That was easy

All right, let me throw a couple of questions at you – don’t worry, I grade leniently. This is just an exercise.

The US, like most countries with significant vehicle ownership, has speed limits on virtually all of its roads, and while I’m trying to go metric myself, I’d confuse people by switching the examples – 65 miles per hour on many interstate highways, 30 mph in residential zones, that kind of thing.

So if I were to ask you why, would you have difficulty with it? Why bother limiting the speed someone can drive? I doubt anyone would need to think hard about it, really – reaction times, impact forces, traction, braking distances, vehicle control… it’s all physics, with a handful of human limitations thrown in. Some readers could probably even calculate the forces involved and the traction values of tires when cold or hot.

Now, the follow-up question: what part of scripture did those come from? I don’t care what source you use, bible, torah, qur’an, dianetics, just let me know what section.

Why are you looking at me like that? I have been assured, countless times, that all laws are based on scripture. I’m just having a hard time finding what parts things like speed limits, contractual obligations, and mandatory insurance comes from.

Yes, I’m being snarky, but I think it’s actually long overdue. The question of moral guidance is one of the biggest things underlying religious devotion and “faith” anymore – it’s certainly the thing that is almost universally agreed upon regarding the value of religion. And of course, it is the thing that atheists lack, if you ask the people championing faith. It is, in fact, the most damning trait of atheism, the reason behind the disapproval and ostracism. Without scripture for guidance, humans might do anything.

It’s actually kind of hypocritical, when you think about it. Humans are supposed to be distinctly better than the other animals, made in god’s image and all that hoohah – but we’re too simple-minded to handle social interactions without special guidance? Like someone couldn’t figure out what works best in a cooperative society without a simplistic set of basic rules? I suppose that’s why greek and roman societies, the entirety of freaking Asia, Native Americans, and countless African cultures all just ate one another and flung shit around until the judeo-christian-islamic influence set them on track, right? I mean, it’s not like the Roman Empire had the most powerful civilization in the world before it had even heard of moses or anything.

In fact, it’s a fairly safe bet that standards of social conduct had existed long before any scripture was ever recorded, or even related as spoken stories. The basic concepts have been repeated time and again in wildly disparate cultures, and it’s not like it takes a lot of brainpower to come up with, “Don’t kill, don’t steal.” While we sometimes think of primitive cultures as having the brains of small children, this reflects much more our own ignorance than theirs. Hell, animals were being domesticated, and grains cross-bred for better yields, before the first written records of which we have any evidence.

So can we determine morals on our own, without even a starter culture like sourdough bread? Of course we can. Nearly all of our morals and ethics involve social interaction, the notable exception being animal welfare. It’s fairly easy to determine what will work best for humans collectively, and what the difference is between short-term and long-term benefits. Just like those speed limits, we can figure out some fairly intricate things on our own.

Moreover, when we stop relying on ancient and sophomoric forms of guidance like scripture, we can actually make some decent advances – you know, like women’s rights, abolishing slavery and racial discrimination, setting great standards for child welfare… all of which we developed and refined despite the scriptural influence which contradicted them. Some of these we can actually thank science for, by showing us that despite differences in physical appearance, people are otherwise the same, so making a distinction about deserving different rights wasn’t supportable by physiology, mental acuity, or even being a separate species. While this should have been obvious all along, people had preconceived notions about such affairs – due to the influences of scripture claiming divine provenance. To be fair, there were further influences, such as the hubris of “civilized” society exploring the newly-available continents and finding the cultures there “primitive” because they did not have weapons of metal and engage in nice, civilized witch hunts and wars over religious homelands. Though even that’s debatable, since much of what was used to judge “savagery” was whether those heathens even knew who god was, or had some silly little gods of their own.

I just find this disconnect over morals to be amazing, myself. We’re playing with physics at a scale so infinitesimal we can only infer the properties, and judging the ages and sizes of distant stars on the color and intensity of the light that we receive. We’ve plotted genomes and traced genetic heritage, including using it to solve crimes now, and plot the exact centimeters that the continents move per year – from orbit several hundred kilometers above the planet. But determining what is morally good for our species is something we need help doing? Who thinks up this shit?

I don’t need to tell you, do I?

Try this: determine what kind of changes need to be made to laws based on what functions best for society as a whole, not what some old books say. Refer to the human beings around us right now, without trying to justify some internal prejudice. Concentrate on whether actual repercussions or negative connotations really do exist anyplace other than in the mind before worrying about what something can do to “family values” (and while we’re at that, whether “family values” is simply a blatantly manipulative but meaningless concept anyway.)

Sure, there’s ambiguity – ethics are not going to be about distinctly measurable traits. It’s like the old saw about how many grains of sand make a pile. Nice conundrum, until you realize that no one ever needed to know this. People get hung up on the idea of what’s “best,” of determining absolute criteria when considering moral code, when instead all they really need is what’s “better.”

There’s a deeper side, too. We’re seeing some pretty backwards and ridiculous things sprouting up in the news, with many countries trying to become theocracies, governed by religious law rather than secular. And of course, simply saying that has many people wringing their hands about secular law being immoral. But the religious laws we’re seeing, such as stoning women for adultery (somehow not the men – silly immoral me, I thought it took two,) and forcing subjugation and all sorts of fun and games like that, aren’t very moral, are they? In fact, let me be blunt and say that they’re fucked up beyond all measure. I hope that didn’t come off too shrill.

Only, we’re not in a position to judge when we make claims that we’re a christian nation, or that our moral guidance comes from scripture – so does theirs. We really don’t have a leg to stand on if we want to try and convince others to change, unless we fully support rational, thoughtful, social laws and ethical guidance, rather than religious. Otherwise we’re being blatantly hypocritical, or insisting that our god trumps theirs. That’s kind of how so many conflicts started in the first place. And if we want to set an example of how well rational law works for a country, we have to stop whining about gay marriage and religious right. But that’s not quite enough, though – we have to make it clear that it is whining, and speak up about it every time some politician starts pandering to religious fervor. Or, simply take away their ability to play the religious card in the first place, by not dancing to that piper’s tune.

Seriously, the next time you hear someone avow as to how the US is a “christian nation,” demand to know why they want to insult us in this way. We’re nowhere near that backward and feeble-minded. And we can be even better.

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