Since decommissioning my “other” blog I’ve pretty much let most of the topics surrounding religion, belief, and no belief pass. I’ve come to terms and have reached closure with the fact that I am no longer religious. I was a practicing Christian for at least 20 years, I’ve professionally reviewed books on the topic, and I even had part of this interplay between religion and secularism as a would-be thesis topic. So what happened? In short: I got tired of it all.
I reached a point where I felt that constructive dialogue was more important than debating about how many proverbial angels could (or could not) fit on the head of a pin. Unfortunately, most people that are interested in this topic are either hardcore religionists or hardcore non-believers. In fact this quote pretty much sums up my position on most of the people from these two radical camps:
“Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.” –Robert Heinlein
Or, using a martial arts metaphor: I wasted a lot of energy and time on this journey with not much to gain from it. To be perfectly honest I don’t care what you believe as long as your belief does not harm other people and is in accordance with your society’s chosen laws. Don’t like your laws? Then get them changed or move to another country! Simple as that.
Anyhow, there are only a couple of related topics that I’ll come out of retirement for:
- Potentially harmful supernatural beliefs
- Science being misrepresented
- People who say that atheists are evil
Martial Thoughts has a post up today on this very topic. I came very close to letting it pass but could not. Now before I respond I have to say that Martial Development is one of my favorite martial arts blogs. So before you think I’m mad at the author (I’m not) I have to say that I’m really just annoyed with the stereotype. I hear it over and over: Atheists are evil. Atheists believe in nothing. Atheists are immoral and have no reason to follow laws.
First, what do atheists believe in? Well I believe in lots of things. I believe that my desk exists, that practicing the martial arts helps me to develop physically and mentally, that sleep is good, that people in Indiana can’t drive safely, that following my societys’ laws is generally a good thing, that helping people makes me feel good, etc. All of these things really have nothing to do with the belief in the existence of a particular deity. In fact, I just happen to believe in one less god than most of you do.
What’s usually being said here is this: Atheists “believe in anything” or, translated, atheists believe in moral relativism.
…meaning that they are accepting of other people’s values and agree that there is no one “right” way of doing some things. However, this actually has little to do with the philosophical idea of relativism; relativism does not necessarily imply tolerance, just as moral objectivism does not imply intolerance.
This one I REALLY get tired of. Rather than make this post any longer than it’s already going to be I will respond with this: You can survey different Christian denominations on topics ranging from women having authority in the church, stem cell research, abortion, “just” war, assisted suicide, drinking on Sunday, the death penalty, slavery, telling a lie to save a life, etc., and you will find a wide range of views that disagree on what is the “right” way. In fact, many of these beliefs have radically changed in 2,000 years of Christian history. Keeping with the pop culture definition of relativism I can throw that one right back at the religionists and say that Christians believe anything. (and I’m picking on Christians here because my society is predominately Christian)
So can’t we just leave that one be and move on already?
So what are ethics? Generally they are rules of behaviors that are motivated by certain end goals. These behaviors are such things as helping each other, obeying laws, and so on. For the religious person often the end goal is “obeying God”, “going to heaven”, etc. For the atheist (or non-believer, agnostic, etc., etc.) we may do these things to contribute positively to our society, to help people because it feels good, and so forth.
I guess generally speaking the religious person has a supernatural motivation for their behaviors while non-believers do not. (Yes, there are always exceptions)
The simple fact of the matter is that humanity is a social animal that lives in groups. Biologically speaking, this means that we tend to do things that promote our group’s survival. So, for thousands of years different societies have created different laws to live by. Here’s one example from the Near East in order from oldest to newest:
The code of Ur-Nammu, of the Ur-III dynasty (21oo BC)
The code of Hammurabi (approx. 1700 BC)
The law of Moses (1400 BC)
The Hittite code of law (1300 BC)
Each of those societies thought that their laws were inspired by their particular and differing god or gods (i.e. that means their religions do not agree on core principles including which god is the “right” god).
Yet one other explanation here is a modern scientific one: Inclusive fitness.
For example, members of many species [comment mine: not just humans!] will take care of youngsters, even if the youngsters are not their own. This may be because the evolved mechanism is not sensitive enough to make fine discriminations, opening the altruist up to exploitation. People who take care of pets, for example, are having their caretaking mechanism exploited (Maynard Smith, 1995).
In English: We may be hard wired to ensure our species survival. So some people believe that the creation of laws are one way that societies go about ensuring their overall survival.
In The Elements of Moral Philosophy Rachels writes:
“It is obvious… that we could not live together very well if we did not accept rules prohibiting murder, assault, theft, lying, breaking promises, and the like. These rules are justified simply by showing that they are necessary if we are to cooperate for our mutual benefit.” (p. 129)
In other words, if you want to maintain beneficial relations with your fellow humans, don’t kill, steal, or lie. Doing so generally ensures your survival and contributes to your society’s survival.
One thing I learned from my undergraduate degree is criminal justice and from having worked in two prisons is this: The majority of U.S. prisoners claim Protestantism or Catholicism as their religion. In fact the incarceration rates of the religious vs. the non-religious pretty much mirrors the society that these people come from. In America you have more Christians jailed, in Saudi Arabia more Muslims, and so on.
A person’s philosophical position about the existence of God is distinct from that person’s ethical behavior. A person’s position on this single point is not a predictor of ethical or criminal behavior, any more than a person’s preference for country vs. rock music. Atheism does not necessarily equate to criminal or unethical behavior, just as a professed belief in God does not necessarily preclude criminal or unethical behavior.
I’m going to try and end this on a positive note that’s related to the martial arts. To do that I’ll quote Jet Li who, besides being a very talented martial artist, is also a devout Buddhist. Here’s his view on religions in general.
Hence, it is important to remember that religion, per se, is a good thing. When one practices a religion, one should be aware of what it is ultimately about and not be misled into blind practice of its specific tenets. I always believe it is important to develop such an awareness. Rote memorization and recitation of a religion’s principles and ideas, and perfunctory performance of its rituals mean little if one doesn’t live it. Only through a lifestyle of generosity, kindness, and love, and a positive contribution to humankind can one consider oneself a true practitioner of any religion.
If only the radical atheists and religionists could learn this lesson.