Saturday, June 1, 2013

Pluralism ≈ Disney Movies (Cute but Impossible)

Tolerance is often touted as a great virtue. Indeed, it’s kinda necessary for a world of diverse people with diverse cultures and diverse beliefs to share the planet without killing each other. For much of human history, killing “the other” was pretty much standard, but society has mostly (though by no means completely) evolved beyond that. I would consider myself a fan of not killing people, so on the whole I have to say that I support the idea of tolerance and, specifically, religious tolerance. However, while I approve of the “live and let live” approach that most religious people have taken, the complacent stance of accepting other religions as valid puzzles me.

This idea is encapsulated in the popular “Coexist” bumper stickers, the owners of which are basically saying “I don’t agree with your beliefs, and you probably don’t agree with mine, but let’s get along anyway.” It’s a practical sentiment to hold...but it doesn’t strike me as terribly logical from a religious standpoint. As Sam Harris said, ”Certainty about the next life is incompatible with tolerance in this one.” If you really and truly believe in all the tenets of your religion (and your religion involves Heaven and Hell), you should do everything in your power to convince everyone you care about that your particular set of religious beliefs is correct because, presumably, you want these people to go to Heaven. Most people don’t do this as it’s not convenient and, I would argue, most people don’t truly believe their religion is entirely correct. Certainly, religiously hardcore people will go through the effort of proselytizing and trying to convert others (or, alternatively, waging war on those insidious infidels), but most people don’t bother to go to such lengths.

Another interpretation of those bumper stickers takes the idea of tolerance a step further and actually allows for different religions to be simultaneously valid; this is the inherently absurd idea of “religious pluralism.” I’m sure there are some really nice people who buy into this idea...but really? You think it’s somehow possible for all these different religions to be correct? Really? Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship one god...but it is most certainly not the same god. You can’t make the case that it’s the same god. You just can’t. It’s like saying that baseball, basketball, and Baseketball are all the same sport. The Bible, Torah, and Koran are disparate books with disparate tenets and disparate messages. Jesus and Muhammad were not homeboys, so it’s rather hard to reconcile their respective existences and accept both Christianity and Islam as viable pathways to Heaven. Islam recognizes Jesus as having existed, but he’s just another dude; Christianity doesn’t even care about Muhammad. They can’t both be right. Polytheistic religions, obviously, are an entirely different beast (like an elephant, perhaps). No matter how powerful a given god may be, he cannot do the impossible and make both a monotheistic religion and a polytheistic religion correct.

In fact, that statement applies to virtually any combination of religions. So why do people pretend that it’s possible when it clearly isn’t? If there truly was a loving god in existence (who genuinely wanted everyone to praise him, follow his rules, and eventually end up joining him in Heaven), he would not allow so many people who are willing to accept the idea of a deity, accept the concept of intelligent design, and accept the idea that they need to devote their lives to the “one true God” to blindly follow the wrong set of rules. That’s not loving; that’s sadistic.

This may be another example where one might try to invoke the old “God works in mysterious ways” or “we are incapable of understanding His plan” bullshit. There is simply no way to reconcile the propositions of all the different religions on this planet, each with their own sizable following. It is not possible for all of those religions to be correct, which means that either one of them is correct or none of them are correct. Multiple versions being correct is not an option. If you believe that the only way to get to Heaven is by accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, then you cannot also believe that people who do not accept Jesus Christ can go to Heaven. This is a tenet of Christianity. Jews and Muslims do not recognize Jesus Christ as their Savior; therefore, if you’re a Christian, you must believe that they’re going to hell. There’s no wiggle room here (unless you believe in predestination, in which case you might as well worship Santa). Either you believe Jesus Christ died for your sins, or you don’t. There are either zero gods, one god, or many gods. Working on the Sabbath is either a mortal sin or it isn’t.

So, let’s say that rather than no religions being correct, one of them turns out to be spot on. Let’s say it’s Christianity, and you’re in the camp that believes in Jesus. You’re saved, and that’s great for you. But what about the rest of the world? There are billions of people in this world who are willing to buy into a religion and worship one god, but it is impossible for all of these people to be saved since, regardless of which religion is correct, the majority of the world is wrong. Do you think that God is so callous that He will allow everyone else to go to Hell for eternity just because they were born in the wrong part of the world and they grew up with the wrong parents who bought into the wrong book? And you consider this to be a loving god? Really?! Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but condemning the majority of the world to eternal damnation for something that they have no control over (where they are born and what their parents believe) would make such a god a complete and total jerk. I hate to keep bringing this point up, but there’s no getting around it: people who subscribe to a monotheistic religion worship an asshole.

Back to everyone’s favorite uncomfortable topic: proselytizing. If you truly believed that your religion was the correct one, shouldn’t you be trying to convert the followers of other religions to save them from eternal torment rather than accepting their differences and tolerating them under some kind of religious “separate but equal” loophole? So what causes people to buy “Coexist” bumper stickers and proudly display them? I can only imagine this is because these people are tired of seeing violence and hatred in the name of religion. Which is admirable, at face value: violence and hatred in the name of religion is senseless, especially when so many religions claim to preach love. But then there’s the fact that most religions also preach their own superiority, and it’s hard to be loving and tolerant when you hold The Truth.

Getting into scripture further precludes tolerance, regardless of which monotheistic religion one adheres to:

”Be very careful never to make treaties with the people in the land where you are going. If you do, you soon will be following their evil ways. Instead, you must break down their pagan altars, smash the sacred pillars they worship, and cut down their carved images. You must worship no other gods, but only the Lord, for he is a God who is passionate about his relationship with you. Do not make treaties of any kind with the people living in the land. They are spiritual prostitutes, committing adultery against me by sacrificing to their gods. If you make peace with them, they will invite you to go with them to worship their gods, and you are likely to do it. And you will accept their daughters, who worship other gods, as wives for your sons. Then they will cause your sons to commit adultery against me by worshiping other gods.” (Exodus 34:12-16)

"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)

“[Jesus] said, ‘Indeed, I am the servant of Allah . He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet. And He has made me blessed wherever I am and has enjoined upon me prayer and zakah as long as I remain alive And [made me] dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me a wretched tyrant. And peace is on me the day I was born and the day I will die and the day I am raised alive.’ That is Jesus, the son of Mary - the word of truth about which they are in dispute. It is not [befitting] for Allah to take a son; exalted is He! When He decrees an affair, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is. [Jesus said], ‘And indeed, Allah is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. That is a straight path.’ Then the factions differed [concerning Jesus] from among them, so woe to those who disbelieved - from the scene of a tremendous Day. How [clearly] they will hear and see the Day they come to Us, but the wrongdoers today are in clear error. And warn them, [O Muhammad], of the Day of Regret, when the matter will be concluded; and [yet], they are in [a state of] heedlessness, and they do not believe. Indeed, it is We who will inherit the earth and whoever is on it, and to Us they will be returned.” (Koran 19: 30-40)

Sorry about the lack of readability in that Koran quote--I didn’t enjoy it, either, but it makes my point: religions do not allow for other religions. The books of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do not play nice with each other; it’s mildly shocking that so many of their adherents have managed to do so. Obviously, there are many cases of extremists who do not, but most people find a way to reconcile their religious beliefs with the fact that not everyone shares them.

My sister recently posted a link to this article addressing religious pluralism from one Christian’s point of view (reading it might make your head hurt if you think about it too much, so do so at your own risk). I appreciate the fact that the author believes strongly enough in Christianity to denounce the absurd idea that religious pluralism has any merit whatsoever, and he even has a few good points: some religions are objectively harmful, they don’t all teach some version of essentially the same thing, and there is simply no way that they can all be right (making the point that monotheism and polytheism are inherently at odds with each other).

Unfortunately, the dude suffers from some wickedly severe cognitive dissonance. Even taking into account the fact that I’m likely to view any theological arguments with an atheist tint, this post struck me as borderline idiotic. First of all, the fact that some religions are more harmful than others says absolutely nothing about their validity. There’s nothing preventing the creator of the universe from having a fetish for human sacrifices. Just because a religion is inherently “bad” does not mean it is inherently false. If genital mutilation actually was required to get into heaven then those actions would be justified. A loving god is much easier for moral people to worship, but there’s no reason to think that any creator of the universe is loving. Would a loving god cause half the human population to bleed for a few days every month? Or allow George Bush to get elected twice? Or allow The Spice Girls to break up? No, I think not. No being that allows Posh and Sporty Spice to separate and stop making the greatest music the world has ever heard could conceivably be said to be “loving.”

The author, who I’ll call Dan (because that’s his name), writes:

“In most areas of human knowledge, when you encounter contradictory views you don't throw up your hands and concede, ‘they're both true.’ No, you study hard, make an informed choice, then remain open to further insight. Note, too, how this Christian view is far more tolerant and liberal than atheism. Whereas pluralism claims all religions are true, atheism claims all religions are false; Christians reject both of those positions in favor of a middle ground.”

So...atheists don’t study hard, make informed choices, or remain open to further insights? I don’t mean to sully this cultured conversation I’ve started here with profanity, but are you fucking serious? To be brought up with monotheism and later convert to atheism absolutely requires one to take all three of those actions and, further, to be open-minded enough to actually change those long-held beliefs that one was indoctrinated with. But no, Dan, you’re right--Christians who adhere to the dogma they’ve been brought up with their whole lives are totally more liberal than us heathens who have actually bothered to think through the logistics of your ridiculously illogical religion. Further, given some actual evidence that your god existed, I could actually change my mind again. As it is pretty much impossible to disprove the existence of a god, is it even possible for you to be open-minded enough to change your mind? Congratulations on your “middle ground” of irrationality. Very tolerant of you to accept one more religion than I do.

Here’s another fun quote: “There are many things in the Bible that I don't understand, but I have absolute confidence that God will treat every person with perfect love and justice (Job 34:10).” First of all, how can you have absolute confidence about anything relating to God when there are many things in the Bible you don’t understand? Second, how in the hell could you possibly come to that conclusion? What world do you live in where ever person is treated with love and justice? Because of that Bible verse, which says “Listen to me, you who have understanding. Everyone knows that God doesn’t sin! The Almighty can do no wrong?” Holy-fucking-batshit-crazy wishful thinking, Batman! I’ve been a middle-class white male my entire life so I have no right to legitimately complain about anything, but I’ve got the sense to realize that not everyone leads such an easy life. You yourself complained about Aztec human sacrifice, Hindu widow burning, and female infanticide--were those victims treated with love and justice? What an absurd thing to be absolutely confident about.

Veering away from pluralism for a bit, he admonished Thomas Jefferson for picking and choosing verses of the Bible that actually make Christianity seem reasonable...and then proceeded to pick and choose verses to support his view of Christianity. How delightful! Alanis Morrisette and I really enjoyed that part, and I’m not even sure if she’s figured out what irony is yet. I honestly don’t think he even realized what a terribly illogical argument he made; he basically said “You can’t throw out the parts of the Bible you don’t like, you just have to remember that this is what the entire Bible is about: the parts that I like.” Very sound reasoning, good sir.

Then, to prove that he’s not the only apologist capable of holy-fucking-batshit-crazy wishful thinking (again, sorry about the profanity, but I’m not sure how to accurately describe the level of delusion without it), he offers a quote from CS Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity, among a bunch of other books):

"Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him."

Well, how about that? Being the crazy person that I am, I’ve always thought that was the single most damning argument against Christianity: their god is supposedly an unconditional lover, yet he only allows those who accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior into Heaven, sending the rest of humanity to suffer eternal damnation in Hell. Welp, I guess we can just assume that he’s got some other plan in place for those who weren’t fortunate enough to be born into Christianity. Problem solved. I guess religion is optional. Because, you know, that sounds totally plausible.

Sadly, this seems to be a legitimate explanation to most Christians who struggle with the idea that people are sent to Hell by no fault of their own: “Oh, it’s OK. God won’t punish them because He’s a nice guy. I mean, I still accept Jesus as my savior, of course, but I’m sure the other two-thirds of the world will be just fine even though they have no chance of accepting Jesus as their savior.” Does this sound insane to anyone else? Can you think of a more prevalent example of wishful thinking and cognitive dissonance? These two ideas are completely at odds with each other: 1) the only way to Heaven is through Jesus and 2) people who have never heard of Jesus can still go to Heaven. Does. Not. Compute.

To summarize: religious pluralism is an incredibly ridiculous proposition and I’m not entirely sure how any sane person can legitimately believe in it. I don’t think many people buy into it as they consider their religion of choice to ultimately be the only “true” religion...but all moral people still struggle with the idea that so many innocent people could be sent to Hell over something they could not reasonably be expected to control. Solutions include hoping for loopholes, different requirements for different people, God being an asshole, and just outright ignoring the problem because it’s terribly depressing to think about. Needless to say, none of those trains of thought are very satisfying. Of course, satisfaction can be had by believing what is by far the most logical answer to this moral quandary: there is no god, all religions are incorrect, and no one needlessly suffers eternal damnation because Hell does not exist. Atheists may not get the comfort that comes from believing they’ll go to Heaven when they die, but we also don’t have to deal with the distress of believing that most people go to Hell when they die. Isn’t it nice when the morally superior stance and the most logical stance are one in the same?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Atheism: A Love Story

One of the complaints often leveled at the idea of atheism is that it’s depressing because it takes away the point of life for many religious people. They view their time on Earth as but a fraction of their entire experience as they expect to go to heaven when they die. As such, the “meaning of life” becomes living a life God would be proud of in order to get into heaven. If there is no heaven/afterlife, then what's the point of life? First of all, that’s a bit of a shortsighted question--if you take it a step further, what is the point of heaven? Does anything even happen in heaven, or does the mind just go to a generally blissful state? If everything in heaven is perfect, how can one ever feel a sense of purpose or accomplishment? Obviously, everything relating to the idea of heaven is pure conjecture (including whether or not it even exists), so I won’t dwell on it here. As far as the supposed “proof” of heaven via near death experiences goes, I leave that topic in the capable hands of Sam Harris because he has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and, as it turns out, I do not.

So, getting back to the original question: what is the point of life from an atheist perspective? It’s a complicated answer, and there’s much more depth to it than the religious view described above (a view that I shared at one time). In fact, I think I’m leading a much more meaningful life as an atheist than I would be as a Christian. If I read that last sentence a decade ago, my first reaction would be “Bullllllllllshit.” My second reaction would be “Hey, future self, while you’re here, wanna toss me some Back to the Future II style betting tips? Kinda seems like we’d be wasting this whole time-traveling experience if we didn’t get anything out of it. Also, how does my fashion sense hold up?” To which I would reply “Bet the Pats in the Super Bowl and lose the jorts, nerd. And I’m dead serious about life being better as an atheist.” Allow me to extrapolate on that point.

First of all, there are a few obvious (though not terribly meaningful) advantages to losing my religion. I’m no longer obligated to tithe, so I can donate money directly to charities who will use all of it to do meaningful work. Granted, I didn’t have much of a disposable income when I was still religious, but I imagine that if I was still religious I would hardly donate anything beyond the 10% I gave to the church (and you can be damn sure I’d calculate the 10% after taxes. I mean, 10% is a sizable chunk either way, and I’d still be kinda pissed about it). That’s not the case now--I have more money, and the organizations I donate to have more money. Everybody wins! Well, except God, of course. He loses in this scenario. Then again, it doesn’t seem like omnipotent beings should have to collect donations to begin with. If I were to give money to an institution inspired by an imaginary character, it would make more sense to give it to one without superpowers. Like The Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good and Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too.

The other obvious advantage: no boring church services on Sunday mornings. Sleeping in on Sunday mornings is such a far superior use of time than listening to someone interpret the words of Bronze Age Jews that it’s not even funny. I get why weekly services are necessary--if people aren’t told on a weekly basis that their religious beliefs are correct they run the serious risk of realizing that there’s no good reason to continue believing. Sunday mornings are a really inconvenient time to hold these things, though. For most people, that would leave Saturday as the only day of the week where they weren’t obligated to get up early.

First of all, that means those people probably aren’t getting enough sleep. Secondly, it means people aren’t getting as much enjoyment out of their weekends as they should be if they have to cut their Saturday nights short. For most people, weekends are the best part of life, so being pious kinda reduces their quality of life by default. Granted, some people actually enjoy going to church, but I have to wonder what percentage of people fall into that category. The fellowship with other people is all well and good, but the services themselves? I probably legitimately enjoyed ~2% of the ones I attended. It was just something I put up with because I felt I had to, like annoying relatives or Nickelback on the radio.

Of course, there are plenty of deeper reasons to welcome the absence of religion. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’re already aware of the fact that I’ve got some serious issues with the idea that religion provides a good moral framework for society. As an atheist, I’m no longer tied to a nonsensical set of morals. Premarital sex is totally fine, just don’t be stupid about it. Bacon is great; put it on pizza, wrap it around steaks, throw it in omelettes, and blend it with milk and apple pie for a delightfully tasty artery-clogging drink. Treat women and homosexuals and all other people as they deserve to be treated. No other rules have to compete with the Golden/Platinum Rule; simply consider the feelings and judgments of other people rather than a mythical deity that provides no feedback. In general, being an atheist allows one to think and act rationally without worrying about dogma which, if the premise that most people are generally good is true, unequivocally makes the world a better place. It requires that people actually think, which I realize is asking a lot in some cases, but I’d like to think that most people could handle that.

This freedom extends beyond just morality--religion no longer clutters up any of my thinking. I don’t have to deal with the mental gymnastics of trying to reconcile what makes sense and what the Bible dictates. I no longer have to come up with bizarre rationalizations for why good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. I don’t have to figure out a feasible way for God to allow priests to molest children for multiple generations without retribution. I don’t have to tolerate any Catholic bullshit, for that matter. I always thought Catholicism was kinda ridiculous when I was younger, but now I can be openly disdainful of their pseudo-ban on birth control and their belief that whoever they name the Pope is somehow uber-knowledgeable when, in reality, he’s clearly a power-hungry crazy fuck (to put it in layman’s terms). Do you know how great it feels to call the Pope a crazy fuck without a hint of remorse? Soooooo liberating!

It sounds cliche (and probably also sounds like revisionist history), but becoming an atheist was like lifting a veil from my mind. Until I was removed from religion, I had no idea how much it influenced my thinking and worldview. I always thought of myself as a pretty intelligent person on account of the whole “valedictorian” thing (editor’s note: being the valedictorian of Buckeye High School does not necessarily make one intelligent--it just means that said person is capable of thinking and doing homework. I mean, this is a school that had Drive Your Tractor to School Day...and they wouldn’t let some people who lived on a farm participate. Not that I’m bitter...), but I remember outright rejecting the Theory of Evolution and the Big Bang Theory back in the day because, you know, God. Now, it seems obvious to me that the only way a thinking, informed person could possibly reject the reality of evolution is by wearing religious blinders. There is quite simply way too much evidence supporting evolution (and way too much concurrence in the scientific community) to disbelieve it without a religious bias. The Big Bang is still just our best guess, but there’s much more evidence for it than the nonsense in Genesis.

In addition to being more open-minded about pretty much everything, I also find that I actually want to learn about stuff now. In the words of Einstein:
“The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man. To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties--this knowledge, this feeling...that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men.”

At the risk of sounding like a nerd (as if there was any doubt): learning is cool. I actually enjoy learning how things work now. My former lack of interest in learning was probably due to my dislike for school as much as anything else, and the fact that I’m no longer forced to learn stuff certainly plays a role in my enjoyment of learning now. However, I also think that religion dulls the desire to learn more about the real world. Religion tells us that God created everything and that’s that. There is no further discovery to make. Finding out that we’re made up of cells is just more insight into God’s creation. Same with discovering that other galaxies exist: “Oh, God made other galaxies, too? Well, we already knew that he created all the stars, so this isn’t really news.”

When all the answers are not yet known, it instills a desire to find those answers. Otherwise, I might as well sit on my ass all day and play video games until I die and go to heaven since there’s nothing better to do (so long as I pray and tithe). Now that I don’t have “God did it” as an answer to every question, not only do I have a desire to figure out an answer to life’s great questions--I am also not hindered by dogma in my acceptance of new, contradictory data. It’s much easier to learn when both curious and open-minded. It’s no coincidence that scientists are significantly more likely to be nonreligious than others.

To steal another quote, this time from Charles Bukowski:
“For those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own god. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our education system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”

To put it simply: I value the time that I have here much more. I have a finite amount of time to experience all the world has to offer, and there is nothing better waiting for me after I die. This really makes me want to live my life to the fullest, as cheesy as that sounds. Anytime I get depressed about anything, there’s a really easy rebuttal: it beats the hell out of being dead. Being sad or frustrated is simply a waste of time, and it becomes harder to justify wasting time when you’re aware that you don’t have much of it.

Rather than subtracting a meaning of life (such as “do God’s will”), I find much more purpose as an atheist. If I’ve only got 70-80 years here, I want to leave this world a better place than I found it. I want society to advance. I want future generations to have more knowledge and do greater things based on what this generation has done. I want to avoid nuclear war so there will be a next generation. I want Star Trek: The Next Generation to become a reality. Seriously, how cool would it be if warp drives existed and medical technology was crazy advanced and teleportation was a thing that people did?

Obviously, wanting society to advance and loving Jesus are not mutually exclusive. I’m not trying to make that point, and I hope I’ve made it clear in my writing that I don’t think the contrast between moderate Christians and humanists is that stark. I’m well aware that many Christians are fans of Star Trek. With that being said, there’s definitely a different set of priorities that comes with being religious. If you think that your eternal salvation is dependent on living something resembling a pious life, then that has to be your highest priority in life. It has to be or you don’t truly believe that. This is one of the biggest issues with Middle-Eastern culture: they take their religion Very. Fucking. Seriously. If they took education half as seriously as they take religion, the world would unequivocally be a better, more peaceful place.

This all ties back in part to my Why This Blog Exists? post in that I think devaluing religion will ultimately lead to a better world, thereby fulfilling one of my life goals. Writing this blog has also definitely been cathartic for me and is a big reason I continue to write, but I still believe that we could make the world better by doing away with religion.

I think it’s fair to ask the question “how much of this is posturing/bullshit/rationalization to make yourself feel better about not going to heaven when you die?” A bit, to be honest. But I also think it’s only natural to try to find a positive outlook on one’s belief system, regardless of what it is. I may not be going to heaven, but I don’t think it exists in the first place so there’s really no point in getting down about that. So what makes more sense: being depressed that after my life on Earth ends I’ll never experience joy again, or finding ways to experience as much joy as possible while I’m here?

In conclusion: hooray for heathenism, let’s go drink beer.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Plato: Smarter than Play-Doh

One of the main arguments for theism is that it provides a moral compass for humanity. After all, without God telling us what’s good, we’d all just go around raping and killing, right? (You know, like they did in the Bible.) This may come as a shock, but I would argue that our morals are determined independently of religion, and that arguing for religion as a source of morality is actually an argument against religion as a whole after enough critical thinking is applied.

I’ve spent a fair amount of words in this blog pointing out how flat-out crazy the Bible is. I probably spent too many words on that topic, but I think it’s important to note how much nonsense is in there. Of course, there’s some good stuff in the Bible. However, if we’re going to cling to that “good stuff” as a means of determining what is right and wrong, we must decide which stuff is the good stuff. As far as we know, God gave the entire Bible His blessing, so if we’re going to follow some of the rules set forth there (but not others) then we have to figure out which ones on our own. Which passages individuals pick and choose to accept as valid says infinitely more about the moral values of those people than the validity of the scriptures themselves--there is no more holy justification for helping others than for hating gay people.

Moderate Christians (who can rationalize better than anyone besides Rihanna) would argue that they believe in just the parts of the Bible that are universally accepted as “good” by most people. They care about the Golden Rule and loving everyone, and luckily most of them will overlook the majority of the nonsense that I’ve pointed out in my Bible posts. But even “moderate Christians” is an ambiguous grouping, as there are a whole host of denominations that have different beliefs about how to worship and which Bible verses qualify as “good.”

This is the first of many issues with trying to use God as a moral compass--doing so requires everyone to interpret God’s intentions the same way. Here’s the sequel (The Secret of the Ooze, if you will (that’s a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reference and yes, I’m making a cheap Ninja Turtles joke in the middle of a serious discussion about morality because I am powerless to stop my inner dork)): how do we know that God’s intentions are good to begin with? We had better be sure that He is, because placing the moral authority of God (who we know to be bipolar in His love and disdain for humanity) above our collective moral authority can lead to completely ignoring the actual ramifications of our actions because we’re too concerned about appeasing an imaginary deity. To put it another way, by attempting to get into heaven (a mythical place whose existence we have no credible evidence of), we run the risk of fucking up the lives of people on Earth (whose existence we can prove because we see them and talk to them every day). Quick example: the Christian insistence on abstinence-only before marriage has had a terrible effect on the rates of unwanted pregnancies and STDs. There is no rationale for this idiotic stance that is not religiously motivated. So before we blindly accept that God is good, let’s examine that claim honestly.

Plato asked: are actions right because God commands them, or does God command them because they are right? This question is way more important than it initially seems on the surface. If we take the former stance, we’re in a heap of trouble. Taking the stance that God determines morality carries with it a laundry list of implications, and most of them are unsettling to what would otherwise be considered “moral” people.

First of all, God approved of a lot of shitty things. Killing. Slavery. Rape. Genocide. Bigotry. Sacrifices. War. Plagues. Misogyny. Bear maulings. Eternal damnation. Are we supposed to believe that this behavior is moral just because God said so? Do we not abhor slavery and killing and the use of bears in retaliation to insults? This would put our moral code at odds with God’s. If we hold that killing innocent people is immoral, then we’re implying that we live by a higher code of ethics and morals than God himself, the benevolent creator of the universe. Hmmmmm.

Secondly, God also gave us a bunch of commands in the Bible that we no longer follow, so that also makes us all immoral by His written standards (except for religious fundamentalists). In addition to an abhorrence of the list above, we eat bacon and shellfish, shave our sideburns, work on the Sabbath, treat men and women equally (in theory), and many of us (though certainly not all) are even cool with gay people gettin’ hitched. Of course, this is assuming that you get God’s commands from the Bible. If you get God’s commands communicated directly, that opens up the possibility of literally any action with complete justification.

For example, I can kill anyone because God told me to. We can go invade Iraq and Afghanistan because God told George W. Bush to do so. Israelites can kill Palestinians because God told them to. Palestinians can kill Israelites because God told them to. Hell, Joseph Smith started up an entire new religion thanks to a secret message from God. (The idea that any action commanded by God is morally good by default is known as Divine Command Theory. Obviously, one could drive a truck through the holes in this theory.)

If your response is “those people didn’t really get a message from God; they’re either deluded or dishonest,” do you know that? Because God told you who to trust? How can you refute an accusation that you’re deluded any better than Joseph Smith could have? What makes your interpretation of God’s intentions true and Smith’s false? God clearly didn’t tell everyone what he purportedly told Smith, and it doesn’t seem like He’s told anyone the same thing. Catholics and Protestants have plenty in common, but they also have plenty to differentiate them.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that God really does speak to people. Some people simply lie about God speaking to them or misinterpret His messages, but God is benevolent so he only really commands “good” acts. God tells us to take certain actions because the actions themselves are morally right (the second option in Plato’s question). This stance also presents a problem: if we can objectively say that stoning children who talk back to their parents is “bad” but donating money to the American Cancer Society is “good,” that means that it is not God who decides what is right and wrong, but we as individuals who decide what is right and wrong. God may have told you to donate that money, but He is not the one who made that a “good” act--the God of the Bible thought killing disobedient children was good and has no opinion on researching cures for debilitating illnesses.

This means that God is entirely unnecessary when determining what is right and what is wrong. Entirely, completely, 100% unnecessary. Our morality has superseded His morality. This, in turn, means that religion is only morally effective from a standpoint of obedience--adhering to a religion can only be considered “good” as in “Good dog! Way to shit outside instead of on the carpet!” Religion provides a punishment/reward system for following the rules, but that’s only really a “good” thing if the rules themselves are “good.” In many cases they are: just like we objectively consider it good for dogs to shit outside, we objectively consider it good to treat others as we’d like to be treated. On the other hand, if I teach my dog to shit on my neighbor’s doorstep because I don’t like my neighbor, that makes both me and my dog jerks even though I can still call my dog a “good dog” for following my rules.

Speaking of dogs, it should be noted that tons of studies have been done on a variety of different animals from rats to dogs to chimps to elephants that show that these animals exhibit the most basic tenet of morality: be nice to others. Rather than being motivated by Jesus’ words, these species are moral for much simpler reasons like tribalism and self-interest. Even rats that have not been mutated by green sludge will aid their fellow rats simply because helping a brother leads to helping the species as a whole.

So what’s the moral of this story (see what I did there?)? In short, the argument that religion is useful because it provides a moral framework for society doesn’t hold much water. We don’t need the Bible (or any other religious book) to differentiate good from bad. God is not qualified to differentiate good from bad. We’re better off trying to figure out what’s best for everyone collectively without letting theism get in the way because, frankly, theism kinda sucks. Finally, if there’s one takeaway from this post, let it be this: have your pets spayed or neutered because animals really like to fornicate.