Recently I’ve been having a very productive discussion with a friend of mine who is quite a devout born again Christian. He has been open to reading some things I have suggested, including Sam Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation.” My friend’s questions forced me to really think about and articulate my own personal life philosophy, one without any sort of god, but with definite moral codes. My friend has been a strong supporter of the Iraq war and used to be a Bush supporter, but seems not to be anymore. The fact he and I can have civil and productive exchanges says a lot about how our friendship has grown and trust and openness have developed. I credit my friend to a large degree with this as he has been patient with my liberal rants many times and has been open to looking at things from a different angle.
Below is some of our exchange. I was hoping this would stimulate further conversation here. I would love to hear your philosophy of life!
I had a further thought for you about Sam Harris’ moral creed. My wife was telling me about ancient Greek culture, which was based on honor versus shame, rather than our concepts of virtue and guilt. I just finished watching The Last Samurai. The Samurai had a similar, honor-based morality, and it was very moving for me to behold.
Some South American tribes have a moral code whose highest ideal is to trick one’s enemy. The more you can deceive him before you kill him, the better you have done. That particular code has no appeal for me, but at least it’s self-consistent.
I think this boils down to the question “Is there one ‘true’ morality”? As a biologist and evolutionist, I don’t think necessarily. There are ways societies work with their own rules, that make for success and ways that lead to failure and that group dying out. I don’t see nature as having morality. It is amoral (not immoral). I see humans as one of the results of evolution. So we are just creatures like any other.
Watching our chickens, they are like you might imagine little dinosaurs. They are fairly ruthless with each other. The strongest get the highest status, the safest place near the Rooster (the protector). Lower birds live on the outskirts. Youngsters are kept in their place with force, until they grow big enough to challenge the adults. Do I want them to behave in this non-compassionate way? No. But this is what they do. Their systems are a product of years of evolution. It is the way the strongest genes are passed on. I see humans as products of this same system, though we are also growing in self awareness, and perhaps in that way, maybe capable of looking further ahead.
While I might strongly disagree with some of the moralities you have stated, (and chicken culture) I can see them in the context of biology. I guess they have worked for the group(s) who have had them, to keep that group alive and propagating.
My question is, why would Sam Harris prefer one system of morality over another? For the Greeks and Japanese, the highest act was to die while fighting one’s enemies. For you and me, the highest act might be to show kindness to our enemies, even in battle. For a South American native, the highest act is to trick your enemy and then kill him. Each moral code has some justification. How does an atheist like Sam Harris choose between these contradictory moral codes? He seems simply to have settled on the one that came to him courtesy of the Judeo-Christian tradition in which he was raised.
Well, Sam might ask why you have chosen Christianity as your moral code. As you know, most of the major world religions declare themselves the “truth”. I would say you chose Christianity because that is what you were exposed to. Had you lived in a Muslim country, you would likely have chosen Islam, Israel Judaism, etc, and in both instances be really glad you did not get led astray by those nasty Christians who are teaching the way to hell. In addition, Sam might ask you why you interpret the Bible/Christianity in the way you do, because you could be following other parts of the Bible instead of what you choose to pick out as the most relevant. As he says, everything from the inquisition and slavery to kindness and non-violence, can be justified by the Bible.
I always wonder why you seem to feel you need “outside guidance” on a moral code. I actually think you have a strong internal morality that has nothing to do with the Bible or Christianity; you just need to trust yourself to listen to it. My sense is you are sometimes concerned that if you did not have certain religious boundaries that you might do bad stuff; be mean to your parents, not nice to your wife, run off and do selfish things etc. I actually think you would not do these things, even if you did not believe in a Christian God. I think you would quickly see how those “immoral” actions would impact negatively on yourself and those you love and you would choose a wiser course. What I’m saying, is that I don’t think one needs the 10 commandments, or an in depth study of Biblical passages to decide what is the right thing to do. In the end we will act for the interest of those we love, and for our own well being. This is what makes society work and people live happily. I guess I don’t see anything wrong with that. The only difference I see world wide is how big you consider your “clan” to be. Do you only identify with the well being of your family, your town, your state, your nation, or the whole planet? When you get to realizing everyone and the entire planet are worthy of compassion and care, all part of “your group”, then you see things quite differently.
You and I were talking about illegal immigrants. There is a big thing going on with the Right now about how bad they are, and how they might be taking jobs from Americans or bringing terrorism here or just be outlaws in some way. We are told to not think of them as people just like ourselves, but faced with a different set of circumstances. I think you heard my point that the children of those immigrants are as worthy of care and love as your kids, or the kids I see at school. They are humans with value, life with value, experiencing tears and happiness as fully as you or I or the kids we know here. When you see them like that, as part of your “clan”, as fellow human beings, it is no longer “moral” to say “tough luck, your parents should not have put you in this position”. You start to see the planet as a whole, the human species as a whole, all life as worthy of care and compassion. You start to look for solutions that are bigger than “keep the illegals out so we can maintain our way of life here in the USA.” You start to look for ways that will be good for all the humans on the planet.
Then you realize its not OK to blow up Iraqi children (or Afghani children or Sudanese children..), while trying to save fetuses and blastocysts here in America. You start to see the contradictions in that. If you believe human life is valuable (or God-given ets), then all human life is such. You start to be able to put yourself in the shoes of an Iraqi Father, his children killed and injured as “collateral damage” in the US attempts to do what ever we are trying to do there. You realize those kids are as precious as your kids. When you see a photograph of a dead Iraqi child, you cry like she was your own child, because she was someone’s precious little girl. War quickly becomes a less palatable option. You start to see the true horror. When a fighter jet flies over your house, you can imagine if it was hostile and dropping bombs and missiles on your neighborhood, and realize this is exactly what we are
doing to people just like ourselves.
These are all things one does not need a Bible, Torah or a Koran to discover. In fact I would say all those books seem to make it harder to realize the humanity in others, as they both make a lot of distinctions between “us the believers” and “them the non-believers” As you know dehumanizing the “enemy” is necessary to enable killing them. We had to dehumanize the “japs” “krauts” “kooks” and now the “Hadjis”. We have to make ourselves forget they are actually just like us, that causing their suffering and death is pretty much like going to our own home towns and killing our neighbor’s children and blowing up their homes and farms. They are all our neighbors, and in an increasingly small planet, this becomes more and more apparent.
I guess I’m just jumping further ahead in how I see some of what Sam Harris is saying. The solutions to humanity’s challenges are not going to be found by analyzing biblical or Koranic verses. The future of our civilization and our planet is going to be dependent on realizing the humanity in all of us, and the value of the planet itself to sustain us. If we continue in an “us vs them” mentality, with the technology we have now to destroy each other and to destroy the environment, we are NOT going to make it as a species. Maybe that is inevitable, that we just can’t get there, to rise above our most base instincts of tribe and protection of our own resources. But I believe there is hope we can. So I guess to a certain extent I feel like religions are a distraction, even an impediment, to doing what we need to do in the next century or two to ensure the happiness of our children and grandchildren and I’m assuming we actually care about them.
When you see religion as all mythology, as I basically do, it becomes a side issue, and distraction, to what is really going to count. I know you and I won’t agree on this, but I’m just saying where I am, as you know. I know you see religion as the only road to salvation after death, but I see death as lights out, its over, and believe it or not, that’s more or less OK with me. I’ve reached a peace with that. Its a tough thing to come to terms with, as we are certainly evolutionarily programmed to abhor and fear death, (which keeps us alive and propagating) which is why we want to have something after, some desperate hope or promise that its not “over”. But I can create meaning in this life I have now. Its my choice and knowing its the only chance I have to be a conscious being, it is truly a precious few years here. As Sam would say “Once you stop swaddling the realities of the world’s suffering in religious fantasies, you will feel in your bones how truly precious life is.. ” I think perhaps one can only understand that statement from the point of view of a non-believer. Maybe that’s why atheists don’t fly planes into buildings.
Well, I guess I’m done now. 🙂
Now THAT was rather a rant, aye? 😉