People of different religious viewpoints can get along, depending on the person. I have had nothing but positive interaction with the friendly imam at our neighborhood mosque, while others who read the same book that inspires him would interpret it as a fatwa to slit my throat.
There are Christian extremists like John Hagee, who has called for all atheists to leave the United States. He is apparently OK with a trade that would see his country lose 67 percent of its scientists and .02 percent of its prisoners. Even more extreme is Bryan Fischer, who has declared that no atheists should be allowed in the military, that belief in evolution makes one unpatriotic, and that Native American genocide was beneficial because Christians were given the land and resources. Fischer also has supremely creative reading comprehension skills. He was written that the Constitution’s Article VI, which reads, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” is a mandate that only Christians be allowed to serve in public office.
At the other end of the spectrum from Hagee and Fischer are the dozen military chaplains I have worked with, who have been among the most cordial, compassionate, and hardworking men I have known.
The nonbelief side has its extremists as well. Although stopping short of calling for expulsion or death, the late Jon Murray of American Atheists once wrote that only atheists could accurately teach the history of religion and he chastised anyone who labeled themselves an agnostic, humanist, free-thinker, apatheist, or similar moniker. He considered this a wussy way to avoid the dreaded atheist label. Similarly, I have seen many a Facebook thread where agnostics are viciously attacked by atheists for not taking the doubt far enough, even going so far sometimes to say that there is no such thing as an agnostic. The argument generally goes like this: If you’re not sure there’s a god, it means you lack a belief in deity, so this makes you an atheist. This is almost invariably followed with personal attacks and character assassination directed at the agnostic for failing to realize what they are. A similar argument is used against atheists by some Christian extremists who insist atheists believe in God, but are in a state of denial, hate, or rebellion, or are wanting to continue in their sin.
There also exists a subset of Christians who feel that their belief in an invisible sky creature entitles them to the moral high ground. There are many examples, but I will focus on Dennis Prager and Frank Turek since they have been the most vocal and persistent about this stance over the last few years.
On his online site, Prager makes this astounding claim: “If there is no God, murder isn’t wrong.” Given that in the Bible, Koran, and Book of Mormon, the Abrahamic god is responsible for the slaughter of 2,476,633 persons, in addition to an unknown number of flood, plague, and famine victims, a more logical conclusion would be, “If there is a God, murder isn’t wrong.” But let’s keep our focus on what Prager and Turek have written.
In a takedown of Prager’s assertion, skeptic leader Michael Shermer noted the cosmic chicken-and-egg conundrum that arises when one cites a god as source of morality.
Plato asked, “Is what is morally right or wrong commanded by God because it is inherently right or wrong, or is it morally right or wrong only because it is commanded by God?” Shermer picks up on the Greek philosopher’s point by asking, “If murder is wrong because God said it is wrong, what if he said it was okay? Would that make murder right?”
This is not a hypothetical question, as there are instances of God acting more like a Godfather and ordering hits on victims for trying to keep the Ark of the Covenant from hitting the ground (2 Samuel 6:7), for picking up sticks (Numbers 15:36), or for looking over their shoulder (Genesis 19:26). Prager and Turek would have to be OK with these divine executions. There is no room for considering other angles, mitigating circumstances, appeals, reasoning, talking it through, societal values, norms, traditions, or human input.
Also, Prager and Turek present a false dilemma between either a deity-dictated absolute morality or a secular relative morality where there are only opinions with no actual right and wrong. This often leads to an insistence that without a god-based morality, persons have license to commit all manner of mayhem and mischief without being immoral.
But the false dilemma is a logical fallacy where the interlocutor posits that if the opponent’s position is wrong, the speaker’s position is right. This is mistaken because a debater must actually prove one’s point, not just try and tear down the opponent’s. Prager and Turek also commit the begging the question fallacy, assuming without supporting evidence that the correct position is that their god established right and wrong and that his dictates were all uncompromisingly correct.
Prager and Turek say that if I insist arson is wrong, this is merely an opinion. They might be right on this point. But that’s all Prager and Turek have too, an opinion. In their case, they accept the opinions written by Bronze Age Middle East nomads. There’s nothing wrong with any of those traits, but those opinions belong to just another man. Even if we graciously allow that a god wrote it, it’s still just another opinion. Might does not make right and Prager and Turek never establish why Yahweh saying something makes it correct. Supernatural abilities such as creating or destroying a planet are separate from having keen insight into right and wrong.
Besides, Shermer wrote, there is a third option between absolute morality and relative morality, which he calls provisional morality. He defines this as “Moral values that are true for most people in most circumstances most of the time.” He continues, “All societies throughout history and around the world today have sanctions against murder. Why? Because if there were no proscription against murder no social group could survive, much less flourish. All social order would break down. We can’t have people running around killing each other willy nilly.”
At the same time, Shermer explained, there are exceptions such as self defense, war, and executions. These exceptions do not wipe out the provisional morality that murder is wrong. Likewise, most societies have considered human cannibalism wrong, yet most persons would understand the reasoning and actions of the 16 Andean plane wreck survivors who resorted to eating deceased passengers as a last-ditch way to stay alive.
Consider one more example. Stealing is wrong, but this can be mitigated or involve extenuating circumstances. A man with literally no money or food who swipes a bucket of fried chicken to feed his children their first meal in two days would be looked at differently than an online hacker who helps himself to millions in ill-gotten gain for the thrill of it and to prove that he can. Our legal system would almost certainly treat these offenders differently, yet Biblical justice calls for no distinction to be made and for the punishment to be as harsh for the destitute family man as the affluent cyber criminal.
Sources of provincial morality can include parents, peers, mentors, society, teachers, solitary reflection, life experiences, books, culture, and one’s conscience. Shermer noted that since the Enlightenment, “religious-based theocracies have been replaced with Constitution-based democracies, and the result was the abolition of slavery and torture, the democratic rule of law, the decline of violence,” and the granting of rights to minorities, women, gays, and animals.
Prager and Turek insist our rights come from God, but the Bible endorses execution for blasphemy and for practicing Wicca instead of embracing freedom of speech and religion; it favors slavery over emancipation; it requires stoning to death for a woman having premarital sex instead of forbidding cruel and unusual punishment; and the Torah includes no prohibition on warrantless searches or self-incrimination. To see just how in error Prager’s and Turek’s assertion is, contrast the First Commandment with the First Amendment. The former mandates worship of the Abrahamic god under penalty of death. The latter guarantees the right to worship any god or goddess or none at all.
Taking morality from a book requires no thought, whereas morality arrived at through introspection, debate, and experience requires the person to justify their conclusion. Were Turek to take his morality from the Bible, he would have to believe that his daughter’s rapist, instead of becoming a prisoner, should become his son-in-law, regardless of the daughter’s wishes (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).
Citing a god as the source for morality runs into another problem. Different scriptures have different rules and they can’t all be right. Here, Prager and Turek have little trouble here with a retort, simply making a begging the question assumption that the god they were taught to believe in since preschool is the correct one. But belief in absolute morality can lead to the conclusion that anyone who believes differently has departed from the true path and can be dealt with accordingly, in line with punishments in the believer’s holy book. Such thinking has led to the Inquisition, witch trials, and holy wars.
But looking at it from an objective standpoint and having been impacted by the influencers mentioned two paragraphs ago, I can see that the 10 Commandments gets right the prohibitions against murder, stealing, and adultery. But it consciously allows child abuse, rape, and slavery while forbidding innocuous actions such as talking back to one’s parents, uttering profanity, and building a bronze and iron sculpture.
On another topic, it is a disingenuous debate to ask whether torturing an innocent man to death is morally correct. I truly believe Prager and Turek are capable of figuring out murder is wrong on their own. Further, no atheist is going to read Prager’s or Turek’s pieces and decide, “Whoa, if I don’t convert to their religion, I’m going to go out today and commence with raping, pillaging, and burning.” Their assertions are meant to establish their moral superiority, which ironically can be used to commit immoral acts such as the Crusades, Jonestown, and flying airplanes into tall buildings.
Prager tries to tie Stalin and Mao into this and asserts godlessness leads to genocide. But this is the composition fallacy and this decade there have been atheist heads of state in Australia, Greece, Croatia, Belgium, and New Zealand without corresponding bloodbaths.
And a minor point, but Mao and Stalin killed in the name of communism, not atheism. These two built personality cults and the same has been done in North Korea. These communist cults mimic religious extremism by basing a system on the supremacy of an all-wise leader, from whom any departure is worthy of scorn, ostracism, exile, imprisonment, or death.
Shermer makes the argument that murder could be worse if there is no god than if there is. In Prager’s universe, the murder merely creates a painful but temporary separation. If a hundred years from now, the victim and his family are together in paradise and will be there a million millennia after that, murder ends up seeming not so bad. This also brings up a point raised by Richard Dawkins: If one is following the instruction manual because of a belief of being incessantly watched and thinking they are subject to calamity if they stray, is the person really being moral, or just pragmatic?
Going back to Turek, one of his essays contained this strawman headscratcher: “To be a consistent atheist you can’t believe that anyone has ever changed the world for the better. You have to believe that rescuing Jews from the ovens was not objectively better than murdering them. You have to believe that loving people is no better than raping them.” Earlier in the essay, Turek wrote that atheists could be good people, but he then abruptly switches to a position that atheists by nature feel that rape is proper and that the holocaust was fine and dandy. He also wrote, “In an atheistic universe there is nothing objectively wrong with anything at any time. There are no limits. Anything goes.”
Yet Turek’s assertion that belief in the Christian god equals morality is inconsistent with what we see when looking at religions in different cultures. The most secular countries are in Scandinavia, which are perpetually among the most affluent and educated and which enjoy high quality of life, excellent health care, and low crime rates. By contrast, the overwhelmingly religious countries Guatemala and El Salvador are riddled with crime and poverty. Further, since Turek stipulates that his god is the true one, Japan, which is just two percent Christian, should experience unending epidemics of decapitations and machete attacks instead of having the planet’s fourth-lowest crime rate. Travelers to the country report seeing no bicycle locks because so few people there would ever think to help themselves to another person’s form of conveyance.
For all anyone knows, Prager or Turek may someday be saved by an atheist surgeon, a person they would insist has no moral concern with whether someone lives or dies. Prager and Turek would also have considered Ted Bundy to necessarily be a good, moral person if he had practiced their religion.
They’re wrong on these counts, of course. A few years ago, there were Muslims who slaughtered Yazidis for their beliefs and other Muslims who risked their lives to save those Yazidis. Beliefs don’t make a person good or bad; actions do.
Hi Wayne. I enjoyed reading this article. You gave me a lot to ponder, which is the reason I enjoy your writing so much.
No one can ever grow very much if they’re forever sheltered in an environment that simply parrots back ones own opinions and beliefs.
I enjoy the religious articles in particular because, to various degrees, I disagree with your perspective. I like, specifically, that once I’ve finished reading your article I cant just shrug and say, “Yeah…well, I dont believe it the way you see it.” Your stuff is always well written, well thought out, maybe at times a bit pithy, but never disrespectful. It makes me question the things i believe in a way that helps me strengthen my resolve to build a better arguement-logically as well as emotionally. I think thats really the most sincere compliment I can give you, sir.
Thank you for the kind words. One of my mantras is, “Never be afraid to have your views or beliefs challenged. If they are correct, they will survive the challenge. If they are wrong, you will be enlightened.” I follow on wordpress and Facebook all manner of thinkers, even some whose primary reason for existence is to espouse viewpoints I strongly disagree with, such as anti-GMO or pro-alternative medicine. I’ve never been made any worse for having read something.
Excellent article with expansive content and a real thought provoker. Sam Harris a well known atheist proposed well-being as a moral guide to our actions ; pick the action that produces the greatest well-being in others. Interestingly Mr Harris believes free will and the self are illusions but Im glad he does not let this deduction prevent him from exercising those qualities.
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