Category Archives: Life

Countering Our Own Prejudice

One of my kids asked me today, “How can a person prevent herself from being prejudiced? I have a bad impression of the culture of [a certain country], and when I meet someone from there, it’s very hard not to assume he’s like that.”

One strategy that arose in our conversation was to remember what “bad” groups we are members of, and how we don’t conform to the stereotypes.

We’re American and I imagine the picture the rest of the world has of us. Compared to most developed countries, we have far more crime, yet we insist on having permissive gun-ownership laws; we have more people in prison than any country on Earth, yet we style ourselves as the moral beacon of the world; our government is incredibly dysfunctional when it comes to caring for the poor, but we always seem to have enough money to invade other countries; we want the world to trust our leadership, but we spy even on our friends; we like to tell other countries to respect their citizens’ rights and the rights of their neighbors, yet it was not all that long ago that we stole the bulk of our continent from Native Americans and Mexico; we are the only country ever to have have used a nuclear weapon in war, and we have done it twice; our academic scores are well behind many less-developed countries’ and we seem determined to remain ignorant, with large numbers of us denying climate change and evolution. I could go on and on.

Yet, if you meet an American on the street, chances are he’s a normal, nice person with a decent moral core.

Sometimes, our prejudice toward someone arises from assuming he will live up to the dangerous implications of his ideology. But most people don’t. Most people quietly ignore those parts of their belief system that are particularly bad.

They have learned to do so because they are carried along by a civilization that has moved on from the early days of their ideologies. You won’t find Jews today in favor of slavery or genocide even though God commanded both in the Hebrew Bible. Christians don’t torture people into professing orthodox faith anymore even though they once thought it a good idea since an eternity in heaven or hell was in the balance.

If we are open to the possibility that other people don’t conform to their stereotypes any more than we do to ours, I think most people will pleasantly surprise us.

Good and Evil vs Well-Being

In his book, The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris asks a provocative question:

What would our world be like if we ceased to worry about “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “evil” and simply acted so as to maximize well-being, our own that that of others? Would we lose anything important?

Surly the strongest objection to Harris’s proposal would come from the religious. Based on my own experience in the evangelical church, I know they would protest that a focus on well-being alone would cause us to miss a relationship with God, which is based on faith, and we would be deaf to those moral truths which are spiritually discerned.

I have already written a post on why I am profoundly skeptical of “spiritual discernment” as a means of discovering truth. I would add to it this thought: if we humans are equipped with an antenna that receives spiritual insights from a supernatural being, it has proven — proven — to be so unreliable as to be useless.

Aside from the fact that the world’s “great faiths” are mutually exclusive, I consider the spiritually discerned “truths” that have been promulgated in my own, evangelical tradition. These would include everything from statements that the Earth was created in 4004 BC to firm announcements that it would end in 2011 AD (as well as by any number of other dates that have passed unremarkably into history). Between those dates, spiritual discernment in its strongest form, direct revelation, has led us to commit genocide and rape, endorse slavery, and even discriminate against the handicapped.

Can we be honest and admit that spiritual discernment does not work?

If you wish to attract people to faith, consider Pope Francis. Although a man of faith, his main focus is on the temporal well-being of the poor and marginalized. Paradoxically, he has done more to attract people to the Catholic faith than his predecessor, who was more focused on what was unique about the faith itself (i.e., its dogmas).

My answer to Sam Harris’s question is that the interests of both the secular and religious would be better-served if we were to focus on universally recognized measures of well-being rather than our own ideas of right and wrong. What do you think?

The Bad Life, the Good Life, and Moral Realism

When I was in high school, my grandparents took me on a trip to the American Southwest to attend a Quaker retreat. (These were the same long-suffering grandparents who took me to the eclipse that I missed while standing right under it.) I remember them asking what I thought of medical missionaries like Albert Schweitzer, who devoted his life to relieving the suffering of the poor.  A particularly obnoxious evangelical at the time, I answered that any missionary who merely did “good works” but did not concern himself with the saving of souls was wasting his time.

To me, good works did not even count unless performed in the context of glorifying God or leading people to him.

And then there’s the matter of motive. I recall learning at the summer camp where I became a Christian that even our good works are actually selfish, for our motive is to make ourselves feel good.

As the Bible says, “Our righteousness is as filthy rags.”

My earlier views embarrass me now, but at least I got one thing right: moral truths really do exist. I remain convinced of this even though I have cut the line to the Christian faith that was once my anchor. Why do I still believe in right and wrong? If morality is not grounded in glorifying God, how can it objectively exist?

In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris invites us to imagine two lives: a Bad one endured by a refugee of guerrilla war in Africa whose husband and children have been hacked to death by machetes; and a Good one enjoyed in the midst of loving family, rewarding work, and excellent health.

Surely, he argues, someone who seeks to move as many people as possible from the Bad Life to the Good is on a better moral track than someone who seeks to immiserate all and sundry. And since what makes a life Good or Bad is nothing more nor less than the brain state of the person living it, and brain state is a physical fact about the world, we can see that morality is ultimately anchored in hard facts. Moral facts are exactly as real as facts about our blood pressure or oxytocin levels.

There are many possible objections to this argument, and I’ll consider some in upcoming posts. For now, I’ll illustrate with what Dr. Harris would say to a hard-core evangelical like my former self.

A theist, he says, merely expands the notion of brain-state to include God’s brain. Thus, moral realism continues to be grounded on the brain-states of conscious beings.

One can do similar jiu jitsu to accommodate an afterlife: simply expand the time-span for measuring brain state.

Having subscribed to both secular and religious morality at different times in my life, I confess that I find Dr. Harris’s attempts to reconcile them to be slightly artificial. Although including God’s brain-state and an eternal time-frame in one’s considerations may reconcile the approaches in theory, the theist’s tools for learning about the unseen are so different from the ways we learn about each other here on Earth, that they feel like completely different systems in practice.

Maybe that will be a good place to begin the next post: contrasting faith-based morality with morality based on elevating the well-being of conscious, mortal creatures.

In the meantime, how about you? Do you believe that moral facts are just as real as physical ones? Do you buy Sam Harris’s argument that they are related?

How I Missed a Total Eclipse while Standing Right Under It

When my children were younger, they often asked, “Daddy, tell us a story of when you were a little kid.” Here’s one I wish I had told more often.

When I was twelve years old, my grandparents took me to see a total eclipse of the sun (map here). It was a pretty big deal. Not only was there going to be an eclipse, but a rocket would be launched to study it. All this was to take place in the neighboring state of Delaware, so off we went.

A large crowd had gathered to see eclipse and rocket. The authorities gave everyone a small piece of dark plastic framed in white cardboard through which we could see the eclipse without being struck blind. (The danger of looking at the eclipse without eye protection was firmly impressed on me!)

Being a 12-year-old boy who grew up during the decade that saw the first man walk on the moon, I was just as interested in the rocket as in the eclipse. What’s more, I knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I was determined to capture the rocket and the eclipse on film.

I had my Kodak Instamatic and a plan. When the eclipse started, I would first wait for the rocket to launch, and get a picture of it. Second, I would put the plastic shield over my camera and photograph the eclipse. (If the shield was necessary for my eyes, it must be necessary for the camera, too, right?) Finally, I would look through the shield myself. My plan ensured that I would capture everything on film so I could enjoy it forever, as well as see the eclipse in person.

A long and agitated wait…

The sky darkened and I prepared my camera.

Everyone was looking through their plastic shields, but not me! I didn’t want to miss that rocket! I knew it would only be streaking skyward for a few seconds, so I kept my finger on the button of my camera and did not allow myself to be distracted by anything else.

It was growing darker by the second, but still no rocket. Evidently that rocket was not going up until the eclipse was total, but I continued to wait anxiously.

Finally, the rocket  launched. Snap! I got my picture. The eclipse was already a little more than half-way over, and I still had parts two and three of my plan ahead of me.

When you’re an excited, 12-year-old boy under time pressure at the event of a lifetime, it’s surprising how long it can take to position a one-inch-square piece of plastic in front of the tiny lens of a cheap camera and take a picture. Especially when you’re not sure just where to point your camera because said piece of plastic is supposed to be covering your eye as well as the camera. And especially when it’s hard to hold the plastic perfectly over the lens as you move the camera into its uncertain position. And most especially when you’re only going to get one chance.

After much fumbling around, I finally took what I thought might be a picture of the eclipse.

The eclipse had already been at its midpoint when the rocket had launched. By the time I got my picture of the eclipse, it was nearly over. When I finally put the camera down and looked through the plastic myself, it was over.

I had missed it!!

The weeping and gnashing of teeth that shall arise from people who have missed their chance to go to heaven will have nothing on the wailing that came from the 12-year-old boy who missed that eclipse. Theirs will supposedly be because they had been too focused on passing pleasures while neglecting their futures; mine was the opposite: I had been so focused on photographs for the future that I had missed the present.

When my pictures came back from the developer, the rocket was indistinct and the eclipse didn’t look like much at all. I had prepared and sacrificed for … nothing.

I don’t even remember when I threw the photos away.

Many people think that unless life goes on forever, it has no purpose and there’s no reason to enjoy it. Try telling that to a 12-year-old boy who missed the present because he was so obsessed with a future that never came.

After the eclipse, my grandfather told me that he had stolen a quick look at the sun with his naked eye.

He had not gone blind.

Due Process and Freedom of Thought

Here is a paradox that went undiscovered for all but the last hair’s breadth of human history: the innocent will never be safe unless the guilty are protected.

That’s due process of law. To ensure that as few people as possible are wrongly convicted, we trust a process that occasionally lets the guilty go free — sometimes people we know are guilty. Maybe all the evidence was there, but it was illegally obtained. Maybe the suspect was caught in the act, but was not read his Miranda rights. Maybe we know the suspect would collapse under questioning, but our constitution gives him the right to decline to testify.

It can be maddening to watch a trial play out this way, but those of us who are privileged to live in enlightened societies would not have it any other way.

We have learned that the process itself is far more important than any individual outcome. As much as we might long for an enlightened despot who could set injustice right with a wave of his scepter, we have learned at least one lesson of history: We would sooner trust our fate to millions of ignoramuses than to any one person. Even ourselves.

Freedom of thought goes hand-in-hand with due process. We have come a long way from the time when Jesus’s prosecutor shouted, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses?” We recognize that people have a right to their opinions.

What does that mean? Does it only mean, “I disagree with you but uphold your right to think as you please?”

We do well if it means much more than that.

To grant someone the right to his opinion entails that we still regard him as a fellow human, fully worthy of compassion and respect, even if we think his opinion is wrong or immoral. The alternative — to regard him as less worthy than ourselves — is to annihilate his humanity. If we mentally grant someone a right to an opinion, but then mentally destroy his humanity, what progress have we made?

To properly value freedom of thought also means that we do not harbor any wish for scepter-waving. If you were sovereign over the world and could wave a magic scepter to make everyone agree with you, would you do it? I hope not. I hope you would use your superpower to cause everyone to engage in civilized but vigorous debate. The debate itself is more valuable than anyone’s opinion.

To echo the opening thought of this meditation, wisdom will be silent unless every fool is allowed to speak.

We freethinkers want people to grant us permission to pursue truth on our own terms. Due process demands that we grant the same freedom to them, from the bottom of our hearts. We must have the courage to maintain that stance even when we are convinced they are heading in the wrong direction.

recently I wrote about my admiration for Pope Francis. Some are surprised that I, an increasingly progressive atheist, could extol the head of one of the most reactionary religions on Earth. It’s easy. Although I disagree with him on many important issues, I admire the fact that he uses his scepter to encourage, rather than stifle, discussion. To me, that is even more important than his specific opinions. And once I allow that someone can differ from me and still be a human worthy of respect, I discover that Pope Francis qua human is a pretty good one.

Do you have someone in your life whose opinions bug you? If so, maybe valuing the debate and the person more than his opinions will make you happier.

Paying it Forward at Starbucks

I got an early start this morning and decided to stop by Starbucks and write a blog post. What I had planned to write about went out the window as I stood in line.

As the man in front of me reached for his wallet, the barista told him that someone had left a gift card with $250 on it to “pay it foward” so his coffee was covered.

Later, while I was sitting in the shop, I would overhear that Mr. Pay-it-Forward has been doing this every Christmas for years, and that there’s actually a second person in town who does the same thing.

The customer in front of me, whose purchase would have amounted to about $5, was moved to add $40 to the gift card. I saw other people do what they could to keep the pay-it-forward momentum going, either tipping more generously than usual or adding to the card.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how it’s done. Yes!

Vladislav Tornovoi and the Homosexual Threat

On May 9, 2013, in the Russian town of Volgograd, Vladislav Tornovoi was raped and mutilated with beer bottles and then beaten to death with a brick. One of his friends confessed to killing him because Vlad had allegedly disclosed he was gay.

How can this sort of thing happen in the twenty-first century? I can only observe that the crime took place amidst an increasingly anti-homosexual climate in Russia.

Also in 2013, Uganda is coming close to passing “one of the most punative anti-gay measures in the world” — a law that is known as the Kill the Gays Bill because an early version mandated the death penalty for repeat offenders.

Russian president Putin casts his anti-homosexual campaign in moral terms. In this he has the support of the head of the Russian Orthodox church. Uganda is a Christian country and a plain-text reading of certain Bible passages (e.g., Leviticus 20:13) would seem to place their proposed law squarely in the center of God’s will.

However,  I would like to propose to my morally conservative and Christian friends another way of looking at this. I’ll introduce it with a parable that I heard more than once in evangelical circles. The original meaning of the parable pertained to dating behavior, but I will suggest how it could apply here.

A wealthy man wanted to hire a chauffeur. His house was sited high on a mountain, and was only accessible by a narrow, treacherous road. He told each prospective chauffeur that if he could demonstrate great skill driving on that road, he would get the job.

The first candidate drove up the mountain maintaining a distance of only three inches from the down-mountain edge. “Not good enough,” said the wealthy man.

The second thought he could do better. He piloted the car a mere two inches from disaster all the way up. “Sorry,” said the man.

The third was so skilled that he could maintain a distance of less than an inch from the edge all the way up and down. “You’re not the man for the job,” said the rich man.

The fourth man drove the car slowly and as far from the edge as possible, both up and down the mountain.

“You’re hired,” said the employer. “You’re the only one I trust to keep me safe.”

Intolerance is like trying to drive close to the edge. We think we can participate in an intolerant sub-culture without any real harm, but that may not be true. In Russia and Uganda (and, yes, in the United States), we have seen how a climate of intolerance can lead to murder.

I now pose a question to all pro-life Americans: Which do you think is the greater threat to life: homosexuality or intolerance? In light of your answer, where should we focus our energy?

If you’re still not sure, you might want to watch another video:

For the chilling result, skip to here.