Where have all the good atheists gone?

A friend of mine posted an interesting question on his blog. He writes that many atheists argue that religion is responsible for “almost every atrocity in history,” and that they think ethical systems formed without a divine backing are “by definition more humane.” If, then, atheist ethics are as good or better than religious ones, he asks, “why is it that we see no atheist Mother Teresa’s, Gandhi’s, or the like?”

It’s an interesting question, and for those who self-identify as atheists, it is likely to get a defensive response. The question is framed so that the easiest response would be to make a list of great atheists. (See the comments on his post for an example.) As I’ve mentioned, I’m not comfortable with atheism as any sort of system to set alongside other religious institutions, and I don’t identify as an atheist, but there are a few points to consider in the question nonetheless. Though it seems to invite such a response, I don’t think the best way to respond is by creating a tally of religious and atheist “good people” and seeing who comes out on top.

I have heard the arguments that religion is responsible for all or most of the atrocities in the world. These arguments, just like the ones that atheists are all immoral antichrists, are used largely for rhetorical effect. (What bothers me about both sides in that debate is that if such vacuous maxims get repeated enough, they begin to be believed.) I have made the claim in the past that Christianity is responsible for as much bad as good in the world, and I do think that the quantity of the “good” should prompt the question of whether it is worth the “bad.” I think of the idea of responsibility differently, though. Religion is not responsible for atrocity in the sense that it sets out intended for bad things to happen to good people. “Religion” itself doesn’t intend to exploit, though it is certainly used to. In that sense, religion is not responsible, but it’s not responsible like the bystander who watches a woman get assaulted by someone else and does nothing to stop it. It then approaches the woman and offers to pray with her that such a thing never happens again. There are certainly many cases in which religion is directly responsible for exploitation, violence, and death, but it is just as often a passive observer that exposes its guilt in not acting from the convictions it promotes. It, or more precisely those who live it, are irresponsible.

I also understand, and sympathize with, the line of argument that suggests that any ethical system said to be predicated on the commands of a divine god whom one obeys out of fear of punishment is immoral because of the lack of value it places on humanity. This argument is not for insiders, though, who already believe “that’s the way it is.” And indeed, if the Christian system is correct, then our accusation of God’s capriciousness is moot.

The assumption in the question of why there aren’t as many famous atheists is that those well-known  folks were people who helped an extremely large number of others because of their religion. Had they not been religious, this understanding seems to suggest, they would not have cared so much. At this explicit level, though, the argument falls apart. The much greater testimony is that for the vast majority of people, religion inspires them to change very little about their everyday lives. In other words, the argument shows me that the greatness of Mother Teresa, Gandhi, MLK, and others was not due just to their religion, but due to them. Why would we suggest that religion is the dominant factor when it has no such effect on the vast majority of the population? The overwhelming effect of contemporary religion is to produce an internal change, invisible and unverifiable, despite all external circumstance. It is more often a removal from the world rather than a commitment to it.

This is not to say that religion has no effect, because one could turn the argument around and say that religion doesn’t make people bad, either. In fact, that is the typical Christian and/or liberal response to religious violations. “Well, they’re not practicing correctly. That’s not my religion, my God.” That’s where my assessment of religious responsibility comes in. The reason that religion is problematic is not primarily because it creates bad people. There is a nexus of environment and choice such that it is not possible to lay blame cleanly. A bigger problem is in the passivity it allows for many religious folk to take in the face of “atrocity” that directly contradicts their purported identity and understanding of the world.

I didn’t discuss the practical responses to the question, such as if atheism is an absence of religious belief, it would make little sense to trumpet such an absence as the reason for the good one does in the world. Thus a good many great people were such without explicit reliance on any institutional ethical system. We tend to self-identify positively, and it is only recently that the epithet atheism has taken on the role of a positive entity. In addition, the Western past is one filtered through a Christian lens, and thus it would be difficult to overestimate the effect this has had on historical interpretation and social development. The question I would ask in response: Why, if religion provides a superior ethical system, has it not delivered on any verifiable scale a change in the way we live, act and treat one another? My preliminary answer would be because requires more than religion, than religious ethics, than belief, to make change.


Punishment for Moral Failure

Those irreligious folks over at Patheos asked an interesting question for the latest iteration of their values posts: How/should we punish people for moral failure? Wisely, they limit this to adults in your personal and professional network. In processing the question, I thought of potential moral failures that exist on some sort of governmental level, but this really is a different question, because the problem cannot be located in an individual. Indeed, that is both the benefit and the detriment of bureaucracy. The figures we try to locate as the real problem (the President, the CEO, etc.) rarely bear more than a portion of the blame we wish them to carry.

This question is constructed, though, so that we can assume an individual is to blame for a moral faux pas. And this individual is not someone clearly under our moral authority, such as children would be. Is it ever okay to punish someone (personally) for a moral failure in this situation? I would like to be able to say yes, but I don’t think so.

There are perhaps some constructed situations in which it would be appropriate. If, for example, you have an accountability partner of some sort, where the partnership is based on mutual motivation toward a common goal, then it would be incumbent on you to point out the moral failure of the partner when he or she fails to fulfill the aim in view of which the partnership was formed. A marriage would be a formal example, but most of the informal partnerships I can think of would be constructed around goals or aims that aren’t specifically moral, such as exercising regularly or staying away from particular foods. As a Christian teenager, I’m fairly certain I was involved in groups designed to be accountable for one’s sexual purity. In these types of situations in which the accountability was established beforehand, punishment would presumably take the form of whatever was decided beforehand as well.

The more complex situation, though, is one in which someone in your circle of social influence commits a moral transgression about which they had no explicit contract with you. What, if anything, should you do? Well, the situation is obviously much different if you personally are the victim of that failure or transgression, and it is different if the victim is not competent, so let’s set those contingencies aside for a moment.

There is only one situation I can think of in my personal experience. Many years ago, an acquaintance decided to get married. A relative of the acquaintance who did not approve of the marriage, on ostensibly Christian moral grounds, took it upon him/herself to punish the acquaintance by cutting off contact with him/her and not attending the wedding. I am/was aware of the perceived moral failure (in fact, I think the response was a greater moral failure because of its pride and self-righteousness, but I didn’t punish that one myself), but wasn’t privy to the details of the situation. From my vantage point, however, it seemed that the acquaintance was only temporarily hurt and then moved on while the punisher maintained a strong sense of indignation and self-righteousness that was compounded by the fact that his/her punishment was ineffective.

The evidence is anecdotal, but it tells me that “punishing” a peer for a moral failure in unlikely to be effective if the goal is to chasten the individual’s behavior. If the intent is to distance oneself from a perceived moral impurity, which may be legitimate in certain cases, the “punishment” in the form of a withdrawal of relationship is not primarily intended as punishment but a cessation of association, which may or may not have that effect and should be a point of indifference to the initiator anyway.

If a moral failure is regulated in some other social or legal sphere, such as a physical assault, then your personal punishment is unlikely to be significant in comparison. In addition, if you are aware of a moral failure that is also a legal transgression and decide to punish the person yourself rather than inform legal authority, it is unlikely that you would be sufficiently protected from blame, if the transgression was uncovered, by explaining that you punished the moral failure yourself.

In short, then, we live in a society in which there is some overlap between moral failure and institutional punishment, as there should be. It seems to me that if a moral failure is a legally punishable offense, the institutional punishment takes precedence over your personal punishment (although, as mentioned above, this might be augmented by termination of the relationship with the offender, the aim of which would primarily be to preserve oneself and not “punish” the other). If, as in my example above, the moral failure is not legally punishable, the scope of any punishment is going to be limited and will be of significant cost to the punisher as well. Assuming that the punisher and the offender are peers, I consequently see little ground or benefit for aiming at punishment.

If, as in the case above, both parties are members of a common religious or social institution that regulates such behavior, the punisher could of course remind the offender of the requirements of the institution, if those are clear. However, in the case of divorce, for example, although strong prohibitions are made against it, Christians get divorced at least as much as others, so the practical basis for personal punishment would be slim. The institution can punish as an institution, but I would argue greater moral failures come from individuals attempting to embody the institution and enact its punishment in its place.

Outside of institutional logic or the scenarios constructed above, I cannot see a situation in which it would be safe to assume that the moral failure for which the offender would be punished is understood and shared by the offender. There is no objective reference against which to administer punishment. Common decency is too platitudinous to support personal punishment for moral failure. In my capacity solely as an individual, in relation to peers, who am I to judge?


Let’s Talk About Sex Bay-bee…

The crew over at Patheos have come up with their next Forward Thinking question. The series of questions are designed to counter the assumption a lack of religion equals a lack of values or morals. The question this time: What would you tell teenagers about sex? Libby Anne at LoveJoyFeminism says this:

“I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about the problems of the purity culture’s elevation of virginity. The evangelicalism I grew up in made abstinence before marriage a critical matter of faith, and did it’s [sic] utmost to persuade of [sic] scare teens out of having sex. Misinformation was rife. But like many similar blogs, I spend more time talking about how the purity culture “does it wrong” than about what it looks like to be doing it right.”

I haven’t thought deeply about this question in a while, and never in a nonreligious context. I do have a son a few years away from being a teenager, though, and issues surround sex have started to pop up more often. The issue used to be simple for me, because sex was only permissible within marriage. On the surface of things, then, teenage sex shouldn’t have been an issue. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. But, setting aside the trauma it causes the teenage mind to have the body and mainstream society telling you one thing and religious culture telling you another, one can see the reasoning behind the marriage approach. The difficulty of determining the appropriateness of sexual relations in every particular case is mitigated by a simple prohibition against its practice except in very limited circumstances.

Georges Bataille discusses the “juridification” of sex in his Death and Sensuality, the process of bringing sexual relations within the bounds of the law. As I’ve noted before, society as a whole (meaning not any one individual necessarily) benefits from monogamous relationships. With the norm of marriage in place the individual can assent to the rule and focus his or her attention elsewhere. This is certainly not to say that the tension between desire and the law goes away; however, it is difficult to imagine what it would be like without the norm.

This is where I think the most liberal forms of this discussion go wrong. I agree with those that rail against the arbitrariness the origin for sexual prohibitions as well as the misinformation that goes on within religious circles. However, I doubt that the destruction of sexual taboos would make for a better situation. Nor is it valid to say that “kids are going to do it anyway,” the same argument trotted out for war or gun control, which serves to maintain the status quo. We do significant work with the ideas of sexual norms, whether we abide by them or violate them. For some “violators,” it is the very notion of a violation that gives the sexual encounter much of its appeal. For some “abiders,” it is only the notion of the prohibition that keeps them in their relationship. Tension over sex and desire gives the world of advertising its largest source of ideas for generating revenue.

That is to say that the answer to teenage sex is not to downplay it. The ubiquity of sexual desire in all our communications makes any attempt to dismiss it hypocritical. Dealing productively with the issue of teenage sex will take more creativity than has been set forth thus far. Christianity’s success in keeping me from having sex until marriage was borne primarily from fear, fear of what would happen if I did. In my teenage mind, STDs were God’s consequence for screwing around. Instead, I just got married as quick as I could. (This will not be part of my recommendation to my son.) From my admittedly anecdotal evidence, the teenage brain is remarkably less equipped to handle the intricacies of an intimate relationship in balance with school, work, and life in general. It’s not impossible; I think, however, it is rare. My teenage identity was pretty wrapped up in being a “smart” kid, but nearly all of that intelligence disappeared when the sex drive turned on. So, I don’t think that “information” about sex is enough. As strange as it may sound, some sort of inculcation is necessary.

Parents should certainly take the dominant role in teaching teenagers about sex, and it should involve some effort to discern where they are at in terms of deciding the approach to take. It might be that the approach is “Do not do it. Under any circumstances. Until you graduate.” While some would argue that will just backfire, it doesn’t have to if it is spoken in a context of a loving and caring relationship. Of course it won’t work if the parent-child relationship is constituted only by the giving and receiving of commands. My hope is that, along with other “moral” issues, I will be able to put as much responsibility on my son as I think he can handle to make the right decision, neither burdening him with the weight of it all or removing his obvious will from the situation. While I will not argue that he should only have sex in marriage, I will likely recommend that the best scenario for him to engage in sex is one in which he has a handle on other areas of his life and thus is prepared to deal with the pleasures and consequences of his actions. This, for me, would be later, rather than earlier, in a committed relationship, where the chances of one partner taking advantage of another have decreased, if ever so slightly.

I guess I’m finding that sex retains a certain sacredness for me. Part of me thinks that this is only the heritage of religious indoctrination. Yet I can’t imagine casual sexual partners being in the best long-term interest of all the parties involved, not to mention the unbalanced way in which judgment falls predominantly on women for “promiscuity.” Since long term planning is not a strong suit for many, and particularly not those in their teenage years, it seems best to err on the side of caution.

I’m curious to hear what others think.


Religion and Science: Which is Oil and Which is Water?

Religion and science are domains that don’t mix well. The reasons these continue to be the parameters of the debate on religion in the public forum is baffling to me. I suppose one practical reason for this is that it brings out the extremes on both sides. Creationists  (many of whom believe Earth is only six thousand years old) use Neo-atheist denials of religion as proof that they are blinded to Truth, and Neo-atheists often use Creationists’ refusal to believe facts as evidence of their ignorance. It’s not surprising that warning scientists of damnation does no more to convince them than does browbeating Creationist Christians with archaeological evidence does to persuade them. The rest of us in the middle are led to believe we must choose one or the other.

There’s a clip I often show in religion classes when I’m talking about textual interpretation that usually segues nicely into a nuanced discussion about ways to interpret text, but it also addresses the religion versus science debate:

Religulous is a funny movie, but it is also a painful movie. Since those segments of the population who are the subjects of the film are not going to be watching it in any large numbers, we who watch are either already convinced of the insufficiency of religion, or consider ourselves more religiously enlightened than those depicted in the film. The juxtaposition of the Catholic scientist and Biblical Creationist Ken Ham sets us up to root for the scientist. His agreeable nature seems refreshing. A Catholic priest in another portion of the film even scoffs at the idea that other Bible stories such as the virgin birth might be literally true.Yet for hundreds of years it was the Catholic Church that denied evidence of material reality when it contradicted Scripture, so they are relatively new to this role.

One can see a certain systemic logic to Ham’s approach. If one accepts the premise that the Bible must all be true to be at all true, then it seems one must advocate for the creation story in a literal sense. It provides a good example of the logical consequence of holding strictly to one method of interpretation to find truth. Of course, no holds a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, or else we would still be wringing birds’ necks for atonement and making women sleep outside every month to avoid contamination. Biblical literalism is, so far as I know, nonexistent. (On the other hand, the word “literal” in common speech has become essentially its opposite. If I hear, “Whoa. I literally almost died” while walking on a college campus, what I am to understand is “I almost died in the most figurative sense of the word.” But I digress…) Reading Ken Ham’s blog, though, you will notice quickly that the motivating factor behind his claims is fear of the complete loss of morality without God giving us moral standards. As we know, this is a common reason for a normative interpretation of Christianity. Until I left the church and my standards didn’t disappear, I thought that their primary support was my Christianity too. The idea simply ignores history, not to mention the millions around us who live moral lives.

If one were to make the claim that it is better for the church to adapt to a scientific culture, as Catholicism and some other mainline denominations have, rather than insist upon direct contradiction of the evidence of the scientific community, I might agree with you. These organizations have been around long enough to see that certain advancements in science will not be going away anytime soon, and have adjusted to accommodate them. However, there are other areas where they are as intransigent as they have ever been (homosexuality, gender roles, abortion, etc.).

I understand that there are some political decisions involved when one sees discrepancies with religion. I went through phases from questioning believer to disgruntled believer to cool, on-the-fringe, not-like-you believer, to non-practicing believer, to cool enlightened agnostic, to unbeliever (at least so far as the dogma of Christianity is concerned). However, I know of others who have taken the role of reforming-from-within. One example would be Roy Bourgeois, a recently defrocked Catholic priest who has long advocated against the US training of foreign soldiers to commit massacres against their own populations. The Church did not speak out on this, but when he in recent years showed his support for women in the priesthood, it began a process that ended in his removal from a position of authority in the Church. He continues to push for reform. I know of other theologians who are attempting to radicalize Christianity theologically and philosophically while remaining firmly within its bounds. The question we have had to answer is, “What is the best way to get my message out and make change?” There is not a correct answer to that question.

The point I am trying to make is that I am concerned about those who use (or advocate use of) science as an exit point from religion. The domains have some overlap, but are largely exclusive. Each reigns supreme within its bounds; the problems come when they try to legislate outside their borders. When, for example, religion claims to have the last word on global warming, we should be as concerned as when science discovers the key to happiness. (Yes, I know religion doesn’t have the keys to happiness, but neither is science presenting a unified front on global warming.) I don’t know of many converts from science to religion, but I know of some who cite a form of scientific knowledge as a motivating reason for deconversion. If held loosely as a method of skeptically examining reality and choosing the best (not right) course of action, the scientific method is a valuable tool, but used as the hermeneutic key to reality with the optimistic hope that it will someday unlock all the world’s secrets, science functions much the same as religion. Neither is the Wal-Mart Super Store of answers.


How to Grow Up With No Moral Foundation

One of the most pressing issues for me to deal with in the wake of my deconversion was how to raise my son. Obviously this is an enormous issue for any parent, but under Christianity the main answers had already been provided. If he was scared at night, we could pray for comfort, if he said he hated something, we could tell him how Jesus loved his enemies…you get the idea. For a time after I deconverted I thought, like so many who remain nominally Christian, “It’s not for me, but it’s a good moral environment to raise my son in.” I gradually realized that not only was that idea a product of my reluctance to leave the social and moral foundation that had guided me, but it was a tacit assent to the assertion of many religious folks that it is not possible to have a moral foundation without religion.

My son went to a Christian Orthodox school for kindergarten through the second grade, which made the transition somewhat easier. I lost interest in overtly perpetuating Christianity at home, but he got it at school, so I wasn’t overly concerned. The only problem I had to deal with was the irking of my formerly Protestant sensibilities when my son came home to tell stories about kissing icons in the chapel services. All in all, he had a good experience at the school, which was based on a classical model. However, we struggled to decide whether he should attend for third grade or not. The school was on shaky financial ground, and while we believed in the goals of the school, we weren’t confident it would make it through another year. We decided shortly before school began to send him to the public school that was literally a five minute walk from our house.

I was nervous. Both Christians and private school parents tell stories of public school to justify their choices, and when you combine Christian and private school parents, you’d think sending your children to public school was a direct ticket to hell. I wondered if he would get picked on, if he would adjust, etc. It took him a week to get his bearings, and he was good to go. I did a lot of worrying for nothing.

Now in fifth grade and in another town, he is gradually forgetting the Bible stories he learned in his early years in Sunday School. He goes to church on occasion with cousins, tolerating the story time for the promise of a fun activity or some time to play outside. He set up a miniature manger scene on the mantle at Christmas. (Why? I don’t know. Because we decorated for Christmas for the first time in six years and Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus. Might as well embrace it, and I think there is a lot of good that could come from studying the life of Jesus.) We had to remind him what the scene was about, although he remembered with a little prompting. Interestingly, I also recently found out that they unexplicably sing “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho” in music at school, reminding children of the time where God decided to make the walls of a city crumble and crush the entire population so that the Israelites could take over. It’s kind of like having your football team win. Jericho didn’t pray hard enough.

Anyway, the question is how to raise your kids morally and teach them morality outside of a religious context. The question is not whether it is possible; millions of people do it every day, and billions do it every day in another tradition besides Christianity, so whether it’s possible at all is an irrelevant question. Once you shake the Western Christian mentality that people are naturally evil because we took the fruit and turned away from God (thanks, Augustine), you can start from a different premise. People aren’t naturally good or bad. They just are. Saying they are naturally bad, or naturally good, is an acceptance of the religious premise that we were created a certain way, by God or by nature. A neutral starting point is a better one, but as I mentioned in my last post, without a religious system to rely on, the individual is forced to take a more active and discerning role.

The claim that we cannot be moral without Christianity, a claim that is commonly made by church leaders and politicians alike, is an unfounded, insider claim. From the outside it reads as fear of the unknown. We think we need the parental equivalent of God saying, “Because I said so.” I’m grateful for the moral foundation I’ve received, but I’m confident I would largely have been raised the same way even without explicit Christian moral values. As I’ve noted, one of my great realizations was that I didn’t need Christianity to be the person I already was being or wanted to be in the world. The majority of the world manages to survive, and in many cases thrive, without explicitly Christian morality.

Nevertheless, this is a live issue for nonreligious parents, particularly those who grew up in a semi-religious environment, because of the fact that America’s culture and politics has a consistent Christian undercurrent. Nonreligious parents who don’t teach their children about religion do them a disservice, then, because religious language is a language our country and the world will speak for some time. Our family still “prays” at the end of most days before my son goes to sleep, and although my language has drifted toward a general gratefulness and hopes for the future, my son still addresses his words to Jesus. I think the time is soon coming when he will be old enough to have a talk about my religious experiences, but it hasn’t happened yet, and it won’t happen without much thought for his growth and maturity as a person.