Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Unbridled immorality

Debating atheist philosopher A. J. Ayer, an Anglican Bishop exclaimed that if Ayer didn't believe in God, "then I cannot see why you do not live a life of unbridled immorality."

Well, I'm an atheist, and I do live a life of unbridled immorality. I eat pork and shellfish, ham and cheese. I wear cloth of mixed fibers. I work on the Sabbath, all of them. I've had premarital sex, and I liked it. I divorced my first wife, to our mutual benefit. I'm not gay, so I don't have sex with men, but if I were I would and feel no qualms whatsoever (and if you're gay, it's none of my business). I drink beer and coffee. Back in the day I used to smoke a ton of marijuana; I quit only because (dammit!) it now makes me sick. When and if I'm terminally ill, in great pain without hope of recovery, I'll have no problem at all committing suicide, and I expect—no, I demand—that my physician assist me.

In general, I live my life to please myself, not God. The theists are right: Without a God, the sort of arbitrary, purposeless strictures that constitute most of their "morality" make no sense. Since I'm an atheist, I reject those purposeless strictures.

So why do I follow those strictures that do make sense, that are purposeful? Well, stated that way, the question is self-answering: I follow them—and I expect others to follow them—because they actually do make sense. Rocket science, eh?

I don't kill people because I don't want to kill people—I'm sentimental and squeamish. I don't steal things because I don't want to, I don't rape, drive drunk, commit mopery on the high seas, etc. because I don't want to. It doesn't matter how it came to pass that I don't want these things—evolution, socialization, rational deliberation or the accidental wiring of my brain—it is an actual fact that I don't want to do most things that normal people disapprove of, because I'm a normal person. Furthermore, I don't want anyone to kill me, I don't want anyone to steal my stuff, it makes sense for me to pay for police and prisons, and it makes sense for me to submit to strictures that are in line with what I already want. I gain much and sacrifice nothing (or nothing much) by preventing myself from killing people.

My neighbors approve of most of my behavior: I have the same sort of brain with the same evolutionary history, the same sort of schooling, the same sort of upbringing and social conditioning, have read the same sort of history, literature, movies and television as 95% of my neighbors, and surprise, surprise, surprise, I have the same sort of preferences about my own and others' behavior. How could science explain that!?

There are a few other activities about which the U.S. government and the state of California and I do not see eye to eye, 'nuff said, but I'm mostly law-abiding. I'm a statistically normal person in a democracy. By definition, democratic laws tend to reflect the attitudes of normal people. My attitudes establish the law; the law doesn't establish my attitudes.

[Update: I accidentally cut the following paragraph; it helps make sense of the subsequent paragraph]

When I was on my way to Pakistan for the first time, I made the mistake of mentioning to my seat-mate that I was not religious. I was treated to a forty-five minute diatribe which can be condensed down to the argument: You have to believe in God so that—and I shit you not, he used this exact example—you'll know it's wrong to have sex with your sister.

This theistic argument is—like all the other theistic arguments—mind-numbingly stupid (the only sophistication you'll see in theistic arguments is in hiding the stupid parts). If the only reason I don't have sex with my sister is just because is says so in the Koran, then why don't I not want to drink alcohol just because it says so in the Koran? On what basis am I choosing? Contrawise, if there's an alternative cause for my not wanting to have sex with my sister, I don't need to read it in the Koran.

I know, Quantum Mechanics seems simple in comparison.


  1. I think this is another example of people being told something at a young age and then they simply never question it or examine it.

    Which is why I agree with Dawkins that teaching religion - any religion - to children is child abuse.

  2. I think if one were to push their religion completely outside the bounds of objective reality, for instance teaching only, "God loves you and wants you to be happy," does not constitute child abuse.

    But it never stops there, does it?

    It starts with, "God doesn't want you to kill people." Well, ok, I don't want to kill people either. It's then, "God doesn't want you to steal." Well, ok, but... is muting the commercials "stealing"? It's then, "God doesn't want you to divorce your abusive spouse." Bullshit.

    And don't be gay, don't drink a beer, don't have otherwise responsible premarital sex, don't rat your pedophile priest out to the cops, do kill all the infidels, heretics, blasphemers... especially if they own a lot of valuable property the Church has its eyes on.

    It's the slipperiest of slippery slopes, the dangerous seduction of Diderot's "arbitrary rule of a just and enlightened prince."

  3. "God doesn't want you to divorce your abusive spouse."

    I think my atheist bonafides were solidified my sophomore year in high school; before that, I was simpy unexposed and wildly indifferent. One day, while riding the bus back to school for rehearsal (Thornton Wilder's "Our Town"), a lady tossed a buch of pamphlets to my friends and I. Presumably this is because we were wearing Burger King crowns on our heads.

    My pamphlet instructed me to love my abusive, wife-killing father because that's what Jesus would do.

    Yeah, um, no. I'll stab the fucker in the brain instead.

    That said, I think you're doing religious arguments a disservice with this:

    If the only reason I don't have sex with my sister is just because is says so in the Koran, then why don't I not want to drink alcohol just because it says so in the Koran?

    As I understand it, the argument is that the rules are so because of the existence of God, flowing from him or some such -- whether because of its intrinsic mystic juices that fertilize the world or as "spoken" prohibitions often seems unclear (and perhaps for this purpose is a distinction without difference). But my understanding is that Scripture is just how man is given to put in words what he is "supposed to know" instinctively.

    Not that that makes any more sense.

  4. As I understand it, the argument is that the rules are so because of the existence of God, flowing from him or some such...

    That's an ontological argument; the referenced argument was specifically epistemic: That I know ethical principles by virtue of the existence of a god, not that I must explain their truth by positing a god.

    I originally wrote a lengthy analysis, but I cut it because it was boring and all the different approaches reduced to "If I know A because of X, why don't I know B because of X."

    You're falling just a little for a standard theist bait-and-switch tactic:

    "Here's argument X for the existence of God."

    "Hm, X is fallacious because..."

    "But X isn't the argument, it's Y!"

    Sometimes you just go around in circles:

    "Well, Y is fallacious because..."

    "But Y isn't the argument, it's X!"

  5. My pamphlet instructed me to love my abusive, wife-killing father because that's what Jesus would do.

    And dude, if that means what I think it means, wow, that's really fucked up.

    Yeah, um, no. I'll stab the fucker in the brain instead.

    I'd be happy and honored to help.

  6. Um, no, I don't think it means what you think it means. My father is a kind, generous man. My mom did the hitting.

    The wife-killing is literally what happened in the pamphlet.

  7. Ah, well, that's something of a relief; I'm not sure about your mom, though, but it at least doesn't sound head-stabbing bad.

    Pretty fucked up pamphlet, though.

  8. It scares the crap out of me that some people are under the impression that the only thing holding them, and others back from murdering, raping and pillaging is a book, or a law, or a cop. Being scared and intimidated into acting morally is nothing to be proud of.

  9. cornucrapia: I share your fear about behavioral restraint coming only from a book, especially as we've seen that just a book can be interpreted in a lot of ways, many justifying behavior I (and most other modern people) find unacceptable.

    I'm a little more sanguine about laws and cops, though. At least they have guns.

    I'm frankly not at all "proud" of my own morality: It's simply who I am.

  10. It is scary to think of all of those religious people ready to go out raping and killing but only hold themselves back because of a little book of fairy tales.

    Or that they can go ahead and do all of that and they still go to heaven (in their twisted little minds) because they believe in Jeebus while someone else, like Larry, who doesn't, but lives a virtuous life, will burn in hell. Gotta love it!

  11. Doh... Sorry, James, I cut a critical paragraph by accident. See the updates.


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