Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Broken Compass, Part II

Not long ago, Eric, Alex & I took a weekend trip to the mountains. As we were preparing to leave for home on the last day, we were walking down a path that led to our car. We stopped to look out over a lake and the couple behind us also stopped and then struck up a conversation with us. They were an older couple who had recently moved from Colorado in order to be closer to their children and grandchildren. They had taken a ride on their new motorcycle to see some of the local sights.

We stood and talked for several minutes and then they said goodbye and went on their way. Eric & I stood and talked for a few more minutes and then continued down the path to our car. As we approached our car, we noticed a gleaming new motorcycle in the parking lot with a completely flat tire. Just as I turned to Eric to ask if he thought it might belong to the couple, with whom we’d just spoken, we saw the couple coming out of the park ranger’s shack. We waved at them and asked if it was their bike with the flat and they responded that it was.

We immediately offered to give then a ride to where they needed to go in order to get their bike taken care of. It turned out that they lived about thirty minutes up the mountain. We moved our luggage to the trunk and made room for them in the car.

As we traveled the road to take them home, they talked to us about their lives, asked questions about ours and thanked us repeatedly for our assistance and generosity in helping them in their hour of need.

Shortly before we arrived at their house, the man turned to Eric and asked, “So, what church do you go to?” Eric responded that we didn’t belong to a church. The guy appeared visibly stunned. A few seconds later, a small, “Oh” came out of his mouth. It was clear that this fellow couldn’t quite wrap his mind around the fact that the people who had just gone an hour out of their way to help complete strangers, didn’t go to church.

They tried to leave money in our console as they exited our car, but we promptly discovered it, and jumped out of the car and gave it back to them. We told them we hadn’t helped them because we wanted anything, we had simply done it because we saw that they’d needed help. As Eric & I left their house to make the drive home, we laughed and talked and wondered what those two said about us after we left. I figured they said something along the lines of, “It’s too bad those two don’t go to church. They’d make awfully good Christians.”

Not only am I not a Christian, I’m an atheist. It’s been interesting over the past few years to watch people respond to me when they find out. I’ve received comments ranging from, “No you’re not,” to “But, you’re so nice!”

So, the question is out there. Are atheists evil? Does being an atheist automatically define a person as somehow lacking in “moral” or ethical behaviors?

Since I am not nearly as brilliant as I’d like to be, I’ll let Sam Harris, one of my favorite writers, say it for me, because he says it best.

“If you are right to believe that religious faith offers the only real basis for morality, then atheists should be less moral than believers. In fact, they should be utterly immoral. Are they? Do members of atheist organizations in the United States commit more than their fair share of violent crimes? Do the members of the National Academy of Sciences, 93 percent of whom do not accept the idea of God, lie and cheat and steal with abandon?

We can be reasonably confident that these groups are at least as well behaved as the general population. And yet, atheists are the most reviled minority in the United States. Polls indicate that being an atheist is a perfect impediment to running for high office in our country (while being black, Muslim, or homosexual is not).

Recently, crowds of thousands gathered throughout the Muslim world – burning European embassies, issuing threats, taking hostages, even killing people – in protest over twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that were first published in a Danish newspaper. When was the last atheist riot? Is there a newspaper anywhere on the earth that would hesitate to print cartoons about atheism for fear that its editors would be kidnapped or killed in reprisal?
Christians invariably declare that monsters like Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Kim Il Sung spring from the womb of atheism. While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of religion, they are never especially rational. Example: (Hitler’s atheism seems to have been seriously exaggerated…)

“My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man, I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison…as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people.”
Adolph Hitler, April 12, 1922

In fact, their public pronouncements are often delusional: on subjects as diverse as race, economics, national identity, the march of history, and the moral dangers of intellectualism. The problem with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion, but that they embrace other life-destroying myths. Most become the center of a quasi-religious personality cult, requiring the continual use of propaganda for its maintenance. There is a difference between propaganda and the honest dissemination of information that we (generally) expect from democracy. Tyrants who orchestrate genocides, or who happily preside over the starvation of their own people, also tend to be profoundly idiosyncratic men, not champions of reason.

Kim Il Sung, for instance, demanded that his beds at his various dwellings be situated precisely five hundred meters above sea level. His duvets had to be filled with the softest down imaginable. What is the softest down imaginable? It apparently comes from the chin of a sparrow. Seven hundred thousand sparrows were required to fell a single duvet. Given the profundity of his esoteric concerns, we might wonder how reasonable a man Kim Il sung actually was.

Consider the Holocaust: the anti-Semitism that built the Nazi death camps was a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity. For centuries, Christian Europeans had viewed the Jews as the worst species of heretics and attributed every societal ill to their continued presence among the faithful. While the hatred of Jews in Germany expressed itself in a predominately secular way, its roots were religious, and the explicitly religious demonization of the Jews of Europe continued throughout the period. The Vatican itself perpetuated blood libel in its newspapers as late as 1914. (The “blood libel” – with respect to Jews – consists of the false claim that Jews murder non-Jews in order to obtain their blood for use in religious rituals. This allegation is still widely believed throughout the Muslim world.) And both Catholic and Protestant churches have a shameful record of complicity with the Nazi genocide.

Auschwitz, the Soviet gulags, and the killing fields of Cambodia are not examples of what happens to people when they become too reasonable. To the contrary, these horrors testify to the dangers of political and racial dogmatism. It is time that Christians stop pretending that a rational rejection of their faith entails the blind embrace of atheism as dogma. One need not accept anything on insufficient evidence to find the virgin birth of Jesus to be a preposterous idea. The problem with religion – as with Nazism, Stalinism, or any other totalitarian mythology – is the problem of dogma itself. I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.

While you believe that bringing an end to religion is an impossible goal, it is important to realize that much of the developed world has nearly accomplished it. Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom are among the least religious societies on earth. According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report (2005) they are also the healthiest, as indicated by life expectancy, adult literacy, per capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate and infant mortality.

Insofar as there is a crime problem is Western Europe, it is largely the product of immigration. Seventy percent of the inmates of France’s jails, for instance, are Muslim. The Muslims of Western Europe are generally not atheists. Conversely, the fifty nations now ranked lowest in terms of the United Nations’ human development index are unwaveringly religious.

Other analyses paint the same picture: the United States is unique among wealthy democracies in its level of religious adherence; it is also uniquely beleaguered by high rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, and infant mortality. The same comparison holds true within the United States itself: Southern and Midwestern states, characterized by the highest levels of religious literalism, are especially plagued by the above indicators of societal dysfunction, while the comparatively secular states of the Northeast conform to European norms.

While political party affiliation in the United States is not a perfect indicator of religiosity, it is no secret that the “red states” are primarily red because of the overwhelming political influence of conservative Christians. If there were a strong correlation between Christian conservatism and societal health, we might expect to see some sign of it in red-state America. We don’t.

Of the twenty-five cities with the lowest rates of violent crime, 62 percent are in “blue” states and 38 percent are in “red” states. Of the twenty-five most dangerous cities, 76 percent are in red states, 24 percent in blue states. In fact, three of the five most dangerous cities in the United States are in the pious state of Texas. The twelve states with the highest rates of burglary are red. Twenty-four of the twenty-nine states with the highest rates of theft are red. Of the twenty-two states with the highest rates of murder, seventeen are red.

Of course, correlational data of this sort do not resolve questions of causality – belief in God may lead to societal dysfunction; societal dysfunction may foster a belief in God: each factor may enable the other: or both may spring from some deeper source of mischief. Leaving aside the issue of cause and effect, however, these statistics prove that atheism is compatible with the basic aspirations of a civil society: they also prove, conclusively, that widespread belief in God does not ensure a society’s health.

Countries with the high levels of atheism are also the most charitable in terms of the percentage of their wealth they devote to social welfare programs and the percentage they give in aid to the developing world. The dubious link between Christian literalism and Christian values is belied by other indices of social equality. Consider the ratio of salaries paid to top-tier CEOs and those paid to the same firms’ average employees: in Britain it is 24:1; in France, 15:1; In Sweden, 13:1; in the United States where 80 percent of the population expects to be called before God on Judgment Day, it is 475:1.

Many a camel, it would seem, expects to pass easily through the eye of a needle.”

So, am I evil? Because I do not have religion as a “moral” compass, are my behaviors “immoral?” Most evidence, and there is increasingly more each year, points towards exactly the opposite. Most atheists are also “humanists,” and believe in and work towards the preservation of the human species and the planet. We don’t believe in Second Comings or Armageddons or Raptures, so we feel that it’s our obligation now, to save the planet for future generations.

That’s not so evil, is it?


lakeviewer said...

Interesting, well paced and richly illustrated. I was brought up Catholic, but discovered in my early adulthood that goodness, ethics and integrity are independent of religious labels.

We need a new compass to guide our private and collective actions, a compass that transcends parochial labels.

YOur views are intelligent and well researched. I'm happy to have dropped in for a visit.

Jennie................ said...

I agree that morality is a human concept and not a religious concept, but not all Christians are evil and immoral either. Generalities and stereotypes on both sides of the fence do nothing but cloak both worlds in unfair stigmas. I believe in God, but my husband does not. I do not judge him for this, nor does he judge me. We allow each other the honor and respect of our own personal views and do not think less of eithers intelligence or moral values based on belief systems. Its about respect - on both sides. Many evils are perpetuated in this all-too-human world based on perversions on both what it means to be a Christian and believe in God, and what it means to not believe in a God. Humanity should win out on both sides of the fence. Anger and hatred breed evil - on both sides. Just a few thoughts from my brain... :o)

Amy said...

Jennie -

Agreed. Anger & hatred from anyone is not desirable and does no one anything but harm.

Much of the information stated was actual statistical data and not based on stigmas or stereotypes.

Respect is a tricky word with different connotations. I respect the right for someone to have a different opinion or viewpoint or belief system than I do, but I don't neccessarily respect that opinion, viewpoint or belief system.

The viewpoints on my blog are soley mine and a venue to express my thoughts. Kind of my way of journaling my journey.


Jennie................ said...

Yup - and I enjoy reading your opinions and your way through your journey! We are all on a different path- thats what makes life interesting!