Sunday, March 29, 2009

Morality, Darwin, and AIDS

So, um, I don't feel like doing 1421 right now. Yeah, you heard me. We're reaching the end of an era here in the World of Geds. My beloved ten-ish year-old Toshiba Satellite laptop nicknamed Dinosaur, Jr. is on the verge of giving up the ghost. The video card, display, or both are on the fritz. About once a week I think I won't be able to ever use it again. It's sad, really. This has necessitated the search for a new laptop, which ended remarkably quickly. I've got a new rule in life: any time Best Buy offers me $350 off retail on a laptop and I'm actually in the market for one, I take them up on that offer. So now I've ended up with a top of the line laptop running a P8400 Core 2 Duo chipset, an Nvidia 9800GS video card, and boasting four gigs of internal RAM and a 320 gig hard drive. It's official nickname is The Beast. Oh, and in case anybody's asking, Vista is actually pretty sweet. I'm also preparing for a major upgrade to my desktop, which is currently running a 3 GHz Pentium 4 chipset but really, really wants to be a Quad Core with something like a 250 GTS video card and a 1TB storage drive... Amusingly enough, if you, dear reader, were in my trendy domicile right now you'd see me sitting on my couch, writing away on my ancient Toshiba while my new laptop and my work laptop (a halfway decent Lenovo running a Core 2 Duo processor of some sort) sit on my coffee table. I'm gonna ride this old thing as long as I possibly can, dagnabit. I forget why my work laptop is on, but my new one is currently playing the role of Winamp platform. Anyway, I've had a couple of things on my mind lately and I don't know that either one actually necessitates its own post. And, in some weird way, they're related outside of my own mind. There's been a lot of uproar lately over the Pope's visit to Africa. Specifically, the fact that his response to the AIDS crisis was to say that condoms don't actually help. Now this is self-evidently stupid. The problem is that people who want to bitch at his holiness about his backward thinking ways don't tend to actually understand the argument. Now, I've never been a Roman Catholic. However, I do understand the thinking behind those pronouncements. See, back when I was a fundie, we used to regularly have conversations built around this concept that if we could just get people to believe, they'd do what they were supposed to do and the world would be awesome. It was perfectly logical to us, even though it was exactly the opposite of regular logic. Since it is so different, it warrants at least a bit of explanation. There's this belief within certain realms of Christianity that the problem really is people's beliefs. The proponents of this type of thinking honestly believe that there is a correct set of beliefs to have and acceptance of this correct set of beliefs will lead to a person living correctly. Good Christians believe in peace, so there will be no war. Good Christians believe in giving money away, so there will be no poor. Good Christians only have sex within the confines of marriage, so there will be no AIDS. Since Jesus proclaimed the good news for all, that means anyone can become a good Christian. If the existing Christians can get everyone else to become a Christian, then, we'll have a perfect world. This is, of course, bullshit. Not all people want to be Christians. Not all Christians are going to live up to the narrow version of Christianity espoused by, well, the sort of people I used to hang out with and be. So when the Pope says that condoms make the problem worse, he's actually saying that sex makes the problem worse. Which, technically speaking, is true. It's really tough to get an STD if there's no S to T the D. But it's pretty obvious that there aren't too many people who are in to the whole no sex program. They should probably use condoms. Sadly, the Catholic Church has a strong anti-birth control stance and it can't be seen to support such sinful behavior. So we're left with the stupidity of the Pope saying condoms make it worse. This, too, is a problem that keeps coming up in the evolution debates. I've been meaning to write a larger post on this, but the reason why keeps escaping me. I'll remember it for a bit, then lose it when I actually have time to write something. Either way, PZ Myers has a tendency to basically say that it doesn't help to coddle anti-evolutionists. I'm increasingly drawn to his camp. For one thing, the anti-evolutionist crowd isn't exactly known for their charity. Evolution = Social Darwinism = you're evil isn't exactly the nicest way of phrasing an argument. My main problem is that there are a lot of people who believe in creationism who don't actually believe that evolutionary theory is the root of all evil. I don't know that a lot of them can be reached either, though. Still, it doesn't do any good to call them idiots. But I digress, since that is a part of the larger idea I keep meaning to write about. I will put it down here just so I remember: Darwin's theories don't actually lead to Social Darwinism. In fact, it's kind of absurd to conclude they do. But, of course, there's a larger argument built around that from the anti-evolutionist perspective. See, the person who's going to make that sort of argument doesn't actually understand evolutionary theory and, sadly, doesn't care, either. But, again, that's a story for another day. Hopefully tomorrow or Tuesday. As I said, there were two loosely connected things on my mind lately. I've been struck recently by what I think of as the first real test of what I like to call my post-Christian morality. And I don't mean that as some sort of postmodern philosophy or anything. I just mean that I've had to assemble my own morality since leaving Christianity. Christian morality is largely just a series of rules to follow. The morality, then, is in doing what you're told. But there's really little to think about in that sort of environment. This is a larger issue than most people probably realize. See, morality built on following a list of external rules creates an artificial conception of how the world works. Some people actually start to believe that there's nothing between them and going totally insane except for that list of rules. Then they project that understanding on to people who don't subscribe to that same set of rules. Fundies have often constructed arguments against atheism that are built around basically saying, "I'd blow up the world if the Bible didn't tell me not to." Lots of times the people who read such ideas get scared. Truth be told, most Christians wouldn't blow up the world. And the ones who would generally find a fun excuse like, "God spoke to me and told me to blow up the world," and go off and do their own thing, anyway. They're largely trying to say that those who don't have the rule book are on the verge of blowing up the world. It, too, is a dumb argument. But much like the Pope and condoms, it's so elemental that the sheer illogical nature of it totally flies over their heads. So I get back to my own brush with morality. It strikes me now that I only have myself to answer to that the question of morality is a lot harder. It's not that I'm in danger of becoming some sort of murdering mass rapist or anything. It's that now I actually have to live with myself. I can't go off and confess my sins to Jesus with the hope that everything will be better. Before I do anything I have to decide whether I'll be able to live with myself beforehand. And if I can't and I do something that makes me feel guilty, I actually have to approach the person I've wronged and say, "I'm sorry." Yeah, basic stuff I know. But I don't have the fallback of confessing to the magical sky fairy to make it all better. Either way, my post-Christian morality basically boils down to the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is a pretty sensible way of doing things, after all. However, what I've realized is that "doing unto others" and "as you would have them do unto you" are significantly more complicated than I've ever realized it is. Say, for instance, that somebody comes to me and says, "I screwed up when I [insert thing here]. I'm sorry, will you forgive me?" Let's say I hate that person. I may well think, "Nah, fuck you," because I don't care what that particular person might do to me in response. However, if I think about it in terms of me hurting someone I really like and desperately wanting that person's forgiveness, then it seems that I have little choice but to offer my forgiveness in this instance. Meanwhile, say someone has hurt me and doesn't seem to realize it. I may well harbor a grudge against them. But if I stop and think about it, chances are that I've hurt other people without realizing it, too. So my thoughts about how Person A has hurt me and is a jerk for not acknowledging it could easily lead to realizing that I might have hurt Person B without thinking about it, too. I don't know, maybe it's my own limited interpretation of the idea. But it seems to me that it's important to think about what we do to others and what we wish people would do to or for us in terms of the people we most wish not to hurt and the people we wish to be least hurt by. All in all, I think we have to remember that whether we think we're talking to the best or the worst person in the history of the planet, that person is still just a human, just a flawed, probably confused creature. It doesn't mean we have to forgive everyone all the time or offer our own apologies without prejudice. But I am starting to realize that there's a benefit in offering peace. Even if it is more complicated than following a set of rules in an ancient book.


PersonalFailure said...

With that last bit, you've hit on my own, and many atheists' ethical "problem". In essence, I have to consider my actions in the bigger picture, because the golden rule doesn't really specify "do unto that guy as he did, or probably would, do unto you". Just "do unto others".

Unfortunately, "others" includes "people I totally hate and would leave on that desert island given half a chance- leave without sunscreen and bug spray", so I have to fair to them, too.

I hate being fair to people like that, but I have to live with me, so there it is.

jessa said...

Wait, are those Christians who say sex only within marriage means no STDs saying that sex within marriage brings miracles? Because you can have an STD without having had sex (if your mom had one when you were born, for example) and still pass it along when having sex even within marriage. Is marriage some miraculous STD filter or something?

Have the zombies gotten to these people already?!

Geds said...

PF: I do think there has to be a cut off where you just say, "Y'know what? I don't like you. Go away." I think, though, that it's important that I give [person I don't like] the same consideration I wish I got from [person I want to like me].

The biggest issue is still the fact that I don't have a holy book to hide behind. Which, ironically enough, often caused problems since there were many times when I wanted to behave the way I do now but felt constrained by the rules...

Jessa: Yeah, I got nothin'.

The problem is that there really isn't any critical thinking behind the idea in the first place. Like, there's a folk remedy for AIDS in certain parts of Africa. All you have to do is have sex with a virgin and it will go away. Just think about the implications of that one for a while.

It would make much more sense for his Popeness to use the bully pulpit for education. Unfortunately the only education he seems interested in is dogma.

Leigh said...

Ah ha! One of the things that I have never really understood is why so many fundamentalist Christians keep saying that if they didn't have God they would do all those terrible things. I knew they couldn't all be sociopathic monsters (OK, I HOPED they weren't anyway), but I couldn't get where they were coming from. You've finally explained it to me. I just don't get where a lot of the fundamentalist arguments come from.

PersonalFailure said...

I have tried quizzing fundys on what they really would do without the holy book, and they usually do back down from the raping and pillaging on specific questioning.

You just have to suggest something so horrible and disgusting that their unfiltered reaction is "God, no!"

It's not really all that much fun to upset someone that way, though. Not really fair, either. A lot of what comes out of a fundy's mouth is just parroting what their pastor/youth leader/etc said to them. Which is probably what drives me crazy about it in the first place. I end up feeling like yelling, "Please, have an independent thought- ANY independent thought!"

Fiat Lex said...

Are you going to wait for someone to come over to your apartment and pour Mountain Dew in it? Not that I would. I mean, I don't have Mountain Dew or a car. Or a desie to destroy electronic devices. But if I had access to a spiffy new compy, you can bet your butt I'd be going "Scroll buttons and the lappy, together at last."

I found an awesome cartoon that sums up all thousand words' worth of my feelings about the pope's stance on condoms.

But I'm afraid to write about it on my blog. Because these days my only readers are blood relatives who think I've "drunk the moral relativism kool-aid." Am I going to pick a fight with them by ranting against things in which they passionately believe? So far I'm too chicken. Which is why I'm sticking to baseball season previews and incomprehensible psychobabble.

I'm pretty sure the thinking goes something like this: "Condoms make it easier for people to rationalize non-marital intercourse. The more people have non-marital intercourse, the more diseases get spread. If no one had non-marital intercourse, no diseases would get spread. Therefore condoms make the spread of AIDS worse."

Which y'all with a more pragmatic perspective have instantly recognized as some ivory-tower BS. Whole bunch of people are going to interpret the pope's pronouncement to mean that a person who has unprotected sex is less likely to contract AIDS than a person who has sex with a condom. Let's say, working girls who have to have sex with strangers or else they won't have money to buy food.

It is really, really hard to get a True Believer to look past their prejudices and see that morality out of a rulebook isn't necessarily the best way to do things. How do I convince them the "moral relativism kool-aid" isn't actually poisoned?

The only way I can think of to make them think twice, is to be a nicer sister/daughter/niece than I ever was as a Christian without converting. They won't listen to words, but maybe they'll listen to actions.