Where is society’s moral authority 
in the absence of religious belief?

There’s something going on in local politics that’s been bothering me for a while because I really can’t figure it out. I suppose I’m speaking here more about politics in terms of the Greek idea of the polis, which came to mean the body politic or the citizens of a city.

I’m trying to puzzle out what this recent rhubarb over District 51 school children seeing a church video on a school outing signifies.

I understand the immediate problem for local atheists and freethinkers — as they refer to themselves — about the situation. Schools are predominantly for the purpose of giving children the tools to make up their own minds about things and religious instruction, unless sought out by the parent for the child’s benefit, probably doesn’t directly belong in the school curriculum.

I don’t think children should be subjected to any particular religious dogma, like say, global warming — I mean global climate change — I mean global climate disruption. OK, weather.

What puzzles me is not so much the negative side of the argument, which is pretty easy to make if you take the position that the First Amendment Establishment Clause about religion means a complete separation of any religious-based anything from being passed through the public sector.

Personally, I don’t believe the Establishment Clause was meant to prevent any reference to religion, no matter how slight, from taking place as part of government discourse. The danger the framers feared was the establishment of a state religion and a requirement of adherence to it in order to hold office or conduct public business. This had been the case in England and in much of Europe at the time.

I know all about Thomas Jefferson and his letters discussing the separation of church and state, but I don’t think any serious-minded and fair person can say that Jefferson believed religion had no place as a principle of moral and ethical behavior in government. He may have been a deist, a pantheist or a Manichaean, for all I know, but he was not spiritually adrift.

I also am of the belief that he would be a bit shocked at the vehemence some employ to attempt to root religion, especially Judeo-Christian teachings, from the fabric of American public life. I wish these champions had half the zeal about some other amendments and their importance to the Constitution, such as the Second, the Ninth and the 10th. These are written on the same paper, yet they don’t seem to inspire the same fervor from First Amendment religious-exclusion enthusiasts.

So, that leaves me with a puzzle. What’s the guiding star for our republic’s ethical and moral behavior? What is it that we should believe to ground our understandings of right and wrong? Zoroastrianism? Buddhism? The teachings of Confucius?

This is the harder question because it’s always easy to say no to moral and religious thinking but considerably more difficult to come up with an alternate roadmap for behavior.

I think many atheists and unbelievers in anything eternal would be surprised, if they really examined their ideas of right and wrong, to discover most of them are established on a cultural norm that is basted in Judeo-Christian philosophy.

Other cultures for instance, which worship their own foreign gods, often have very different ideas about issues like the taking of human life or the existence of a natural right of an individual to manage his own destiny.

I say other cultures and foreign gods because I’m having a hard time thinking of any successful culture that wasn’t based upon some overarching belief in a being or force greater than humans that helped formulate the standards for their society.

Communism has unsuccessfully tried to eradicate this need for as long as it has existed, and has, at best, tried to substitute quasi-religious dictators for God. These societies have learned that no matter how big a painting of your leader du jour you hang in the capital square, it never creates moral authority, only compulsion.

So, the questions are: If groups are successful in untethering a nation from even vaguely religious underpinnings, where do the rules come from? What is right and wrong? What is a society that is bereft of belief?

Rick Wagner writes more on politics at his blog, The War on Wrong.


COMMENTS

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This was wonderful. Thanks Rick

Mr. Wagner, you need to get your facts straight before you write.

The promotion of Fellowship Church’s youth indoctrination center at Grand Mesa Middle School did not take place on an “outing.” It took place during class time, on school property, and thus violated the law, a fact that District 51 has recognized.

Climate change is settled scientific fact, not “religious dogma.”

If religion is society’s sole, highest and best source of moral authority, how do you explain pedophile priests, preachers who take meth and hire whores, and scandalous “prosperity gospel” preachers who live in mansions, drive Rolls Royces and own jets tax-free? How do you explain human sacrifice?

You must have never taken any philosophy classes. Secular sources of moral authority exist, but you either don’t know about them or choose to ignore them: the ethic of reciprocity, also known as “The Golden Rule” (which predates modern religions), Utilitarianism, social contracts, moral relativism, and secular dedication to non-violence.

Your way of thinking is not the only way of thinking, Mr. Wagner.

PART 1. Kudos to Rick Wagner for an excellent column. But, in my opinion, he is overly kind and generous to atheists and other fraudulently alleged “free” thinkers.
In his book “The Road Less Traveled “ M. Scott Peck wrote a profoundly insightful and moving paragraph which I believe contains the secret to atheists’ animosity toward faith:
“There is clearly a lot of dirty bath water surrounding the reality of God. Holy wars. Inquisitions. Animal sacrifice. Human sacrifice.  Superstition.  Dogmatism.  Ignorance.  Hypocrisy.  Self-righteousness. Rigidity. Cruelty. Book-burning. Witch-burning. Inhibition. Fear. Conformity. Morbid guilt. Insanity. The list is almost endless. But is all this what God has done to humans or what humans have done to God? It is abundantly evident that belief in God is often destructively dogmatic. Is the problem, then, that humans tend to believe in God, or is the problem that humans tend to be dogmatic? Anyone who has known a died-in-the wool atheist will know that such an individual can be as dogmatic about unbelief as any believer can be about belief.  Is it belief in God we need to get rid of, or is it dogmatism?”
I suspect atheists’ main problem with religion is the hypocrisy manifested in the organized Church and most Christians’ behavior. But although that explains atheists’ — (hypocrites themselves) — emotional anti-religious fervor, it does not excuse their intellectual shallowness and self-absorption.
I like to start these discussions by stating the obvious fact that nobody “knows” anything, and that neither theists nor atheists can prove diddley squat to the other “side”. We don’t know how we got here, or why. The entire universe, as humans think of it, could be a tiny speck in some gigantic dog’s eyeball in another dimension. So to display the levels of emotional heat and animosity many atheists do is, in my view, self-evidently stupid.
There is, of course, the self-evident logic of Pascal’s Wager. What’s in it for me to believe in nothing? What’s in it for me to believe we will not see our deceased loved ones and/or favorite pets on “the other side”? Nothing that I can see.
The Bible calls God the great I AM (Ex 3:14).  French philosopher Rene Descartes is credited with first saying the famous words “Cogito Ergo Sum”  or “I think, therefore I am.”  So, for the sake of the argument, let’s say God (the incomprehensible Almight Creator of the Declaration of Independence) is the Great I AM, and the individual human is the little I AM.  From that point, it is reasonable to extrapolate a workable atheistic definition of God to be all that is good, truthful, loving, kind, generous, merciful, ingenious, industrious, courageous, and noble about mankind collectively as a species.

PART 2. So instead of many atheists’ vision of theists’ God as some kind of weird, delusional, white-bearded, Nixonian, “I-am-not-a-crook”, finger-wagging, fun-spoiling, life-ruining, moralistic, authoritarian leprechaun, per Voltaire’s “define your terms if you want to argue with me” admonition, the definition of God I like to use in dialogues with atheists and agnostics (on the rare occasion where they summon the courage to participate): God = the Great I AM Spirit of collective individual human desire — (actually survival need) — for existence (life), significance (to be loved), self- realization/fulfillment (aka life, “liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”), and contentment (happiness).
Using that definition of God, it becomes obvious that what are called “God’s Laws” or “Natural Laws” are really nothing more complicated than a “Great I AM” collective form of the little I AM’s survival rule for individual self-ownership and self-determination summarized in the Two Great Commandments and the Decalogue as: “do not do unto others that which you wouldn’t want done to yourself.”
To borrow from the syntax of Thomas Paine’s “Age Of Reason”: Jesus knew that if a man were impressed as fully and as strongly as he ought to be with a logic-based belief in a God, a fixed point of moral reference, an absolute moral order to the universe, his moral life and behavior would be regulated by the force and power of this belief, he would stand in awe of God and of himself (a creation/child of God), and would not do those things which could not be concealed from either. Jesus also understood that to give this belief/faith the full and fair opportunity of life-governing, life-changing force, it is necessary that the belief/faith acts alone in an atmosphere of free will/freedom/truth completely void of all external coercion.
The place where atheists and so-called “free” thinkers — (actually pseudo-free thinkers) — lose me is when they fraudulently pretend that science and religion are anathematical to each other. That is a lie of several levels.
Religion = world view. World view = how you believe the universe around you actually functions. Everybody has a world view. Even atheists.  Even lawyers.  Atheists are “religious” because, since a) atheism = world view, and b) world view = religion, then c) atheism = religion.

PART 3. Atheists’ “religion” is nihilism. Nihilism pretends to believe only in itself, but even that is not true. Nihilism does not facilitate and support individual self-ownership, but actually denigrates and destroys it. Self-ownership and self-determination are facilitated and supported by voluntary compliance with the Golden Rule, or what some atheists call “The Non-Aggression Principle” — (the principle is the same regardless of what name you give it). In other words, individual self-ownership and self-determination are facilitated and supported by voluntary compliance with the Great I AM’s rules, which can be logically argued to be a collective of the little IAM’s survival and self-ownership rules.
Without some kind of moral order to the universe, life would be nothing more than a cannibalistic feeding frenzy. Or, as Thomas Hobbes argued in “Leviathon”, life in the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.  Without some kind of moral belief (aka “faith”, aka “religion”) — in other words how living beings (particularly humans) ought to treat each other — what would be the difference between eating a carrot, a chicken, a cat, a cow, or another human being? Atheism and nihilism can get pretty stupid.
The saving grace of humankind is that we (some of us, at least) have intellectual curiosity and a desire for knowledge and self-improvement. Fortunately we have developed computers which greatly facilitate the organization, storage and retrieval of cumulated knowledge, which means that we don’t have to endlessly keep reinventing the same wheel. We can stand on the shoulders of our intellectual giants.
As both Rick Wagner and Gary McCallister have previously pointed out, many of histories greatest scientific minds were of the Judeo-Christian philosophical bent. Contrary to the intellectually dishonest pretenses of atheists, the simple fact is, honest inquiry, experimentation and observation are just as easy (maybe easier) for the theist mind as for the atheist mind.
Arguably the most important thing about the Judeo-Christian ethic — at least from an Economics 101 point of view — is that it prohibits us from trying to use such wannabe-clever word tools as “God”, “government”, “law”, “taxes”, “money”, etc. — to steal each other’s labor.
That’s why most so-called “atheists”, “free” thinkers, and “liberals” hate it. They have every intention of stealing your labor and redistributing according to their self-perceived-as superior wisdom — (making sure, of course, that plenty of the loot winds up in their own pockets and those of their cronies).

PART 4. Way back in 1905 G.K. Chesterton said, “When you break the big [God’s — JRW] laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small [human — JRW] laws.”
Too many people, especially atheists and “free” thinkers don’t understand that. They are absolutely clueless as to the mechanical (operational) differences between God’s free-will-based voluntary-compliance laws and humankind’s coercion-based “government” laws.
God’s free-will-based law (or Nature’s law, if you prefer), often called the Golden Rule, and/or the Ten Commandments, protects all individuals 1) separately, 2) equally, and 3) simultaneously — an utter impossibility for coercion-based human law. (This fact remains true, despite the seductive pro-statism arguments of such as Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes.)
In stark polar contrast, ritualized coercion-based “positive” human law pits the privacy of the mother (thesis) against the life of the child (antithesis), and after much ritualized lying and spinning and wasting millions of dollars on shaman/lawyers which could have been spent feeding the hungry, the so-called “legal” so-called “profession” comes up with a fraudulent temporary “resolution” (synthesis) to what shouldn’t really have been a problem in the first place if humans would just voluntarily choose to treat each other more justly and wisely — and, yes, more sustainably.
The latter of the two types of law, the deception-and-manipulation-based process, is called the Hegelian Dialectic. It’s how evil people achieve power over “The Other” by dividing and conquering the citizenry. It’s how people who think they are more clever than you try to use deception-based double-meaning word tools such as “God”, “law”, “government”, “taxes” and “money” to steal your labor.
Long story short, the core reason why the political cutesy pies of the world hate God and want to drive all mention of the Great I AM from the public square: they want to run your life and steal your labor.
That’s why so many of them pretend serious minds like the Founders were just mean-spirited, old, slave-owning, misogynistic, homophobic white hypocrites.
Never buy into buy nihilistic stupidity and self-absorption camouflaged as intellectual discipline and prowess — never, never, never. It’s a tyranny-friendly lie.
Always remember: the universe is a cause-and-effect place/paradigm. And most especially when we ignore the Great I AM’s great laws, we tend to get the tyranny of the small laws designed to run our lives and steal our labor. We tend to get the corrupt government which is the natural consequence our corrupt minds deserve.
Isn’t learning the hard way fun?!

This seems to intentionally confuse the importance of morals for a society with public schools showing videos of one religion. I don’t want my public school math teacher showing my kids videos promoting Buddhism, or my public school history teacher showing videos promoting Islam. Public schools are for teaching reading, math, science, history, and other academic and art subjects. Churches and homes are for teaching morals.

Wow, John Wilkenson sure has a lot to say. But in response I will say the following two things:

1) Proselytizing in public schools is illegal, and
2) Atheists are not dogmatic. When it is proven beyond doubt that a god exists, atheists will then believe it exists.

Humans create their own ideas of morality. The “morality” found in the Bible is just a reflection of the morality of the men who wrote it and the times in which they lived. That’s why the Bible calls for death for disrespectful children among many other things which outrage our sense of morality today.

As an atheist I base my sense of morality on the idea that I want to live in a free and open and safe society. It’s an idea found in the Bible and known as “the Golden Rule” but it’s an idea much older than the Bible. I don’t kill because I don’t want to be killed. I don’t steal because I don’t want my things to be stolen. I don’t need an imaginary friend to explain those things to me. And I don’t need the threat of eternal damnation hanging over head to hold those values.

I’d say if a fear of hell is the only thing keeping you from killing and stealing then you aren’t a good person at all.

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