Token Roy Moore post

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I like this article over at Frontpage by Lowell Ponte-he’s a conservative, but pretty balanced I think about what’s going on[1]. I do want to add one thing though-Ponte points out the Left’s hypocrisy when it comes to the use of religion, good if it serves "progressive" ends, bad if it is in favor of socially conservative ones. For instance, the Catholic Church is great when the bishops push universal health care, not so congenial when they want to roll-back abortion rights. On the other hand, I used to watch CNBC years back, in college, and Jerry Falwell would sometimes be on this or that show. One time when asked why he opposed a lot of social welfare, he stated that "to force people to give to those in need removes the act of virtue since it is not done freely out of charity and compassion, but coerced." I remembered this when weeks later Falwell sadly admitted that though this country would never ban pornography, he wished it would, because it was a terrible sin. In this case, Falwell did not seem inclined to err on the side of free will and allow people to virtuously choose The Good and reject the sin. Just goes to show, hypocrisy is a human universal.

fn1. OK, before anyone jumps on me for saying a nice thing about a religious conservative, I was an activist for Campus Freethought Alliance back in the day and have been in the past relatively active in the internet atheist community. I can’t get worked up over this stuff going on in Alabama because I can’t relate to Alabama, the state I live in has the highest number of non-religious (almost 20%) in the country, and most of my friends are as non-religioius as me. The town I live in probably has a greater number of Buddhists than evangelical Christians. Not that I reject universal principles & church state separation-but I think there are bigger things in the world to worry about. I am thinking of pitching an article to Frontpage addressing my contention that seculars and christians should stop their bitching & clawing and look to the threats from the outside and the weakness at the heart of Western civilization that they both claim to love. Amen!

Godless briefly comments:

Moore is a fundy in the Pat Robertson/Jerry Falwell mode:

The Alabama chief justice famous for his Ten Commandments fight warned an audience Tuesday night of "great consequences" when America turns away from God and suggested the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks might be an example.

Roy Moore, in Washington to accept an honorary doctorate in divinity from the National Clergy Council and Methodist Episcopal Church U.S.A., implied a parallel between the attacks and what he contends has been a 40-year legal erosion of religious rights, including his own right to display the Ten Commandments in court.

He pointed out similarities between the devastation and the Biblical words of Isaiah, who had forecast a "day of great slaughter, when the towers fall."

"How many of you remember Americans running to get gas masks because (of) some bearded man in Afghanistan?" Moore asked during his address at Georgetown University. "Fear struck this country. … You see, there are consequences when we turn away from our source of our strength."

Has anyone actually read the 10 commandments? There are several versions floating around, but in every case these are primitive taboos we’re talking about, on par with Thor and Asgard. Like Moore, the authors of the 10 commandments had an uncertain grip on "cause and effect" [2]:

I Am The Lord Thy God; Thou Shalt have no other gods Before Me.
Thou Shalt Not Take The Name Of The Lord, Thy God, In Vain.
Remember The Sabbath Day, to Keep it Holy.
Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery.
Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s..

Obviously I’m not in favor of perjury, murder, theft, or disrespecting your parents. I’m neutral on greed, though…in my experience, it’s only considered "greed" if someone else is making money hand over fist :)

Beyond the obvious points of agreement, we get to the nub of the question, which is that many religious practices are primitive superstitions that make no sense whatsoever. Are we going to prevent stores from opening on Saturdays? Are we planning on outlawing adultery or utterances of "goddamn"? Are we planning on constraining religious freedom by preventing people from having other Gods (or no gods) besides the Christian God? Are we going to sanction the tacit endorsement of slavery ("the manservant is *thy neighbor’s*")?

What this manufactured controversy boils down to is whether we are going to accept the rambling injunctions of the jealous & vengeful Yahweh over the laws of the United States of America. Much more on this here. I’m not a militant atheist (anymore), but Moore-like stupidity brings it out in me…

fn2. Does anyone really think that the radical Islamists wouldn’t have attacked us on 9/11 if we had been more religiously observant?

Addendum from Razib: This post really wasn’t about the Roy Moore case per se, rather the role of religion in American life. Or rather, the lives of Americans, does it surprise us that the 10 commandments are being shown in an Alabama courthouse, while California funded the building of a statue to Quetzalcoatl? I think Lowell is being a bit disingenius, "One Nation Under God" is a patriotic assertion, the statue to Quetzalcoatl is more an acknowledgement of the historical past of some Californians (putatively)[3] than it is an attempt to promot his cult. We are a nation with schizophrenic attitudes toward religion-and Lowell is correct when he notes that the cultural Left has a double standard, heaping contempt on "toothless evangelicals" while respecting & promoting faiths espoused by minorities that are rather weird or quite often regressive. On the other hand, I do believe that the religious Right has not squared the circle of broad pluralism in concert with a tightly focused public piety.

fn3. It is disputable that many of the ancestors of today’s Latino Californians were Aztecs. Many are mestizo to begin with-and even then their indigenous ancestors were probably of the conquered peoples.

26 Comments

  1. “Beyond the obvious points of agreement, we get to the nub of the question, which is that many religious practices are primitive superstitions that make no sense whatsoever.”

    To shallow moderns raised on a diet of American pop culture, multiculturalism, and relativism, perhaps you’re right. In any event, it’s foolish and arrogant to assume that the trendy mores of the present age are superior.

  2. Many people think that without God there would be no morality, the powerful and wicked would do whatever they could. Only recently have people discovered that success in modern society means playing nice in repeated interactions: stealing, lying, raping, makes you a bad neighbor, spouse, or business parner. Thus I see atheism as compatible with morality because morality is necessarily those virtues that make one a better neighbor, spouse, business partner.

    But clearly many people don’t see it that way, and can’t get beyond the simple morality of when their omnipotent parents used to tell them ‘because I told you so, that’s why!’ Without an omnipotent authoritarian lawgiver, they see anarchy (“If God is dead, everything is allowed” said Dostoyevsky). I suppose most people will always see it that way, which creates many challenges for society, because people with short time horizons or little understanding of cause and effect see mainly the benefits of raping, stealing, lying, etc. For these people, you need to replace the myth of a all-knowing disciplinarian in the afterlife with something at least as good, which isn’t obvious.

  3. Eric wrote:

    “But clearly many people don’t see it that way, and can’t get beyond the simple morality of when their omnipotent parents used to tell them ‘because I told you so, that’s why!’”

    Spoken like a true adolescent. I always have to laugh at silly comments like these. I’ve seen it all before. I think in most cases atheism, expressed in these terms, is just a pose. It’s simply a way for certain individuals to feel superior to the “lower orders,” those “low IQ” idiots who are stupid enough to believe in God.

  4. “success in modern society means playing nice in repeated interactions”

    Perhaps. Perhaps not. In a amoral purposeless universe of course “success” is up for grabs too, e.g. did Stalin lead a succesful life?
    Any properties we use to assess the question-”justice”, “fairness”, “pleasure” even “power” itself-can be as hard to identify as Yah-(“For no man shall see me and live” Exodus 33:20)-weh.
    Science doesn’t chase phantoms-so “success” for an organism now means transmitting its genome-an objective definition-but certainly rape and murder can serve that goal. Stalin did in fact leave progeny.
    Do you have any data that show “nice” people have better reproductive success?
    The crusty old tome does say that “the meek shall inherit the earth.”

  5. Rhodie:

    No need for name calling (even though it’s not in the 10 commandments!). I don’t consider Dostoyevsky stupid or uneducated, or Isaac Newton. The list of smart God fearing people is large.

    Nevertheless, I do not see any logic in believing that the Bible, or the Koran, are the words of an all-powerful and all-knowing being, or that many of the inconsistent and patently absurd strictures(eg, moneylending is a sin) are divinely inspired. My atheism is not a pose, but based on the same logic I apply every day to the world. Do you really think Mensans or PhDs are stuck in some weird atheistic cult out of peer pressure?

    I respect your right to believe in God on faith, and I know lots of very smart people who believe in God. But theism isn’t compelling to me, and statistically, on average, it is a fact that atheism is more prevalent as we move up the education or IQ ladder. There aren’t many admitted atheists in jail.

  6. Do you have any data that show “nice” people have better reproductive success?

    1) wealthier people are more law abiding, with fewer arrests for assault, robbery, etc. Sure you can hit the home run in personal power (Idi Amin with his 30 kids and 8 year rule), but on average, you die earlier with fewer kids. And yes, there is white collar crime, but that doesn’t change the fact that wealthier people make better neighbors–if you don’t think so, move to Detroit for a couple months.
    2) Theoretically game theory has found that ‘nice’ behavior is a very robust, dominant strategy in multiperson interactions. Sure there’s always an incentive for some to cheat at the margins (real life optimal strategies are ‘mixed’, meaning they imply probabilities, not mandates). See The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod (1984) or NonZero by Robert Wright.
    3) Meek is a subset of nice, but assertiveness and ambition are consistent with nice, though not meek. The ‘meek will inherit the earth’ claim has been highlighted as evidence that Christianity gained popularity so quickly because potentates found it helped them rule with more authority (‘leave to Caesar what is Caesars’, etc.)

  7. Law abidance doesn’t seem indicative of reproductive success-at least around me.
    (Less immigrants) Europe is in negative population growth.
    But data-my friend-not anecdotes-anecdotally my daily paper everyday brings stories of another aged 16-22 crackdealer shot to death, generally always survived by multiple children.
    Whereas I am rich, but twice their age and childless.
    Seems to me these guys are fulfilling the biological imperative pretty successfully (at least better than me)-game theory kosherwise or not.
    You won’t find very many wealthy 32 year old grandmothers-but this town is full of poor and young grannies.
    Who is really the more “successful” -a 67 year old Westchester dowager with one rich son and two grandchildren or a dead 19 year old inner city New Orleans youth with five children by five women?
    Again-in a purposeless universe-what even constitutes success?
    I have a lot of capital that’s not doing jack for my genome.

    P.S. see Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals for an alternative interpretation of the “meek shall inherit the earth”- which I find a more plausible theory than your point #3.

  8. rhodie, let’s not be unchristian now….

  9. btw-let is not equate god with religion-some religions (buddhism, confucianism) give minor roles to god(s) (putatively).

  10. So, Eric, I’m interested: if you knew someone who really annoyed you, and you had the opportunity to kill him in such a way that you were absolutely 100% sure you wouldn’t get caught, would you do it? If not, why not?

  11. For these people, you need to replace the myth of a all-knowing disciplinarian in the afterlife with something at least as good, which isn’t obvious.

    What isn’t obvious is that a belief in the afterlife does anything to contain impulsive or criminal behavior. Atheists make up about 1/10th of 1% of the prison population. As for ethics giving you a better life, or enhancing reproductive fitness, ask Genghis Khan, I’m sure he’ll tell you something different.

    I act by certain ethics b/c a) it makes me feel good b) I can afford to act ethical within the context of my life.

    In a way ethics is like a prison dilemma, if we look at the broader picture: the more people who act right, counting on the other people in society to act right as well, the higher the pay-off is for everybody. This the essence really, behind Kant’s categorical imperative.

    But it would be foolish to say that murder, lying, etc. don’t ever pay-off in a selfish sense, because clearly they can and frequently do.

  12. Atheists make up about 1/10th of 1% of the prison population.

    Perhaps true Malloy-but a tad disingenuous. In the 20th century-the number of people killed by the isolated criminal is dwarfed by the number killed in the name of ideological movements-many of which were expressly atheistic.
    Of course-in earlier centuries-mass numbers were killed in religious wars-but let’s keep the record straight.

  13. from Jimbo: if you knew someone who really annoyed you, and you had the opportunity to kill him in such a way that you were absolutely 100% sure you wouldn’t get caught, would you do it? If not, why not?

    This is a very interesting question. A related (less violent) hypothetical is why people tip at a restaurant they are unlikely to revisit. That is, what if there are almost certainly no consequences to acting ‘mean’?

    I think Robert Wright explained this well in Nonzero. Humans are hard wired to interact socially, and the complexity of their interactions is too great to apply ethics case-by-case. Having a conscience, empathy for sentient beings, not lying, etc., are meta-strategies that get drilled into you via nature and nurture, and so even if you could get away with it, you don’t murder because your conscience would make you feel too bad, your empathy for the victem and his loved ones would make you feel too bad. This same empathy and conscience makes you a good spouse/friend/business associate. The metastrategy is beneficial because by adopting it, people can rationally infer from limited interaction how you will behave in the future; if it wasn’t hard-wired interaction would be constrained by rational paranoia. Having a conscience is thus a dominant strategy on the individual level, and for groups as well since people who aren’t stabbing each other in the back prosper, relatively.

    People without a conscience, without empathy for others, are sociopaths.

  14. true enough eric f (obviously man is a social animal)-but that theory seems to apply only to interaction within a limited group.
    And even that’s iffy. Leaving aside theory, human history is largely the story of one group slaughtering another, with the occasional neat invention tossed in. If peace is to come, it will we be through application of the Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine rather than human goodwill.

  15. Perhaps true Malloy-but a tad disingenuous. In the 20th century-the number of people killed by the isolated criminal is dwarfed by the number killed in the name of ideological movements-many of which were expressly atheistic.

    I was not being “a tad disingenuous” Lawrence H Keeley’s War Before Civilization> demonstrates that pre-modern civilzations (none of which are/were atheistic) killed, pound-for-pound, at rates perhaps six times as much as all those evil atheist causes of the 20th century (of which I can name only Communism. Fascism was not predicated on atheism.)

    The link between atheism, inhumanity, and lawlessness remains hopelessly terrible.

  16. “Obviously I’m not in favor of perjury, murder, theft, or disrespecting your parents. I’m neutral on greed, though…in my experience, it’s only considered “greed” if someone else is making money hand over fist :)…..
    Are we planning on outlawing adultery or utterances of “goddamn”? ”

    This leaves me with a question, gc: Are you “in favor of” adultery?

  17. You all should read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. Ben didn’t really believe in religion (he believed in deist), but he had a much healthier attitude about the whole thing people who debate the issues today.

  18. “human history is largely the story of one group slaughtering another, with the occasional neat invention tossed in. If peace is to come, it will we be through application of the Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine rather than human goodwill.”

    Surely violence is part of human nature, but it isn’t the dominant strategy (I haven’t had a fight since the 7th grade). The bourgeois virtues of Benjamin Franklin (be thrifty, kind, hardworking) do work, on average. People with greater enlightenment tend to be less violent or plain mean for selfish reasons. The Shining Path, Maoism, etc., were abberations (they didn’t much help the average person adopting these philosophies even if they enriched the founders). Jason is correct that homocide used to be much more common in pre-industrial times, and I think that’s because humans are more enlightened now than in the past. People have learned that it pays to play nice.

    There will always be criminals, and society should delegate monopoly use of force (violence) to deal with those who lie, steal and murder. But it’s generally goodwill that drives human friendliness, though with a gallows.

  19. Jason,

    That’s a very interesting point you raise about the proportionate killing rates of moderns vs pre-moderns.
    I remember reading about two tribes in New Guinea (I think) that had been at war since time immemorial. The casualty rate was about 1 killed 2 wounded a year, but as a proportion of the population that’s the equivalent of US military casualties in 1944. A world where it’s always 1944, always has been and maybe always will be, would kill a lot of people.
    I’ll have to check out this guy’s book.

  20. Malloy-that’s why I said a tad-as far as atheistic mass killing movements-forget fascism-communism is the name of the game-Stalin alone had killed more people in the Ukraine by 1932 than Hitler ever did. But there are many variations from Lenin to Pol Pot.
    That book does sound interesting. Although precivilization theists killing each other is not necessarily hypocrisy as there were gods of war too.
    Maybe God is evil.

  21. martin: Maybe God is evil.

    see Christopher Hitchens take on the 10 commandments for an atheistic skewering of the Old Man: http://slate.msn.com/id/2087621/

  22. “I’m not in favor of adultery (generally), just like I’m not in favor of lying (generally). Doesn’t mean that it’s worth outlawing…”

    Just makin’ sure ;)

  23. Malloy-that’s why I said a tad

    No, not even a tad. I am genuinely not convinced that a belief in the afterlife or “higher power”, by itself* does anything to contain impulsive, criminal, dishonest or inhumane behavior. The evidence I’ve seen points in the opposite direction.

    Genetics and socialization are what determine criminal behavior, not abstract theories about who’s watching you from outer-space or some post-death fear of torture. While these ideas are used to socialize, it is the socialization itself that is the active ingredient not the ideas. So you can have the same ideas, but without the socialization and still have the crime (e.g. high numbers of religious prisoners), or you can have the same socialization without the same (religious) ideas and still have low levels of crime (e.g. irreligious Japan).

    *perhaps it is in this qualification where we can all find agreement.

  24. Interesting thread.

    I tend to think both sides of that dust-up acted foolishly. While I don’t think having a copy of the ten commandments in the courthouse lobby represents a “law respecting establishment of religion” the people outside the courthouse and Mr. Moore pretty much forced the courts to toss it out with their behavior. /shrug. They had to know they were going to lose. What’s the point? What do you want to bet Mr. Moore will be running for Zell Miller’s seat in the Senate next year? Or am I just hopelessly cynical?

  25. Bah. Wrong seat. Anyway, I still think he’s positioning himself politically.

  26. Malloy-Ok I retract it-I misread your point and thought you were implying some sort of moral superiority for atheism, a la atheists don’t commit crimes or something similar. An atheist can be as bloodthirsty as any Christian. I really don’t have a dog in the fight.
    P.S. have fun in hell.

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