The Delusion of a Just World

You've probably heard religious apologists assert that if God didn't exist, the world would be an unjust place where some people were never rewarded or punished as their behavior deserved. (They usually hold back from explicitly stating the conclusion, "Therefore, God must exist, because it would make us very sad if he didn't," probably out of subconscious recognition that this would make the fallacy too obvious.) As prominent a religious figure as Pope Benedict has endorsed this reasoning.

Claims like these arise from a fundamental bias of human psychology called the "just world" hypothesis, first described by the psychologist Melvin Lerner. In his experiments, Lerner found that people are uncomfortable believing that suffering is random, that sometimes bad things happen for no reason at all. Instead, we prefer to believe that people must have done something to deserve what they get. This is obviously a reassuring and comforting belief, which explains its wide appeal. (If bad things only happen to those who deserve it, and I'm a good person, then I can be sure that nothing bad will happen to me.) Belief in the just world can be thought of as a failure to apply the null hypothesis in the moral domain: rejecting the explanation of chance, we prefer to believe that everything that happens is deserved.

But the problem is that, however much we'd prefer to believe otherwise, the world is random and sometimes bad things do happen for no reason. And because it encourages us to look down on victims of misfortune as deserving their fate, the just world hypothesis usually leads to worse injustices. For example, it lies behind the common belief that people who've been unemployed for a long time must be lazy (and therefore not deserving of a social safety net or other help), or the belief that rape victims are at fault for being raped if they were dressed "provocatively":

Afterwards, they said that the 22-year-old woman was bound to attract attention. She was wearing a white lace miniskirt, a green tank top, and no underwear. At knife-point, she was kidnapped from a Fort Lauderdale restaurant parking lot by a Georgia drifter and raped twice. But a jury showed little sympathy for the victim. The accused rapist was acquitted. "We all feel she asked for it [by] the way she was dressed," said the jury foreman.

But religion, more than anything else, encourages and supports the just-world delusion. By postulating an all-powerful god who orders events, it offers an easy one-size-fits-all explanation for any misfortune: the victims were sinners, and God was punishing them. That's why a Harvard study, from one of the links above, found that

...people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but still significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to "feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims."

The just-world belief is found throughout human culture. It has one of its most extreme expressions in Hinduism's caste system, where each person's station in life is presumed to be the result of sins or virtues from a previous existence. But it finds expression in evangelical Christianity as well, in an even more ridiculous (if no less morally outrageous) form: the belief that everyone in the world who isn't a Christian is deliberately suppressing their knowledge of the truth.

As already mentioned, just-world believers tend to show less concern for the suffering of others and less desire to work toward creating an actually more just society. Ironically, belief in a just world impedes justice. When you believe that God is in charge and everything will work out for the best, this can't help but detract from the urgency of attempts to create a better world by our own effort. How much human suffering has been ignored, how many evils allowed to persist, because of the belief that the downtrodden are sinners who deserve what they get, or that injustice should be patiently endured rather than actively battled? If we truly care about fairness and seeing that justice is done, we need to give up the harmful belief that higher powers control the course of events, and recognize instead that the only moral order in the universe is what we create for ourselves.

October 3, 2011, 5:43 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink41 comments

We Don't Need Religion to Have Morality

This essay was originally published on AlterNet.

The most common stereotype about atheists, the most common reason why religious people fear and distrust us, is the belief that people who don't believe in God have no reason to behave morally. In the view of the planet's major religions, the way we know what's right and what's wrong is that God tells us so, and the reason we follow the rules is because we fear divine retribution if we break them. This worldview is simple and emotionally satisfying and to those who believe it, it's a natural implication that a person who no longer believes in God has no reason not to indulge their every selfish desire.

Now, I've never claimed to speak for every atheist. Because nonbelievers are a diverse and quarrelsome lot, there may in fact be a few who think this way. But if there are, they're staying well hidden. The vast majority of atheists, like the majority of human beings in general, are perfectly good and decent people. This should be no surprise, as the evidence shows that human beings all tend to have similar moral intuitions, regardless of whether we profess a religion. But that doesn't address how an atheist justifies acting morally. When we're wrestling with an ethical dilemma, how do we make up our minds? What can nonbelievers appeal to as a reason for their action?

Again, atheists are a diverse bunch. There are some who would argue that morality is just an opinion, an mere matter of taste, like preferring vanilla ice cream to chocolate. But I reject this view, just as I reject the view that morality can only come from obeying what people believe to be God's will. I believe that morality is real, that it's objective, and that it's a thoroughly natural phenomenon that's perfectly compatible with a worldview that includes nothing spooky, mystical, or supernatural.

To see how this can be, consider the question from another angle: What's the point of morality? What quality are we trying to bring more of into the world?

The problem with most common answers to this question is that they're arbitrary. If your answer is something like freedom or justice or familial duty or piety, you can always ask why we should care about that quality and not a different one. Why should we care about freedom more than stability? Why should we care about free speech more than harmony? There obviously can't be an infinite regress of justifications, but we should keep asking the question as long as it can be meaningfully answered. And if you do keep asking, there's only one answer you'll find at the bottom.

The only quality that's immune to this question is happiness. You can ask someone, "Why do you want [good friends/a loving family/a fulfilling job/etc.]?", and the answer is, "Because it will make me happy," but it's meaningless to ask, "Why do you want to be happy?" Happiness is its own justification, the only quality in human experience that we value purely for its own sake. Even theists who say that morality is based on following God's commands, whether they realize it or not, are really basing their morality on happiness. After all, if you should do what God says because you'll go to heaven if you do and to hell if you don't, what is this if not a claim about which actions will or won't lead to happiness?

This is my answer to moral anti-realists who say that facts are out there in the world, waiting to be discovered, but morality isn't. They rightly point out that there's no elementary particle of good or evil, that it would be bizarre to have a moral commandment - an "ought" - just hovering there, hanging over us with no prior explanation for its existence. This is a spooky, mystical, weird notion, and they're right to reject it. But as I've said, this only applies to arbitrary qualities chosen as the basis of morality with no real justification. Happiness is not an arbitrary choice; by definition, it's what we all wish for. This, then, is where that "ought" comes from. It comes from us: from our essential nature as human beings and from the fact that we all have this basic desire in common.

My definition of happiness isn't just physical well-being or pleasure of the senses. Nor is it limited to economic stability, or meaningful human relationships, or productive achievement. Rather, it's a balanced approach that includes all of these and more besides. Some might charge that this is too vague, but I'd answer that any moral theory which reflects the almost limitless variety of human experience is bound to be multivariate, sprawling and diverse, and not reducible to a single number on a measuring stick. As the neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris notes, "health" is a similarly broad concept - the inability to leap three feet straight up could be perfectly normal for me, while for an NBA player, it could be a sign of crippling injury - but no one would argue that therefore the concept of health is too poorly defined to base the entire field of medicine on.

The next question to ask is why I should care about other people's happiness, rather than just my own. In theory, you could use happiness as the basis of morality and construct an Ayn Rand-type moral system where everyone is perfectly selfish and cares only about themselves. But the problem with this is that human beings are intrinsically social creatures, designed by evolution to live in groups - which is why people who are deprived of contact with others, like prisoners in solitary confinement, tend to go insane in short order. Our social nature gives rise to the phenomenon of emotional contagion: for better or for worse, we're affected by the moods of those around us.

This means that, if you value your own happiness, it's not in your interest to live in a society where it can only be achieved by the downfall of others. Friendly competition has its place, but there's greater potential for happiness in a society structured to encourage cooperation and reciprocal altruism, one where we can achieve more by working together rather than fighting against each other. If your success is others' success as well, they'll have every reason to work with you and assist you, rather than opposing you and impeding you from achieving your goals. Regardless of what you personally desire, the best thing for you is to live in a society that values honesty, generosity, fairness and the like. A rational being will always come to this conclusion, regardless of their own desires.

One more key piece of this moral synthesis is that we should choose our actions so as to create not just the least actual suffering and the most actual happiness for those immediately involved, but the least potential suffering and greatest potential happiness. In short, this moral system asks us to care not just about the immediate impact of our actions, but the precedent they set down the line, which establishes a basis for principles like human rights. Even if you can come up with contrived and unlikely scenarios where a temporary gain in happiness could be realized by violating a fundamental right like free speech, in the long run, it's far better for all of us to live in a society that respects those principles.

Now, I acknowledge that this argument won't win everyone over. If there's someone who believes that happiness can't be proven to be the highest good, there's little I can say to them. But then again, no rational system can derive its starting principles out of thin air. Every field of human inquiry, from science to history to mathematics, is based on assumptions that a stubborn person could reject. Just as a morality denier could say, "Why should I care about happiness?", a science denier could say, "Why should I care about the scientific method?" The only answer you could give that person is that science works - it discovers truths about the world, and thereby makes it possible for us to achieve our desires. And the same is true of morality. The only real, practical reason for believing in it and adopting it is because it works - because it makes the world more free, more fair, more peaceful, and makes it possible for more people to lead happy and fulfilling lives. In this respect, morality could even be seen as another field of science, like a subdomain of anthropology or sociology: the study of how best to promote human flourishing.

With these basic ingredients, we can build a moral system that's completely secular and religion-neutral, one that's in no way dependent on following the decrees of a holy book or a religious authority. By always seeking to bring about the greatest happiness, we have a guide for what we should do in any situation, one that's rooted in human nature and based on something real and measurable.

That said, I want to emphasize that I don't claim to possess the definitive answer to every ethical problem. The theory of morality I've sketched here is more like the scientific method: not a list of claims to be taken as dogma, but a way of thinking about certain kinds of problems. It still requires people to evaluate evidence, offer reasoned arguments and use their own judgment, and I consider this a point in its favor.

But even in its broadest strokes, a world where everyone agreed on the goal of advancing human happiness would be dramatically different from the world we live in now. In this society, other, more selfish goals - increasing the wealth of the wealthy and the power of the powerful, maintaining the privilege of the few at the expense of the many - often interfere and cause suffering and inequality to persist. But a world where happiness was the primary goal, and where every human being's happiness was judged to be of equal value, would necessarily entail some major changes.

It would be a world of democracy, where all people have a say in how their society is governed, and where human rights are fixed and inviolable. It would be a world of free enterprise, where people succeed on the basis of effort and merit; but it would also be a progressive world with a strong safety net and a more equal distribution of wealth and resources, rather than the law-of-the-jungle capitalism championed by libertarians or the Dickensian dystopia sought by Tea Party conservatives. It would be a world that valued sustainability and environmental conservation for the sake of future generations that have yet to come into existence, but whose happiness matters no less than our own despite that.

It would be a world where all people have access to education and the other public goods needed to develop their talents to their fullest extent; since, after all, a society where everyone is educated, productive and prosperous offers far more potential for happiness than a world with a vast gap between rich and poor, where people succeed or fail based on accidents of birth. For the same reason, it would be a world of free choice, where no woman would ever become pregnant against her will, where population is sustainable and every child is wanted and cared for.

And, most of all, this would be a secular world. Whether religion still existed or not, it would be a private and individual matter, not the loud, overbearing presence in public affairs that it currently has, and moral rules based purely on religious belief would fade away. As I said earlier, most religious moralities are also based on happiness; but their error is that they arrive at moral decisions through unverifiable private faith, rather than facts and evidence that can be demonstrated to anyone's satisfaction. The fact that the world's longest-running, most destructive and most intractable conflicts all stem from religion only highlights this problem... and in a world built on secular reason and compassion rather than faith, it's entirely possible that these would finally cease.

Imagine a world where the sun rises on olive trees and vineyards growing where once there was barbed wire and checkpoints; a world where religious terrorism is unknown and the holy books that preach war and vengeance on the infidels peacefully gather dust on shelves. In this world, the churches, mosques and temples, institutions which teach doctrines that divide people from each other, will have become libraries and museums, institutions that teach wisdom and advance the common good; and human beings care about each other's happiness in the present, rather than looking wistfully to an afterlife where evil will be eradicated.

I freely admit this is a utopian vision. But even if's unattainable, it still has value as a guide, a best-possible outcome that we should try to approach as closely as we can. If every person was willing to work together, it wouldn't take much effort at all to create a better world. All I'm suggesting is that we each do the small part that would be required of us in that ideal scenario. As the great orator and freethinker Robert Ingersoll said, we can all help "toward covering this world with the mantle of joy." What higher purpose, what deeper meaning, could you ask for in a human lifetime, regardless of what you do or don't believe?

September 14, 2011, 6:40 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink45 comments

New on AlterNet: Morality Doesn't Need Religion

My latest article has been posted on AlterNet, We Don't Need Religion to Have Morality. In it, I argue that morality is real, objective, and not dependent on theistic belief, and I explore the basis for this view and imagine what effect it could have on society if it were more widely adopted. To those who've read my essay on morality at Ebon Musings, this will be familiar ground, but I touch on a couple of new points as well. Read the excerpt below, then click through and see the rest!

The most common stereotype about atheists, the most common reason why religious people fear and distrust us, is the belief that people who don't believe in God have no reason to behave morally. In the view of the planet's major religions, the way we know what's right and what's wrong is that God tells us so, and the reason we follow the rules is because we fear divine retribution if we break them. This worldview is simple and emotionally satisfying and to those who believe it, it's a natural implication that a person who no longer believes in God has no reason not to indulge their every selfish desire.

Now, I've never claimed to speak for every atheist. Because nonbelievers are a diverse and quarrelsome lot, there may in fact be a few who think this way. But if there are, they're staying well hidden. The vast majority of atheists, like the majority of human beings in general, are perfectly good and decent people. This should be no surprise, as the evidence shows that human beings all tend to have similar moral intuitions, regardless of whether we profess a religion. But that doesn't address how an atheist justifies acting morally. When we're wrestling with an ethical dilemma, how do we make up our minds? What can nonbelievers appeal to as a reason for their action?

Again, atheists are a diverse bunch. There are some who would argue that morality is just an opinion, a mere matter of taste, like preferring vanilla ice cream to chocolate. But I reject this view, just as I reject the view that morality can only come from obeying what people believe to be God's will. I believe that morality is real, that it's objective, and that it's a thoroughly natural phenomenon that's perfectly compatible with a worldview that includes nothing spooky, mystical, or supernatural.

Continue reading on AlterNet...

August 24, 2011, 6:29 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink6 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

Some scattered thoughts to contemplate on a Saturday morning:

• Earlier this year, my post on urban agriculture drew some spirited disagreement. Now there's a study from Ohio State University which concludes that Cleveland could supply all its own produce, poultry and honey if the many vacant lots in the shrinking, post-industrial city were converted into gardens.

• A Missouri high school, in response to a complaint from a homeschooling parent who doesn't even have kids in the school, has banned Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer from its library. In response, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis is offering to send free copies of the book to any student in the school who wants one. They're asking for donations to cover their shipping costs, so please consider chipping in a few dollars if you can afford it.

Cosmos is being remade by Fox, with a production team including Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy (!). The fact that the creative team includes Ann Druyan, and the proposed host is Neil deGrasse Tyson (who knew Carl Sagan personally), gives me hope that the result will be good.

• Did you know that California permits its prison inmates to have vegetarian meals only for religious reasons, and not out of secular moral convictions? Another example of the unjust privilege that's often accorded to religion as more real or more sincere than other kinds of beliefs.

• New York's Woodlawn Cemetery is selling multimillion-dollar mausoleums for the deceased wealthy. I've tried without success to imagine the mindset that would lead someone to spend millions of dollars on a lavish container for their own corpse, rather than giving it away to living people who have genuine needs.

• Cult leader Warren Jeffs has been re-convicted of child sexual assault, this time in Texas, after an earlier conviction in Utah was overturned on a legal technicality. He probably didn't help his case by threatening the court with plagues for daring to put him on trial.

August 6, 2011, 11:28 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink12 comments

6 Ways Atheists Can Band Together to Fight Religious Fundamentalism

This essay was originally published on AlterNet.

If atheists were as politically organized as the religious right, we could accomplish a world of good in combating theocracy and standing up for human rights and secularism. But whenever an atheist political alliance is proposed, the objection is inevitably raised that "atheists don't all agree," and that this would be an insurmountable obstacle to forming a unified political movement.

I believe, however, that this objection overstates the difficulty we would face. In fact, atheists have more in common than most people realize.

It's true that we disagree, and would be expected to disagree, about issues unrelated to atheism. But just by virtue of being a minority, sharing a godless outlook on the world, we tend to see things that non-atheists often overlook - things like the harm done by faith-based zealotry, the undeserved privileges granted to religious people, and the unfounded assumption that religious belief is the only source of morality. And whether we like it or not, we have a common enemy in the theocrats and fundamentalists who want to oppress us, silence us and punish us harshly for the imaginary crime of not sharing their peculiar superstitions. Even if nothing else unites us, this gives us ample reason to band together to defend our rights against the people who are trying to take them away.

There's much historical precedent for this. In trying to organize, we wouldn't be trying to create something completely new or do something that's never been done before. On the contrary, all atheists have to do is follow in the footsteps of the many other successful political movements that have organized to fight for a common cause, despite having a membership that doesn't agree on other issues.

A telling example, as my friend and fellow blogger Greta Christina suggests, is the gay rights movement. Obviously, gay, lesbian and bisexual people don't think alike about everything, and why should they? What do they have in common, after all, other than not being straight? In spite of this, gay rights groups have organized and fought for equality very effectively, and they've brought about a sea change in public opinion. They've won major legal victories such as ending the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy, securing the passage of a federal hate-crimes law, and establishing the right to marry under the laws of six states and the District of Columbia. Anti-gay discrimination has by no means ended, but these are tremendous political victories that would have been unthinkable just one or two decades ago, and large, supportive majorities among the younger generations promise more advances in the near future.

Atheists, who are treated as a despised minority just as gay people were and often still are, should use the success of the gay-rights movement as our template. We don't need to be a political party with a platform specifying what we'd do about every issue -- we just need to reach agreement on the issues we have in common and that affect us the most. And if there are a few oddball atheists who care nothing for equality and don't want to join our effort, or who think that religion should have special privileges and shouldn't be criticized, forget about them. We don't need them. Given that atheists make up as much as 12 percent of the population of America, over 36 million people, a political movement that united even a fraction of us would be a formidable voting bloc.

So what do atheists have in common? What would the agenda of an atheist political movement look like? Here's my modest proposal for the issues we can unite around:

1. Atheists can be good people.

This seems so obvious it's not even worth saying, much less uniting around politically. But it is. Millions of religious people, not just in conservative red states but even in the allegedly liberal regions of the country, hold the prejudiced belief that religion is the only possible means of acquiring morality, the only possible justification for being a good person and treating others with respect and kindness. The inevitable corollary is that being an atheist necessarily means being hate-filled, selfish and untrustworthy. This prejudice is undoubtedly the reason majorities say they wouldn't vote for an atheist candidate for president, even if that atheist was a well-qualified member of their own party.

To counter this myth, we don't need to prove that we're better than everyone else. We don't need to prove that atheists are all incorruptible paragons of virtue. All we need to prove is that atheists, on the whole, are the same as everyone else: not saints, but honest, compassionate, trustworthy people like everyone else. And we can cite abundant evidence: There are atheist doctors, teachers and firefighters. There are active-duty atheist soldiers and atheist veterans. Atheists donate to charity, give blood, join civil rights marches, and help with disaster relief. And we can always point to the amazingly low percentage of atheists among prison inmates (although, admittedly, this may just prove that we're better at getting away with it).

2. Greater support for separation of church and state.

This is a point that atheists from across the political spectrum should agree on, and one that's more than sufficient to build a political movement on by itself. For obvious reasons, atheists don't want to see religious beliefs being used as the basis for law. We don't believe that religion should be outlawed, or that religious people should be banned from preaching their beliefs, but we want the laws and the government to be truly secular; we want that wall of separation between church and state to be reinforced, built up and topped with sandbags and barbed wire. We demand that laws affecting all of us be justified by reasons and evidence that anyone can examine, and not merely by private faith.

Since church-state separation is constantly under assault by theocrats, this issue alone ought to be enough to occupy politically motivated and energized atheists. There are the never-ending efforts to water down science teaching in schools and replace it with creationism and other pseudoscience, some of it by hostile school boards, some of it by teachers who preach in class on their own initiative. There are state, county and city legislatures bent on putting Ten Commandments monuments, crosses and Christian manger scenes on government property, or opening legislative sessions with sectarian prayer. There are government programs that pour money into the coffers of churches, especially the George W. Bush faith-based initiative, which President Obama hasn't reined in despite his campaign promise to do so. And there's the religious language inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance and put on money, which sends a subtle message that atheists are outsiders and second-class citizens.

3. Greater support for free speech.

One of the greatest political concerns for atheists ought to be the advance of hate-speech laws, which punish people for expressing ideas that others deem offensive. In many countries, these laws have been repeatedly used to stifle legitimate criticism of religion. In Spain, for example, an atheist group was forbidden to march during Holy Week; in the Netherlands, the right-wing parliamentarian Geert Wilders was prosecuted for expressing his political ideas; in Italy, Catholic lawyers file defamation suits based on fascist-passed laws that shield the "prestige of the pope" from criticism; in Russia, critics of the Orthodox church are persecuted by the state; in India, the law allows the censorship of any internet content deemed to be "disparaging" to religion. Ireland has gone so far as to resurrect the medieval idea of a law prohibiting blasphemy!

In the United States, the First Amendment is a bulwark against hate-speech laws, but still not a complete defense. Too many colleges and universities, for example, have "speech codes" that don't stop at the legitimate goal of preventing bullying or harassment, but which punish students for constitutionally protected speech if their ideas are deemed offensive, disruptive, or upsetting to others.

Atheists from across the political spectrum should have no trouble understanding why these laws are a terrible idea. Even if written with the best of intentions, rules that ban "disparaging" or "offensive" speech are inevitably perverted and used by hostile majorities to silence unpopular minorities. After all, the very existence of atheists is considered highly offensive by millions of religious people who'd like nothing better than to censor us.

4. Greater support for science and reason.

Atheists should understand, and generally do understand, that irrational and dangerous faith flourishes in societies that don't value evidence and rational thinking. Surveys show that less educated people are more likely to believe in demons, creationism, biblical literalism, and all other kinds of harmful superstitions. And as a growing population strains the bounds of what the Earth can support, as our technology makes us more and more powerful, it's crucial to let science and reason guide us if we're going to thread the needle and avoid disaster. If we don't, as Carl Sagan said, then sooner or later "this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces."

The poisonous effects of irrationality are everywhere to be seen in our politics. Religious right demagogues openly say that climate change can't be happening because God wouldn't let the climate change too much, or that it's futile trying to make peace in the Middle East because Jesus predicted there would be war there until he returns, or that there's no sense conserving natural resources because the world is going to end before we run out. On the other end of the spectrum, the purveyors of fashionable New Age nonsense teach that the way to end war, cure cancer or create a fairer distribution of wealth isn't to implement progressive taxation, march in antiwar rallies or support scientific research, but to sit at home and use our magical powers of wishing to reshape reality to suit our desires.

Atheists have good reason to oppose irrationality in whatever form it rears its head: from religious fundamentalists who try to inject creationism into schools, to anti-vaccine activists who want to get rid of our most effective defense against killer diseases. We ought to advocate a society where science is respected and valued as the most reliable arbiter of truth, where scientists have the funding and the tools needed to do their job, and where politicians take scientific consensus into account; and we ought to act in concert to slap down any purveyor of pseudoscience who tries to claim there are other ways of knowing superior to reason.

5. Support for marriage equality and LGBT rights.

More than anyone else, atheists ought to have sympathy for oppressed minorities whose oppression has historically been justified by appealing to religion, and no group fits that definition better than LGBT people. The arguments against marriage equality and gay rights are purely religious in nature, with no legitimate secular basis. And for the most part, the bigots who make these arguments don't even try to disguise this.

For example, the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, wrote in vain to urge legislators to defeat a marriage-equality bill because he believes that "God has settled the definition of marriage." In Delaware, pastors screamed that a civil-unions law was "biblically incorrect" and "contrary to the will of God."

Left unexplained by all these people is why any group's opinions about God's desires should influence lawmaking in a secular, democratic republic like ours. Should we ban alcohol and coffee because Mormons think they're sinful to consume, or require all women to go veiled in public because Wahhabi Muslims think we should, or outlaw zippers because the Amish reject them? If not, why should Catholic views about marriage be any more relevant?

I grant it's possible that some atheists are anti-gay, even if their position is based on nothing more than a gut feeling of "ick, gay people are gross" (which is more or less the only rationale for homophobia, once you can no longer rely on God's decrees regarding the proper usage of genitalia). But in my experience, the overwhelming majority of atheists do support equal rights for LGBT people, and recognize the religious arguments against homosexuality as the rank bigotry they are.

6. Greater support for reproductive choice.

With this point, I know I'm wading into deeper waters, and I anticipate that agreement won't be as high as with others. Nevertheless, atheists have a very good reason to support strong protection of reproductive choice through comprehensive sex ed, free access to contraception, and the availability of safe, legal abortion.

Many religions, especially the fundamentalist ones that atheists fear the most, demand their followers have as many children as they possibly can. And when religion has the power to make this the law of the land, women and children both suffer. Women are forced to endure the direct risks that pregnancy and childbirth pose to their health and life, whether they want to or not; children suffer from deprivation when their parents have larger families than they can reasonably provide for.

In cultures where women's ability to plan their own families is taken away by theocratic laws, it perpetuates the poverty and dependency that's fertile soil for harmful superstition to grow. If we, as atheists, want to reduce the numbers and the power of aggressive, fundamentalist religion, our course of action is clear: we ought to be  unyielding guardians of a woman's right to make her own reproductive choices.

* * *

I don't expect that every atheist will line up behind all these goals, though I do believe the majority of atheists support them. Nor do I expect that, in every race, there will be a politician willing to take our side on all these issues. For the foreseeable future, we'll probably have to make a lot of hard choices between a bad candidate and a marginally less-bad candidate. But this is mainly because of the excessive influence of the religious right, which has successfully convinced politicians of both parties that the way to win elections is to be as right-wing as possible. The stronger and more influential the atheist movement becomes, the more effectively we can counteract this, and the more we can expand the Overton window on the left to create space for genuinely progressive candidates to get elected.

What I find most encouraging about this list is that the goals uniting atheists aren't supported only by atheists, but ought to be shared by every progressive who supports justice and human rights. This means that atheists should be able to make common cause with other liberal activist groups. There's real potential for a strong, organized atheist movement to give the country a much-needed jolt of progressive energy. This isn't an idealistic or unattainable goal, but one that, if we're willing to work and to organize, lies entirely within our power.

August 1, 2011, 5:48 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink17 comments

On the Morality of: Circumcision

"And the Lord said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go. And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn.

And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision."

—Exodus 4:21-26, another wonderful and not at all baffling example of biblical morals

In the next election, San Francisco may vote on a referendum to ban circumcisions within the city limits. Predictably, some Jewish groups are calling this anti-Semitic. A little more puzzlingly, the National Association of Evangelicals is against the idea as well. (I suppose they believe that prophecy about the 144,000 converted Jewish evangelists can't come true if they aren't circumcised.)

In the past, I was noncommittal about circumcision because I'd read that it offers partial protection against the spread of some STIs, especially HIV. If that were true, then it could be justified on the ground of health benefits, just as we could defend a policy of preemptively removing every baby's appendix. But then I found out that the evidence for this claim is flimsy at best. One much-hyped study which claimed to find a dramatic protective effect from circumcision actually showed only a 2% absolute difference in transmission rates between the experimental and control groups.

That said, circumcision isn't nearly as harmful as female genital cutting, the express purpose of which is to prevent women from taking pleasure in sex. Still, the moral principle that opposes one works equally well against the other. Absent a medical reason, there's no justification for cutting off healthy, functional, innervated tissue from any baby, regardless of gender. No parent should have the right to surgically remove body parts from their child just to make their appearance comply with cultural or religious norms. (How does this weigh on the rare cases of babies born with vestigial tails? I'm still thinking about that.)

There's a simple and obvious solution which it seems San Francisco's Jewish community won't even consider: If circumcision is so important, why not just wait to have it done until boys are old enough to volunteer for it? Why is it so important to do it before a child can possibly give informed consent? I can't help but wonder if the real worry is that, if children of Jewish parents were allowed to make the decision for themselves, they wouldn't want it. There may well be some people who think that the only way to ensure the survival of this, frankly, primitive and barbaric custom is by doing it to children before they can object.

What is society's interest here? Consider this thought experiment: Imagine there was a religious sect that makes it their practice to chop off the little finger on the left hand of every boy that's born. When outsiders propose that finger-removal should be banned, they react vehemently, claiming it's a vital part of their cultural identity and a visible sign of God's covenant with them and their ancestors, and since you don't need that finger, it does no harm to the boys. Furthermore, they say, the procedure has health benefits: little fingers often get cut, bruised or broken, and by removing them, we significantly reduce the risk of that happening. They say that banning finger-removal would trample on their religious freedom and was obviously an unjust and racist persecution aimed specifically at them.

In this case, I'd hope it was obvious that society's interest in protecting the health and bodily integrity of all its citizens, including children, outweighs the right of parents to bring up their children as they see fit. I see no reason why we should reach any different conclusion just because the ritual in question is more familiar and affects a different body part.

Other posts in this series:

July 6, 2011, 5:46 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink65 comments

Meat is Dinner?

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

Just over two years ago, DaylightAtheism featured an essay discussing vegetarianism - though coming at it largely as an environmental issue. Seeing as so many faces on here seem new, I thought I'd tackle it again and hit the moral question head-on: can we justify eating meat?

Many religions include restrictions on consuming meat, from total abstention to restrictions on eating certain animals, considered either sacred or unclean. Even the Christian Bible contains a passage prohibiting eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:10-12), though I think the number of Christians who observe this is small.

Nevertheless, in the west, religion has often been used to justify eating meat. Did God not put animals on Earth for our convenience? Are we humans not specially created by God in his image? Do we not to hold dominion over animals?

Hopefully we atheists can see this for the arrogant nonsense it is. We humans were not specifically created at all. We are animals ourselves; descended from the same ancestors as every animal alive today. Animals are, albeit distantly, our cousins. That is not to say that there is nothing that sets we humans apart. Every species is unique, and it seems humans have achieved heights of awareness, intelligence and civilisation unmatched on Earth. But does this difference justify killing animals to eat?

Certainly it is important to get all the nutrients to keep ourselves healthy, but in an age and society where our supermarkets are kept stocked with food from all round the world, sustaining a meat-free diet which includes everything we need to stay optimally healthy is easy. The myth that a vegetarian diet is often lacking in protein – or any other dietary necessity - is just that, as millions of perfectly healthy vegetarians across the world can attest to.

In fact, insisting that humans are, by nature, meat-eaters very quickly sounds remarkably like something a Creationist might come out with. 'Humans were designed to eat meat' might be changed to 'Humans have evolved to eat meat', but the argument is essentially the same. We cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. The fact that humans can eat meat says nothing at all about whether they should. Yes, we can eat meat, but we can also survive perfectly well without it. Our ability to eat meat carries no moral obligation to do so.

Nor can meat-eating be sufficiently defended by insisting that we would be overrun with animals in a world of vegetarians. Battery farms have hugely inflated the numbers of animals kept as livestock over the past century to meet the demand for meat, and if that demand was reduced, the numbers of animals kept for meat would inevitably follow.

Meat is, of course, tasty. That I won’t deny. When I ate meat, I loved it. But how much weight does that carry morally? I’m sure it’s nice to be pampered and have your every whim attended to by your own personal slave, but I don’t think that justifies the institution. Exploiting others may bring material rewards, but surely a moral person will be troubled by the fact that others have paid a dear price for their convenience.

Note that I am not arguing that animals should enjoy the same rights as a human being. I am not saying the life of an animal is more, or equally, valuable than the life of a human being. Faced with an angry bear, I would indeed shoot it. But this is simply not the situation we face with the meat industry. We are not locked into a them-or-us conflict. The question is whether the life of an animal is worth more than whatever preferential pleasure we might get from eating them as opposed to a vegetarian meal.

Atheists are, by definition, not united by any common belief, merely by a common lack of belief in something specific. However, most atheists I know claim to follow a broadly humanitarian code of ethics – seek to maximise happiness and minimise suffering. But why should only human happiness or suffering be taken into consideration? Anyone who has ever owned a pet will, I am sure, agree that their animal could suffer and feel a range of emotions. Is the pain a pig feels less important than the pain a human feels?

Not that I think meat-eaters are indifferent to animal suffering. I’m sure I don’t know a single person who would happily watch anything suffer for fun, and many of my meat-eating friends purposefully seek out products of ‘free range’ animals, wanting their meat to have had as pleasant a life as possible. But surely this is a good argument for eating our pets - something many meat-eaters would, I suspect, find repulsive? And even then, is a painless killer blow justified? Is murder acceptable if it is done painlessly? And if not, why is the killing of an animal different?

In our mainstream society, vegetarians tend to get a rather bad reputation. All too often they are portrayed as irrational and outraged militants, and their opinions mocked rather than honestly addressed. In that, they share something in common with atheists. But atheists, I hope, know what it is like to swim against the tide of popular opinion and think for themselves. We know what it is like to take a stand and hold to our convictions against a herd mentality.

And so I ask, can we justify eating meat?

May 21, 2011, 5:44 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink116 comments

On the Morality of: Investing

I haven't written a post on morality in a while, and this one's a little different than past entries. This is an issue where I haven't made up my mind, and I'm hoping that people's comments can illuminate the issues and help me reach a final decision.

Through the economic chaos of the past two years, I have to admit I've been more fortunate than a lot of Americans. I have a high-yield savings account with ING Direct - that is to say, I had one. I still have the account, but since the subprime market crash and economic depression, the interest rate has dropped so low that it's scarcely worth bothering with. I'd have transferred the money elsewhere, but all the other high-yield savings accounts have done the same. Even the rates on CDs are pathetically low, to the point where I think I'd be better off not buying one because there's a reasonable chance of the economy recovering and interest rates rising again before they mature.

Money should work for its owner, and the money in my savings account wasn't doing that, so I decided to take it elsewhere. Since my 401(k) has done fairly well through the downturn, it was a natural step to put some of this money into the market as well. I'm not confident of my own ability as a trader, and I don't believe that anyone can consistently beat the market, since that would imply an ability to predict the future. (Granted, I could be wrong - there's an ongoing million-dollar wager between Warren Buffett and a group of hedge fund managers over this question.) So I decided to do the next best thing and invest in an index fund, a basket of stocks chosen to track the performance of a major market index. In my case, I went with the Vanguard 500 Index Fund, which tracks the S&P 500. The fees are minimal, since there's very little active management required.

However, it wasn't long before I had an unsettling realization. The fund that I invested in includes stock in oil companies like Exxon Mobil, whose activities I consider unethical and destructive to the planet, financial companies like Goldman Sachs which promote the ever-greater accumulation of wealth at the very top, and defense companies like Lockheed Martin, which have profited massively from America's swollen defense budget and sprawling military-industrial complex. Am I doing wrong by investing in a fund that includes these companies?

I haven't fully made up my mind about this, and I'm open to persuasion. However, I see one consideration to counterbalance the obvious argument against: Buying or selling stock is different from boycotting the company, since it doesn't directly either aid or impede that company's ability to operate.

In fact, buying stock in a company whose actions I disagree with is arguably a good thing. I see two main reasons for thinking this: First, if I buy a company's stock, I become one of its owners, and I gain a voice in how it operates. (Even if it's only a small voice - a few shares of stock out of millions.) It makes me more influential, not less, when I exert pressure on that company to cease environmentally destructive practices, clean up its carbon emissions, respect the rights of local people, or behave in more socially responsible ways.

Second, if the stock pays dividends, I gain a share of that company's profits, which I can redirect to better ends. Rather than further enriching the already wealthy, I can donate it to advocacy groups, reinvest it in needy communities, or otherwise use it for good. That said, I have to acknowledge that owning a dividend-paying stock would also give me an incentive to do the wrong thing: to encourage the company I own to do whatever makes the most profit, rather than what's the most ethical.

Despite that, does investing in a company also make me complicit in the harm they do? An honest answer surely would have to be yes. Granted, the degree of complicity is small, but the degree of influence it gives me is also small. Which one outweighs the other?

Other posts in this series:

May 11, 2011, 6:24 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink104 comments

Another World Creeps In

I'm an atheist, in part, because I'm a moral person.

When I first read the books that are called holy, what I found were countless passages that are abhorrent to the conscience: God drowning the planet in a global flood, massacring the innocent firstborn of Egypt, ordering Abraham to murder his son as a test of faith (and rewarding him for being willing to do it!), commanding the Israelites to wage genocidal war on other tribes, promising to torture nonbelievers in a burning hell forever, ordering the subjugation of women and the killing of gays, and so on and so forth. I find myself unable to give my allegiance to any text that praises such atrocities as virtues, much less to believe that these books were written by a perfectly good and benevolent being.

Liberal and moderate believers tend to deal with this by mythologizing these stories beyond all recognition, but I find this approach to be fundamentally dishonest. However many layers of allegory you bury these tales under, their brutal, violent message still bleeds through. What's worse is that millions of theists go to church every week and read from scripture that still includes these stories unaltered. Why not release a new version of the Bible, one edited to reflect our evolving moral understanding, that omits them altogether?

But whatever the flaws of this approach, at least it tacitly concedes that these stories are immoral, their messages unacceptable. Other believers, some of whom I've been talking to in the last few days, take a different approach. They say that there's another life, by comparison with which everything in this life is inconsequential, and any action God takes - up to and including the violent killing of children - is justified if it ushers souls to a better destiny in this other existence. Here's one shining example from a recent post of mine:

...according to Christianity, death isn't the end of the story. What if, instead of "God ordered the Hebrews to kill the Canaanites", we read it as "God ordered the Hebrews to teleport the Canaanites from the desert to a land of eternal happiness where everyone gets a pony"? Does that change the verdict? Granted, the particular mechanism of teleportation in this case is downright unpleasant, but compared to eternity, it amounts to stubbing your toe while you step onto the transport pad.

The problem with this apologetic is that it has no limits. It can't be contained to the handful of troubling cases where the apologists want to use it; like a river in flood, it inevitably bursts its banks and starts to rise and sweep away all firmly rooted moral conclusions. After all, what act could not be justified by saying that it creates a greater, invisible good in a world hidden from us? What evil deed could this not excuse? The same reasoning that's used to defend violence, killing and holy war in religious scripture can just as easily be used to defend violence, killing and holy war in the real world.

Garden Lantern

Image by lapideo.

To a humanist who takes this world as the standard of value, morality generally isn't difficult or complicated. There are wrenching cases where real and significant interests collide and force us to make painful choices, but for the vast majority of everyday interactions, it's perfectly obvious what the moral course is. In the light of rational humanism, we can see morality bright and clear, like looking out at a beautiful garden through a glass patio door.

But when you introduce another world, one whose existence must be taken entirely on faith but which is held to far surpass our world in importance, your moral system becomes weirdly distorted. That other world seeps in like smoke, like fog beading on the windowpane, obscuring our view of the garden outside and replacing clear shape and form with strange and twisted mirages. Like a universal acid, it dissolves all notions of right and wrong, and what we're left with is a kind of nihilism, a moral void where any action can be justified as easily as any other.

This is what Sam Harris means when he says moderates give cover to violent fundamentalism; this is what Christopher Hitchens means when he says religion poisons everything. At one moment, these religious apologists seem like perfectly normal, civic-minded, compassionate people. But ask the right question and they instantly turn into glassy-eyed psychopaths, people who say without a flicker of conscience that yes, sometimes God does command his followers to violently massacre families and exterminate entire cultures, and the only reason they're not doing this themselves is because God hasn't yet commanded them to.

These beliefs have wreaked untold havoc on the world. This is the logic of crusade and jihad, of death camps and gas chambers, of suicide bombers detonating themselves on buses, of inquisitors stretching bodies on the rack, of screaming mobs stoning women to death in the town square, of hijacked airplanes crashing into buildings, of cheering crowds turning out to see heretics being burned at the stake. They all rely on the same justifications: God is perfectly in the right working his will through intermediaries; God is not subject to our moral judgments and his ways aren't to be questioned; God is the creator of life and he can take it away whenever he chooses; and if any of these people were innocent, God will make it up to them anyway. These are the beliefs which ensured that most of human history was a bloodstained chronicle of savagery and darkness.

Only lately, and only through heroic effort, have we begun to rise above this. Only in a few rare instances have people come to the realization that this life matters most. And still we humanists, who see morality as a tangible matter of human flourishing and happiness, must contend with the fanatics who shrug at evil, or actively perpetuate it, in the name of the divine voices they imagine that they're obeying. They rampage through the world, killing and burning and insisting all the while that they're doing God's will. And the crowning absurdity of it all is that they insist not just that their beliefs make them moral, but that they're the only ones who are moral, and that we, the ones who value and cherish this world, are the nihilists!

Here's another apologist from the same thread I quoted earlier, the one comparing ancient Hebrews impaling Canaanite babies on spears and chopping them up with axes to the slight pain of a stubbed toe:

What is at issue is that atheism per atheism does not really allow for things such as morals at all...

What in the world is so bigoted about stating the incongruity between atheism and morality?

The black-is-white, up-is-down audacity of this claim shows how severely religion can warp a believer's moral compass, to the point where they're willing to defend genocide as good and condemn those who don't share that opinion as evil. I say again: I'm an atheist, in part, because I'm a moral person, and because I value human beings and the world we live in more highly than the dictates of ancient, bloody fairytales. Come what may, I see the garden of human value in the light of reality, and no apologist for genocide and destruction will ever convince me that I should instead look for guidance in the fog.

April 15, 2011, 5:47 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink21 comments

Stepping Across the Is-Ought Gap

Sam Harris' book The Moral Landscape has fallen among the atheist community like a cannon shell, and I for one couldn't be happier. This is an important and long-overdue project for us to begin: to take morality out of the hands of religionists, to rigorously define it as the achievement of human well-being rather than the set of rituals that must be undertaken to please an ineffable god, and to begin a discussion about the best way to accomplish this end. Establishing this firm foundation will give the atheist community its own distinct and recognizable voice, and will make us a stronger and more compelling alternative to the religious dogmas that pass for ethics in society's discourse. (It doesn't hurt, I have to admit, that Sam's argument is the same one I've been making for years.)

But from the discussions I've seen, a lot of people are misunderstanding Harris' basic point. In this post, I want to address that misconception.

It's true that you can't take any catalogue of facts about human nature, however comprehensive, and from them distill the conclusion: "We ought to value human flourishing." But for the same reason, it's also true that you can't start with any catalogue of facts about human history or the world, however comprehensive, and from them distill the conclusion: "We ought to use the scientific method to study reality." Does this cast doubt on the legitimacy of science as a human endeavor? More importantly, does it imply that there exist other ways of knowing that are just as valid?

No system of thought can be derived out of thin air. They all have to be based on axioms that can, in principle, be rejected. But if that's a strike against objective morality, it's also a strike against philosophy, science, mathematics, and every other branch of human inquiry as well. Just as the hypothetical evildoer can say, "Why should I care about human happiness or well-being?", the hypothetical creationist or homeopath or astrologer can say, "Why should I care about falsifiability, repeatability or empirical evidence?"

These people are beyond talking to, but that doesn't mean the rest of us can't have this conversation. We don't have to subject every system of thought to a heckler's veto. Instead, we rational people who can agree on a basic set of goals should have no problem recognizing the superiority of some methods over others for achieving those goals. We want to learn how the world works by the most consistent and reliable method possible so that we can better control it to our benefit. Therefore, we should use the scientific method. We want to live lives of happiness and flourishing. Therefore, we should empirically study what policies best advance human well-being, and then live by those policies and encourage society to adopt them. There, I just stepped across the is-ought gap, and it seemed a lot more like a hairline crack to me than a chasm.

And what to do with those stubborn philosophical skeptics, who insist to their last breath that we can't prove that human well-being should be valued above other qualities? Let them be. If our approach to morality is correct, its superiority will be borne out in practice and people will eventually be persuaded to come along for the ride, just as theists switched from faith healing to antibiotics when they saw how much more effective the latter was. If the error theorists are correct, any attempt to rationally work out the principles of ethics will only end in discord and confusion (and since they, by definition, believe that no other outcome is possible, it's hard to see why they should object to the attempt).

On the other hand, if we're correct, people who begin with the same moral premises will eventually converge on the same conclusions. In fact, I would argue that human history offers some important clues that this convergence is already in progress!

February 24, 2011, 8:37 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink137 comments

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