Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Strongest Challenge to my Views

Fist, take a look at this and then I’ll respond and I invite you to do so also.

OK. Good points, articulated with reason. I wouldn't expect a tough challenge to be presented from a theistic argument. It doesn’t anger me to have to deal with objections to my world-view raised in this manner. But deal with them, I shall.

I think it is quite possible that there are advantages to having a set of moral imperatives that everyone in society is expected to rally around. I can certainly see how, in the evolutionary environment, the laws "given by gods” and enforced by tribal leaders, obeyed and revered by members, led to a cohesiveness that would have been otherwise impossible.

But there are many things that we have evolved to “do” or “be” that we now discard. Other things we modify. But we are nothing special minus our intellect, with our ability to contemplate and conceptualize.

To say that we don’t accept many of our old gut-level instincts (usually reinforced by sacred beliefs) is not to say that we don’t have a set of values that we tentatively treat as absolute, even if we are now bright enough to know there is no such thing. As recently as 200 years ago, the Founders, acting within the higher principles of enlightenment, created a society that treated females as second-class citizens (based on the old morals). Happily, we didn’t hold that as an absolute. Many other moral codes are falling or changing.

If some members of our developing society become overwhelmed and desperate because the old “objective” (read: god given) morals are being pushed aside for new “subjective” (read: arrived at, tentatively, by reason) then those people must necessarily fall by the wayside. It’s either that, or a society, clinging to “objective” morals will defeat the forces of humanism and we will have a rebirth of the Dark Ages. A highly cohesive society, running under strict, god-given principles is an enemy of secularism that will not easily be defeated. They do have an advantage in unity of thought that we will never have.


yunshui said...

I'd take issue over two of the foundational points here. The first is the idea that utilitarianism is necessarily a valid basis for society - I'm not saying it isn't, but you could potentially attack the argument on those grounds. The second is the idea that we have evidence that religious societies with objective morality are "happier" (by which I mean more orderly, stable, prosperous etc.). We have plenty of information on such societies because theocracies, or at least theist-led political structures, have always been the norm in human history. What we don't have is a comparative sample of non-theist, subjectively moral communities - such things are only now appearing in their infancy. Who is to say that, once secularism take hold and matures as a social framework, people's overall happiness, security, comfort and prosperity will not increase beyond the theist equivalent?

PhillyChief said...

Couldn't that alleged greater happiness be a function of being in the dominant majority? If so, what defines that majority is meaningless. Furthermore, I'd say the attitude of that majority dictates the potential happiness of the minorities. Is the majority tolerant of minorities? Does it try to impose it's will on them? You're certainly going to find less happiness amongst the subjugated, so I hardly see the specific characteristics of a majority like Christians being superior characteristics which themselves can lead to greater happiness. The happiness is a result of being a part of the dominators.

DB said...

Perhaps I am missing the point (totally possible since it is late at feel free to call me on it), but are christians happier? And does that have to do with their religion or the peace of mind that people find in their lives? If it was statistically verifiable, would that happiness be a direct result of the religion or merely coincidence? I am a very happy person (of course, right?), but I don't think it is related to my being an atheist (perhaps my humanist mentality), but the peace I have in my life due to the lack of external causes of stress like finances, marriage and relationships, and my job more than anything else. The Okinawans I work with are much happier than Americans here (mostly christian) seem to be, and much happier than mainland Japanese of similar beliefs. If we presuppose that christians are happier due to them being the majority or religious, than we are starting the conversation illogically.

I would agree though that close associations (church, fraternities, sports, etc) allow more potential happiness for a social creature such as ourselves, but also much stress over relationships. The question do you bring the atheists together more efficiently to develop that community?

The Exterminator said...

Haidt's conclusions are bullshit. He gives no evidence why "those people" are "happier." Citing "many studies" is empty.

Are people who are connected in some way to others "happier" than lonely ones? Duh.

The discussion featured a lot of professorial words about nothing. How fucking boring. We should shoot ourselves if we ever have a conversation like this on our podcast.

John Evo said...

I can certainly understand all of you obsessing over the "religious people are more happy" angle. It is an outrageous claim, even with studies being done. There are too many complicating factors. But it really wasn't what I was responding to.

I'm more interested in the idea that a society is more cohesive and effective when joined by traditional, normative values that we would not necessarily object to in an absolute way, but would sharply minimize in value - things like patriotism and obeying authority. And for me (personally - I know I'm a bit far to the left; even when compared to other atheists) this presents a real challenge to my thinking. And, a fair one, by and large.

I think I provided some good counters to that challenge. While I appreciate your interest in the "happiness" question, I'd like to hear what anyone thinks about the larger issue here.

PhillyChief said...

Patterns of Force

John Evo said...

Philly - you are amazing.

Anonymous said...

Maybe some of us (besides me)remember "Brother" Dave Gardner. He made the observation, "Success is gettin' what you want. Happiness is wantin' what you get".

Rudyard Kipling also mentions that "...a Holy People are wholly slave..." Food for thought, I think.

My father died ten years ago, we were not close (well, he dispised me) but that didn't keep him from being a good man in ways that count. He did more than required, less than allowed, and gave of himself. He shaped lives for the better. He and my mother were (she still is) christ bitten, but I noticed that it didn't seem to help at the end.

I hadn't seen most of the people present since 1965 and it was assumed generally that I had either gone into prison forever or died under a hail of police gunfire for some unspeakable crime or had died in some ditch or alley as a degenerate wino or addict.
They were surprised to see that I was married and stayed so, that my sons were good men, and (most of the people were military) that I had earned a few medals which some of them even covetted. Some even checked up on me.

One of the people (good friends of my parents) who DID know about me approached me after the funeral and asked if I was happy. I said, not particularly today. He said no, in your life. I had to admit that on the whole, I was, in fact, happy.

He demanded to know how could I be happy. I had no position, no money, no education, no religion or god. I had pain, disfigurement, crippled limbs, chronic illness. How could I possibly be happy? I'd had times that I'd had to live, fight, think, act, and survive like an animal. I sussed that this was probably not really about me about the second sentence, he was very angry.

He then started in on his son. I'd known him, didn't really run in the same circles, but he seemed like a decent enough person back in the day.

His son was a bone surgeon, top in his field, was not happy.
A multi-millionaire, owned several farms, businesses, homes, was high in the "inner congregation" of his church and a man of god, owned a piece of everything choice in North Carolina, East Tennessee, and south western Virginia, sat high on hospital boards, probably paid more for a car for one of his kids than I could cash out my entire holdings for.

Yet he wasn't happy. He was in the process of unloading wife# 4 or 5, the kids were juicers and druggies, well acquainted with lawyers and bondsmen, and luckily, his son had large wads of money to throw at these problems.

Why could I pronounce myself to be happy with so little, with so much against me, and his son was so miserable? How could so much go so wrong in a golden person's life?

Anonymous said...

The idea of religion as a social tool is being tried out in the military in a many layered ad hoc sort of fashion, but it's interesting to watch.

It is, of course, illegal as dog dick, but that never stopped anyone in a largely lawless organisation from doing as they damn well pleased if it greased the wheels and made their lives easier.

In my day, there were very big divisions along racial lines, and many in leadership positions used these to keep the villienry at each other's throats and their horizons narrowed onto what the black/white/jew/ or slope was getting that you were not. (there were notable exceptions, decent men who took these things seriously and tried to go for what was right. They got a lot of trouble).

But now that the racial backlash days are looking kind of peaked, the plan is changed.

The evangelists and religious want a more or less captive audience for their message. This gives them a bit of power, too.

Commanders (I don't say "leaders") seem to have discovered that this is a way to define "ins" and "outs" and is a lever for use in discipline and cohesion.

You have the "from authority", top down, complete with centurians who give orders and understand orders, acceptance of hardship and even suffering, testing of strength as "holy" ordinances. All catalogued in the culturally recognised "good" book.

You also have absolutes quite well defined, and who is "in" and "out". "We" pray, believe in a deity, share a culture which is clean, and "we" work together. Have commonality. "They" aren't reliable, go against authority, think rather than emote, and that could constitute a personal danger. Marginalize them. Run them off, hurt them if they don't join the gestalt. Let them die, maybe.

Pretty handy tool for the commander to have. It's got a lot of bugs in the system, but it's a new concept, really never gone into seriously.

The clergy who dealt with solders and sailors in the 19th century had a real problem with a mental construct called "Fiddler's Green".

Fiddler's Green was (supposedly) a place between heaven and hell where soldiers and sailors went when they died. They felt that they lived hard and died hard even in peace time and this was a sort of in between point where things were a bit better than in life. Like the Big Rock Candy Mountain of the hobo.

No one really believed it, but many commanders thought this was a danger to discipline and forbade the singing of the ditties about such places to their men because they thought it was bad for order and might undermine authority.

Just a tool.

John Evo said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Sarge. I'm glad you're feeling well enough to do so.

People really do seem to feel better when they are submissives within a larger group. I don't get it. But it's pretty apparent.

Anonymous said...


Pithy and admirable statements, Sergeant, I applaud your candor and the gravity of your voice. Thank you.

I, too, have seen this change in the military. I joined the army in '92, an worked my way up to buck sergeant, then went green to gold in '98.

After college, As a butter bar in Iraq, I was amazed at th transformation undergone by the post-Clinton army. I received repeated requests to join my fellow "christian Soldiers" in prayer in the days leading up to deployment out of Kuwait, north of the CFLCC control line. I couldn't believe the religious influence that had taken hold of our armed forces.

I was Assigned as the XO of a fuel company, and I was not "in", because I did not go to church services when they were offered. I had the pleasure and honor of working with some amazing NCOs and soldiers whom were also not "in" because they did not follow the same religious guidelines as the battalion leadership, or did not attend worship services themselves.

About halfway through my tour I was promoted (had the time in, and there was no way they could deny it) and sent, with several of my fellow non-believers, to take command of a remote fueling station in the middle of but-fuck-nowhere. The leadership thought they were sending a strong message to all those officers who didn't tow the christian line, but as it turned out, I loved the freedom from my own, completely incompetent, but more importantly a good christian, company commander. It seems that there was at least one benefit in not being a member of the OCF (officer's christian fellowship).

I'm out now (in the inactive reserves until December, hoping I don’t get stop-lossed and deployed), and because of the religious transformation I have witnessed, I don't think this old mustang is ever going back.

I, too, suffered many commanders, but precious few leaders.

Thank you for your service, Sarge. All the way!

John Evo said...

Q.E. and Sarge - interesting, interesting...

On Another Goddamned Podcast a couple of months ago we gave our AGP Medal of Honor to Army Spc. Jeremy Hall. If you haven't heard his story, just google his name. I kind of figured this was more or less isolated to his battalion, but you guys make me think this is much more insidious.

Interesting... and scary.

Anonymous said...

I kind of figured this was more or less isolated to his battalion, but you guys make me think this is much more insidious.


Lynet said...

Actually, I think the 'stability' argument has something in it. I'm all for change, but I understand that you can make things happen too fast.

I don't think Haidt is saying that we should give up our liberal values in favour of conservative ones. He says, after all, that he still considers himself to be a liberal. Rather, I think he is doing the openminded thing and trying to find the best possible arguments for the other side. Insofar as that is his aim, I approve.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

As to your original inquiry, Evo, Unless I've completely missed the point, it seems like what Haidt was saying was that he sees a value to religion based on the cohesive and community minded nature of religion, that when we band around something we all seem to have in common, that generally makes us happier, and society runs more smoothly. I think what you seem to be saying is that's correct, but what does god have to do with that? If the rallying point is a belief in god, and it works for the believers, then yes, it's a valid point.

For them.

But it has, to me, absolutely no relevance to the truth of the belief. Just because a group of like minded individuals seem to work well together, it's not because they believe in god, per se, it's because they all believe in the same thing. Substitute god for anything - FSM, patriotism, nationalism, etc. - and you still have a cohesive bunch of people working well together. There may be side effects of the particular belief, as there is with religion, but again, that's irrelevant to the truth of the belief.

In short, the success of religion doesn't mean god exists. And, taken a bit farther, it's possible that we have to trick ourselves into believing in something together, in order to get along together. I don't buy that for a minute, because once the social structure is in place, remove god, and people should still work well together.

As or this side trip down military lane, what strikes me is that people who are trained to kill, and put on the front lines of a war in which the likelihood of their own death is greatly increased, might naturally want to band together to find solace in something that will make their deaths seem a little more meaningful. I'm not surprised to see religion mixed in with war. Look at the other side. They use it to an extreme.

Anonymous said...

Great post, I really wanted to respond at length but couldn't do it in a comment so I wrote my own post on the subject matter.

You can read it at:

Keep up the good work, Evo!

Anonymous said...

I think you're quite right, SI.

I hear talk of "brand identification" which seems to be pretty much the same thing dressed up in marketing words. I see it especially with kids: this is what and where we eat, how we dress, the words we use. Others we don't hold with, we don't associate with them, we, in fact ridicule them. Like Kozinski's "Painted Bird".

Although I was in fact an atheist, if I'd been asked while still in school about my family's religion, I would have said,and in fact, did say, "We're Baptists". It was the culture I moved in whether I would or no. We observed certain social norms and I, too, did some of these things, like it or not. (When he was a little guy, my youngest son asked me if a social norm was the guy on "Cheers". I said, "well, yes...and no..." Poor kid).

The "stability" of a society, it seems to me, needs some stressor, something to counter balance it. The "norm" has to have something to compare itself favorably to and at least a percieved advantage, real or not. It can be tricky, people like us can look about us and opt for something else.

During the "Bonus March" during the depression, J. Edgar Hoover was concerned with commies. Had his agents infiltrate the marcher's camps. They found something "worse" which scared him even more, threatened the "stability" of the nation more than the reds. His agents reported that they saw pup tents with two pairs of feet sticking out of them, and one pair of feet were white, and the other attached to a black. He felt that the fabric of society was being unravelled right there and did everything he could to put a stop to such "unseemly" fraternization. Who knew where it would lead? He was also a great believer in Sunday school and church.

My mention of the military is because it is a sort of social cockpit where things can be done. The race issue was really pushed there, and it was made to stick. Oh, when it came about, there was resistance, they'd dragged their feet for twenty years on integrating the military, but now carreers were made and broken on what your unit did with it. Plus, the enlisted people were indoctrinated, too, with no choice.
Personally, I think it was a good thing, but it wasn't done as an altruistic opus. It was because "stability" had to be restored, and it would take a new thing to balance it. Why not start the change with what was, in all honesty, a captive population? The money boys knew damn well you can't get profits with hippies eschewing "materialism" and dropping out and minorities rampaging in the street because they have no stake in the "stability".

That's why I wonder about the military "religious" stance, unofficial and even illegal as it may be. Has it got the nod, an imperfect tool being redesigned?

Anonymous said...

SI, I was on the front lines (or what passed for such in Viet Nam), and I didn't see religion as being a real factor even among those who made claims of being twice born.

When "the shit came down" as we used to say, I heard about as many call for their mothers as for their deity, with about the same outcome.

It seemed to me that the guys who were praying were counting us us who were shooting and cussing to get them out of it. Even heard the story of "miraculous survival" from a guy I'd been stationed with some years ago. Whole lot of people suffered and also some died, but he was spared, (was somehow reluctant to meet his alleged maker. I wonder why?)
Actually, it was because several of us were a bit quicker, meaner, were willing to do horrible things to survive, and simply didn't give a shit anymore, so bring it on. Fey? Berserk?

Actually, I made up my mind that I was dead from the moment I stepped off the plane in Bien Hoa until I stepped off it again at home. That's what got me through.

I see a lot of praying, people wanting to do it in public, at the VA. Not the employees, fellow patients. Now that I'm in my final spiral it's wondered that I don't do the same.

I mentioned before some censure that was visited on me because I wouldn't "respect" the stabilizing "norm". Waste of time, as far as I'm con cerned. Didn't pray when I was wounded, when they thought I might die, why do it now that it's a sure thing?

John Evo said...

I'm not praying, but I sure hope you'll be leaving your words of wisdom for a long, long time, Sarge.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, John. "preciate the sentiment.

SI, you are a lawyer, and I am curious about something this thread deals with.

My wife read my post about the days when the EO push was put under pressure in the military, and that there was a person who attended her church who was an army lawyer. We remembered him saying that a lot of the push on the EO matters started in the military because it was figured that this is where cases which established precedent were more likely to be decided without a lot of outside interference, federal law, federal property, and federal employees involved, so this is where the big push would be.

Since many of the "guarentees" of the bill of rights seem to be rather conditional and notional now, and a re definition of what constitutes what seems to have occurred (like torture), what can happen if a precedent is established in the "national interest" or it is found that (I hate hearing this) "the state has a compelling interest" in overseeing the spiritual life of some or all of its subjects?

What do you, a person who lives by the law see there?

John Evo said...

Sarge - I'm guessing with the amount of time you and Mrs. Sarge have logged, you aren't looking for a divorce. I mention this because SI is pretty tight lipped on any legal opinions, sticks to his field, and usually tells you, "If you aren't from PA, I can't comment".


Spanish Inquisitor said...

"If you aren't from PA, I can't comment".

Actually, I think Sarge IS from PA, or at least lived here once or has relatives here, if I remember correctly.

Do you mean by "EO push", Equal Opportunity? If so, Evo's right. It's not my area. However, I can see what you're saying as having some validity. Military law is a nice little specialty, and the military legal system is very insular. They have their own lawyers, (JAG) their own Judges, etc., and only occasionally does a military case spill out into the federal system, with ramifications for the civilian sector. So I could see the government using that system as a sort of "proving ground" for novel or untested legal theories, with the hope that once they are accepted within that system, and "run up the flag pole", so to speak, they might be more easily accepted outside.

The Exterminator said...

Sarge & SI:

Back in the '70s, there was a semi-popular book called Military Justice is to Justice What Military Music is to Music. I'm not sure that precedents in military courts spill over into civilian ones. In fact, I don't think they do.

Anonymous said...

Yep, I'm in Pencil Tuckey. Altoona, in fact, about thirty miles from dead center of the state. There's even a bumper sticker, Altoona: Leave it ot leave it.