There is an extremely common debating/arguing tactic wherein, instead of defending a position when challenged, one goes on the counteroffensive, attacking an opponent’s position rather than explaining or justifying their own. I have made it a point to try and avoid such a stance in this topical series, because the whole premise is defending and defining a secular position. This one, however, is going to present both approaches because the perspective could be very useful. So let’s look into the atheistic answer to the question, But how does one obtain any moral guidance without religion?
First off, atheism does not, by nature or definition, propose any such guidance, mostly because it is presumed that none is needed, which highlights the curious attitude within nearly all religions that people (other people, at least) are aimless children. As detailed in part seven, many aspects of religion are cultural assumptions rather than necessities. More directly, atheism is simply a lack of belief, and is not an ideology. It’s like saying, “I’m not a dancer” – no rules or criteria are implied by this statement and few, if any, people would splutter, “But… but what do you do when the music starts?”
Secular humanism, which is often closely linked to atheism, is an ideology, and does provide some basic moral guidance; in short, one does what is best for others, using other people as the arbiter rather than any claimed authority figure. What’s curious about this is, secular humanism only exists because of religion, since it is the ground state of moral decisions in the absence of authority; I mean, morality is defined by how we treat others – that’s the entire purpose of the concept. And the notable aspect of humanism is, it’s not really an active thing: it does not codify behavior, it does not involve dictating or preaching or, really, much of anything beyond simple guidelines, and fully 50 percent of why those guidelines even exist is because religion has devoted so much effort into establishing an alternate concept: that the appeasement of some authority figure rates higher in priority than the people in our community. Expressed this way, it sounds like a dictatorship, and anyone is welcome to define the fundamental difference, especially in a way that makes religion “good.”
I don’t want to be unfair, and will readily admit that a lot of religiously-motivated guidelines and proscriptions revolve around how we treat others; that’s excellent, and I say that honestly. There’s a big caveat that’s going to come up shortly, however, so right now I’ll simply repeat that the primary difference between humanism and religion is the overall goal: humanism puts people first, while religion puts authority first. That’s obeisance, not morality.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter, which is, we’re not stupid. We can actually figure out, with very little effort, good courses of action; benefit and detriment are not exactly advanced concepts far beyond the scope of our primitive little brains. And this is where it gets the most amusing, because a frequent lament from the religious, part of the rabid motivation behind decrying evolution, is that we would be savages, nothing but animals, without the guidance of a holy spirit. Savor, for a moment, the frequently-repeated idea that we were made in god’s image, and what this is supposedly saying. Even if we blithely ignore the idea that such a god must be a savage itself (the more literal interpretation of “in god’s image”,) we still come back to the nuanced idea that we were intended to be this way, for whatever reason, and yet still given free will to decide whether or not we could actually decide something. Yeah, figure that one out. Meanwhile, those that understand biology know we are animals ourselves, by every definition except the weird religious one, and those that understand animal behavior know of the community-supporting instincts that countless other species maintain, ensuring the cohesion of the pack or troop or hive; in a disturbing number of cases, it’s far better than what we humans get up to, despite our vaunted intelligence and guidance from on high.
In fact, far too often, it’s precisely because of this guidance. It is an ultimate authority that is invariably referred to when concepts such as heretics and infidels are resorted to, and it’s remarkably easy for people in this country to forget (or openly and forcefully ignore) that the violent response fostered by such concepts still goes on today in numerous parts of the world. But even if we consider these exceptions rather than common facets, the amount of religiously-inspired bigotry, throughout the world, is astounding, as is the blatant classism that’s due to religion. People do not flaunt religious symbols as reminders of how to behave, for themselves or others, but to define themselves as ‘special.’ And an awful lot of religious activity, supposedly to instill moral behavior, does not consist of making a convincing case for the benefits, but only of pronouncing what someone must do, on penalty of god’s wrath. Again, not guidance, and in fact, blatant arrogance and condescension towards others in the assumption that they cannot make decisions on their own, nor fathom a decent rationale.
It is instructive to examine the differences between sin and crime. Crimes are actions that deprive or injure others, or at least (in the case of traffic laws) stand the chance of doing so, and within most enlightened and progressive governments, are enforced without regard to class distinctions; that last aspect is where secularity comes in, establishing a more equal status among all residents. Sin, however, can be just about anything, and very often demonstrates no harm or even outward effect other than offending a claimed deity; think of homosexuality, masturbation, eating shellfish, building fires on the sabbath, taking the lord’s name in vain, and so on. Every religion has its own particular set, and outside of things that receive the title of ‘sin,’ there are countless more proscribed actions and attitudes in attendance. Many of them, however, are particular to only one religion, and often seen as irrelevant or downright goofy when viewed by others. Right here is where religious conflict arises, as those steeped in the ultimate authority angle take grave offense at those who do not follow or recognize such proscriptions, and rather than accepting the idea that differences in cultures are hardly anything worth worrying about, they insist that their own peculiar rules should be followed by all others regardless. The argument that atheism is “just another form of religion” is trashed by the simple fact that atheists, and humanists, claim no special status nor demand allowances for a personal culture; they just don’t think anyone else should demand them either, an emphasis on equality that is anathema to far too many religious folk.
We come back to the religious idea that obeying authority is what defines ‘good,’ which might initially sound reasonable – until, at least, we consider the huge number of authority figures throughout history that were vicious and loathsome. The moral lesson that we inevitably realize is that authority must be beholden to the higher standard of ‘good’ (or ‘beneficial,’ as I tend to say to distinguish it from the cultural belief that “god=good”) – if our leaders are incapable of maintaining a standard of beneficial actions to as many as possible, then they do not deserve a following. The utility and benefit of this simple criteria cannot be emphasized enough, since it was only in its absence that so many of history’s abominable events even took place.
Now we get the the part where it gets the most interesting. I’ve remarked before that I have never, ever, seen one perfectly devout religious individual, either personally or even heard tell of; without exception, all seem perfectly willing to ignore certain aspects of their faith and/or their scripture. And truth be told, the emphasis on the important aspects, the ones worthy of attention and devotion, changes frequently. Some of the sins and proscriptions mentioned earlier, while considered part of the religion held by any given individual, are nonetheless ignored as unimportant or irrelevant, as are many others. Most striking is the distance often implied or stated between the fringe elements, the zealous fanatics or terrorists, and the ‘mainstream’ religious cultures, because the aspects that the fanatics are frothing over are usually right there in the scripture; it’s the mainstream faithful that are ignoring those passages. Which is fine, and commendable really – most of those passages are batshit anyway. But if they are, as we are told, intended as guidance, then how does this even occur? Are we admitting that some of these words from on high are not only useless, they’re outwardly damaging to culture and individuals? How can we, poor ignorant savages that we are, dismiss the bits that condone slavery and child beating? How are we even capable of thinking that exterminating the heretics is something not worth pursuing?
The answer, of course, is that culture defines our guidance and acceptable actions more than scripture in these cases, and for most cases; in times past, it was culture that made us feel we should be following them. And culture is us – we define it and shape it, often all by our feeble little selves. Let’s face it: if we’re trusted to drive vehicles and fly aircraft, raise kids and even possess sharp objects, we’re probably capable of making a few nuanced decisions.
Which is not to say that we can do without any form of guidance and trust in our sense of community; we are still a conflicted and subconsciously-motivated species, prone to justifying base desires in myriad ways. But neither are we so abysmally stupid that we cannot reason out good courses of action on our own without the input of any supposed higher power, especially when we can see countless aspects of this input that not only serve no beneficial purpose, they’re actively harmful to others and inhibit a respectful and mutually supportive society. [It is, unsurprisingly, this aspect that fosters the abandonment of faith in many people, since it’s hard for any thinking person to look at guidelines for the appropriate treatment of slaves and believe that this came from a higher being and not some self-important priest back in the bronze age.] Most importantly, useful guidance is going to come from having the goals of a strong and supportive community, an attitude that is not fostered by obeisance or the self-imposed status of being devout.
If we can look back at history and be appalled at the actions of the authority figures therein, then we have everything we need to make decisions without special guidance; we already know what constitutes good and bad. And when the inevitable argument that “god must be good” comes up, we have the simple criteria that we can easily see what’s good, and what’s not, for those around us – redefining “good” is unnecessary. And I should never have to offer this reminder, but usually do anyway: it is not god that is dictating actions, but some lesser authority figure, often while interpreting scripture rather cavalierly. We are frequently told that god has the power to do anything, so no help from us is necessary, is it? Meanwhile, the same people tell us god wants us to be good, so we have the power to make these decisions, correct? And as a final point, the very first thing that any authority figure bent on manipulation insists upon is utter, unquestioning servitude – don’t think, don’t speak up, don’t deviate from the status quo. Yeah, great – that’s always proven to be beneficial.
[I insert here a peculiar reflection. The foremost path to holy damnation is, naturally, failure to accept god in one’s heart and all such variations. However, valuing people around us in defiance of this, while earning one a place in hell, still stands to benefit others – a rather selfless pursuit, with of course one person earning punishment while perhaps many others gaining benefits; this is why I have often pointed out that being concerned with one’s own salvation is remarkably self-centered and anti-social. Curiously, however, this is exactly what jesus is said to have done, dying to absolve others’ sins. But then, the message we are repeatedly told this provides is, “be blindly faithful.” Seriously, what the fuck? Now, while this is solely a christian issue, it demonstrates a very common trait throughout all religions, that of abandoning thinking and careful examination for parroting scripture, no matter how hypocritical or pointless it may be – and these same people want to tell us that this is a useful path.]
Here’s a final aspect that bears examination. Throughout the world, there are countless religiously-motivated efforts to control the actions and choices of others, ranging from trying to suppress science and biology education in public schools through anti-homosexual legislation to outright beheadings; the influence of religion is far-reaching even when being completely pointless and, in many cases, highly detrimental and damaging. Now, numerous religious folk could read this and assert that this does not describe their particular sect of religion. But quite frankly, who gives a shit? No one is concerned with who ignores which passage, and it’s pretty damn cowardly to try and protect one’s status by simply saying, “It wasn’t me.” If the guidance is what is supposed to set religious folk apart, where is the guidance to act against such abuses, to instead emphasize beneficial works and goals? Why do these distasteful ‘fringe’ elements still exist, and who’s going to take responsibility for it?
And why is it, whenever anyone actually speaks out against such abuses, the vast majority of religious folk begin to whine and froth that it’s an attempt to destroy religion? Suddenly, they want to be closely associated with such elements? They want to be defined as abusive, manipulative, and unstable? I would have thought that eliminating such elements – cleaning their own house, as it were – would be the kind of good actions that they keep telling me their god wants them to do, but what do I know?