Posted by: camtimothy | June 5, 2010

Absolute or Universal Morality

Dan Wilson posted this comment on my “Absolute Morality” essay/blog post.  I just wanted to respond in some detail as his ideas have a good deal of merit! Dan’s thoughts are in blue/italics.

I agree with you in principle, but I think that there are several sticky wickets which keep this from being practical as a universal moral code:
1) With regard to both clauses, what is the definition of “harm”?
For example (and please, everyone, this is just an example, not an attempt to start a different debate): does denying homosexuals the right to marry cause them harm? I’d say yes, but many people would say no. Unless you can define “harm”, your code degrades into relativism.
True, but then defining terms is always going to be the subject of debate and discussion.  I think that the dictionary definition of “harm” can be accepted without any problem.  It is when we delve into situational ethics that we are open to debate.  Your example of homosexuality begs the point.  You stated that some people would say that denying homosexuals the right to marry does not cause them harm, while some would say that it does cause them harm.    I would argue that actually, everyone would agree that denying homosexuals the right to marry would be harmful to homosexuals—at least emotionally if not physically—but some simply don’t care.  Granted, those who don’t care about the harm to homosexuals may be thinking about the overall effect that they believe gay marriage would have on society in general, but now we have gone into situational ethics.  And gay marriage—or any sort of marriage for that matter is essentially a cultural imperative.
On the other hand, killing homosexuals, beating them, harassing them, etc would be obvious violations of my proposed universal moral imperative: to do no harm to other humans.
2) With regard to the second clause, what if, by causing harm to another person, we can prevent a greater harm from befalling them? For example, is it moral to deprive a mentally ill person of their liberty in order to prevent them from harming themselves? Where is the line drawn? Is it never appropriate to cause harm while preventing harm? If it is sometimes appropriate, how much difference in level of harm must there be to make it appropriate? Who is the judge?
Again, situational ethics.  We have evolved and prospered as humans because of our tribal instincts and with those instincts has come a “greater good” philosophy and a need for intra-tribal order.  Today, we have laws and we imprison, fine, or even kill people who are convicted of disobeying those laws.  Obviously, we are causing harm to those who disobey our laws and hardship to their families.  

What I, and others such as Sam Harris, are proposing is not anarchy.  A universal morality is nothing more than a starting point.  And notice that I use the term “universal” rather than “absolute”.  An absolute morality would necessarily stem from an authority.  Whether this authority is an imaginary divine being or an earthly dictator, the effect is the same.  There is no room for debate or discussion or compromise or situational ethics.  

The Roman Catholic Church takes the stand, for example, that abortion is ALWAYS wrong and forbidden.  Their doctrine is a position from authority.  Circumstances are mostly meaningless.  Most faith-based imperatives are arguments from authority.  Doesn’t matter that it is always a human being acting as a conduit from God to Man, this is still an absolute morality based on an absolute authority.  We are arguing that such a morality is not only not desirable, but not necessary either, except to those who desire power over others.

Remember that actions can be moral, immoral, or neutral.  Within that range, there will often be gray areas in which determining the greater good may play an important part in determining how to act.

3) Also with regard to the second clause, what if by harming one person, I can prevent harm from befalling others? The old “Would it be moral to kill Hitler in order to prevent the Holocaust?” dilemma.
Situational.  Under an absolute morality, a commandment such as “Thou shalt not kill” would make killing Hitler an immoral act.  Under a universal morality, this might still be considered an immoral act, but one that might be necessary in order to prevent millions of deaths.  Quite frankly, I do not think that humans are even capable of agreeing on any morality that is not based on authority.  That is pessimistic I know, but given our history of inter-tribal and intra-tribal rivalries and the intrinsic nature of humans (a vast range from good and kind to ambitious and ruthless), we are probably 20,000 years past the time when we could have generated a logical universal morality.  We may need to do what we can to try now, but I’m not sure that it is possible.
With one exception (mentioned below), I think all moral codes suffer from these sorts of problems, even something as simple as “Murder is wrong” (clearly it is not wrong in all circumstances, unless we resort to “well, in that case it’s not murder”).
Matt Dillahunty (of “The Atheist Experience” fame) came up with the only moral statute that I’ve ever heard that holds in all circumstances: “It is never moral to own another human being as property.” Beyond that, things get complicated.

This may be a good idea, but it is still a situational ethic that would necessarily fall into a sub-zone of any universal morality.  Not owning you doesn’t help me in dealing with you on any practical level.  I could hire you, work for you, work with you, help you do things, or of course, harm you, steal from you, etc etc, without owning you.

In conclusion, cultural relativity will always stand in the way of a true universal morality, and there are many people who would happily install an absolute morality, as long as it was their absolute morality!  There will always be good people who want the best for others as well as for themselves, but there will also always be those who would deny others the pleasures and privileges that they themselves wish to enjoy.  

Tim Campbell

Posted by: camtimothy | May 17, 2010

Absolute Morality Part 2

In the first part of this two-part essay, I tried to define morality as being a code of behavior.  I also tried to limit that code to behavior toward ourselves and toward other humans.  This necessarily takes animals and gods out of the equation.  Some might disagree, but my search is for an absolute morality, or at least a universal morality for humans that is not derived from any divine commandments.  Since behavior toward animals and gods is highly subjective and relative to our environments and culture as well as our attitude toward such creatures, I do not think that we could ever all agree upon a code of behavior that included those creatures.

Certainly, a segment of humanity believes that animals have, or should have, rights, possibly even the same rights that civilized nations accord their human citizens.  While I do not advocate cruelty to animals and have owned and loved animals as pets, I still eat animal flesh and have no plans to discontinue this practice, so if you wish to include animals in your own personal morality, I am fine with that, for you!

I have to also exclude gods and other supernatural creatures from being beneficiaries of any sort of absolute (i.e. universal) morality.  This of course presumes that a deity does not make His or Her existence and wishes known to modern humans in a very direct and indisputable manner.  Personally, I do not believe that such an event is likely, and is most likely impossible.  Claims of past appearances lack a certain amount of credibility.  OK, I think that most all claimants were human and were either insane or working a con game.  Could be wrong, but I need evidence before I would be willing to believe in such beings, let alone accept their other-worldly directives.  And without belief, I cannot consider as candidates for a universal morality any actions or inactions that involve supernatural beings. 

Worshipping a specific god, taking the name of a god in vain, maintaining a specific day as that god’s holy day, all of these are moral to specific religions and are meaningless to all who do not share a belief in that deity.

So I came to the conclusion in Part 1 that the best candidate for an absolute or universal morality would be to “do no harm to other humans.”

Fairly innocuous, I think, and a concept that I think most everyone should be able to agree with.  But does that idea go far enough?  Should there be something more, something of a more active moral imperative?  After all, simply standing still and doing nothing does no harm.  However, inaction could certainly result in harm.  What about a moral imperative to prevent harm?  Perhaps even a command to promote life or liberty or happiness?

Unfortunately, while these may be good ideas, they begin to enter the realm of relative actions.

Suppose, for example, that we have a healthy adult man driving home from work, and he passes a house that is on fire.  Stopping, he does what most of us in today’s modern technological society would do: he calls 911 on his cell phone and reports the fire to the proper authorities.  In most modern cities, he can now be reasonably confident that the fire department, with trained and well-equipped personnel, will arrive soon and deal with the fire.

But while he is sitting in his car waiting for the fire department to arrive and watching the fire, he hears the screams of children trapped inside the burning house…

Now, he is faced with serious choices.  If he does nothing, perhaps the fire department will arrive in time to get inside and rescue the children, but perhaps they will not arrive in time and the children will die. 

On the other hand, he is one man, he is not trained for this; nor is he equipped with any sort of breathing apparatus or protective gear.  If he goes in, he faces the possibility that he will fail and not only will the children die, but so might he.

We all arguably hope that if we were faced with such a situation that we would have the courage to attempt to rescue the children.   Certainly in such a case we would be acting in a positive manner to “prevent harm to other humans”.  A good candidate for an absolute morality?

Maybe, maybe not.  The children are not his. The house is not his. He does not know the children or their parents or even one of their relatives or friends. They are complete strangers.  On the other hand, our Samaritan is married, he has children of his own, and they depend upon the presence of their father for their sustenance and support.  By entering the house and dying, the man causes great future harm to his own family.   

Perhaps he succeeds in rescuing the children in the burning house, but suffers crippling injuries in doing so.  Now, he deprives his own family of a productive father and husband, and he adds to their burden by being alive, but hurt and requiring constant care perhaps for many years.

So altruism and courage come with a price, and the “goodness” of certain actions may outweigh, or be outweighed by the potential consequences.

Of course, if faced with such a situation and having only seconds to react, we will most likely react according to our own individual instincts.  Some of us will head for the front door of the house and make every human effort possible to rescue the children; others will freeze and be unable to act; others will weight the consequences and opt to wait for the fire department; sadly, some will turn their cell phone into a camera and simply take pictures to put on Facebook or YouTube later. 

Regardless, I am not sure that we can condemn or praise our subject no matter what he does or does not do.  Perhaps, one might want to know just how far along the fire is before making a decision here.  Is the house even accessible or has the fire made entry for even the equipped and trained virtually impossible?

No matter how you look at this situation, it becomes a matter of relative morality, not absolute.

 So maybe we modify the moral imperative and say that one should “prevent harm to other humans WHENEVER POSSIBLE”.  Or perhaps to take a note from the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (and other programs based on the Steps), we can add “EXCEPT WHEN TO DO SO WOULD INJURE THEM OR OTHERS”.

This, to me, does become somewhat unwieldy, but I think that if we are to consider adding to our initial moral imperative, then we are automatically adding complexity.  Complexity means modification.  It also means that we need to consider this more of a universal morality than an absolute morality.  After all, if the morality is absolute, then we should not need to add modifiers or qualifications.

So here would be my suggestions for a secular humanist universal morality—a code of behavior toward self and other humans:

1) Do no harm to other humans

2) Prevent harm from coming to other humans except when doing so would hurt or injure them or other humans.

Now, as for this suggested morality being based in science, I would say that of course it is.  In terms of humanity’s evolutionary development, we survived and thrived because teamwork and unity overcame the physical disadvantages of being a creature without large fangs, powerful limbs, claws, or great speed.  The intelligence and cleverness for making weapons and tools are meaningless without a group dynamic for taking advantage of these assets. We see this in other primates, especially chimps and bonobos, our closest cousins!

Fair enough?  Do we need to go even farther, or have we gone too far?  Is a secular humanist morality detailed enough or too detailed? Can we have such a thing without resorting to supernatural directives? 

I think we can, and we should!

Posted by: camtimothy | May 13, 2010

Is Morality Possible Without God?

Recently, author Sam Harris has proposed that not only is morality possible without the need for God—or any deity, but that science can be used to provide the basis of such a secular morality.  

While I agree with his contention, I feel that I should offer my own take on this subject. 

First, let’s define morality and then establish some categories and some differences (and a few other things).

I am going to define morality as simply a code of behavior.  The behavior that would encompass a code of any sort can of course take different forms. There is behavior toward oneself, there is behavior toward other humans, and there is behavior toward non-humans.  The category of non-humans would necessarily include non-human inhabitants of this universe as well as the non-human inhabitants of any other universe (i.e. Heaven?).  For the sake of argument, and to see if we can come to a consensus as to what would constitute an absolute morality, I will lump “self” and “other humans” into one general category, and place “all non-humans” into a single separate category.  True, some might be offended by seeing their god or gods sharing a category with cattle, apes, lions,  spiders, and golden carp, but if you’re patient you will see where I’m going with this.

Absolute versus relative.  I am going to say that any code of behavior that is aimed at non-humans is a relative code of behavior, a relative morality.  Why?  Well, because by definition non-humans are not human and OUR morality is necessarily by, about, and for humans!  Since there are millions of species of non-human creatures on this planet, many of which many of us also enjoy eating, I cannot consider any concept of intuitive  morality that would govern our behavior toward non-humanity here!  Certainly, humanity COULD agree that eating other living creatures is wrong and should be abolished, but that agreement would be part of a deterministic process and since many animals are digestible by humans, the decision to stop eating them would not be intuitive or based on tenets of science; it would be an arbitrary decision!  If a code of behavior is not intuitively good or based in science, then it ought not be a candidate for our absolute morality.

God or gods.  Now, I understand that every one of you who is a practicing and believing member of a religion would be ecstatic to have your own god be the arbiter of what is right and what is wrong. 

Among yourselves, this belief may have spawned an absolute morality FOR YOU and for the other members of YOUR religion, but while the rest of us are grateful for your volunteering your god, we must respectfully decline.  You see, there is nothing intuitive or universal or even scientific about dietary restrictions (without medical motivation), sexual restrictions, keeping certain days “holy”, or bending to one’s knees to worship specific deities.  Even if any of these “laws” have been handed to a human or human group by an actual deity, they are entirely relative to that deity.  They are not intuitive (or based on any scientific principles) and they may not even be commandments given by actual gods.

No matter how you cut it, all religions are based on revelation.  A person or persons CLAIMS that a being from another dimension has appeared to them (and usually to ONLY them) and has given them a set of instructions to relay to the rest of us.  This requires two major leaps of incredulity.  First, the rest of us must accept that the human claimants are not conning, lying, or simply insane.  Then we must accept that the being or beings with which they have communicated are also not conning, lying, or simply insane.  And we must accept these assumptions without a shred of physical evidence.

This is not to say that some or all of these alleged instructions from the deity are bad instructions.  Most of us would certainly agree that lying, stealing, and murdering, are USUALLY bad things.  But other instructions are meant specifically as instructions for the worship of the deity.  Neither intuitive nor valid for those who do not believe in that particular deity.  Let’s keep in mind that there are many deities that have been introduced to humanity, many of whom are still around in one form or another.  Without any good evidence, why should any one deity have precedence over another?

What would be the intuitive good or the scientific basis for circumcision, eating only fish on Fridays, not eating pork, forbidding homosexuality, wearing only certain colors, or wearing clothes made only from certain materials, or not working on a specific day?  Everything that I have just mentioned is either a non-issue or a critical issue to somebody and by extension, to somebody’s god. 

So, for the sake of this discussion, I will limit the candidates for an absolute morality to those that affect the category of “oneself and other humans” only.  

As far as I can see, there is one basic commandment that qualifies for consideration: 

Do no harm to other humans.

This idea has been utilized to one degree or another by early humans as well as by our cousins the apes.  Naturally, apes have narrowed the field down to “do no harm to other members of your tribe”. And most of our early ancestors did the same, maintaining a very narrow definition of “fellow tribesman”!   Since tribalism predates civilization—ok, helped lead to civilization–and since primates have been gathering into tribes for protection for millions of years, we are simply adding more folks to the tribe!  This then is an evolutionary concept, one that has come down to us with modification from our distant ancestors!

“Do no harm to other humans” is intuitive.  There is no overall benefit to the tribe for members of that tribe to cause harm to other members.  Therefore there is no inherent benefit for humans to harm other humans.  There can in fact be adverse effects to the member doing the harm as those to whom he or she has done harm will be more reluctant to offer assistance should the first member find himself or herself in trouble.  Nothing like the appearance of a hungry leopard or a rival tribe to bring everyone together!

“Do no harm to other humans” is scientific.  Cooperation and altruistic behavior is one of the primary reasons that humans as a species have survived without the natural means of defense (sharp teeth, powerful limbs, claws, speed).  Our capability to make tools or weapons is meaningless without the numbers that a tribe offers.  One man with a stone club or spear can bring down small game thus providing for himself, but a group with weapons can bring down animals large enough to provide sustenance for an entire village of people—nourishment for women and the young.  Therefore, “do no harm to other humans” is, I think, an excellent start for a secular human-based morality.

In 1776, our Founding Fathers signed a Declaration of Independence from England.  One of the primary tenets of this declaration was that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,[71] that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”   Yes, I understand that the Founders added the words “their Creator”.  And yes, many of them were referring to the Abrahamic God.  But if we look at this Declaration objectively, “creator” can be whatever force made the universe.  Does not have to be a supernatural being.  The creator can be natural physical laws; it can be the force of Natural Selection, both of which can easily be seen as  the origin of man’s inalienable rights!

In actuality, regardless of where these rights came from, they had to be won, by combat and with blood.  And yet, there is an excellent intuitiveness to these rights, and even more important, an excellent symmetry to their order.  If we look at “life”, “liberty”, and the “pursuit of happiness”, we can see not only three basic rights, but also an order of priority.  After all, when we are dealing with large numbers of humans, there will necessarily be conflicts and disputes.  By establishing this order of priorities, we can then say that under the general absolute: “do not harm to other humans”, we can establish three sub-headings: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and then further say that one’s life is a higher priority than another’s liberty, and one’s liberty is a higher priority than another’s pursuit of happiness.  Now, we have a good start at a guideline for the inevitable dispute resolution that will come up between people and even between nations.  In other words, we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness so long as we do not infringe on the rights of others.

I cannot deprive you of your life or liberty in order to achieve my own happiness, and of course you cannot deprive me of my life in order to achieve your liberty. 

Naturally, these ideas can be debated and should be, but even without the ideas contained within the Declaration of Independence, we have a good start at a secular, human-based morality, and we have done so without requiring a divine being to command us!

Tim Campbell

…While scoring big for freedom of religion.

Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Dan Barker shines in this FOX News interview…

Dan easily skewers the lame, ill-conceived, fallacious arguments offered up by the FOX host. The host isn’t too bad until around 3:00, when he turns into twittish shill for the Religious Right.

And what’s up with the “cross” on the left of the screen?

Posted by: sponyak | March 22, 2010

Conservative Reaction to Health Care Reform

Posted by: sponyak | March 13, 2010

One Nation, Under God…

…But which one???

The 9th District Court of Appeals has ruled that “Under God” and “In God we Trust” do NOT constitute religious language.

On “Under God”:

“…the pledge is an endorsement of our form of government, not of religion or any particular sect.”


On “In God We Trust”:

“The language is patriotic and ceremonial, not religious…”


I figured we could have some fun with this. What god do they mean? There are thousands of gods in human history, and thousands more just waiting to be “made up”.

Unless the U.S. Supreme Court decides to take up the issue,  America is now *officially* UNDER THE GOD of YOUR CHOICE!

One Nation Under Kali!

One Nation Under Horus!

One Nation Under Hera!

One Nation Under Marduk!

One Nation Under Helios!

One Nation Under Quetzalcoatl!

One Nation Under Murcielago!

Posted by: Michael Logan | December 29, 2009

A CFT Xmas (discussion)

A number of interesting topics came up in our forums over Christmas.

The Salvation Army

Ginger The Instigator started us off:

Do you give to them in light of their being 1) a religious group and 2) anti-gay and lesbian.

How do you deal with them when you pass them?

David E. summed up how most of us felt:

Ever since I became aware of their anti-gay viewpoint a few years ago, I’ve made a point of not donating anything to them. When I have old clothes or the like to donate, I always take them to Goodwill rather than Salvation Army.

If they were solely a religious organization, it wouldn’t bother me, but I can’t knowingly support an organization that discriminates against people just for being who they are.

Fred W:

No, I do not give. There are many organizations which help the poor. I give to the secular ones. I see no reason to promote a religion in which I do not believe in order help the needy. I can help the needy without the unwanted baggage.

Mark T. The Clarifyer sourced the problem:

Their biblical “frown” on homosexuality aside, a lot of the claims of discrimination against gays by the Salvation Army seem to stem from a deal they attempted to strike with the Bush white house back in ’01:

And Bruce O. offered a minor dissent that I personally don’t disagree with in principle:

Reading through their position statement, yes, they do believe the bible says “gay sex is bad”, but they explicitly state they are also against discrimination against those who are gay, and still offer all their services to anyone, regardless of their sexuality.

So, obviously not ideal, but still a LOT better than some Xtian groups that seek to do anything they can to put down/discriminate/hate gay people.

Personally, even though I’m not Xtian, and agnostic, I do not have too much of a problem giving to a religious based charity, as long as I know the funds I am giving are going towards an actual program I believe in. For instance, I’ve donated blankets to the Haven of Rest shelter in Akron, even though they are a Xtian based homeless shelter, as I know they fill a need that’s not met too well in the Akron area. I would not donate to a fund for a church to evangelize, or to bring bibles to children, etc.

Guess what I’m saying is, if the motive is still good, the deed is still good, then I can overlook some minor religious ties sometimes.

But that’s just me.


The Josh started us off with a piece by Michael Shermer:

From Faitheist to Fundagnostical by Michael Shermer

This is a great piece on the whole “accomdationist” crap that skeptics, like Michael Shermer, get accused of. Read this piece and you’ll find out that Michael Shermer is anything but an “accomodationist”.

I will always call religions out on their BS. I will always call them out when they abuse/rape women and children. When religions circumcise women, kill abortion doctors, promote suicide bombing as a legitimate form of martyrdom I will be right there to shine a critical light on it. When religions teach children & adults that it’s a virtue to believe things in the absence of hard evidence, I will shout at the top of my lungs, “THIS IS WHAT’S WRONG WITH RELIGION AND IT SHOULD STOP!”

There are religious people/theists who would stand right next to me and shout those very words, too. There are religious people who think that critical thinking is important and creationism is nonsense. Kenneth Miller is a great example of this. Ken Miller fought against teaching intelligent design in schools and was crucial in the victory of the Kitzmiller VS Dover Area School District case. The last thing I would ever want to do is alienate people like Kenneth Miller when they could be great allies in the fight against teaching nonsense in our science classrooms.

It’s a great article written by Michael Shermer and I recommend it to everyone.

I (as always) threw my 2 cents in:

I agree. We Atheists do ourselves a tremendous disservice by refusing to cooperate or collaborate with moderate believers; so far as politics is concerned, short term concessions very often result in long term gains. To present our critique in a manner that is palatable to believers in no way undermines our position, but rather increases the likelihood that some of them will find themselves unable to continue turning a blind eye to the nonsense their religion espouses.

Mark T. The Clarifyer strikes again:

While Shermer’s original piece in the NYT was done with the noblest of intentions, I understand why he caught flak for it. Here is that article:

Religion, evolution can live side by side

Shermer’s gist, as I see it:

“Accepting the theory of evolution doesn’t clash with your beliefs in an omnipotent god, or in Christ rising from the dead; or that he hears you when you pray to him; or that he will come again to judge the living and the dead; or that nonbelievers will be “cast into the lake of fire” (etc., etc) … so just look at the evidence, and accept that evolution is true, ok?”

There are 2 ways of looking at this- one one hand, Shermer is going easy on religious folk in order to promote science; on the other hand, he is unwittingly treating them as children. The fact of the matter is, the supernatural beliefs associated with religion DO clash with science. (Find me one example in which they don’t, and I will eat my words).

This is why many of us prefer the “stark fist” of a Dawkins or a Hitchens… it is more directly honest. There are plenty of Kenneth Miller & Frances Collins types who espouse the “evolution doesn’t have to clash with God” thing- which is good, but should atheists & skeptics have to play the same angle?

Josh makes a good case for doing both:

If you want to take the Hitchens and Dawkins approach when you’re trying to teach critical thinking or science to people, that approach wont work. For the most part we are dealing with friends, family, co-workers and other members of our own community. If I start saying their beliefs are bullshit then the conversation ends right there and I have now alienated that friend or family member. Anything important I have to say to them about a matter as far as religion goes or science will be ignored.

Like Shermer says, it depends on what your goal is. When you’re debating creationists or religious leaders or apologists or fundamentalists then the Dawkins/Hitchens approach is the way to go. When you’re trying to teach people science and critical thinking then the Michael Shermer, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Jay Gould approach is the way to go. It depends on what you’re goal is. I know the difference between the two goals and the two approaches. I know when to use one and not the other to be as effective as I can be.

Nathan agrees with Mark T. the Clarifyer:

I agree with Mark, the more direct approach is more honest.

The only way to reconcile any two conflicting ideas or beliefs is to compare them to something unrelated.

Evolution doesn’t conflict with Jesus rising form the dead or the existence of a creator being. (But it does conflict with the idea that the creator being created us.)

The theory of gravity doesn’t conflict with the existence of a creator being or someone rising from the dead. (But, it does conflict with the notion that Jesus or Mary ascended bodily into heaven or that angels can fly.)

The sexual theory of reproduction doesn’t conflict with the existence of a creator being. (but, it does conflict with the idea of Jesus (or any other god) being born of a virgin.) SO as long as we never compare the scientific theory to the part of theology it proves absurd, we’re good.

Now, if the debate/discussion is about evolution (or any other scientific topic), you can stick to the facts without ever bringing religion into it. I agree, at that point religion isn’t even part of the discussion and shouldn’t be brought up (now if the theist or denier brings it up, i’m all for smashing them to bits (metaphorically speaking)). If the discussion is theological in nature, then the most honest approach is the most direct, and will end up with some pissed off believers.

Mark O. chimes in with a different opinion:

Religion and science can be a marriage that works. Like most marriages, it takes a
little work. If one does not accept the Bible as literal, the two can co-exist.

“God made man in his image”. Does this refer to the spirit, or are we to believe
that God is 5′-7″ (if male), has one head, two eyes, two arms and two legs?

Nathan doubts:

Religion and science can be a marriage that works if religion relinquishes any truth claims which it holds and allows science to prove it wrong every time. Is there a claim made by a religion that is true, and can only be made in a religious context? Similar to Hitchens’ challenge. Is there a claim made by religion (any of them I guess) that could not be made secularly and/or explained secularly?

We know the big ones don’t hold up (virgin birth in humans, resurrection 3 days after death, flying to heaven on a donkey, existence of hell, etc.)

I don’t believe God made man, so that second question means nothing. Man made God in his image.

Michael The Moor dissents:

There are just some couples that just shouldn’t be together, this being a great example. Why try and shoe horn a complex, cobbled together, contradictory book with the cumulative wisdom of science? Where does that even make sense? Science and (Western) religions are compatible only in a semantic sense, not a rational one. Religion is an ossified concept from the dark genesis of mankind and science is the light, the torch that guides our way. Trying to make them work together is an insult to human progress and intellectually dishonest.

And I agree with him:

A better question than “can religion and science coexist” is “should religion and science coexist”? If our objective is the marginalization of religious thinking in our society, then it would be to our detriment to even consider the possibility that the two are not mutually exclusive. If, however, that is not our objective, then I must ask, what is?

Ginger chimes in:

I think Josh’s point is one of strategy. For example, I am an animal lover. It makes more sense for me to go after the low hanging fruit first such as spay and neuter your cat before taking out the big guns such as stop wearing leather shoes and never eat meat or dairy again.

Mark O. responds:

Remember that religion came before science. Religion was/is a way of explaining
the natural world. It has a good 50,000 year head start on science.
And I return to my premise that religion is rational.

As I wrote on Dec 08: The foundation that all religions are based is Power, control, and fear.
To a lesser degree governance and health.

Michael, I agree some religious belief systems are ossified (good word), but not all.

Michael The Moor responds in kind:

And a lack of religion also preceded science, just because religion has a veneer of oldness to it doesn’t make it special or worth keeping. The premise of religion is rational in the context of its time not now given what we know about reality. To say religion explains the world now is just flat out wrong. Also, let me clarify by saying Western religion (though eastern ones like Hinduism are guilty as well) As for the head start, it reminds me of the tortoise and the hare. The hare represents quick, meaningless answers that mean nothing whereas the tortoise represents the slow, cumulative, honest, methodical approach of science. I’m also calling you on using a veiled argument from authority (religion has a 50,000 year head start)

Anthony T. contests my position:

I’d like to think our objective is to maximize rational thought, rather than the negative goal of marginalizing religious thought. If that is the goal, than Shermer has a valid point. That doesn’t mean he is right in coddling irrational thought (such as his poor performance on Larry King, vis-a-vis life after death).

As for the rest, I have to say, I am most definitely *not* an accomodationist. I am more in agreement with Dawkins and P.Z. Myers and Hitchens. Religious belief hobbles such great scientists as Francis Collins, who believes god answers the questions of such silly things as physical constants, and so are beyond science. This is, of course, the most ludicrous position a scientist can take, as history is filled with people claiming a god of the gaps.

Mostly, though, I don’t care what people believe, as long as it doesn’t interfere with other people. Rational thought and objective perception of reality should guide public policy, and interaction with others outside your own faith.

That’s just me, of course, idealist to the end.

Bruce O. affirms the value of consensus over conflict:

Just a reminder that a number of scientists throughout the ages have been inspired to discover more by their faith. Not all just accept that there are things that can’t be known that are for only God to know. Instead, they seek to discover how and why the world works in the hope to better understand how and what God is, and how and what creation is.

While this isn’t necessarily my belief, I believe that there is no problem with people holding these beliefs. I see no need to demonize people for holding such beliefs either. Yes, it would be wrong of people to advocate their belief in God within a scientific argument, however, after the scientific paper has been presented, there is no problem in my eyes with going back and providing a philosophical argument to augment the papers findings.

I’m a firm believer in finding consensus between people. There ARE cases where none will ever be found (literalists) but, with people with more moderate, enlightened views of faith, I DO believe there can be enough common ground to discus items rationally with people who do not share our world views 100%, and thus be able to come together to help society as a whole.

Michael The Moor takes the hardline:

I’m sorry but coddling nonsense does not help humanity in the long term. And by finding a “consensus” with sympathetic religites, we hamstring ourselves because apologists and religious moderates won’t let us criticize fundamentalists. By living and let live, progress is eroded more and more as we see. And what sense does it make to let a man not come to terms with reality? By letting persist in the fantasy that there is something more after this life with no pain and eternal bliss, he will not truly live this one. He will be a bystander in his own life in the hopes of getting a better one. That is immature. We atheists tend to live with courage and passion because we know this is all we have. Also what can be known to be true is more important than someone’s “precious” feelings. I represent a courageous humanity, one that faces nature and reality on it’s terms rather than persisting in a ridiculous delusion.

Bruce, yes many scientists were men of faith simply based on what they knew or reality at that time and were educated by the church. However, after the Origin of Species was published and found to be true, the number of religious scientists fell drastically or they become vague believers in belief. There is no logical reason to believe in gods, fairies, elves, ancestor spirits. Intelligent people who do believe these things are genuinely mistaken due to cognitive dissonance or have a fear of truly living without the god crutch(and losing familial ties).

Ed brings up the reality of the conflict:

In a debate once with a creationist I asked at some point that since “the Bible has already shown the universe to be only a few thousand years old and we are not evolved from previous species” should astronomers and biologists working in these areas just quit their jobs since it has all been answered already? He could not respond. The correct answer is of course not!

I believe every time we have not accepted an answer provided to us by religion to explain the natural world we have found out something that has helped humanity progress and reduced suffering.

Science has allowed us to communicate faster, live more diverse lives, heal illness faster, etc., etc., etc. I am sure it could be debated if science could be managed better to give us more benefit versus the negatives science also brings (advanced weaponry causing global extinction at once, climate change, pollution, overpopulation, lack of physical exercise, etc.) Even with the tax we must pay for science and technology it is still more beneficial than religious doctrine.

A review of the last 2000 years of life on this planet would include the question of “Is human life more enjoyable than it was in the past?” How does this change correlate with technology and science. I believe where we see less religion and more science we see less suffering and more general enjoyment of life. The human condition has improved in the last 100 years for MOST people and I believe this is due to science and technology. Where we are going is another question but I do not think it has to do with religion but instead with mass human behavior.

And I respond to Anthony T.

I don’t see any distinction; religion is an institution that requires the suspension of one’s critical faculties. If our objective is as you say, to maximize rational thought, then in addition to promoting the virtues of science and skepticism we should be working to marginalize religious thinking; while we could target any institution that promotes non-nonsensical reasoning, as religion does, it would be more effective of us to concentrate on the biggest, baddest, most intellectually dishonest entity; the effect of revealing religion to be the scam that it is to the society as a whole would have far reaching effects, more so than a multitude of small and easy battles.

I also responded to Bruce O. earlier:

If the crediting of a person’s faith is a valid defense of religion, then the actions of those such as Al-Ghazali, who is almost single handedly responsible for ending the era of great scientific advances in the Islamic world due to his determination to find god as the cause of all things, must be equally considered as a critique of religion. Also, we must ask ourselves whether a person who did use science to clarify his faith would not have behaved similarly in the absence of religion? If the application of science was only used to reconcile a religious idea with the realities of the physical world, then why should that be taken as a positive influence of religious thinking?

Randall T. expounds a bit on that:

I have come to the conclusion that when it comes to religion (other the fundamentalism wackos) that most followers do NOT really believe that Jesus turned water into wine or raised lazarus from the dead. That deep down inside they know that the physical laws of the universe were not suspended because some Rabbi had a great deal of influence. But what they do take from religion is the hope of ever expanding optimism that there is some hope and possability. Its a sheer optimism veiled over by rationalization. They NEED to live with hope. Im fine with that until the more intrusive believers filter into politics and science.Thats the fight we should worry about………

And Bruce O. makes a good point against dismissiveness:

The main thing that can be learned from holy documents, besides appreciating some of them for their literary value, are philosophical ideas.

For instance, from Buddhism, we get Zen and meditation.

From Christianity, we get a message of non-violence, in a time much more brutal than our own. (wish more would actually get that message)

Yes, all ideas CAN be gleaned from other sources, as there are always multiple paths towards the same philosophical goals. All I’m saying is that, beside the loony bits that are in most holy books, there can be interesting ideas that can be extracted, explored, and used too, and it’d be a shame to just dump those by the wayside because one saw them as coming from a “tainted” source.

Nathan disagrees:

I’m not saying that every idea in a holy book is loony. But, for example, the idea of non-violence that you claim is espoused by Christianity was present in other religions/cultures 1000’s of years prior to Christianity. It is also prevalent in non-religious culture, so the holy books don’t matter in regards to such ideas or ideals. You’ll have to provide a working definition of “Zen” for us to discuss. Meditation was also around in Indian cultures prior to Buddhism being adopted. You could also say that relaxation of any kind is good, so meditation is simply focused relaxation. Again, non-religious cultures can come up with those. The religious texts have no use.

On a contrary note, do you really think that Christianity stresses non-violence? Also, do you think that today’s world is less brutal?

I don’t dismiss the ideas from holy books because they are from holy books, I dismiss them because they are either bad ideas (genital mutilation, human sacrifice, etc.) or, in the case of non-violence, aren’t from holy books.


Posted by: Michael Logan | December 5, 2009

The Myth Of The Cave As An Allegory In Advocacy Of Atheism

Plato’s Myth Of The Cave, or Allegory Of The Cave, is one of my favorite writings on humanity’s relationship with knowledge.  In context with the rest of The Republic, it is one of the best treatise on politics, justice, and philosophy ever written.  Definitely one of those few things to which there is no downside in reading.  Having just reread it for the first time a few years, I was surprised to discover (and peeved for having not done so earlier) that the piece perfectly sums up the nature and contrast of the relationship between theism and atheism.

(I included my favorite version at the end of my essay.)

The prisoners, representing the theist, are restricted in their actions by their environment, one which has been crafted by others intending to deceive and control them.  They are slaves.  They are given nothing but the images on the wall before them and the ability to communicate amongst themselves.  The images are distorted, recognizable only by those with the ability to see and the knowledge of what causes them; to the prisoners, they are all that exist, as even the fire remains obscured.

The human impulse toward knowledge is demonstrated in the prisoners attempts to explain the shadows; they give names, project motives, create rituals, and postulate origins for the shadows, all in a vain attempt to give some greater definition to their own existence.  It probably wasn’t long before it was determined that the shadows were responsible for their condition, and likely the light itself.  The shadows became the explanation for everything, as their ability to create the prisoners, the chains, the light, and the cave clearly demonstrated an omnipotent and all powerful entity.

Human beings prefer a false explanation to no explanation, and it was this desire that likely led to the naming of the shadows, the imbuing of attributes, the genesis story of how the cave came to exist, and the story of how the prisoners came to be where they are now.  Authority on these subjects was a purely observational exercise; the person who could best predict the movement of the shadows, or the responses of the echoes,  found themselves with a ready and willing audience, and with that authority bequeathed upon them came the confidence to interpret the shadows.  Signs of anger, malaise, joy, jealousy, and ambivalence were soon decoded, further confirmation that their speculative efforts were not in vain.

One can only imagine the shock that first liberated prisoner must have felt, to discover that the source of what they had come to believe an all powerful agent was a set of sticks, rocks, and people identical to the prisoners, though probably healthier.  It is one thing to discover oneself to be wrong on a single assumption; to have one’s entire worldview shattered must have been terrifying.  If the very thing one bases their entire existence upon turns out to be false, then surely all other assumptions must be false as well.

The progression out of the cave parallels our own journey out of the religious mindset; the painful but necessary abandonment of old explanations, old securities, and old comradery is reflected in our own history of violence, struggle, and ultimate redemption.  False ideas do not fall like rain, growing steadily and reaching a point of unsustainability before rushing neatly into obscurity; false ideas stand firm as trees do, growing all the more resilient until something stronger tears at it violently and casts it aside, or until age has rendered it decrepit, unable to sustain itself any longer.

The pain of adjustment to the new reality must have shocked the prisoner, though it certainly paled in comparison to the wonder and amazement they soon discovered.  The sudden realization that life is both a far greater and equally familiar thing would have been seductive, and the newly liberated mind would have given in eagerly.

What would it take to cause a person given this opportunity to free themselves, both mentally and physically, to reject it?  Faith.  Faith in something that is only perceived to be real; faith in an aberration of something real, or faith in something that never was real.  Humanity’s ability to discern truth is rivaled only by our collective resistance to it.  Plato commented on this when he suggested that violent reprisal would be the consequence of sharing one’s new found insight with the other prisoners; it is still a reality today that conflict follows those who dare to lead the confined to freedom.

Plato may not have had the gods in mind when he wrote this metaphor 2400 years ago, but the similarity is striking.  We live in a society in which religion has been reduced to the primary proprietor of nonsense and superstition; we also live in a society in which far too many of us are frequent clients.  Human progress can be measured by how closely we adhere to the myths of our ancestors.  Plato wrote the Myth Of The Cave in reverence of knowledge and wisdom; atheism is the philosophy of rejection of all ideas not based on real knowledge or wisdom.  Just as the freed prisoner found themselves engaged in a new study of existence, standing at the precipice of true knowledge, so too is atheism at the end of intellectual enslavement, and the beginning of something far greater.



The following is a translation of Plato’s The Myth Of The Cave, from The Republic, c. 380 BCE, translated by Manuel Velasquez for his text on Philosophy.

Now let me describe human situation in a parable about ignorance and learning. Imagine there are men living at the bottom of an underground cave whose entrance is a long passageway that rises through the ground to the light outside. They have been there since childhood and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move. The chains hold their heads so that they must sit facing the back wall of the cave and cannot turn their heads to look up through the entrance behind them. At some distance behind them, up nearer the entrance to the cave, a fire is burning. Objects pass in front of the first so that they cast their shadows on the back wall where the prisoners see the moving shadows projected as if on a screen. All kinds of objects parade before the fire, including statues of men and animals whose shadows dance on the wall in front of the prisoners.

Those prisoners are like ourselves. The prisoners see nothing of themselves or each other except the shadows each one’s body casts on the back wall of the cave. Similarly, they see nothing of the objects behind them, except their shadows moving on the wall.

Now imagine the prisoners could talk with each other. Suppose their voices echoed off the wall so that the voices seem to come form their own shadows. Then wouldn’t they talk about these shadows as if the shadows were real? For the prisoners, reality would consists of nothing but the shadows.

Next imagine that one prisoner was freed from his chains. Suppose he was suddenly forced to stand up and turn toward the entrance of the cave. Suppose he was forced to walk up toward the burning fire. The movement would be painful, and teh glare from the fire would blind him so that he would not see clearly the real objects whose shadows he used to watch. What would he think if someone explained that everything he had seen before was an illusion, that now he was nearer to reality and that his vision was actually clearer?

Imagine he was then shown the objects that had cast their shadows on the wall and he was asked to name each one – wouldn’t he be at a complete loss? Wouldn’t he think the shadows he saw before were more true than these objects?

Next imagine he was forced to look straight at the burning light. His eyes would hurt. The pain would make him turn away and try to return to things he could see more easily. He would think that those things were more real than the new things they were showing him.

But suppose that once more someone takes him and drags him up the steep and rugged ascent from the cave. Suppose someone forces out into the full light of the sun. Won’t he suffer greatly and be furious at being dragged upward? As he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled and he won’t be able to see any of this world we ourselves call reality. Little by little he will have to get used to looking at the upper world. At first he will see shadows on the ground best, next perhaps the reflections of men and other objects in water, and then maybe the objects themselves. After this he would find it easier to gaze at the light of the moon and the stars in the night sky than to look at the daylight sun and its light. Last of all he will be able to look at the sun and contemplate its nature. He will not just look at its reflection in water but will see it as it is in itself and in its own domain. He would come to the conclusion that the sun produces the seasons and the years and that it controls everything in the visible world. He will understand that it is in a way the cause of everything that he and his fellow prisoners used to see.

Suppose the released prisoner now recalled the cave and what passed for wisdom among his fellows there. Wouldn’t he be happy about his new situation and feel sorry for them? They might have been in the habit of honoring those among themselves who were the quickest to make out the shadows and those who could remember which usually came before others so that they were best at predicting the course of the shadows. Would he care about such honors and glories or would he envy those who won them? Wouldn’t he rather endure anything than go back to thinking and living like they did?

Finally, imagine that the released prisoner was taken from the light and brought back into the cave to his old seat. His eyes would be full of darkness. Now he would have to compete in discerning the shadows with the prisoners who had never left the cave while his own eyes were still dim. Wouldn’t he appear ridiculous? Men would say of him that he had gone up and come back down with his eyesight ruined and that it was better not even to think of ascending. In fact, if they caught anyone trying to free them and lead them up to the light, they would try to kill him.

I say, now, that the prison is the world we see with our eyes; the light of the fire is like the power of our sun. The climb upward out of the cave into the upper world is the ascent of the mind into the domain of true knowledge.


Posted by: Jim the Restless | December 3, 2009

‘Tis the Season

Axial Tilt is the Reason for the Season

Holiday Warriors Unite!

I am a non-believer, an atheist and agnostic. Yet I decided long ago that there is no reason not to celebrate the winter holidays. Actually, there are many good reasons to celebrate. I have a wonderful wife and kids, good friends, life, liberty, love. All these things are worth celebrating on their own merits.

I am also a curious person, and have learned that gift giving, decorating, feasting, and togetherness are traditions that transcend cultural boundaries. Celebrations of the seasons and human accomplishments are as old as our species.

I also understand that this is a deeply spiritual time of year for many people. No one is trying to take that away, or to prevent them from celebrating their beliefs. However, the most important holiday traditions practiced around the world cross cultural, national, and religious boundaries. They are universal concepts that can and should be shared by all.

The act of acknowledging that our traditions and celebrations draw from multiple cultures and beliefs, as well as secular influences, is not an attempt to demean one particular group. It is easy for a group accustomed to a position of dominance and majority status to feel threatened when a minority begins to speak out. It is irrational, however, for such a group to fear. It is also irrational for that group to claim that challenging their privileged status is equivalent to repression of their beliefs.

Those who ascribe religious significance to the winter holidays have never been prohibited from celebrating according to their beliefs within their homes or churches or other private property. And no has made any attempt to do so. The controversy stems from the use of government or publicly owned property to promote one belief above others.

The problem with this is, if one group is allowed to use public property to promote their beliefs, every group must be allowed the same privilege, morally, legally, and ethically,. The public square is then turned into a competition of proselytization. This benefits no one, and causes an unreasonable burden on the government. More importantly, it gives the government greater control over whose message is treated better. Will a Catholic council member give his church the prime location for their display? Will the local Baptists, who have fewer representatives on the council be relegated to a back corner of the property?

The solution is simple. A secular display that does not promote any one group over the other is allowed. Those who wish to promote their interpretation and version of the holiday are still 100% free to do so on private property. This is fair and equitable. Unfortunately, there is a very vocal group who are not happy with fair, they want to be treated special. They want privileges other’s will not get.

The supposed “War on Christmas” is nothing more than intentional misinformation, hyperbole, and outright lies.

Posted by: Michael Logan | November 26, 2009

Grace In The Forum

We’ve been having a rather intriguing series of back-and-forths on the issue of grace or blessings said at a meal such as Thanksgiving; exactly how should an Atheist/freethinker respond to such a situation?

Lisa started us out by describing a situation many of us go through; “At my family’s house, which is a tradition every year, we say the “Our Daily Bread” prayer. I have been biting my tongue for years now, giving in to my family’s belief and tradition.” I didn’t feel that this was fair unless the non-religious at the table were given the opportunity to offer their own blessing, and James suggested this:

“Michael gives me an idea you could try, if you are game. After you wait patiently for them to conclude their blessing or prayer, you can ask for their attention. You could then give a brief secular statement about what you are grateful for (i.e. the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the scientific method, tolerant society, etc…). If you are patient and tolerant enough to accommodate their beliefs, they should do the same for you. If they are so discourteous as to ignore your statement and not allow you to be heard, then make it clear that you feel you have been disrespected. I would let it stand there, for this year at least. Next year I would stand up and walk out until the prayer is done.

Of course this all depends on how confrontational you are willing to be.”

That last bit references the main issue that I have with grace; I don’t think that it is unreasonable to conclude that asking to give a secular humanist grace would be met with antipathy at best, hostility at worst, by the very people who expect to be allowed to give their religious blessing. I wasn’t alone in this thinking, and several other members chimed in that the best solution would be to grin and bear it; sometimes, picking a fight over religion just isn’t worth it, especially not on a day when we are supposed to be celebrating something.

Not everyone agreed, though, and Gary suggested that “I like the secular prayer idea, but don’t do it after theirs. That makes it so…I don’t know…contrived, unnecessary…. (“Oh, look, now our little girl wants to say something. How cute.”)

Instead, ask (ahead of time or as you sit down) if you could give the prayer. Be polite, be sincere, just don’t mention god. They may not even notice. (“Today, we are thankful to be surrounded by a loving, understanding family, and for all this food, etc, etc….”) Don’t even go into the tolerant society thing. Show them that you’re thankful for all the same things that they are, but, matter-of-factly-by-omission, that god has nothing to do with it.”

Roni offered her own version of a secular grace:
Today we are thankful for the joy and gladness in our lives,
For mirth and exultation, for pleasure and delight,
For love and friendship, peace and peoplehood.
May we all witness the day when the sounds throughout the world
Will be these sounds of happiness:
the voices of lovers, the sounds of feasting and singing
and the song of peace.

And then Jim R gave us my favorite secular blessing:

Given the opportunity I will share this prayer with my (very religious) family this year.

Today we give thanks not only for this wonderful feast but for the abundant life we enjoy. We are thankful for all that we have, for the love and support of family and friends and for the freedom to follow the courage of our convictions. On this Thanksgiving Day may we begin to show our gratitude by committing ourselves to the opportunity we have to use our compassion and our intelligence, our wealth and technology to provide an abundant life for every inhabitant of this planet.

(The last line comes from the late Carl Sagan in the last chapter of Cosmos)

I’m going to try this one out tonight.

Some may be wondering, why exactly is this such an issue? Why are Atheists fretting over grace? Why can’t we just bow our heads and take it?

Because we don’t want to offend our friends, family, colleagues and neighbors over something as small as grace; we don’t want to put an end to a tradition we have a disagreement with when we can find a suitable compromise that excludes no one; we do not want to compromise our own beliefs to accommodate those of someone else, but we do wish to retain the spirit that often accompanies the blessing. Most of all, and I say this as an observer only, I think most of us like the traditions whose origins lie in religion, and if we can preserve the positive elements of something as innocuous as grace, while updating and secularizing the actual language a bit, we will. Or at least I will.


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