Religion and Morality: A Personal View27 February, 2008
In the last week there have been a couple of shootings in and around Wilkes-Barre. One shooting was across the river at a ‘nuisance bar’ and the other in the town at a ‘nuisance bar’ which had been closed. Given the lack of real jobs in the area, this, in and of itself, is not surprising. Nor is the reaction among some members of the community.
This morning on the radio I had the misfortune to hear a local news broadcast which covered the shootings and the interview they used was a muffin-head saying that “This is the price we pay for closing churches. If more people went to church then this wouldn’t happen.” I also stopped to pick up a bottle of cherry coke (one of two vices (the other is smoking a pipe and/or cigar)) and overheard a conversation among the people in line. I can’t recall the exact quote, but it was something along the line of: “We need more people of faith to stop these atheists from destroying our community.”
Yesterday, I did a quick post remarking on the under representation of atheists among the federal prison population. There have been numerous posts at other blogs pointing out that the crime rate is not inversely proportional to the number of theists in a country or a community. This pervasive belief, often treated as a rule, that ‘people of faith’ do not commit crimes, are not mean, do not hurt people, and are always more moral than non-believers has got to be one of the more annoying memes out there.
I don’t plan to look at the broad statistics regarding faith and ‘morality.’ Instead, I’m going to look back into my personal past at theistic encounters (most of which I have written about before, but not here) which I have had over the years and let you, my readers (I can’t say faithful readers since I haven’t even been here a month), decide if these theistic individuals are ALL exceptions to the rule, or if, just maybe, that rule is bunk.
When I was in middle and high school, my family lived in the Cumberland Valley of Western Maryland (which is where I picked up my ‘ya’ll). This valley is sort of a northern finger (not gonna tell you which finger) of the Bible belt.
Our Ford van was wrecked by a tractor trailer the first winter we lived back east and my parents bought a Ford Fairmont station wagon (with, believe it or not, a manual transmission). My mom, being the iconoclast that she was, got a bumper sticker which read, “The Moral Majority is Neither.” I’m not sure how many times the tyres were slashed on that vehicle. Our other car, which didn’t have the bumper sticker, was never damaged. Based upon the selectivity, I have to assume that the damage was done by people offended by the bumper sticker. Now slashing tyres is a crime. It is a property crime which, since it cost my parents money to repair the damage, is, like all property crimes, stealing. So what part of “Thou Shalt Not Steal” were the (presumably theist) vandals unclear on? Not to mention the crime of vandalism?
Though I had been exposed (occasionally) to Biblical literalism when I lived in Arizona, I was still unprepared for the Bible belt. Again and again the cruelty exhibited by theists was brought home to me through personal experiences. There was a girl in my sixth grade class who was a member of a very fundamentalist church. I don’t know if they were Pentacostals, but snake handling would NOT have surprised me given the other members of her extended family with whom I was acquainted (and I’m not sure if anyone NOT a family member was even in the church). When she was 12, she got pregnant by her uncle. Her thirty-five-year-old-married-with-three-children-of-his-own uncle. Her parents decided that she had to have the child. She also had to stay in the school while pregnant. These two decisions were made (according to the multi-source rumours I heard) in order to fulfill ‘god’s punishment.’ Why was she being punished? Because she had seduced her uncle. So, what part of “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adulter” was the uncle not familiar with? Not to mention statutory rape and child abuse?
Once, while in middle school, someone wrote a dirty word on the wall of a stall, complete with a remarkably bad illustration. The vice-principal checked all the bathroom passes which had been issued during the hour in which the crime occurred. I was one of those called to the office. When I was called in, I said that I had urinated in one of the wall mounts and not gone into a stall. As I came out, I passed three boys (all deeply religious, all deeply assholious) and one of them said, “We’re gonna say you did it, you fucking Christ-killer.” Sure enough, the three of them went in and, one by one, reported that they had seen me doing the deed. Never mind that they weren’t at the restroom at the same time. Never mind that their hall passes were timed after I was back in class. It was the word of three boys who went to the same church and were related against one outsider. One day of in-school suspension for me. A good laugh for them. So, what part of “Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness” were they unclear on?
I think that my middle and high school years were the most unpleasant of my life. Generally, the unpleasantness had to do with religion (specifically, my LACK of religion). Just a few examples: Being beaten by three fellow Boy Scouts because I would not say “Jesus is my saviour” while the Scout Master watched (I quit scouts soon after). I was asked by an English teacher (the same one who said that Tom Sawyer’s mistreatment of Jim the slave was justified by the story of Cain and Abel) in class, “Billy, you’re a Unitarian. Do you even celebrate Christmas? You do? Why?” Having my locker repeatedly defaced with swastikas and stars of David (because I was a Unitarian? The stupid hurts.) and having the vice-principal tell me, “Clean it off yourself, you deserved it.” Except for the locker, these don’t actually qualify as crimes, but on a ‘moral’ level, they are pretty low.
Washington County, Maryland was (and most likely still is) a predominately Protestant Christian area (especially in the hinterlands). For those who did not fit the majority theotype (if that’s even a word), I suspect my experience was not unique. My oldest sister experienced many of the same difficulties. My middle sister became a Roman Catholic (which was at least marginally acceptable (she was a ‘Christian’ and that’s what counted)) but still received more than her fair share of abuse. For all of us ‘newcomers’ (and if you weren’t related to half the school, you were a newcomer for all time) the harassment and low-level abuse was considered normal and was accepted as such by the parents, scout masters, teachers and school administrators.
I know at least on reaction which this post may bring: “Those people could not have been real Christians to do those things” or “You can’t condemn all Christians because of a few bad apples.” They considered themselves real Christians, and I can condemn religion for these crimes and abuses.
Christianity (and I suspect much of this stems from the persecution of the early Christians by Rome (not because they were Christians but because they refused to even go through the motions to honour the state religion)) is set up as a duality: us versus them. The ‘us’ are the members of your congregation and (in some situations) related groups. The ‘us’ are the real Christians. The ‘them’ is every single other person on earth. And the ‘them’ are the servants of Satan, the worshippers of the anti-Christ, the enemy. Because they are the enemy, the normal rules of behaviour (and even (sometimes) the law of the land) do not apply. Slashing tyres, abusing children, beating a fellow scout, mocking minorities, and petty vandalism are ALL acceptable ways of discommoding a non-believer.
We are expected to accept (and our news media has accepted) that morality comes from religion. Morality is only possible for a true believer (never mind that every single Christian sect has been anathematized by at least one other sect so none are true believers in someone’s eye). I think the opposite to be true.
The abuse and vandalism I have described above were directed against someone who the prevailing majority believed to be outside the fold. The rules of morality only apply to those within your group (Do not covet thy NEIGHBOR’S goods. Do not covet thy NEIGHBOR’S wife, Do not bear false witness against thy NEIGHBOR.). Those outside your group are outside the selective morality of one’s religion and are thus fair game for abuse, murder, rape, plunder, enslavement and theft (read the Old Testament histories, folks). Even the natural world is outside the selective morality as ‘God’ created man, not nature.
Atheists, however (and at the risk of generalizing (I do not presume to speak for other atheists, only my view of other atheists, nec pas?)), view all of humanity and the natural world of which we are a part as inside the fold. By viewing all humanity as my neighbor, there is no group which is ‘beneath’ me and my enemy. Some individuals I consider my enemy – those who use religion and ignorance to abuse their fellow humans.
And as for the muffin-heads who think that the recent shootings are due to non-belief and not enough churches? Just because someone believes in God, just because someone goes to church, does not mean that they will not commit crimes or immoral acts. Besides, maybe the ones who were shot were not considered a ‘neighbor’ by the shooters. Maybe the victims were outside the fold. Just as I was.