How the doctrine of the soul makes us less moral

“The doctrine of the sacredness of the soul sounds vaguely uplifting, but in fact is highly malignant. It discounts life on earth as just a temporary phase that people pass through, indeed, an infinitesimal fraction of their existence. Death becomes a mere rite of passage, like puberty or a midlife crisis.

“The gradual replacement of lives for souls as the locus of moral value was helped along by the ascendancy of skepticism and reason. No one can deny the difference between life and death or the existence of suffering, but it takes indoctrination to hold beliefs about what becomes of an immortal soul after it has parted company from the body.”

–Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011), p. 143. Continue reading

These people are going to lose everything

We do not know what awaits each of us after death, but we know that we will die. Clearly, it must be possible to live ethically—with a genuine concern for the happiness of other sentient beings—without presuming to know things about which we are patently ignorant. Consider it: every person you have ever met, every person you will pass on the street today, is going to die. Living long enough, each will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything they love in this world. Why would anyone want to be anything but kind in the meantime?

Sam Harris, The End of Faith (2004)

Think about that the next time you’re in a crowd. For every single person you see, young or old, there will be one death, one funeral, one grave or ash-filled urn. I work on a university campus where most of the people I pass on the street are young and healthy—and in this context the thought is jarring. Continue reading

What believers fear about atheists

  • Do you ever feel that you’re a small part of something much larger than yourself, something big and wonderful?
  • Are you ever swept with a sense of awe and wonder?
  • Does injustice trouble you? Do you feel a responsibility for your fellow human beings? Do you experience a sense of moral outrage when people are mistreated?
  • Do you ever bask in the knowledge that you are loved?

Notice I didn’t ask if you believe in God. You could answer an emphatic yes to all these questions and still not be religious. None of these things has any necessary connection to the supernatural. And yet they get to the heart of what seems to bother many believers about atheists. Continue reading

Napoleon on religion and inequality

“There is only one way to encourage morality, and that is to re-establish religion. Society cannot exist without some being richer than others, and this inequality cannot exist without religion. When one man is dying of hunger next door to another who is stuffing himself with food, the poor man simply cannot accept the disparity unless some authority tells him, ‘God wishes it so…in heaven things will be different.’”

—Napoleon Bonaparte, quoted in John Merriman, A History of Modern Europe from the French Revolution to the Present, Second Edition (2004), p. 522.

Is it an accident that conservative politics keeps such close company with religion? Continue reading

The best thing in the Bible: a story even nonbelievers can love

In my previous post I wrote about a New Testament passage in which Paul’s god displays breathtakingly diabolical inventiveness in addition to his usual jealous cruelty. I noted that skeptics make a sport of cataloging the Bible’s many atrocities and warped moral teachings.

But is it fair to dismiss the entire thing as worthless? Wouldn’t that demonstrate the same knee-jerk prejudice that many of the faithful show towards critics of religion?

Good ideas are where you find them, and recognizing one isn’t an endorsement of everything that surrounds it.

We’ve all heard of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31). It is the Bible’s most profound moral statement, an idea that has appeared in numerous cultures and was stated both by religious and secular thinkers long before the time of the Jesus. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a working out of this ethic. It is a deeply radical story, one of the best teaching tales I know of from the ancient world. Continue reading

The Bible’s sickest cruelty… and it’s not in the Old Testament

Detail of “The Damned Cast into Hell” by Luca Signorelli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Skeptics have long made a sport of quoting the Bible’s most hate-filled passages. Everyone has their favorites. A few of mine are Numbers 31 (in which the Israelites slaughter the Midianites, and Moses is angry because they spared the women), Deuteronomy 13 (God demands that you stone your children to death if they worship other gods), and Genesis 22 (Abraham passes a test of faith by demonstrating that he’ll sacrifice his own son when God tells him to).

There are many, many more. But a lot of people mistakenly think that God mellows out in the New Testament when Jesus starts talking about love and forgiveness. Continue reading