Before I start throwing around words like “moral” and “conscience” even more than I already have, I need to unpack what I mean—and just as importantly, do not mean—when I use them.
I often use “moral compass” and “conscience” interchangeably, but whichever term one favors, it is the entirely natural, materialistic, neurological and cognitive products of our evolutionary history as social animals. Like nearly every other natural trait, it is highly variable, with individuals falling somewhere along a spectrum of variation. That variability also makes it possible for the conscience/moral sense to be shaped by “nurture,” i.e. our culture and social environments—sometimes in positive ways, and at other times, not so much.i
It is quite likely that even before religion became “organized” some 12,000 years ago it figured out how to hijack an adherent’s moral sense and using the sense’s natural malleability to manipulate and control its adherents. The monotheistic faiths have since refined this manipulation into an art form. We see this today when the faithful go around condemning, for instance, what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their own bedrooms as immoral, and often for no other reason than the fears of the faithful that they may become collateral damage when God rains down fire and brimstone on the Godless. A good litmus test for what are and are not legitimate moral issues is whether they can be reduced to something like:
“If we allow people to do X, or permit them to avoid doing Y, then God will be displeased and then “bad things” might happen and people might get hurt.”ii
Allowing fear, anger, anxiety, and distrust to dictate our actions is an abject capitulation to the darker side of human nature and an active repudiation of the highest moral and ethical aspirations of the human conscience, or in the words with which President Lincoln closed his First Inaugural Address: “...the better angels of our nature.”
My Moral Compass-Pt 2-Calibration
However much it may have felt like it when the 50 + percent of the Americans that cast their presidential ballots for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (me among them) woke up on November 9th, we were not the victims of a terrible transporter accident—à la Star Trek—suddenly stranded in a dystopian mirror universe where the Axis powers won WWII or something equally bonkers. When the electoral college met on December 19th, 2016, Clinton’s popular vote exceeded that of Donald Trump’s by 2.86 million—nonetheless, on January 20th, 2017 Donald J. Trump and his running mate, Michael (Mike) R. Pence, were sworn in as the 45th President and the 48th Vice President, respectively. Yes, it really happened, and it will be part of the new reality that we, and the rest of the planet, will need to deal with for perhaps generations to come. The cultural, political, religious, demographic, and economic forces that converged to enable Trump’s occupying the Oval Office go back at least decades, and some can be traced all the way to the Colonial era.
I had originally planned to make the argument that the vacuous depths to which our civil and political discourse would sink in the 2016 elections was presaged in no small degree by the Rush Limbaugh–Sandra Fluke controversy, but something happened in my own life over the Christmas holiday that I think is a far more powerful vignette to use in making my point than a re-hash of news items from over four years ago.
Since my unexpected return to Rapid City, South Dakota over 10 years ago (damn, has it been that long…?), I have accompanied my parents to Christmas Eve services at one of the two churches they attend. Fortunately, I have yet to burst into flame or have my head rotate through 360º as I entered. I love Christmas and I am not above being moved by the standard Christmas narrative, and like Linus Van Pelt, I can still quote from memory the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, verses 8-16. Then again, I am also moved to tears every time I read, and thanks to Sir Peter Jackson, watch, Sam carry Frodo those last agonizing steps to the summit of Mount Doom—demonstrating that the mere fact that one finds a narrative profoundly moving has no bearing at all on the historicity of the events described in the narrative. One of the most enjoyable Christmas Eve services I have been to was one that was structured around the historical back-stories of some of the best loved Christmas carols—and this quite naturally appealed to my inner history buff.
So it happened that on the evening of December 24th, 2016, I was at Christ Church in Rapid City, South Dakota—the same church where, several years before, I had so enjoyed learning things I did not know about some of my favorite carols. My mother has a very high opinion of the pastor, Richard Wells, whom she describes as being a “very learned man.” This year’s Christmas Eve message was titled “This Baby Changed the World.” The pastor opened by noting the variety of calendar systems around the world, many of which we now associate with one religious tradition or another. All of which is true—but, I am saddened to have to report that it was downhill from there. He related how the calendar used in republican Rome dated years from “the founding of the city”—which is certainly true, but when he began mocking pre-Imperial Rome for this, I had to wonder if this “learned man” has actually ever read I or II Kings (or the other “historical” books of the Old Testament) because they are chock-a-block with references to such-and-such an event having occurred “in the Nth year of the reign of king X.”iii
Next, adopting a conspiratorial tone, he teased his audience by promising to reveal the true motivations behind the reforms of the Roman calendar began by Julius Caesar and continued by his successors to sync the civil calendar of what was by then the Roman Empire to the seasons—which is why it later came to be called the Julian Calendar. According to Pastor Wells, the eminent practicality of having a calendar that accurately tracked the seasons, providing a much needed uniformity when keeping far-flung Roman Empire fed, was merely a smokescreen. As far as this “learned man” was concerned, the “real” reason for the Julian calendar reforms was that it was an elaborate plot by Satan himself to distract a fallen humanity from the advent of the incarnation of God on Earth™, Jesus of Nazareth®. Perhaps feeling he was on a roll, he then started mocking the current Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism, and generally, any religion that was not his sort of Christianity. When recounting his visit to the Dalai Lama’s website, the “learned man” spoke in contemptuous, sarcastic tones of the emphasis in Tibetan Buddhism on virtues such as “compassion,” “understanding,” “forbearance,” “peace,” and “humility.” Dripping with sneering contempt, his voice rising to a crescendo, he spread his arms, exaggeratedly beseeching his flock to answer the question posed by what he took to be the current Dalai Lama’s essential message, “Can’t we all just get along?” Without giving the congregants time to digest his conspiratorial ravings, he answered his own rhetorical question with a resounding “No!”
Back when I still considered myself a believer, I would have been surprised at this because (as I believed at the time) we are God’s children and so—saved or not—virtues like “compassion,” “understanding,” etc. were written in the hearts of all of humanity by God and that heeding the call of those virtues was a first step on the road to salvation, and as such should be encouraged. Instead, this “learned” man cranked the wheel and exited the moral high road, warning his audience that all this talk of “compassion,” “empathy,” and the relief of human suffering, etc. was in truth an elaborate trap set by Satan himself to lead Christians astray.iv A cold foreboding came over me when I realized that no nuanced exceptions were forthcoming. For the remainder of the service, the only thing preventing me from standing up and walking out was my love and affection for my mother and the desire not to see her shamed and embarrassed publicly.
Even when I was a serious, sincere Christian, I would have found anyone’s advocacy of such sentiments morally contemptible. In my teens, there came a point when I became aware of facts some might use to cast doubt on the truth of the Gospel, such as the fact that the law Code of Hammurabi long predates that of the Ten Commandments, or that the Golden Rule was known to ancient civilizations and cultures long before the first versions of it appeared in the Old Testament, let alone the New. The apologia I constructed to account for the universality of the human conscience, especially in cultures that predate Judaism and Christianity all those years ago, applies with no less moral force to what I heard on Christmas Eve 2016 than when this line of thought first occurred to me some 35 years ago and runs something like this:
“The very fact that all human beings have an innate, universal response to, a longing for, things like mercy, justice, fairness—and are repelled by cruelty and the mistreatment and abuse of those unable to defend themselvesv—is precisely because we are all God’s creations, and while we are born as sinners, each one of us has a conscience, bestowed on us by God, that is no less a part of our humanity than is our sinful nature. Without an innate conscience to initially guide one towards the light of salvation, how could anyone ever recognize it when they found it? As Christians, we are called to be lights for Christ in this world, but if, as Christians, our words and conduct are abhorrent to the consciences’ of those we seek to “save,” then it is really we that are in need of being “saved.”
In writing the above, I adopted the voice of the Christian I once was, yet even as the atheist I am today, I would make essentially the same the argument—that irrespective of claims made regarding the relative merits of religious faiths or ethical, philosophic, and political systems—to the degree that they are contrary to the highest, most noble aspirations of the untainted, innate human conscience, they are an abomination.
There is a common thread, running through all of human history, from the Atlantic slave trade of the 15th through 19th centuries, the slaughter of indigenous populations by European colonists, the concentration camps and gas chambers of Nazi Germany, to the “ethnic cleansing” that plagued Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the early 1990’s. One of the first steps leading to these horrors—and many others not mentioned—is when one group becomes convinced that members of another group are somehow not human enough to be legitimate recipients of the proddings of one’s conscience.
In further essays in this series, we will examine some possible specifics of how this came about and what we might be able to do about it.
ability of most primates (including us) to pick up an object with
our opposable-thumb-equipped hand and throw it is an evolved
biological trait, but doing it well—as in consistently hitting
one’s target—is a skill that has to be learned. So while just
about anyone will improve with practice, that does not mean we can
all perform such a task well enough to make the majors. Likewise, it
has long been accepted that the human ability to acquire and use
(spoken or signed) language is a biological trait that has evolved.
Additionally, evidence for the evolution of a number sense in
humans—and other species—is rapidly growing.
Though our scientific understanding of how the human moral sense evolved is yet in its infancy, it is clearly tied to the sort of altruistic, pro-social behaviors seen in other social mammals from bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), African bush elephants, to dolphins.
As spoken languages became sufficiently sophisticated in our ancestors, our interactions with each other were able to become increasingly complex and nuanced. Just as rules of grammar and identifiable parts of speech—nouns, verbs, subjects, objects, etc. appeared and were eventually codified for each language—so too would rules for how to maintain the person-to-person and group-to-group relationships upon which our survival depended, appear.
almost laughed out loud when I re-read this because it reminded me
of that Mafia movie cliché: “Ya know, it’s a nice place ya got
here. It’d be a real shame if sumthin’ happened to it, eh,
Actually, the idea that organized religion shares aspects of organized-crime protection rackets kind of makes sense and as a quick Google search revealed, I’m not the first to see the similarity.
for example, 1 Kings 16:23: “In the thirty-first year of Asa king
of Judah, Omri became king of Israel, and he reigned twelve years,
six of them in Tirzah.” (NIV)
ivIn many ways, evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity is the most elaborate and widely-believed conspiracy theory ever cooked up by the human mind.
vYeah, what about those bits in the Bible about taking care of widows and orphans, eh?