Saturday, June 21, 2008

the liquid that we're all dissolved in

AiG's Ken Ham on PZ Myers:

What’s he so worked up about anyway? If he’s right, God doesn’t exist—so prayer can’t do anything and, therefore, can’t harm anything. But, then, who cares about harm in a world without moral absolutes? It’s the survival of the fittest; so, evolution will inexorably eliminate these weak-minded “idiots” at the Pentagon. If they nuke some people along the way, so what? That’s just the death of the weakest in this purposeless accidental existence of ours; sooner or later the more fit will triumph, and the world will be more evolved. So, what’s Myers concerned about? This is all just time and chance and the laws of nature at work. What is, is. There are and can be no “oughts.”
This is a fairly common concept in American culture: those who reject God also necessarily reject all morality and concern for other people. I have heard people claim that atheists are unable to love their spouses, parents or children, and like Ham here suggests, atheists ought to have no problem with just killing people at random for no reason. In fact, evolution demands that anyone who admits that people evolved actively desire the murder of those "less fit" in order to continue the evolution of the race toward a better goal. Nevermind that this kind of teleological view of the world is a profound misunderstanding of what evolution is; the implication that I'm some kind of murderer just because I reject Jesus, well, it irritates me.

There is this concept in philosophy- I encountered it while studying linguistics- called Theory of Mind, which is essentially the ability to imagine that other people have minds much like one's own even though you can't directly experience another's mind. Without this, much of social interaction including things like language and commerce would be completely impossible; it is the basis for all of society, and all neurotypical (and at least almost all a-typical) humans have it. Empathy is a closely related ability.

Religions tend to disguise it, with ceremonial laws and proscriptions against things that are said to offend God although they hurt no one, but they can't disguise it completely: the theory of mind is the basis for morality. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and "Love your neighbor as yourself," are not concepts that must be revealed in a holy book, they are accessible to everyone with a human brain, simply because we are able to imagine what it might be like to be another person. Morality doesn't require divine intervention, or supernatural woo, or special revelation. Religion has added those trappings onto what everyone is able to know: if you want to know what is right, consider how your actions affect those around you, weighing the effects on others with the same seriousness as the effects on yourself.

Empathy is a scary thing; it is often painful and frustrating to put yourself in someone else's place, especially when you don't have the power to change the things that are causing that other person pain. It takes a great deal of effort to learn someone else's history, to understand all the forces at work in someone else's mind. And when your actions affect whole swathes of people, the determination of what is right is very complicated. Morality isn't easy or simple, but it doesn't require the supernatural.

Religious people who insist that divine revelation is the only source of morality either have such an atrophied sense of empathy that their understanding of morality has withered, or they are deceived and are trying to pass that deception on to others. Or both, I guess.


Elizabeth McClung said...

I completely agree and I am saddened that people would say those things to you or about athiests. Becuase quite honestly, pretty much everyone in Europe thinks American Christianity IS crazy - for example, ex-gay therapy is illegal in britian becuase it has been shown time and again to have 12 times the chance the person will attempt to kill themselves than they will say they aren't gay.

I also agree that morality, or empathy does not need individuals "interpreting" a diety to occur. Indeed, myself, I can or will only a God that does good, who cares, because good is absolute, not just the whim of what some being wants it to be (see why Christians hate me).

I agree that the type of emotional commitment to learn the forces that affect a person, which colour how they respond, to understand and care about them are great but are worth doing. And if anything, Christianity in general, particularly in North America seems to push members toward a superficiality, a need to know less ("Do you accept Jesus? Great, all I need to know") instead of more.

I think that often people do not want to do what is hard, and empathy, and caring is hard. Paying a couple bucks and being told you are good no matter how you treat people and that some supreme being now loves you unconditionally (while you are not required to love anyone else that way) is easy.

Thanks for this peice, it was very thought provoking. I hope I didn't offend in my opinions or comments.

Tayi said...

You totally don't offend. I'm actually quite pleased to find that anyone read this at all; I often think that my more abstract writing is so dense and inaccessible that no one will be interested. I'm glad you liked it. :)