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A Thought on Morality

July 17th, 2007

Christians often wonder how atheists can have morals at all, or even state positively that they can’t. However, I would ask anyone who gives even the slightest credence to that idea to consider this story:

A Cypress man charged in the death of a Southwest Airlines flight attendant said Saturday that he was doing God’s work when he went to a Montrose-area bar last month, hunting for a gay man to kill.

“I believe I’m Elijah, called by God to be a prophet,” said 26-year-old Terry Mark Mangum, charged with murder June 11. ” … I believe with all my heart that I was doing the right thing.” …

Mangum, who described himself as “definitely not a homosexual,” said God called on him to “carry out a code of retribution” by killing a gay man because “sexual perversion” is the “worst sin.” …

Mangum — who claimed he has studied the Bible for “thousands and thousands and thousands of hours” — said God first commanded him to kill during a “visitation,” or dream, while he was in prison in 2001.

Now, correct me if I am wrong, but when was the last time you ever heard of anyone going on a murderous binge like that, saying that atheism gave them the right to do so? I can’t think of anything even close to that, can you?

This is one of the greatest weaknesses of a religion like Christianity, one of the biggest rationalizations for the greatest evils man can perform. While a secular person takes responsibility for their own morality, a religious person places it wholly in the hands of god, allowing “god” to decide that any act is potentially moral–and all too often, people then decide on their own what “god” wants. This gives them the moral cover to allow their darkest, most horrific desires for violence to become holy will. As I pointed out before:

Ironically, it could be atheists who are in fact more moral: a recent survey asked about two thousand Americans if they believed that torture was an acceptable practice. 26% of Catholics said it was never acceptable, 31% of White Evangelicals said the same–but 41% of secular respondents said they would never approve of torture. Similarly, twice as many Catholics than Secularists approved of torture being used “often”–21% of Catholics as opposed to 10% of Secularists. While some religious people, as cited above, clearly believe religion brings greater morality, religious morality is perhaps more easily corrupted, as one can choose to believe that God wants you to do something that would normally be immoral, in His name. Since many religious people believe that whatever God approves of is not immoral, they can rationalize the “morality” of a clearly immoral act. Secularists, on the other hand, cannot make God give them an ethical rain check, as they themselves assume responsibility for their morality; they cannot pass the buck to God and claim piety. While I cannot prove that Secularists are more moral, I think I can safely exclude that religious people are intrinsically more moral.

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  1. Chris
    July 17th, 2007 at 12:25 | #1

    re: atheism and murder
    Dostoevsky, “Crime and Punishment”

    while I take your point, I could find benign and malign examples of each.

  2. Luis
    July 17th, 2007 at 12:34 | #2

    re: atheism and murder
    Dostoevsky, “Crime and Punishment”
    Um… mind being more specific? And are you suggesting a fictional work as evidence of actual human actions?while I take your point, I could find benign and malign examples of each. Really? Could you cite even one real-life example of atheism being used by an atheist as a moral rationalization for murder? Please, do give even just one example. I betcha it’s not so easy to find.

    I can find a lot of examples of Christianity being so used, dozens of such in the bible alone (e.g., dashing babies’ heads against rocks, ripping open pregnant women’s wombs), and dozens more throughout history (e.g. the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, etc.). Do you think you could find examples of atheism giving rise to such atrocities? I’m pretty sure that you can’t.

  3. K. Engels
    July 17th, 2007 at 14:30 | #3

    Luis, you know someone is just going to start conflating Stalinism/Maoism with Atheism, right?

  4. July 17th, 2007 at 15:06 | #4

    This man was clearly mentally ill. Mentally ill people often attach religious icons or ideologies to their acts. It’s part of the “fall-back” delusional state for humans from all cultures. His act was not related to Christianity but to typical psychotic thinking. He could have attached any ideology to his actions so long as it explained his irresistible impulses to his satisfaction and was prevalent enough in his culture for him to be exposed to it and absorb it. Had he been born in another culture, it would have been something else.

    I think it’s unfair to label this as anything to do with religion, and, even more unfair to hang it on a specific religion. Humans have a innate desire to attribute behavior to the influence of a higher power whether they be good acts or bad acts. People like Mother Theresa would say they were doing “God’s work”. It’s the same psychological impulse that caused this murderer to attribute his actions to “God’s will”. Christian beliefs are often seemingly “behind” bad acts because we read news in English and English-speaking cultures are predominately Christian. If we could read other languages, we’d find that other religions or belief systems appear to similarly spur bad behavior but it’s really all about mental illness.

    You may want to read “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” as it has interesting theories regarding how we have come to conceptualize God and possible origins of psychoses that involve actions directed by higher powers and the hearing of voices. It’ll offer a perspective you may find useful when considering religion and religious thinking.

  5. Luis
    July 17th, 2007 at 18:52 | #5

    K.:Luis, you know someone is just going to start conflating Stalinism/Maoism with Atheism, right?Oh, yeah. I fully expect that. Of course, the counter-argument is easy: these people’s murderous frenzies were not driven by atheism. None of them said, “God does not exist, therefore I will kill all these people.” The claim that they killed because they were atheists is unsupportable, as there are clearly voluminous examples of leaders infused with religion who committed atrocities not necessarily prompted by their beliefs–therefore atheism is not what drives murderous impulses, therefore simply the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” argument that atheism is what drove them to murder is specious.

    On the other hand, there is no end to examples of people who were not only religious, but clearly either were driven by their religion to commit atrocities, or else used it knowingly as an excuse to commit those atrocities. Osama bin Laden is simply one of the more recent examples of this.

    Shari:This man was clearly mentally ill.Please differentiate between “delusional state” “psychotic thinking” and “having deep personal faith and the conviction that God speaks to you.” What differentiates them? Nothing? Are all people who believe god speaks to them delusional and psychotic? Mind you, not that I disagree with that, but a lot of Christian people would.

    Is the only differentiation that this guy was violent in his delusions, then I would suggest that the distinction might be more of categorization than of true mental health vs. illness, else all violence is psychotic.

    True, people can have such delusions that are not connected to religious themes–it could simply be a commanding voice inside your head, for example. And maybe this guy is that. But can you absolutely say that this guy is not mentally sound, except that he has allowed a fervent belief a certain religious ideology to allow him to circumvent morality and do what he and others want to do? How can you know for sure that this guy didn’t have a really vivid dream, interpret it as being God speaking to him, and at the same time had such a deep conviction that God’s will be obeyed that he decided it was time to hunt down a gay person? The fact that he probably grew in among rednecks and received strict cultural cues that homosexuality was perverted, sinful, and rightly punishable in all likeliness helped him right along.

    And while the guy was probably mentally ill, I really don’t think that you can conclude that positively, or that without the enabling influence of religion he would have done the same thing, to the same extent.

    Certainly the indoctrination that there’s a big, grey-haired bearded guy floating up there who can make any immoral action moral, and that he speaks to people in dreams and visions, did not help at all.

    Lastly, while this example may be explained by mental illness, can everything else mentioned?

  6. July 17th, 2007 at 20:57 | #6

    “Please differentiate between “delusional state” “psychotic thinking” and “having deep personal faith and the conviction that God speaks to you.” What differentiates them? Nothing? Are all people who believe god speaks to them delusional and psychotic? Mind you, not that I disagree with that, but a lot of Christian people would.”

    The difference is on how people act on their beliefs. People who spend thousands of hours reading the bible and then go out and lead a man into a situation where they can murder him and blame it on God are delusional. This is actually a pretty easy way to differentiate psychotic from non-psychotic. When one determines the main criteria for whether a person can be legally placed in a mental institution against their will (and they are displaying other symptoms), the main criteria is: Are they a danger to themselves or others? He hit that one on the head, didn’t he?

    *I* never said people who feel “God speaks to them” are delusional. The people who believe they are being instructed or persuaded to harm themselves or others are delusional and having a psychotic episode. The line is drawn very clearly.

    Most people who feel that God speaks to them feel it occurs indirectly through experiences and situations. They don’t feel they are receiving absolute directives but hints as to what choices to make in life. Most of them don’t behave obsessively (thousands of hours of bible study) and then go out and kill people because they’ve developed an unshakable belief that God is directing them to behave amorally in direct opposition to the strongest tenets of their faith (“Thou shalt not kill”).

    To a certain extent, all violence is psychotic. Murder in particular is almost certainly always carried out in a a moment of temporary insanity or by someone with a mental problem which allows them to coldly carry out violent acts because they are unable to distinguish “right” from “wrong” or incapable of feeling empathy. The difference is in the thought processes leading up to acts and how pervasive and prolonged they are. Psychotics tend to ruminate a lot and have persistent delusional thoughts before carrying out a violent act. People who are violent habitually (but not murderously) are likely chemically imbalanced (and if we had the instrumentation or right to measure all neurochemicals, a lot of violent people could be chemically treated – this can be done now but it’s like squashing their will with a sledgehammer so we don’t do it)

    This was my field in college and the sort of thing I worked in just after college so I know a bit about it.

    I will ask you a question; what percentage chance would you assign to the possibility that this fellow is insane vs. sane? You ask if I can absolutely state he is insane. Without interviewing him, I cannot. However, can you absolutely state he is sane? Can you even say with conviction that there is a greater chance he is sane rather than insane? If you can’t conclude that there is a greater chance he’s sane than insane, then that should factor into any opinions you present about religion and his crime, particularly since most delusions related to violence in people with long-term mental problems will take on a religious component in a culture where a religion is predominant.

  7. Paul
    July 18th, 2007 at 02:58 | #7

    Oof… tough blog entry. Excellent one, though.

    I had a feeling the “but this guy is plainly mentally ill” outlook on this story would come forward- it’s the first thing that popped into my mind.

    The answer to that, of course, is just like you put it- what’s the difference between this guy and someone who does NOT go hunting and killing people, but instead spends, say, an hour each day in devoted prayer to God because God told him to?

    The only difference is in their actions, right? One guy goes hunting, one guy goes to pray, so the first guy is mental and the second guy is just really devout?

    And by this standard, is George Bush mentally ill? He believes that God intentionally put him into the Presidency (apparently God is okay with election fraud) so he could fight terrorism and such.

    What’s the difference between Mangum, who God told to go hunt gays, and Bush, who God told to go kill Muslims and “evildoers”?

    Personally, I’m feeling very smug about MY religion (Nichiren Buddhist) now, since we don’t have God. Our delusions are all self-generated. 😉

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