April 19, 2016

Dear Christians: Answers to Questions for Atheists, Part XV

Today, we're talking about evil and morality, and how I, as a nonbeliever, think about it.

To start us out, I'd like to state up front that I am a moral mostly-relativist. I don't believe that there is much in the way of objective moral codes, and so I believe that we should take individual circumstances into account. I don't believe that this is as different as we make it out to be--most of us are making morally relative judgements all the time.

Just a quick content note: One of the questions here deals with sexual assault. I don't know why this seems to be a favorite of theists when questioning our morality, but I do want to give anyone a heads' up that might need it. It's Question 4 under the Morality section.

With that, let's dive in and take a look at evil and morality.

1.    Do you acknowledge the existence of evil (at least in your practice if not in your beliefs)?

I do believe in evil, although my definition of evil has changed since leaving religion.

2.    When you complain about the problem of evil, aren’t you presupposing God?

No. When I was a believer, the problem of evil really vexed me. I believed in God, and thus the evil I saw in the world around me didn't make sense. After leaving religion, the problem of evil isn't an issue at all--it makes perfect sense in a world without anyone at the helm, so to speak, that evil things would happen.

When I talk about the problem of evil now, I'm either doing it in terms of the struggle I had AS A BELIEVER or I am talking about it hypothetically, usually to a believer...in those terms, it's a case of "if there was a God, why...", which does not presuppose God in any sense.

3.    If God does NOT exist, can 'good' and 'evil' exist?  If yes, by whose ultimate authority and how is each empirically measured?

Just a sidenote: the wording of this question is especially funny given the previous question. If the problem of evil presupposes God's existence, then this presupposes his non-existence, no? You're an atheist, author! AH HA.

For some reason, it seems like saying you believe in a material universe that can be understood by empirical measurement has been translated as "everything must be empirically measured or it does not exist." That's not an accurate reflection of my views at all, and I don't know why the author assumes that it would be.

To me, good is doing the least amount of harm possible, and evil is malevolently causing harm. It's pretty simple, and requires no ultimate authority. American genocide of indigenous peoples? Pretty evil. Socialized healthcare? Pretty good. It's relative, not fixed. For instance, I find killing other humans evil, but killing in self-defense doesn't fall into that category. We all make these judgement calls too, even believers. It's why so many Christians, for instance, are willing to accept that the massive genocide of the Canaanites that God supposedly decreed is a-okay, even when genocide in general we all consider wrong.

To me, the existence of a deity would preclude any ultimate moral standard, because whatever that deity says, no matter what, would be considered moral. If that deity told me to cheat, or steal, or lie, or kill, or rape, or torture--all of it would be moral because the deity told me to. Indeed, the bible itself bears this out time and again. The murder of women and children, the rape of women and even prepubescent girls, the murder of people for seemingly innocuous offenses that hurt no one...it's all there, and it's all supposedly okay because God said it is. It's mind-bogglingly to me now that I accepted it for as long as I did.

1.    What is the basis for the common moral values Christians and non-Christians, as a whole, seem to share?

What common moral values? There are common moral values dictated by our culture, but there's no universal moral values. Take lying. We all lie, and in some cases, it's more acceptable than others. It's relative.

Killing is another example. We would probably both agree that it is morally repugnant, save for self-defense, but other cultures--non-Christian cultures--have considered it perfectly acceptable to conduct human sacrifices, and Christian cultures have considered it perfectly moral to execute people for believing differently.

Torture--another topic most everyone would probably agree is generally immoral, and yet, Christians during the days of the Inquisitions were more than willing to torture people, and torture was frequently used to ferret out supposed witches in Christendom and other Christian regimes over the centuries.

The basis for our common moral values, then, is our own culture. These are the social agreements we have made together, through trial and error through the ages.

2.    Per the atheist worldview, is society ‘really’ evolving for the better? Why?

I'm going to sum up the atheist worldview for you: There is no god or gods.

There ya go. That's it. That's all it is. Beyond that, the worldviews of individual atheists are as distinct as can be. This question is built on a faulty premise.

I can't answer for the atheist worldview--because it's irrelevant to this question--but I can answer to my own worldview, and that answer is yes.

Consider this. Until 1993, it was legal in at least one state to rape your wife. That's when the very last state made spousal rape illegal. Under former biblical legal codes and later systems informed by them, it was allowable to murder LGBTQ individuals just for existing. Even after murder was unacceptable, it was still legal to imprison or fine or otherwise penalize them. Women weren't allowed to vote in the US until 1920. Our lifespans were short and often painful, especially for children, a large number of whom didn't survive past childhood. Childbirth was a leading cause of death for pregnant people. Slavery was legal and encouraged by political and social structures. Child abuse wasn't illegal, and children were viewed nearly entirely as property.

These are just a handful of ways that our society has progressed, becoming more accepting and equal. We still have a ton of work to do, but the progression is forward towards a more enlightened future. I'm excited for the opportunities I've had and continue to have to help build it.

3.    Would you agree with this statement: “Child pornography is immoral even though morality cannot be proven scientifically in a laboratory experiment?”  If so, what is the genetic source of morality if humans have descended from apes?

Okay, first things first: Humans did not descend from apes. Humans AND apes evolved from a common ancestor. Full stop, man.

Not everything needs to be proven in a laboratory experiment. This is a misrepresentation of the material worldview. There may very well be a genetic basis for morality, but there doesn't have to be, any more than there needs to be a genetic basis for art, music, or any other cultural phenomenon. All of these have helped societies unite and grow, allowing more of their members to survive. Not all evolution is biological--we also have a hand in it through artificial selection, conscious or unconscious. For instance, we don't know that the first humans to domesticate dogs did so for any purpose other than having dogs, but humans along the lines harnessed the usefulness, creating different breeds for different purposes. Ideas can function similarly. There's no genetic basis for a democratic republic, and yet, I sit in one today that's over 200 years old. Why? It was a useful form of government (well, I suppose that's debatable...) that allowed my ancestors to survive and thrive.

4.    HYPOTHETICAL SCENARIO: Immediately after marrying, you and your wife attempted pregnancy. You tried conceiving for two years with no success. Requiring surgery, your wife was put under anesthesia nine months before your first child was born. While unconscious, the doctor decided to have his way with your wife. His male staff assistant watched, waiting his turn. Each unleashed their gift of procreation in her prior to completing the minor surgical procedure. That night, the two of you took full advantage of the fact she was ovulating. Unbeknownst to either of you, the doctor's sperm out swam yours. Your wife never knew she was raped while unconscious, nor did you, and no other human being ever found out - there were no consequences to this act except the celebrated arrival of a beautiful, baby boy named after his Father. QUESTION: Was it absolutely wrong for the doctor and his assistant to gang-rape your wife? Why?

WTAF is this question? How fucked up are you? "Gift of procreation"? I literally threw up in my mouth reading that bullshit.

Yes, this was absolutely wrong. It's absolutely wrong to violate another person, whether that person has knowledge of it or not. There are no extenuating circumstances. There's no good to come from it--not even the baby, no, as the rape itself was unnecessary for the couple to have a child (they could have continued trying, adopted, pursued medical interventions, etc--they did not require someone to rape one partner in order for this to happen).

Yes, there are situations that are absolutely wrong. I don't believe that there are blanket moral axioms, but you can look at a situation and determine that it is wrong.

I have to be real. It's utterly distasteful to me the number of times that theists circle back to the idea of rape to prove their ideas about morality. Rape is not an object lesson. It's not a thought experiment, and such examples say far more about the person that is making the example than they do about the morality of nonbelievers.

And if the only thing keeping you from doing this is your belief in a deity, then please, don't ever become an atheist. We don't want you.

5.    Where does the non-believer’s conscience get its authority from?

It's culturally instilled. As a secular parent, I've actually thought about this a lot, and I would say that it's empathy-based. That's the direction I have approached it from in my own parenting.

6.    In an all-natural, all-material world, how did ‘oughts’ evolve from physical matter?  When, and how do you know?

Again, not everything comes from physical matter. Some things evolved because they are useful to cultures and societies, which themselves are useful to the organisms comprising them. "Oughts" are such phenomena.


This segment was tough--not because the questions were particularly challenging (I've spent a lot of time thinking about them both from my theistic and atheistic perspectives) but because it's frustrating to encounter these same thoughts over and over again. It seems like no matter how many times we put it to bed, tuck it in, and read it a story, it's popping right back up again--and much like when my children do the same at bedtime, it's vexing and exhausting. It leaves me wanting a break.

It's especially frustrating because history objectively shows that secular Enlightenment values have benefited our society so much. We've thrown off so many yokes of oppression simply because of these value systems, and religion didn't do it. Christianity itself had more than a thousand years to make this level of moral progress, and it failed. In just three centuries, we've grown to value and protect the most vulnerable in our society in ways that we never imagined under religion.

If that's not evidence for secular morality and how far we can go with it, I don't know what is.

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