Certainty in the Uncertain

History is nothing if not documented change – change in cultures, societies, nations – each one having their own take on morals and ethics, religion.

So it is extremely curious to me that current day believers are convinced that there is one true religion that provides a morally absolute framework and that they happened to be born at a time in the world when that one true religion was in fashion and they happened to be born in a region where it was practiced and to parents who were teaching or amenable to it.

It’s like the ultimate version of my deity can beat up your deity.

I don’t see how you can be so certain of a thing like a religious belief and take from it an absolute unchanging morality – when there’s been 10’s of thousands of religions in human history.

How can a believer be certain to have the right and true religion from all the religions that we know about through history, when there’s the same amount of evidence for all of them being real. Which is none at all.
It boggles how a believer can cling with certainty to a belief system that has no basis in logic or evidence to support the claims? What makes them reject all other currently practiced religions in favour of any one?

Usually people remain in the religion that their parents exposed them to. Or at least, its a religion that is dominant in the area were they reside. Safety and more importantly, validation in numbers.

But why accept a currently practiced religion over older ones that are now out of fashion – if there really was a god or deities – wouldn’t they have wanted worship and tribute from the start of there being people?

Isn’t it better to pick none than pick a potentially wrong one?

If there’s an afterlife and some judgement  isn’t it better to say, hey, I couldn’t have known who, so I opted to be a good person, use the brains that I had and live my life.

Instead of well, I though the other guy was the true god, so I worshiped him – and now, you’re kinda…standing there in front of a totally other god – other variation on the one you picked and well…you’re screwed.

Because the one thing that all the deities seem to have in common is jealousy and vindictive pettiness to the point of genocide more often than not.

Which, when you think about it, should indicate that these would not be anything that had anything valid to say about morals or deserving of worship.

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footnote to add a link to Tim Cooley’s Atheist blog post

The words Christians Use That Sicken Me

And I include this here because these words and phrases stem from baseless certainty.

Because we can’t always choose…not..to kill…today

[War] is instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands! But we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers…but we’re not going to kill…today. That’s all it takes! Knowing that we’re not going to kill…today!
Kirk in ‘A Taste Of Armageddon‘ (at 6:15 minutes in)

Over our lives, there will be occasions where we will be a victim, we will victimize someone, we will watch a person be victimized and on rare occasions, under the right conditions, we may stop that victimization of another person or refuse to be victimized.

You are probably protesting that you’d ever be one or allow someone to be or make someone into one. Consider these three events and then consider how much they contribute to any historical or current event – global or even personal.

In the early 1960’s, a  Yale University professor, Stanley Milgram designed an experiment to test obedience:

He found, surprisingly, that 65% of his subjects, ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks-up to 450 volts-to a pitifully protesting victim, simply because a scientific authority commanded them to, and in spite of the fact that the victim did not do anything to deserve such punishment.

In 1964,  Kitty Genovese was murdered with 38 known witnesses. She was attacked twice by the same assailant, her cries for help ignored.  No one phoned the police and she bled to death. Or so the story went.

In 1971, the infamous  Stanford Prison Experiment took place. A planned 2 week experiment in which half of the participants were prisoners and the other half guards. In four days, the guards went from verbal abuse and humiliation to an escalation of sexual humiliation. The experiment had to be canceled after 6 days.  The images from this event are parallel to the images and stories from Abu Ghraib.

What these two experiments and the witness response to the murder reveal is that there is no such thing as absolute morals, and by extension, inherent  human rights.

Or perhaps at least that who we consider human and worthy of rights is often flexible.

The sum of these three are that ordinary people will absolve themselves of any:

  • moral responsibility if that responsibility can be shifted to an authority figure.
  • direct responsibility to take action if there are other people around so that responsibility is dissipated through the group. Unless, like in the 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, the people involved had a clear understanding of their social role.
  • accountability if the “authority” encourages abuse or fails to prevent escalating abuse of a group of people with less power and are not deemed to be equal or even human.

These behavioral factors combined with the right conditions, are what allow everything from genocide to bullying in the schoolyard or workplace to occur in plain view. Evil is banal, not exceptional.

It is the belief that another person or group is not an equal to ourselves combined with the condition of having some power over them,  that results in actual abuse or allowing abuse to occur.

Adding government sanction, or worse, a divine authority’s sanction into the mix, is incendiary.

If we all actually believed that we were all equally valuable and entitled to fair treatment and rights, could the following events of the last say 150 or so years have taken place or be allowed to continue to occur? (this isn’t a comprehensive or in any hierarchical order)

  • Reservations for Aboriginal people
  • Holocaust of the Jews and other social undesirables in WWII
  • South African Apartheid/Jim Crow Laws
  • Vatican cover up of pedophile priests
  • Military abuse of civilians and prisoners in all wars and conflicts
  • 9/11 and the resulting war on terrorism

These behaviors and conditions are also applied in medium size (comparatively) contexts:

  • Systemic discrimination towards any marginalized group
  • The fact of there being marginalized groups
  • Religious campaigns against other religions
  • Religious campaigns against civil rights advancements, first for women, then ethnic minorities and currently, against gays and lesbians.
  • Homeless and working poor

Right down to the personal arena of people who participate in abuse, fail to report abuse or not taking a stand against it.

  • Mobs or gangs out to murder or assault random individuals from their targeted group – generally other ethnicity,  gays/lesbians/trans, other religious groups
  • Harassment and abuse in the workplace
  • Bullying in the schoolyard – the ‘Thou Shall Not Fink” school yard code is an excellent example of witnesses being what amounts to complicit in the abuse.

We have to do more than chose not to kill…today, if we are going to reduce, minimize or end these social horrors large and small.

We need to see how these horrors large and personal are related consequences of these  social behaviors.

We have to make a concerted effort to see each other as equal humans and not allow systemic discrimination or groups of people to be demonized and dehumanized.

We need a concerted effort to override the religious and social beliefs that allow us to measure others and find them lacking, less than, unworthy of consideration.

Each of us is really only as good a person as we treat and regard others. It gets back to that Think and Care idea.

We have a legal obligation to obey the law, but a moral responsibility to question it.