Category Archives: Ethics

Ethics Opinion

The Defense of Freedom of Speech: A Summary.

 

 

In general, we have as natural a right to make use of our pens as of our tongue, at our peril, risk, and hazard. I know many books which have bored their readers, but I know of none which has done real evil. Theologians, or pretended politicians, cry: “Religion is destroyed, the government is lost, if you print certain truths or certain paradoxes. Never dare to think , till you have asked permission from a monk or a clerk (Voltaire, 1977).

 

Though I risk comparing my wit to Voltaire’s, I must expand his point in this final essay. Those words which are not controversial, do not need to be defended. It is the extremists like us who need to defend our minority rights.

Have no doubt that we are extremists. We will be extremists until atheists aren’t considered a minority. I’ve heard frequently, of late, that change comes from the moderate. I find this to be a pernicious lie. The moderates among the abolitionists proposed a compromise on slavery; we’ll just send those english speaking, darker colored Americans back to Africa where we took them from. Would anyone like to defend their viewpoint? How much more to we agree with the extremists who argued that not only should slavery be abolished, but that blacks were are equals? Extremists like John Brown argued not only this, but acted on it as well. He sought to give black Americans arms, so that they might defend themselves like humans, rather than ineffectively petition their rights for them, as if they were children.

Another of the moderate’s brilliant ideas was to contains slavery, rather than end it outright. This includes the very first of many compromises on the subject: that 3/5ths bit of which you may have heard. To quote another master on the subject of indefinite compromise:

Until 1850, perhaps, the “peculiar institution” of slavery might have had a chance of perpetuating itself indefinitely by compromise. But the exorbitance and arrogance of “the slave power” forbade this accommodation. Not content with preserving their own domain in its southeastern redoubt, the future Confederates insisted on extending their chattel system into new territories, and on implicating the entire Union in their system (Hitchens, 2012).

 

Yet the profiteering racists were not the only extremists to prompt chance. John Brown was tired of the abolitionist’s snail-pace. He remarked that “[t]hese men are all talk. What we need is action—action” (Rhodes, 1892). His actions, though doomed, instilled a nervousness in the South that ended the fruitless moderation. There can be no doubt that the South sought to silence him.

No, The Innocence of Muslims is not an abolitionist masterpiece, but it is controversial, which makes it the front line fight -and the only fight- in the freedom of speech. We must always endeavor to separate in our minds the right to say something, and agreeing with what’s said. A work of fiction does only as much harm as our over-reactions to it allow. The work itself is quite tame.

Dissenters need their rights, and by their nature, they will be minority rights. That means, unpopular rights. I suspect all those who tell me change comes from the moderates, because that seems to be the easy way out. They may as well say: “We don’t have to be controversial, we can agree our way to justice.” Moderation is mediocrity for everyone but the politicians. Leave it to those who’ve already sold their souls, and speak your closest approximation of the truth regardless of what people will think of you. You can know, at least, that I will do my best to defend your right to say it.

 

References

Hitchens, Christopher (2013). Arguably: Essays (29). New York, NY: Twelve

Rhodes, James Fork (1892). History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 (385). Cambridge, MA: Harper & Brothers.

Voltaire, Francois (1977). The Philosophical Dictionary. (Peter Gay, Trans.) New York, NY: Penguin Group. (Original work published 1764)

 

Current Events Ethics Opinion

Controversial Opinions; or Free Speech

Taken from the Westboro Baptist Church's website with permission on January 6, 2013.
Only the people who really hate Philistines can ride on top.

Panem et circenses, or bread and circuses, is Juvenal’s now common idiom for the means to appease the people. Full bellies and something obnoxiously loud -yet meaningless- will keep the vulgar masses quiet, and in this glorious 21st century, neither are in short supply. But a populace distracted by loud but tolerable circuses is not concerned with true free speech, they are concerned with those trolls that defy the majority. Recent examples abound. The Westboro Baptist Church, the film the Innocence of Muslims, and atheists and antitheists in general, who so annoyingly scrutinize our religious opinions. It takes sober thought to realize the importance of defending these aggravating examples of free speech. In the next few days I’ll argue for the defense of the right to be heard for each of these groups, beginning with the least redeemable; Westboro.

People do not have the right to prevent others from offending them. If someone insults you in public, no moral person would defend your right to use violence in any fashion to . Yet this is exactly what we would have our government do. If we restrict the marketplace of ideas we enforce the majorities’ views with force, rather than reason. Any proposition that denies the right to speak to the Westboro is something that must be opposed as a matter of principle.

Westboro attracts attention by saying outrageous things. They are, in the intertubes lingua franca, trolling. They certainly believe the things they say, as they can be backed up by scripture, but that doesn’t detract from the only reason they make the news; they are hitting America’s soft spots. It is tempting to silence these fools with the weight of the law, as that is the easiest solution. A simple majority shows up for an election and then our police force recovers our peace of mind. But in doing so we have extended our government’s reach, albeit slightly, on the only area of free speech that matters, that is, the controversial part.

The ease of a legal solution to this problem does not make in the best solution; and there are alternatives. The Patriot Guard Riders will counter-protest quietly and respectfully anywhere the Westboro dares to show up, and without any legal ramifications. There was a similar result at the funeral of a fellow former resident of Holland, a Navy Seal named Daniel Price, thousands lined the streets with flags in a touching, if slightly jingoistic, display of solidarity.*  The turnout was helped in part by the foreknowledge of Westboro’s presence, and any harmful effect they could have had on the family of the deceased was negated.

I hope I have made a case against legally doing away with unscrupulous opinions. Everyone entertains unpopular opinions. People on this blog are likely to have one of the most hated of them: that of the nontheist. But this kind of independent persuasion makes discussions and life more interesting. Allowing dissent will create, by the process of argument, new opinions that are a closer approximation of observable evidence. And anyone who questions the popular theistic conceptions of the godhead appreciates closer approximations of reality. But unfortunately,  the government is not the only entity capable of suppressing unpopular opinions, and I will come back to that in the next essay.

 * The local report on Daniel Price’s funeral can be found here.

Activism Current Events Ethics Opinion

Against Kate Middleton et al

from: http://pandawhale.com/post/10555/my-penis-works-celebrate-peasants

Kate Middleton’s predictable but nonetheless depressing rise to fame only adds insult to the great injury that is pseudo-monarchy. Almost as inexplicable as the stupidity of the American two-party system, but surely stupider, is the United Kingdom’s love affair with a particular rich family who is openly paid to be rich. She mocks us with her trivial celebrations, and we proles relish the opportunity to worship her. Now, she has gone and done the most typical possible thing a human can do: she has reproduced. And to continue this most excellent resistance to millions of years of evolution her face again is exploding all through the intertubes. As if the pretentious, superfluous, and ostentatious display of unearned wealth that was her wedding wasn’t enough.

Middleton’s new royal estate is publicly funded, and worse yet, publicly honored. The royal family serves no real purpose for the United Kingdom’s government, and certainly not one proportional to the honors “Her Majesties’” government bestows upon it. I am in no way the first to have pointed this out either. It’s perfectly obvious to anyone standing beyond the fool’s haze of tradition that the best possible government does not include a facade of tyranny.

Marx called religion the opiate of the people. And we, as skeptics, have already stepped back from tradition and recognized faith’s grim role. I suggest that we again make use of this capability when considering the royal family, however pretty and polite they may appear. Giving the people their opiates in the form of a skeuomorphic government has numerous consequences; not the least of which is glorifying a decrepit regime of servility. What bothers me most is, every moment that the international conversation is about these useless figureheads is a moment the meaningful conversations are neglected for the sake of inane babble.

For example, the title of this article by Jane Hamilton is Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton boosts UK’s economy.* What Hamilton of course means, as is more clear in the article, as that demand for specific fashion items has risen dramatically because of our obsession with the young Duchess. That is not at all the same thing as boosting an economy. The world’s resources were redistributed to imitate Middleton, she did not create new resources, the economy was not “boosted”, except for the savings she doubtlessly annihilated.

The only rational response, then, is to not only endeavor to truly end the reign, regardless of how ineffectual it is, of the English tyrants. Doing this in the state is not enough, but removing them from the discussions of the interesting is necessary as well. Why should we waste any more of humanities’ precious and scarce resources on the pompous symbols of a darker time?

 *Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton boosts UK’s economy by Jane Hamilton, (1/10/2012, The Sun) <http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4049338/.html>

Ethics Science

Free Will and the gap between philosophy and neuroscience

Hello all,

Dave Muscato here again. Last night, a group of us from MU SASHA attended a public lecture at Mizzou from guest speaker Michael Gazzaniga, the renowned psychobiologist famous for his research on “split brain” patients: people who have had the two hemispheres of their brains surgically separated from one another, in order to treat epilepsy. It was a real treat to hear someone so well-known in his field speak in person, and I was privileged to be able to attend.

He spoke about free will: Do we have it? What does “free will” mean? What are some of the implications, specifically legal, if we do not?

In a sentence, he demonstrated that from a neuroscience (indeed, scientific) context, it is quite clear that we lack free will. In fact, he goes so far as to argue that the concept of “free will” is nonsensical and should be disposed of: Free from what? The laws of physics? No, each cell of our brain follows predictable patterns of behavior, i.e. is soul-less and automated, and our brains are “merely” highly parallel and complex conglomerations of cells. No where in this equation arises a homunculus, a “mind” within our brain that makes decisions separate from itself, no matter how much we might wish for this to be so, or how much it feels to us like this is the case.

Here’s where I think he lost us: Gazzaniga went on to argue that, while our brains do not have free will, persons (in a society) do. I don’t think he justified this leap. His argument, as best as I could understand it, was that individual responsibility arises on the level of a society, rather than on the level of the individual. He gave the analogy of a car, versus traffic. Regardless of one’s mechanical understanding of the operation or construction of a car, you cannot extrapolate or understand traffic patterns by observing a car in isolation. Similarly, humans in isolation lack responsibility—a single human just follows patterns of behavior and isn’t responsible “to” anyone—but in the context of living in a society, we can hold individuals responsible for their behavior.

This seems to me to call for the application of the is/ought problem. I think Gazzaniga was trying to say that, descriptively, societies hold individuals responsible for their behavior, and that this is permissible because individuals should be held accountable for their wrongdoings. What I don’t understand is, where did that “should” come in? Is he making an ethical argument here? Because up until that point, he’d been speaking descriptively. I understand why societies would do good to hold individuals accountable for wrongdoings, but that doesn’t mean “persons have free will” just because they live in societies. Persons may be responsible for their individual wrongdoings—it’s not like anyone ELSE is responsible for a person’s actions—but I don’t understand why he argues this means that they magically have free will.

It seems to me that there is a gap between what philosophers have to say about free will and what scientists have to say. From Sam Harris to Daniel Wegner to Michael Gazzaniga, those who study the brain tend to say that we lack free will, from what I have seen and read. So why aren’t philosophers agreed on this? I’m especially talking about thinkers who side toward religiosity (read: theologians). I understand that for the Judeo-Christian model to work, we are required to have free will, but that doesn’t mean that we do. Similarly, for the Judeo-Christian model to work, we must have souls, but—and I’ll put this gently—neuroscience has yet to discover them. I’m skeptical.

I’m considering writing a talk of my own about free will, based loosely on Sam Harris’s “Free Will,” the Free Will chapter in “The Big Questions” by Nils Rauhut, “The Illusion of Conscious Will” by Daniel Wegner, and some guided discussion questions of my own design. If I do, I’ll post a link to video of it here, or at least a summary, once I deliver it to SASHA and/or another group and can get film it for you.

Until next time,

Dave

Ethics Humor Lifestyle

How Not to be a Bad Atheist

In this great skeptical movement of ours we have had the opportunity to grow complacent. Of course, being the enlightened intellectuals that we are, we have not squandered this opportunity. Here are some problems I have with public skeptics I’ve watched.

1. Regarding Logical Fallacies

So you took a Logic class and you are now entitled to win arguments, I understand. But the point of those informal fallacies you learned was not to be able to relate them in the middle of a conversation and expect your opponent to understand your jargon. Explain to them in the midst of your argument with a counterexample, do not simply accuse them. The ultimate fallacy is strange idea that the first one to mention fallacy wins the argument. For example, if someone calls you an asshole, which if you’re like me is not at all a rare occurrence, do not say “Hah! That, my mere plebeian opponent, is an Ad Hominem informal fallacy. Had you been considerate enough to memorize that section of our textbook, you would be qualified to continue this conversation, but seeing as you are unfit, I will have to claim this verbal challenge for myself!” Instead, agree with them as you are, in fact, an asshole! But then go on to say “but I don’t know what that has to do with the efficacy of duct tape in improving survival rates of patients with gunshot wounds in the neck!” In doing so you explain to the commoner what an Ad Hominem is, without risking associating yourself with those amateurish logicians who apply their informal fallacy education as if it was a weapon.

2. Regarding Gender

So you’ve come out of the metaphorical closet of atheism and stepped into the literal light of day. Suddenly a new creature appears, a female who dares speak her mind in public! Worse yet, you’re attracted to her! Now, before you criticise feminism with your newfound skeptic methods in order to impress her, consider the facts for yourself, on your own time. Otherwise you risk making unintentionally controversial statements. How can you explain your problems with the theory of Patriarchy if your audience is busy criticizing your use of pronouns?! But there is another audience I’d like to address on this matter. Atheist feminists. Take it easy on us. Many of us are trying not to be sexist, and agree with many of the sentiments of feminism. Being a part of a disenfranchised group does not put you above criticism. The most common manifestation of this silly glorification of disenfranchisement occurs with the phrase “as a…”. For example: “as a woman, I think I better understand the irreparable damage an immature atheist can cause to my gender, and thus conclude that anyone who makes such blunders must be burned on a suitably phallic stake.” Though I would applaud your sense of irony, I would remind you that your argument from authority is everyone’s least favorite valid form. Because I said so.

3. Regarding Defining Atheism

Atheists are people who do not believe in God. That’s it. Don’t try to ascribe additional progressive goals to them. It is possible to be a sexist atheist. Don’t go around arguing what atheists should or shouldn’t do, by arrogantly titling your blog posts things like “How to be a Good Atheist” or presumptuously assuming your atheist audience will be interested in your advice about relating to the minority of public atheists. Even though atheism can and should serve as a platform for additional progressive discussion, we should not try to insist anything but disbelief should be a part of “real atheism.” Thanks for your time.

-Luke Smithems

Activism Current Events Ethics

On Forgiving the Homophobia from Christianity

These signs were displayed at Motor City Pride 2012, in June.
Apologetics?

Everyone has been glad to see these photos. It seems we are meant to be touched by this meager penance. Their new tolerant god lends flexibility to the charlatans’ bigotry. A flexibility, I must add, that has been employed before; with the geocentric theory, creationism, and nationalism. Each time, the policies logically derived from their sacred text are rescinded by a retreat from that same text.

But forgive them, they ask. Very well, let us consider what reasonable terms we can accept this forgiveness. Most Christians, for most of their history, persecuted people because of a private sexual preference. I am particularly reminded of the case of Alan Turning, who, upon being given a choice between a hormone therapy that would have caused him to grow breasts, and suicide, chose death. But how can we assure this type of thing never happens again? By first understanding why they did this in the first place, and this is because their sacred text, the Bible, very clearly lists Homosexuality as an abominable sin.

I can already hear the objections.

“God is love!”

Irrelevant, the scriptures damn sin as all but unforgivable. Anyone who thinks otherwise should read the story of Korah, or Jesus’ remarks on lukewarm water. (A phrase I particularly resent.)

“That was just the Old Testament!”

What other great moral guideline of the Old Testament was forgotten when Jesus returned? True, some minor laws that the Pharisees had extrapolated were forgotten by Jesus, for example when he allegedly worked on the Sabbath by healing someone. But the definitions of appropriate sexuality were never challenged, and why should we simply assume they have been abandoned because of Jesus’ return? Why keep the Old Testament at all if we can assume such things? If I am wrong, and there is a specific annulment of the laws against homosexuality in the Bible, I am ignorant of it. The reality is, again, proof of the corruption of the system of belief that is Christianity, and we are again incapable of seeing it for what it is. These people’s religious beliefs are immoral. They could not leave other people’s sexual habits alone, because their book plainly told them not to. Now, they abandon the book with all the usual casuistry. They’ve pulled this card before, with evolution, and with heliocentric theory, and with women’s suffrage, and with the abolitionists. But, if we convinced people to abandon the book, rather than just the unfashionable parts, how could they criticize the gay pride movement?

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for gays to be able to get married.”
“Why?”
“It will weaken marriage by weakening the definition of marriage. Without such strict terms for marriage, it loses its poignance.”
“So the sanctity of an individual’s marriage is determined by that marriage’s peers? Further, the simple admission of a possibility of a marriage outside your social group’s definition of a marriage will cause this? If that’s true, the marriage was impossibly fragile to begin with, and therefore doomed.”
“It is objectively not right. People are harmed.”
“Whom?”
“The children.”
“They are empirically not. There are many examples of high-achieving children with gay parents.”
“The people in the marriage are harmed.”
“They are consenting adults, what evidence can you put forth to justify the disregard of their personal choices?”

There isn’t any. I cannot continue this hypothetical debate because it requires an impossible standard of evidence to justify an anti-homosexual standpoint. Yet, apparently, we would prefer to retain this fabricated and ancient conglomeration of myths that is absolutely proven to be capable of justifying the use of slaves, and the interruptions of consenting adults’ personal lives.

So no, I will not forgive you, until you admit not only you were wrong, but show me you understand why you were wrong.

 

Ethics Lifestyle

Vegetarian Ethics: It’s not black and white

What is an ethical amount of meat for a vegetarian to eat?

The answer seems obvious: Zero, right? I’ll argue this is incorrect. I’ll begin with the story of a chicken sandwich, the vegetarian atheist who ate it (me), and who almost felt badly enough about it to pray.

I’ve been a vegetarian for about 3 years now for ethical reasons. I want to cause as little suffering as reasonably possible. It’s the right thing to do.

Two weeks ago, Ellen Lundgren and I were on a 6-hour drive to the CFI Leadership Conference in Buffalo, NY. Around 8, we stopped for dinner. We were on a tight schedule and didn’t want to stop anywhere too time-consuming.

The only restaurant we could find that was open, nearby, and quick was Wendy’s. Wendy’s does have several non-meat items, but they are all sides or desserts. If you’re at Wendy’s, and you want the nutrition—and hunger satiation—that comes only from protein, you’re going to have to order something with meat. So I did, for the first time in several years.

I prefer chicken to beef because chickens are stupider than cows, and are physically less capable of suffering. (Similarly, I feel less bad about Caesar salads, which contain anchovies, than chicken sandwichs).

Despite my atheism, when I sat down, I had a very strong urge to pray for the chicken, though I knew it was superstitious. I think this was left over from the days when I prayed before eating—I became a vegetarian around the same time I became an atheist.

I believe it was a bit of déjà vu. Ellen thought it was funny; I decided to blog about it.

Many vegetarians, and especially vegans I think, tend to be more judgmental and dogmatic about their food. A friend once asked me if I think I’m better than she is because I’m a vegetarian. I told her yes, I do think vegetarianism is morally superior; if we’re defining “better” as “acting more ethically,” then it follows that I think I’m better. Integrity is one of the more useful measures of quality in a person. However, I don’t think this makes her a bad person, nor me a good person. My friend is great in other ways, and more ethical than me in many.

I don’t see vegetarianism as an inconvenience most of the time, not more than, for example, holding the door for someone. You learn to do it as part of living in a peaceful society. Not eating animals is the moral choice if reasonably possible—and it’s usually easy, for most people in 1st-world countries. It’s the environmentally-sound choice. Vegetables are delicious and nutritious. And you sleep better. What’s not to like?

Vegetarianism does not mean simply cutting meat from your diet. It means replacing animal sources of protein with vegetable sources of protein, like nuts & beans. In the words of Leo Tolstoy:

One can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.

I’m not vegan—I eat eggs, dairy, etc if I know they came from ethical sources. By ethical I mean that as little unnecessary suffering was involved as reasonably possible. Although one can avoid any unnecessary suffering by never contributing to demand, I find this DOES cause unnecessary suffering—to me. It is very inconvenient, if not impossible, to forgo the use of all animal products.

Vegetarianism is not an all-or-nothing way of life. I wouldn’t ask someone to give up meat entirely, but you can certainly eat less and just replace it with other protein. On similar utilitarian grounds, I’ll eat meat when it maximizes happiness. It would’ve caused me more “suffering” to wait 4 more hours to eat something on this road-trip than it would have to eat part of a chicken that was dead long before I deliberated over whether or not to order it.

It’s also acceptable for vegetarians to eat meat on utilitarian grounds if otherwise-edible meat is going to waste, to be “enjoyed” only by bugs and microbes: I’ve no problem eating it instead. I will enjoy it much more than microbes will.

I desire to contribute to net demand for meat as little as possible. This is something we should all strive for. It’s not necessary to eat meat in order to live healthily, and it’s the most ethical choice.

Until next time,

Dave

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

Ethics History Religion

Martin Luther King Jr. – Church Critic and Religious Skeptic

The origin of morality is a popular topic among both religious believers and skeptics. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a religious debate where this point has failed to come up. Many religious people, especially Christians, view the existence of a moral code as compelling evidence of their God’s existence, and will often reference the robust moral convictions of famous religious leaders to support that claim.

The most common contemporary example is Martin Luther King Jr., a revered Baptist minister and civil rights leader. King graduated high school at the age of 15 and, after earning two bachelor’s degrees, was awarded a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. During that time he served as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and became an outspoken proponent of the American civil rights movement.  In 1964, King became the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35. King was a Christian leader who undoubtedly possessed a strong moral compass. However, it isn’t at all clear that his moral convictions arose from his religion.

In fact, MLK often boldly condemned the actions of the Christian Church.  As Jeff Nall points out in his profile of King’s religious beliefs, MLK roundly criticized many forms of organized religion, not only for its failure to support racial and economic equality (calling it Christianity’s “everlasting shame”), but also for its explicit support of war and violence.  King noted:

In a world gone mad with arms buildups, chauvinistic passions, and imperialistic exploitation, the church has either endorsed these activities or remained appallingly silent. During the last two world wars, national churches even functioned as the ready lackeys of the state, sprinkling holy water upon the battleships and joining the mighty armies in singing, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” A weary world, pleading desperately for peace, has often found the church morally sanctioning war.

Nall also points out that MLK was a strong supporter of church/state separation. Regarding the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that school-sponsored prayer is unconstitutional, King said:

I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally, or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision.

But King didn’t limit his criticism to the church; he was also openly skeptical of the very foundations of Christan doctrine. Despite being the son of a Baptist minister, MLK challenged traditional views of Christianity and the literal interpretation of scripture from a very young age.  As Robert James Scofield describes in his profile of Martin Luther King Jr.’s religious doubts:

His entrance into Christianity at the age of six came from neither a genuine religious conviction nor a crisis moment; rather, he saw his sister make the altar call during a local religious revival and quickly followed suit. He claimed that during his baptism he had no idea what was occurring. Perhaps most striking was his denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus during Sunday school at the age of thirteen. From this point he stated […in his Biography], “doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly.”

Those doubts were reinforced as King continued to explore the foundations of Christianity.  In a paper he wrote in 1949, King examined the psychological and historical origins of three foundational concepts of Christianity: The divinity of Jesus, his virgin birth, and his resurrection. While his analysis is worth reading in full, I’ll give away the punchline by telling you that King begins by stating, “these doctrines are historically and philolophically [sic] untenable.” He goes on to strip these stories of their literal meaning, and explore what it was about both the historical Jesus and the sociopolitical environment in which early Christianity was spreading that might have led to the propagation of such obvious inconsistencies and falsehoods as those found in the Bible.

King went on to exhibit other forms of skepticism about mainstream Christian doctrine, and even warned that it may be harmful. In 1950, King wrote a paper titled “The Humanity and Divinity of Jesus,” where he states:

The orthodox attempt to explain the divinity of Jesus in terms of an inherent metaphysical substance within him seems to me quite inadequate. To say that the Christ, whose example of living we are bid to follow, is divine in an ontological sense is actually harmful and detrimental. To invest this Christ with such supernatural qualities makes the rejoinder: “Oh, well, he had a better chance for that kind of life than we can possibly have …” So that the orthodox view of the divinity of Christ is in my mind quite readily denied. The significance of the divinity of Christ lies in the fact that his achievement is prophetic and promissory for every other true son of man who is willing to submit his will to the will and spirit of God. Christ was to be only the prototype of one among many brothers.

The appearance of such a person, more divine and more human than any other, andstanding [sic] and standing in closest unity at once with God and man, is the most significant and hopeful event in human history. This divine quality or this unity with God was not something thrust upon Jesus from above, but it was a definite achievement through the process of moral struggle and self-abnegation. [Emphasis mine.]

In other words, King’s saw Christ’s “divinity” to have arisen through his good works, not because of his particular relationship to a deity. In this sense, it seems MLK is using an external definition of morality to evaluate Christ’s behaviors.

This is a reflection of what’s known as “The Euthyphro Dilemma,” which asks if something is good simply because it is God’s will, or if God wills something because it is good. Briefly, if the first statement is true, then morality is arbitrary, and anything a god does cannot, by definition, be immoral. Moral behavior therefore becomes a synonym for “God’s actions.”  However, if the second is true, then morality is independent of any gods, and therefore can’t be used as evidence of said gods.

As a secular humanist and an atheist, I believe that the foundations of morality are rooted in a concern for human welfare and are completely independent of religious belief. Martin Luther King Jr.’s opinions and writings suggest that he would agree with me.

 

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9/11 Changed the Face of Atheism

It has become almost cliché to say that the attacks on September 11, 2001 were the Pearl Harbor or Kennedy assassination of our generation.  Ten years later, nearly all of us remember what we were doing the moment we heard the news.  The day is seared into our collective memory not simply due to the emotional impact of the moment, but because of the startling realization that our lives would never again be the same.

The events of that day profoundly affected our way of life. Not just foreign policy or airline safety standards, but also our sense of security and our relationship to fellow human beings. For many people, it even changed their relationship with their god and religion.

The American Humanist Association’s most recent newsletter features one woman’s story of how 9/11 influenced her journey from Catholicism to Atheism. Diqui LaPenta, a biology professor in northern California, tells of losing her boyfriend, Rich Guadagno, on Flight 93, the flight that crashed in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania.

…My parents arrived two days later, having driven all the way from San Antonio, Texas, and we flew to New Jersey for a memorial service for Rich. Some very religious relatives planned to meet us in New Jersey. I asked my parents to ensure that those relatives refrain from religious platitudes. I didn’t want to hear that Rich was in a better place or with God or that it was all part of some plan that God had for us. From the moment I heard that Rich and thousands of others had been killed, I knew that the all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God of childhood stories absolutely could not exist. Rich was not in a better place. There was no place he would rather be than with his dog Raven, me, his family, and his friends. I would never see Rich again, as there is no afterlife. Pretending that I would see him again would make it impossible to heal.

Before 9/11, I’d never considered myself an atheist. After that day I was, and I let people know it. When asked what church I attend, I reply that I don’t. If prompted to explain why, I say that I’m an atheist. Some people say, “But you have to believe in something!” I do. I believe in the power of rational thought and critical thinking. I believe that we should live thoughtful, peaceful, moral lives because it’s the right thing to do and not because we’re afraid of punishment or hopeful for a reward beyond the grave. We have this one life, and we should make the best of it for the short time we are here.

Diqui isn’t the only one that felt compelled to be more forthright about her atheism after 9/11. As the CNN Belief Blog points out, the religious nature of the attacks provided the impetus for many atheists to come out of the closet and openly criticize previously unassailable religious beliefs.

Atheists were driven to become more vocal because of the 9/11 attacks and America’s reaction, says David Silverman, president of American Atheists. He says many atheists were disgusted when President George W. Bush and leaders in the religious right reacted to the attack by invoking “God is on our side” rhetoric while launching a “war on terror.”

They adopted one form of religious extremism while condemning another, he says.

“It really showed atheists why religion should not be in power. Religion is dangerous, even our own religion,” Silverman says.

Atheists are still the most disparaged group in America, but there’s less stigma attached to being one, he says.

“The more noise that we make, the easier it us to accept us,” Silverman says. “Most people know atheists now. They knew them before, but didn’t know they were atheists.”

In fact, atheists have gained so much public acceptance that David Silverman gave a public address this morning on the main steps of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, in an event hosted by the PA Nonbelievers.

While some atheists began speaking out, others began writing. As Newsweek reports, Sam Harris began writing his bestselling The End of Faith on September 12th, 2001 – directly in response to the attacks.  Harris’s recent blog post on the 10 year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks succinctly summarizes his perspective on the distance we have left to travel:

Ten years have now passed since many of us first felt the jolt of history—when the second plane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. We knew from that moment that things can go terribly wrong in our world—not because life is unfair, or moral progress impossible, but because we have failed, generation after generation, to abolish the delusions of our ignorant ancestors. The worst of these ideas continue to thrive—and are still imparted, in their purest form, to children.

On the other hand, while some atheists began speaking out in public and openly critiquing religious ideas, others saw the attacks as a call for greater unity and love.  Chris Stedman, a Fellow for the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, will be honoring those lost by spending today packaging 9,110 meals to be distributed to hungry children in Massachusetts.  As he stated recently in Washingtion Post’s On Faith:

9/11 will live on forever in our nation’s memory. We suffered an incomprehensible loss at the hands of extremists who believed that religious diversity must end in violence. But as people of diverse religious and secular identities, we can counter them with our unity. By building bridges of understanding, we can act on our shared values and learn-from and with one another-how to be our best selves.

No matter the reaction, the attacks on September 11th caused the public face of atheism to drastically change.  The 10 years since that day has seen many changes in way the world community approaches religion, but no one can say that religious beliefs are as protected from criticism as they were a decade ago.

Many non-believers have very strong opinions about the best way to prevent similar attacks in the future. Despite the ongoing debates, it seems clear to me that the courage to work with religious community groups in areas where our interests overlap, paired with the freedom to directly and openly criticize bad ideas wherever they occur in the public sphere, will be the tools that we must use to build a safer, healthier, and happier future.