Friday, April 24, 2015

Top Ten Misconceptions about Atheists - Part Four

Misconception Number Four -- Atheists Cannot Act Morally

OK, I discussed morality in some depth earlier in this post, but it bears repeating here the common misconception that a belief in God is required for somebody to act in a moral way and that, therefore, atheists cannot be moral.

Rather than rehash the entire discussion here, let me just make a few bullet points that explain why this misconception is, well, a misconception:
  • There are entire societies that lack a belief in God, such as communist China, that are full of people being nice to one another and treating each other in a way that is, by all accounts, very moral.

  • Morality existed long before the Bible was written.  Even if you accept the Bible as a literally and exclusively true account of human history, does anybody really think that people thought it was perfectly OK to murder, steal, lie, etc., before Moses was given the Ten Commandments?  Did people really need to be told, "God says that murder is wrong" before they were able to figure that out on their own?  Seriously?

  • If "absolute morality" comes from God and is the only way to avoid any sort of "relative morality" (i.e., where different cultures think different things are moral and immoral), then why are there so many religions who interpret the same moral laws in different ways?  Why do some Christians believe homosexuality is a sin, while others think it's perfectly fine?  Why do some Christians feel that divorce is a sin, while others think it is perfectly fine?  Having a source of "absolute morality" doesn't seem to mean all that much as long as nobody can actually agree what that source actually says.

  • On a related note, if God is supposed to provide "absolute morality" that is required for us to behave in a moral way, why have those moral precepts changed over time?  Why did it used to be a sin to eat pork and eat shellfish and wear fabric made of two kinds of cloths, but now it's not a sin?  Why it used to not be a sin to own slaves, but now it is a sin?  The standard answer seems to be that Old Testament laws (some of them, at least) were given to a particular people living in particular circumstances and no longer apply to our circumstances today.  Except, isn't that the very definition of "relative morality"?  And isn't it awfully convenient that the laws that "no longer apply" today just happen to be the ones that we don't actually want to follow today?

  • Most importantly, who decided that any sort of "absolute morality" is even needed in the first place in order to be moral?  Morality is just a word, a human construct, that defines how people think we should act toward one another.  It varies from time to time, from place to place and from group to group.  At it's most basic, morality is simply a feeling that we should treat other people the way we want to be treated.  Or, more simply, don't be a dick toward others.  It's rooted in our evolution as intelligent, empathetic creatures and likely evolved as a way to help humans live together in a society instead of having to go it all on our own.  As a result, concepts of morality can and do evolve over time as societies evolve and there's no need to point to any sort of "absolute" morality in order to whether an act is moral or not within a particular society.   We may think France is "immoral" because they let women walk around topless at beaches.  Arab countries feel the United States is "immoral" because we let women walk around with their hair and faces exposed.  And each culture is convinced that their beliefs are guided by "absolute" moral principles handed down from on high.

  • In short, you don't need to believe in God to think you should treat other people with respect, and a belief in God certainly doesn't lead all believers to treat others with respect.  In fact, you could argue that humans are inherently moral creatures and it takes a belief in God (or religion, if you prefer) to convince people to treat other people as "lesser beings" for not sharing those beliefs.
All right, my "few" bullet points ended up being more than just a few.  Just think of this post as strengthening my previous post on the subject rather than rehashing it.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Another Evolution Analogy

In a previous post I discussed (among other things) Richard Dawkins' "Climbing Mount Improbable," in which he laid out a good analogy comparing the gradual process of evolution to a walk up a very gradual slope that eventually leads to the top of a very high mountain.  It's a very good analogy, but I fear it may require a bit too much work to accept it since (a) not everybody has experience with climbing up gradual slopes and (b) a change in altitude is not really in the same conceptual ballpark as the change that species undergo over time.  It's strength is, I believe, primarily in the way it conveys how extremely small changes can add up to large changes over extreme lengths of time.  But some folks will probably still reject it because they simply can't get their minds wrapped around the comparison of time to distance.

After much thought, I believe I have come up with, if not a better analogy, at least a complimentary analogy to the one Professor Dawkins discussed.  It lacks the sense of vast time in Dawkins' analogy, but is more grounded in everyday experience and deals with actual biological processes.  It also helps deal with the common objection heard by Creationists that there are no "transitional" fossils that show one species evolving into a completely different species.

Let's imagine a father who photographs his newborn child and decides to take a new photograph of the child once every minute of every hour of every single day from that point on. At the end of the first day, the father has 1400 pictures, after one week he has 10,080 pictures, and at the end of a year he has a whopping 525,960 pictures. At the end of ten years, the stack has grown to 5,259,600 pictures, and by the time the child is 50 years old, the stack has grown to 26,298,000 pictures. And (assuming the father was extremely long-lived or passed the duties on to somebody else), by the time the child is 90 years old, the stack has a massive 47,336,400 pictures, all showing the gradual growth of a baby into an elderly man one minute at a time.

Now, over a period of ninety years, the child has changed from a newborn infant to an elderly man, and along the way the child progressed through various well-defined stages (infant, toddler, child, pre-teen, adolescent, young adult, adult, middle-age, senior citizen, elderly) . And if you randomly selected any example from that stack of 47,336,400 pictures, you would be able to clearly identify which stage of life the child was in at the time that photograph was taken. No photograph, however, would show a clear "transition" from one stage to the next. You wouldn't, for example, find a picture showing the child with the body of a baby and the head of a toddler. Or the arms of a teenager but the legs of an adult. Or (to mirror some of the extreme examples asked for by Young Earth Creationists), the body of an infant and the head of a senior citizen.

The point is that the change from infant to elder is so gradual that there are no clear-cut transitions from one stage of life to the next. Somebody may legally be considered an adult at the age of 18, but it would be impossible to detect any physiological differences between a person one minute or one hour or even day before his 18th birthday and one minute, hour or day after his 18th birthday. And this isn't to say that there aren't any transitional photographs of the child; instead, it means that every single photograph shows a transition from the previous minute to the next minute and the supposedly "well-defined" stages of life are really just shortcuts we use to describe people instead of actually having some sort of absolute definitions.

The same is generally true with regard to the fossil record and the evidence it provides for evolutionary processes.  Just as children gradually change into adults over time, species gradually change into other species over time.  The only difference is that species change over millions of years instead of 90 years, but the principal is the same.  Just as you will never find a photograph of somebody who has the head of an infant and the body of an adult, you will never find a fossil showing the head of one species and the body of a previous species.  And this isn't to say that there aren't any transitional fossils; instead, it means that every single fossil shows a transition from the prior generation to the following generation and the concept of "well-defined" species is really just a shortcut we use to describe life instead of actually having some sort of absolute definition.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Religious Freedom to Discriminate?

There has been a lot of discussion in the news lately about various state and federal laws that purport to "restore" religious liberty but which, in reality, are specifically designed to allow people and businesses to discriminate against other people based on their religious beliefs.    Despite the broad language of the laws, the legislative history shows that they were specifically implemented to prevent people and businesses from being "forced" to provide services to gay couples looking to get married.  So, for example, a cake shop couldn't, under these laws, be sued civilly for refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding and a photographer couldn't be sued for refusing to take wedding pictures for a gay couple.  Because, you see, in many states the existing laws prohibited businesses from refusing to provide services on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin, gender or sexual preference, so these new laws provide a loophole if the discrimination is based on one's religious beliefs (as opposed to garden-variety bigotry, I suppose).

The language used to draft and support these laws is positively Orwellian, of course, as they try to argue that it's not at all about discrimination and solely about religious freedom, despite the fact that the freedom being sought is, in fact, the freedom to discriminate against others.

All of this has been said before by many other people.  One key thing seems to get ignored during discussions of these laws, however.  Since when does Christianity (or any other religion, for that matter) actually teach that it's OK to discriminate against anybody in the first place?  I mean, if the government passed a law saying that, for examples, Mormon churches had to perform temple marriage ceremonies for gay couples, or Catholic churches had to start ordaining women to the priesthood, I would agree 100% that this was an unconstitutional intrusion of the government into religion.  And that's because a core Mormon belief is that temple marriages are reserved for the joining of a man and a woman, and a core Catholic belief is that only men can hold the priesthood.  You may disagree with those beliefs, but they are certainly things actually taught by those religions and accepted by the members.

However, while the Mormon church does teach that gay couples are not "worthy" of being married in the temple, I don't recall any teaching saying faithful members are not allowed to provide services to gay couples who are getting married elsewhere.  Similarly, while the Catholic church does not allow female priests, I'm pretty sure there's no prohibition against providing services to a woman who happens to be a clergy member of another religion.  Heck -- the Catholic church prohibits divorce and I doubt you'd find a single catholic photographer or baker who refused to provide services at a wedding that involved a divorcee remarrying.

The point is that Christianity teaches that you should not sin, true, but it does not teach that you should discriminate against those who believe differently than you.  So, while your "religious freedom" certainly includes the right to practice your religion the way you see fit, it doesn't give you the right to discriminate against those who don't share your beliefs.  And, while you may claim that discrimination against others is how you practice your religion, you're just using your religion as a shield for your own bigotry since that's not what your religion actually teaches.

[As an aside, I can't help wondering why nobody claims to be unable to provide services to people who, say, violate the sabbath by holding their wedding on a Sunday, or who have committed adultery, or who worship some other God, or who have shown disrespect to their parents, etc.  These are all sins specifically prohibited by the Ten Commandments, which is supposed to be the most important thing in the entire Bible.  Maybe it's because the people who want to discriminate against gays commit all those other sins themselves?  Or maybe it really is just the fact that they are prejudiced against gays and are looking for a justification for their prejudice.]