Monthly Archives: June 2012

Ethics Opinion

“If there’s no God, what would stop me from raping & killing you?”

Hello all,

Dave here. Roughly every week while the weather is nice, SASHA does an Ask an Atheist table on the University of Missouri campus. We get asked a lot of questions, sometimes serious, sometimes not. This isn’t a terribly common one, but it comes up enough that it’s worth mentioning, and it’s terrifying enough that I feel compelled to discuss it.

SASHA members Seth & James answer Mizzou students' questions

The question generally goes something like this: “If there are no consequences, what’s stopping you from killing people?”

When I hear this question, it scares the shit out of me. The purpose of this post today is to convince you that it should scare the shit out of you, too.

When someone asks this question, it tells me something about the way their mind works. Specifically, it tells me that I am very likely talking to a sociopath. A sociopath, somewhat synonymously known as someone with antisocial personality disorder, is someone who, among other things, lacks a conscience or a sense of empathy. Sociopaths are often said to “use” people, in that they care about others only insofar as they can get something out of it, often in a calculating and “cold” manner. They can be friendly, charismatic even, and have mastered the ability to appear normal. There is a classic work in this field with a title that fits perfectly: The Mask of Sanity by Harvey Cleckley. If you’ve seen the movie “American Psycho” with Christian Bale, you are somewhat familiar with some of the classic signs. The lead character plays a Wall Street suit who lacks empathy.

Sociopaths do not feel guilt. That doesn’t mean they commit any act they desire, though. They are not mentally separated from reality. Rather, they are acutely aware of social consequences and legal consequences and game theoretical consequences; they are just not motivated to act morally by any other internal drive that the rest of us have. They understand that if they kill someone and are caught, they will go to jail. They understand that if they cheat on their taxes, or their partners, or their term papers—and they are caught—there are consequences. They just have no problem doing such things when they feel very confident that they will not be caught.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that 0.6% of people have antisocial personality disorder. Assuming my campus at the University of Missouri—Columbia contains a representative sample (it almost certainly doesn’t—a lot of sociopaths end up in jail), out of 36,000 students, that means about 215 people simply lack empathy. It’s not impossible that I’ve spoken to a few of them during my 2 years of doing Ask-an-Atheist tabling.

When I’m asked this question, I could try to explain something about the fact that there ARE consequences for our actions—that if you raped and killed me, you would almost certainly be caught, and go to prison. Your career would be ruined, your family crushed, your friendships over and your relationships gone. But that’s not the kind of thing you say to someone who has just said something like the title of this article to you.

In my experience, there is really only one good way to answer this question. I say to them the following:

“If your belief that you might be punished after you die is the only thing keeping you from raping and killing me or anyone else, then I have no interest in trying to convince you that your god is imaginary. Someone who only forgoes needless evil on the basis of possible consequences is called a sociopath, and I have no interest in dying today. Keep your beliefs, please just keep them away from me.”

I also want to point out that this really doesn’t have anything to do with whether God exists or not, but rather whether hell exists or not. There is an important distinction. A lot of Christians seem to have trouble separating their belief in God from their belief in an afterlife. You can believe in one and not the other, and an argument in favor of God is not an argument in favor of an afterlife necessarily, and vice versa.

Until next time!

– Dave


Smart Giving: Why You Should Donate To The Secular Student Alliance

Disclosure: I’m an intern at the Secular Student Alliance this summer. The opinions below are my own and do not necessarily represent those of the SSA.

Hello, Dave here.

I’m going to come straight out and say it. You should donate to the Secular Student Alliance. Right now. I’m serious. Get out your wallet and set it on the table beside you. Have a credit card? Get it out. Have a bill in your wallet? Get it out. We’re going to do something here with it in a second.

I want you to take your credit card out of your wallet and look at it (or, if you have cash, take it out and look at it).

I want you to think of all the things you’ve bought in the last week.

Gasoline? Coffee? Gum? Cigarettes? Soda? Beer? Went out to eat?

I just got back from the store. Here’s a list of things I’ve bought in the past two hours:

– Two bottles of wine: $30 (not on receipt because I got them at a different store)
– A bath sheet: $20
– A corkscrew: $10
– A fancy can opener: $18
– A box of trash bags: $8
– A big jar of peanut butter: $7
– Two jars of jam: $5
– A package of hangers:  $5
– Some mouthwash: $5
– A little candle with a holder: $4

All of this together is over $100. Now, if I were to ask myself, which is more important to me? Wine? A fancy can opener? or the Secular Student Alliance?

Every time, without fail, I would choose the SSA.

Except that I *didn’t* choose the SSA; I chose the fancy can opener. I guess that’s not “without fail.”

I want you to look at your credit card, or the cash you got out, and ask yourself: “What is the highest and best use of this money?”

The Secular Student Alliance is doing the most important work I have seen in the world. I am not just saying this. I’m studying economics & anthropology at Mizzou, and I’m interested in non-profit efficiency and smart giving. I care about a lot of causes. I care about feminism, and poverty alleviation, and reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights, and vegetarianism & animal welfare. But I chose to work with the SSA because I think this is the most important cause, and the most urgent cause.

We are empowering students toward a secular future. A better future. A science-fiction future with flying cars and weekend trips to the moon and people living to their 200th birthday. Prosperous countries trading instead of fighting. When we focus our attention on being good critical thinkers, we solve problems. Like the bumper sticker says, “Two hands working accomplish more than 1,000 clasped in prayer.” The SSA works with students because students are our best hope for the future.

I want you to read this post by my boss, Lyz Liddell. It’s called “The Unstoppable Secular Students.” I mentioned “smart giving” above. That means using critical thinking when deciding where to donate. It means asking questions and making sure your money is being put not just to good use, but the best use.

The problem with this, from a non-profit’s perspective, is that when people think critically about donating, they tend to donate less. Emotions can take over people’s donation behavior and when people aren’t asking questions, it’s easy to get them to donate. I want you to do the opposite of what most people do. I want you to think critically, realize that the SSA is the doing the best work you could ask of a non-profit, and donate more. I want you to donate as much as you possibly can. I want you to do this because I have done my homework, and I know how important this is and how good of a job the SSA is doing. I know how understaffed the SSA is and how much its people care. And most importantly, I know that they are getting stuff DONE, I know how much they need every dollar you can spare to keep doing it.

Smart giving doesn’t mean giving less. It means choosing a great, efficient, and productive charity, and giving all that you can. If you care about secular issues, the SSA is what you’re looking for.

What are you going to buy tomorrow that you don’t really need? Don’t do it. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance today instead. We can make this happen with your help.

So, your wallet that is sitting out. Let’s do this. We can do it together. The $100 I spent today on crap I don’t need? I’m officially pledging another $100 to the SSA, right here, right now. And I want you to do the same. If $20 is all you can manage, donate $20. And because of Jeff Hawkins & Janet Strauss’s matching $250,000 donation offer, your $20 magically multiples into $40. Do it. Donate, because the SSA is important, and that’s worth caring about.

– Dave

Ellen says:

Remember, here are some ways to pledge:

1.  Pledge per word (.01¢ per word is suggested).

2.  Pledge per post (24 throughout the day).

3.  Pledge per thing you’ve learned.  If a post teaches you something new, you donate your pledge amount.

4.  Bid to torture. Have a crafty challenge for me? Something new to make into crochet? Some sick geometric origami? Whatever you do, don’t make me go outside and do… things… like… …exercise. I will hate you. But if you bid enough, I might do it.

5. And always bid for crochet Cthulhu’s and FSM’s! They will be available throughout the week, and any that are not auctioned will be for sale near the end.

So if you need any more reasons to donate, stick around. I’m here all day.

This is post 19/24 of Ellen’s Blogathon in support of the Secular Student Alliance. Donate here!


Student groups, keep strong during summer!

This post originally appeared on the Humanist Community Project at Harvard‘s blog.

Hello all!

Dave Muscato here again with more practical advice for running your humanist group.

Today’s article is intended mostly for student group leaders, but I hope that non-student humanist groups will also find useful advice here.

So your semester is over, and you’ve wrapped up all of your group’s official business for the year. Does that mean your group goes on hiatus until the fall? Most certainly not! Summer is an ideal time for your group members to get to know each other on a more personal level, and to do types of activities that you don’t have time for during the year. The best part is, these activities don’t necessarily require much expense nor planning.

It’s likely that, as a student group, your meeting attendance will contract over the summer. That’s fine; contract with it! Instead of reserving a lecture hall or classroom each week, try meeting in a coffee shop, or playing pool, or going on a group bike ride on a local trail, or seeing a movie together and then chatting about it over dinner afterwards. Have a game night at someone’s apartment. Go to the local zoo. Try that new vegan restaurant. GO TO CONFERENCES TOGETHER. Try some touristy activities in your town or on a field trip to nearby towns. Go to an art show, or the ballet, or a rock concert.

In our group, SASHA, one of our members & former officers, Jeremy Locke, has been doing an amazing job of this: If you, as a group leader, are planning to spend the afternoon at a coffeeshop reading, don’t do it alone! Make an event invitation via your Facebook group or web calendar, and invite group members to join you for conversation. Even if only 2 or 3 members show up, it helps keep your group on your members’ minds. Name these events something official-sounding, like “[Group Name] Summer Event #1: Coffee at Java Joe’s” so that your members know a series of these are forthcoming. And keep it up!

The key to summer success is consistency. Make sure you have lots of events going on throughout the week, every week. These need not be noteworthy affairs; in fact it can be preferable if they’re not. It’s more important to keep your group going by having something going every single week. In 3.5-year history of our group, we have yet to miss a weekly gathering, even if it was just a handful of us playing pool, or going out to a local bar, and this has worked very well for us. Of course, if you have 20 people RSVP to your Facebook event for hanging out at a coffee shop, it makes more sense to start planning larger get-togethers, but summer is a great time to play things by ear, feel out your group’s preferences for activities later in the semester, and really build genuine friendships with people you may not have had much opportunity to bond with during the semester.

Your group is a great resource for friendships, not just between officers and members, but between members, too. I have seen relationships spring from like-minded people meeting among our members, and it makes my heart happy. Make use of this opportunity. The people you meet with and bond with during your college years are going to be in your memory–if not your active correspondence–for a lifetime. Make sure your group has as many opportunities to socialize during this downtime as possible.

In my next article, I will talk about what you can be doing to help prepare for your fall semester during the summer months. Until next time!

– Dave Muscato

The contents and opinions of this article are my own and do not necessarily represent the position of the Secular Student Alliance.