Archives June 2011

Who Needs Morals, Anyway?

The most-often-asked question when debating morality with theists is, “but where do you get your morals?” Of course, if the theist says “I get my morality from the Vedas/Quran/Bible/Dianetics”, that doesn’t help, since it just raises the question that Matt Dillahunty posed at his debate at UMBC: let’s say some being comes along and says, “I am a god. Here’s a book with my moral system”, then so what? How do we decide whether the system in the book is any good?

I thought I’d step back for a moment and ask, what if there were no morals?

Maybe there are no rules, or no one to give them. Maybe there are rules, but nobody knows them. Maybe the rules are known, but they’re ignored, and there is no mechanism for enforcing them, not even a twinge of guilt. What then?

I don’t think anyone has any trouble imagining this sort of world: theft and lying are rampant, people will kill each over a can of beans and not feel remorse. In fact, there wouldn’t be any cans of beans, because the industry required to produce them couldn’t exist without some kind of stable society and the ability to form long-term associations. A world where you’re constantly looking over your shoulder, lest your own child stab you in the back.

Okay, so this vision may not be accurate. Maybe some combination of game theory and psychology can show that there might be amoral societies where life doesn’t suck as much as what I described.

But I think it’s safe to say that the vision of a world without morals that I described above, or the one that you imagined, represents our fear of what would happen without some sense of morality.

If you’re with me so far, then presumably you’ll agree that then morality is a way of avoiding certain Bad Things: living in fear, being killed or seeing your loved ones killed, and so on; and also of being able to get some Good Things: establishing trust, assuring some level of stability from day to day, and so forth.

We may not agree on anything. You might want to security cameras on every street corner, to make the risk of being robbed as small as possible, and I might feel that the feeling of not being watched all the time is worth the occasional mugging. But if we can agree in broad outline that certain outcomes (like being killed) are bad, others (like knowing where our next meal is coming from) are good, then morality reduces to an engineering problem.

That is, it’s simply(!) a matter of figuring out what kind of world we want to live in, what rules will allow us to get along, and how to get there.

Obviously, this is a thorny problem. But nobody said this was going to be easy. Well, nobody who wasn’t trying to sell you something. As is the case with every engineering project ever, not only are there conflicting requirements, but they change over time. Everyone wants to put their two cents in, and everyone thinks their personal pet cause is the most important one of all. Finding a solution requires political and diplomatic negotiation, and convincing people to give up something in order to strike a deal. It’s enough to make your head spin.

But this strikes me as a huge problem, not an intractable one. We can tract this sucker. We have enough history behind us, and enough data collection methods, that we can see what works and what doesn’t, which sorts of societies are worth living in and which aren’t, and try to figure out how to get where we want.

Saying “I get my morals from an old book” is a lazy cop-out. It’s the response of someone who doesn’t want to look at the problem, let alone try to solve some part of it. And if you’re not going to help, the least you can do is stay out of the way of those who are trying to fix things.

I Agree With Bill Donohue

On Friday, BillDo wrote

The Catholic League would like to go further: it’s time to shut down the faith-based program altogether.

and my head went asplodey.

Okay, so we have different reasons for thinking that the faith-based program set up by George W. Bush should be shut down. I think it’s because the government shouldn’t be involved in promoting religion — either promoting one religion over another, or favoring religion over non-religion, or vice-versa — whereas Bill… well, here’s what he has to say:

When Sen. Obama was running for president three years ago, he pledged support for faith-based programs provided they were emptied of any faith component: he opposed the right of faith-based programs to maintain their integrity by hiring only people of their faith.

In 2009, the Obama administration balked: it said it would decide on a case-by-case basis whether a funding request from a faith-based program was acceptable. In 2010, many members of this program pushed to pare back religious liberty provisions that were extant.

When faith is gutted from faith-based programs—when Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Jews can’t hire their own—we are left with a carcass. […] The goal, obviously, is to convert these religious entities into full-blown secular organizations. It would be better not to let them hijack these programs in the name of assisting them, thus it makes sense to shut them down.

In other words, not only does he want Catholic charitable organizations to get federal assistance, he also wants them to be able to discriminate in hiring. Because hey, what’s the point in running a soup kitchen if the actual soup is ladled by a Protestant or a Jew, right?

That’s the problem I have with religious charities: they’re easily abused to be a tool for proselytizing: offer someone a free meal, but only after they listen to a sermon, or a lecture on the virtues of $RELIGION. In other words, advertising, just like when a business hands out sun visors with its logo on them at the county fair, or when the guy who’s selling time-shares offers to take you out for lunch so he can convince you to buy what he’s selling.

Obviously, the government has an interest in promoting the good done by religious organizations, but too often it seems that the organizations themselves see the good not as a goal in itself, but as a means toward a different end, often proselytizing. Recall that last year, Catholic Charities ceased its operations when it was told that it had to either stop discriminating against gay couples or stop accepting government money.

But if they can’t bring themselves to do good because it’s good, screw them. We don’t need to pump government money into churches’ advertising budgets.

“Religious Liberty”

BillDo is upset over the upcoming vote on legalizing gay marriage in New York state:

The New York State legislature is one vote away from passing a gay marriage bill. What is holding it up is pressure from Catholics, Protestants, Jews and others: they want to insulate religious institutions from state encroachment. That they have to fight for their First Amendment rights shows how threatening gay-marriage legislation really is.

The threats to religious liberty are not hypothetical. …

Well, thanks for clarifying that opposition to marriage equality comes from religious quarters. This confirms what I and others have been saying for a while.

But wait, what’s this? Threats to first-amendment rights? And non-hypothetical ones? As a properly sensitive liberal guy, I’m certainly all for protecting everyone’s freedom, to the extent required by the first amendment and the Kumbaya Act of 1993. So do tell, Bill: what exactly are these real, non-hypothetical threats?

The threats to religious liberty are not hypothetical. A New Mexico photographer who refused to photograph a gay couple’s commitment ceremony was forced to pay the couple’s attorney’s fees; Christians in New Jersey who objected to allowing a gay union ceremony in their privately owned facility have had their tax-exempt status stripped; a psychologist from Georgia was fired after she declined to counsel a lesbian about her relationship. And so on.

In other words, there are real concerns that if gay marriage passes in New York, religious liberty will be jeopardized.

First of all, there’s nothing in there about marriage. All of the above can already happen; extending marriage rights to gay couples wouldn’t change anything.

For another, I fail to see words like “church”, “synagogue” or “mosque” in those examples, so it’s not clear which religious rights are being trampled.

But most importantly, what I see is three examples of people being bigots and getting slapped for it.

In other words, the “religious freedom” BillDo is crusading for is the right to hang a “no faggots” sign on the door of one’s business. Because hey, that’s what Jesus would want.

Here’s a hint, Billy-boy: if you’re beating someone over the head with a stick, and someone takes away your stick, your rights aren’t being trampled, and you don’t get to play the victim.

Atheist Language

It occurs to me that it doesn’t make sense for an atheist to say “sure as hell”. I mean, you wouldn’t say “I’m as sure that Mordor exists that I ain’t volunteering for this assignment” (note to self: try using the phrase “sure as Mordor” and see how it goes over).

From a purely factual standpoint, it’s much better to say “sure as shit”, since shit is known to exist. Unfortunately, the use of that phrase isn’t always appropriate. The best I’ve been able to come up with so far is “sure as Shinola“, but I’m sure you can do better. Discuss in the comments.

Fitna in Arkansas

Fitna is an Arabic word meaning something like “disorder” or “unrest”. It’s often used as a justification for women covering themselves up, by not tempting men into lustful thoughts and the depravity and civil unrest that are sure to follow.

Now, I’ve always found this argument rather insulting: it basically says that men are weak-willed, that the moment we see an exposed elbow, we’ll go into some testosterone-fueled frenzy, unable to think straight, stopping at nothing in our craving for sex.

In other contexts, this is not considered a virtue. If I walk past you with my new iPad 2 or whatever the hot toy du jour is, and you like it so much that you steal it from me, that makes you a thief who needs to learn some self-control.

Now, obviously it’s polite to refrain from drinking in front of an alcoholic, or smoking in front of someone who’s trying to quit, but as a rule, people should be expected to control their antisocial emotions (although there’s an interesting exception, that I keep hoping to write about).

So anyway, the reason I bring this up is because of the bus ads in Arkansas, which you’ve probably heard of by now: in brief, the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason wanted to put some billboards on buses, saying “Are you good without God? Millions are.” The Central Arkansas Transit Authority had a fit, but decided that it couldn’t legally stop them. So instead, they demanded that the CoR pay a $36,000 deposit to insure against vandalism. As a person at the company that handles advertising put it,

“in reality, Arkansas is the buckle of the Bible Belt and I can easily envision zealots or upstanding citizens with a strong faith acting out.”

In other words, fitna. The transit authority and its advertising agency are afraid that the good people of Arkansas, once they see an atheist ad, will fly into a fury of vandalism and won’t be able to help themselves from keying the bus or slashing its tires.

Arkansans, is that really how you want to be seen? Unable to control your temper or play nice with others? Because if so, you may want to get a nice, modest gingham burqa to cover up your wimminfolk. I’m sure there’s someone out there who’ll be happy to sell you one.

Update Fri Jun 17 12:50 2011: Fixed broken HTML. HT alert reader Fez.

Faith and Confidence

The other week, J. and I were talking about Harold Camping and his amusing predictions of imminent doom, and she said that while he is, of course, a loon, she admires his faith and how it allows him to persist in the face of adversity and ridicule. This isn’t the first time I’ve run across this sentiment, so I thought it might be worth addressing.

While it’s nice to be able to overcome obstacles, that’s only half the story. If I may use an extended (and therefore ultimately friable) analogy, as is my wont, confidence is like the engine in a car: the more powerful it is, the faster you’ll get where you’re going, and the fewer potholes will stop you.

But that’s no good unless you’re going someplace worth going. A powerful engine can get you to Fort Lauderdale for spring break, but it can also send you flying through the front window of a Wendy’s. That is to say, if you have full faith and confidence in a wrong idea, it can allow you to ignore obstacles like valid criticism and do something damnfoolish or worse (9/11 springs to mind).

To a great extent, confidence is a good thing. But this has to be tempered with reason. Sometimes, when people tell you you’re an idiot for pursuing your dream, it’s because they’re jealous or don’t realize the brilliance of your idea. But a lot of times, it’s because you’re an idiot. Remember that dotcom you worked for in the nineties, when you though that if you could just convince enough people to subscribe to your kielbasa-review site, that network effects would kick in and you’d make enough money to topple Wal-Mart? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. You were an idiot.

Now personally, I find that what helps my confidence is knowing what the hell I’m doing. Granted, not knowing what you’re doing can mean that you don’t know the conventional wisdom that says that what you’re doing is impossible, and can therefore surprise people when you do it and demonstrate that the conventional wisdom was wrong. But usually, the conventional wisdom is right.

But the better you know your subject, and the better your critical thinking skills, the better you’re able to judge the merits of the conventional wisdom. You’re in a better position to figure out whether your idea is feasible or just a pipe dream. To figure out whether the obstacles and arguments against you are real or just illusory.

And, of course, there’s a lot to be said for plain old getting pumped up about something. But I’m the wrong person to ask about that. You may want to take a look at how it’s done at churches, concerts, and so on.

Your Friday Morning Gah

Because I hate all of you and want you to suffer as much as I have, you get a double helping of Christian glurgey WTF.

The first part is The Monkey Song, perhaps the catchiest expression of anti-evolutionary ignorance and superstition that I’ve heard.

But stick around, because then they sing The Ecumenical Movement, an ode to tribalism and dogma. The core message is “those people (both non-Christians and non-right-kind-of-Christians) don’t believe the same things I do, so I’m not even going to talk to them.”

The 70s flavor of the recording provides a retro flavor, like bell bottoms on a Sunday-best pantsuit.

(HT J)