Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

“How Does an Unbeliever Develop a Sense of Morality?"

I recently noticed that it's been quite a while since I posted to the blog, so here goes.

My Facebook friend, Howard Prouty, posted an article about a young woman in a dispute with her roommates who was caught spitting in and otherwise contaminating the food of those roommates. She is being prosecuted. Howard posited the legitimate question, “How does an unbeliever develop a sense of morality? That is my morning meditation.”

I responded:
Morality and ethics are rational constructs. For an individual in true isolation, they have no meaning or purpose. However, when a second individual is introduced, a "society" is created. In order for that society to flourish for any length of time, certain rules must be established. "Not killing" is a perfectly logical first step; without that admonition, your society quickly dwindles back to "the one" and inevitable extinction (unless "the one" learns an alternative means to procreate). Animals, even without our faculty of speech, create rules for their offspring. “Listen to me and do what you're told,” “Obey your elders,” "Don't shit where you eat," etc.

The books of religion were written by men to explain and justify their existence. They were used to articulate rational rules that would control and maintain their society. Unfortunately, in every case, the initial, rational rules become entwined in superstition, and fear of the supernatural quickly becomes the rationale for adhering to the rules. Once this transformation takes hold, then the most irrational and foolish distortions become "written in stone" through dogma and ritual.

Stripped of their superstitious trappings, rules like "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," become perfectly reasonable precepts by which to live.

When Howard asked the question again, I replied:
Why would anyone make the assumption that this young woman was not steeped in religious training and religious history? If she's Catholic, she'll be forgiven with a quick mea culpa. If she's Muslim, she can claim they were infidels. If she's a fundamentalist Christian, she can do anything she wants and twist a scripture to justify her actions. If she's Jewish, she can claim that they were a threat to her existence. If she's Hindu, they were clearly lower caste. If she's Buddhist, she can claim that she thought they were Muslims. If she's a Quaker..., well, then, she has no excuse. If she'd been an atheist, she would have found better ways of coping through the application of intellectual analysis, invoking respect and problem solving to find a rational solution.

Another commenter joined the conversation:
Tim... that is an excellent reply. But it WILL get worse. It's a new day. And any and all remnants of accountability for one's actions in life are evaporating. Mankind has historically gotten off on public torture and executions. Guillotines, hangings, the rack, slaves to lions... but just as we as a race supposedly had evolved... a nation born to be a world leader against tyranny and injustices or persecution... set forth in the belief of freedoms and under the banner "In God we trust"... we have regressed to basic primitive "Godless" acts. This has happened to so many now—in the form of our children. Technology begat advancement, and while no one's watching... they murder in the name of an obscure phenomenon called Slender Man.
It isn't that man won't stop using their religious beliefs to justify but that what little tether there was by acccountable morality has been lost. Those who were to set the example gave in and joined the party. With "progress" and advanced technology... we merely expanded the options.”


I answered these reasonable observations in this way:

I understand your pessimism, Kerry. I, on the other hand, call myself "the hopeful cynic." I do see a steady advancement, but as with most progress, it is "two steps forward, one step back." Many, if not most, of those gleefully inhumane forms of audience entertainment that you enumerate were either done in the name of religion or as a form of persecuting a particular religion. We actually have moved past most of those barbarities.

As you suggest, however, technology has certainly given us new means to destroy each other in the name of God and Country. From bigger and better guns and bombs to unmanned drone strikes, we continue the killing spree nearly unabated.

The surge of fundamentalism that has recently grasped Christianity, Islam, Judaism (the monotheistic religions) as well as Hinduism and Buddhism (polytheistic) seem to be a sort of last gasp in defiance of the steady march of true freedom: not the distorted "freedom to discriminate and legislate against others based on a particular religious bias," but the actual advancement of equality for women, the advancement of equal justice for all races, the advancement of rights for the LGBT community, the acceptance of the right of every human being to a safer, healthier environment.

The fundamentalist resurgence is a backlash against the transfer of power reflecting the obvious fact that those who who have stacked the deck aren't interested in having it reshuffled.

Do I believe that the impulse for human depravity will ever be fully eradicated? I haven't a clue. But I do believe that we have gone a long way toward containing it, and it was the development of ideals and principles designed to free governments and people from the domination of the irrational excesses and oppression of religion and aristocracy (also predicated on religion, i.e., "divine right") upon which our country was founded.

Remember, "In God We Trust" and "One nation UNDER GOD" were only added to the money and the pledge in the 50's, and they were added by some pretty rotten people to accomplish some pretty rotten things. The merging of religion with capitalism, using the pulpit to champion the triumph of the ruthless greed of the few and the oppression of the many came about in the 1880's; it was under attack from 1900-1920; it reemerged full throttle during the 20's, then submerged during the 30's and 40's; it again held sway in the '50's; it was lurking under the surface in the '60's; in the 70's it gained momentum; and since the 80's it has been the dominant world view of our preachers and our politicians. The irony is that people are turning their backs on these false and oppressive expressions of faith-based economies and religious fundamentalism. Hence, the drastic measures to cling to power.

Technology can be the bane or the salvation of mankind; it is not the technology but mankind who will decide. I believe that the human race really does have the potential to outgrow our petty and foolish adherence to demagoguery and chicanery, superstition and destructive tradition. I believe that we have the potential to not only learn to "do unto others as we would have them do unto us," but that we actually have the potential to choose to do so as well.


If we don't annihilate ourselves first (which we certainly might choose to do—a lot of people are making a lot of money facilitating that possibility), we can learn to adopt an approach to life that says, simply (though not easily accomplished), "Every day of my life, I will strive to be better for myself, for other people, and for the world." Repeat after me and teach it to your kids: "Every day of my life, I will strive to be better for myself, for other people, and for the world." It could have a much more profound impact than either the misguidedly altered Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag or the ubiquitous Lord's Prayer.

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