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Category: ethics (page 1 of 3)

Response to a Facebook friend, re: exclusion of LDS kids in gay families

Here’s an old mission companion, on a thread about this:

Mormon Church to exclude children of same-sex couples from getting blessed and baptized until they are 18

Children living in a same-sex household may not be blessed as babies or baptized until they are 18, the Mormon Church declared in a new policy. Once they reach 18, children may disavow the practice of same-sex cohabitation or marriage and stop living within the household and request to join the church.

The policy changes, which also state that those in a same-sex marriage are to be considered apostates, set off confusion and turmoil among many Mormons after the policy was leaked online. The changes in the handbook for local church leaders for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were confirmed Thursday by church spokesman Eric Hawkins.

My former companion says:

>I received a witness of he Church as a young 19 year old as I pounded the streets of Perth with many of you.

Thank goodness when we knocked on doors, we didn’t have to say, “Hi! We’re missionaries from the Church of… er… your parents aren’t gay, are they? Good, we’ll continue.”

I’m wondering how missionaries today will keep from inadvertently teaching someone who isn’t eligible.

>I believe in God and I believe the LDS church is his church. If this is what God has decided then it’s not for me to argue.

I would say that this cruel and unfair policy is convincing evidence that either

  • LDS leaders are operating from a source other than a just and fair god — be it their own prejudices, or their own principles, or
  • the god that Mormons worship has an inordinate concern with the sexual behaviour of humans, but is unconcerned with justice. And, in my view, is not worth worshipping.

Or perhaps both.

>Maybe I’m too simple in my views but what I fought for as a 19 year old when I laboured with you all then has not changed now.

Our views should change as we get older. As Paul said, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.” I think homophobia is a childish thing, and worse, it harms people. In my life, I’ve made gay, lesbian, bi, and trans friends, and some co-workers. I’ve learned that there was a commonality to our life experiences, and that any prejudice I might have felt toward them was my own problem. And I’ve sorted it out. I’ve learned that every member of a society has the right to equal treatment.

Sadly, the LDS Church hasn’t learned this — speaking of the church collectively and not individually, of course. It has formed harmful and cruel policies, and now it has doubled down on them. Well, as an exMo, it would be easy to say, “What do I care — I’m no longer in the church.” But the climate of homophobia fostered by the LDS Church is having a harmful effect on LGBT people, especially the ones in the church. It is setting children against parents — a potential convert will have to leave the supportive environment offered by gay parents, turn their backs on them and denounce their relationships. Wow. That’s cold.

Kids (even straight kids) in blended families won’t be able to participate in the church they’ve grown up in, because one set of parents is in a gay relationship. Suddenly ineligible. And this is contrary to AoF2; the kids will be responsible for the actions of their parents.

Does all of this seem right to you?

Fortunately, most people in “the world” are starting to operate from a position of kindness. They are showing more compassion and love than the LDS leadership is currently capable of.

You may be too far into the LDS community to see how regular people regard this. When I tell my neverMo friends about this, or who they see it in the news — yes, it is hitting the news — they’re horrified. And it confirms to them that the church is a homophobic organisation. It is — as we call other groups when they exist to promote bigotry — a hate group.

The leadership will eventually change on this issue, just like they did with race and the priesthood. They’ll walk it back with an anonymous essay on the website, if we still have websites then. Until then, they (and you) are on the wrong side of history. They’ve chosen exclusion and bigotry.

What will you choose? Understanding and compassion? Or obedience?

Ethics with a god v without

Another chat with the Witnesses

It’s almost Passover time again, so that means Jehovah’s Witnesses are coming around. And that means it’s a good time to remind us all that:

1) Bible believers are, of necessity, apologists for genocide, and

2) religion doesn’t make people more moral. If anything, it turns normal moral people into amoral robots.

Verbatim, by the way.

More cartoons like this can be found under the toons tag.

The problem of evil and the incompetence of supernaturalism

Two articles crossed my screen today, and they’re a great example of the divide between rational thought and superstition.

They’re both about the gun tragedy at Sandy Hook, and the first one is written by a Catholic priest.

Now, believers in the Christian god have a bit of explaining to do when horrible things happen. That’s because they claim there’s a god who’s good, loving, and all-powerful, but who somehow fails to prevent evil things from happening. So after a tragedy, a reasonable question is: where was he? Is he really all that good if he has the power to prevent grade-school massacres, yet chooses not to? Here’s the theologian’s answer:

The truest answer is: I don’t know. I have theological training to help me to offer some way to account for the unexplainable. But the questions linger.

Well, that’s a bit pathetic. He doesn’t know? All that theological training, and he can’t answer a question that belongs in his discipline?

Seriously, read it; it doesn’t give any more than a shrug. And it’s not just this writer. This is literally the best they’ve got. (Oh, there are other religion guys out there who do claim to know, but their answers are so morally callous as to be not worth repeating.)

I will never satisfactorily answer the question “Why?” because no matter what response I give, it will always fall short. What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God’s love is present and Christmas happens daily.

Great, so if you help others, it’s actually god’s love; not yours. (Hat tip to Stephanie for this thought.) And why would ‘soothing’ be a consolation? I’d exchange buckets of after-the-fact soothing in order to not have had that tragedy happen. Who wouldn’t? What’s wrong with this guy? But all we’re left with is: I don’t know.

It’s good to admit when you don’t know something, but if you have no way of finding out, and no way of telling whether your answers are good ones, you have a bit of a fucking methodological problem. And this is a sad sign of the inadequacy of supernatural thinking. See, I do science because science is good at scientific questions. People may say that science isn’t good at moral questions or spiritual questions, and we can argue that. (My answer is that it does just as well as anything else.) But by gum, science is good for doing science.

Spiritual reasoning, on the other hand, isn’t good at answering scientific questions, but it’s also terrible at answering spiritual questions. It’s incompetent within its own domain. It is a shitty way of reasoning. Pardon my language, but spirituality/religion/supernaturalism has one job, and it sucks at it, and this incompetence makes me angry, especially when we have people telling us that it has the answers to life’s great questions, and then when it comes down to it, all that its professionals can tell us is “We don’t know.”

On the other hand, here’s the same issue handled by someone who’s intellectually honest: the scientist, Laurence Krauss. He doesn’t have the same problem as the priest because he doesn’t have to tap-dance around demonstrably untrue theological claims. That means he can deal with things more directly, including the superfluity of gods in times of tragedy.

Why must it be a natural expectation that any such national tragedy will be accompanied by prayers, including from the president, to at least one version of the very God, who apparently in his infinite wisdom, decided to call 20 children between the age of 6 and 7 home by having them slaughtered by a deranged gunman in a school that one hopes should have been a place or nourishment, warmth and growth?

We are told the Lord works in mysterious ways but, for many people, to suggest there might be an intelligent deity who could rationally act in such a fashion and that that deity is worth praying to and thanking for “calling them home” seems beyond the pale.

We don’t need faith to empathize with the grieving in Newtown. We can feel real connections, whether we are parents, or neighbors of families, or simply caring men and women. And we can want to help simply because of our common humanity.

Note that he identifies ‘common humanity’ at its origin: with humans. The difference in approach is striking. So is the relative capability of the authors. It helps if you’re not burdened by outmoded dogma and superstition.

Stuff Republicans don’t like

I was checking out this Gallup pollAmericans, Including Catholics, Say Birth Control Is Morally OK.

That’s interesting, but what’s more, they provide a breakdown of what people think is okay and what’s not. Here’s the list.

Okay, so people mostly approve of birth control, divorce, and gambling, and they disapprove most of suicide, polygamy, and (for some reason) cloning humans. Singled out for special condemnation is people who have affairs, which is surprising because haven’t a lot of people done that? Gallup says that’s their most consistently disapproved item. Interesting.
But the best part is that they break it down by political tendency. This chart shows the same things, but it’s  sorted by Republican minus Democrat approval. In other words, the top of the chart is things Democrats don’t approve of, but Republicans do (comparatively), and the bottom of the chart is stuff Republicans don’t like, but Democrats are like ‘meh’.
Top of the list of things Republicans like: the death penalty, medical testing on animals, and wearing fur. (Although I actually approve of medical testing on animals — not cosmetic testing.)
Cloning animals is a wash.
Most revealing, however, is the bottom of the list — the stuff that Democrats don’t mind, but that Republicans don’t approve of. I notice suicide — not many people like it, but GOPers slightly less. So let’s take a look at the issues that cut across the political divide more than suicide:
  • Porn — I doubt the Republicans are using less porn than Democrats, but maybe they disapprove more while still looking at it.
  • Sex between an unmarried man and woman
  • Having a baby outside of marriage
  • Gay or lesbian relations

In short, anything having to do with people having unauthorised sex. So really, Republicans don’t just hate gay sex — they hate straight sex too, if it’s not sanctioned by marriage. On the other hand, Democrats approve of unmarried straight sex about as much as they approve of (probably unmarried) gay sex — at 66% approval for both, it’s all the same to them.
Could this explain why conservatives are fighting gay marriage so hard? For them, marriage is what legitimises sex. So if gay people can get married, for them that’s like saying gay sex is okay. And for them, that’s not okay.
I’m trying not to read too much into these results, but this is an idea I hadn’t thought of before. Am I onto something?

Global Atheist Con: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is Richard Dawkins. His talk was entitled “Now Praise Intelligent Design”.

Intelligent design gets a bad rap, you know. The term’s been sullied to the point where it’s been described as ‘creationism in a cheap suit‘. But all of us rely on intelligently designed things to make our lives easier. Even Dawkins believes in intelligent design — for man-made objects, as he’s explained on Colbert.

But back to the talk. Dawkins wants us to take back intelligent design, the better to design our future intelligently. In fact, Dawkins suggests a few terms we should be taking back:

  • Morality
  • Pro-life. You know who the real pro-lifers are? Médecins Sans Frontières, that’s who.
  • Spirituality. The feeling of transcendence at seeing the night sky is available for all of us. (Personally, I never use the term ‘spirituality’ because it’s so vague and easy to misunderstand, and I don’t want to dignify it with anything important, but that’s me.)
  • Christmas. Christians are only the latest to put their stamp on the set of pagan festivals surrounding the Winter Solstice.

And, of course, intelligent design. Dawkins explained that brains and computers are the only things capable of intelligent design, and they have origins that we know and understand. It used to be that people thought that if something looked designed, it was designed. Then Darwin showed how evolution by natural selection could create things that were apparently designed. Dawkins calls this ‘neo-design’, and differentiates it from ‘paleo-design’. Evolution (paleo-design) created us, and now we create things (neo-design).

Unfortunately, says Dawkins, paleo-design is often bad design, as evidenced by the recurrent laryngeal nerve in giraffes. This nerve takes a long path down the neck, only to connect a few centimetres from where it started. The long trip was necessary because that nerve had to work in every giraffe throughout generations of evolution, so as necks got longer, the nerve had to stretch. No intelligent designer would design a giraffe this way (nor would it give us back-to-front retinas), but evolution would. It has no plan for the future. Neo-design does, but even then we can hit problem when designing big things like a society — we sometimes lack the political unanimity to carry out a solution.

Can our morality be designed and if so, how do we design it? Dawkins seemed to relish this part, as he threw out some (perhaps half-warmed) red meat to the crowd. The idea that we should get our morality from the Bible is, in Dawkins’ words, “a sick joke”. It says “Thou shalt not kill” (which anyone could work on their own), but then Moses kills 3,000 people. The New Testament isn’t much better: God couldn’t think of a better plan than to come down as his alter ego to be horrifically tortured and killed to atone for the sin of Adam (who never existed) so that he could forgive himself.

And yet, for many people, morality and religion have a very strong mental link. When the RDF commissioned a survey into people’s responses on the census, they asked people why they’d ticked the “Christian” box (that’s 54% of the total), and many responded “Because I like to think of myself as a good person.” Yet when asked “When faced with a moral dilemma, do you turn to your religion?”, only one tenth of the 54% said yes. The bulk of the 54% said they looked to their innate moral sense. Even this doesn’t tell the whole story. Inescapably, we get our morals from the time in which we live. Darwin and Huxley were oppsed to slavery, but they would have been considered reactionary and racist by today’s standards.

Dawkins then launched into a discussion of some gray areas of morality. What about euthanasia? An absolutist might offer a blanket condemnation, but a consequentialist could point out that, if prolonging life is the goal, then legal euthanasia might prolong life. How? A number of people kill themselves while they’re able to, knowing that when they become incapacitated, they wouldn’t be able to, and no doctor would be allowed to help them.

What about eugenics? asked Dawkins, and I detected a tension in the audience. After all, eugenics is something religious people hurl at us when we talk about designing our own morality. So what about it? Yes, we condemn the idea of manipulating genes to engineer ‘superior’ humans, but most people are okay with negative eugenics, that is, testing a cell for a bad gene. What’s the difference between this and positive eugenics, say, for having a blue-eyed child, or a child who is a great musician? Even Dawkins said this was farther than he wanted to go, but then pointed out that most people mould children by non-genetic means — not by manipulating genes, but by forcing the child to practice the piano for hours a day. It’s anyone’s guess as to which is more cruel, thinks I, glibly.

Dawkins finished with a discussion of how religions evolve and survive. What’s the mechanism?

1. Is it that religious people are healthier, and this helps regions to propagate?
Dawkins says the evidence for this is sketchy, and that he only mentioned it for completeness.

2. Does religion spread by piggybacking on useful things?
For example, children are susceptible to indoctrination, and that’s a good thing because accepting things that adults say gives children knowledge that helps them to survive. Religion, however, exploits this feature of childhood in parasitic fashion.

3. Does religion help groups survive?
Dawkins describes group selection as ‘silly’, but allows that some groups might have attributes that help them survive better than others. Even so, says Dawkins, that’s not proper group selection.

4. Could the question have a memetic answer?
Memes (or ideas) spread quickly throughout a population, and remain robust despite opposition. As an illustration, Dawkins showed this graphic of the London tiger rumour as it progressed through time, all tracked through Twitter. Click to go to the interactive graphic — it’s really interesting. It’s like doing an epidemiology of rumours.

Overall, good talk, with a lot of diverse foci. I’m interested to see what he gets into next.

Global Atheist Con, Day 2: A.C. Grayling

A.C. Grayling is a philosopher, and the author of “The Good Book”.

The title of his talk was “What Next for Atheism?” We’re seeing a swelling in our ranks, but how do we make sure this healthy atheist trend continues? Grayling suggests three ways:

  • Metaphysical debate, where we talk about rationality and evidence,
  • Secularism, where we discuss the role of the religious voice in public life
  • And most importantly, ethics, which involves how we live our lives and how we make decisions about our relationships.

Metaphysical Debate

Grayling suggested some ways that we can talk about religion to show how vacuous it is.
Instead of ‘God’, try substituting ‘Fred’.

Who made the universe? Fred. 

I have a deep personal relationship… with Fred.

Another suggestion (that I customarily use myself) is to refer to ‘gods and goddesses’.

I’m an atheist because I don’t believe in gods and goddesses

You can be moral without having to believe in gods. (And so on.)

This job involves getting people (especially children) to think critically. We can do this, says Grayling, by inviting people to think about the history of religions, and whether that justifies the case for them. Religions customarily obscure the facts about their past. Consider how the Church of England (and many others) have abandoned hell, and the Roman Catholic Church has abandoned limbo. I’ve seen this in the LDS Church as they’ve changed or abandoned doctrines with little fanfare and less detail, hoping no one would notice or remember. (It’s that memory hole again.) Grayling observes that this amnesia is very useful to them because it allows them to present themselves well. Religions, he says, are like the Greek god Proteus who could change his shape; Menelaus (or Aristaeus, or both) could only conquer Proteus by holding onto him tenaciously until, having gone through all his changes, he was exhausted. You just have to hang onto them until they get tired.

Yes, the religious will complain when we engage in metaphysical debate. But even this represents a positive change. A modern atheist could say, “When you guys were in power, you didn’t argue with us; you just burned us at the stake. Now when we present challenging arguments, you complain.”


Religious people have the right to believe what they like, and to make their voices heard in the public square, says Grayling. But their influence is currently out of proportion to the number of actual believers. With bishops sitting in the House of Lords, and money going to ‘faith schools’, religion should see themselves as they are: “Lobby groups!” Like trade unions and other interest groups, we shouldn’t be paying for them — they should be supporting themselves. Grayling says this is a point we should be making constantly.

Grayling related how, in debates, there are frequently four clergymen on the panel, and then him, the lone atheist. There are four of them because they can’t agree with each other. And yet they’re willing to make common cause… because they want the public money.


Grayling points out that religious people think they have a social area of morality and human experience cordoned off for themselves, and they claim that they own those things. We need to take back possesson of them.

Religions teach that all the good things come from gods, and all the bad things come from us. In fact, all the things come from us, and there’s no need for mumbo-jumbo.

So in closing, Grayling outlined the way forward for atheism:

  • Challenge the claims of religion, challenge their history, pin them down about what they think
  • Demand that voices in the square are proportionate to their actual participation, and
  • Take back human experience.

Global Atheist Con, Day 2: Peter Singer

There were tons of Peter Singer fans in the house. They were soaking it up; I was typing madly, trying to get it all. And here it is, as faithfully as I could reproduce it.

The theme of Singer’s talk could be: The Expanding Circle. He started with this quote from W.E.H. Lecky:

At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world.

This expanding circle of concern for the welfare of others is very encouraging. We’re seeing a decline in violence. We are currently more peaceful, and less cruel than at any other point in human history. (Singer mentioned Steven Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, which has been on my list for a while.) It may seem like there’s too much violence, and there is, but compare today to paleolithic times, when an estimated 1 in 7 human deaths were due to violence at the hands of other humans (based on markings of weapons on bones and other forensic clues). At one point, the Aztecs were sacrificing 5% of their population (cf Europe at its worst – 3%).

Why is violence less prevalent and less acceptable? One reason might be the trigger for the Enlightenment — the printing press. As the communication of ideas became cheaper, people began to criticise injustices, including torture, despotism, and slavery. Duelling became less common. People began calling for gentler and kinder treatment of animals.

There’s also been a rise in the awareness of the rights of women, children, gay people, and animals. Imagine this ad from the 50s running in a magazine today.

Singer likens this trend to an escalator. An escalator of reason. You start reasoning to advance your own interests, but then it can take you where you didn’t expect to go. you could fight the escalator and run the other way, but we generally don’t. We stay on the escalator of reason. However, in addition to our increased capacity for reason, we need to add empathy.

Atheism and ethics — again.

This always seems to come up in discussions with Christians: What motivation do you have to be ethical if you’re an atheist? They never seem to realise that having a god telling you what to do doesn’t make you moral, especially not with that terrible Bible. 
I got a nuanced response from this Christian — then his brain stopped. What a shame.

Slaves should be obedient to their masters
Rape a girl, pay her father, and she’s your wife
God used to like killing gay people

(Conversation reported verbatim until the last panel, but yeah, that’s how it went.)

Is atheism responsible for atrocities?

In a discussion with Sam Harris, Steven Pinker presents a cogent take-down of the “HitlerStalinPolPot” gambit that some Christians like to play. That’s the one where they say, “Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were atheists who killed millions of people, therefore atheism is terrible.”

Harris serves the ball.

Need I remind you that the “atheist regimes” of the 20th century killed tens of millions of people?

This is a popular argument among theoconservatives and critics of the new atheism, but for many reasons it is historically inaccurate.

First, the premise that Nazism and Communism were “atheist” ideologies makes sense only within a religiocentric worldview that divides political systems into those that are based on Judaeo-Christian ideology and those that are not. In fact, 20th-century totalitarian movements were no more defined by a rejection of Judaeo-Christianity than they were defined by a rejection of astrology, alchemy, Confucianism, Scientology, or any of hundreds of other belief systems. They were based on the ideas of Hitler and Marx, not David Hume and Bertrand Russell, and the horrors they inflicted are no more a vindication of Judeao-Christianity than they are of astrology or alchemy or Scientology.

Second, Nazism and Fascism were not atheistic in the first place. Hitler thought he was carrying out a divine plan. Nazism received extensive support from many German churches, and no opposition from the Vatican. Fascism happily coexisted with Catholicism in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia.

When it comes to the history of violence, the significant distinction is not one between theistic and atheistic regimes. It’s the one between regimes that were based on demonizing, utopian ideologies (including Marxism, Nazism, and militant religions) and secular liberal democracies that are based on the ideal of human rights.

Not that Sam Harris hasn’t also done a fine job of answering that question himself.

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