Category Archives: writing

The source of human morality: an email to my father.

Paul Wilson 23 December at 20:38
In your blog about the WBC protest you wrote;
“I personally don’t need a master to tell me what is right and wrong, and I think when people let go of their fear and look inside, they will realize that none of them need servility either. We can make the world better, but we aren’t going to get any help from an outside source, it’s up to us as human beings to fix it ourselves.”  Question: If you have no standard for your morality, then how do you define what is right and what is wrong?
What follows is my answer to my father, unedited. I had planned on looking into this further to form the best possible response to this question, but seeing as my blog is more a tool for me to articulate my thoughts in an orderly fashion, mostly for my own benefit, rather than an ultimate argument for my ideas, I think it is appropriate to address some of these issues as they present themselves. So here, only minutes after I sent the message, is my response at this time on the issue of human morality. All forms of support and criticism are welcomed and encouraged. Your scrutiny makes my view better when I accept it.

It’s interesting that you would ask me this particular question. It’s one that I’ve run into many times, especially lately. Actually I’m preparing to address it shortly as part of my next blog which is going to be a response to a catholic man with some rather extremist views on atheism. It was a question I had when I was first fully realizing my atheism, and I think it is a legitimate question, although it is somewhat insulting to atheists when you examine it.


The answers that I found when I looked into it are what pushed me to choose secular humanism as a moral platform for my life. You could say that in atheism (although certainly not with all atheists, because atheism is much like the left-wing in that it is more of a loose commonality of ideas held by widely different people, skepticism and the scientific method are the most widely accepted ideas comparable to your theology, and secular humanism is the most widely accepted idea comparable to your biblical morality.

In order to answer your question I first have to critique it. You ask how I define what is right and wrong if I have no standard for morality. This is what can be frustrating for atheists. The connection between religion and morality has been enforced, by the religious, for so long that they are culturally synonymous. But I believe that religion has very little positive impact on morality, and that morality is demonstrably a separate entity from religion. And the idea that people who don’t believe in a god are incapable of understanding morality is an understandable but annoying constant slap in the face for us heathens. When religion states that it is not only morally superior, but has a total monopoly on morality, I kind of roll my eyes and try not to be the arrogant atheist dick that constantly spouts off endless examples of immoral behavior being rewarded by or commanded by god in the bible. So it’s an easy question to answer, but it’s a difficult question to answer without coming off like a jerk, because in order to answer it I have to eventually point out why I believe that all religions are fundamentally unhealthy for not just human progress, but human wellbeing.

I think morality stems from two different things. First off it is a function of survival useful for most life and has been widely propagated among the species on earth through evolution. Second, it is one aspect of our higher cognitive function that gives us an advantage over less intelligent forms of life, and at the same time gives us a greater degree of responsibility for how we conduct ourselves given the ability to understand complicated and intangible concepts that affect the quality of life of our own species, as well as that of all other species on earth.

My first point is that morality is a survival tactic we received from evolution. We have the ability to empathize with other memberz of mankind, and their survival becomes a part of our survival. The most basic example of this in nature would be the tendency for almost all life to either sacrifice its own safety or its own food source for its offspring. Animals especially (as opposed to plants, fungus, or microscopic life) tend to be aggressively defensive of their young, putting themselves in much more dangerous situation than they would normally when a threat is imminent for their children. I think this is the root for our connection, and our behavior. At some deep subconscious level we instinctively understand that our survival is linked to every other member of our species. Humans are the most socially linked species on the planet, as far as I know, and so our social survival instinct would rationally be stronger than in other creatures. This survival link can be show even better when you examine other social or hive type creatures. Most species of cats and dogs work together in groups, and the group will work together for food and safety, and give up a portion of their own supplies to help feed other members of the group, say the sick and injured, or the young who can’t hunt for themselves. Hive creatures like ants or bees split the work up, so each member has its own purpose, but they all collectively reap the benefits. And so their own survival depends on the survival of their hive members, causing them to toil for the greater good and to sacrifice to protect the greater good.

And so for the most basic and fundamental aspects of morality, religion is totally unnecessary, since the ideas of not killing, stealing, or inflicting harm on members of one’s own social group, to the point of self-sacrifice for the well-being of others, are demonstrated by creatures far inferior to us. These attributes help us survive off of each other in a sort of symbiotic relationship, and are so simple and obvious to us that they don’t really need to be carved on stone tablets to be understood by all societies.

My second point was that we humans have a unique mental ability. We are by far the smartest creature in existence, at least as far as we know, and I would have to imagine that any other creature as smart as us would be capable of figuring out a way to communicate their intelligence. Anyway, that’s an irrelevant tangent, or at least a totally different debate about the possibility of higher beings. Our higher brain function allows us to grasp intangible concepts in a way that we don’t believe other life here can do. This is what gives us morally grey areas and allows us the ability to deal with them; the issues that can both harm and help life, such as how to define human rights, or how much speech should be allowed for whom, and what aspects of society should be mandated for the benefit of all, and which should be left to the individual.

This is where my idea (and I use the term “my” loosely, since most of the ideas I’m presenting here aren’t really my own, and the few that are have undoubtedly been argued better by someone else already) that religion is actually a hindrance to morality comes into play. If you assert that morality comes from your god and not from mankind and the laws that govern nature, then you will have a hard time excusing the teachings of the bible. And this is actually an issue that has bugged me from an early age, long, long before I rebelled and then eventually dismissed the idea of believing in a god. The bible has in it, especially in the old testament, but there are plenty of good examples of evil in the new as well, a plethora of commands to do things that we today consider extremely reprehensible. Abraham was made the father of all believers for his willingness to murder his own child when he heard a voice commanding him to. No normal Christian today would defend a parent who murdered their child and said God told them to do it. It’s right there in the ten commandments, thou shalt not murder. And yet Abraham inspired three completely different religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Not only did god reward Abraham for his willingness to murder his son, he also endorses and supports outright genocide and imperialistic warfare as a norm, in multiple situations. Believers in other faiths are routinely wiped off the face of the planet, and even for followers of gods teachings, fairly normal “wrongs” are responded to with outright bigotry and violence. For instance, a woman who was raped is commanded to either be stoned to death or to marry her rapist, as long as she was raped outside the city, if she were raped inside the city then she just has to die. The term sodomy even comes from the story of God wiping out an entire city of homosexuals, who he calls an abomination, a term poorly translated that breeds bigotry, but one supported by a story of merciless hatred. (I really don’t feel like looking up these verses, but I assure you they are in there, as I predict you will already know, and if you don’t think so I will gladly take the time to look up verses to prove my point)

And so I contend that most of what we consider to be moral, at least the moral parts I agree with, have stemmed from a secular viewpoint rather than a religious one. One common argument made by believers is that many aspects of moral improvement have been championed by religious people, and inspired by religious text. I do not argue that religious people have been instrumental in the positive changes we have made in society, especially in the last couple of hundred years, or that your bible may have inspired them to be better people. There are many passages in the bible that agree with secular humanism. Do unto others … Let him without sin cast the first stone … judgement is mine sayeth the lord; they all rehash the golden rule. Actually the first one is the golden rule now that I think about it, and I am not sure if that is in the bible or not. But it’s also the basis for all morality, which I already argued, and for example the first rule of Wiccan is, “Do what you will, so long as it harms no one.” My issue is that the rest of the bible isn’t so humanist. A famous example of morality being forwarded by a religious icon would be the civil rights movement and MLK Jr. Sure his faith was part of his passive campaign for equality, but the bible not only condones slavery, but sets out elaborate rules for how it should be done. Nowadays I doubt you can find many Christians who would admit slavery is a good idea, worthy of public support, but it’s still right there in your holy text. Likewise, few Christians would openly support a war with another religion without an excuse for it besides the opposing side being of a different faith. But again, plenty of examples of your god waging such jihads. And I don’t think I need to point out the obvious paradox of chauvinism versus female empowerment in your bible, since you and Mom have had, to my knowledge, some butting of heads with your church leaders in the past over what is and is not allowed for women by your bible.

So if we look at these things like civil rights, women’s equality, and the push for equal treatment of everyone, and you can point out examples of religious people, and the church in general, adjusting your morality to contradict your own divine scripture, then where have these ideas of right and wrong come from? I think that they are not natural to us. The simple forms of morality key to survival are natural to us, and this is what you have titled a conscience. But the grey areas of morality that we have worked out as a species are inarguably important, and the solutions to these problems, although sometimes accepted by the religious community, fly in the face of religious literature and teachings. So the question then becomes, where do we get and how do we define our system of morality. My answer, which is secular humanism, is that we should use our most successful techniques, those being skepticism, rational thought and reason, and the scientific method to constantly test our morality and determine where morality is working for our species and where it is hindering our progress. As we have seen with all areas of life with which we have applied the scientific process, I think morality will be best determined for our species when we put our greatest attribute in charge, that being our ability to think and use reason.

Unfortunately for your side of the argument, religion by its nature denies both reason and the scientific process. Any religion requires its believers to use faith in their lives, and faith by its very nature is the suspension of rational thought to accept an extraordinary claim without conclusive evidence, and often without using any logic at all. And when religion accepts faith, and claims that it’s scripture is the inspired word of god, it denies any application of the scientific method. Once you claim god said something, you aren’t allowed to challenge it until secular society comes along and forces you to adapt, and adaptation is the one evolutionary factor that is even stronger than our intelligence. By contrast, any theory or point of view on morality put forth by a secular humanist is open for rebuttal and debate by every other person on earth, and through this process of intellectual self inspection as a species, we can choose the strongest and most beneficial ideas for our future. I think any idea worth following should withstand scrutiny by the smartest minds available, and religion neither teaches this concept, nor demonstrates it, as evident by the extreme majority of scientists who are atheist.

One quote I hear a lot from the believers is that “atheists don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.” This is exactly why we are offended and annoyed. The entire premise that we are incapable of, or have never considered morality is ridiculous. Most atheists find the ideas of religion and morality almost all-encompassingly important, and have spent years or possibly all their life learning and thinking about it. Study after study shows that atheists are on average, more educated on matters of religion and philosophy than are the people who profess to believe in ancient scrolls. So it’s a valid question to ask where we nonbelievers get our morality, but in asking it you shine a light on the overwhelming cultural bias towards freethinkers and skeptics and atheists, and at the same time highlight your own ignorance of alternative beliefs while requiring us to have a deep knowledge of your beliefs. I’m not offended by you asking me this Dad. It was one of the first questions I went after when I realized there was no god, and so I can empathize with never having considered any other option. In fact I am glad that I get to answer it for you instead of some other atheist who may be less friendly with their world views. I hope this gives you some food for thought as far as moral alternatives, and if you have any questions for me, and I hope you do, hit me up. Remember, no idea worth following should be above scrutiny, even mine and especially mine.

Later gator,
Josh.


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The Cure

Writers note: This is a short story I wrote that started out as a zombie horror story, and ended up as more of a religious family feud. Once again everything I try to write ends up writing itself. I try to explore the seemingly endless clash between Christianity and science, an argument which has certainly taken place in my own home more than once. And I try to show how both sides can be wrong at the same time, and how mindlessly devoting yourself to something without considering the bigger picture almost always leads to corruption and evil. I guess you could say it is a metaphor for my own search for spirituality and an understanding of the world around me. (except I haven’t died … yet)

This is my first attempt at any kind of fiction writing, at least for many, many years, and certainly the first attempt I’ve ever made on this blog. So don’t expect too much out of it, and of course feel free to offer any advice or criticism you have about the story. But most of all don’t take it seriously, it’s just a story I wrote so I could get the damn thing out of my head and maybe stop thinking about it and get some sleep.

The sun’s fading golden light was filtering gently in the window as I stuck yet another needle into Benjamin’s arm. He didn’t even wince any more, so used to the jabs of pain he’d endured for the last five years. I put this blood sample in with the rest to be taken back to my lab and lit a cigarette.

“You know those things are going to kill you one day Pete. For heaven’s sake, what kind of doctor smokes anyway?” he said.

“Everyone needs a vice Ben,” I said, “even you. Besides I research cures, I don’t treat hypochondriac housewives and sick children who need FDA approved air. I smoke to calm down, and you believe in fairy tales to feel better about being sick.”

Benjamin raised an eyebrow, shooting me a look I had seen a thousand times before. “The Lord has a place for everyone in His kingdom brother, if you would just be willing to look past your proven facts and scientific limitations. Surely you can look at the world around you and see endless miracles that cannot be explained by science. He has a plan for everyone, and in my case He has given me the peace of understanding, that I will live forever in His glory. Nobody lives in this world forever Peter, but I believe that my life is meant to serve as an example of the love and forgiveness He can offer to even the worst sinners, and the most hopeless in life.”

“You aren’t hopeless Ben, you’re just sick. I’ve been working on your cure for a long time now, but it hasn’t been long enough, I need more time, so don’t go resigning to a death by AIDS. And you and I both know that you never deserved the punishment they gave you. You’ve paid a thousand times over for your alleged “crimes”. You aren’t even close to the worst sinner, hell, you’ve never even been a little bad. You’re practically a god damned saint. Can’t you see that the drug laws in our country are remnants of the control your own religion still has on our unjust law system? You never needed forgiveness, you needed a just world, which your faith can never and will never give you. Your only hope is through science and it’s ability to cure sickness, so for Christ’s sake, give me a break with the holy roller bull shit. Let’s just focus on what you’re here for Ben, how have you been feeling?”

“Despite my ongoing worry about your salvation Pete, I’ve been doing just fine. I keep telling you, the Lord will save me if it fits into his plan. But for now, he’s giving me the grace I need to get through this. I only feel the slightest bit sick from time to time, and even you tell me I have years left to live. Now let’s quit arguing and go get some pizza, unless you hate that too. I haven’t really seen you much since you got out of college. If I hadn’t grown up in the same room as you I wouldn’t even believe we’re brothers some times. Let’s catch up on everything, tell me about that DNA thing you were working on last time I saw you.”

We kept on talking as I cleaned up the office. Sometimes I felt bad for how our relationship had turned since his contraction of the virus. It seemed like a huge rift had grown between us, and I missed the close bond we had shared growing up as much as he did, even if I was less prone to admit it. All I wanted in life was to find a way, a real way to save him from his certain death. But no matter how hard I tried, or how much I focused on my goal, he seemed to be steadily letting go of his will to live. His insistence on believing in these foolish fantasies of God and an afterlife excused him in his mind from needing to hold on. And as much as I loved him and wanted him to be happy no matter what, I couldn’t help but feel a stab of anger and resentment that he would so willingly give up on my chance at saving him. That he would choose his invisible friend over his brother, me, who had dedicated my life to curing him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Two years had passed since the last time I had seen Benjamin. His fellow believers had convinced him he should put his trust in “the lord” and that placating me and my godless tampering with the holy plan was not only a sign of weak faith, but a defiance of his god. And in that time his fellow believers had become his followers. His faith had become his obsession. I had kept up with him though, tracking his moves in my spare time, and making do without his blood samples. I had to bend a few laws perhaps, but it would all be worth it for me, for everyone. I knew. I knew I could do this. This master plan. This ultimate breakthrough in medicine. I never wanted the accolades, or the money. I never wanted anything but to save him, that ungrateful, deluded brother of mine.

The time had flown past as I assume it does for all those who completely immerse themselves in their studies. Society had ceased to have a hold on me. What did I need them for anyway, those idiots. They were the ones who allowed all this to happen. They were the ones who put these ideas in his head, and tried at every turn to stop my work. My perfect work. If only they knew, but they couldn’t. I never let them in anymore.

Lindsay had been the last. She was a nice enough girl, but too foolish for my tastes. Too preoccupied with the unimportant things in the world. The fashion. The trends. All she seemed to want was to talk, to interact with no goal in her life. She had tried just like the rest to take me away from my studies. But it wasn’t her fault, she could never understand what I was accomplishing here. She could never fully grasp the full scale of what I was doing. So I had to make her leave. Too bad for her she was just like the others, she was a nice enough girl. She could never understand. I was so close, so close to doing what nobody thought was possible. Now it was just my work and me.

I could do it though, if I worked hard enough. Who needed a god when you could cure death itself. Who needed to cure one disease when you could cure them all. No, Lindsay was wrong about me. I have never lost sight of the good things in life. In fact, I’m the only one left who still sees what good can be done. Ben has his obsession and I have mine.

I am so close. So close. And that’s why I came here today. To this church Ben built. I kept up with him, I know what he’s been doing. He’s been busy too, but unfortunately he’s been busy trying to kill himself.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Hello Peter, I have missed you dearly. The Lord has put you on my heart these last few weeks, please come sit with me. Would you like to see our Temple?”

“No Ben, I would not like to see your temple, which by the way is clearly unhealthy for you. Much like the things I’ve been hearing from your doctor. You know you should be taking your pills. You know I had your doctor prescribe them so you could stay stable Ben. Your PTSD needs to be addressed, not to mention the fact that without those pills you don’t take the ones keeping you alive. You need this medicine! You have to see you aren’t thinking clearly anymore!”

“I’m sorry Pete, but it’s been a long time since I stopped listening to the doctors. And I say this with love, but you are the one who is not thinking clearly. The Lord has blessed me many times over, my cup runneth over Peter, but you dear brother have lost the way. My Children tell me that you hardly leave your lab. They tell me that you are unstable. I know you’ve been watching me, because I have been watching you too. I love you Peter, but your obsession with this disease is driving you mad. You need social interaction. You need the never ending love and understanding of our Lord. You need to let go of your fear for this mortal life and give yourself to the salvation of your eternal soul. Why can’t you see this? Can’t you see the love and brotherhood that I have built here with the Children of the Lord?”

“What I see is a bunch of whacked out psychos Ben. You talk about social interaction, but you’ve isolated yourself with these religious fanatics! How exactly did you persuade all these people to follow you anyway? These beliefs in the unprovable are getting ridiculous, even dangerous. It was bad enough when you just believed that some invisible Rabi was going to save you when you died, but now … Look at what your’ doing! Your so called “children” picket through town protesting every other belief. You terrorize people with your barrage of hate and bigotry. Look Ben, I can understand why you would hate homosexuals. I can only imagine what you went through … back then. But I don’t think …”

“YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND ANYTHING!” He screamed. His jaw clenched so hard I could see the pulse in his neck. Then slowly he looked around at his followers, seeing their reaction, and calmed himself down. “You could never understand what I went through, and you may never understand what it is like to find the forgiveness and salvation of our Lord. I love you Peter, but you’ve given your life to godlessness and evil. You spit in the face of the Almighty with you defiance of his plan for mankind. You not only defend the sinners who are clearly an abomination to the Lord, but you go so far as to set yourself up as a false God yourself. You can not understand what you have done, but we know all about it. Your unholy experiments, sacrificing animals and human organs to your God of science. You will see us again Peter, and you will have to come to judgment in front of the holy Lord for the sins you have committed in the name of science.”

I felt my pulse quicken as the anger built up inside of me. The tick. The damn tick I had tried so hard to get rid of was nipping again on the edge of my eye. This idiot, this damn fool couldn’t see the truth. I exploded, “There is no god! Everything you believe is lies Ben! Your so called god has done nothing for you but deceive you and turn you against your fellow man. He’s condemned you to death and offered no hope of healing. So fuck your god, and fuck your cult! I’m bigger than any god you’ve ever believed in. I’m creating life from death, I’m mastering the very principals of consciousness as you understand them. I can give you eternal life Ben! And only I can do it it. That’s why I came here to see you again.” I was breathing heavily, angry and passionate, trying to get through to him. “Give me two more weeks Ben, and I can save your life. I only have a few more problems to fix and I can save you forever, save everyone! Just two more weeks, and then I’ll show them all. They will all have to understand.”

But I saw then in Benjamin’s eyes that he had no interest in my cure. His eyes saw through me in his religious fog of faith and misconceptions. He seemed to stare at the wall behind me, pausing for a long moment before at last he spoke so quietly it was almost a whisper. “Judgment day is soon brother. Sooner than you think.” And he turned his back to me and walked slowly out of the room.

As he went I saw for the first time how feeble he looked. His body had become frail and he appeared to be no more than a skeleton, a walking corpse. How had I not seen it before. Ben was dieing. My brother was succumbing to his sickness, and I may have taken too long to save him. Ashamed and angry I watched him exit, holding back my sudden tears. I hardly noticed the men escorting me out of his church, my mind far away, already thinking of what I could do to speed up the research for the cure. I had no time to lose if I was going to defeat death and save Ben.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I was asleep at my computer when they broke into the lab. Twelve men wearing all black, unarmed, but too many to fight off. Before I had time to try and defend myself they had me cuffed to my chair, and pushed against a wall.

I felt the pain first in my face, and second in my body. The cuts stung as the cold water splashed me. I could tell I had been beaten, and as more water splashed me I heard Ben’s voice yelling at them to wake me up. The darkness turned to dim light, cleared slightly as I began to see what they were doing around me. It all happened so fast, too fast for me to process. They had my serum out, and had filled a number of syringes when I tried to tell them. I tried to explain that it wasn’t ready. It’s all so confusing now, getting hard to remember.

He kept saying something about judgment. His lord required judgment on the sinners who defied him. I was a sinner, all sinners. A land of heathens, deserving only of god’s wrath. But I tried to explain it to him. There was no eternal life serum. No cure yet. I hadn’t finished. He didn’t care.

I had worked out almost everything. I had made a marvel of science, a virus that altered human DNA. I made everything work better, every organ last longer, every muscle stronger, every reaction faster. I would have cured his AIDS, making the immune system hundreds, possibly thousands of time more resistant to disease. But I hadn’t finished. I made every instinct stronger. Every base instinct to hunt, to defend, to kill. I made the brain fire faster, so fast that it destroyed higher cognitive thought, burnt it out leaving only an animal mind behind. An animal mind in a body that healed instantly, that was faster and stronger than any normal human on earth. A predator that felt no pain or cold or heat, only hunger and rage. I hadn’t finished.

I tried to tell them it would kill them all, that it was contagious, but they didn’t care. Benjamin didn’t care. He wanted judgment. He got it.

None of them would listen. They all injected themselves. And soon, just as I had said, they attacked and infected me. their teeth ripping chunks from my bleeding body as I strained to fight back, strained to survive. They were screaming so loud. Maybe I was screaming. I remember choking on blood, biting back at the thrashing bodies around me, feeling a new strength coursing through my injured body. An impossible strength. At least that’s how I think it went.

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It seemed like a lifetime had passed since I had a human thought. On second thought, maybe it was only a moment. The screams and growls were coming through in the distance, although the blows and movement still seemed very close, probably all around what was left of my body. I could feel the darkness closing in on my mind, numbing my body, erasing my feeling, my soul. I felt death taking me, even as my body revived itself. I could feel some dark fire kindling in the corners of my mind, unleashing itself. After a lifetime of arguing with benjamin I wondered which of our truths would await me on the other side of death. I could be right and there’s nothing. Or even worse, he could be right, and his god could be pissed. Although, something tells me God would get a sick laugh out of the irony in my final moments. Benjamin had worshiped a creator, and then twisted his creator into a perverse mockery of itself. Had turned it into a force for hate and suffering in the world. In the end I had become a divine creator myself, birthing a creature both terrible and perfect, subhuman and superhuman. And now it was destroying me and turning me into a force of suffering and evil. Both of us had been wrong. I wondered if there had even been a right path to choose in the first place. But it doesn’t matter now. None of it matters. The only thing that matters now is my hunger. The unending hunger.