The Nonexistence of Religious Morality

In a recent essay for a religion survey course I wrote that “If there are good teachings or moral ideas in the Bible or in the words of Jesus, they are good independent of their source and to rely on someone else’s teaching for your own morality is to be amoral.” My professor wrote a comment on my essay asking: “…what about when people motivated by religious ethics do really good things like the Civil Rights Movement? …are they amoral even if their cause is good?” By way of responding, I’d like to consider the classic “trolley problem” of ethics. Here’s the Wikipedia summary of this thought experiment:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You do not have the ability to operate the lever in a way that would cause the trolley to derail without loss of life (for example, holding the lever in an intermediate position so that the trolley goes between the two sets of tracks, or pulling the lever after the front wheels pass the switch, but before the rear wheels do). You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

Like many thought experiments in ethics, there is no “right” answer; both are pretty terrible options. The important part of the trolley problem is that the subject is forced to make a moral decision and is subsequently forced to examine the moral reasoning process that led them to that decision. For example, many would say that saving as many lives as possible is the most moral decision, others might say that the active participation in the death of the individual by pulling the lever implicates them in a murder. Both are valid concerns given the situation. [Read more…]

Reza Aslan Doesn’t Understand Atheists

 

I wouldn’t mind this week’s rant wars about “is Islam a bad idea?” if there was an actual discussion taking place. But it doesn’t seem to me like Reza Aslan and Ben Affleck have actually been listening to what Maher and Harris are arguing; they certainly haven’t addressed the Pew polling that Maher tried to bring up in the clip below. Recently Aslan wrote an opinion column for the New York Times in which he makes clear how little he understands the atheistic arguments against both religion in general and Islam in particular. He does this by neatly articulating many of the reasons why I hate religion while attempting to defend it. [Read more…]

Slavery is bad, m’kay?

I can’t believe I even need to say that.  But there it is.  A Christian acquaintance recently objected to my criticisms of the Bible.  (For context, I posted this image.)

A few days later, hallelujah!  A rebuttal was posted, explaining that slavery in Biblical times was more “indentured servitude” than slavery, and that slavery in the Bible wasn’t such a bad thing, really.  Biblical slavery was like being part of the family!  (No, seriously, there are actually people who say this.)

Now, to be fair, in the Old Testament, there were two types of slaves – Hebrew slaves, and slaves taken from other nations.  The laws governing the ownership of Hebrew slaves were significantly more humane than those governing Gentiles owned by the children of Israel.  For instance, in Leviticus 25, there is a clear contrast between the two classes of slaves:

Hebrew slaves:

39 “‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. 40 They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. 41 Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. 42 Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. 43 Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.

Gentile slaves:

44 “‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.

See how that works?  You must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly, and you can only keep them for six years.  Anyone else?  Whatever.  Yours forever.  Pass them down to your kids as an inheritance.  SWEET.

But, but… it was like being part of the family, right?  It wasn’t a bad life for those slaves, right?  Silly atheist, you’re confusing slavery in America with Biblical slavery – two totally different things!

Ahem.

20 “And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. 21 Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.(Exodus 21:20-21)

Huh.  I don’t know about you, but being beaten with a rod isn’t acceptable treatment in my family, regardless of whether my “smiting” puts me in a morgue.  Should I die immediately or a couple of days after the beating, I have a feeling our judicial system would view it as something slightly more problematic than a property loss for my assailant.  And — I’m gonna go out on a limb here — even if I fully recovered from this figurative beating, it would still be legally actionable.  Because, you know, BEATING SOMEONE WITH A ROD.

Historically speaking, slavery was never a super awesome situation (for the slave, anyway).  Theologian William Barclay, in his study of the letter to the Ephesians, examined the historical context in which Paul’s epistles were written:

…basically the life of the slave was grim and terrible. In law he was not a person but a thing. Aristotle lays it down that there can never be friendship between master and slave, for they have nothing in common; ‘for a slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave.’ Varro, writing on agriculture, divides agricultural instruments into three classes—the articulate, the inarticulate, and the mute. The articulate comprises the slaves; the inarticulate the cattle; and the mute the vehicles. The slave is no better than a beast who happens to be able to talk. Cato gives advice to a man taking over a farm. He must go over it and throw out everything that is past its work; and old slaves too must be thrown out on the scrap heap to starve. When a slave is ill it is sheer extravagance to issue him with normal rations.

There’s a lot more where that came from, but you get the idea.  If not, allow me to sum up: SLAVERY BAD.

Assertions that attempt to minimize the injustice and outrage of slavery in Biblical times are not just silly – they’re dishonest.  They require a blatant disregard of clear Biblical texts and historical evidence.  You can’t truthfully dodge the issue of the Bible’s failure to condemn owning human beings as slaves.  And if the only way you can defend the Bible’s track record on slavery is to lie, you’re hardly in a position to rhetorically stick it to militant lady-atheists like me.

Pascal’s Wager is for Chumps.

Over Easter weekend, I noticed my social media news feeds were peppered with several variations on a theme of “Happy holy days to my Christian and Jewish friends, and uh, atheists… GOOD LUCK.”  In other words, “Hoo boy!  Prepare for a rude awakening when you die, unbeliever!”  Thanks, concern trolls!

These hilarious best wishes for unbelievers’ eternal repose strike me as a lowest-common-denominator reframing of Pascal’s Wager.  The internet being what it is, the holy perspective is couched in veiled threats of damnation.  “That good luck I wished you?  IRONIC.  You’re gonna burn in hell.”  Pascal was slightly more subtle, but his point was very similar.

Pascal’s logic, nutshell-style:

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. (…) If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. (…) Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.

Well hey, that makes sense, right?  If the religious folks are right, they get to go to heaven and we fry.  If they’re wrong, they lose nothing, or at least, it’s a very finite loss. Except for one minor quibble I have: it’s not entirely honest. [Read more…]

Dear Theists Thursdays – Everybody Thinks Like You, Pt. 1

Dear Theists Thursdays is a feature in which I write a letter to theists about whatever happens to be on my mind. These letters represent my views as an individual and may not be shared with others here at Crocoduck. If you have any suggestions or questions for future letters, please send them to ryan.crocoduck@gmail.com. Otherwise, feel free to use the comments feature to discuss specific posts. – Ryan

 

Dear Theists,

I want to start this time with a bit of a disclaimer prompted by a conversation that ensued after I posted my last iteration of this series on my personal Facebook page. I address these posts to “theists”, but I don’t mean to assume that all theists are the same either in personality or beliefs. These posts represent my reactions to things I commonly see theists do and say, or things taught me during my past life as a theist. The other thing is that I attempt (with varying levels of success) to base my writings in the broadest possible sense and to root them in the logical conclusions the theistic model of the universe must arrive at. I certainly admit that some of you may slip through the cracks, and I don’t mean to misrepresent you. So, to quote Thoreau, “I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.”

This is to be the first of a two-part series on the error of assuming that everyone else thinks like you. I see this come in up discussions and media in a couple different ways, and I want to address two of them in this series. The first takes the form of what I’m going to call The Uncertainty Defense, or THUD. [Read more…]

Prove it.

When I studied Catholic theology, I picked up a concept that has stuck with me in my post-Christian, militant lady-atheist years (albeit in the logical, non-Catholic understanding of it): invincible ignorance.  If anyone doubts the existence of invincible ignorance, this interview should settle the question. (This 2008 interview is broken up into seven parts.  I watched all seven, and it required frequent trips to my calming mind palace/happy place, just to keep my blood pressure in check.)

If you aren’t sure you can tolerate the whole thing (frankly, I can’t blame you), allow me to sum up.  In this corner, possessing a keen intellect, multiple degrees, and a thorough understanding of evolutionary biology, Dr. Richard Dawkins!  And in this corner, possessing a winning smile, several touching anecdotes, and a handful of well-memorized and oft-repeated talking points, conservative activist and armchair-scientist-of-some-sort, Wendy Wright! [Read more…]

For those living under a rock, we salute you

Hey, I don’t know if you noticed, but I guess there’s a new pope!

As a former Catholic, it’s been fascinating to observe the media frenzy over the new pope this week, and to observe my own interest as well.  This is the first papal conclave I’ve observed since openly admitting that I wasn’t just a recovering Catholic; I don’t (and can’t) believe in any of this god stuff.  (Frankly, the elevation of Cardinal Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI should have been sufficient to send us all screaming into the ranks of atheism, but we’ll leave that diatribe for another day.)

Coverage of the new pope seems to fall into one of three categories:

  1. Focus on the firsts – This is the first “new world” pope!  This is the first Jesuit pope!  This is the first pope to take the name Francis!
  2. Focus on his near-Franciscan humility – This guy lived in an apartment, used public transportation, and cares for the poor.  I’ll admit, I had a moment of feeling a sense of relief when I heard stories highlighting this aspect of his character, but then…
  3. Focus on his social conservatism – A solid track record of being opposed to marriage equality, against adoption by gay couples, anti-abortion, anti-contraception, and very nearly everything else that might bring the church into the 21st century.  These stories have actually given me more hope than anything else I’ve seen.

Why do I, a formerly-Catholic, militant lady-atheist, care about any of this?  Setting aside my curiosity as a history buff, it comes down to a desire to see the church – in all of its incarnations – wither and die, once and for all.  No, no, I’m not proposing that the church or religious belief be banned, nor am I suggesting that atheists take up the church’s nasty habit of persecution. You folks have a right to believe whatever you choose.  But from an objective perspective, it is in the best interest of the human race for all of us to hope for the church to continue on its path of increasing irrelevance. [Read more…]

Gore Vidal: Theology And Sanity

Gore Vidal On Theology

Dear Theists Thursdays: You’re Kinda Awesome

Dear Theists Thursdays is a feature in which I write a letter to theists about whatever happens to be on my mind. These letters represent my views as an individual and may not be shared with others here at Crocoduck. If you have any suggestions or questions for future letters, please send them to ryan.crocoduck@gmail.com. Otherwise, feel free to use the comments feature to discuss specific posts. – Ryan

 

Dear Theists,

You’re kinda awesome. I really mean that, and I’m not even saying it to set up a joke or something. Setting aside the question of whether or not a theistic God exists, perhaps the thing that upsets me most about theism is its insistent claim that people are less amazing than they are and its demands of submission and subservience. Obviously, different sects and individuals take this to different extremes, but nearly all theistic belief is predicated upon this idea that people are broken by default and that the only method of repair is unquestioned obedience and subservience to a supernatural figure. [Read more…]

Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals