Wrong making right

Yesterday I stopped in to chat with one of the ladies who run the apartment complex where I live, and in the course of the conversation she said “I have my doubts about you not being a Christian, because you’re such a nice guy.” When I gently pointed out that one needn’t be a Christian to be a nice guy she apologized and backtracked. She’s a really sweet old girl, but I have no doubt that she still has that identity of good=Christian burned into her assumptions about the world.

She’s far from the only one; I’ve often had the experience of doing someone a small favor and being told that the action is “very Christian” of me… at which point I always correct the error, but usually with that same feeling that I’m not really getting through.

If as an outspoken atheist I act like a jerk I always feel I run the risk of having Christian folk equate the bad behavior with the atheism, too. It’s a common theme in their apologetics that only the fear/love of their invisible father figure in the afterlife keeps them from being murderous thieves and rapists; it makes sense given their assumptions.

Truth is, though, both my moments of nobility and my moments of assholery spring from the same common ground; I’m a human being, and that’s just the way we are.

I want to be nice to people, sometimes because I want to create or maintain a good relationship with them, sometimes because I want to promote the general level of niceness in my world, sometimes just because it flatters my self-image – I feel better about myself when I live up to my ideals of generosity, tolerance, kindness and so forth.

By the same token sometimes I’m in pain, or grumpy after a bad day, or I’m simply out of step with my own biochemistry and I lash out, taking it out on other people – I try not to, of course, because the backlash is a bitch. Even if my fellows forgive me (as they usually will) my conscience is as well constructed and effective as the next person’s and I will either make amends or punish my own self with bad feelings – no threat of eternal punishment is necessary.

In fact, it occurs to me that I may be a better person in my actions simply by virtue of wanting to provide living refutation of the identity expressed by those two utterly wrong equations, good=Christian and atheist=bad. So I suppose two wrongs can make right, after all, or at least provide more fertile ground for one.

Then again, I’ve never really bought the idea that the good Christians (or Muslims, yada yada yada; theists) do is really down to the promise of Heaven or the threat of Hell, either;  I’ve always suspected that at best the dogmas provide people with an excuse to be the better people they naturally want themselves to be. If you’re afraid that being nice will be seen by the other males as weakness, for example, it’s nice to be able to excuse yourself by saying you’re just following the lead of an invisible, omnipotent ultra-Alpha Male, one you can’t possibly challenge.

Of course the trouble with that methodology is that the ultra-Alpha’s lead often takes the pack in other, somewhat less salutary directions… deadly directions, often enough.

I don’t really understand why theists find it a nobler thing to believe that the joys of being nice were implanted by a god rather than being the result of evolutionary imperatives we acquired en route to becoming human, but they do and I accept that. I think they’re wrong, obviously, and it’s plain to me that their reasons for believing such things are emotional, not rational.

I contend that the right of good behavior does not require the wrong of irrational beliefs, and I strongly doubt that cultures strongly imbued with irrationality promote the values I consider good – kindness, generosity, tolerance – better than more rational ones. The correlations seem to me to point the other way, in fact.

Theocracies, cultures hag-ridden by less organized superstitions, strongly sexist cultures, hardline Marxist states, caste cultures, cultures split by religious or ethnic or racial hatreds… the two things all these have in common is that the beliefs they are based on are irrational and (to a rational person) demonstrably wrong, and that the people living in them are usually pretty unhappy.

Can wrong thinking, irrational beliefs, foster right actions, actions which maximise human health and happiness? Surely, and it would be foolish to deny it – it would be irrational to do so, in fact, because the evidence is ample that irrational beliefs have prompted many to humane actions which increased human health and happiness.

Are they more likely to foster such actions than rational thinking and fact-based belief, though?  I’d say the preponderance of evidence is that they are not, that irrationality is the source of far more suffering than surcease, and that rational thinking by contrast has brought far more happiness and health into the human world – ended more hunger, cured more illness, soothed more pain, informed more justice, allowed more opportunity.

What do you think?


~ by B.T. Murtagh on December 24, 2008.

5 Responses to “Wrong making right”

  1. It’s funny, I just read this article about an atheist missionary in Tempe, AZ. He makes alot of the same points.

  2. Ha! I used to heckle the street preachers too, back in the day. Funny, they seem to have gone out of fashion around here, as have the tent revivals. We still have more churches than you can shake a stick at though. Anemic as it is, it’s a wonder the economy can support so many parasites.

    The guy definitely sounds interesting, although I have to wonder about someone who studies microbiology, bioengineering, linguistics, anthropology and mathematics and then settles for something as drearily pedestrian as “design and business” – bleah!

  3. Brilliant! I couldn’t have said it better or even half as good. I’m sure I’ll occasionally link back to this.

  4. Enjoyed your post. I totally agree with you, especially here:
    “I contend that the right of good behavior does not require the wrong of irrational beliefs, and I strongly doubt that cultures strongly imbued with irrationality promote the values I consider good – kindness, generosity, tolerance – better than more rational ones. The correlations seem to me to point the other way, in fact.”

  5. Lovely post. Thanks for putting those thoughts in writing.

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