In a slightly shorter show, we go heavy on Islam with stories about anti-Muslim firearms, the pagan takeover of Catholicism, Ben Carson entirely misunderstanding our secular government, a Muslim boy gets arrested for bringing a clock to school, plus we look at why so many liberal atheists defend Islam. Time’s a wastin’, go listen!
A woman prays behind the wheel, causing grevious harm to a grandmother, Michelle Bachmann celebrates the end of the world, the Duggars want back on TV to counsel sexually abused teens, more religious states are accepting the superiority of secular society and we talk about the stupid names that parents give their kids and why they shouldn’t.
So give it a shot, won’t you?
It’s our Christmas show, we look at violent Christians, arsonist Christians, the reality of a secular holiday and whether or not Christmas destroys wealth. Plus, we have an extended discussion on whether atheists can celebrate Christmas or not. Ho Ho Ho, have a good time!
I’ve written in the past about my objections to Matt Dillahunt’s secular morality arguments, how he thinks you can defend an objective morality based on a non-theistic viewpoint and my problems with such claims. On a recent Atheist Experience show (I say recent because I’m out nearly a month in my posts so it won’t be the most recent by the time you read this), a caller wanted to argue theistic vs. secular morality and Matt made some good arguments and he made some bad arguments. These were significantly different from what he’d said in the past, or at least what I’d addressed in the past, that it made me want to jump in and address them.
Now before we get going, I want to state unequivocally that I don’t dislike Matt Dillahunty in any way. Sure, there are some areas in which we disagree, sometimes fundamentally, but I think that he’s done a lot of good for atheism and he’s become a recognizable face for atheism across the nation and around the world and for that, I thank him for all of his hard work and dedication to the “cause”. I don’t keep going after his views because I have the slightest bit of dislike for him as a person, but because he’s a vocal advocate for his positions and because I am an avid viewer of a TV show that he hosts regularly, thus I get to see his views on a weekly basis.
There are some really good things he did in the above show and, in my opinion, some less than good things. First, he addressed the caller’s claim that being an atheist means that you inherently have no moral views or values. This is a point I’ve made often, that we, as humans, get our morality not from an imaginary friend in the sky, but from ourselves and our societies. Some people will further drape their religious beliefs over those secular morals and claim that they came from a deity, but this is demonstrably untrue. Being an atheist says nothing about one’s morals, any more than being a theist does. Stalin was, indeed, an atheist, but his morality did not come from atheism. He was not a moral or immoral man because he was an atheist, he never made a claim that atheism made him act in any fashion whatsoever. Of course, Hitler claimed, on more than one occasion, that his belief in God did make him do the horrendous things that he did and many theists, if they are even aware of this fact, desperately try to find some way around this undeniable fact, to the point of bodily ejecting Hitler from Christianity on the basis of not liking what he did in its name.
But then, I feel, Matt went off the rails. Granted, he is ostensibly part of the absurd Atheism+ movement, although he exists on the fringes and not at the center with people like PZ Myers and Rebecca Watson and Greta Christina and the like. He wants atheism to have some meaning beyond not believing in gods. He does, unlike the others, recognize that atheism means one thing and one thing only and for that he gets credit, but he wants to surgically attach secularism and humanism and other typically-liberal positions to atheism, such that when they say “atheism”, they mean “atheism+other stuff”. That’s where I vehemently disagree, I’m satisfied to leave atheism on it’s own and if I want to talk about secular humanism or feminism or whatnot, I can do that entirely separate from atheism. Atheism means nothing beyond not believing, it has no beliefs, it has no creeds, it has no teachings, it has nothing whatsoever beyond non-belief. The second you start talking about anything else, you’re no longer talking about atheism, you’re talking about something else. It does a serious disservice to atheists when some start treating it as anything but what it is. I, for instance, am not a feminist. I’ve explained why several times in the past. I am not a secular humanist. I am not a transhumanist (some atheists seem to think the terms are interchangable). I am not a liberal. I disagree on many different levels with the views of the Atheism+ crowd and do not want to be tarred with their ideas. In other words, I don’t want their social movements in my atheism and they don’t want my atheism in their social movements. They are not two great tastes that taste great together.
Therefore, I think the best course of action here is to acknowledge that atheism, in and of itself, leads nowhere, but that luckily, humans do not have a single label attached to themselves, they can adopt many different and wholly distinct aspects to their beliefs and personality. Matt can identify himself, if he wishes, as both an atheist and a secular humanist. He can identify as a feminist. He can identify as a liberal. None of those labels has any impact whatsoever on the others. Being a feminist does not lead one to be a liberal, nor vice versa. Being an atheist does not push one to be a secular humanist, nor vice versa. These are all distinct positions that one can hold which do not in any way require that one also adopt other beliefs or ideas. Atheism, like not collecting stamps, doesn’t say anything about what you do believe or collect, just what you do not.
I really wish people in the Atheism+ “movement” would stop and consider the ramifications and logic behind their beliefs, but the craziest of them are probably beyond salvation. For those who aren’t swigging the Koolade, and I’d like to think that Matt Dillahunty is one of them, thinking about how he presents ideas and whether or not those ideas are reasonable, probably ought to be important, after all, his voice is heard world-wide and I think that gives him a responsibility to consider not only what he says, but how he says it, especially if he wants to be seen as a reasonable, rational, credible spokesperson. If you’re going to push critical thinking as your primary goal, being able to critically evaluate your own beliefs seems to be paramount to avoiding hypocrisy. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that he and all other so-called “leaders” in the atheist “community” actually think about what they say before they say it and measure all of their positions against the same metric as they do theistic belief. Otherwise, how are they any better than people like Matt Slick and Ray Comfort?
In a Letter to the Editor in the Washington Times on December 7, 2012, a religious conservative named Todd Lewis argued that secular conservatism, or conservatism that exists without the appeal to religion, was “an empty suit”. I take personal exception to that statement considering I am a secular conservative and my suit is most assuredly not empty. This is hardly the first time we’ve seen something like this, it tends to be quite common, but rarely have I seen quite so much bullshit concentrated in such a small space.
Of course, I am, by my very nature, an equal-opportunity offender, I tend to piss everyone off. I’ve talked about what a rotten job the Republicans do, what a horrible job the Democrats do and what a crappy job the Libertarians would do, if they could manage to get themselves elected. There isn’t a political party out there that I really like, all of them have problems to one degree or another and none of them really represent true conservatism, especially non-religious conservatism.
Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at this letter to the editor and address it point by point.
In the aftermath of this year’s elections, there appear to be heightening concern and discussion about the cultural transformation under way in the country. Conservatives flail about, wondering how this can all be reversed so conservative principles might be broadly understood and applied. However, there seems to be something of a chicken-or-egg conundrum. If conservatism itself can’t transform the culture, how is the transformation to be realized?
The problem is, the Republican party no longer represents conservative values on either side, social or fiscal. What you’re really talking about are neo-cons, not conservatives, two entirely different things. whereas conservative values can be described as small government, personal and fiscal responsibility and keeping the government out of the lives of the citizens, that does not describe what the modern-day Republican party stands for. Under every recent Republican president, the size of the government has grown tremendously. We certainly don’t practice fiscal responsibility and haven’t since before Reagan. The only real difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is where they want to get their money from. Democrats are happy to soak the wealthy, Republicans are happy to borrow money from China. Neither side understands how to live within our means. As for the last, keeping the government’s nose out of the affairs of the people, the Republican party, in pushing it’s far-right religious agenda, is certainly not keeping that plank of the conservative platform. The only thing that has transformed in the past 50 years is the Republican party platform, it’s gone from espousing conservative values and views to looking amazingly like the religious Southern Democrat beliefs that invaded the party in the 60s and 70s. Unfortunately, for the religious right, the nation is changing and it isn’t changing to reflect their views, it is largely rejecting fundamentalist Christianity and this is seen all too clearly in the number of losses the Republican party has suffered in recent years. The Republican Party will continue to lose until they get rid of the fanatical religious lunatics on the ultra-right.
There are very few commentators who will even attempt to discuss our cultural crisis comprehensively in theological terms, thinking that would limit the discussion and be polarizing. This may be true, but the endpoint of all serious discussions must center on faith. Denying or ignoring this fact means we never resolve any argument with the truth. We can all talk endlessly about the excellence of conservative principles, but without the help of faith, it will in the end prove to be nothing but talk.
Where have you been? The discussion from the Republican party is framed in nothing but theological terms, you have tons of far-right ministers extolling the virtue of religion in the political arena from the pulpit every Sunday, you have Senators and Congress-people whining endlessly about how Christianity needs to be the central ideal of the Republican party. This is simply untrue and absurd. The fact is, absolutely none of the “excellence of conservative principles” rely on faith, but in the soundness of the ideology. There are lots of reasons that these positions have worked traditionally and it has nothing to do with religion. In fact, the Republican Party has worked just fine without the central involvement of religion that we see in it today. Of course, that was true when the Republican Party wasn’t just a shill for fundamentalist Christianity as it is today. It’s not too hard to look back to leaders in the Republican Party like Barry Goldwater who openly warned people not to allow religion to mingle with politics and he was absolutely right. If you want to see Republican victories again, they’ll have to go back to a non-religious, conservative stance and I don’t see that happening any time soon.
It must be clearly understood that leftism is, after all, a form of religion. Its beliefs and tenets appeal naturally and delightfully to all the base and self-glorifying tendencies of human beings. Conservatism cannot possibly defeat this with a simple set of empirical propositions. It is a fundamental aspect of human nature that people are religious beings. If pragmatic self-actualization, economic self-interest or some similar formulation is represented as the core of conservatism, it will be impotent. Secular, non-theological conservatism is an empty suit. It will not command deep loyalty without a real and far more profound supporting faith.
Ah, now we see that fallacious old shift, the “cast your enemy in the same light as yourself so you can use their tactics” routine that we see so often from the religious. It’s the same thing we see when the religious declare atheism to be a religion so they can continue using their irrational faith because they assert the other side is doing it too. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. Fallacious tactics are fallacious. It clearly isn’t a fundamental aspect of human nature that people are religious beings or there wouldn’t be so many non-religious among us. Once you step outside of the United States, you find countries like Sweden where only 18% believe in a god and only 2% go to church regularly. Even here, religious adherence is falling fast, the number of people who do not believe in gods will soon become a sizable minority within my lifetime and hopefully, within the lifetime of my children, will become the majority. This fact terrifies the ultra-religious so they hold their hands over their ears and clench their eyes closed. They don’t want to hear that religion, at least modern-day fundamentalist religion is doomed. The speed at which it seems to be falling off most people’s radar is ever-increasing and that’s a good thing.
Many conservatives seem to think that some simple adherence to the Constitution will save us. Do conservatives understand that the Constitution could not have been written outside of a Christian context? Many churches in our day seem content to be practically doctrine-free entities. They concern themselves mainly with appearing to provide people with golden tickets to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory in the sky when they die.
I’m sorry, the founding fathers did write the Constitution outside of the Christian context. Most of the founding fathers were very critical of Christianity in general and knew that they wanted to keep religion out of the government, for fear of what had happened in England and Europe happening here. It always surprises me just how ignorant many theists are of the founding of this country, they live in this fantasy world where all of the founding fathers were just as religious as they were, the whole of 18th century proto-America were all church-going fundamentalist Protestants who believed exactly what the theist in question believes. The overwhelming majority of our founding fathers were very critical of not only the Church of England, but of Christianity in general. All you have to do is read the writings of most of them to see that clearly. This country was also not founded on Christian doctrine in any way. They put it into the Treaty of Tripoli very clearly and stated the United States was “not in any sense founded on the Christian religion” The Treaty was published in newspapers across the fledgling nation and there is no record of anyone in the country disagreeing with it. Why is there such a confusion?
If secular conservatives and libertarians think they can transform a culture with principles and morality detached from faith, or with the tasteless gruel of intellectual policy positions, they will never capture the hearts of men.
I don’t want to capture the hearts of men, I want to capture their minds. We cannot solve the problems that face the United States without logic, reason and critical thinking. While I recognize what an uphill battle it might be, especially in a country where education is so lacking and emotion, especially religion, is so cherished, we can never get anywhere worthwhile. Whether Lewis and other religious neo-conservatives like it or not, the culture is already changing and it has been for quite some time. Unfortunately, I think, and I suspect Lewis would agree, that it isn’t changing for the better. However, I think we’d seriously disagree on why there are so many problems. I think a lot of it is the fault of unrestrained emotion on both the left and right sides of the aisle. I think we need to get back to what actual conservatism is about, not the two versions of liberalism we have in America today.
It’s not that secular conservatism is an empty suit, it’s that you don’t even know what conservatism is anymore. You’re so busy complaining about the non-existent strawman you’ve set up in the corn field, you don’t recognize the growing number of perfectly full suits of actual conservatives who are happily living without religion that are surrounding the field. We’re here, we’re educated and we vote. Instead, it’s the idiots on the religious right who are vanishing and they, like the emperor, have never had any clothes.
In the most recent Atheist Experience, they had a very long call from a theist who claimed he could prove that God is necessary for human morality. He started off essentially challenging Matt Dillahunty’s workhorse lecture, “The Superiority of Secular Morality”. I’ll link to one of his talks below, in case you haven’t seen it. While I think this caller is completely out of his gourd, both on his claim for the necessity of God and his eventual admission that he’d do what he believed was the will of God, no matter how heinous the command actually was, it reminded me of some of the problems I’ve had with Matt’s position on secular morality over the years. This gives me a perfect place to take a closer look.
Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely think that secular morality is infinitely better than religious morality, simply because it comes from reality. It may not have the feel-good, emotionally-comforting, lie-to-yourself quality of religious morality, the sense that you don’t have to think for yourself because some imaginary father figure in the sky is doing all of the hard work for you, you just have to mindlessly accept it, no matter how absurd it might be. No, secular morality, like all of secular thinking, is much more difficult, much less emotionally-pleasing, but it is superior because it actually makes rational sense. I think that’s the problem though, we shouldn’t expect secular morality to be presented in a nice, neat package, bottled and sanitized for your protection. In fact, secular morality is messy, just like virtually all human thought processes.
Matt defines morality as the “evaluating an action with respect to some standard or value”. Then he goes on to say that once you have your standard, regardless of where you get that standard, “the assessment with regard to that standard becomes objective”. That’s where we come into disagreement. He says that once you agree with a standard, that standard becomes objective, yet that assumes that you have a single standard upon which people agree. I think it’s clear, that’s simply untrue. How do you achieve that standard objectively? You simply cannot, any conditions you wish to apply to it, any goals you wish it to accomplish, those are all subjective, they come from people. Even religious standards are subjective. It was largely the religious who, through their reading of the Bible, decided that slavery was a wholly moral practice. It was also largely the religious who, through their entirely different reading of the Bible, decided that slavery was evil and needed to be abolished. Which one is correct? The answer is both. Or neither. What makes one potentially true also makes the other the same. What invalidates one invalidates the other. The idea that someone reads a book and adopts a set of standards from it is invalidated by the fact that someone else can read the same book and draw an entirely different set of rules from it’s pages. This is equally true of someone who chooses to apply a particular political ideology. Just because you like those ideas doesn’t make them objectively better than any other ideology out there.
The problem is, he says there is an objectively best moral course, I have to ask how he comes to that conclusion? Objectivity is defined as “judgment based on observable phenomena and uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices.” I’m sorry, but everything Matt points to is wholly influenced by emotion and personal prejudice. There is a serious difference between subjective and objective measures. When you are driving, your car is moving at a particular rate, this is entirely removed from your feelings about your speed. When the cop pulls you over and asks you how fast you think you were going, he doesn’t tear up the ticket if you happen to pick the speed limit. No matter how fast you think you were going, you were actually going a specific speed. Matt has chosen a series of values which appeal to himself and to the audience most likely to hear his talk. If he gave the same speech in an area where liberal atheism was not the norm, it certainly would not be as well received. Imagine him giving the talk in the deep religious south or on the streets of Tehran. He’d certainly be booed, he might be lynched. He espouses typically Western values, like freedom of expression and equality that simply would not fly for a second in places in the East. If we’re going to start talking about objective moral standards, standards that are simply true and correct and beyond emotions and personal prejudices, then we need to have them recognized as true everywhere. Exactly how likely do you think that will be?
Then he starts talking about modification and alteration of the secular system, however, he states that it encourages change and that it’s primary purpose is in the improvement of the participants of the system. However, this again can vary from person to person and group to group. He brings up the idea that if one’s value that men are better than women or whites are better than blacks conflicts with people within the group, then the rule ought to change. So what’s stopping them from changing the rules against, say, pedophiles? After all, there are certainly groups out there like NAMBLA who insist that they deserve equal footing with non-pedophiles. Why isn’t the rule changing? I would assume that Matt would say something about harm caused to others by allowing NAMBLA to be accepted in society, but earlier in the talk, he said he supports legalizing marijuana. What if I assert that such results in harm to society? I pointed out my views in a previous post that drug use, even drug use that doesn’t cause serious physical harm to the user, still causes harm to the individual and to society as a whole. As it was pointed out in the Q&A, Matt is somewhat overweight, something he freely admits, that’s certainly harmful to the individual and to society, through an increase in obesity-related disease, etc., why shouldn’t that be banned? How do you balance freedom with responsibility? I’ve given my views on that, I don’t see his spelled out in any detail.
He criticizes non-secular morals as being non-changing, yet he insists that they’re welcome to come on over to the secular side, assuming they’re willing to change, and adopt an entirely different set of moral standards. Funny, isn’t that what the non-secular people have been saying all along? Come over here, change your worldview and you’ll be accepted! Further, Matt has gone on record quite clearly in the past saying that slavery was always immoral, even when the majority of the nation thought otherwise, based on his beliefs today. That’s the definition of subjective. Certainly, I think you can make a case today, based on some of the subjective assumptions and beliefs we have today, but you certainly can’t turn around and apply that to another point in history when none of that was true.
In his section on constructing secular morality, he immediately starts to show his biases. Remember, earlier on, he said that secular morality was generated from within, yet now he’s saying that there are some people whose ideas, generated from within, are clearly not worth listening to. He says that they can be safely ignored because it’s “our” moral system. Guess what? It’s “their” moral system too! Who are you to decide, based on your own personal biases, which parts ought to be listened to and which parts should not? Shouldn’t that be left to the group? Maybe your views are in the minority? Apparently yes. Groups like NAMBLA or the KKK, that do not share a widespread popularity, would be shoved out the metaphorical airlock. What Matt’s really talking about here isn’t morality, it’s group-think and majority rule. Those things that fall outside of majority approval have no voice, those things that do get preferential treatment. We do what we want to do because we want to do it and we stamp a “morality” label on it to make it look positive to people who disagree.
Matt talks about being able to reject the views of the KKK out of hand. Why? Because what they say doesn’t create a society that “we” want. Who is “we”? Clearly, the members of the KKK want that kind of society, so “we” is just another betrayal of Matt’s personal subjective values.
He starts talking about “core values”. Life is preferable to death. Pleasure is preferable to pain. Says who? Again, this is catering to his own personal biases. Certainly there are many cases that I, and I know Matt, could come up with where life is not preferable to death. How about living in agony with untreatable, terminal cancer? Pleasure isn’t always preferable to pain, in fact, the whole reason the pain response exists is to warn us that something bad is happening. If we never felt pain, we’d be like the poor kids that have anhidrosis and often injure themselves seriously because they cannot tell they’re being harmed.
So what kind of a world do you want to live in? Who cares? I thought we were talking about objectivity here, not subjectivity. That’s where this entire argument falls down. He says that secular morality is clearly superior because WE say so. We who? It’s not hard to point to all kinds of cases through history where really awful things happen because WE say so. Why was there slavery? Because the majority of people in power supported it. He’s not talking about objective valuations here, he’s talking about mob rule. We who? We, the secular? We, the religious? We, the slave-owners? We, the clergy? We, the liberals? We, the neo-conservatives? Who is this we? Why do they get to decide what everyone does? The answer is obvious, because his audience are largely liberal atheists who are unhappy with the way the nation is running under a religious majority and who want a chance at running things their way. Not at all objective, sorry.
In the Q&A section, he gives it all away when he says that people agree to follow the rules when they choose to live within a society, but why doesn’t that apply to atheists when they agree to live within a largely religious society? We get to change the world, we fight for it every day, but nobody else has the right to fight against us? We are in the minority. Why do we get to decide what the majority have to do?
See, I’m a skeptic. I’m not a skeptical atheist, I apply skepticism to everything no matter who says it. Matt gets the same critical treatment as anyone else and, in this case, he just doesn’t live up to the hype. Yes, I agree that secular morality, in general, is better than religious morality, but I don’t think for a second that we can make a case for a single, worldwide, time-insensitive moral code, based solely on objective precepts. Not everyone wants the same things out of life and therefore, the idea that we can all collectively agree on a single set of standards is absurd. We need to allow people to live the lives they want to live, not the lives we want them to live. If freedom and self-determination is a criteria that we value, then how can we demand that people in other cultures who choose to live a particular way are wrong? Are they not free to pursue their own ways? Who says our standards are right?
Before people start declaring that one way is the right way, they need to discard their personal subjective biases from the mix and examine the proposition on it’s own merits, not how the proposition makes them feel. Like it or not, just throwing out religion isn’t going to make this world a better place to be. Getting rid of faith isn’t going to make a person rational or moral. Religious morality is only as good as the people who believe it, secular morality is only as superior as the people who practice it.
That’s a fact of life we all need to live with.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people disagree with me that the reason Middle-Eastern Muslims go so bat-shit crazy is because they have no secular society to moderate their behavior. Here’s the proof:
We all know about the crappy anti-Mohammed movie Innocence of the Muslims that has had religious loonies throughout the Middle East rioting and killing Americans. However, here we have no such problems. In fact, when the Nakoula family fled their house early Monday morning, they had been there for a week, everyone knew where they were and absolutely no one tried to harm them. Not one.
Leadership from both the Muslim and Coptic Christian religions have come out condemning the violence ignited by the film and have both told the Nakoula family that they have no need to be in hiding because no one in the United States wishes them any harm. That’s just not how we do things here.
And he’s right. I’d like to thank both Dr. Maher Hathout, senior advisor for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and Bishop Serapion, head of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, for proving the vast benefit of having a secular society, even with a largely religious people. Can you imagine the same scene playing out in Libya or Egypt? Would a major Muslim leader stand up and guarantee the Nakoula family their safety? Of course not! If they did, they wouldn’t mean it and even if they did mean it, nobody would pay any attention. In fact, it’s probable that extremist Muslims would issue a fatwa on the Muslim leader for religious treason.
The difference between an advanced western democracy and a primitive Middle Eastern theocracy is the quality of the society itself. So long as they are allowed to run around like a bunch of idiots, driven only by their emotions, the nations of the Middle East are doomed to remain third-world countries. They can’t advance because they can’t recognize the simple reality that religion doesn’t run the roost. Every time we have an incident like this, that point is driven home once again.