Monthly Archives: December 2011

Promoting moral growth

This is a response to a comment on Google+ that really turned out too long to post there.

Are you familiar with Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development?  Too many people, particularly the right wing religious people who make up a very influential bloc in North America are stuck on the obedience and punishment stage. Perhaps it is the idea of obeying religious covenants that have been firmly ingrained into their psyches or perhaps they are simply deferring moral growth to their pastors.

To take an idea from Marx; religion is the opiate of the masses, it holds back moral development.  I should say it can hold back moral development rather than that it does.  If we want humanity to reach a post conventional level of morality where we at least engage in a mutually beneficial social contract (that open minded and permissive morality where we don’t judge those who are different based on our own preferences) then we need to work past the restrictions that religion places on growth.

My dissent with regard to Marx’ assessment of religion as a limiter leads me to say that I’ve known a few highly moral religious social commenters but that religion per se does not promote this kind of development (neither does its absence in all fairness).  I can see it in some aspects of Buddhism and if you read almost anything by the Dalai Lama you’ll see how acceptance and understanding are key to his view of personal and social happiness but you still find bigoted Buddhists.  I can see some fantastic moral lessons in Roman Catholicism too.  Charity for example is key to many Catholic endeavours, unfortunately the Holy See and the Bishop of Rome hardly seem to exemplify this quality.  There is also an idea in Islam that encourages the questioning of dogma and its constant reassessment.  Again it is something that we tend not to hear about these days but it did help Islam to advance scientifically, medically and culturally over its neighbours until our European ancestors crushed them.

I’ve said many times how I view religion as a Curate’s Egg with both good and bad parts.  Every religious person cherry picks their scripture and takes from it what lessons best suit them.  I think that this is a good thing and we, I mean society in general, should encourage it.  We need to encourage them to cherry pick the parts that promote a better society and to explain away or ignore the parts that limit or harm society.  We can do this by making society more moral and promoting humanist ideas.  As something of a utilitarian I think that we should examine moral questions from the principle of the least harm caused rather than from the viewpoint of an authority who dictates moral considerations but as long as those moral considerations that are dictates are to the benefit of all then we can certainly adapt them.

The Ten Commandments dictates prohibitions against murder and theft and promotes the idea of accepting that what others have is theirs.  The Eight Fold Way promotes wisdom, ethical conduct and mindfulness of others.  The Sermon on the Mount promotes compassion for the poor and hungry and condemns greed and violence.  I think that we can agree that these are good things that we could readily adapt into every day social contracts of morality alongside other ideas.

Let me know what you think.


Filed under Reasons to be cheerful

Belief vs belief

“Atheists don’t believe in anything” is an odd thing to say, when you think about it. It’s based on a twisted and confused understanding of what belief really is. Very simply put, in everyday conversation, ‘belief’ refers to a person’s convictions. They are matters of faith rather than ones where evidence or proof is thought to be evidence or even relevant. In matters of philosophy a ‘belief’ is ‘any fact of the matter or proposition which might be held to be true’, or what we think of as being true for everyone and everything, for example:

It is Friday.
I was born more than 3 days ago.
The sun will rise in the east and set in the west (relative to my current location).

That kind of thing are objectively true (or false) for everyone. Beliefs can be very specific or very general, trivial or serious. Beliefs can be suppositions (if the sun had come out it would have been a brighter day) or absolute statements of fact (If Alex is taller than Beth and Beth is taller then Cait then Alex is taller than Cait).

Philosophically ‘beliefs’ have truth value. They are capable of being true or false.

We have two distinct kinds of belief: The kind of beliefs that are either true or false and the kind of beliefs that are strongly held convictions. The latter include:

democracy is the best form of government.
cats are better pets than dogs.
Mozart was the finest composer who ever lived.
apples are a finer food than oranges.

These are subjective and are based on the preferences of the person making them. There is a distinction here that is sometimes lost when we discuss beliefs. How many times have you seen or heard the question “How can an atheist go through life believing in nothing?” or something similar? I’ve even seen it given as a statement and a condemnation. Atheists or rational beliefs are dismissed as having less value than theistic beliefs. Ultimately though, it is a failure of the person asking the question in understanding the difference between conviction and truth.

People of strong conviction even refer to their beliefs as truth, sometimes even capitalising it as Truth to give in added power. I know I’ve done it, I’ve considered some of my own convictions as so obvious and irrefutable that they must be true. Again though this is a confusion between the idea of belief inherent in truth and the belief inherent in a strongly held conviction. There being no way to prove (or disprove) the existence of God or gods, religion is a belief that falls firmly within the bounds of a conviction and is incapable of being true or false without further evidence. That isn’t to say that we cannot glean honest and good ideas from religion, just that the idea of proof isn’t relevant.

What meaning do we give to our lives without the firm convictions of religious belief? It isn’t as easy as taking the beliefs of a community (a church) or a family and adopting them. An atheist instead has to ascribe meaning to their own life and adopt those convictions that make sense. For me that gives the beliefs that I hold greater strength. I have challenged them myself in arriving at them (and continue to do so) so they are much stronger as a result. The values that I have and the beliefs that I hold have come about through questioning and evaluating them. It is true that some theists do this too. I just don’t think that they do it as often.

When someone says of an atheist that we don’t believe in anything they are failing to grasp the nature of belief. Both a theist and a non-theist may share identical beliefs in things that have truth value but will differ in beliefs that are formed of conviction. We both have convictions and true beliefs but some people fail to grasp the difference and place them together. This doesn’t help anyone to discuss or understand the differences in their beliefs.

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Good vs Evil

I’ve taken this from a comment by Quesita on a forum that I frequent and changed a few minor things so that it sits well better in isolation.
I am genuinely baffled by the concept that a belief in a deity would help me better distinguish between good and evil, and whatever falls in between. I really spent a great deal of time last night and today thinking about this very question, and trying to make sense of the concept.
I mean no disrespect, but I would really appreciate it if you theists could walk me through one, specific historical example, and help me understand some questions:  “If God doesn’t exists, what is good and what is evil? Who decides them?
Dozens of interesting examples come to mind, but let’s just pick one, and take slavery in the US. 
A mere 15 decades ago, many adherent Christians in the US believed that kidnapping, torturing, and raping people, in order to exploit their labour for financial gain, was completely consistent with the teachings of the Bible. Now maybe it is because I am a heathen atheist who does not really understand good and evil, but for me, kidnapping, torturing, and raping in order to benefit financially really sort of falls into the evil category. In fact, if we were to have a scale of good and evil, I’d put that sort of behavior pretty far down on the evil side.
So help me understand. I know that there was slavery in the Bible. Do Christians really believe that kidnapping, raping, torturing and then benefiting financially is consistent with the teachings of the Bible? Did Jesus forgive those kidnapping, raping, torturing folks because they accepted him as their savior, and therefore had a better understanding of good and evil than I do? Did Jesus let those kidnapping, raping, torturing folks into heaven because they vocally proclaimed that Jesus was the best deity ever? And did Jesus subsequently condemn my beloved parents to an eternity of hellfire because they were too busy helping humanity to sing Jesus’ praise? 
Is it possible that slavery was ok then, but isn’t ok any more because Christianity’s understanding of the concept of “good” has, for lack of a better word, evolved?
Or is Jesus the kind of deity who buys into “the end justifies the means” as a reason to turn a blind eye to some sins? Was Jesus really a bit put off by the all the nasty stuff that went along with enslaving millions of human beings for so many generations, but decided it was ok because many of those slaves, (and an overwhelming number of their decedents), ended up being Christian? 
Or did those kidnapping, raping and torturing folks who called themselves Christians, really misread the scriptures? And if so, why did God write scriptures that are so easily misunderstood? I mean, there are a bunch of references to slavery in the Bible. I can see how they might have gotten it all wrong. And if they were really so seriously misreading the scriptures, how do you know that you and your pastor are not seriously misreading the scriptures as well? 
You see, for me, kidnapping, raping, torturing and enslaving other human beings for financial profit is evil, under any circumstances. But I am not a Christian, so I don’t really understand good and evil in the Christian way. So when I work my way through the above example, without the help of a skilled Christian to help me really understand it, these are the possible conclusions that I draw:
Kidnapping, raping, torturing and enslaving other human beings for financial profit;
A) Is ok and consistent with Christian teachings on good and evil.
B) Was ok in the past, but isn’t ok anymore because Christianity changes with the times. 
C) Is ok and consistent with Christian teachings on good and evil if the people being kidnapped, raped, tortured and enslaved end up learning about the Bible. 
D) Isn’t really ok and consistent with Christian teachings on good and evil, but folks who engaged in those practices get to go to heaven anyway because they accepted Jesus. (Sort of like the way that people who say “God damn it” when they stub their toes get to go to heaven because, after all, we are all sinners but if we accept Jesus our sins get forgiven.) 
E) Is not ok and is not consistent with Christian teachings on good and evil, and the folks who engaged in those practices in the name of Jesus already went to hell for all of eternity because they misunderstood God’s confusing scriptures as they apply to slavery.
F) Another explanation which I am missing because I don’t understand good and evil and because I don’t have Jesus to guide me and help me understand.
I would really, really appreciate clarification from some of our Christians friends.


Filed under Reasons to be cheerful