I’ve wanted to write this for a while because I keep running into it and it just bugs me. How many people have you talked to who are utterly convinced that everything we know today, everything we believe today, every position we have on social or moral issues today, is absolutely true and applies universally? Lots? Because I see it constantly.
Now I’ll use a case in point, just because I’ve mentioned Matt Dillahunty many, many times recently and this is something that comes up on the Atheist Experience quite frequently. He asserts, based on what I understand of his position, that slavery is wrong, not just today, but forever, there has never been a time when it has not been wrong. Now granted, that is his opinion and he’s more than welcome to his opinion, but the fact is, he cannot demonstrate that slavery is universally wrong, any more than anyone can demonstrate it’s universally right. It remains an opinion regardless.
However, I was having a similar argument with a friend who is a historian and a teacher about the importance of passing along historical information without modern-day biases and he admits that while he shares my concerns, it’s hard for people to remove their own biases when it comes to controversial subjects. I agree that this is true, but as atheists who claim to pride ourselves in rational thought and critical evaluation of claims, even our own claims, I must point out that, hard or not, we must endeavor to do exactly that.
So let’s look at slavery as an example of this, shall we? Someone who asserts that our views today are automatically correct and better than views of the past has lost their historical perspective. Probably more correctly, they’re too emotionally enamored with their modern-day perspective and forget that time always moves on. People in the 1800s probably felt morally superior to people who lived in the 1500s, say. They felt more advanced, they felt their beliefs were much improved and their outlook on the world was superior to that which had come before. Yet many of them believed, mostly for religious reasons, that slavery was perfectly valid and justified. Certainly not all of them did but a goodly percentage. So why did these people who felt superior to the people of the 1500s get it so “wrong”? After all, people today assert that our ancestors from the 1800s who believed slavery was justified were wrong. So what happens in the year 2300? What if they view things that happen today as being as “backward” as we view many of the things of the 1800s? We need to realize that not only are morals never universal and certainly not applicable through time and space, but that they only represent a snapshot of a particular view in a particular time. You no more have an argument that your views are correct today than someone in 1830 did with regard to their views. You don’t get to pick and choose and apply your emotional attachment to your claims as logical proof, which is something I see a lot of people trying to do.
Or, as is painfully common today, people claiming the Islamic prophet Mohammed was a pedophile. Assuming they’re just referring to him having sex with a young girl, it’s simply incorrect because at the time he did it, it was an acceptable practice. He was doing nothing wrong, it was commonplace. We simply cannot apply modern-day standards to ancient peoples and hold them accountable for doing something wrong. It would be just as wrong to criticize our ancestors of just a few hundred years ago, where getting married at 12-13 was the accepted practice. Were they all pedophiles? Of course not.
Yet this kind of thing is far too commonplace. People regardless of political persuasion seem to think that what we do today is magically the one right way to do things. Every idea, every belief, every position needs to be approached from an entirely rational, fact-based, evidence-supported direction. Far too often I see people who may be very rational with regard to religious issues, turn almost entirely to emotion when it comes to social issues because they simply do not apply the same criteria to their positions. This is problematic and is the primary cause of things like the Atheism+ debacle and a lot of issues I have with both liberal and neo-conservative thought. Both are just as bad and neither are immune.
Being rational is a way of life. It’s not something that you turn off when you stop talking about your pet project. It ought to be of primary concern in every aspect of your life. Religion. Politics. Social issues. Relationships. Yes, emotion has a role and a place where it can and should be applied in all of these things, but it should never be the primary motivator in any of them.
You can’t just declare yourself right, you have to support it with evidence and reason. Your ideas are never universal, they are never true across time and space. They’re just what you think today. Who knows what you’ll think tomorrow?