Morality Without Religion

atheist_cat

In the wake of the shooting of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook elementary school yesterday, I have seen a flurry of people in the news and on social media blaming non-religion for the tragedy. Some have said that the existence of moral monsters among us would be solved if everyone were Christian, and others have said that somehow violence wouldn’t happen in a school where organized Christian prayer was required.  It’s showing it’s face right now more than usual, but ever since my childhood, I’ve been aware of a widespread falsehood: that like a unicorn, a chupacabra, or bigfoot, there is no such thing as a person with a strong sense of morality and absolutely no fear of God.

I didn’t come to secularism partway through life after being raised in a religion the way some people do.  My parents gave me a moral education that taught me about right and wrong and cruelty and kindness based on the observable world.  I have never looked to the teachings of any god to know right from wrong, and I’ve never been morally motivated by the fear of hell or aspirations toward eternal life in heaven.  I don’t believe in it, I don’t need it, and it’s hard to imagine being inside the mind of someone who does.

I try to be kind because I don’t want to live in a world where everyone hurts because we hurt each other.  I try to be mindful of the fact that as a middle-class person born in the USA, I have more power in this world than average, and that that comes with a responsibility to act when I’m able to make things better, even a little bit, even for just one person, even for someone far away.  I try to be fair in my own actions toward others and to take responsibility where I can.

It’s especially important to me to do the right thing in this world because I’m not betting on there being another life after this one where divine reckoning somehow rights every wrong.  I can’t pray to a god for forgiveness and be granted a clean moral slate.  I can’t let myself off the hook for making things right by saying “God has a plan” or “they’ll be rewarded in heaven.” I’m just accountable to my own conscience, always.

Being raised how I was, the idea that strict religion is the only possible source of strong morality has always been strange to me.  And it’s strange that it isn’t more obviously false to everyone else.  How can anyone think that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is the only thing standing between an average person and opening fire on a kindergarten class?  How can anyone believe that the same commandment is enough to stop a disturbed person with murderous intent?

So when people declare that public religion could have saved those children and that non-religion is to blame for this monstrous violence, it is not only insulting to people like me, but also obviously, laughably false.   Morality without religion is everywhere.

 

Progress (Lessons from the 2012 Election)

Here’s what we’ve learned this week:

1) There are real consequences for belittling the horror of rape.  All of the men who said profoundly ignorant stuff on this topic were rejected by the voters:

2) The first presidential candidate to openly support marriage equality wins re-election.  At the same time, every referendum at the state level regarding same-sex marriage comes down on the side of gay rights.

3) When a question about women’s financial equality came up in a presidential debate, one guy said some weird shit about “binders” and women getting home in time to cook dinner, while the other guy provided an answer that demonstrated his genuine belief that women are people.  Outcome: America sides with feminism.

And best of all:

4) We now know that it wasn’t a fluke for the biracial son of a single mother to beat the son of white privilege and money.  This is a thing that happens now in the United States of America.

We’re making progress and it feels as good as sunshine on my face.

 

A Movie About Male Strippers

This weekend I went to see “Magic Mike” by myself (go ahead, judge me!), and it was an experience chock full of interesting anthropological observations.

First of all, I came away with a whole new slew of data to refute the strangely common belief that women (normal women!) are not driven by simple carnal desire for male bodies.

There were A TON of people there, lined up down the hall and around the corner, including some you wouldn’t necessarily expect, like old people and mother-daughter pairs and at least a dozen Muslim women in conservative dress complete with head-covering.   When you put male strippers in a movie rather than in person to take away the “I might get a strange man’s sweat on me” factor, you find that, in fact, women from all walks of life want to watch barely-clad men gyrating and humping a variety of things.  Lust isn’t just for sluts anymore!

And the men!  The male moviegoers were so rich with angsty hilarity. There were the two guys who went to the concession stand for some nachos, then came back and reported to their wives that they made sure to explain to anyone they interacted with on the way that they ARE NOT GAY (Dude, I’m sure the concession stand girl doesn’t care whether or not you’re gay, but way to be secure about it).

Another guy in line in front of me loudly announced “This is the line for The Avengers, right?  Cause there is no way I’m here to watch a bunch of guys strip, HAR-HAR!”  I wanted to tell this guy two things: #1, nobody in this line would have noticed you enough to question your manliness if you hadn’t started shouting and drawing attention to yourself, and #2, given the fact that you let your girlfriend pick the movie and now she’s about to spend 110 minutes looking at Channing Tatum and Matthew MaConaughey’s naked bodies, you’re very likely to get laid tonight.  I don’t know if the same can be said for the guys who are seeing The Avengers.  Man Card restored!

Anti-Abortion Women Who Have Abortions

I have spent 3 years doing patent intake for an abortion provider, and I am amazed by how many women will disclose to me during the scheduling process, unprompted, that they are making this decision despite anti-abortion beliefs.  I’m sure that for every woman who announces to me that she disapproves of everything I stand for, ten others feel that way too, but keep it to themselves while interacting with me.  After all, it’s not the most self-flattering thing to say. It usually goes something like this: “I don’t believe in abortion, but I just really can’t have a baby because…”

Now, the explanation given is always a completely common reason, just like those given by a pro-choice person: I have to finish school, I just had a baby very recently, I am too old/young, I can’t entangle myself with the man involved with the pregnancy, I have a medical condition that makes pregnancy dangerous to my health, I’m uninsured, I just can’t afford it.

I can only speak about my own anecdotes, but there is a great compilation here of other stories from abortion clinic staff about their experience with anti-abortion patients.   It’s called “The Only Moral Abortion is My Abortion” and it is well worth your time to read it.

You would expect that a person’s stated beliefs against abortion would strongly reduce one’s likelihood of having an abortion, but it only seems that way because a woman who rails against abortion and lives in an anti-abortion community will have an abortion in secret and take that secret all the way to her grave, allowing her family and community to continue thinking that one of their own would never do such a thing.

My point is: there exists a huge disconnect between what people say or think they will do in the case of an unplanned pregnancy, and what they actually do when the rubber meets the road.  There is also a huge difference in perception that results when one segment of the population is honest about the variety of reproductive choices people make, while another segment hides and shames those same choices.

Female Genital Mutilation

It’s when the patriarchy cuts your clitoris off.  Literally.

The World Health Organization defines female genital mutilation (FGM) as all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

It carries no medical benefits and many medical risks including severe pain, shock, hemorrhage, and infection.

It is identified by the United Nations as a violation of human rights and children’s rights, is performed somewhere between infancy and adolescence, and typically takes one of the following 3 forms:

I’m going to go out on a limb here in speaking for all the ladies, but I feel that the parts being removed here are important.  Not because they hurt when you injure them, or bleed, or become infected (though that stuff is important), but because this is where our sexual feelings live.  And that, for some reason, is the elephant in the room whenever we talk about FGM.

For the forces in this world that believe women have no business wanting or enjoying sex, but that their only real purpose is to bear children, it’s mighty convenient that it is possible to excise the parts that drive one function while keeping the parts that support the other.  If you believe that women’s sexuality is not meant to be enjoyed by women, but to be used by men, then FGM is your ultimate solution.  It is a perfect tool in the hands of the most callous patriarchy imaginable.

At least, that’s how I see it.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the discourse around FGM, you may be surprised that many otherwise reasonable people will defend this practice under the banner of “respecting culture” and “cultural relativism.”  They say “this is just part of their culture and who are we to object?”

The desire among people with liberal and progressive values to be non-judgemental and to respect other cultures is an important one, but in this particular case it comes into direct conflict with the critical moral obligation to protect real vulnerable people from actual physical harm.

Or, to put a finer (cruder) point on it, go ahead and tell that relativist bullshit to the people whose clitorises are actually on the line here.

Think about the role of your sexual function in your own life, of the value of arousal and orgasm to you personally, and ask yourself how far you would go to protect the vital bits of flesh and nerve endings that make that part of you possible.

Now think about the fact that the women with actual skin in this game are every bit as real as you.  It’s true.  Here’s how I know:

I worked in a school outside of Nairobi, Kenya that served a population of girls who were affected by issues like child marriage and FGM.  Some of them had been spared the cruelty of FGM, some hadn’t been as lucky, and some were still in the process of trying to escape.  I recall one girl in particular who was about 12 years old at the time and had been at the boarding school for months on end, never going home to her family for holidays.  The reason was simple: if she went home to her village, she would be forced to undergo genital mutilation.   She had to decide which is more important to her: seeing her siblings ever again, or keeping all the parts of her own body.

This girl is real.  She is good at math and tells totally un-funny jokes and plays goalie every day at the lunchtime soccer match.  She, and girls like her, are alive inside the bodies that are mutilated and scarred.  They have thoughts and feelings and fears and desires that are every bit as real as yours and mine.  They are at home in their minds when someone holds them down and someone else comes at them with a knife to take away something so precious as to be priceless.  This is a thing that exists in our world and if that doesn’t fill you with an anger so hot that you want to scream or weep, then I don’t understand you at all.

We live in a world where a 12-year-old girl has to pick between her clitoris and her family.  This world.