Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Escape from the Moral Dimension

Ever since Barack Obama said in the Compulsion Forum that there’s a “moral dimension” to abortion, some of us in the Atheosphere have been arguing about morality. Although I hate like hell to get involved in philosophical masturbation (I much prefer the physical kind), I can’t resist an opportunity to piss off some of my fellow atheists. So here, in brief, are some random thoughts about morality, numbered for the convenience of commenters.

  1. For an issue to have a moral dimension, there must be some question of “what’s right?” and “what’s wrong?” Obviously, not all issues have such a dimension. However, people who love judging others can invent moral dilemmas where they don’t exist. That doesn’t mean the rest of us have to blindly accept those issues as posing moral questions. Example: whether or not to eat meat is a moral issue for some vegetarians. It isn’t for me, though, no matter how much they protest. I don’t see any rightness or wrongness to argue about. If I engage in a debate about whether or not it’s moral to indulge in a slice of meatloaf, I’m validating the premise that there is a right and a wrong at issue. I’m not willing to make that concession.

  2. The negative version of the Golden Rule — don’t do to anybody else what you wouldn’t want them to do to you — may be evolutionarily hardwired into our brains. Even if it isn’t, it makes rational sense. For me, the Golden Rule means: Don’t harm anyone. Don’t steal. Don’t cheat. Don’t use physical or psychological threats to impose your ideas on others. Don’t lie. But even those most basic moral precepts aren’t accepted as universals. Cultures throughout history, and all over the globe, have found ways to justify violating those simple rules. Some people in the Atheosphere, in fact, have actually defended polticians’ lying as “that’s what you have to do to get elected.” Maybe so, but it’s immoral nonetheless.

  3. Jumping off from the Golden Rule: my idea of morality is avoiding those actions that are immoral. An action that poses a moral problem is either moral (what’s right) or immoral (what’s wrong). One may (and I do) take the position that the morality scale is not a line with gradations of rightness and wrongness. Neutral actions (those that don’t pose moral questions) and right actions are equivalent; we’re not collecting points for an afterlife. In other words, if one is not immoral, one is automatically behaving “morally.”

  4. It follows, therefore, that there’s no such thing as moral “high ground” or “low ground.” Morality is not terrain. Some actions, as I’ve said, are off the map entirely, neither right nor wrong. Other actions seem to be right; they’re conscious decisions not to violate the Golden Rule. Immoral actions are all those things we do or say that are “wrong,” that do break the Golden Rule. Sometimes, immoralities have to be given relative weight: Which one is less “wrong” under the circumstances. That’s why waging war, for instance, is always immoral, but may be less so, under some conditions, than not waging war. So-called white lies are always immoral, but may be less so, under some conditions, than telling the truth.

  5. Freethinkers realize that, humans being the flawed creatures we are, ideas about morality are relative. Each person has to think through his or her own code. That means constantly debating within yourself about which immoralities are less bad than others when two “rules” conflict. Is killing ever an option if it could mean saving others? Is stealing by the government OK if it redistributes wealth to the neediest? Is it all right to force your ideas on others when those ideas might build a better world? For atheists, deciding what is and isn’t immoral is, ultimately — and unfortunately — a personal choice.

  6. Religionists, on the other hand, think that morals are absolute, dictated from on high. They’re things that you should do in addition to things that you shouldn’t. Thus, the onerous positive version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others.... In fact, I’d argue that the religionists’ version of the Golden Rule sees morality through a lens held in the wrong direction. In the version of morality I’ve been writing about, being moral is the natural state of humans; one has to take specific wrong actions to be immoral. In the god-driven version of morality, being immoral is the natural state of humans; one has to take specific right actions to be moral. If you don’t, you’re eternally fucked. But are morals right because a god says they are, or does the god say they are because they’re right? Can you say “Euthyphro”? In reality, of course, the various “holy” books contain so many vague, conflicting, or despicable “morals,” that, again, a workable, humane code comes down to a personal choice. But in the religious version, the godpusher feels justified in butting into others’ lives, telling people what they must do as well as what they mustn’t.

  7. The word “moral” is loaded. When pious zealots use it, they always have their own warped religious teachings in mind. In debating an issue, the rest of us shouldn’t necessarily accept the word “moral” as a synonym for “right” just because someone claims that his or her position is such. Theists are quick to raise bogus moral questions where, often, there shouldn’t be any. One’s private sexual activity, for instance, is an instinct that’s outside the realm of right vs. wrong. It’s not a moral issue unless it involves force, physical or emotional. In that case, the moral dimension grows out of: Don’t harm anyone. That’s why, in my personal code, rape is immoral. Having sex with children is immoral — although I’m not sure I can define the age at which a person is no longer a child. Similarly, a so-called normal person having sex with a mentally handicapped partner may be a subject for moral discussion and examination. Incest between consenting adults, in cases where it may result in childbirth, is scientifically unwise, and, perhaps morally dubious from the potential child’s standpoint, at least in the medical sense; where there’s no threat of pregnancy, I don’t see how morals come into the picture. The stricture against multiple husbands and wives is a societal convenience, but not a moral issue. Gay sex is not a moral issue, whatsoever. And sex between unmarried heterosexuals is, of course, not questionable at all on moral grounds.

  8. Societies codify their sense of morality through laws. Those laws, in democratic countries, are majoritarian. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone agrees with the “morals” being enforced, or even whether there really are any valid moral arguments involved. Freethinkers should refuse to let woo-ists dictate the terms of the national dialogue.

  9. That’s why abortion — at least in the early stages of the pregnancy — is not a moral issue. In fact, for those of us who think there may indeed be a moral issue once the fetus has attained some level of brain function, or “consciousness,” let’s use two different terms for abortion instead of just one. I hope someone can come up with better terms than I have, but for the sake of this essay, let’s call removal of the fetal cells at the preconscious stage a “procedural pregnopause” or an “amniectomy.” Let’s call a so-called “late-term abortion” a “surgical miscarriage.” I’ll happily grant moral ambiguity to the question of whether or not to have a surgical miscarriage. But for atheists, for whom presupposing a soul is unthinkable, the procedural pregnopause has no moral dimension at all; there’s no right vs. wrong for those of us who don’t give credence to the idea that a magical spiritual spark is lit at conception. The only moral question that exists insofar as a procedural pregnopause: Is it right or wrong to force a woman to have a child? That’s not a moral question at all unless and until theocrats try to use physical or psychological threats to impose their ideas on others.

  10. One last point: Ideas about the evolutionary and historical development of morality may be colored by one’s position on the authoritarian/libertarian scale. For an authoritarian, morality arises from a system that imposes the greatest sense of community. People should be encouraged to act together for the good of the species. For a libertarian like me (please do note the lowercase L) morality arises from a system that imposes the fewest constraints. People should, essentially, be free to do whatever they want unless their actions impinge on the freedom of others.
OK, readers, feel free to weigh in. But remember: There’s no moral dimension to commenting.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Part of the Debate You Didn't Hear

[NOTE: As most of my well-informed readers know, I'm running for President of the United States. Since I'm neither a Democrat nor a Republican, I don't get much of a chance to air my views publicly, particularly in an adversarial format, me against the press. But the good people at ABC were kind enough to sandwich me into the Democratic debate last Wednesday night. Unfortunately, because of a 5-second time-lag rule, every single thing I said was snipped from the final product. In fact, my entire presence was erased, as if I'd never been there. Fortunately, I managed to retrieve this transcript.]

Gibson: We're going to begin with opening statements.
THE EXTERMINATOR: Hi, America. Vote for me, the Exterminator. Remember: A vote for the Exterminator is a vote for me. And vice versa. Ask yourself: What would I be doing here if I didn’t want you to vote for me? And just compare my qualifications to the others'. I mean: I combine the doddering old age of McCain, the inexperience of Obama, and the sheer obnoxiousness of Clinton. What more could you ask? That’s it, Charlie.

Gibson: Thank you. Let me start with this question. You never wear an American flag pin. How come?
THE EXTERMINATOR: I don’t care for jewelry; I never use it. Not a watch, not a tie tack, not a rhinestone necklace. Nothing. In fact, if I put on a shirt that needs cufflinks, I just roll up the sleeves. Don’t get me wrong: I think every American has the right to wear jewelry, as long as he or she can afford it and it’s not shaped like a cat. But I don’t go for it. Aside from a few coins, the only thing metallic I ever have on my person is a Swiss Army Knife. I carry that, of course, because of my deep and abiding love and respect for Switzerland, which — for those viewers who don’t know — is a small country in Europe, and not to be confused with Sweden. Also, the corkscrew comes in handy if I find myself stranded somewhere with an expensive bottle of wine and no way to open it.

Stephanopoulos: May I follow that up ...
THE EXTERMINATOR: Could you pronounce your name again for me? I keep forgetting it.

Stephanopoulous: I’m not sure I can say that on television.
THE EXTERMINATOR: OK. Fair enough. May I call you Charlie?

Stephanopoulos: I’m George.
THE EXTERMINATOR: Well, it makes it easier for me if I call you both Charlie. Don’t get me wrong: I think every American has the right to be called George. But to tell you the truth, I’ve got so much on my mind these days, what with my health care plan, and my energy plan, and my education plan, and my plan to plan even more plans, that I sometimes forget people’s names. It’s a bitch running for president, did you know that?

Stephanopoulos: OK, call me Charlie.
THE EXTERMINATOR: Thanks, Charlie.

Stephanopoulos: Now, in following up the last question, I’d like to ask: You’ve been photographed not saluting the flag. How come?
THE EXTERMINATOR: Well, Charlie, there are literally thousands of photographs of me not saluting the flag. That might be because I avoid sporting events and public occasions for military propaganda. I’m just not often at a place where it’s appropriate to salute the flag. If somebody passes a law that you have to say the Pledge of Allegiance before entering a Starbucks or a Barnes and Noble, you’d probably be able to get a few of candids of me saluting.

Gibson: I’ve got a follow up to that. Don’t you love the flag?
THE EXTERMINATOR: To tell you the truth, Charlie, I don’t care for it. Too much blue and red, and it’s soooo busy. I’d like to see a dash of purple or orange somewhere, maybe even a daub of green or a nice yellow smiley face. And what’s with the stripes and the stars? I have nothing against stripes and stars, but I don’t necessarily believe in them. Now, if you want to make a flag I’d be proud of, how about a picture of the First Amendment? I’d love that. Or you know what would be cool? A scene from The Magnificent Seven. That was a great film, don’t you think? And we could all hum its theme instead of singing that terrible national anthem. I mean, talk about stirring!

Stephanopoulos: What about your middle name? Is it really Hussein?
THE EXTERMINATOR: No, Charlie, that’s not true. My middle name does start with an H., the same as Jesus’s. But it actually stands for Henrietta. By the way, may I call you both Hussein instead of Charlie?

Stephanopoulos: I’d rather you didn’t.
THE EXTERMINATOR: Well, I won’t if you won’t.

Gibson: Now, your religious leader has recently said some pretty terrible things. Are you ...
THE EXTERMINATOR: Wait a minute, Charlie. Wait a minute. I don’t have a religious leader.

Gibson: Christopher Hitchens isn’t your religious leader?
THE EXTERMINATOR: To tell you the truth, Charlie, I don’t even know the guy.

Gibson: You mean it isn’t true that he helped lead you to atheism when you left college, and that later he married you and your wife, and that you go to his lectures all the time and take copious notes so you can memorize his words and quote him verbatim, and that you wear an invisible earpiece through which he tells you everything to say, and that you have a large blow-up picture of him in your living-room that you pray to, and that you used to travel together from city to city doing yoyo tricks and passing the hat, and that you’re actually Siamese twins separated at birth?
THE EXTERMINATOR: Well, Charlie, you caught me in a little fib on that one.

Stephanopoulos: What about when you said that only idiots like guns, gods, and xenophobia?
THE EXTERMINATOR: Wow, Charlie, that’s the second one you caught me on. I did say that, but I didn’t really mean it. I really meant to say that guns, god, and xenophobia are terrific; they’re what this country was built on. Let me explain, what I meant. Don’t get me wrong: I think every American is guaranteed the right, through the Second Amendment, to own his or her very own musket. I’m not convinced we have the right to actually use one, however. And I also think every American has the right to pray to whatever god he or she wishes, as long as it’s not shaped like a cat. Also, we have the right to hate whomever we want, but we don’t necessarily have the right to contradict the poem on the Statue of Liberty. These are subtle points of Constitutional Law, however, and I know the TV audience is waiting eagerly to see if I stick my finger in my nose when I don’t think anyone’s looking. Which, by the way, I don’t.

Gibson: Isn’t it true that you lied about facing sniper fire in Bosnia?
THE EXTERMINATOR: I think you have me mixed up with someone else. I never lied about facing sniper fire.

Gibson: So you did face sniper fire in Bosnia?
THE EXTERMINATOR: Look, Charlie, don’t get me wrong. I love Bosnia, although I must admit that the knives you get there don’t have thirty-two blades. They’re perfectly OK for stabbing your neighbor if he or she comes from a different ethnic group, but they lack a Phillips Head screwdriver. The truth of the matter is, Charlie: I’ve never been to Bosnia, although I can find it on a map. It’s somewhere on the other side of the Alps from Switzerland.

Stephanopoulos: Well, where have you been under sniper fire?
THE EXTERMINATOR: Actually nowhere, Charlie, although when I was younger I did go to New Jersey once in a while. Believe it or not, that’s a pretty dangerous place, maybe even tougher than Bosnia. As anyone can tell you, the Garden State is no picnic. Don’t get me wrong: I love the people in New Jersey. I just wish they lived somewhere else.

Gibson: Mr. Exterminator, you and a man who once said he’d like to bomb the entire world have both been known to order a 6-piece Chicken McNuggets. Can you explain your relationship?
THE EXTERMINATOR: I don’t know who that guy is, so I guess he’s not someone with whom I exchange ideas.

Gibson: Are you standing there and telling the American people that you don’t know anyone who has ever ordered a 6-piece Chicken McNuggets?
THE EXTERMINATOR: I do have a next-door neighbor who once ordered a 6-piece Chicken McNuggets. And there’s a guy a few houses down who once said he’d like to bomb the entire world. But I have not exchanged ideas with either of them.

Gibson: You’ve never exchanged any ideas with either one of them?
THE EXTERMINATOR: Well, I may have once had a discussion about dipping sauce. As I remember it, my neighbor likes creamy ranch and I like the barbecue sauce. But the bomb guy convinced us to go with the explosively hot mustard. Don’t get me wrong: I think every American has the right to get whatever dipping sauce he or she wants as long as it doesn’t blow up any buildings.

Stephanopoulos: Well, quickly, because we’re running out of time for this segment. You said that you believe in using former presidents. How would you use George W. Bush if you were president?
THE EXTERMINATOR: Well, Charlie, I would have him put on his old cheerleader suit and go to Iraq with an American flag lapel pin, a musket, and a bible. If that doesn’t win the war for us, I don’t know what will.

Gibson: Thank you, Mr. Exterminator. You’re done.
THE EXTERMINATOR: Hey, what about my health care plan? What about my energy plan? What about my education plan? What about ...

Stephanopoulos: Get your finger out of your nose and stop whining.

Gibson: And now a word for all of you who are trying to decide this really important question: What’s America’s softest toilet tissue?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Hillary Get Your Gun

How much more disgusting can Hillary Clinton get?

Here she is (according to Huffington Post) in Indiana, responding to Obama's oh-so-outrageous "elitist" comment that he thinks bitter, frustrated people focus too much on their guns, their religion, and their prejudice against immigrants. Hillary loves her firearms so passionately that she can channel Charlton Heston:

You know, my dad took me out behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton and taught me how to shoot when I was a little girl.

You know, some people now continue to teach their children and their grandchildren. It's part of culture. It's part of a way of life. People enjoy hunting and shooting because it's an important part of who they are. Not because they are bitter.
I think any people for whom killing defenseless animals is an important part of who they are ought to be kept as far away from guns — and the White House — as possible.

Aren't sentiments like Hillary's exactly what's wrong with this damn country?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

It's the Theocracy, Stupid

As you know by now, Barack Obama declined to participate in the Science Debate, and both Hillary Clinton and John McCain just sort of ignored it until it went away. The Democratic candidates, however, have agreed to attend the so-called “Compassion Forum” — originally billed as the “Religious Compassion Forum,” so don’t be hornswoggled — which takes place this coming Sunday at Messiah College.

According to the college’s press release, to which I've added only some emphases, the event will be:

an unprecedented bipartisan presidential candidate forum dedicated to discussing pressing moral issues that bridge ideological divides within our nation.

The Church Communication Network (CCN) will broadcast the event to tens of thousands of people of faith in at least 1,000 congregations nationwide on April 20, the Sunday evening before the Pennsylvania primary.

Now more than ever, Americans motivated by faith are bridging ideological divides to address domestic and international poverty, global AIDS, climate change, genocide in Darfur, and human rights and torture. The Compassion Forum will provide the opportunity for candidates to discuss how their faith and moral convictions bear on their positions on these important issues....

The Compassion Forum is supported by diverse religious leaders and Democrats and Republicans alike.
There then follows a series of quotes from various pulpit bullies: Mike Huckabee, Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Frank Page (President of the Southern Baptist Convention), William J. Shaw (President of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.). The text ends with a long list of pious godpushers who make up the Forum’s board.

For many years, the Republican party has been the main governmental arm of the religious zealots in this country. Therefore, many atheists, freethinkers, and secularists have increasingly identified themselves with the Democrats.

Of course, voting for a political candidate is usually not just about one issue. If you’re an informed voter, you weigh dozens of factors before deciding who best represents your views.

However, the way to achieve any political clout is to refuse to stand for repeated “Screw You”s from the powers-that-be. Most African-Americans would never dream of voting for a candidate who attended a White Supremacy Forum. Gays would rightfully shun a political contender who spoke at a Defense-of-Marriage Forum. Women — at least those who haven't been religiously indoctrinated to be submissive — would refuse to support a vote-seeker who attends a Male-Domination Forum. Jews wouldn’t vote for anyone who participates in a Hitler-Had-Some-Good-Ideas Forum, and Muslims would surely steer clear of contributing to the campaign of a person who took part in a Crusades-Forever! Forum.

But we atheists — we oh-so-rational skeptics — will watch and shrug as both Democrats cozy up to the nation's ignorant and superstitious masses, make who-knows-how-many implied promises to them, actively inject more and more woo into the nation's discourse, while simultaneously telling us that our ideas and values are irrelevant.

There’s no other group in this country that would allow itself to be kicked in the teeth like that. They’d be organizing from now until Election Day and beyond.

That’s why I urge every person who values the Constitution, who believes in the Separation of Church and State, who knows that Religious Freedom means the right not to have someone else’s beliefs rammed down his or her throat day after day after day ... that’s why I urge all of us to loudly start making it clear on our blogs and in our personal lives that we will not vote for the Republican OR the Democratic candidate unless our priorities get some small degree of respect.

We are a potentially viable political force, but we all need to publicize our concerns. And make political threats. The Christian Right used just such tactics, and they continue to flourish.

In November, unless one of the candidates has spoken about issues that are the most profoundly important to me — namely, the value of critical and rational thought in governing the country and relating to the rest of the world — I’ll march into my polling place and write “The Exterminator” and “The Chaplain” proudly on my ballot. Perhaps you’d like to do that, too, or write in your own name. Or vote for a third party candidate, or a cartoon character, or your dog.

But please don’t furnish anyone with the boots to kick us again.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The God-Gene: An Evolutionary Reality?

Well, now I’m completely pissed off. And what I’m pissed off at is that no one else seems to be pissed off about this.

I imagine you’ve already seen or heard the story of Fofo the gorilla, since it’s all over the media today. In case you didn’t know, Fofo is the daughter of the famous Koko. Koko, as everyone knows, understands approximately 2,000 English words, can sign more than 1,000 of them, and even invents her own compounds (for instance: “finger” + “bracelet” for “ring”). That’s better than most fundies do with the language.

So Fofo was “lent” — whatever that means — to the Nonoverlapping Magisteria Foundation, the mission of which, according to its literature, is to “reconcile science and religion.” In order to work for the foundation, a researcher must be both a recognized scientist in his or her field and a person who believes in a god.

That requirement alone should set off alarms in your head. But the Fofo project is funded by some mysterious shadow organization called “Answers in Gorillas.” Here’s what the Foundation’s literature has to say about its research: “Through our work with one of humankind’s allegedly closest evolutionary ancestors, we expect to demonstrate conclusively that a God-gene was placed by the Creator into the brains of every living creature on Earth.”

This is from the AP story:

Linguists at the NMF have been working with Fofo for several years, and are now satisfied that she not only understands the concept of God, but believes in Him, as well.
Those so-called scientists have taught her a number of signs for “religious” feelings. Get this: when she points upward and smiles “beatifically” [NOTE: AP’s word, not mine], she's saying “god.” And when she scrunches up her face in pain and stretches her arms out from her shoulders, she's saying “Jesus.” She has even, according to Dr. Enrico Bonzoni, who heads the project, invented a sign for “Christian.” Here’s the AP again:
Bonzoni began to notice that Fofo would make the signs for “me,” “love,” and “Jesus.” Through some simple exchanges, Bonzoni made her understand that he, too, loves Jesus. He says, “Then I showed her the gold cross I wear around my neck, and she seemed eager to have it. So I put it on her.”

Other researchers followed suit, each ultimately contributing a cross for Fofo’s collection. She now wears twelve crosses, and refuses to take them off. According to Dr. Bonzoni, Fofo “now sees that she is part of a worldwide community of the saved.”

About a year ago, there was an unfortunate incident with Dr. Chaim Nogoyim, who is of the Jewish faith. He wears a Star of David, rather than a cross, so Fofo offered him one of hers. Trying to make Fofo realize that there are many paths to the same God, Nogoyim signed “God,” then “no” (or “not”), and “Jesus.” Since then, Fofo has refused to “speak” with him any longer.
Great work, NMF. Fofo is now the world’s first anti-Semitic gorilla.

But here’s the part of the story that really got me up in arms. An unidentified researcher has complained that all is not as it appears. Fofo is being threatened whenever she misbehaves.
“If she acts up,” an anonymous researcher on the project claims, “she’s shown the sign for hell, which is a forefinger repeatedly pointed downward, a tortured expression that looks something like the 'Scream' painting, and a little dance as if the signer is walking on hot coals. Fofo has become terrified of that word and will do almost everything to avoid seeing it or signing it herself. However, about two months ago, she started using it whenever Dr. Nogoyim happened to pass in front of her enclosure. And now, she uses it every time she notices one of our interns wearing a mini-skirt.”
It’s clear to me that Fofo is being abused. Atheist organizations should join hands with animal rights groups to put an end to this outrageous exploitation. But it may already be too late to stop the madness from spreading. The last paragraph of the AP report is infuriating:
Under the auspices of yet another clandestine benefactor known as the Parroty Institute, the NMF has already begun research on the existence of the God-gene in African Greys. In the first experiment, three birds have been taught to distinguish linguistically between two similar objects. When asked “Who was responsible for 9/11?” they respond “progressive secularists.” But when asked “Who was responsible for Hurricane Katrina?” they respond “secular progressives.” Lately, the religious scientists, themselves, have been astounded by the parrots’ progress. When the researchers recently added a third question, “Who’s responsible for global warming?,” they tried to teach the test subjects the answer, “What global warming?” Instead one of the birds replied, “Dr. Nogoyim.”