Thursday, April 22, 2010

From Formspring: Thoughts on this Quote, "So if you don’t have that burden, what keeps you from doing whatever the f— you want to do? Nothing."

I'll reprint the whole quote here:

"I’m a true believer that what keeps us from anarchy is the fact that the majority of us believe that our souls have to answer to something once these physical vessels are exhausted. So if you don’t have that burden, what keeps you from doing whatever the f— you want to do? Nothing."

I'm guessing it wasn't a political figure, because they tend to avoid using the f-word if they know people are listening. I'm guessing it was a celebrity, maybe an actor or writer. Possibly a comedian.

On one hand, they make a valid point: most people in the world do believe that their soul will be judged in one way or another when they die. This belief is probably a large part of their morality.

On the other hand, it is elitism to believe that most other people are so decadent and stupid that, lacking a supernatural force to guide them, they would engage in all manner of immoral acts. Generally, when a proponent of this argument is asked about their own moral beliefs, they will reply that they would still find reasons to behave. This begs the question: what makes you so smart and moral and everyone else so stupid and evil?

The fact of the matter is, people are moral or immoral, just or unjust, noble or ignoble in spite of their beliefs, not because of them. A just Christian would also be a just atheist, Muslim, or anything else he might have been under different circumstances. People who want to prey on others and behave immorally will find a way to twist whatever belief system they hold into something conducive to what they want to do. A religious person will convince himself he is doing "God's work," while an atheist will fall back on the "without God, all things are permitted," excuse.

The basis of all human morality is this: your actions have consequences. This is neither supernatural or magical in nature, but it is absolute and unbending. Whatever you do, something happens as a result. Even doing nothing has a consequence. Yes, you can inject some big supernatural explanation into that, making it all about pleasing the gods and getting some reward at the end of your life if you do things right, or a punishment if you do things wrong.  That works, too...but it isn't as good. It represents a stunted phase of human moral development: the child who obeys his parents because he doesn't want a spanking. You learn not to start fights with your siblings because mom or dad will spank you or give you a time out. At this point, you are too young to understand any better. Eventually you grow up, and (hopefully) realize that you shouldn't attack your siblings (or anyone else) because it's wrong. More than likely, you don't require further spankings to keep you on track.

The problem with morality is that it isn't always easy. It would be nice if all the rules were set out for us, so many people just assume that they are and don't question it. Unfortunately, people often mistake personal preference for morality. Once that happens, injecting a supernatural element into it makes it difficult to get around. A secular moral code and be discussed, analyzed, and challenged. There has to be a reason for something to be immoral, it can't be bad just because "the god's say so!" or "because we've always done it that way!" Supernatural moral systems can be amended, but it usually takes a very long time...and sometimes ends in a war or two. This is where you get people turning their superstitions into moral commandments. You don't have to appeal to a supernatural being to figure out why it's wrong to kill someone: if everyone lived in constant fear of being murdered, no one would ever do anything but hide and sharpen sticks into spears. Likewise with stealing, rape, lying, pedophilia and a whole host of other acts that are immoral by their nature. And people's word should be a bond, because if you can't trust what anyone says then no one will make deals and the whole social structure falls apart. But...then you get the nonsense moral rules, like about how it's wrong for people of different races to marry, or to eat this kind of food or that kind of meat on this day or that...or that homosexuality is wrong or that it's okay to burn witches. This goes back to people mixing up their personal tastes with morality. If someone believes their god has commanded them to burn witches, their are only two ways to change their mind: convince them they misunderstood god's message, or prove that their god doesn't exist. While both are certainly doable, more than likely you're just going to be the next person burned as a witch.

Ideally, the world would be better off if people just acted morally because it was the right thing to do, and not because they were afraid of hell or looking forward to heaven. Personally, I don't know that I would trust someone who said the only reason they were raping and pillaging with impunity was because of fear of god's wrath. People are going to do what they want to do, regardless of their beliefs. They just find ways to rationalize it. So, if this guy really wants to rape and pillage, he's going to find a way to rape and pillage and make it right with god in his mind. I don't think most people believe this way. I think most religious people believe in moral behavior for it's own sake, and would continue to behave so if they discovered one day that their faith was in vain. The belief that god will some day reward them for it is just a nice bonus.

I realize that, to some degree, I believe this because it is comforting: I don't want to suspect that in the heart of one or more of my religious friends lurks a reaver, held in check only by a crippling fear of an unpleasant afterlife. Maybe I'm naive, but I think if I somehow managed to convince one of them that their god or powers or whatever didn't exist, they'd still be good people because it's the right thing to be. I feel kind of bad for anyone who doesn't believe this. What a terrifying world in which they must live...