Sunday, November 20, 2016

My Moral Compass-Pt 1-Origins

Introductory Note:

Though I am now an atheisti, I was not always so. Until my late teens, I was a very sincere, devout, Evangelical Christian, and my younger self took that faith very seriously indeed. In describing my thinking and reasoning of that younger self, I have endeavored to treat it with all the seriousness I did at that time. My use of capitalizations and symbols such as “TM” and the registered trademark symbol comes, it is fair to say, from my 2016 self. My reason for doing this, is to make the point that my younger self’s (okay, I kind of feel like I’m trying to write a Doctor Who episode) understanding of things like God’s will and/or what the most important parts of Christianity did not, in the end, match that of the Christians among whom I spent my formative years.

Forging My Moral Compass-Pt 1-Origins

Raised in an Evangelical Christian home, from an early age I was taught that it is wrong to bear false witness, and that what is, or is not, actually true, really matters. God, I was also taught, is a just God, and it was our duty to follow His example and strive for justice here on Earth. Being a thoughtful, reflective youth, I reasoned that since God was omnibenevolent, the source of all that is good in creation, it must follow that the highest, most virtuous ideals to which humanity can aspire were placed in the human heart and mind by God. While no one can ever fully achieve those aspirations, to honestly and humbly strive to do what we can, each of us according to our own lights, is surely the most ennobling and edifying journey a human being can undertake. Considering myself a Truly Sincere Christian Believer (TSCB) at the time, to do otherwise seemed to me to be contrary to God's Will®. I also thought, quite reasonably in my view, that the depth and sincerity of others’ Christian commitments would be manifested in their words and deeds too.
Alongside my religious upbringing, I was also a bright, inquisitive kid with a profound curiosity about the world around me, and was especially interested in science and history. I would lay outside at night in a sleeping bag, Dad’s binoculars, and books about the stars and just gaze in wonder for hours. I went through phases where I believed in ghosts, Bigfoot, and UFOs, but deep down inside I was always a skeptical, critical thinker—and yes, I never did get a straight answer on just were Cain found a wife after being marked and banished for the murder of his brother, Abel. By the time I reached my teens, my insatiable curiosity led to my being an avid readermostly science, ancient civilizations, lost cities, etc.,..and fiction—with a speed, vocabulary, and comprehension typically three or four grade levels above my classmates at school.ii
In my early teens, and still a committed, believing Christian, I had begun to see things I found troubling. Growing up, I remember singing songs like:
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
All are precious in His sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
I took these words to heart and was, quite understandably, very disturbed when the son of our church’s pastor, someone I considered a role model, casually referred to Native Americans as “rezzers” and African Americans as “darkies.” I distinctly remember thinking, “What happened to ‘Red and yellow, black or white, They are precious in His sight?’” At the time, I was profoundly troubled by this, but I thought it must be me. Perhaps there was some incredible epiphany others had been graced with that I had not. Lacking any “herd instinct,” I was never the sort to get into fights under the bleachers at school football games, nor did I really get all the hostility between different faiths, but I did believe that the Christianity I knew had the “truth,” or near enough so, that someday, the apparent contradictions between what I observed and what I believed would be resolved on the basis that my religion was “true.”
In high school, my peers and I were constantly reminded of all the temptations “out there” in the godless, sinful world and how important it was to resist them. The music we listened to, the people we associated with, the words we used, the activities we engaged in, what we stood for, what we took stands against—it was impressed upon us that our choices can either redound to the credit of our Christian Witness©, or they can fatally undermine it. Obviously then, our words and actions have downstream consequences, not only for ourselves, but for others. Having learned to loathe hypocrisy, I considered it incumbent on anyone that called themselves a “Christian” to proactively consider possible unintended consequences of what they say and do, because like a math teacher, God would insist that we show our work.
We were also cautioned to avoid the company of the “wrong crowd” lest our walk with Jesus” suffer and/or by presenting an un-Christ-like example, we might recklessly endanger unsaved souls by acting in ways which discredited not only our Christian Witness©, but that of Christians generally. As a genuine TSCB, I had no wish to be responsible anyone's soul being damned for all eternity. Being idealistic“idealistic” in the sense that the wider, secular world would recognizeI wanted to be one of the “good guys”and In my youthful naiveté, I thought doing both would not cause any conflicts—after all, if Christians were to be shining lights of “goodness” in a sinful world, it was obvious that the “goodness” had to be the sort that would be recognizable to make a positive impression on the “unsaved.”
Now, looking back 40 or so years, I realize that my Christianity influenced my idealism a great deal less than I assumed at the time. I now think it had more to do with the good guys/bad guys, heroes vs villains narratives depicted on TV, moviesiii, and in books. Personal experience also contributed to my idealism. I was always small for my age, and was bullied off and on in elementary and junior high school. Eventually I learned to defend myself and found that once you stand up to most bullies, being lazy and not very bright, they sought out only the easiest targets—at least in the late 1970s and early '80siv. Having been the victim of bullying myself, I felt empathy for others so victimized and stuck up for others being bullied.v The fact that I never saw any of my peers that thought of themselves as Good Christian Teens® come to the defense of someone being bullied only added to my growing disappointment.
When I left home for boot camp after graduating high schoolvi and became more aware of current events and the history behind them, the disconnects between what Christians as whole said they believed in and what they actually did grew glaringly obvious—and morally repugnant. One of the largest fault lines ruptured in my early 20s—in the mid-1980s there were several high-profile stories about anti-abortion activists that had conspired to violently attack abortion clinics and in some cases, actually murder abortion providers. My personal moral compass led me to expect Christian leaders to thunderously denounce such acts from every pulpit in the land because somewhere in my moral development, I picked up the odd little notion that there are some ends that can never justify the means undertaken to achieve them. Instead, the only voice I heard was my own—accompanied only by a chorus of crickets. That “moderate” Christians, as individuals, congregations, and denominations, across the nation, kept their silence, and refusing to condemn, in no uncertain terms such violence in the name of God, Jesus, or whatever, was (and is) morally contemptible.vii By that point I had already arrived at what one might describe as an agnostic Deism. But from that point on, any remaining shreds of moral or ethical credibility Christianity might have had, leftovers from my childhood, were gone, forever.
Amazingly, after over a quarter century since realizing I was an atheist, and after having spoken and written about my journey so many times before, it was only in the course of writing this that I had something of an epiphany—a bit ironic, given the original meaning of “epiphany” of an experience of the divine. For as long as I can remember, what I thought made Christianity the "true" religion was that at its core was an abiding belief in, and a commitment to live by, a set of valuesthe very values that had so powerfully resonated with the proddings of my own innate conscience, values and virtues that felt self-evidently right. The "Christianity" that in the end I rejected, seemed to care more about valuing the right beliefs. This pattern of starting out believing in the right values, only for it to flip, whether by design or not, into valuing the right beliefs, will be a recurring theme throughout this series.
Below are but a sample—not an exhaustive catalog—of the values and virtues I feel obligated to uphold. Some of them had their genesis in my Christian upbringing, while other did not. Regardless of the context in which I became conscious of them, I have striven to adhere to them.
  1. Empathy
  2. Justice—Just as an example, I accept that there may be some crimes, so heinous, that the guilty party’s life ought to be forfeit. On the basis of Old Testament scripture, many protestant denominations do in fact argue in favor of capitol punishment. For the sake of argument, let us suppose they are correct in doing so and that executing those found guilty of certain crimes is God’s Will®. However, if God is just, then it would be utter folly indeed to assume that He would not demand those that claim to be acting in His Name®, take great care that they execute the right person! For a Christian in the 21st century to brush off the 340+ people wrongly convicted—20 of them on death row—many exonerated by DNA evidence, is an unconscionable act of bearing false witness.1 If the God they believe in truly exists, they should all start praying now that he have mercy on their souls.
  3. Humility—including a tolerance of ambiguity, or in the words of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland during the English Civil Wars of 1642–1651—"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think is it possible you may be mistaken."
  4. Belief, without understanding, is little more than prideful ignorance
  5. Ends do not always justify means, and if someone tries to convince you otherwise, run!
  6. Chattel slavery—one human being “owning” another, in the sense that we own our car or our pets—is, was, and always will be wrongviii
  7. Physical, intellectual, and moral courage are all of a piece
  8. Do not demand from others what you do not demand from yourself
  9. Question everything—even those things others say you should not—and you’ll fall for nothing
  10. Be skeptical of any person, institution, or ideology that attempts to appeal to our fears—of others, the new, the different, the unknown, and the unfamiliar—as they have only their best interests in mind, and no one else (more on this later)
My native human conscience, when applied to the Evangelical Christian environment I was raised in, is what finally compelled me to leave religion behind and eventually, reject supernatural beliefs altogether. In Part 2, I will examine how we, as a nation, became more concerned with valuing the right beliefs—often utterly uncoupled from empirical facts and/or evidencethan with believing, and living by, the right values, and how these failures fed into the existential crisis the United States found itself in during the 2016 presidential campaign that ended with the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United State (POTUS).

1. ‘Innocence Project-Cases’. Innocence Proj. at < >20 Nov. 2016

iAs Richard Dawkins has observed, it is nonsensical, and even harmful, to say that someone was “born a X”; where X is a religious faith—the only real exception is “Jew,” which would then look like: “She was born a Jew, but is now non-practicing.” I would, in a tongue-and-cheek way, be happy to agree with “Mark was born a pantheist...” because I was new, and everything looked and felt supernatural.
iiIronically, by the time I was in high school, I was in the adult Sunday School classes at my church, and it was not infrequently that someone suggested I should consider going into the ministry.
iiiFortunately, my parents did not forbid my siblings and I going to movies as the parents of some of the kids I went to church with did.
ivNow parents have to worry that the bullies might be carrying a gun.
vThis is an area where my religious upbringing did make a lasting contribution to my personal moral compass by reinforcing my loathing of hypocrisy. As a young teen, I noticed that too many groups/communities that were persecuted or suffered discrimination in the past did not get the moral of their own stories, later failing to defend other groups suffering similar injustices. The Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies were established by groups fleeing religious persecution in England but upon arriving in the New World, showed no compunctions about treating dissenters in their own midst exactly as they were treated before leaving England.
viI did not expect to spend 20 years in the military at the time, and I’m still somewhat astounded that I lasted that long.
viiThe phenomenon of more moderate, less extreme religious believers, failing to rebuke the extremists in their ranks is found to a much greater extent in Islam, but that fact in no way, shape of form lets Christianity off the hook. Put it this way, how incredibly impressive would it be if Christianity openly and publicly demonstrates that it takes its duty to extirpate the cancer of extremism from within its own body of believers, while ”moderate” Muslims do nothing about their own much bigger problem?
viiiAs a student of ancient history, I have to acknowledge that “slavery,” broadly construed, has been ubiquitous throughout history, likely since before the dawn of agriculture and the first cities. Explaining something however, is not the same as excusing it. In Rome (both the Republic and the Empire), slaves were often the only member of a household that could read and write, earn their own money, and even buy their own freedom. In fact, a freed Roman slave, while not considered a Roman citizen, entitled to what we today would call “due process,” the children of a freed Roman slave were considered citizens. As any Christian ought to know—and shame on any that do not know—being able to assert one’s rights as a citizen of Rome came in awfully handy to the Apostle Paul.

In the brutal, inhumane, chattel slavery in the United States that was ended only after the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, it was forbidden to teach slaves to read or write, nor was there any way for a slave to earn money and buy their own freedom.

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