Keywords: origin of morality, religious privilege, hate, good without god
I had another letter to the editor published in the Eugene, OR Register-Guard on Dec 17. It was in response to Michael Gerson (who writes for The Washington Post.) His column, Hope doesn’t depend on us, was published in the Register-Guard on Dec 9. My letter, as submitted, is provided below. However, because such letters are limited to 200 words, it is very concise and I think it is appropriate to provide some further discussion.
In the column, Gerson states “For me, doubt is like staring into an abyss.” This is the complete opposite of my view as evidenced by this blog. Gerson also states “Without a transcendent moral order, ideas such as good and evil, noble and ignoble, are pegged in mid-air.” He adds that hope comes from “Advent” and “is a delivery from elsewhere.” There is more along these lines.
Although Gerson doesn’t use the word “god”, his comments are a variant on a common theistic belief that morality derives from god. The contrapositive of this is that there can be no morality without god; the corollary is that atheists are intrinsically immoral. I use the analogy of anti-Semitism in my letter because it is generally acknowledged as hate. Saying that atheists are immoral simply because of their beliefs is no different in kind than saying Jews are.
This is not simply a philosophical distinction. The belief that “god equals good” combined with religious privilege has done, and continuous to do, real harm in the real world. People have been killed for being atheist. There are a half dozen or so countries where atheism is a capital offense. There are states where it is still technically illegal for an atheist to be a juror. I’ve met people that have lost their entire support structure, including someone that was kicked out of their house at age 16, for coming out as atheist in religious communities. People lose their family, their friends, and even their jobs for being atheist. More generally, the promotion of the U.S. as a Christian Nation (e.g., via Project Blitz) is a blatant attempt to reduce non-Christians to second class citizenry. Recent examples of legal harm in the name of religion include the Supreme Court rulings involving Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor. The history of religion relating to indigenous peoples, blacks, women, and slavery is horrendous.
I feel a need to preempt a potential response to this post. It is not unusual for people to think that, when I say promoting “god equals good” is a form of hate speech, I am engaging in a reverse form of hate speech. The difference is that I do not claim morality comes from some single external or higher source the denial of which implies the denial of morality. There are many religious people that act morally. But I believe they are epistemologically mistaken regarding where their morality comes from. I do not claim that this mistaken belief intrinsically implies they are immoral.
As submitted (published as Liberation of doubt):
Many people view doubt as a liberation rather than as the abyss Michael Gerson does (Dec 9). Doubt frees us to question and discover the world as it is rather than as viewed through the filter of faith and dogma. Such questioning has allowed science to reduce disease and poverty. There is no need for a “transcendent moral order” to understand good and evil or for nonreligious organizations, like Doctors Without Borders and those featured in the RG (Dec 9, p3A), to help others. Organizations like Innovations for Poverty Action provide hope through science based studies.
Understanding that purpose derives from love, friends, family, helping others, and protecting the environment requires no “revolt”. The acceptance of a “meaningless universe” gives extra meaning and importance to those things around us in the here and now.
Gerson’s implication that hope and morality require delivery from Advent or some mysterious “elsewhere” is a direct attack on the morality of atheists and others who obtain these from evidence, reason, and conscience. Gerson’s comments are directed at a population other than Jews, but they are a form of hate speech born of religious privilege that should be condemned as strongly as antisemitism is.
(End of published letter.)