Morally Responsible

(Adapted from a response to a comment from Jake)

My morality shifts. When I learn of new evidence, new arguments, new rationale, what I determine to be moral can change. I may have accepted slavery 400 years ago as moral. Maybe because I believed the claims of a prophet or a barbaric, ancient text. Fortunately, now I have better evidence, arguments, and reasons for my position. The “fair test” is against the best evidence and arguments we have. Not against the words of ignorant and ill-informed tribesmen who lived 6000 years ago.

Fortunately, those who claim to follow biblical morality change as well. It is rare to see someone stoned to death for believing differently, or for being gay, or being a disobedient child, or for not having been a virgin on her wedding night.

Ten Christians will interpret The Bible ten different ways. Some will think homosexuality a sin. Some won’t. Some will claim that ‘grace’ is all that is needed for salvation. Some will say “faith without works is dead.” Who is right? Who is wrong? What methodology was used to determine it?

  • Two Christians debating Biblical morality are engaged in a semantic and/or literary debate.
  • Two atheists debating secular morality are engaged in a philosophical and/or scientific debate.

I would argue that the second methodology is a better way to arrive at a useful and meaningful conclusion.

I have read The Bible. Besides the clear endorsement of slavery in the Old Testament, Paul clearly instructs slaves to “obey your earthly masters with respect and fear.” (Eph. 6:5). Though I am sure many Christians have some biblical answer that they feel negates this or explains it, and I am happy to hear it, we would be involved in a semantic or literary debate; not a moral debate. Not a philosophical debate. If what The Bible says is moral, simply by virtue of being in The Bible, then I argue that it plainly endorses slavery and never plainly condemns it. If, however, we want to argue actual morality, I argue that slavery introduces cruelty and misery which is not preferable to health and happiness. It does not benefit the whole of our species. It does not make the survival of the individual nor our species more likely. Which debate is more useful?  A tit-for-tat of scriptural versus, or a debate on what is really right and wrong and why? What is best for individuals and our society? Which position better promotes happiness and well-being?

Christians argue that Biblical morality is superior to secular morality because it is more “concrete.”  It has a “solid” foundation in The Bible and in God.  Looking at history, however, Biblical morality also changes.  Ritual circumcision changed. Consumption of pork changed. Stoning laws changed. Seems that biblical morality lacks solid ground as well.

It was once acceptable to believe that The Earth was the center of the universe. It was always wrong. We now have the evidence to know that model is incorrect.

Slavery was socially acceptable. It was always morally wrong. We now know it. We have the evidence and the rationale of its inherent harm – to the individuals as well as to our society and species.

The US currently has a death penalty for certain crimes. Some people use The Bible to justify it. Others use The Bible to condemn it. Who is right and who is wrong about The Bible’s position is not a moral argument; it is a matter of literary opinion. I think it would be far better to use evidence, reason, and critical thinking to arrive at a superior and more structurally sound conclusion.

Biblical morality is based on an ancient text, changing based on who is doing the reading, who is doing the interpreting, and in which version. Christians claim those morals are based on a universal constant that cannot be reliably demonstrated. My morality, and indeed, the morality of our entire society, is always changing and shifting – usually for the better. From slavery to murder; each previously justified in the minds of believers by The Bible, who now use the same tome to condemn them. Very convenient for believers, but not the steadfast platform for morality they claim it to be.

“I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.” – Robert Heinlein

What You Know, You Know

Growing up, my father carefully laid out The Kalam Cosmological Argument to demonstrate how a Heavenly Father was necessary to the workings of The Universe.

My mother took me aside and showed me all of the apologetics to show how literal horses, and steel swords weren’t really necessary to the historicity of The Book of Mormon.

The Sunday School teachers introduced us to all of the evidence for The Exodus and explained out secular archaeologists were merely covering up the truth.  They taught how The Egyptians never recorded any failures or reversals.

My grandparents taught me how even a single digit in a thousand zeros in a certain cosmological value would mean that our universe would tear itself apart.

That’s why I believed.

I would suppose that no one has had that experience as a child.  We do not believe in a god, or savior, or a bible, or a qu’ran, or a book of mormon as children because our parents, grandparents, and religious leaders make good arguments.  Children believe because children have evolved to believe authority.

In general, this is a good thing.  There are some things that children should not learn from evidence or experience; “That’s hot.”  “That’s sharp.”  “That’s poison.”  “That car will kill you if it hits you.”  Children assume that parents are correct.

They also assume, however, that parents are correct when they tell them there is a God.  The Bible is The Word of that god.  That Mohamed spoke to Allah.  That Joseph Smith took gold plates from the ground and translated them.  That they will be healed through prayer, or a blessing.  All of this they, quite naturally and understandably, accept without evidence.  They don’t demand good arguments for the existence of a spaceless, timeless, immaterial creator.  They don’t know enough to ask for secular evidence for the history of The Scriptures.

Children are told these things are true.  They believe it.  They are told they will be rewarded for their belief and faith.  They are told they will be punished for their doubt and questions.  Then, they are rewarded when they demonstrate their belief and faith, through praise and even awards.  They are punished when they demonstrate any doubt, with rebuke and disappointment and even real punishment.

As an LDS child, I was richly rewarded for demonstrations of faith.  Given praise for answering questions in class.  Given parts in church presentations.  I earned my ‘Faith in God’ and ‘Duty to God’ awards.  I was put in positions of authority in my classes and over church events.  I felt powerful and confident in my faith.

When I began to doubt and turn away from faith, I felt rebuke from my parents, teachers, and church elders.  I remember the visit of one beloved couple from my ward after I had not been at church for several weeks.  They came to tell me how disappointed they were in me.   To tell me how happy I used to seem in church.  How promising a servant of The LORD I had been.  Couldn’t I just have faith?

No, I couldn’t.

If religious beliefs were based on good reasons, on good evidence, on good arguments, and if the arguments for any one faith were more convincing than the arguments for another, wouldn’t we have a much more mixed religious culture?

That’s not what we see.  Children across The United States will likely be Christian.  Children in Utah are likely to be Mormon. Children in Saudi Arabia will be Muslim.  Children in India will be Hindu.  Children in Israel will be Jewish.  Are they basing their belief on critical thinking?  On good arguments for why Mohamed is a prophet, but Joseph Smith was not?  On why Jesus was not really the Messiah, but who is still to come?  On why the morality of The Book of Mormon/The Bible/The Qu’ran/The Torah is superior to The Torah/The Qu’ran/The Book of Mormon/The Bible?

Or, are they merely taking the word of their parents?

Instead of teaching children what to believe, it would be more honest to teach children how to think critically and allow the arguments for religion and god and scripture succeed or fail on their own merits.

I think we know why the religious don’t use that method.

“Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.” – William Shakespeare, Iago, Othello

Conditioned To Believe

I had a conversation with my father-in-law about why I’m not having my daughter baptized when she turns 8. I explained how I didn’t think she’s old enough to make such a major decision and she should wait until she is older and fully understands what she’s doing – which he naturally disagreed with. He felt confident she, like other 8 year olds in the church, understand the choice and what it means…

So I asked him that simple question… If she chose to get baptized into a different religion would he still think she’s old enough to make that choice? And more importantly, would he be supportive and respect her “choice”? — ireallyshouldbeworking (via reddit)

What a powerful question.  LDS Children are encouraged and expected to commit and devote their lives to The Church when they turn eight-years-old.  The “age of accountability.”  The common assertion is that children of this age are old enough to understand right and wrong and to follow The LORD’s commandments.

If your eight-year-old child came to you and wanted to study Islam, or Judaism, or Catholicism, or any other religion unlike your own, would you let them?  If they wanted to join that religion permanently, do you believe they have the maturity to make such a decision?

For me and my child, we do study other religions and cultures and myths.  She knows about Pharoah, and Noah, and Odysseus, and Achilles.  We’ve read about Egyptian and Chinese mythology too.  If she asked to go to a church, I would likely allow it, as long as I went along with her to answer her questions and propose some of my own.

I have to say, however, if she wanted to permanently join any group, especially one that demands lifelong commitment, I would withhold consent until she was much, much older.

At the time of my baptism, I don’t believe I had ever set foot in anything but an LDS Church.  I don’t know if I honestly knew there were other ways of thinking and believing.  I knew that some people didn’t believe the same way I did, but I was never taught what those differences were and why.  How can you reliably dedicate the rest of your life to only one way of believing when you haven’t even considered any others?

Seems like choosing at eight to leave your radio station on just one frequency forever.

“One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.” -Aldous Huxley