Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The God question

I saw an interesting book reading on MSNBC or some such on Sunday which got me thinking about the whole issue of religion and how it fits into society - or doesn't.
The person reading was Richard Dawkins (lefty British intellectual known for his dislike of religion). His reading was plenty interesting, of course - witty and clever in the way that British intellectuals are so very good at. That wasn't really what got me thinking, though. What got me thinking was the Q&A afterwards.
There were several people in the audience from Liberty University (ridiculous institution that it is). One of them asked Dawkins the usual smug religious person question - I'm paraphrasing here, but basically the gist was, if you abandon God how can you hope to have any kind of morality?
Smug religious types always ask this question in one form or another. It's kind of funny really - they seem to honestly believe that this question is the way to bring all discussion of atheism to a halt, that it conclusively proves the rightness of their position.
What a bunch of bullshit. Some of the most deeply ethical people throughout history have been nonbelievers. Would you call Siddharta/Buddha an unethical person? The real question is, if a person thinks that nobody would have any sense of right and wrong without a book to tell them what to do (which is after all what the question implies), what does that say about the person asking the question? Nothing good, in my opinion. Does anyone really need the Bible/Torah/Koran to tell them that murder, rape and child abuse are Very Bad Things? Doesn't their own conscience tell them that?
See, I think that at it's core morality is really a very simple thing. All you have to do is, in any given situation, ask yourself if what you are about to do is going to cause harm to anyone else. If the action is completely harmless, go ahead and do it. If it is clearly harmful in a way that could be avoided, don't do it. If you find yourself in a grey area, think about it some more and the answer will soon become clear.
I know I'm simplifying here, but the basic principle holds true. Any truly authentic morality is always going to be based on a desire to help rather than harm. It's honestly not that complicated, when you get right down to it.
Unless you're a fundamentalist. I don't really care which religion we're talking about because the Big 3 are basically all the same. Instead of a careful examination of one's conscience and decisions made based on the desire not to do harm they substitute a kind of slavish devotion to a heavenly rulebook. It's the morality of a 5 year old - don't do that or Mommy and Daddy will be mad! Adults are supposed to learn a more nuanced way of looking at things (check out Piaget's theory of child development if you don't believe me).
It's a strange thing, the way religion is evolving in America. It seems to be moving more and more rapidly in the direction of a kind of primitive, knee-jerk fundamentalism at exactly the same time that the rest of the First World is moving in precisely the opposite direction. It's peculiar - why is America going in so different a direction? If anyone asked Dawkins a question like that in Europe the rest of the audience would probably laugh at them. Why is it so different here? And what can we do to fix it?
The other interesting question that was asked at the Q&A was about the issue of comfort. Again I'm paraphrasing, but basically the question was, if people find comfort in their religion, who are you to take that away from them?
That's an interesting question. I personally don't understand why people find the belief in something that is manifestly not true to be comforting, but they do. To me, believing in god is rather like believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. It might have made sense when you were a child, but as a rational adult surely it's obvious that the very idea is ridiculous? The wierd thing is, I've had lots of believers ask me variations of this question, and whenever they do there's always something nervous and insecure about their tone. It's as if they desperately want me to agree with them, but already know that I won't. They expect to be laughed at. The guy who asked Dawkins the question expected to be laughed at - it was written all over him. Why then do they keep asking the question?
It's a thorny question for the largely non-religious left. Whether we as individuals identify as Marxists, feminists, Greens or whatever, one thing that most of us share is a lack of religiosity. Most of the population in this country does not agree with us. What are we supposed to do about that? Tell the truth about how we feel, or just keep quiet and let others assume that we're believers just like them.
It's clear that fundamentalists are the enemy, but what about the "Jesus is my blankie" people? How are we supposed to relate to them? We don't understand them, and they don't understand us. How do we handle that?

Just musing, but if anyone else has any ideas I'd love to hear them.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Ding dong, the witch is dead!

Can I just take a minute to celebrate the Repugs getting their self-righteous asses kicked to the curb? Because seriously, it couldn't have happened to a nicer bunch of guys...
I must say that this restores some of my faith in the intelligence of the American people. Not all, not even much, but some. Of course they say that nearly half of the public still believes that Saddam Hussien had something to do with 9/11, so clearly the few brain cells in our collective cranium must be feeling a bit lonely, but some is better than none, I suppose.
I know it's a bit petty of me, but I have to admit that the thing I'm finding funniest about all this is the way that all the talking heads are now babbling about the Republicans needing a "moderate" (by which they mean anyone to the left of Jesse Helms, I assume), when just a few months ago they were calling "I love the war, yes I do!" John McCain a raving hippy. What happened to your faith in the godlike Bushie administration, guys? And what about "values"? And to think that these people accuse Kerry of flip-flopping...
The other funny thing is that the nation at large seems to be celebrating. Both of the last two nights I've been out on the town and every single place I've been has been swamped with happy drunk people, far more so than is normally the case. Or maybe it's just the Bay Area? My working theory at this point is that they're assuming that the Dems in the House will fix the economy (say by, oh I don't know, maybe not spending billions funding the Halliburton retirement plan?). And if only that were true...still, the Dems can't possibly do any worse than the last lot did, so the only way to go is up!
Hmm, not sure that martinis and blogging are a good mix. I'll stop for now. More later! Sorry about another extended absence, I'm definately back on a more permanent basis this time.

And about the witch (as in wicked and of the West), that could be any one of a number of people, but my personal vote goes to Rick Santorum. The only scary thought is that now he might actually be forced to practise medicine again, and seriously, nobody wants that.