Archives for category: ethics

There is exactly one sensible response to the September 11th 2001 attack on the World Trade Center towers: Find the people who did it, and kill them. We don’t need to “commemorate” the event. Who’s going to forget it? And we don’t need to regard the site as “holy”. That’s the kind of perverted thinking that got the towers destroyed.

We need to find the people who did it. The creeps who flew the planes are dead. But the super-creepy men who (from a safe hideaway) demanded that it be done, and planned it all out, are still alive. I think they should be killed. But no one even talks about them anymore. Instead we get parades and speeches and hymns. In other words, no one is trying to solve the problem! Instead, they are trying to turn the situation to their own advantage. It makes me sick.

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It would be great to live in a world where women could wear exactly what they want to wear, without the slightest pressure. But this is not the world we live in. —Luis Granados, “Saving Aqsa Parvez”, The Humanist, September-October 2010, p. 21

Put aside, for a moment, the idea of religion. Forget, for just a second, that the word ‘religion’ means anything. And now ask, is it OK for a man to force a woman to spend her whole life in a black cloth bag?

How could that ever be OK?

The burqa question is not about a woman’s right to wear the burqa, but about her right not to wear it. No one in their right mind would don such a “garment” more than once. You wear the burqa because if you don’t, your husband will beat you. It’s as simple as that. The purpose of legislation “banning the burqa” is to protect women from this kind of abuse.

The French legislators who seek to repudiate the wearing of the veil or the burqa … are often described as seeking to impose a “ban.” To the contrary, they are attempting to lift a ban: a ban on the right of women to choose their own dress, a ban on the right of women to disagree with male and clerical authority, and a ban on the right of all citizens to look one another in the face. The proposed law is in the best traditions of the French republic, which declares all citizens equal before the law and—no less important—equal in the face of one another. —Christopher Hitchens

Men in Afghanistan can’t see or touch women. So they rape boys instead.

I need to do a good long piece on the casino industry, but here’s a little introduction.

Get that winning feeling! promises this billboard. All casino billboards say the same thing, either explicitly or implicitly: come here to make money. But this is of course a lie. So why do we let them do it?

Though it’s possible you’ll walk out of the Eldorado richer than you walked in, this is unlikely. It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll lose. That’s what a casino is: a place where you lose. The purpose of the casino is to take money from the customers and give it to the house. That’s why it was built. If people don’t lose more than they win, the casino can’t stay in business. The casino exists to take away your money. That’s what it’s for.

Isn’t it weird that casinos are allowed to lie so blatantly to the public? In other industries there is at least a token attempt to enforce some sort of truth in advertising. But with casinos (and state lotteries), the core proposition is perfectly false and everyone lets it go. “Come here to win!” No, that’s exactly the opposite of what’s going to happen.

Why do we let them get away with this?

Tom Flynn has a good piece on the myth of Christian charity in the latest Free Inquiry. Not as comprehensive as our report, but it’s worth reading.

Introduction

In a philosophical dialog written by Plato around 400 B.C., casual acquaintances Socrates and Euthyphro meet by chance on the court-house steps. Euthyphro proudly announces that he has come to accuse his own father of manslaughter. Under Greek law, such a charge is considered improper, but Euthyphro intends to press his case anyway. He is confident that very few people understand what’s right and what’s wrong as clearly as he does. Furthermore, he is certain that the gods themselves agree with him.

Socrates cannot let such claims go unchallenged. He pretends to be clueless about the whole topic, and implores Euthyphro to enlighten him. And about halfway through their conversation, Socrates asks him (Woods and Pack translation):

Is the pious loved by the gods because it’s pious, or it is pious because it is loved?

People have been discussing this question for 2,400 years. The weird thing about it is that when you think through them, neither of the choices it offers us makes a bit of sense. Let’s take a look. We’ll put the question into modern English, and look at its two halves in turn.

The two non-options

If someone tells us that, according to their religious beliefs, a certain activity – prayer, for example – is good, we can ask:

Is it good because God wants us to do it, or does God want us to do it because it’s good?

The first option – prayer is good because God likes it – implies that there are no external rules governing God’s judgement of right and wrong. If there were such rules, we would be talking about the second option, where God approves of good things because they’re good. In this, the first option, an action is good if and only if God approves.

It’s a troubling scenario. Take the rule, “Do unto others as you would be done by,” which most people regard as morally faultless. If God has perfect freedom to decide what’s right, then he could say that he does not want us to follow the Golden Rule, and that would mean that it is evil, and those who have occasionally tried to honor it would be morally obligated to desist. And if one day God said, “On the Sabbath day, I’d like to see a bit of torture and cannibalism in every living-room,” then torture and cannibalism would be right.

But if scenarios like this are possible, then God is speaking a language we can’t understand. We don’t know what it would mean to say that the Golden Rule is ‘evil’, or torture and cannibalism ‘right’. If God can have opinions like this, how can we even say with any confidence that God is good? We don’t know what the word means anymore. But, traditionally, God is the source and epitome of goodness. If we can’t be sure that he’s good, then we can’t be sure he’s God! So this first option can’t be correct.

The second option says: it’s not that praying is good because God likes it; rather, he wants us to do it because it’s good. This implies that there is a moral authority superior to, prior to, independent of God’s. What’s right and wrong was decided before God got involved. So there are rules that God has to follow, laws that he cannot break. But we’ve been told that God created the entire universe to his own specifications, and that there is nothing he can’t do. Seriously, if he’s not omnipotent, then he’s not God. So the second option is also wrong.

What’s going on here? Whichever way we answer, we reach an absurd conclusion: that the God we’ve been talking about is not the God we’ve been talking about. How does Plato’s question produce this result? – and what can we learn from the fact that it does?

The lesson

The Euthyphro’s topic is the relationship between religion and morality; about the fundamental source and justification of moral guidelines. Socrates says, in effect, “I take your word for it, Euthyphro, that God is intimately connected with what’s right and wrong. I just want to understand how that works in a little more detail. Is the action good because God wants it to be taken, or does he want it to be taken because it is good?”

Behind this question there are two assumptions about God. The catch is, they contradict each other. They cannot both be true.

To ask about what God wants (or likes, or prefers) is to assume that God prefers certain things (or events) over others. And in the background, as part of any mention of God, there is a definitional assumption that God is omnipotent. But these two assumptions are mutually exclusive, since an omnipotent being would not have desires.

For human beings, to want is the same thing as to get, if possible. If you desire something, you make it happen – if you can. But God, by definition, can do anything. So if he wants it, it happens. Period. But in that case, he doesn’t want things the way we do – not in the sense of trying to get something. An omnipotent being doesn’t try. Everything already is the way he wants it.

Someone will say: Maybe God doesn’t make all the things he wants to happen, happen. But he could – and if he doesn’t, then it’s not clear what it means to say that he wants them.

It gets worse. If everything that happens is exactly as God intends, then the question “What should I do?” has no meaning. What’s going to happen is what’s going to happen. There are no right or wrong choices, because no one ever gets to choose. But choice – “What should I do?” – is the very essence of morality. If an omnipotent being controls the universe, then our moral decision-making is an illusion, and our moral discussions are a waste of time, because there’s nothing we can decide or change.

All these strange, impotent thoughts have a single cause. The concept of omnipotence is incoherent. As soon as you say that he can do anything, you invite ridiculous questions like “Can God beat a full house with two pair?” and “Can God make a burrito so big he can’t eat it?” You have dug a pit of nonsense, and further discussion will only deepen the hole. This is why neither horn of the Euthyphro dilemma gets us anywhere; and this is what it was written to demonstrate. Propositions involving omnipotent beings are guaranteed not to make any sense.

More broadly, Plato’s ancient teaching-story serves to remind us that morality is essentially and exclusively a human concern. To introduce infinities and absolutes into moral thinking is to strip it of sense. Stories about superhuman beings cannot clarify what’s right or wrong for human beings to do, or explain why it’s right or wrong. There is no useful role, in either moral theory or moral decision-making, for theology.

I had an interesting exchange with Kel Munger a couple weeks ago at her delightful talk for SacFAN.

Her topic was “The United States of Armageddon”: our native infatuation with apocalyptic theories and literature, which is kind of like end-of-the-world pornography. Why do we have this? — what is its scriptural basis? — can we get rid of it? — Munger was addressing questions like these.

William Miller, 1782 – 1849

In the Q&A following her presentation, someone asked about the astonishing process whereby cults recover from that awkward situation where their elders have promised a Second Coming and nobody comes. The classic example is the Great Disappointment of the Millerites, on October 22, 1844. Jesus did not appear, yet not all the Millerites lost their faith. “Since apocalypse is to be longed for,” Munger had said, “disconfirmation does not discredit the doctrine.” William Miller’s career did not end. Many people continued to take him seriously; some of them went on to found Seventh-Day Adventism.

So someone in the audience came back to this and asked: how can this be? How can an event like the Great Disappointment not immediately terminate the career of the cad who instigated it?

Munger said (I am quoting from memory): “Well, in fiction, it’s called the willing suspension of disbelief. People like stories. They like story-tellers. They want to believe.”

I put my hand up and made eye contact. “Suspension of disbelief sounds like a fair description if we’re talking about the folks in the congregation. But if we look at the professional Bible-thumper who who led them into this mess, wouldn’t lying through one’s teeth be more accurate? It seems to me that ‘the doctrine is not discredited’ only because someone’s income depends on it.”

She blanched. “I don’t think that’s fair,” she said. “Most preachers are not liars. You can’t tar all of them with the same brush. Most of them are not evil men. They are trying to do the right thing for their community, according to their best understanding.”

Caught off-guard by this likable woman’s evident distress, I backed down. “OK, separate topic,” I said. “Some other evening.” But later in the Q&A someone else revived the issue, and Munger said a little more.

“I do agree with Roy,” she said, “when it comes to people like Billy Graham and Rick Warren. The Left Behind guys. The mega-church people. I can agree that those people don’t believe in anything but making money — that they literally worship Mammon. But picture a much more common scenario: the well-meaning pastor and his 50 congregants in a storefront church in, say, rural Idaho. As I mentioned, that was my whole environment growing up. I know how it works. This is not a guy whose whole program is to rip people off. He believes in what he’s doing. He’s trying to do right.”

I shook my head. “That’s very hard for me to imagine,” I said. “His job is to tell the congregation things that are not true. He makes his living by telling lies. How is that ‘trying to do right’?”

Kel said, “Lying is when you say what you think is not true. That’s not what preachers do. They say what they think is true. You might call it delusional, and you might be right, but that still doesn’t make him a liar.

When I got home I expressed my frustration to Vicky; but she agreed with Munger. “If they believe what they’re saying, then it’s simply not correct to call them liars,” she said. “The word doesn’t mean that.”

“But I’ve written a whole book demonstrating that they don’t actually believe anything they’re preaching.”

“But people are not familiar with that thesis.”

“No, and I didn’t bring it up.”

“So you shouldn’t have expected people to know what you meant when you described priests are liars. They thought you were talking nonsense, and they were not completely wrong.”

“So what can I say? What is the preacher in Idaho doing? If ‘lying’ is the wrong word, what should I call it?”

“I don’t know, Roy. There doesn’t have to be a one-word solution.”

~ • ~

That conversation took place a couple weeks ago, and I’m still mulling it over.

Priests (preachers, imams, rabbis — anyone who tells people what to do and claims that it’s based on their religious understanding) aren’t liars, because they happen to believe what they’re saying. They might be mistaken, or even deluded, but they’re not lying. Sounds reasonable — but I can’t let it stand. I think there are at least two reasons to resist this formulation.

The first reason has to do with the nature of their pronouncements. Kel Munger’s talk was on theories of the Apocalypse. The followers of apocalyptic personalities are told that the world is going to end. Everyone is going to die, except the Special Ones. A preacher describing the coming Apocalypse is not just expressing an opinion on scriptural eschatology, he is predicting a shattering end to human affairs. This prediction, if true, should prompt a drastic response from everyone who understands it. If we really think that the world as we have known it is going to end, we are going to start taking radical action. Wikipedia says that some of the Millerites gave away all their possessions. (It doesn’t mention the money and goods that were given to Miller himself; but preaching was his profession, so he was certainly paid something, which I guarantee you he accepted, even if he couldn’t possibly need it after October 22nd.) If you had an injury or a disease it would make perfect sense to put off any treatment. After all, you wouldn’t still have it in Heaven, right? The same reasoning applies to personal issues. If you’re having serious problems dealing with your husband, your job, or your alcoholism — none of that would be likely to still be bothering you after the Second Coming, so why worry? Because of this, the Millerites (and the victims of all other end-time prophecies) will be saddled with horrendous problems when the world doesn’t end. There will be all kinds of things they will wish they had attended to before it was too late.

A preacher who plans to risk getting his congregation into this kind of fix needs to be really sure that what he is saying is the truth. Would you get up on a stage and tell people about a major catastrophe, the kind that would require every sensible person to literally drop everything and literally run to the hills, taking nothing with them, if you were not pretty god-damned sure it was happening? That would be irresponsible, to say the least.

But what if you thought you could make a good living by delivering such speeches? I know: you still wouldn’t do it. Neither would I. But some people would.

Even if it’s true that he believes what is saying, he is saying something that should not be said without an extremely high level of confidence. And that, he does not have. Maybe he has gone through some sort of scriptural calculus to arrive at the predicted date. Maybe he’s thought about it a lot. Maybe he’s “prayed to God for guidance.” That’s not enough. To put the matter as generously as possible, he does not know what’s going to happen. He has a kind of feeling about it. He has no evidence. Maybe he say truthfully that he “firmly believes” the prophecy. But he cannot truthfully say that he knows. How would he know? — is there a way to check? Of course not. And if you can’t check, you don’t know.

“The world is about to end” is something you really shouldn’t say unless you know. That’s obvious — and therefore, to say such a thing is to promise that you do know. But you don’t know; so the promise is a lie.

~ • ~

Here is another reason that I hesitate to abandon my shocking accusation of lying on the part of apocalyptic preachers. I don’t think that ideas such as the Rapture can really be believed.

The Rapture is a belief that all ‘true Christians’ will be gathered together in the air to meet Christ at his return.

That’s how Wikipedia describes it. The exact formulation is not important. Note the word belief, which would be included in almost anyone’s definition. This is wrong. The Rapture is not a belief. It’s nonsense.

There’s a difference.

Atheists often accuse the “faithful” of having nonsensical beliefs. Sometimes the faithful agree! They’ll say things like, “I know it doesn’t make sense, but I believe it anyway.” For thousands of years, theologians have warned us that doctrines such as the Trinity cannot be understood by mere mortals. They use the word “mysteries” to make the concept more palatable, but it is garbage. You can’t believe something you don’t understand.

Tell me that the American River is 1,500 meters from here, and I might believe you. If you change your mind and say it’s 1,500 kilometers, I won’t. But if you say it’s 230 blivs from here, and also that you don’t know what a bliv is, I can’t have an opinion either way. I don’t agree or disagree — I don’t believe or disbelieve — I simply don’t know what you mean.

The same is true of “all true Christians will be gathered together in the air”. The problem with this statement is that it mixes categories (as does the simpler story of the resurrection of Jesus). What can it possibly mean for one person, or thousands, to float into the air?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that physically, scientifically, it’s impossible. My point is more subtle. I am saying that the story makes no sense. For thousands of human beings to float into the air to meet Jesus would require the suspension of thousands of well-known physical laws. Gravity, for example. And if you go high enough, you can’t breathe. So, yes, it’s impossible — but it’s much worse than that. As soon as the story tells us that all those laws are suspended, we don’t even know what the story is saying anymore.

Julia Sweeney has a great example in her show, Letting Go of God. Some Mormons are telling her about Heaven. She’s thinking: this is way too similar to Earth. You rejoin your whole family there? — who would want that? And then they say that your body is restored to perfect health, and she thinks, well, wait a minute — what if you had had a nose job, and you liked it? The Mormon picture of Heaven isn’t just ridiculous, it’s self-contradictory. It’s incoherent. It can’t be true that in Heaven everyone’s body is as good as new, and that it’s anything like the body each of us had when we were taken up; or that you have a physical body, and that you don’t age. It’s not just that it’s impossible: it makes no sense. So when people propose it, we literally don’t know what they mean.

And neither do they.

There is another example in a YouTube video by philhellenes, which I blogged about just a couple days ago. In Hell there’s supposed to be fire, which will burn you for all eternity. Now, the only kind of fire we know anything about works by burning fuel. If it burns for long enough, it will use up all the fuel and go out. But the fire in Hell doesn’t do this. Therefore, it’s not physical fire: it’s magic fire. But we don’t know anything about magic fire. Not one single thing. Apparently it is fundamentally different from physical fire, but in what way? — we don’t know. I say again: we know nothing about this magic fire. And therefore, when people tell us about it, we literally don’t know what they mean. And neither do they.

Hell, Heaven, the Rapture — no one knows the first thing about any of these things. But it’s worse than that. It’s not that there’s insufficient information, it’s that the only “information” we have contradicts itself. And a message that contradicts itself doesn’t say anything at all. “Heaven is in the sky” might make some kind of sense; “Heaven is not in the sky” also might. But “Heaven is in the sky and it is not in the sky” does not. Of course the way our minds work, we’ll automatically try very hard to make sense of it. Well, we reckon, it’s in the sky in a manner of speaking — and not in the sky in some other manner. But remember that we have no information on this. In what way might Heaven be in the sky, and in what other way might it not be? We know nothing whatsoever about Heaven. The raw contradictions are all we have.

So when someone says, “I believe in Heaven,” they can’t be right. There is no proposition there for them to believe. All we have about Heaven is nonsense, and nonsense is not a proposition, and if it’s not a proposition you can’t believe it. To believe is to have an opinion about a proposition. If it’s not a proposition, you can’t have an opinion about it. Just as you can’t lift something that’s not physical, you can’t believe something that’s not an idea.

Now someone might say, “You can lift something metaphorically — like, lifting someone’s spirits.” To which I would reply, “Well, do you really believe in God, or just metaphorically?”

~ • ~

Is it wrong to describe a priest who is preaching to his congregation as a liar? Really, I don’t think it’s too far off.

For one thing, he cannot possibly have the kind of confidence in his message that he should have, given the colossal ramifications of the message itself. At the very least, he has not done due diligence. He’s behaving recklessly. And through this reckless and irresponsible behavior, he’s making a living off the people who trust him. I’d call that lying, and I’d call it fraud.

For another thing, the idea that he believes what he is preaching is logically dubious. What he’s saying is utter nonsense, so I don’t think you can really say he believes it. The word ‘belief’ is inappropriate here. He’s not believing, only preaching. Maybe it would be wrong to characterize his sermons as lies, if he sincerely believed them — but he can’t believe them. No one can. They are not things that can be believed.

One last point.

If you prefer to think that he really believes these things, does that not make him dangerously delusional? If he really believes, for example, that the Earth is about to be destroyed and everyone will perish except very certain special folks, his intellectual and moral compasses are catastrophically skewed. Seriously, this person cannot be trusted to make important decisions for other people. Yet, he is counseling his flock on decisions of supreme importance! Whether to get married, and to whom. Whether to have children, or practice birth control. Who to save, and who to kill. What to spend their money on — all their money. He will tell them anything and everything, including real matters of life and death. These are not just opinions of the sort that everyone has and, like, “it’s a free country.” A church is not a free country. You don’t get to be a member of that church and do whatever you want. Many of the pastor’s pronouncements are not opinions but direct commands, and to disobey them is to cut yourself off from the rest of the congregation. You may be shunned, or ostracized — or much, much worse.

All day long this man tells his flock — his paying customers — things that are patently untrue. Is the spell he’s under really that strong? — or could this be all about his livelihood? Could he simply be making a living from lying? It’s not as if no one’s tried that before.

I plan to never go there, too!

Governor signs legislation affirming”we hate immigrants, they deserve nothing from us but abuse“.

(Note to self: call Noah. Suggest that he get out of Arizona, even though this means switching to a different school.)

Let’s never go there. They’re morons.