This article originally appeared on SkepticFreethought.com and is reposted here with permission.
Hello everyone! Dave Muscato here.
This is a difficult post for me to write. I’ve spent two days on this, actually. For most of my life, I’ve been natural inclined to be non-confrontational, and I think my friends and family would characterize me as a gentle person. It is not easy for me to say these things, but I feel like the time has come for me to take a stand.
I had lunch with a friend the other day and the subject of religion came up—I know, big surprise. My friend’s girlfriend had posed to him a question about the purpose of atheism activism:
“Why not live and let live?”
Aside from being intellectually wrong, what’s so bad about believing in a god? What’s the harm? Is it just academic?
Some background: His girlfriend is “not religious, but open-minded,” and teaches their 3 kids to be accepting of all different religions. He is an atheist and passionate about critical thinking and skepticism. He is concerned because he overheard one of their children praying before going to bed.
He asked me, “What can I tell her?”
Here’s my response:
Because they’re not letting us live and let live. Because, for no rational reason, gay people can’t get married in my state. Because they’re teaching the Genesis creation myth as fact in science classes. Because they’re teaching “abstinence-only” sex ed, which is demonstrably ineffective. Because, despite Roe v. Wade recently celebrating its 40th anniversary, we’re STILL fighting for abortion and birth-control access. Because priests are molesting children and nobody is getting in trouble for it. It’s been said before, but if an 80-member religious cult in Texas allowed some of their leaders to molest children, there would be a huge outcry. It would be front-page news. People would be up in arms! But when it’s the Catholic Church, we barely even notice. It’s gotten to the point where we’re not even surprised anymore—it’s barely even news anymore—when another molestation is uncovered. Like the saying goes, “The only difference between a cult and a religion is the number of followers.” Or worse, “One rape is a tragedy; a thousand is a statistic.”
I brought up Greta Christina’s wonderful book, “Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off The Godless,” and told him to read it, and to ask his girlfriend to read it. Nothing would make me happier than to live and let live. I dream of a world where humanity spends its time solving “real” problems, doing medical research, exploring space, fixing the climate, making art and music, studying philosophy. I would love for there to be no need for atheism activism. But I can’t do that, because I have a conscience.
He agreed with me on these points, but wanted to know about the problem with liberal churches. What’s the harm of religion so long as it supports gay marriage, comprehensive sex-ed, etc?
First off, it’s important to distinguish between believing in a deity, and believing in God. If we’re talking about a deistic creator, a god who allegedly sparked the Big Bang and hasn’t interfered since, I don’t really see any harm in this, other than that it’s unscientific and vastly improbable. I’d call this harmlessly irrational, on par with crossing your fingers for good luck. It’s magical thinking, which I think should be avoided, but it doesn’t really hurt anything.
But once we start talking about Yahweh, the Abrahamic god, the god of the Bible, we get into some sticky stuff. I’m not the first to say so but the reason moderate religion is bad, even dangerous, is that it opens the door for religious bigotry and worse. If a religious moderate believes the proposition that the Bible is the inspired word of God, who is he to fault a religious extremist for actually doing what it says to do?
If you use faith as your justification for moral decision-making, you cannot reasonably point at someone more committed than you doing the exact same thing and make the charge that they’re wrong. A religious moderate cannot call a religious extremist crazy without being hypocritical.
There is this idea among moderates that religious tolerance is an ideal condition. The whole “COEXIST” campaign is a prime example. There is this idea that all religions are somehow valid, despite contradicting one another. That no matter how much we disagree with someone, if it falls under the umbrella of religious tolerance, we should make every effort to find a way not to be offended.
To paraphrase Sam Harris, the idea that all human beings should be free to believe whatever they want—the foundation of “religious tolerance”—is something we need to reconsider. Now.
I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to mutilate a little girl’s genitals.
I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to hinder the promotion of condom use in AIDS-ridden regions, because they believe wasting semen is a “sin.”
I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to lie to children and tell them that they will see their dead relatives again, or give them nightmares about a made-up “Hell.”
I will not stand by and tolerate the absurd and unsubstantiated proposition that humans are somehow born bad or evil, that we need to be “saved.”
It is offensive to me that, in the year 2013, people still think intercessory prayer works. Every time I hear about some poor sick child who has died because her parents decided to pray instead of take her to a hospital, I am horribly offended. When religious moderates tell me—although they also believe in intercessory prayer—that they, too, are offended by this, I am appalled at the hypocrisy. We should know better by now than to believe in childish things like prayer.
I am so sick of this crap. There is a time and a place for being accommodating of differences of opinion. If you think tea is the best hot drink, and I think it’s coffee, fine. No one is harmed by this. Insofar as your beliefs don’t negatively affect others, I do not care if we agree or not. But, I contend, your right to believe whatever you want ends where my rights begin. Religious moderation is literally dangerous because it opens the gate wide for religious extremism. A moderate cannot point to a religious extremist and say, “You are wrong. You are dangerous. You must not be allowed to continue.” However, I can. To stand up to religious extremism, we must come from a place of rational thought, of freedom to criticize, of ethics that do not depend on revelation or arguments from authority.
I make no apology for asserting that secular humanism is the most reasonable, most ethical, and best way for us to live. It is more rational than superstitious faith. It is more productive and humane than any religion. It is the ethical choice. To quote Sam Harris, “There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.”
We must become more reasonable if we want to survive. Our planet is in trouble. There is no divine guarantee that the Earth will always be able to support us nor that we will always be here. There is no life after this. What matters is how we are remembered, and the contributions to society we make while we’re alive. I assert that there is nothing more important or more urgent than this: Atheists, I call upon you to stand up to absurdity. If you see something, say something. Start the conversation.
I know that it is difficult to make waves. I know that it can be intimidating, especially when you’re outnumbered. But the facts are on our side, and the stakes are high. We must not be afraid to call bullshit where we see it. We must not allow religions to dictate what is and is not moral. We must speak up in the face of wrongdoing. We must make ourselves known. It can be as simple as correcting someone for using the word “fag,” or mentioning that you are an atheist if the subject of religion comes up.
Ending the danger and oppression of religion will not be easy, but if we work toward it, we can make it happen.
Until next time,
Dave Muscato is the Kansas/Missouri-Area Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A non-traditional junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com
and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!
Welcome to the official MU SASHA daily blog!
First time here? Read this.
Today’s article is by SASHA member Alex Papulis.
I’d like to consider something in response to Dave’s June 14 post, where he explains that he will stop using the word “homophobia” and instead use “bigotry”.
Atheism does not entail any given political position, or any political position at all. There is nothing requiring an atheist to support either high or low taxes, strict or forgiving immigration policies, capital punishment or its abolition, or anything at all. One cannot be an atheist and support abolition of the death penalty because God says don’t murder, but one can be an atheist and support the abolition of the death penalty. According to moral nihilism, there are no positive moral facts about the world, and as moral nihilism follows from naturalistic atheism (see brief argument at end of post if you like), there is no imperative that the atheist support or oppose any particular policy.
Additionally, though, as all positive moral propositions are false, we should note that the atheist is inconsistent in claiming any political position to be wrong, bad, harmful, etc. Any such claim, that is held intolerantly in the face of opposition, is bigotry on the part of the atheist. For what reason could an atheist hold to a belief for which there is no evidence, in the face of opposition?
So, while an atheist certainly cannot consistently claim, for example, that homosexual behavior is bad or harmful, neither can he claim that anti-homosexual behavior is bad or harmful. Laws expanding the definition of marriage are not harmful, but neither are laws that restrict the definition of marriage. And it’s clear that anyone who says that such law is harmful, and is intolerant of those disagreeing, is behaving in a bigoted manner. There is no evidence for their belief, yet they obstinately hold on to it and disapprove of those who do not share their belief.
But surely, you may be thinking, there are political positions that are worse than others. Some taxes are better than none, highways are better than no highways, and firemen, policemen, ambulances, these are all good things, and policies can certainly be harmful in this regard. Surely we all agree on this. But we have to be careful. It may be the case that most of us like these things, and we don’t like things that lessen them, but that doesn’t get us what would be needed to avoid a charge of bigotry. After all, everyone can appeal to what they like, and the anti-homosexual doesn’t get off the hook because he likes restrictive marriage laws. No, in the end, stubbornly and intolerantly moralizing is bigotry.
So what’s left? For one, there are our desires. We prefer certain states of the world over others. We like what certain policies get us and dislike what others get us, even if none is better than another. And of course, atheism doesn’t entail anything about what preferences or desires one should have. It doesn’t require one be tolerant or accepting of differences, though one may like if atheists are these things.
The pro-gay, then, is fundamentally no different than the anti-gay. The bigots are those who intolerantly assert that one of the positions is good or bad. The two sides are simply two groups with different political desires, and they both try to impose those desires on the other via legislation. There is no place for moral indignation.
Moral nihilism: There are two problems with a realist view of morality for the naturalist atheist. First, moral entities (be they properties, relations, values) don’t seem to fit into the naturalist catalog. A quick way of thinking about it is by dissecting a behavior or act into its physical constituents and then considering where the moral properties might be. We can think about all the physical elements and effects of an action, yet when we try to find the “requirement” or “obligation” or “value”, we are unable. Second, even if moral entities did exist, it is unclear how we would be able to ascertain their existence or character. As moral entities don’t seem to fit into a naturalist understanding of the world, similarly it seems that our perception of them would be impossible without some faculty of perception capable of perceiving non-natural things.
After completing an economics degree at Washington University in St Louis, Alex Papulis just finished a year at Mizzou as a non-degree-seeking, non-transfer Degree-seeking Transfer student. He enjoyed it, and looks forward to starting a philosophy MA program in Milwaukee this fall.
and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!
Welcome to the official MU SASHA daily blog!
First time here? Read this.
Brother Jed posted a transcript of his opening statement from his Monday debate with Brandon Christen on his Facebook profile. In it, he repeated, nearly verbatim, an argument he made during his debate with me last April (see the 7-minute mark or so). We went over this last year quite thoroughly (I thought), and I’m disappointed to see he’s still trotting out the same, already-refuted argument. This appears to be, it seem sto me, a textbook example of intellectual dishonesty on his part.
Here’s the relevant bit to today’s post:
If there is no God, who or what is the source and foundation of morality? Morals deal with right and wrong in our interpersonal relationships. Morals are personal; the source of morals must be connected with a personal God, who himself is a subject of moral obligation and who chooses to use his great powers morally.
Atheists affirm that all that exists is matter, energy, space and time. The problem for atheism is that these elements are not enough to support the existence of morality. Matter, energy, space and time are impersonal and non-moral. How does the personal come out of the impersonal? How does the moral come from stuff that is non-moral?
Men universally have a sense of moral obligation. “I ought; I ought not.” What is the source of moral obligation?
How, in a world which is ultimately the product of time, chance and material particles, did there come to be such things as moral obligations?
The existence of moral obligations makes more sense in a universe in which the ultimate reality is a moral Person than it does in a universe where persons are a late and insignificant by product of impersonal forces. The notion of morals requires a Moral Governor that Moral Governor is the God of the Bible.
I hardly know where to start with this. Here is what I have to say about it:
”Atheists affirm that all that exists is matter, energy, space and time.”
I think you’re 1) confusing atheists with metaphysical naturalists and 2) forgetting that matter=energy and space=time.
“The problem for atheism is that these elements are not enough to support the existence of morality. Matter, energy, space and time are impersonal and non-moral. How does the personal come out of the impersonal? How does the moral come from stuff that is non-moral?”
You asked this exact same question last year at Speakers’ Circle and again during our debate last April, Jed. I have already given you a sufficient scientific response. I have recommended to you books that thoroughly answer this using abundant evidence. Your question is not a mystery to scientists and hasn’t been a mystery to scientists for quite awhile now; in fact the answer to this question is the point of an entire field of science called sociobiology. Some of the bigger names in research in this field are E.O. Wilson, Frans de Waal, Robert Axelrod, and Samuel Bowles. Others you might want to read, if you actually want to know the answer to this question rather than just sound profound for continuing to raise it to people who haven’t heard it before, are Michael Shermer and Matt Ridley. Again, I have already told you all of this.
I think you just like to say the phrase “late and insignificant by product of impersonal forces.” Just because morality is a byproduct of impersonal forces does not mean that it’s insignificant. That’s a claim YOU’RE making, not a claim scientists have made.
You insist – and persist – in attempting to paint the origin of morality like it’s some huge mystery that has no possible earthly explanation, and therefore MUST have come from your god, while simultaneously completely ignoring the scientific explanation I repeatedly provide to you every time you bring this up.
Do you just not care that science has actually answered this question?
Evolution is sufficient to explain morality in cooperative animals, humans included. We have WAY more evidence than the minimum to demonstrate that this is the case. I recommend the books “The Origins of Virtue” by Matt Ridley and “A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and its Evolution” by Samuel Bowles if you are actually interested in the scientific answer to your question, “How does the moral come from the stuff that is non-moral?” This is an extremely well-documented concept in science.
Again, to be absolutely clear, how morals arise naturally from impersonal forces is NOT a mystery for scientists. Just because you don’t understand (or refuse to look at) where morality came from scientifically does not mean that, therefore, natural elements are insufficient to explain it.
What you are saying here is known in logic as an argument from incredulity. You are essentially saying, “I don’t understand how morality could have come about naturally. Therefore, morality must not have come about naturally.” This is a fallacy. We can readily show how morality comes about naturally, and in fact have done this in abundance in controlled settings. There’s LOTS of absolutely fascinating research that combines the game theory of economics with evolutionary biology to demonstrate it quite readily, in fact.
I would really love for this to be the last time we go through this dog & pony show, but I have a feeling you’re not even going to read this, let alone read the books I recommended. I like you, Jed, but you’ve been stuck on this idea that morals must have come from a god for at least several years now. Do you continue to raise the question because, after considering the evidence, you find the scientific explanation insufficient [in which case, what are your scientific objections]? Or have you just not even looked into it? The latter is my guess.
If you want to know where morals came from, read “The Origins of Virtue” by Matt Ridley, so we can finally put this to bed. Where morals came from is not a mystery to science, and it has nothing to do with your god. Science has answered this question; it’s time to put this to bed.
Until next time!
(573) 424-0420 cell/text
Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.
and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!
This week’s posts
- RT @AmericanAtheist: .@todayshow @alroker @NMoralesNBC Atheists are citizens too. Leave your god out of journalism. Remember we don't all b… 1 week ago
- Buying CAFO products is bad, mmm-kay, Part 1: youtu.be/s8C9ajXYZOI?a via @YouTube 2 weeks ago
- Buying CAFO products is bad, mmm-kay, Part 2: youtu.be/NGrCwXW084U?a via @YouTube 2 weeks ago
- About to get started at Speaker's Circle. Come out and help us #DefendDissent 3 weeks ago
- Come to Speaker's Circle today at noon to #DefendDisssent facebook.com/events/1828297… 3 weeks ago