I was wrong…about Abraham

Abraham-sacrifices-Isaac
When I was younger I was told a story that was supposed to be one of the most inspiring stories throughout all of recorded history. It was the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. I believed that this was proof of his love and devotion to god. I also believed that this kind of faith was something we all should aspire to.

I am now totally repulsed by the story.

Let’s set aside, for the purposes of this discussion, the idea that it is likely that such a person as Abraham, as described in the Old Testament, never existed. Let’s assume that the historicity of the story is not important to the matter of whether we can learn an important moral lesson from this story.

Firstly, this story, and all others like it throughout all of religious history undermine the thing that theists claim as religion’s greatest strength: namely, an objective morality. If it were true that god gave to humankind an unchanging morality that humankind could anchor their lives to, then giving a commandment like: ‘Go kill your innocent son just to prove your devotion to me.’ is a disaster. You cannot have an eternal and unchanging objective moral law that says that you should not shed innocent blood and then have an exception anytime god decides that he wants to test someones devotion.

Secondly, is this really the best way to test someones devotion? If I were god and I wanted to test a subjects devotion, I would come up with a series of tests that was like running the gauntlet of goodness. Say for example, (and I’m totally shooting from the hip here) travel hundreds of miles until you found at least ten orphaned children that were begging on the side of a road somewhere and adopt them as your own. This would have been a perfect test for someone who wanted to be the father of nations. Why not have him prove that he was devoted to goodness by…I don’t know…actually having him do something really good?   Instead we have this example that says the way to really test your devotion to god is if you are willing to break his laws!?!?

How many cult leaders have used this example to convince their followers that they needed to do something that seemed very wrong? Several examples come to mind and I haven’t even done any extensive research on the matter. Joseph Smith, Warren Jeffs, Marshal Applewhite, Ervil LeBaron just to name a few. Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) used this kind of language to get many of his followers to join a secret group that blatantly violated what was held to be gods laws of marriage fidelity. Wasn’t it convenient that Joseph Smith was told by god that nearly forty women, (some as young as fourteen and some already married to other men), needed to secretly marry Smith and sleep with him in order to prove their faith? If Joseph Smith really was threatened with an angel holding a flaming sword telling him to lie to his wife and sleep with many other women, as he claimed, then offering his neck to the sword would have been the best way to prove his courage and devotion to goodness. The fact that he didn’t means he failed to prove his devotion to virtue. Who cares about what threat he was given or what reward he was offered. This kind of thing is precisely the thing that if resisted proves ones virtue. Does god really have such little imagination that this is the best he could come up with to test these women’s faith?

How crazy is this?  Doesn’t the Abraham story make it more likely that people who believe in the bible would be willing to follow murderous voices inside their head? If you answer no to this question, I don’t think you’re being honest with yourself, and I don’t think you’ve heard of Dan Lafferty or Ervil LeBaron.

To show how crazy this really is let’s just restate what is really going on here. In order to prove that you are really good you have to do something really bad. This is the Abrahamic test in a nutshell. It’s time that we call it what it is…either evidence of mental illness or a disturbing bit of manipulation.

Imagine that you were an employee trying to build your career in a promising company where there was lots of room for moving up. Imagine further that your manager tells you that to prove your loyalty to him that you need to start stealing money from customers. In my humble opinion the employee that passed the test would be the one who said that if this is how it was going to be then he would rather quit than steal from customers, and that he would not do it no matter the reward offered. This person would have passed the test in my view and someone who went ahead and stole the money was not worthy of keeping the job.

Are you still unconvinced?  Ask yourself this: If you are a christian and you condemn the Muslims who kill Christians because god told them to kill under certain circumstances, is this kind of exception to the rule a problem now? Remember that Muslims believe in Abraham. They believe in the idea that the murder of the innocent is permissible when explicitly commanded by god.

Please… if anyone ever tells you to do something very bad in order to prove that you are very good, just say no! Saying no to this kind of perverse suggestion, even if it were to come from the lips of the Almighty himself, is the best way to show unshakable commitment to virtue.

The entire point of a commitment to virtue is that you do not let yourself become tempted by a threat of punishment or a promise of reward as a means to get you to compromise your standards. As the well known Christian song says, ‘Do what is right, let the consequence follow!’

If you were sent to hell for standing up for what is right, at least you would be in the company of others with uncompromising moral standards, not like the sycophant Abraham. Of course that’s just my opinion of him now. But maybe I’m wrong…how about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I was wrong…about ‘certainty’

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When I was younger I was encouraged to model the members of my church that displayed the most conviction in their beliefs. Doubt, among the religious, is often considered weak and not as worthy as certainty. I grew up modeling this kind of certainty quite well. It isn’t surprising that we admire passionate conviction and confidence when you consider the central role that confidence plays in leadership skills. A strong leader can get people who are riddled with self doubt to follow them…even off a cliff, as was the case with Heaven’s Gate cult mass suicide.

I still fully acknowledge the useful role that confidence can play in many situations. When a  group has very confident leaders, the cohesion will tend to be stronger. Strong cohesion and a powerful sense of purpose can be very good things, while too much self doubt can be paralyzing.

The problems arise when followers of a very compelling narrative do not recognize the pitfalls that come with an unjustified level of certainty.

The first and most disturbing pitfall is that of bigotry. Merriam-Webster defines a bigot as : a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of another group with hatred and intolerance.

What is being described in the definition of a bigot is the kind of belief that doesn’t bend in the face of new evidence. When you have an attitude of superiority that is based mostly on a strong feeling, you are a bigot.

Lest you think I am being unfair to religious beliefs, let me be clear. I don’t think  all religious people are bigots and many people who are not religious are bigots. The most obvious example of bigotry, albeit mostly harmless, is sports fans. ‘My team is better than your team!’ Why? ‘Because they are my team…duh!’

If you say that you are certain about a belief system that is contrary to someone else’s belief system and the reason you give is that you ‘just know’; you might be a bigot. If you say that you ‘just know’ that others are wrong and you’re right and that you don’t need to justify your beliefs because you ‘just know’ that you’re right; all that is left as grounds for your confidence is your inherent superiority. This is bigotry.

In order to treat all people with equal respect in regards to their beliefs we must put our own beliefs on par with the beliefs of others. In other words, if we expect others to modify their beliefs in the face of conflicting evidence, then we must be willing to do the same. With this in mind the oft repeated notion that ‘Nothing you could say would change my mind!’ is not an expression of virtue. Far from it. It is blatant bigotry. It is saying that there is no possible way that I am wrong; I’m not like other people who make mistakes.

Any virtue, in order to be a true virtue, can only be such if it can be hoped that all people of every team, tribe, or religion would adopt it. If you do not believe it is good that the members of radical Islamic groups adopt an attitude that it is impossible that they could be wrong, then no one should adopt this attitude. If you believe that it is appropriate for your tribe or the leaders of your tribe to adopt the attitude of infallibility and you simultaneously believe that this attitude would be inappropriate for anyone else, then you are a bigot.

The hilarious irony in the way this attitude sometimes plays out among some is that the religious leaders will one minute be criticizing the doubtful and modeling an attitude of absolute certainty and the next minute extolling the virtue of humility. Either one or the other is pretense. You cannot believe that it is impossible that you could be wrong and also believe that you are no better than anyone else. In fact, the feeling that I was just like everyone else in the world, and that I was no better than anyone, was one of the first profound feelings that possessed me (for the first time in my life) the moment that I lost my belief in the religion of my youth at age 38. I realize that not everyone who is religious is like I used to be. But there must be a fair bit who are.

Doubt is a very healthy expression of the reality that we are all prone to make mistakes. It seems, therefore, that when you take the position that you couldn’t possibly be wrong, not like all those other fools, you are expressing bigotry. But… I’ve been wrong before, how about you?

I was wrong….about politics

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When I was younger, I felt the virtue of the conservative right wing to my very core. I was certain that all democrats were either stupid or evil. I was quite smug about it. I devoured anything I could get a hold of that would confirm my bias. Of course, it’s easy to see why I was so deeply convinced of the superiority of my position. Republicans stand for the virtues of hard work and accountability. They stand for freedom and traditional family values. I was also convinced that the world was on a path to hell and that only the select few who resisted the temptation of the modern liberal world would be spared destruction.

Well, now I still believe in the virtue of the republican party to the core of my being. But I have a very different opinion of liberals. I identify as a left wing liberal now days. My view of the two political parties in the United States is one of opposing virtues. We know that justice and mercy are equally virtuous and we shouldn’t call for one to the exclusion of the other. We should give space for both justice and mercy.

Republicans are trying to get the country to be more conservative. They generally want both fiscal conservatism and social conservatism. There is tremendous virtue in wanting things to stay the same. Keeping things the same means more stability and predictability. That’s not all. Consider some other points where democrats and republicans often differ. Republicans are usually calling for less money to be spent on social welfare programs. They claim that handouts undermine freedom and personal responsibility; and that’s true. That argument is a general appeal for more justice and less mercy. They will say that they have nothing against mercy but too much of it is bad. Of course this is perfectly true as well.

The part where I do differ from most conservatives, and I would argue with the 20 year younger version of myself, is the direction of the world. There is a mountain of evidence, for anyone who cares to look *, that the world is trending in the right direction. It isn’t just wealth and democracy that is trending around the world either. I am talking about a world that is much more moral than 200 or even 100 years ago.  War death, homicide, violent crime are all down over the last several decades and centuries. Women’s rights, civil rights, religious freedom, higher education are all becoming the standard for any country that wants to be taken seriously on the global stage. The only state (if you can call it that) where slavery is currently legal is the Islamic ‘state’ of Iraq and Syria aka ISIS; which is doing it’s best to return the state of the world to the way it was nearly 2000 years ago.

The funny thing is that maybe it’s okay if conservatives don’t believe that the world is becoming a better place in spite of all the evidence. They feel that it isn’t becoming a better place and this serves a very useful purpose. The rate of change in the world will exactly correlate with the rate of errors both great and small. So the conservative party serves to slow down the rate at which we march into the future and thereby making the journey smoother and more predictable. If it weren’t for the conservatives, the liberals would run so fast into the future we would likely run off a cliff.

I hope I have made you at least consider the possibility that the ‘other’ political party isn’t made up of idiots and devils. The conservatives are trying to maintain order, and anchor us to the tried and true. They want stability and justice. The liberals think that we can do better and want to try new things. They want progress and mercy. Stability vs Progress and Justice vs Mercy. Those are opposing virtues if I ever saw them. All good things; but like all good things you can have too much. It, therefore, also seems good that they are pushing against each other. That will help ensure a healthy measure of each.

So tell me…am I wrong?  I’ve been wrong before.

 

* One of many resources that can demonstrate the virtuous trend of our world:    https://ourworldindata.org/

 

 

 

 

The Perfect Life

The Perfect Life?
The Perfect Life?

 

The perfect life seems like a silly ideal. Yet it is through our striving for ideals that we make progress.

I have decided to start a blog about the perfect life. I intend it to be an exploration of what I have learned in my life up to this point, and an attempt to organize the main guiding principles, that I may progress.

Anyone who has lived for any length of time has learned that sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. This is the main theme I will try to keep in mind as we explore the good life.

I call this idea – ‘opposing virtues’. If asked which is right… mercy or justice, one should not say either one or the other. The correct answer is a full measure of both, perfectly balanced.

It is my belief that every virtue has an opposing virtue and the ideal life will keep this principle in mind.

So as I explore the full life I will be continually asking if there is an opposing virtue here that I am missing.

For example, the picture of the cow at the top might truly represent the perfect life for someone. And I might agree that there is a virtue represented there. Let’s say that the cow represents perfect contentedness. But doesn’t contentedness have an opposing virtue? I believe ambition is the opposite of contentedness. So the question is…

Laziness...or contentedness?
Laziness…or contentedness?

 

….and…

 

Ambition...or obsession?
Ambition…or obsession?

 

I believe the answer is… yes.  🙂