Religious Thinking and Simple Minds

I am treated as evil by people who claim that they are being oppressed
because they are not allowed to force me to practice what they do.” ~D. Dale Gulledge

Ignorance is our natural state: we were born ignorant. We learn what we know as we grow up and gradually replace ignorance with understanding (though not completely). Ignorance isn’t inherently good or bad, right or wrong. It just is. However, willful ignorance is another matter entirely.

Whether Christian or Muslim, we’ve all had our fair share of experiences with true believers and have come to understand what William G. McAdoo meant when he said, “It is impossible to defeat an ignorant man in argument.” They are oblivious to reason and anointed in denial. Many (most?) Christians and Muslims, when faced with irrefutable evidence or an iron-clad argument, will almost never admit they are wrong. Instead, like the Catholic Church, they back-pedal and modify their arguments to mitigate the damage of evidence and logic. In other words, they selectively cultivate willful ignorance. Why is that?

Revealed religions claim to have a superior and objective moral system or standard because it is handed down by God via divinely inspired scripture. They are right when they claim that, without a supernatural entity to dictate behavior, there can be no objective morality. An omniscient God is the only possible source of objective morality because there is none to be found in nature. Nature has only a prime directive: survive. So, because we (atheists) believe God does not exist, most of us also believe morality can only be subjective.

One doesn’t need to be religious to believe in an objective morality: I’ve even seen so-called atheists tout various ethical systems as objective moral standards — Utilitarianism, survival-based cooperation, the avoidance of unnecessary pain or suffering, etc. Even Sam Harris believes in an objective moral standard with his “science can answer moral questions” thesis. But, of course, these are not objective moral standards at all . . . Who decides what serves the greater good? In what context are we to make survival-based decisions? Why do you claim something is unnecessary? Who collates and interprets the data? . . . Value judgments are at the heart of any moral or ethical system and they are, by definition, subjective. Pay attention to what these people say and you’re likely to see that they are didactic pedagogues attempting to force their pedantic dogma down your throat. Whether or not such a person is aware of it — or just good at disguising it — he or she harbors at least a little holier-than-thou (or more zen-than-thou) smugness.

Morality is subjective. Collectively, much of morality is determined by social norms. Majority opinions form socio-cultural norms that vary from place to place and over time and are often codified into law. Morality isn’t exactly dynamic but it does evolve as the human condition evolves. Even if an objective morality did exist, it could not evolve with us: it would be independent of us and unchanging in the same way scriptural morality is “written in stone”. When people imbue their personal ethics (religious or not) with certainty, they are, in effect, objectifying it: turning it into a quasi-objective morality. That’s the hubris called Playing God. Certainty is an illusion: especially where morality is concerned. Scientists and philosophers agree that certitude is a sure sign of trouble.

Oh . . . and about the so-called “superior and objective” morality of religion? Even if there is a personal God, EVERYBODY overrides his moral dictates (as contained in scripture). We reject slavery and the subjugation of women no matter what God tells us. And he tells us these travesties are the natural order of things in both the Old AND New Testaments. But we disagree. WE decide what is morally worthy: WE decide what is religious. Even if there is a God of Abraham, we don’t need him for moral guidance . . . so why do we need him at all?

It’s easy to understand the allure of an objective moral system. It offers a simple way to resolve complex issues. And it makes it easy to judge others with the comfortable self-righteousness of certainty. But we pay a price when others morally cop-out. Conflict. These people tend to relinquish critical thinking and to indulge in judgmentalism — a potent combination that leads to, and reinforces, fundamentalism. And when they feel the backlash of our objections, they perceive it as persecution. It’s the perfect recipe for simple-mindedness and denial — and unnecessary conflict. If you doubt that, turn on CNN and within half an hour you’ll see confirmation of this unnecessary conflict spawned from simple-minded denial.

That’s what religious thinking does. And the main mechanism for that is the false belief in an objective morality. But it’s not just religious thinking: it’s any kind of dogmatic zealotry based on certainty of one’s personal moral system. Vegetarian/vegan zealots and pro-life fanatics leap to mind as do other extreme left or right political wingnuts. Be wary of the certainty of moral absolutists: it indicates totalitarians in sheep’s clothing.

© Copyright 2012

Aligning Atheism

There’s a fundamental disconnect between atheists and the word “atheist”. Part of this is because there isn’t complete agreement on what the word means.

  • Lack of belief in God
  • Lack of belief in God’s existence

Lack of belief in God could simply mean a choice not to believe in God because he is cruel or undesirable for some reason — but does not specifically address the question of God’s existence.

Lack of belief in God’s existence is more specific but still leaves the door open for interpretation because the phrase “lack of belief” is ambiguous. It might be a matter of degree or preponderance of evidence and not an absolute statement of disbelief. A more definitive position would leave no doubts:

  • Denial of God’s existence

Denial of God’s existence leaves no wiggle-room for interpretation. It’s a flat-out position that God does not exist.

It’s been my experience that most long-time atheists do not deny God’s existence and adopt a more scientific stance which is willing to consider any argument or evidence that might change their minds. They don’t want to make claims they can’t back up. They understand the need for rational integrity. Just as the unqualified claim of God’s existence is an article of faith, so is the unqualified claim of God’s nonexistence. There’s no evidence either way. An atheist can claim that there is no evidence for God or the supernatural (and never has been) and that there’s no compelling reason to believe there ever will be. But there is a possibility — however vanishingly small — that there could be. A creator God is not an impossible proposition given what we know thus far. Existence . . . whether it’s God’s, the universe’s or ours — is an ineffable mystery; the greatest mystery of all. Certainty is an illusion and a claim that science is careful to avoid. Our understanding of the universe has undergone multiple paradigm shifts and will experience more in the future.

Whether you’re absolutely certain that God exists or does not exist, you’re pretending to know facts you have no access to.

© Copyright 2012