SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY! Two champions of thought will battle it out on the philosophical battlefield on a quest for fame and glory. These two mental heavyweights will tackle the world’s most difficult problems. Two opinions enter the arena, only one comes out. Who will be victorious? It’s…..DUELING LIBERALS!
Okay so it’s not exactly like that.
My friend Tony and I have decided to go tandem on some writing. In this article, (the first of hopefully many) we will tackle a deeper question or issue from our own perspectives. We have a unique relationship. We both went to the same Bible college, both are avid writers; and we are both incredibly out-of-the-box. We’re both “liberals” in a sense that we both strayed from the milieu of our conservative alma mater. But we strayed in very different ways. And this will show in our responses. Tony writes from a more naturalistic perspective while I write from a more progressive Christian worldview.
Oh, and if you’re excited for some heated debate, we don’t actually ever “duel”. The title just sounded cool. Sorry about that.
The question we’re discussing is, “How should we respond to the death of Osama Bin Laden?”
I’d like to open with the two-fold challenge often put forth by Christopher Hitchens.
First, imagine some moral act that a person of religious faith could perform that is inaccessible to an atheist or agnostic.
I can’t think of anything, and in the many years Hitchens spent debating the brightest theists and apologists of our time, he has yet to encounter a compelling response.
Second, imagine an act of immorality, something truly horrible or destructive that could only be performed by a person who believed they were operating on divine command. A person of faith.
You’ve already thought of something.
You know that somewhere, at this very moment, a suicide bomber is content with the thought that before long he will be in paradise and the infidels he immolates along with himself will be sent to Hell. He believes he will be reunited with Osama bin Laden, but not before greeting his seventy-two virgins.
To once again echo Hitchens, somewhere, right now, a little girl’s face is being burned with acid for the crime of wanting to learn to read. A young woman is being blamed for her own rape and urged by her father to kill herself in order to preserve the honor of her family.
Somewhere a Christian is telling their child that a classmate or friend will burn in Hell because his or her parents go to the wrong church. This year, millions of children will be born under a death sentence because The Church believes that AIDS is bad but condoms are worse. These people are told that condoms cause, rather than help prevent, the disease, and this lie comes directly from the Vatican.
We can all agree that these are truly evils of our time, but they are committed in the name of belief, of faith, and quite often against a person or group because they cling to a different ancient holy book.
In contrast, nowhere, right now or ever, is there an atheist, scientist or philosopher destroying a telescope array, a nuclear facility or research laboratory. Nowhere is there a free-thinker or skeptic leading a suicide cult or brainwashing their children to hate people of other cultures, religious backgrounds or sexual orientations. Scientists don’t declare fatwa against other scientists over differing interpretations of peer-reviewed research in a journal of medicine, or for drawing cartoons of Albert Einstein.
But somewhere, a person whom many might deem a “militant atheist” is sipping a cup of coffee, reading a book on philosophy or evolution or studying one of the various world religions, and they are thinking long and hard about how to make this world a better place. One thing you can be sure of is that he will never blow himself up, he will never threaten you or me with torture or death, to accomplish this goal.
What I’m arguing for is the virtue of non-belief in unproven, unverifiable metaphysical claims. I’m not necessarily arguing for atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, the scientific method; I’m only standing against unmerited belief.
It’s not that metaphysical speculation isn’t interesting or worth pursuing, but that this speculation, unchecked, can all too often give otherwise rational people unwarranted confidence that some atrocity is not only moral, but required of them by their creator.
I ask you, has a building ever crashed to the ground as a result of too much intellectual humility, rigorous research or skeptical inquiry?
So what do we do with the news that Osama bin Laden is dead?
Sadly, the culture that created him, the culture which believes certain unverifiable propositions about the after life and God’s will, still exists. It only takes another brainwashed child or teenager to take his place, and there are myriad prospects. The root of the problem, the basis for the belief is still fully intact. And the problem is not confined to radical Islam. (Notice I said “radical” Islam, certainly not all facets of the culture.)
* * *
Let us assume Christianity: Millions of good people are burning in Hell right now. But the Inquisitors and Conquistadors, the Popes who looked the other way amidst centuries of rampant Anti-Semitism in Europe, even during Hitler’s Final Solution; they’re all enjoying the company of Jesus and the Saints.
Let us now assume Islam: The aforementioned are in Hell alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Theresa, but Osama bin Laden and thousands of suicide bombing terrorists are in Paradise, each with their many virgins.
Morality in both of these paradigms is not contingent upon your actions or the quality of your relationships, your impact on or contribution to society; but upon your belief in unverifiable, brute statements about this world and even more incredulous assertions about the nature of the next. You simply must be irrational to be good in this life and thereby gain a reward in the next if either of these systems are true.
As a Christian, there must be some measure, however small, of irrationality present to want to spend eternity alongside Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer who accepted Christ on death row, instead of, say Ghandi, who is consigned to Hell for the evil deed of not accepting Jesus as his personal human sacrifice.
Consider the Christian image of being washed in the blood of the sacrificial lamb, I mean really imagine it, and try to tell me with a straight face that this image represents the height of moral achievements.
However, up until now, all this rhetoric amounts to little more than an emotional appeal. I don’t want either of these scenarios to be true, but that doesn’t make either of them false. I don’t want either Dahmer or bin Laden to be rewarded eternally given the lives they lead, but emotional weight adds nothing to Truth value. Luckily, there are many other options on the table.
* * *
What I offer is a firm basis for morality, a morality that improves with the frequency, quality and precision of our moral inquiries; inquiries which religion (in the developed world) has only recently given up punishing with torture and death.
More to the point, what I offer is the same moral progress for which Christianity often tries to take credit. Why don’t we, here in America, burn witches any more? This still happens in Kenya in the wake of Christian missionaries spreading the “good” news. It’s still in every Bible in every hotel, on every coffee table and in every church pew, that we “shall not suffer a witch to live”. In America we ignore this verse. In other countries, to this day it spells death for schizophrenics, seizure sufferers and unruly children.
What’s most telling is that we can pinpoint a moment in history when these things were acceptable in Europe and America and, by comparison to that point, make a positive assertion of moral progress between then and now. We can track it with unbelievable precision. Whether or not the God of the Bible really achieved the atrocities for which he is given credit in the Old Testament is of little consequence on this matter. A more salient point is that we used to hold it moral to kill not only the guilty, but entire families, because we believed they had offended God.
On that point, would anyone who believes in the Bible honestly assert that Jeffrey Dahmer’s parents should have also been executed for his crimes? How about his extended family? Of course not. That would be a severe injustice and terribly immoral. But there is clearly a time in history to which we can point when this was considered not only moral, but obligatory. Today it most certainly would not.
This is moral progress, and it does not come from any religious text or belief. It comes from free thinkers and doubters and heretics. Consider that the word heretic literally translates from the Greek to mean, “One who is able to choose.” We commit heresy every time we challenge some notion of morality according to some ancient religious text, and I would suggest that we are virtually always better off for it.
* * *
In my worldview, Osama bin Laden is simply dead. So is Jeffrey Dahmer. So is Hitler, Stalin, all the Inquisitors and Crusaders and Jihadists and suicide bombers. They’re gone, and those of us who are still here are faced with handling the aftermath of their choices.
In my worldview, Ghandi is also dead, but we have no need to be sad that he didn’t make it into heaven. Ghandi’s impact on the world remains. So does Buddha’s. And the same goes for Jesus. We can be happy that all these people not only lived, but left something positive in their absence.
In my worldview, we progress morally every time we object to any religion’s oppressive, hateful, divisive or exclusive claims about how to live in this world.
Moral progress is clearly moving away from bronze age sentiments on how to live and who to kill. This is demonstrably true. If God does exist, I believe it is more than probable that he, she, or it has very little to do with most of those who claim to follow him.
This does not tell me anything about the afterlife, and I cannot argue one way or another on that front. I have no evidence upon which to judge such claims. But as far as this life goes, we’re still here, and the belief systems which gave us both the Inquisition and the Taliban still exist. This is the world I am concerned with as it is the only world of which I can reasonably speak or change.
In my worldview, it falls to us to make things right, here and now, and one of the most immoral things we can do is leave it up to some idea of God to settle accounts after we die. But what is arguably more evil than inaction would be to give billions of people permission to raise their children to hate infidels, homosexuals or people of other religions or races, all so we can feel “tolerant”.
It is our responsibility as rational, reasonable moral agents, as equal members of our race, to hold both people and cultures responsible for their impact on our world, to speak out against the indoctrination of hate and oppression with an appropriate measure of criticism. These conversations have never been easy, but in a country where slavery is now abolished, women can vote and own property rather than be property, where homosexuals are on the verge of being equal members of society, I can tell you that we are, slowly but surely, moving in the right direction.
Osama bin Laden is dead. We, the living, must decide how we want the world to look in his absence.
Osama Bin Laden has a new secret location, and there’s been much speculation of exactly where that’s at.
Bin Laden is in hell, wrapped in a gasoline Snuggie, while all the people that were killed in the Twin Towers are in heaven throwing rocks at him.
Or, he’s enjoying his virgins…but they all look Chris Farley with the body hair of Robin Williams and the voice of Kathy Griffin.
Or heck, maybe Bin Laden is indeed being lavishly rewarded by a militant Islamic god. After all, there are about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, and they ALL share the same extremist beliefs. And 1.5 billion people can’t be wrong, right? (I really wish there was a universal symbol to denote sarcasm).
Approximately 150,000 people die around the world everyday (according to Yahoo Answers – and you know they’re always legit) and yet the eternal fate of one man is still talked about weeks after his death. And the world ultimately disagrees with itself. Bin Laden is in hell. Bin Laden was reincarnated and came back as dung beetle. Bin Laden’s life force was returned to the universe.
Even my own religion, Christianity, can’t agree on an opinion. God is in sorrow that he lost Bin Laden’s soul. God is rejoicing that evil was eradicated. Bin Laden is in hell with Gandhi, Hitler, and everyone else that wasn’t a Christian, regardless of how good or evil they were. Or, he’s in the deepest part of hell with Hitler while good people like Gandhi are in an easier part of hell – like hell with room service. Or, Bin Laden’s body and soul were completely annihilated. Or maybe he’s in purgatory, which is unfortunate for him because I don’t see any Catholics volunteering to pray him out.
But here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for. Here is my wise and well-studied opinion about where Bin Laden’s soul is as we speak…
I don’t know. And I really don’t care. *Cue gasps from the audience*
I mean seriously, with only 24 hours in the day and a finite amount of brain power, don’t we have better things to do? Do we really think that whatever we believe about Bin Laden’s new secret location will change the inevitable, whatever the inevitable may be?
“Holy crap, Josh! Aren’t you a Christian? Shouldn’t you be all freaked out and passionate about where souls go in the afterlife?”
I wasn’t planning on putting a Christian spin on this, but since there’s a good chance that you, the reader, at least know enough about Christianity to be shocked at my apathy, I feel I should explain myself from a Christian perspective.
To put it in really simple terms, there are things in the Bible that are really clear, and there are things that are super ambiguous. Jesus’ commands to love and take care of people: really clear. The Bible’s descriptions about the afterlife: super ambiguous. This is where I feel Christians get it wrong. They’re so concerned about the afterlife that they fail to take care of the here and now. And this has all sorts of ramifications. When Christians get this backwards, they care more about being pious and how to act instead of emulating the one they choose to worship. And being pious has cornered the Christian market. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. “Oh be careful little eyes what you see. For the father up above, throws lightening down with love…”
Just the other day I was reading an article by Chuck Colson where he addressed a concern about how more and more Christians are being more concerned about poverty and the environment instead of homosexuality and the sanctity of marriage. This is a concern? Really? It sounds more like progress to me.
But this isn’t just about Christianity; this is about good old-fashioned common sense. Why be concerned about one dead man when there are hundreds dying and suffering in our neighborhoods that we can actually help? Osama Bin Laden is dead, and I have a lot of thoughts about this – it’s a mixed bag of logical, psychological, spiritual and emotional perspectives. But ultimately, they don’t matter. But my thoughts and emotions on poverty, racism, and social injustices, those are things that count.
If you’re still unsatisfied with my response and really want to know my humble opinion on Bin Laden’s new secret location, here’s my official stance. I believe that Bin Laden wasn’t killed – he escaped the Matrix and is now fighting the computers with personality handicapped people like Neo, Trinity and Morpheus. And that pretty much sounds like hell to me.