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It ain’t necessarily so June 17, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Day-after comebacks, Ethics, Religion.
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A few thousand years ago (so the story goes), as the people of Israel were wandering through the desert, a well-respected man named Korah came forward and publicly questioned Moses and Aaron’s elevated status and the legitimacy of their leadership. Turns out he didn’t understand what kind of political system he was living under: God reacted by threatening to annihilate the entire congregation.  Thankfully, Moses and Aaron interceded against such collective punishment: “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and wilt Thou be wroth with all the congregation?” So God switched to Plan B: he opened the Earth beneath Korah, his two lieutenants, and all of their families – burying them alive. God then sent forth a fire to devour the 250 men who followed Korah. Unfortunately, this show of restraint was not enough to teach the people who they were dealing with; they came complaining to Moses and Aaron – so God killed 14,700 of them by plague.

The thing that Vandelay found to be out of the ordinary in this story is the rare use of the title “God of the spirits of all flesh.” Based on scriptural sources, he claimed that this was Moses and Aaron’s way of reminding God that he was a tolerant God who values difference of opinion. I kid you not; there are those who will say with a straight face that the God who repeatedly commands the destruction of those who worship others, of those who blaspheme his name, of those who don’t obey his every command, is tolerant of different opinions.

Well then, said I, why was Korah killed? He went too far, said Vandelay; he crossed a red line. What line is that, I asked. Did he physically harm anyone? Did he threaten to harm anyone? He started a rebellion, said Vandelay, and sometimes rebellions must be put down by force. And there you have it; Ahmadinejad couldn’t have said it better. When you wonder why our world looks the way it does, consider that even an intelligent, educated person, who has lived his whole life under democracy, thinks it’s acceptable to kill a person (and his family) merely for voicing his opposition to a dictator’s authority. After all, the Bible says so.

At this point the conversation was joined by Alice, who insisted that the Bible must be viewed in the context of its time; it would be wrong of us to judge the Bible by today’s standards. There are so many things wrong with this claim, I didn’t get around to mentioning them all at the time. So here we go:

  1. It is simply ludicrous to claim that a code which commands killing your children for talking back to you, exterminating entire nations including women and children, and so on, constitutes a big improvement over the general barbarism of the ancient world.
  2. It is historically ignorant as well: Eastern traditions from around the time of the Bible, like those of the Buddha and Mahavira (the founder of Jainism), are far more moral than the Bible, with an emphasis on compassion and nonviolence. It was possible for human beings at that time to realize that killing your children for talking back to you was wrong.
  3. If much of the morality of the Bible is now irrelevant, one cannot claim that the Bible is morally wise. As Sam Harris puts it: it is faint praise indeed for the perfect word of an omniscient God, if the best that can be said of vast parts of it is that they can now be safely ignored.
  4. If some parts of the Bible are no longer relevant, how do we know which ones? By what methodology does one decide that circumcision is still in, but killing homosexuals is out? That keeping the Sabbath remains mandatory, but keeping slaves is now forbidden? The Bible never says that starting in the year 1776, we should disregard commandments 17, 95, and 100 through 519. In fact, the Bible explicitly says the opposite: “All this word which I command you, that shall ye observe to do; thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.”
  5. The notion that an action (by God or man) could have been moral in the past but is immoral today contradicts any coherent definition of morality. What exactly has changed in the last few thousand years? The Bible hasn’t changed. Our biology hasn’t changed. There was no divine revelation in the 19th century telling us that slavery is henceforth immoral. (Are we wrong to judge slaveholders? And when exactly did treating women like property officially become a no-no? Because some people apparently didn’t get the memo.) All the political changes we now appreciate were the product of rational human thought and expanding human knowledge. Just as we have discovered more and more about physics and biology, so we have learned more and more about the possibilities of human happiness, about the causes of human suffering, about how societies may flourish or fail. Moral progress was made, an inch at a time, by people who defied the dogmas of their tradition.

Nowadays, God still uses earthquakes and plagues to kill his children, but he is no longer explicit about what their sins were. Not to worry, though, for his instruction and his example live on, with hordes of pious men willing to devote their lives to upholding God’s word. How much more suffering must be visited in the name of the Biblical God before decent people stop teaching their children that an Iron Age manuscript bursting with sadistic, bigoted, oppressive barbarism is a sacred and flawless guide to moral living?

Stealing, slavery, and stop signs May 8, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Day-after comebacks, Ethics.

After starting this blog and ceremoniously writing the first entry, I thought that I would probably not have anything more to say before studies begin in October. However, I just realized an ideal use for a blog: day-after comebacks! You know how you always think of the perfect reply that you should have used in an argument once there’s no one listening any more? Well, the Web is always listening!

It all started with the Amish.

At dinner last night, we were talking about whether parents have the right to deny their children an education. Somehow, the Amish were mentioned, and one of the diners, let’s call her Snowdrop, called them “cute” and claimed that at age sixteen all Amish children are sent out “into the world” for a year, after which they must choose whether they wish to return to the Amish way of life. It turns out that this is not actually true, but even if it were, I claimed that this would be insufficient to assure us that no indoctrination or mistreatment of children was going on. A child who has spent his first sixteen years in an isolated community, denied anything more than a primary education, and taught to believe that the biblical God is waiting for him in the afterlife (and dislikes electricity), is hardly “free” to make his own informed choices. We must also consider the consequences facing those who make the “wrong” choice – and the Amish are known to practice excommunication (or “shunning”) of those who break church rules.

Another of those present, let’s call him Vandelay, then pointed out that everyone is taught something by their parents. Is it all indoctrination? No, said I, there is a clear distinction between explaining to a child the reasons behind your beliefs and encouraging him to think about it on his own and eventually make up his own mind, on the one hand, and authoritatively telling a child what he should believe while discouraging criticism and independent thought, on the other hand. Those who are in positions of authority over children, like parents and teachers, should make a special effort not to unduly influence those children into automatically accepting what they believe.

That may be true in some areas, said Vandelay, like politics, but surely when it comes to really important moral issues there is no room for making up one’s own mind. Children must be told that stealing is wrong, for instance, and not encouraged to think about it and come to their own conclusions. Well, said I, why is stealing wrong? Why do you refrain from stealing? His first answer was: because it is so commanded. When pressed, he went on to speak of the existence of a Rulebook, containing a set of Instructions for building a just society. He implied that it is necessary for us to commit to accepting the Rulebook in its entirety, and that the Rules are not open for modification based on our own judgment. While he admitted that there are actual reasons behind some of the Rules, he claimed that those reasons are insufficient to cause people to behave morally and not go after “their own self-interest” (which apparently includes stealing).

The discussion degenerated rapidly after this point. I tried to talk about how there are, in fact, very good reasons to help others and treat them honestly, rather than cheating and swindling them. I tried to point out that teaching people to blindly follow a set of Rules is not a recipe for morality but for dogmatism and evil. I can’t say that it went very well. Here’s what I should have said:

Day-after comeback #1: Where did this Rulebook of yours come from, and what makes you think we ought to obey it? Even if we were to admit that we needed a Rulebook, the problem is that there are many different Rulebooks on offer, containing vastly different Rules. The Taliban, for instance, have just as much faith in their Rulebook (sample rule: women should not be taught to read) as Vandelay does in his. How are we supposed to decide which Rulebook to follow? Surely, it makes no sense to automatically adopt whatever Rulebook was used in the house we happened to have been born into. Surely, there are some criteria for evaluating Rulebooks that we should apply. But then, those same criteria can be used to evaluate each of the individual Rules in the Rulebook, to be accepted or rejected on its merits – and the whole concept of an eternal, static Rulebook breaks down.

Day-after comeback #2: How about slavery? Is slavery wrong? If so, how do you know it? Slavery is condoned rather than condemned by Vandelay’s Rulebook. Vandelay would have apparently supported the slave-owners of the South, and if we had listened to arguments like his we would still be owning slaves. Likewise, the Rulebook treats homosexuality as an abomination, and women as the property of their fathers or husbands. We can all be glad of the de facto changes undergone by the Rulebook in the past few centuries, but we should be honest about where that change came from, and it did not come from Vandelay’s way of thinking. Moral progress stems from reevaluating the norm and being free to discard old beliefs and practices that do not stand up to scrutiny – not by following tradition automatically.

Day-after comeback #3: Is there any evidence to support the claim that commitment to the Rulebook actually produces especially moral people and just societies? I’m not aware of any. We all know that there are plenty of people who profess commitment to the Rulebook, and still lie, cheat and steal. In fact, the evidence seems to go the other way. Countries like Norway, Australia, Iceland, Canada, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan, and Finland have relatively low popular support for eternal, unquestionable Rulebooks (including Vandelay’s own book). Are these societies breaking down into moral chaos? Quite the opposite: these are among the healthiest societies on Earth, as measured by the UN Human Development Index (which measures things like life expectancy, adult literacy, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate and infant mortality).

One final comeback: Vandelay brought up the example of road traffic laws – we have laws forcing everybody to stop at stop signs, whether they want to or not. At the time I dismissed this example as irrelevant, but the truth is that it actually supports my side of the argument. Ask yourself: Where did stop signs come from? A century ago, there were no stop signs anywhere. At some point, smart people got together and thought that it would be a good idea to pass laws protecting the safety of our roads. They didn’t need to be commanded to do so, it wasn’t in any existing Rulebook. In the future, stop signs may again become unnecessary, say if all vehicles are connected to a network which keeps track of the location of all other vehicles. In such a case, smart people could reevaluate the issue and come to the conclusion that stop signs can be discontinued. Vandelay would probably oppose such a move, since stop signs are now in the Rulebook! We might end up seeing vehicles of the future stopping at street corners for no reason at all, other than because they had done so in the past.

I feel much better now, thanks for listening. If Snowdrop, Vandelay, or anyone else has day-after comebacks of their own, or thinks I have misunderstood or misrepresented their views, please leave a comment.

How about slavery? Is slavery wrong? If so, how do we know that? Slavery is condoned rather than condemned by the Rulebook. The Jabberwock would have been on the side