One of the most important things anyone ever said to me was,
“Teach the things that make you happy.”
It was on my mission–a little yellow scrap of paper, with almost nothing else on it, from an old bishop of mine. I didn’t really get my head around it until I got home, so it didn’t change my teaching, but it changed my life by causing me to think about the things that make me happy.
Mormons believe that the conscience is the light of Christ–meaning that every good impulse that comes to a person’s mind is one-on-one communication with God. We’re taught that if we “search diligently in the light of Christ”–meaning the light of conscience–and “lay hold on every good thing” (Moroni 7:16-19), we become the children of Christ.
That, I think, is the hardest thing to explain to someone who says that God has never spoken to them. God is such an intimate presence in their minds that most people don’t know what it’s like not to feel God.
Of course, that’s a difficult thing to prove, but not everything God does is calculated to impress skeptics, and anyway it works whether you believe in it or not. An atheist who takes his conscience seriously is more familiar with God, and farther on his way to becoming a child of Christ, than a baptized believer who does not.
It also means that the things that make me happy are, not coincidentally, the most important parts of the gospel. It means that when Abraham Lincoln said:
“When I do good, I feel good; and when I do bad, I feel bad. And that is my religion”,
he was expressing a fundamental truth about God. You can get on the path that leads to happiness and eternal life, from wherever you start, simply by following that feeling.
Once you learn to recognize that feeling of rightness and goodness, one of the most interesting experiences you can have is paying attention to where and when you feel it, and then trying to understand how God is involved. When I feel that way listening to music, I think about what God might want to tell me through it–an especially interesting experience when it comes from musicians who are decidedly, even angrily, nonreligious. I have heard the voice of God in a Tool song, and I’ve felt Him in a Tarantino film.
I love seeing truth from God come through people unnoticed. President Truman once said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit”–and I think that’s a truth that God understands better than anyone.
I take parenting advice from the villains on TV.
I watched There Will Be Blood last night, and while there’s admittedly a lot of “what-not-to-do” there, I admired the way J. R. Moneybags takes his adopted son along and shows him the ropes. Even though it was surveying and prospecting (and swindling), there was something primal about it; like it might have taken place 10,000 years ago, with only cosmetic differences. Deer sign and bone knives instead of oil seepage and a theodolite.
Another scene that sticks in my mind is Tywin Lannister’s verbal sparring with Arya Stark on Game of Thrones. There’s a canyon of social hierarchy between the two: she’s a prisoner, a peasant, a child, and a woman, in a world where any one of the four would be enough on its own–while he’s the most powerful man on the continent. But they’re both shrewd and aware, and it takes one to know one, so there are moments when those differences almost vanish.
(Almost. One of Tywin Lannister’s richest moments is when Arya flies a little too close to the sun with her snark, and he sets her back in her place with gentle, wry menace: “Careful now, girl. I enjoy you… but be careful.”)
I suppose writers like to do this sort of thing because it’s an easy way to humanize and deepen a villain without besmirching his badass credentials. He doesn’t exactly have to be nice to the kid, he just has to respect the kid’s intelligence.
Likewise, making the good guy a buffoon with his kids is a good way to take him down a peg without compromising the audience’s sympathies, so writers do that a lot, too (see: every sitcom ever). The scene where Ned Stark tries to give his 14-year-old daughter a “toy” dolly, and bombs spectacularly, is just about the only evidence of a third dimension that we see from the guy.
I despise that trope, because there’s so much pain we could avoid if fathers weren’t deprecated into irrelevance by fifty years of bad TV. People learn a lot from their mistakes, often too late to do themselves much good–and that’s one reason I really want to be a father. I have hope that my kids won’t have to feel quite as clueless and scared and incompetent as I did growing up; but if they think of me as an oaf (even a lovable one), or that I don’t listen or understand, then that line is severed, and all those hard lessons have to happen all over again. I’m really frightened that I’ll let that happen.
To some extent I know it’s just life–there are some things you need to do and feel for yourself–but it can’t be that everything in life is a sucker-punch. There have to be some things you can prepare for. Otherwise, what the hell are parents for?
I’ve just started reading In the Garden of Beasts, a portrait of Nazism from the point of view of the American ambassador to Germany in the 1930s, as his family weaves in and out of Nazi high society in Berlin and gradually discovers the true character of their glamorous and impressive new friends.
I haven’t made it very far, but already I’m struck with how complex, how uncertain everything seemed at the time–just the way it seems today. Most Americans, in a sincere effort to be objective, gave Nazi lies and euphemisms as much credence as the horror stories they heard from other sources. Everyone wanted to be mature and reasonable, not swayed by inflammatory stories.
That’s my instinctive response to most of the issues that divide the country today; but I’m starting to realize that, for many of these controversies, there may not be a middle way–or if there is, it might be as morally reprehensible as turning a blind eye to Nazi thuggery in the 1930s.
My last post started a conversation with an old friend in which he said, “I don’t understand why we can’t just accept and respect people’s beliefs regardless of similarities or differences”–and, I would respectfully answer in two words:
Ideas have consequences; and your willingness to tolerate another person’s ideas depends on whether you’re willing to tolerate the consequences. For all our talk of freedom of conscience and expression, there are certain things that we as a society won’t stand for–nor should we.
Pedophilia advocacy falls comfortably within this category, along with “pro-ana” sites that encourage and enable eating disorders, or the practice of murdering your daughters when they “dishonor” the family by wearing Western clothes or pursuing an education. We permit people to believe and propagate these ideas with impunity–but the very idea that they exist is repulsive to us, and we use every possible legal means to stamp them out.
Unconditional tolerance would be a lousy idea even if it were possible; in the real world, societies decide where they must insist on orthodoxy (age-of-consent laws, honor-killings, etc.), and where they can make room for differences of opinion (the divinity of Christ, constitutional interpretation, fantasy football). The problem is that our increasingly divergent worldviews give us a radically different list of things we have to insist on.
That’s why the Chick-Fil-A boycott (and the issue of gay rights in general) has engendered such intense feelings–it’s a place where the gears of our society are grinding, because we can neither agree, nor tolerate disagreement. That’s why politicians in Chicago and Boston have started using the organs of state power to turn the screws on Chick-Fil-A–because the constituency that elects them has finally placed conservative Christian ideas about marriage and morality firmly in the realm of the repugnant and unacceptable.
As troubling as this is to me, I get it. Dan Cathy is a powerful booster for a heteronormative, patriarchal, monogamous society–and if you don’t fit within the confines of that society, Dan Cathy is serious bad news. He is creating a world in which more people view queer sexual behavior with disgust and contempt–and whether he intends it or not, violence is never far behind.
As they see it, his ideas validate and encourage the daily schoolyard cruelty that drives many gay teens to suicide. His ideas keep people from visiting sick partners and children in the hospital, because the government does not recognize their families. His ideas inspire the imprisonment and execution of innocent people in Africa and the Middle East. None of this would happen in a world without those ideas–so those ideas have to go–whether by persuasion, or financial sanctions, or state intervention.
That’s why the boycotters don’t mind being intolerant of his ideas. Tolerance of evil is no virtue. There is no such thing as “neutrality” when you witness oppression. If they’re right about the way the world works, then they have a moral duty to oppose the conservative Christian notion of marriage, and no one should expect anything less of them.
On the other hand, the secular liberal paradigm on which all of that rests is also an idea with consequences. If you believe (as I believe) that gender matters in an eternal, spiritual sense, then this rising tide of animosity toward heteronormativity will see you marginalized, labeled, and despised for holding a view that was basically the consensus opinion ten years ago.
I believe that sexual union between man and woman is sacramental, and that children deserve a mom and dad who love and honor one another. I believe that fathers and mothers are fundamentally different, and that kids need both. Of course, that ideal was shattered long before gay marriage had even entered the national discourse by divorce, adultery, abuse, premarital sex, loveless marriages–but I still believe in the ideal.
Having said that, I also support full legal equality for gay couples. By way of analogy, most people would agree that divorce and single parenting are not ideal for anyone concerned–but it would be asinine and cruel to legally censure divorcees and single parents. Life isn’t perfect. People need the liberty to make their own choices.
I would like to believe that this puts me on the “right” side of this debate, but given the contempt and loathing people seem to have for the beliefs I’ve described, I suspect that supporting legal equality will not be enough. The very idea that God or gender are relevant to sexual morality, seems to be right up there with Aztec blood sacrifice and public school segregation on people’s list of shit they will no longer put up with. The ideological wave that is carrying this movement along will not be kind to people like me.
Of course, it’s different for mainstream Christians than it is for Mormons. Protestants are used to being the gatekeepers of moral acceptability–that’s probably why they’re so shocked at the venom directed against a good, wholesome Christian company like Chick-Fil-A. The prospect of being misquoted, misunderstood, and disenfranchised is alien to them; we’ve had some time to get used to it.
As far as the political consequences, though, the outlook is even more troubling. Marriage is not the sort of thing we can just dodge by leaving it to the states–you can’t be married in Iowa, and divorced as soon as you cross into Missouri. That means that Alabama and Mississippi and Georgia are going to have gay marriage sooner or later, no matter how fiercely they dig in. And most of American history could be summed up as “The horrible crap that went down when we tried to make the South do stuff the South didn’t feel like doing”.
Here’s hoping it turns out more “1960s” than “1860s”.
My cousin has recently decided he’s an atheist… or agnostic. He doesn’t believe there’s no God, but he disbelieves in the Abrahamic God. Or something like that. We’re still hammering it out.
Talking to him about the meaning of that belief (or unbelief, or disbelief) has been a real pleasure, because he has no old ossified conclusions to defend, so the conversation is more exploratory than adversarial. I haven’t tried to make him believe in God, because right now he doesn’t seem interested in the sorts of things my God offers–so instead we just talk about what it means to be an atheist.
It’s a fascinating exercise for me, because I’m finding I can just slip into atheism like a change of clothes. While I reject many of its foundations, its internal consistency makes it a very sturdy framework for discussion. When talking with people of other faiths, you don’t get very far before agreeing-to-disagree, because they all have the get-out-of-jail-free card of “God’s inscrutable will.” Atheism is a lot easier to nail down.
I wanted to record some of the fruits of that discussion; and let me start by saying that this is not intended to be a critique, but rather an exploration of atheism. I’ve encountered some ethical questions within the secular framework that are tricky, and fun to discuss; so the idea is to talk about it, not to prove or disprove anything. Admittedly, many of my conclusions make me glad I am not an atheist; but I’d love to hear a sunnier interpretation of these ideas.
I’ve started from a few ideas that, in my view, seem foundational to atheism (and any atheist friends should straighten me out if I’m mistaken):
1. Life is a sophisticated chemical process that began without any intrinsic purpose–a chemical process that is self-replicating and self-preserving, but not deliberate in any meaningful sense–exhibiting “competence without comprehension”.
2. Humans are animals: We exist as one expression of that chemical process, with only hazy distinctions between us and other forms of life. We’re smarter, and we dress sharper, but any other arguments for human “exceptionalism” are difficult to defend. We were not created for a reason–we simply are, and we alone assign meaning and purpose to our lives.
3. Consciousness is centered in the brain: Human identity and self-awareness are generated by the brain–the part of me that is really “me” is the sum of a dense network of neurons–basically a very sophisticated computer–and the purpose of that computer is to ensure that I survive to reproductive age and reproduce. Other functions are happy accidents, but human brains are survival machines, not truth machines.
4. Free will is an illusion. This idea appears to be a natural conclusion from the previous three ideas. Since the neural machinery that dictates our thoughts and actions is too large to be meaningfully affected by quantum mechanics, all human behavior is basically Newtonian–which means it all shakes out in predictable–even inevitable–patterns. Individual humans’ personalities and behaviors are defined by the clockwork of genetic inheritance, environmental influences, and random mutation–and even the mutations are not truly random. This leaves essentially no room for free will.
These ideas have far more weight than they are typically afforded by the atheists I have known. Atheism doesn’t just eliminate traditional sexual mores and silly archaic taboos–it should, if thoughtfully considered, blow the doors off your entire moral framework. This is not to say that morality and atheism are incompatible–but Western, post-Christian civic morality and atheism certainly are incompatible; and it seems to me that most atheists tend to stick with a lot of dilute post-Christian ideas about justice, the Golden Rule and the universal brotherhood of man, not recognizing that those ideas have little justification in a universe without free will, universal law, or human exceptionalism.
Here are a few examples that come to my mind, where our ostensibly secular society is actually riddled with religious ideas that only remain because we have not evaluated them very carefully.
1. Personal Accountability: If human behavior is inherently predictable, then there can be no meaningful accountability for action. Criminals, as malfunctioning machines in the larger mechanism of society, can be repaired, sequestered, or destroyed, but they cannot really be punished; and even taking this enlightened view of evil, we have to ask: who defines malfunction? Who prescribes the repair?
It’s dangerously subjective–it can be as benevolent as vocational training in prisons, or as dark as a Chinese re-education camp. If you’re of the atheist stripe that views religion as a “virus of the mind” (Dawkins’ words), then to what lengths are you prepared to go to liberate believers from their affliction? What about homophobia, fascism, Marxism, anarchism, or any other socially-pernicious ideas?
2. Private Property: In the absence of free will, neither destitution nor prosperity are a matter of personal responsibility–they simply happen to you, as a result of inevitable interactions between your mechanistic brain and an equally mechanistic environment. Thus, the idea that we should respect the accumulations of those who have “earned” it becomes ludicrous.
The frugal, hard-working, and intelligent entrepreneur who goes from rags-to-riches is no more commendable or deserving than the vapid socialite who has money because her daddy had money–neither can help being what they are. How can we, in good conscience, allow the slothful and ignorant to live in destitution and misery, when the rich get to live large simply because they pulled the golden ticket? Shouldn’t we attempt to build a more equitable society than that?
3. Universal Political Freedom: On the other hand, if you’re one of those intelligent, hard-working, and frugal people, why would you hitch yourself to the same wagon as all the imbeciles and freeloaders? There is precious little evidence to suggest that all men are really created equal–in fact, every test we’ve devised to measure cognitive capacity seems to indicate the reverse–so why do we cling to that idea so fervently?
The fascists argued that democracy was a sham–it enslaved the intelligent and productive, stealing from them to buy votes from the dim and gullible mob. Defenders of democracy would respond with rhetoric about individual liberty and the right to self-determination–but that presupposes that humans are even capable of self-determination.
If you believe that humans are defined by their genetic and environmental inheritance, doesn’t it make more sense to keep power in the hands of those who are built to govern wisely and justly? Wouldn’t even the weak and foolish be better off in a world where they didn’t have the opportunity to screw everything up?
You could argue that democracy is worth maintaining because we don’t have any decent means of separating out this morally-privileged class, but shouldn’t we at least be thinking about it, rather than allowing ourselves to be led passively to the slaughterhouse by the venal, prejudicial, and stupid?
4. The Golden Rule: This is one that I imagine will make people uncomfortable, if they’ve read this far; but if all the humans around me are simply sophisticated machines, why should I feel any moral obligation to be kind or just or tolerant of them? When they malfunction, they should be repaired or destroyed (and remember that, absent any moral context, a “malfunction” is simply some behavior I don’t like; and to “repair” them is to make them conformable to whatever purpose I think they ought to serve).
If I am simply a clockwork toy, surrounded by millions of other clockwork toys, what good are my moral codes? I can sacrifice my comfort and happiness for the good of others, or I can impose costs on other people to increase my comfort and happiness; and either way, we will all die shortly, along with all our descendants, and it will all be over and unimportant. Why not be as selfish as your conscience will allow?
Of course, this draconian moral conclusion is easy to avoid for most of us, who have been raised and acculturated to feel compassion, and guilt, and empathy–we avoid acts like rape and murder because we want to think of ourselves as good people, and we’re afraid of the crippling, lingering guilt that would follow a crime like that. But what happens when we encounter people without those compunctions? How do I convince one chemical machine that it is wrong to forcibly copulate with another chemical machine? From what source does human dignity come?
And what if the rapist doesn’t care what I think about human dignity? Do I have the moral authority to violently enforce my will upon the rapist, to prevent them enforcing their will upon the victim? It’s hard to carve out a moral high ground in a world without absolute truth or objective moral law. Right now, our society hangs on to vestigial post-Christian rules-of-the-road, which fortunately gives the majority license to enforce our non-rational ideas about human rights and bodily integrity on heretical elements; but it’s hard (for me) to see a secular justification for that.
Animal Rights versus Human Rights: If we abandon the idea of human exceptionalism, and admit that the only real difference between humans and animals is our cognitive chops, we run into real ethical trouble. Livestock and pets are often more cognitively complex than infants or the severely disabled, but we don’t keep disabled humans in cages and slaughter them with pneumatic hammers when it suits us. We routinely sterilize animals as a matter of population control–but sterilizing the disabled reeks of the bad old days of Margaret Sanger and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.
We all recoil in horror at the idea of any human beings–regardless of cognitive function–being treated the way we treat animals, but I don’t think all of us understand exactly why. In my view, a morally-awake atheist must either view some human life as expendable, or else take a radically different view of the rights of animals in society. In this respect, I actually believe PETA understands the moral calculus far better than the society at large. As a believer in human exceptionalism, I consider them to be misguided–but at least their views are consistent.
On a related note, we consider extinguishing the life of an 8 1/2 month-old fetus to be a matter of choice, while the killing of the same child three weeks later is a nauseating atrocity–and, short of some theological discussion about when the soul enters the body, I’m not sure where we could possibly redraw that line. Establishing personhood at birth seems arbitrary; but setting it earlier isn’t any better, and setting it later is barbaric. (Check out this article for an honest, frightening meditation on that very question, from someone who actually understands the secular moral dilemma.)
(I’d like to continue this with another piece on how Western society smashed up against these questions in the early 20th century, but I’ve already well exceeded my 140 characters.)
I can’t tell if I’m encouraged or disheartened by the idea that I could be a very different person by now, if the math teachers and computer geeks in my life had used better salesmanship. I guess life would be pretty lame if you found all the cool stuff early on.
I’ve been thinking about it, because I’m convinced that programming is the closest thing we’ll get to magic in this world–something from nothing, creating little machines and breathing a simple sort of life into them, like the mops in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
As a kid, I always viewed my education with a sharp distinction between the creative and the technical–and no one was going to make me learn the technical side. I associated creativity with chaos and spontaneity, and assumed I was the creative type because I lacked discipline; but it’s just the opposite. Imagination and discipline are each the other’s fuel. Math is a powerful creative tool, as is grammar, and music theory, and geometry. They’re not drudgery, either–the price you pay for the creative process–because they are the creative process. I can’t imagine God working by any other principles, either.
So I want to learn to program, because it seems like the purest and most powerful creative tool available. My goal for the summer is to learn enough to create a simple client for my pen-and-paper RPG, so that my party can do more sophisticated stuff without having to keep track of a dozen weapons, effects, bonuses, etc. and getting bogged down.
Just read this brutal indictment of patriarchy and paternalism in the colonial American South by a feminist historian, and for the first time in my life, I think I actually understand the reason some people despise Mormons and Mormonism. I’ve always assumed that if people really knew what we’re about, there wouldn’t be any trouble; but it turns out that some of our ideals are actually, honestly repugnant to some people.
Essentially, she juxtaposes the worst abuses of plantation society with their espoused principles, and attributes the one to the other. These rich planters abused women, children, and slaves, she says, because they believed in the divinely-ordained responsibility of men to lead in their homes. She makes the case a lot more persuasively than that, but that’s the essence of her argument.
Some of what this historian said I could dismiss as polemical and political, and I obviously don’t connect the dots the way she does; but it still gave me pause to see so much venom directed at what I admit has been my own ideal. The notion that, as a man, I’m supposed to lead the way for my wife and kids, has always seemed unassailable to me, obvious. Coming from a culture that speaks lovingly of patriarchs, it was strange to hear the term used as a slur.
Even more chilling was to hear these planters speak of leading in love, by example, by meekness and gentle persuasion–rhapsodizing about their patriarchal responsibility in words that could have come out of my own mouth–and then recording acts of unthinkable violence as if there was no contradiction.
Of course I agree with her that these men were corrupt to the bone, and failed miserably to live up to the ideal they set for themselves; what surprises me is to hear the ideal itself denigrated. To her mind, patriarchy made these men ignorant and barbaric–so how can we expect anything but barbarism from them? The way I see it, though, they were hypocrites; they had principles that were virtuous and good, but they twisted them to justify totally antithetical behaviors, foremost of which was slavery itself.
After chewing on this for a long while, I came to the conclusion that it makes little sense to abandon a good principle just because bad men have espoused it. But I’m confronting the question more thoughtfully, I hope.
Life gets better as I get older.
I had to trade in my 2009 student ID for a new one today, and it provoked a long meditation. I had a full head of hair, more or less, in 2009. People used to underestimate my age; now I look a good deal older than 24.
In 2009, I hadn’t done much that could be considered seriously, permanently self-destructive. I had made mistakes, but I’d never confronted the notion of sin as something that could change you forever, like an amputation. I had never really had to believe in the Atonement as miraculous.
People say that you learn the big stuff on the mission, and you’ll never be any better than you were in the field, and I’ve learned first-hand how ludicrous that is. I’m excited to have kids and look back on how naive and ridiculous I am now.