Monday, March 3, 2014

Lovely Awful Things

Apparently atheists aren't the world's best grammarians, either.
One of the oddities that has attached itself to modern Christianity, especially, perhaps, in its evangelical form, is the idea that right and wrong can only be conceived of through a religious lens. While I think that the degree to which some Atheists are critical of this rises to the level of bludgeoning a horse that has long since decayed to its skeletal remains, it does seem to be blind to history.

Christianity tends to credit itself with the creation and spread of such ideas as the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, but there's nothing particularly noteworthy about the concepts involved. Human beings are overwhelmingly social creatures, and those rules that deal with ethics are going to be central to any grouping of people. Without them it's difficult, if not impossible, to form trust relationships between individuals, especially in the face of potential scarcity.

While some religious people claim that the rules of their faith have solved the problem of creating an ethical framework that is indisputable, universal and eternal, the real innovation of Judeo-Christian-Moslem morality in particular is its reliance on an omniscient, unaccountable and incorruptible judge. When religious people accuse the secular of having no reason to not be as anti-social and psychopathic as they can practicably manage, they are really merely pointing out a disbelief in the universality and unavoidability of punishment. But this is nothing new - and, in fact, Christainity itself does not posit the universality and unavoidability of punishment. For many Christians, this is the whole point of being "saved;" no matter what sins one has committed in the past, redemption is always available.

In my own experience, what often confounds or even frightens atheists is not the idea that morality is governed by a divinity whose existence cannot be proven, but the idea that moral behavior is motivated solely by the fear of eternal punishment in Hell. In the stereotyped (but not entirely inaccurate) view put forward in the picture, humanity, as a species, is utterly incapable of maturing to the point where it internalizes a workable, if not always consistent, moral/ethical framework, and thus only the constant threat of punishment keeps humanity for self-destructing in a worldwide orgy of the strong openly victimizing the weak. Turn the concept on its head, and a person is effectively saying: "The only thing that stands between me and victimizing you is my fear of damnation." As the picture says, not very reassuring.

This view of humanity as descending into utter lawlessness and "depravity" in the absence of universal, unavoidable and eternal punishment raises the question of how human societies prospered prior to evolution of the concept. Even reading the Bible as a literal history, one understands that there societies that predated the Ten Commandments - we are not told that any of them condoned, for instance, wanton homicide. And the non-Christian societies that European explorers, and later, missionaries encountered were not without sophisticated moral structures.

In the end, as it appears to me, the issue is one of Lovely Awful Things - the idea that wrongdoing is a more intrinsically appealing way to others behave. This is, for the most part, an article of faith. Part of the conflict between believers and non-believers is the truth of that worldview. Because it goes deeper than empirical fact, it's a conflict that is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

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