Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A comment and a parable

A commenter, named MrPete
Left a message he thought was quite neat
In a very old post;
I’ll reply, as your host:
Pete’s neat feat is, at best, incomplete.

Verse aside... MrPete replied to a post from early last year, so I thought I'd be fair and address his comment where people can see it, rather than in the murky depths of the past. You may, if you wish, click the link for context, but most of it is fairly self-explanatory.

Here's something not from the choir :)

Welcome, MrPete; I hope you find the pews comfortable.

"Going to church" is meaningless. "Church" is a community, a set of people in relationship. How do you "go to" a relationship?

I’ll avoid the snarky 2-inch putt response to your first sentence, and simply note that if you replace “going to church” with “being part of a self-identified religious communal relationship”, the verse no longer rhymes. But oddly enough, the meaning remains the same. “Going to church” is, for children, the physical act of being dragged out of bed on a Sunday morning and taken to the place where the adults act like pod people (your experience may vary, but that was my first memory of church, from behind the soundproof window where we children were able to watch the services). For older children and adolescents, “going to church” may be the process of becoming part of or choosing to reject a community, or even a personal emotional experience. “Going to church” is also a quick and handy heuristic for determining “us” vs. “them”; just last night on the news, a Republican analyst was speaking about morality on the BBC, and used the phrase “good, churchgoing Americans” in this last, divisive manner.

Picking apart a verse because a very rich phrase, which has multiple and layered meanings, may have been inaccurate if you choose only the literal interpretation, is easy to do, and utterly meaningless.

"License" to be moral, or approved as moral, is also meaningless. "Moral" is simply a code of conduct.

The challenge isn't in sometimes following the code.

The challenge is in always following the code -- in word, deed, and thought. And not watering down the code just 'cuz it's hard to follow.

Which code? Seriously, of the thousands of interpretations of religious morality, which code do you always follow? Are they all moral? In which case, following a particular code vs. another is irrelevant. Are some immoral? In which case, how do you know which? Do you eat shellfish? Covet your neighbor’s ass? Seethe a kid in its mother’s milk? Cut your beard? Are any of these important?

If something is moral because your god says it is, and you believed that your god told you to drown your children, would that then be moral? If so, I would argue that religious morality is a license to be evil. If not, I would argue that you have a sense of morality that is independent from your religious moral code… just as atheists do.

God is far more about an achingly awesome love relationship than about harps and brimstone.

Mom loved me more than a friend, and in a whole different way.

My spouse loves me more than mom did, in a whole different way.

God loves me more than any of them, in a whole different way.

How do you know your spouse, and your mom, love you? I would hope that they would occasionally show you, and not just tell you. If, for instance, your mom beat you, but always told you it was for your own good, does that count as a “whole different way”? If your spouse demands obedience, gifts, and praise, in return for letting you keep part of your own paycheck, does that count as a “whole different way”?

You know they love you because of their actions, actions that you can plainly see, which you do not have to simply take on their word. They do not have to steal the credit from other people’s actions (my sister shared her dessert with me—thanks be to Mom! I found a twenty dollar bill in a snowbank today, praise my spouse!).

One-sided loves are often aching and awesome. Abusive relationships are accompanied by a panoply of hormonal and neurological cascades, not to mention the highly effective variable ratio schedule of reinforcement. This does not make them better; it just makes them “a whole different way”.

I think your rant is more against an organization than against becoming one who accepts God's love and as a result tries to be more like him.

Again, which god are you trying to be more like? Have you been practicing your smiting?

I have been called immoral simply for being an atheist. Presumably, the people who made this accusation accept their god’s love and as a result try to be more like him. Will you accept them as your peers? As your community? Will you reject them as not true Scotsmen—er, believers? I have no need of their standards; frankly, neither do they. Nothing of how they act has been made better by their beliefs. Nothing.

[Yes, we can argue over pain and suffering etc etc etc. But it's really just a bigger picture version of why mom made you do your homework and eat your peas... and why the whole bus suffered when Billy poured glue on Sally's seat...and why your big brother whupped the bully who broke your glasses :) ] :)

Oh, please. Is this a special pleading, a “god works in mysterious ways” answer to the problem of punishment? I refer you to above—if something is moral only because your god says it is, then infanticide could be moral. If you require something other than your god’s decree, your god is superfluous.

Your examples all focus on punishment or the threat of punishment. Is that your bottom-line reason for morality? Be good, or god will punish you to teach you that you are supposed to be good? I would hope that your mom explained why you had to do your homework, or eat your peas; if she simply said “because I said so” she is doing her child an injustice. If the whole bus suffered, I hope the school system has a good lawyer, and that the argument can be made as to why this was in the best interest of all the children, or somebody is going to pay. And I was the big brother, and never had to whup a bully.

[Edit--I just removed several smiley emoticons that I had inadvertently pasted into MrPete's comment. I do not wish to misrepresent him. 10:47 eastern US time.]

A Parable:

Your mom loves you… as such, she wants you safe. But she’s not terribly good at explaining her motives, and indeed her actions focus on trivial matters at times and ignore larger dangers. She wants you to stay inside, because it is a dangerous world out there (it’s a place where who knows what things you might learn!), so she tells you about the neighbor’s dog, which is always hanging around your yard looking for someone to bite. It’s a mean, vicious dog—Tommy across the street got bit, and had to get stitches and everything, and now he can’t come out of his house, which is why you don’t know him.

Funny thing… you’ve never actually seen this dog, and you do occasionally see kids playing on the sidewalk... But your mom loves you—she tells you so—so of course the dog has to exist. So you stay safe inside your house. Fresh air is over-rated. Meeting kids, learning stuff, over-rated. You might fall and skin your knee. Mom knows best.

You get to be school-aged, and Mom decides to home-school you, because it is so much safer in the house. Besides, there is the dog to think about. Horrible to consider, with those nasty sharp teeth. Poor Tommy. And Billy, too, and Sally down the street. She got bit so bad she is going to be in pain for the rest of her life! You’ve never met these kids, or seen or heard the dog, but you have to believe your mom—not just some of the time, when it’s easy. Don’t water it down cos it’s hard to follow.

Years go by; whenever you express doubt, your mother tells of another kid who had his ear bitten off, and reminds you how much she loves you and how much she has sacrificed to keep you safe. Hers is an unconditional love—just ask her. Don’t ask her to explain, mind you, just to once again assert that she is doing what she does because she loves you, and you don’t have to question that.

Of course, if I could, I’d like to get a message to you. You are shut up in that house, so it might be difficult to actually talk to you. Maybe I should put a message on the side of a bus that drives past your window:

“There probably is no dog. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”


Anonymous said...

"I really hate to nitpick,"
MrPete said, with a big stick
jutting outward from the orbit of his skull into the sky.

Like a marlinspike it rose
From his brainstem (or his toes!)
Blood and humours dripping from it more than seven meters high.

"I don't mean to be pedantic
Re. your sweet poetic antic
But it seems to me that you just might have something in your eye."

Christian Walters said...

I like how MrPete ended every thought with a smiley. It made me think of every encounter with Christians telling me I was going to burn, but determined to be pleasant about it in case God was paying attention.

To MrPete:

Get a clue :)

Your arguments have no substance, your moralizing has no meaning, and your god has no power :)

I feel sorry for you patronizing, evangelizing Christians. It's clear that you are attacking others because you are insecure with your own ethics, faith, and (to be honest) sexuality. If you could let all that go, you would be much happier :)

The Ridger, FCD said...

Yes, the smileys were weird. Was it all just a big joke? Or was he just doing exactly what The Man Version said - that Stepford smile?

Andy Allen said...

The parable was beautiful...sniff...I followed it all the way to the end, and then it bit me - just as it was supposed to. :)

Who knew you were as good with prose as with verse?


maggienotmegan said...

Er, hello! While I find MrPete's argument rather lacking in substance and disagree with his opinion, I also disagree with the false dichotomy you seem to espouse by drawing a line in the sand between atheists and theists. (If this was not your intention, I humbly apologize. It's getting past my bedtime, so it's possible I misread something. And as a reactionary post, I can understand having a more defensive or antagonistic tone.)

I believe in God-and I believe in God's morality. This is, of course, purely subjective and a matter of my personal opinion, but my point is that to me, and I believe to many others, that God is great because God is good, and *not* that God is good because God is great, which seems to be the philosophy you object to.

Aside from MrPete's pedantic snarking, I found little to object to in his comment--he is merely pointing out (albeit in an annoying, overly emoticon-ed way) that, at least to his way of thinking, good is good and bad is bad. Inherently, humans have a moral sense. (You can choose to agree or disagree with this, but from my reading of his statement, I believe MrPete meant something of the same.)

We as people are born with a connection to the universe--call that God, or necessity, or simply the energy that makes the world function. Whatever. The point is that (excepting sociopaths) we empathize with others, to at least some degree. We hurt when others hurt, laugh when others laugh, cry when others cry, etc.

I would argue that is an inborn morality that causes this, and that we are born knowing deep inside what is right, no matter what we are brought up to believe in the specifics. There are at least 20 different variants in different religions and cultures of the Golden rule- 'do unto others...'

This is getting far too long, so I'll stop here. Especially as I'm getting confused as to what I've already said...silly comment boxes.

Anyway. Peace,

Rick said...

I have to agree with Andy Allen... totally loved the parable, and completely missed the coming punch line. Which is why it struck me so perfectly!

Well played, Sir, well played.

Rick said...

The emoticon smilies were either a) added by Senior Cuttlefish for effect, or b) were largely removed from the original comment. As the comment stands currently on the original post, there is a smiley at the end of the first comment and the last.

Cuttlefish said...

Maggie (Not Megan, for goodness' sake!)-


It seems we have much to agree on, and at least a little bit I would love to have you clear up, assuming you return to visit here again, as I very much hope!

The "false dichotomy"--could you expand on that a bit? I do not wish to put words in your mouth, so I won't comment much on that until I hear a bit more.

The "God is great because God is good" bit... please forgive my impertinence, but... which god? Which set of readings? You do go on to say that we recognize, innately, what is good and bad. (This is precisely the question I was asking MrPete--I did not know whether he believed as you do, and still do not.) If you recognize good and bad innately, then the religious trappings, while perhaps of tremendous importance to you, are indeed superfluous, and (as was the point in my post to which MrPete was responding) atheists may be every bit as moral as any religious individual.

Your later paragraphs are all in perfect agreement with that original post; you choose to share credit for your morality with your god, and I don't see any reason to, but other than that, I cannot find fault in anything you say.

Again, I sincerely hope you will return and expand a bit on the false dichotomy business; you might be surprised at how much I enjoy being proved wrong!

Peace be with you as well,


Andy Allen--don't tell anyone, but in real life, I often go days--erm, months... years at a time without breaking into verse!


Cuttlefish said...


You leave out one possibility--the smilies are there out of accident on the part of yours truly. I cut and pasted the italics html code, and must have included the smiley as well. Did not even notice until your comment.

Guilty as charged! It's a fair cop....

Blake Stacey said...

Off-topic: Preparing the Perfect Cuttlefish Meal: Complex Prey Handling by Dolphins.

Cuttlefish said...


Oh, my.




Johnny Vector said...

Beautiful parable! Write more!