On Morals, On Hypocrites, On Hyperbole, On History

It has been a while since I’ve posted anything but life tends to get in the way and I will happily say that I pay far more attention to things actually going on around me than I do to blogging. Notwithstanding that obvious fact, I’ve still be keeping an eye southward on politics and never seem to shy away from other debates.

I’ve been pondering a lot about the canard that a lot of religious nutters have been throwing around lately. A favourite theme that some of these people resort to is the suggestion that those without religion have “no purpose”, or more laughably, that we have no accountability or consequence for our actions thus no moral compass or sense of right and wrong.

I’m constantly amazed that there are people that actually believe this.

In the post about The God Delusion I talked a bit about the studies cited by Dawkins that the idea of morals exists in the animal kingdom, and it appears to exist independent of religion. It seems, however, in the mind of some religious people that social norms are meaningless and only the idea of some form of eternal reckoning is necessary to enforce good behaviour. This, to me, is obviously quite ridiculous.

I got to thinking more about this because of the nature of my day job. I work in a much-maligned industry and sadly there are ample reasons for it to be maligned. There are plenty of people who call themselves financial planners or advisors who are essentially nothing but crooks – many more who offer advice that often benefits them more than their clients. The joke in the industry about one major firm in Canada is that their sales force should say, “We’ll take your money and my experience, and turn it into my money and your experience.”. It’s sad but true.

Now, those folks aren’t really crooks. They sell products that are expensive and unnecessary (and I make my living in many cases extracting people from such arrangements!) but there are also crooks out there. Everyone knows Bernie Madoff. Many Canadians will be familiar with the name Earl Jones as well, but there are a myriad of conmen disguised as financial advisors whose crimes are much smaller scale but as devastating to victims.

What’s fascinating is that in many of these cases, the fraud succeeds because the con artist can make use of some manner of affinity group. And quite often that group involves a religious organization in some way.

The reason for this is rather simple. When one assumes a person has similar religious convictions to you it is easier to trust them and perhaps to ask fewer questions. The perception of someone being a person of faith seems likely to make one less likely to question them on their motives. I saw this in the case of a fraudster in a town where I started in my business. Just as I got out of school the fraud began to unravel and many people realized that they had lost their life savings to a man who was a soccer coach, a contributor to their churches, by all appearances an upstanding successful citizen.

This particular fraud, perpetrated by a man called Andrew Lech, spread into other communities through churches. An unwitting accomplice in Ohio collected some $3 million alone from a church, part of some $20 million that US investors poured into the $100 million ponzi scheme.

Ain’t it strange how that superior moral compass works?

All this to start on the idea of this accountability and purpose kick. The claim made be some of these people is that I can have no purpose or impact or value in life as I am merely the product of chance and biology, or some nonsense of that nature. Yes, more than one person has made this claim to me.

Ultimately the whole existence of the universe seems to be just that sort or random event and the idea that I or anyone else is any different strikes me as being laughable and arrogant all at once. I always hear from religious types that “god has a plan for them”, which is I guess some way of trying to rationalize their existence and they seem unable to fathom that to me there is no need to do so. Whether I’m part of some scheme far larger than I can imagine is really of no consequence to me. Why should it be? Why engage in a rather foolish debate about free will and predestination and so on?

(This, incidentally, is why I find the outrage of religious political nuts so funny – if an omnipotent deity has some big “plan” and is “in control”, why are you outraged by it?)

I guess they need to give themselves some sense of purpose or relevance in their life and for some people I guess the drudgery of reality just doesn’t suffice. It is some manner of trying to give meaning and reminds me of the Epic of Gilgamesh – a Sumerian epic which I studied in high school. It is in fact the story from which some believe the story of Noah and the great flood were plagarized.

Gilgamesh’s quest is to find immortality, to “have his name stamped on brick”. His quest is ultimately fruitless, but the dramatic irony is that he has a form of immortality insofar as we still read the story thousands of years later. He realized his wish just not in the manner intended. So too have many in history by the impact they have had on society.

So, if this is disjoint I apologize, I started writing stream of conscience and got distracted so I’m trying to reset myself into that train of thought. Accountability is the big claim that religious folks (some of them, that is) make about their god. They claim that divine retribution is what makes people good and that being an atheist means I’m accountable to no one and thus have no reason to be a good person. This, obviously, is complete nonsense. The fact that religious people do things wrong is fairly strong evidence that divine accountability isn’t all that compelling. I would suspect that just as for atheists it is accountability to society that actually matters. We expect certain standards of behaviour and have devised systems of consequences to enforce those standards. Those penalties are far more real than eternal damnation nonsense.

What is clear is that gods don’t make people good (just ask the Catholic Church), and thus one can be good without god. Religion is not an absolute source of morality nor a guarantee of it as much as many people would claim, particularly when religious folks are as apt to ignore their rules as anyone else.

Why don’t I take advantage of the people I see very able to charm and build rapport with in my day job? Why don’t I exploit them for their vulnerability and wealth? Some of those who would attack me as an atheist seem to think that without divine retribution I’d have no reason to be honest and moral. They are of course totally wrong. I’m honest by nature and if I got any interest in being otherwise I have my reputation to lose, consequences to society, and so on. Not only would I pay my family would. Like Gilgamesh, like Bernie Madoff I’d gain immortality but not in any way like I might want to.


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