Sunday, August 31, 2014


"But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
--Thomas Jefferson 

"Our Bible reveals to us the character of our God with minute and remorseless exactness.... It is perhaps the most damnatory biography that exists in print anywhere."
--Mark Twain

"You believe in a book which has talking animals, wizards, witches, demons, sticks turning into snakes, food falling from the sky, people walking on water, and all sorts of magical, absurd, and primitive stories; and you say thatam the one who is mentally ill?"
--Dan Barker (Author Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists)

At work the other day I helped supervise a cottage of patients during a group therapy activity. Not my usual task of late, but not a big deal. I was paired with another staff who is about as antithetical to myself as possible, although, I'm not sure she realizes this. She is a college student attending BYU. She was home schooled in what seems to be a more conservative Mormon home than I, which is saying quite a bit. She often assumes that everyone she works with shares her religion, values and understanding of the world, as is evident by her occasionally asking me (of all people) about Mormon current events and policies (about which I am always happy to provide information).

She is as overtly nice to people she meets as she is surprised and uncomfortable when she learns that someone is more liberal or progressive than herself (which is not at all). At work, she does best in situations which are very black and white, for nuance and situational-judgment can be buggars to sort out in real time.

For such a person, "good enough" is a meaningless term. Either a thing is good, or it is not. When she gives a patient a directive, she expects exactness and complete compliance. So when she returned to the cottage just before the group started and noticed that the patients were a tad loud, she saw it as blatant and intentional rebellion. But rather than shout the directive again or issue swift consequences for the infraction, as she is often want to do, she coolly approached me and said, "So, this is quiet free time, huh?" To which I replied, "-ish."

With less than 5 minutes before the start time, and everyone behaving relatively well, I wasn't going to pick that battle unless the room raised a few more decibels. Besides, I had bigger fish to fry in that moment, but I will spare you the details.

Last year the lead singer of a "Christian metal" group (say what?) called As I Lay DyingTim Lambesis, was arrested for hiring a hit-man to kill his wife. Unbeknownst at the time to Mr Poopforbrains, the man he had hired to do this dirty deed (for the dirt cheap price of $1000) was an undercover cop. It seems that he blames, at least in part, his sudden douche-baggery to losing his faith in Christianity:

"Lambesis stated that "I grew up in a Christian home and held that belief myself for many years. In the process of sincerely trying to defend that belief in a scholarly way and shortly after finishing my degree, I felt that it was unreasonable to call myself a Christian in light of the evidence..." On June 2014, Lambesis came out as an atheist, claiming that he, along with other members of the band, just kept pretending to be Christian just to sell records.... He even recalls feeling awkward when asked for their testimonies and when fans ask to pray with them. According to Lambesis, his renunciation of Christianity made it easier to have an affair." [emphasis mine]

It is often argued by Christian evangelists that morality comes from god, and that one cannot have morals without god. But what happens to a person raised to believe that god is the arbiter of morality when that person comes to the realization that this god does not actually exist? For this person their sense of morality may shatter.

A person may do the "right thing" for good reasons or for bad reasons. Taking a more obvious moral example, murder, one may refrain from killing another person because of laws, or to avoid the consequence of jail time or a death sentence. 

Arguably, a more noble reason would be for the sake of empathy. This may out of reach for more hot-headed people. But what about the perpetuation of a social meme where a society which generally does not kill one another is preferable to one where murder is accepted or encouraged? This reason may have psychological roots as well, as many people who kill others--even out of self-defense or in a time of war--often go through PTSD and anxiety from the experience. In short, we have evolved as a social species which benefits from not killing each other. 

Ok, ok. Murder is an easy example to make my point. But what about more nuanced quandaries? What about issues like gay marriage, abortion, swearing and picking your friend's nose? If you object to these things solely because god says they are bad, in what way are you a moral agent? If pressed to provide a reason for inhibiting other people not of your faith or world-view from doing these things all you have to say is "god says so", do you really have a reason to interfere with their lives? Could some one of another religion do the same to you? Should Muslims be able to refuse to sell you pork during Ramadan? Should a conservative Christian working at a grocery store be able to refuse to sell condoms to patrons? Should a city clerk be able to deny processing marriage certificates to gay couples in the few states which currently allow them to marry?

And what about defending the reprehensible acts commanded by god in the Bible? Is merely saying "god says so" a sufficient reason for slavery, genocide, infanticide, stoning unruly children, stoning unbelievers, burning witches and soothsayers and calling for rapists to marry their victims? Is it enough to say that donkeys and snakes can talk? Or that the earth is only 6,000 years old?

Some people who leave religion struggle with maintaining their morals. Often this is a result of Nihilistic leanings, which is pushed by many religious people as the de facto moral position of atheists. To this day, I can recall lessons from respected and highly educated members of the Mormon church on Nihilism being the inevitable conclusion of a world-view without god ("Nothing is eternal, therefore, nothing matters." To which I readily reply, "A cheese burger may not be eternal, but when I am hungry it certainly matters to me."). To me, it is not at all surprising when people who grow up hearing these ideas later emulate them when they leave religion in the proverbial gutter. 

I would argue, however, that religion does not teach people how to make moral judgments on their own, thereby crippling their ability to do so when the crutch of religion (i.e. following orders) is removed. Sam Harris often compares moral assessments as analogous to good health practices. How do we determine objectively that one moral outcome is preferable to another proposition? Compare the outcome to alternatives. 

On the subject of health, one can clearly demonstrate that drinking drain cleaner is worse for one's health than drinking, say, chocolate milk (Unless you're one of those lactose intolerant weirdos. Seriously, why the intolerance. What did milk do to you?). Likewise, we can compare moral systems by their effect on society. As with the murder example before, one can easily see the benefits on society of prohibiting murder versus the alternative.  

I agree with Christopher Hitchens that, although not always applicable (silly masochists), the golden rule is a pretty good rule of thumb. The concept that one should not interfere with the affairs of others unless they cause you harm generally breeds a society of cohesiveness and solidarity. 


An article from The Friendly Atheist on Mr Lambesis.

The Atheist Experience on Biblical vs Secular morality:

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