Tag Archives: Atheism

Religion and Science: Four Perspectives

The 14th Dalai Lama is said to have said, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” I agree with the quote, but I also think it’s not that revolutionary. Buddhism has made a lot of adjustments to science in the past couple of centuries without being traumatized about it.

I very often run into news stories and articles that frame “religion” as a monolithic thing that is intractably opposed to “science,” another monolithic thing. But the truth is that most of religion is not at war with science (which is not so monolithic, but that’s another rant). Consider evolution, which “religion” is said to disbelieve. Catholicism never issued a formal opposition to evolution and declared decades ago that the faithful were free to make up their own minds. Judaism is largely supportive of evolution science. The “old line” Protestant denominations of Christianity mostly either accept evolution or leave it alone.

In America, the fight against evolution is coming mostly from the extreme religious Right. Yes, conservative evangelicals mostly oppose evolution, although there are exceptions to everything. Yes, there are a lot of them, and they make a lot of noise. But they don’t represent all of Christianity, never mind all of “religion.” And outside of Abrahamism I’m not aware that evolution is an issue at all. It certainly isn’t in Buddhism.

Most of Christianity processes science in one of two ways. One is to oppose it, for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are unrelated to religious doctrine — think climate change denialism — but are more about loyalty to the Right as a political-religious tribe. I’ve written elsewhere that this group harbors a kind of faithless faith. This faithless faith rests on the proposition that the reality of God depends on a literal interpretation of scripture. If evolution is true, for example, then God is not real. That’s why it’s a faithless faith; it’s a faith with conditions.

The other, and more common, means for the religious to process science is through a kind of compartmentalizing. Because science simply cannot measure God, or heaven, or angels, for example,  it’s not thought to be unscientific to believe in such things. This perspective assumes it is all right to read Bible stories allegorically, which is actually how they were read for most of history. Atheist folklore to the contrary, an insistence on biblical literalism is a relatively recent development.

That works for some people, although it never seems to stop the incessant arguments about whether God exists. No matter how elegantly or logically they are argued, arguments claiming to be “proof” of God always carry a whiff  of unsupported assumption and end up chasing their own tails. They are unpersuasive to anyone not already inclined to believe them, and are therefore a waste of time. Not that anyone listens to me. But if you are a God-believer, please just accept that you believe something that can’t be proved by any known means and try to come to terms with that. Thanks much.

Among Abrahamists there is also a less common way to deal with science, which is to assume that scriptures and doctrines are all imperfect attempts to explain something ineffable, and in truth God is not only beyond the measure of science but also beyond the limited ability of humans to conceptualize and describe him/her/it. This group doesn’t believe in literal angels or unseen spirits and may deny that God is a being at all, anthropomorphic or otherwise, although God still is. This is a perspective championed by Paul Tillich (1886-1965), considered to be one of the great Christian theologians of the 20th century. It’s still a kind of compartmentalization, but a looser one that creates little or no conflict with science.  This group is arguably closer to older concepts of “faith,” in which faith was less about believing things and more about trusting a God that is beyond human understanding. This perspective also is utterly incomprehensible to most activist atheists, who simply can’t get around that word “God” and not think “sky fairy.”

I’ve been speaking about the people engaged in these three ways of understanding religion and science as if they were three distinct groups, but it’s probably more of a continuum of understanding, with the extremely and rigidly literal on one end and the extremely and loosely not-literal on the other. Most American Christians and Jews fall somewhere between those two poles, and the poles will probably continue to shift.

There’s a weird belief among many American atheists that Abrahamic religion has always been rigidly literal, and those who are not are “cherry pickers” or “hypocrites,” but again, the bulk of theological and historical scholarship says literalism crept in with modernity, not the other way around. And, anyway, religion has always been a kind of ongoing, collaborative creative effort, albeit usually a conservative one, that really does change over time. For example, God as described in the older parts of the Old Testament really is a very different guy from the one described in the newer parts. Just over the past couple of centuries there have been a number of new developments in American Christianity, from Unitarianism to fundamentalism. So, in fact, understanding of doctrine is not so rigidly fixed as in a slow state of flux.

Buddhists are in a slightly different, and slightly more interesting, place. Buddhism did go through a period of doctrinal upheaval about three centuries ago, as science made hash of a lot of old assumptions about the cosmos. But for the most part Buddhism was able to reconcile itself to a more allegorical interpretation of many scriptures and doctrines without going to war about it. This is not to say there aren’t teachers out there explaining the Six Realms, for example, as real physical places, but they are a minority.

Buddhists don’t have to spin their wheels over the existence of a creator God. For the most part we don’t need to believe in a bunch of supernatural things to be assured the Buddha’s teachings are true. The Buddha’s teachings are mostly about ourselves and our lives, and we can verify them through our own practice and experience. Believing things is not that important in Buddhism.

On the other hand, some of the metaphysical theories in support of doctrine and practice might someday be revised by science. For example, the Buddha proposed the skandhas as a way to explain the biological organism that experiences itself as “I.” I’d love to see a neuroscientist who practices Buddhism review the skandhas and propose revisions to make them more accessible to modern thinkers. Seems to me it’s not so important to memorize that recognition is samjna and biases are samskara as it is to appreciate how the body, brain and nervous system work together to create the illusory experience of a self.  Reading about neuroscience actually helped me understand Yogacara philosophy, which utterly mystified me for a long time.

This is where I suspect His Holiness the Dalai Lama was going when he said “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” He engages in dialog with scientists often, mostly in relation to “mind science” and the nature of consciousness and theoretical physics. He seems keenly interested in reconciling the “support” theories with scientific thought, and he appears to have great faith that science will support the Buddha’s teaching. As  long as science doesn’t discover a soul, it may very well do that.

Read more about religion and science in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World


Sam Harris vs. Islam

Sam Harris is very sure that Islam created ISIS, and he criticized President Obama for saying otherwise:

As an atheist, I cannot help wondering when this scrim of pretense and delusion will be finally burned away—either by the clear light of reason or by a surfeit of horror meted out to innocents by the parties of God. Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder? It may be true that no faith teaches people to massacre innocents exactly—but innocence, as the President surely knows, is in the eye of the beholder. Are apostates “innocent”? Blasphemers? Polytheists? Islam has the answer, and the answer is “no.”

If indeed Islam itself demands that all apostates must die, it’s been weirdly inconsistent about this over the years. Just yesterday I found an article about Muslims who risked — and sometimes lost — their own lives saving Jews from the Holocaust. Harris would probably argue those Muslims were hypocrites (No True Muslim would rescue a Jew?). But I’m sure if we checked we could probably find many examples of amicable meetings between Muslims and non-Muslims that didn’t end in slaughter.

Maybe the relationship between Islam and violence is not what Harris assumes.

In Rethinking Religion I devote a chapter to religious violence and another to the dynamics of mass movements. In the latter chapter I propose that many of the supposed evils of religion — a propensity to violence and dogmatic faithfulness to irrational beliefs — can be found in many kinds of movements, both religious and not religious. And I propose that violent movements of all sorts have two things in common — a “holy” cause combined with a fanatical grievance.

The holy cause does not have to be religious; patriotism will do nicely, too, especially when combined with belief in ethnic or racial superiority or some kind of glorious national destiny. But the fanatical grievance is an essential component, also. I postulate that people who do not feel particularly aggrieved about anything tend to be disinclined to become violent about their holy causes, whether religious or not.

At Alternet, C.J. Werleman addresses atheists’ flawed view of Islamic terrorism. In particular, he addresses Sam Harris’s insistence that terrorism by Muslims is driven entirely by Islam. Werleman documents that a great many factors other than Islam  have been driving terrorism in Muslim countries, and all of this supports my “fanatical grievance” hypothesis. This is not to say that religion is not a factor, but it is not the simple and direct factor that Harris imagines.

At Foreign Policy, anthropologist Scott Atran writes,

… the chief complaint against religion — that it is history’s prime instigator of intergroup conflict — does not withstand scrutiny. Religious issues motivate only a small minority of recorded wars. The Encyclopedia of Wars surveyed 1,763 violent conflicts across history; only 123 (7 percent) were religious. A BBC-sponsored “God and War” audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3. There was little religious motivation for the internecine Russian and Chinese conflicts or the world wars responsible for history’s most lethal century of international bloodshed.

Indeed, inclusive concepts such as “humanity” arguably emerged with the rise of universal religions. Sociologist Rodney Stark reveals that early Christianity became the Roman Empire’s majority religion not through conquest, but through a social process grounded in trust. Repeated acts of altruism, such as caring for non-Christians during epidemics, facilitated the expansion of social networks that were invested in the religion. Likewise, studies by behavioral economist Joseph Henrich and colleagues on contemporary foragers, farmers, and herders show that professing a world religion is correlated with greater fairness toward passing strangers. This research helps explain what’s going on in sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam is spreading rapidly. In Rwanda, for example, people began converting to Islam in droves after Muslims systematically risked their lives to protect Christians and animists from genocide when few others cared.

So, evidence suggests religion can bring out the best in us as well as the worst. I propose that without the “fanatical grievance” factor, religion by itself is unlikely to cause people to go to war. An emotionally healthy and reasonably contended individual does not become a mass murderer because of something he reads in scripture, no matter how devout he is.

Religion does not exist in a vacuum. All religions live and grow within a culture of, well, culture. And politics, and society, and history. These things exist together and condition each other in countless ways. Sometimes culture expresses itself through religion. Sometimes religion expresses itself through culture. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Religious identity often gets mixed into ethnic or national identity, so that “defending the faith” becomes synonymous with “defending my people.”

Very often the factors that push a movement toward violence may have little to do with religion, but at some point in the process religion is trotted out to justify whatever extreme measures are used to achieve ends. More often than not, the truth of this isn’t apparent even to the people fomenting the violence. Religious violence often begins when people become angry or fearful about something, and as a desire to strike the feared or hated thing grows, religion provides a great moral cover for whatever violent impulses want to be expressed. Persuading yourself that you have been anointed to do God’s terrible work makes it much easier to light the fuse or pull the trigger.

Religion, then, is not the root cause of violence as often as it is an accelerant. Scott Atran writes,

Although surprisingly few wars are started by religions, once they start, religion — and the values it imposes — can play a critical role. When competing interests are framed in terms of religious and sacred values, conflict may persist for decades, even centuries. Disputes over otherwise mundane phenomena then become existential struggles, as when land becomes “Holy Land.” Secular issues become sacralized and nonnegotiable, regardless of material rewards or punishments.

We can see from our own home-grown fundamentalists that all kinds of unrelated things can become sacralized. Some American conservative Christians have sacralized capitalism, for example, to the point of claiming free-market capitalism is ordained by the Bible.

As Karen Armstrong and other scholars have documented, religious fundamentalism is primarily a backlash against modernity. The original Christian fundamentalist movement arose in the late 19th century United States in reaction to a spectrum of social and cultural challenges, such as the huge influx of immigrants, many of which were barely connected to religion.

In the broader sense of the word, “fundamentalist” religious movements around the world are reactionary. They tend to be obsessed with creating some kind of sacred enclave where they can be in complete control and free of outside influence. Often, as in the case of ISIS, they venerate a highly mythologized version of the past that they say they want to restore. They place great importance on sacred symbols and moral purity, especially the moral purity of women. But they also tend not to follow their own religions in any kind of holistic way. Any parts of their own doctrines or scriptures that do not support their violent path, such as teachings on mercy and compassion, are studiously ignored.

So, whether Sam Harris likes it or not, there is a solid argument to be made that the root cause of ISIS is not Islam, and that instead Islam has been appropriated to serve as packaging for a veritable compost heap of grievances mostly related to politics and oil. That said, the extent to which the ISIS movement can persuade itself its cause is holy will have a lot to do with how long and hard and effectively the group will survive and keep fighting. So Islam cannot be ignored.

At the same time, it can be argued that what’s fueling ISIS is more of an idea of Islam than Islam itself. Rather than a practice of humble submission to the will of God, this idea of Islam exalts and empowers the leaders and followers of ISIS. And while it’s not up to me to judge what is “true” Islam and what isn’t, I respect arguments that the ISIS version aint’ it.

But Sam Harris says he knows better.

Understanding and criticizing the doctrine of Islam—and finding some way to inspire Muslims to reform it—is one of the most important challenges the civilized world now faces. But the task isn’t as simple as discrediting the false doctrines of Muslim “extremists,” because most of their views are not false by the light of scripture. A hatred of infidels is arguably the central message of the Koran.

The Qu’ran is not my area, but I doubt it’s Sam Harris’s area, either. Harris’s words smack more of bigotry than scholarship. Obviously, Harris has a deep ego-investment in the belief that Religion Is Bad, and that good ol’ confirmation bias backs him up every time. I doubt that his mind could be opened to entertain another view. And that’s why he’s mostly clueless.

Making Islam the enemy is the last thing we should be doing now. For another view, see Salam Al Marayati, “The Key to Defeating ISIS Is Islam.”

Religious violence is a complex topic. Sometimes religious institutions have made cold-blooded decisions to betray their own doctrines and engage in violence, and this is usually related to either ensuring the institution’s survival or spreading its influence.  But examples of this kind of violence have become less common in the modern era, and I don’t know if it applies to any violence going on in the world now.

What I do know is that responses to religious violence coming from a place of knee-jerk bigotry and ignorance are not going to help us deal with it.

Read more about religious violence in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

The Christian Conceptual Box

One of the challenges in explaining Buddhism to people amounts to breaking through the Abrahamist — and mostly Christian, in the U.S. —  conceptual box into which people compulsively shove all things “religious.”

Available at Amazon!

I discussed conceptual boxes in the last post. In brief, our conceptual boxes are the mental filing system our culture and upbringing build for us, and by which we sort and classify all phenomena so that we can recognize it and know it.* This is a mostly workable system for navigating the world and probably has a lot to do with how human brains evolved to secure the survival of our species. However, the filing breaks down when confronted with something that actually doesn’t fit. What usually happens, then, is that instead of adjusting the filing system we distort the new thing so that it fits the existing system. This is one way to understand what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” but what I’m thinking of is actually a bit broader than that.

Western culture in the 21st century has arrived at fairly narrow and rigid conceptual boxes for “religion” and “philosophy,” and for the most part the “religion” box only accommodates Abrahamism.  Anything else you shove into it, whether Buddhism or Vedanta or something else, has to be rather grossly distorted to make it fit. Those who do recognize that Buddhism doesn’t fit into the “religion” box often then decide it must belong in the “philosophy” box, but it actually doesn’t fit that box either, unless you slice big chunks of it off first. Many Buddhist teachers have attempted to get around the conceptual box problem by explaining Buddhism in terms of psychology, but that’s turning into another kind of problem — see the older post “Dark Nights and Dukkha Nanas.” **

This post was touched off by some propositions written by a philosopher named Edward Feser, who has a very nice blog for those of you who are philosophy nerds. The propositions, which I found on Facebook and may be paraphrased, are how he conceptualizes objections to  religion  —

Consider first the different attitudes an atheist might take to the theoretical side of a religion. There are at least three such attitudes, which, going from the most hostile to the least hostile, could be summarized as follows:

1. Religious belief has no serious intellectual content at all. It is and always has been little more than superstition, the arguments offered in its defense have always been feeble rationalizations, and its claims are easily refuted.

2. Religious belief does have serious intellectual content, has been developed in interesting and sophisticated ways by philosophers and theologians, and was defensible given the scientific and philosophical knowledge available to previous generations. But advances in science and philosophy have now more or less decisively refuted it. Though we can respect the intelligence of an Aquinas or a Maimonides, we can no longer take their views seriously as live options.

3. Religious belief is still intellectually defensible today, but not as defensible as atheism. An intelligent and well-informed person could be persuaded by the arguments presented by the most sophisticated contemporary proponents of a religion, but the arguments of atheists are at the end of the day more plausible.

My primary issue here is that “religion” is defined primarily as “belief,” which is the chief issue with the Abrahamist box. In many other religions, not just Buddhism, doctrines are propositions to be confirmed through mystical or other practices. Merely believing them serves only a provisional purpose. In Zen, it’s best to not believe them at all, but rather let doctrines inhabit one’s body for awhile to see how they work. For that reason, intellectual arguments for or against the propositions are also beside the point, since it is understood that what is to be realized cannot be reached by intellect. So these three propositions are hopelessly stuck in an Abrahamist conceptual box.

This is not to say that Buddhists don’t argue, but the arguments can take very odd forms, from a western perspective. See, for example, and old post on a koan from the Mumonkan, “Ryutan Blows Out the Candle.” See also the story of Miaoxin and the koan about flag, wind, and mind.

A Facebook participant paraphrased  Edward Feser’s propositions this way:

  1. Theism is still intellectually defensible — but not as defensible as non-theism.
  2. Theism has no respectable intellectual content at all and obviously never had any.
  3. Theism’s prior intellectual content has been refuted by science and philosophy.

From my perspective the propositions all have an Abrahamist bias, and it could be argued it’s a modernist Abrahamist bias. I don’t call myself an atheist (although many western Buddhists do), but neither am I a theist or an agnostic. I am a nontheist, by which I mean the existence of a God or gods is irrelevant to my religion.

I wrote a long ‘chapter about the existence of God in Rethinking Religion, which boils down to “The question “Does God exist?” cannot be answered until you (a) define “God”; and (b) define “exist.”‘

Buddhism simply does not deal with a person-God or creator-God or a judge-God. Even if such a being existed, in Buddhism, he/she wouldn’t have anything to do. All of the functions of such a God have been assigned to forces or energies that are something like natural law and are not being operated by a supernatural being or intelligence. However, I can appreciate the standard Abrahamist God-concept as something like an archetype of those natural laws.

On the other hand, if you wander into Paul Tilich’s “God as ground of being” territory we might have some agreement. If we define God as something like the force or essence or ineffable something that pervades everywhere in time and space and makes existence possible, we’re looking at what Mahayana Buddhists would call the dharmakaya or Buddha-nature. That’s also one definition of the word dharma as used in Theravada Buddhism as well as Vedanta.

However, worshiping the dharmakaya is kind of pointless. We’d only be worshiping ourselves. There are also huge issues in Mahayana about making the dharmakaya a bigger deal than conventional reality, or the phenomenal manifestations that we recognize as trees, toasters, and us. One is no less, or more, important or “true” than the other. As the Heart Sutra says, form is exactly emptiness; emptiness is exactly form. There is no separation.

And that takes us into the sticky question, “What is existence?” We speak of existence and “reality” as if we all agree what these things are, and we don’t. Trust me.


*(Buddhists will recognize that this is a function of the third skandha, although our opinions or feelings about what we “know” are a function of the fourth skandha.)

**(A big reason I wrote Rethinking Religion is to redefine religion in a way that actually takes in all of the world’s major religions, not just monotheism, without distortion. This is going to be an uphill slog, but I think all religions will benefit.)

Killing the Spiritual but Not Religious Buddha

Sam Harris is coming out with a new book called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, as if the world needs another “spiritual but not religious” book. I did a search in Amazon books for “spiritual but not religious” and easily got more than 2000 results.

As I complained awhile back (“My Heresy on Spiritual but Not Religious“) —

“Spiritual but not religious” has become a new orthodoxy. In some circles one cannot say anything positive about “religion,” even in a generic way, without being informed one is behind the times.  Religion = bad. Spiritual = good.  Religion is divisive and dogmatic and corrupt. It is riddled with sexual predators and scam artists. It is interested only in its own power. Spirituality, on the other hand, is all about free thinking, self-affirmation and happy folks tripping down the path of love and light.

Yeah, whatever. I’m spiritual and religious. Sue me.

Brilliant as ever, in the New York Times, Frank Bruni congratulates Harris for recognizing a growing trend —

Harris’s book, which will be published by Simon and Schuster in early September, caught my eye because it’s so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans who are willing to say that they do not find the succor they crave, or a truth that makes sense to them, in organized religion.

Next up: Bruni discovers Crocs!

I devote most of a chapter in Rethinking Religion to why I think the trend of separating religion and spirituality, while understandable, is a bad idea. Of course, spirituality is ever a vaguely defined thing, and often what is really meant is closer to one definition of mysticism. From Rethinking Religion:

…a mystical experience in this sense is one that is neither sensory nor conceptual. It is not dependent on seeing visions or hearing voices. It is not generated by reason or intellect. Through this experience, one may feel an intimate connection of existence beyond self, or realize something about the nature of reality not perceived before.

The spiritual-but-not-religious crowd calls these spiritual experiences, but it’s the same thing. Prominent atheist Sam Harris (author, neuroscientist, co-founder of Project Reason) has written quite a bit about spiritual experience, such as —

There is no question that people have “spiritual” experiences (I use words like “spiritual” and “mystical” in scare quotes, because they come to us trailing a long tail of metaphysical debris). Every culture has produced people who have gone off into caves for months or years and discovered that certain deliberate uses of attention—introspection, meditation, prayer—can radically transform a person’s moment to moment perception of the world.

— although Harris is determined to not connect these experiences to religion in any way, because of the “metaphysical debris.” People might erroneously think they’re having an experience of God or Brahman or some such, which is atheistically incorrect. Of course, God or Brahman can be understood in many different ways, to be discussed in the next chapter.

There is no question that religious doctrines provide a context in which people make sense of mystical experience. A few days ago I wrote a post about disturbing meditation experiences, which often seem to happen when people have intense mystical (as I’m defining it) experiences with no context or guidance.

Available at Amazon!

It may be that once practice-realization has ripened all the contexts drop away, like dropping the raft once on the other shore. But that has to happen in its own time. If you’re still living in a fog of concepts and projections you need some context.

In some religious traditions mystical experiences are interpreted to support and confirm doctrine. In others, however, doctrine plays a supporting or guiding role for mystical experience.  Sometimes doctrines are not to be “believed in” but are understood to be provisional explanations of the great ineffable thing one may realize directly through mystical experience. And sometimes gods, angels, dharmapalas and bodhisattvas are understood to be metaphors or archetypes rather than sky fairies.

Sam Harris will have none of that metaphysical debris, however. Frank Bruni asked him about this.

“You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma,” he said when we spoke on the telephone last week.

In short, Sam Harris demands of the cosmos that it not bother him with anything that rocks his chosen worldview, and that’s his doctrinal context.

Some years ago Harris wrote an essay called “Killing the Buddha” in which he wrote,

The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi is supposed to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Like much of Zen teaching, this seems too cute by half, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught. In considering what Buddhism can offer the world in the twenty-first century, I propose that we take Lin Chi’s admonishment rather seriously. As students of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism.

One suspects old Lin Chi (Linji Yixuan, d. 866) would have given Harris several smacks in the head for this. In Zen, “killing the Buddha” means to let go of all concepts and preconceived ideas about Buddha — including the idea that Buddha is a separate thing that could be “met” — because such expectations get in the way of realizing Buddha. Harris is not killing the Buddha; he is merely replacing a version of Buddha he doesn’t like with one he does.

I’m sure many would argue that Harris’s self-imposed doctrinal parameters are at least rational, as opposed to belief in imaginary spirits. But in the context of mysticism they are both fabricated interfaces imposed on a reality beyond the limits of concepts and intellect, impediments to the grace of not knowing, and I don’t know that one is any more or less opaque than the other.

The Basis of Morality

One chapter in Rethinking Religion is devoted to rethinking morality. Many religious people insist — absurdly, to my mind — that there can be no morality without religion. Secularists have taken up this challenge and have devised various non-religious moral theories. Prominent atheist Sam Harris, for example, has written a number of articles and books with his own proposals for how we might live by a moral code without having to believe in a judgmental God.

Religious and secularist moralists tend to make the same basic mistake, however, which is to assume that “morality” mostly involves living according to some kind of universally accepted code. It doesn’t. It never did.

Much current research in psychology and sociology points to another source entirely for where our moral notions come from. And that would be our biases and emotions. Our orientation toward all moral issues depends on how we feel about those issues, and then we use our “rational” minds to craft a narrative to explain why our views are “good.” We all do this, whether we admit it or not.

This is why many of our public fights over “moral” issues remain at impasse. People who are disgusted by homosexuality, for example, will find no end of reasons why suppressing it isn’t some kind of moral “good,” while people who accept homosexuality think it’s the suppression that’s immoral.

Notice that most of our hot-button and never-ending public squabbles about what’s moral and what isn’t touches on the same two issues — sex and death. That’s because these are two issues most of us are really emotional — and often conflicted — about. Lying, stealing and cheating, by contrast, are not nearly so controversial.

Although Christians opposed to abortion and birth control insist their perspective is religious, the truth is that Bible-based arguments against abortion and birth control are laughably flimsy, and the pertinent scriptures could be interpreted many ways. Yet to go by the energy the Christian Right puts into fighting these things, you’d think Jesus never talked about anything else. In fact, he never addressed abortion or birth control at all, nor did the Apostles, even though abortions and haphazard attempts at birth control were going on at the time, and they must have known about this.

In truth, our opinions about these issues actually are coming from a murky place in our ids where our feelings about sex, sexual purity, women, motherhood etc., are perpetually stewing and jerking us about. We choose sides depending on what those feelings are, and then we grab the first available ideology that harmonizes with our opinions, whether “religion” or liberalism or whatever.

Buy the Book at Amazon

And if the facts of a situation don’t fit our narratives, we change the facts. The pro-life zealots who camped around Terry Schiavo’s hospital a few years ago convinced themselves that Ms. Schiavo was not in a persistent vegetative state at all, but was awake and communicating, for example. The truth is, “moral clarity” nearly always depends on ignoring the messy, and often painful, details of human life that obstruct the view.

But those irrelevant details are what our lives actually are. To ignore them is to ignore humanity. That’s why moral absolutism, taken to logical extremes, becomes inhumane. To deny our subjectivity is to deny us.

I’m not arguing against all codes of morals, mind you. Humans need agreed-upon codes of behavior in order to live in communities together. But those are not the basis of morality.

The basis, like it or not, is just us. The basis is our ability to be compassionate; to be empathetic; to value others as much as we value ourselves. Often morality depends on our ability to put aside our own desires and defer to the needs of others. If we can do that, we will be moral people, and if we can’t we won’t. And if we can’t, all the rules in the world won’t matter.

You Can’t Kill Intolerance With More Intolerance

If you’ve read my book Rethinking Religion, you know how much I want reactionary Christians to stop trying to force the rest of us to bow to their tribal totems. If it were up to me, there’d be no Ten Commandments monuments or Nativity scenes on pubic property. No store clerk would ever be harassed for saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” There’s be no special legal favors for “Christian” corporations, no proselytizing anywhere, and separation of church and state would be global policy.

Although achieving this happily tolerant state won’t be easy and won’t happen in my lifetime, I think it could happen some day. But there’s a smart way to work toward a religiously tolerant world, and there’s the stupid way.

Buy My Book at Amazon

For examples of stupid, see 5 atheist and Muslim billboards that drove the Christian right nuts at Salon. One is a large billboard with a picture of Santa Claus, captioned “Keep the MERRY.” Under that is Christ on the Cross, captioned “Dump the MYTH.” Another billboard reads “Who Needs Christ During Christmas? Nobody!” The name “Christ” is crossed out. These billboards were both sponsored by the group American Atheists.

The Salon article quotes American Atheist president David Silverman:  ““We all love this time of year…Christianity has been trying to claim ownership of the season for hundreds of years. But the winter solstice came first and so did its traditions. The season belongs to everybody.” I agree. I also think that’s what they should have said on their billboards — The season belongs to everybody. Ridiculing Jesus was unnecessary.

Seriously, atheist dudes, the Christian Right is not Jesus’ fault. The CR may have adopted Jesus as its team mascot, but it’s ignored his teachings for years. And seeing Jesus ridiculed is as jarring to Christians — including the tolerant, progressive ones — as watching their mothers being publicly humiliated.

This is not a way to win hearts and minds; it’s just a cheap self-indulgence.

Before buying any more billboard space, I suggest that American Atheists sit down and have a good, long think about what they are trying to accomplish. And then they should take a look at current research in cognitive science and social psychology to craft a smarter way to achieve their goals.

For example, is the goal (a) to  wean humankind from religion completely? Or is it (b) to foster a society in which religion is respected as a private matter and not something we’re perpetually hassling each other about?

I can tell you right now (a) is not going to happen in your lifetimes. Or this century. Likely not in this millennium. Something that has been part of civilization since there has been civilization doesn’t disappear that easily. I’m not even going to try to persuade you that (a) wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing, although I don’t think it would be. I’m saying it’s a fool’s errand to even try.

If (b), now we’re talking. That is more do-able. And a lot of religious people, like me, would happily join you in the effort. Even then it won’t be easy, but I think enough people are getting fed up with the antics of religious extremists  that a smartly run campaign might actually work.

“Smartly run” brings us to the cognitive science and social psychology.  Google “motivated reasoning” and read up on it. Rmuse at Politics USA explains,

What results of the several studies demonstrate is that once a partisan is confronted with unwelcome facts about their beliefs, the centers of their brain associated with emotional distress light up and remain active until their defective brains “rationalize away the unwanted information.” According to one of the scientists conducting the studies, when conservatives and Christian zealots rationalize away unwanted information, the centers of their brains associated with positive feelings turn on and “overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their ‘fix.’”

The studies also prove that despite showing conservatives, Republicans, gun fanatics, and evangelical special interests facts, scriptures, and even video evidence that their strongly held beliefs are pure fantasy or absolutely wrong, conservative (and some liberal) brains automatically reject facts because they refute their personal beliefs. Research teams at Yale and Dartmouth discovered, for example, that highly skilled mathematicians will, more often than not, deliberately reach an incorrect answer if data leads to a conclusion that is contrary to their political worldview. There are myriad examples of conservatives and evangelical fanatics disputing hard data, the Constitution, and the Christian bible because they are programmed by conservatives’ buzzwords, memes, and outright lies into believing their errant conclusions and faith are fact.

I doubt that surprises anyone, but do re-read the first paragraph of the excerpt. If your message is one that triggers a negative emotional reaction in most folks, including those who might be persuadable, you are hurting your cause more than helping it.

Negative attack ads work in elections — usually, anyway — because they can whip up enough low-information voters to vote against the guy the ads are attacking. Especially in a close election, just a few hundred voters can change the outcome.

But, dear atheists, you aren’t trying to be elected to a county commission. You’re trying to change society itself. That’s a whole ‘nother thing. And your “target audience,” the people whose minds you are trying to change, are not the hard-right religious extremists, because their minds will not change.

Your audience is everybody else, religious and not-religious.

Take a cue from same-sex marriage advocates. They are winning public opinion by engendering public sympathy.  They are changing minds by presenting a positive image of themselves as loving, responsible and family oriented, not by bashing their opposition.

Years ago I formulated a basic rule for successful demonstrating that I call the “Bigger Asshole” rule. The job of public protesters is not to change the minds of the powerful people they are opposing, but to gain public sympathy for their cause. Especially in politics, the powerful won’t change until they are compelled to do so by a sufficient critical mass of public opinion saying they must.

So the job of protesters and demonstrators is to make the people they are protesting look like bigger assholes than they are.  But if the protesters come across as bigger assholes than the protestees, the public will side with the establishment. And I assure you that, in terms of the Bigger Asshole rule, ridiculing Jesus is a losing strategy.

LGBT activists are winning public opinion by making gay-bashers look like the bigger assholes. And considering there’s a lot of overlap between homophobes and religious extremists, atheists ought to be able to do the same thing.