Missing the Point on Atheism and Mass Murder

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Pat Buchanan

Pat Buchanan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, speak...

Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, speaking to a gathering at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Atheists have reacted with outrage to Mike Huckabee‘s statements (http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151207029493634) as well as Pat Buchanan‘s column (http://buchanan.org/blog/the-dead-soul-of-adam-lanza-5428) on the role that atheism might play in such tragedies as the school murders in Connecticut. Some comments I have read suggest that atheists believe that Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Buchanan are attacking them personally or saying that atheism directly led to the school shooting. A more careful reading of Huckabee and Buchanan, however, reveals that their claims are more nuanced. The point they make, and I think they are right, is that a godless society is more likely to put the primary focus on the self and its desires. Now I am aware of James Q. Wilson‘s work on sociobiology and altruism, but more people are likely to have heard of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Most “lay atheists,” even highly educated or intelligent atheists, may not be aware of either work, but one motive for atheism among some (though not all) atheists is the desire to be free of divine judgment in order to fulfill the desires of the self. Kant was a theist of sorts, at least most of his life, and the remains of Lutheran divine command theory kept his principle of autonomy from degenerating into subjectivism–the identical moral law, Kant believed, was given to each individual by that individual self. With the remains of Christianity removed from autonomy, autonomy becomes the right to do whatever the self desires. Now that often comes with the caveat that one can do what one desires “as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else,” but without a divine judgment it is only internal conscience developed by habituation that prevents evil personal desires from being expressed. Ted Bundy made it clear to one of his victims that without a God to judge him, he believed that he should fulfill his personal desires to murder his victims and sexually violate their dead bodies. Without a sense that one’s actions can have consequences beyond this life, including negative consequences, it is easier for disturbed people such as Adam Lanza to act on their evil desires. Now he may have acted anyway–we cannot know for sure–but the point is that with one less barrier to fulfilling personal desires, it is easier for an evil or severely disturbed person to “go over the top” and act on his twisted desires. This does not imply that all mass murderers are atheists, nor does it deny that many atheists have moral lives that put some Christians to shame. In a way, the atheist who seeks only fulfillment of the self is acting more consistently than the one who affirms a larger social responsibility to the group. I am aware that evolution recognizes the nature of humans as social beings, and that a lack of all concern for others would prevent human genes from being carried on to the next generation. Yet there is no transcendent meaning to life in atheism, and as Bertrand Russell recognized, all human achievements would be lost in the final ruin of the universe. In such a meaningless world, hedonism may seem like the best option, as with Russell, but with less stable people egoism may be the course they take. Thus the point made is a general one: a society that eliminates any deity is more likely to produce more people like Mr. Lanza that one that accepts ethical monotheism.

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Christianity and Victimology

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Jesus Christ Crucifix

Jesus Christ Crucifix (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christian scholars often tilt toward social democracy or to full-fledged socialism in their thought, as well as an activist role for the federal courts in overturning immoral laws passed by the states. I admire their sincerity and zeal in their cause, but I cannot agree with their naivety about human nature and the realities of political life in a fallen world. In addition, the moralistic way in which they present their message is sapping with more sentimentality than with logic.

There is no question that Jesus demanded the highest standards of conduct toward God and toward one’s fellow human beings. The first and greatest commandment, as Jesus said, is to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind, with the second greatest requiring that a person love his neighbor as himself. These are not abstract demands–they require that a person take concrete actions to fulfill them. When it comes to loving one’s neighbor, this begins with one’s self, then moves out to family and friends, and finally to strangers in need. The command is also incompatible with any treatment of individuals that violates their dignity–this is like Kant’s third version of the Categorical Imperative that says one should act as much as possible so as to treat a person as an end in himself and not as a means to an end.

Now politically liberal Christians often claim that the federal government should love its neighbor by large-scale social programs for the poor. This sounds like a good, loving idea, but it runs into the problem that poor people are most effectively helped at the local level by people who know their overall situations. Throwing federal money at the poor has only made them dependent and lacking initiative to improve their lot in life. Any observer who has a modicum of objectivity can observe the failure of Lyndon Johnson‘s Great Society. A more modest government, oriented toward the states and to more local areas of control and resource allocation, can do more good to stimulate business to hire more workers and to help those among the poor who desire to raise themselves out of their situation of poverty.

The federal courts should not be in the position of enforcing the particular moral obsessions of judges into the federal law books. Well-meaning court rulings in the 1950s and 60s on Civil Rights were meant to fight clear injustices, but it would have been more in line with the Constitution to allow good people from the states along with people of good will from other places to persuade the good people in each state to fight against immoral laws. With enough political pressure, or with enough voters turning out those who support immoral practices, the state legislatures would most likely follow their best interests in changing the law in the direction of the good. There are no guarantees, but the seizing of state power by the federal courts will only lead to long term erosion of the power of the states and the growth of an inefficient, over-regulating federal government with the power to intimidate individuals through exercise of police power.

Well-meaning Christians look at the world simplistically–“We can change society for the better.” It is a short jump to go from “we” to a mammoth federal bureaucracy that will only grow in power until it engulfs the power of the states–and eventually guts freedom in general.

Victims are created and maintained to support the federal bureaucracy. Group identity trumps individual identity, and the individual is subsumed into a victim-group which in turn is kept dependent by the state in order to keep the ruling order in power. Christians are sympathetic to victims because Christ was also a victim of injustice and suffered a terrible death by crucifixion. Being a victim raises the moral status of the victim in the eyes of many Christians. The victim becomes a Christ-figure who does not need to reform his life, but only needs to say, “I am a member of minority victim Group A, therefore I should receive federal benefits B and C and D, etc.” Christianity needs to open its eyes to its own doctrine of the Fall, so that it recognizes that even well-meaning strategies to bring about justice do not work in real life, especially when those individuals who live irresponsibly do not amend their ways. The victim, in turn, enjoys the status of victim since it takes away his responsibility in life and turns his care over to others.

Christians should take care that their well-meaning, loving strategies do not leave the world a worse place than before. They can do what they can to help individuals in their own communities–that way, one small step at a time, without the poison of identity politics, people can be truly helped.

American Rudeness

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Immanuel Kant

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Today I was in a discount store in a small town in North Carolina. I bought two videos, and when I went to the counter to pay for them, the clerk constantly looked down, looked as if she were angry with the world. Her rudeness made me nervous, so I quickly walked away–and forgot my receipt. The clerk held it out, said in a hateful voice, “Here!” I did not respond in kind but left as quickly as I could.

When I was a child, incidents like this were rare. My parents would take me to Sears in downtown Nashville on Lafayette Street, and most of the clerks were friendly–many had worked there for years and recognized regular customers. Around 1970 the situation started to change. Younger clerks were hired, and many of them had an “attitude.” They were angry, did not want to help the customers, and were sometimes openly hateful. Over the years, I witnessed rude behavior by clerks and others in positions in which employees dealt with the public. In addition, people walking on the street would walk side by side and force a person walking the other way to avoid them by walking in the grass–or worse, in the mud. I knew rude behavior was common in large northeastern cities, where people were hoarded together like rats in a cage, but to see that behavior spreading to the South was disturbing.

Rudeness, the lack of common courtesy, is a major problem in America. The veneer of civilization is very thin, as William Golding recognized. Politeness is not only a way of showing respect to fellow human beings, it is also a way of keeping social interactions among strangers working smoothly. Since the social revolution of the 1960s, the attitude of “Me! Me! Me!” has been adopted by far too many people. They only think of themselves and their own wants (“wants,” not “needs”–they confuse the two). If they wish to hog the sidewalk and ignore the person on the other side, they simply do not care. They are either oblivious to others or worse, disdainful of others.

What can be done to stop rudeness? First, to the best of one’s ability, one should not respond in kind. Second, be careful about direct confrontation; in the present day it is impossible to know whether a stranger is willing to pursue violence when confronted. But if one is dealing with an obnoxious clerk or other employee in a business transaction, contacting the employee’s supervisor might be a good idea.

Parents should teach their children basic manners and the notion that they should respect other people. I remember one day when I was jogging in Athens, Georgia, listening to a tape, a group of children were playing. One child yelled out, “Hey, he’s got headphones in his ear like a girl!” If I had ever spoken to an adult that way, I would have severely regretted that choice. Far too many of today’s parents find such behavior “cute.” It will be not be as “cute” when the child is an adult. If a child is not taught to respect others by his parents, it is unlikely that the child will learn respect from his peer group.

Teachers should demand respect at schools, and the principles should back them up. If a parent threatens to sue, the school should not give in to the parent. A sleazy lawyer might take the case and file a suit, but the chances of the school losing would be slim–and the money spent on attorney’s fees would be worth sending a message to sorry parents that their child’s bad behavior will not be tolerated. And I’m old-fashioned enough to think that children should be taught to say “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am.” I know some politically correct individuals are opposed to saying those words, but I have no idea way. As I have pointed out before, academia is an odd place. The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), when he was old and bedridden, forced himself to stand and shake the hand of a visitor. When others around him told him he was too weak, Kant replied, “Far be it from me to show a lack of respect to a fellow rational being.” Would that all the American people had the same attitude.

“Creating” Reality vs. Respecting Reality

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Hill of Slane ruins

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Women go against the natural impulse to care for their offspring and kill their children via abortion. Academics and the media deny that marriage and the family are natural institutions and believe that marriage and the family are whatever we make them. The tradition, dating back thousands of years, of marriage being between male and female is denied by academics and judges. Children no longer have a mother at home and are reared in day care centers, and academics and the majority of the media rejoice. Pundits talk about “designer babies” created through genetic engineering. Weapons of mass destruction are created out of thin air, and a Bush administration official says that “Reality is what we decide it to be.”

Most ancient and medieval philosophers believed in a natural order that human beings were required to respect. A violation of the set order of nature would lead either to societal chaos and the destruction of the proper natural order. That began to change in the modern era, with Rene Descartes (1596-1650) moving the direction of philosophy away from nature to the self. The idea that things had real natures was cast off by William of Occam’s nominalism in the fourteenth century, so it was easy to move from the emphasis on self to the notion that categories in the mind account for the general structure of the world we experience. This was Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) position. But Kant believed these categories were the same for all rational beings, so we all experience the same world. Once this assumption was abandoned, then reality was thought to be what man willed it to be. In this view, there is no natural order that exist prior to man; it is man who makes reality what he wants it to be.

I offer a long-term empirical test of the idea that we can manipulate reality to be what we wish it to be. America and Western Europe are trying to mold reality in a way that supports an overly-individualist, self-centered, and materialistic lifestyle. If a pregnancy gets in the way, kill the fetus–after all, life begins when we say it begins. If old people get in the way, kill them–after all, life is meaningful when we say it is meaningful. If politicians want to profit from war, they should go ahead–they will invent reality to justify starting a war. If the family gets in the way of our desires, there is divorce, and for those who prefer lovers of the same gender, they can adopt, too. Reality is what me make it.

My proposal for an experiment is this: Let society go the direction of trying to create reality in the image of its desires. If my belief that the actions resulting from that view violate the natural order is correct, society will inevitably descend to chaos and ruin. Either social order will disappear into crime and chaos, or a strongman will take power to restore order through dictatorial force. If I turn out to be wrong, I am willing to stand corrected. Deal?