity of the barren deserts.

Food. Shelter. Energy. Jobs. Access to health care. Monetary wealth. Intelligence. Creativity. Wisdom. Genetic fitness. In all these things and more, there are individuals with an abundance and individuals barely scraping by. These dynamics are what have driven the processes of life. The struggle for survival means that those with greater access to resources or greater ability to obtain resources in scarce environments will outlast the “weak”, and over time life evolves to take advantages of the many niches which specialized adaptations allow individuals to take advantage of.

Even when I did not fully understand these processes, it was simple enough to recognize that life is hard for some and relatively easy for others. Less intuitive was the recognition that while circumstances may never be entirely fair, finding some semblance of balance is entirely possible and even necessary for the survival of the human species. If everyone were to act selfishly, seeking only their own best interest without thought of others, the “strong” would quickly overtake the “weak”. We are, however, a social species and we form collective communities. In these communities the weak usually outnumber the strong and can together place pressure on the strong to share resources for the greater good of all.

This makes it beneficial for the strong to be receptive to the needs of their peers, as failure to share could lead to their being ostracized from the community. While that individual may be adept and capable, survival alone is far more difficult than when provided the added protections and support of a herd or flock. It makes sense then that highly social species adept in tool use and reasoning skills would develop an ability to feel empathetic and have an entirely natural desire to help and support members of their community.

I understand this now, but as a child, I couldn’t possibly fathom these concepts. I had no way of knowing that my “moral compass” was an intrinsic part of my own being, a natural evolutionary adaptation increasing chances of successful interactions within my community and survival of the species as a whole. So it should come as no surprise that I believed my parents when they told me that my “conscience” was not really my own, but rather a “still small voice” that communicated with me what was right and wrong. As I listened to that voice and followed it’s instructions, I would become more sensitive to it and more in tune with what was right.

Sound familiar? It is a common teaching across all Christian denominations, and a few other religions, that there exists a moral absolute. That communication of the choices that will be in keeping with these absolutes comes from a divine being outside ourselves. It then follows that this divine being is intimately interested in our lives and wants to guide us toward success. It also follows that we must be naturally prone to choose wrong, or this divine being would not need to communicate with us and guide us in the right direction.

The idea of a God likely stemmed from the attempts of early humans to understand how they intuitively “knew” which choices were “right” and which were “wrong”. The “Ten Commandments” of the Old Testament could ultimately have been derived from the “common sense” of those who felt a sense of empathy for their fellow man. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness. Thou shalt not commit adultery…. — Just think about each of these for a moment, and even if you come from a background with no familiarity with the commandments, you can intuitively recognize that these “commandments” are “right”.

Your instincts tell you that it is BAD to kill your neighbor. But early man did not have the understanding of ecology, psychology, evolution, behavior, etc to explain why everyone felt the same little “voice” telling them its wrong to kill. And “God” was born… Unfortunately, the idea that morality comes from a God instead of coming from ourselves results in some terribly erroneous assumptions about human nature. It has led to the almost universally accepted idea (within religion) that people are wicked, disgusting, horrible, terrible, sinful, EVIL creatures. It has led to the belief that “God” holds a monopoly on morality.

This is a dangerous, dangerous belief. Since it is assumed that only God is truly moral and good and perfect, and since humans have a natural desire to BE and DO good (because of empathy), then individuals will find themselves particularly driven to follow whatever doctrine they’ve been raised to believe accurately portrays the desires of their divine authority. It takes a charismatic, manipulative, and at least somewhat crazy individual to take up a position of power and authority on “God” which individuals will gather around. As such, belief systems are littered with false teachings that empower the individuals who’ve claimed leadership and convinces followers to go through with actions they would otherwise recognize as immoral.

Furthermore, when persons within a religious community come to recognize the inherent problems and seek to regain harmony with their personal moral compass, these individuals are accused of rejecting the “only” right path, the “only” truth, the “only” moral code and painted as evil, sinful offal to be avoided and ostracized. Those who’ve been heavily indoctrinated are often incapable of even entertaining the concept that morality comes from within. To them, the idea that empathy is all it takes to make a determination between right and wrong is preposterous. They do not realize that these individuals rejecting the concept of God are not rejecting moral character. Quite the opposite.

We are inherently moral creatures. Empathy is a common trait in social species, as this produces an evolutionary advantage. It is time to cast aside superstitions and fairy tales. The voice which tells you the difference between right and wrong is YOUR voice, and it is empowering to know that you are good… all on your own.