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<   No. 1609   2007-06-23   >

Comic #1609

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Normally when I receive complimentary e-mails I dash off a quick reply and then delete the message. (My mind still exists in the "keep your mailbox tidy because it'll eat up all your disk space otherwise" days of the early 1990s.) But recently I received one that I've been unable to bring myself to delete. The reader writes, in part:

I don't usually write to any of the myriad of webcomic authors whose work I read; even if their work makes me laugh I'm just too lazy. But, I just had to tell you, your IWC is the BEST original work I have ever come across. [...] your dedication to casually spreading advanced scientific knowledge and post-religious morals is truly inspiring.

I came across your stuff last night around 11 pm and read the entire archive. So many wikipedia tangents, so many browser tabs. So many WTF it is the next morning now? When I read about the mercury poisoning in Japan I became so angry I yelled at my computer. Your explanations of complex physics and math have an elegance at least on par with that of any popular scientific writers. I could go on, but in short, you win. You have redeemed Teh Intarwebz.

Now obviously this is pretty high praise and the sort of thing that would swell anyone's head. But two bits really got me. The "mercury poisoning in Japan" sentence. I've already discussed this, and you can go back and read it again if you wish. I remembered the tears in my eyes as I wrote the annotation to that particular strip. So many people suffering, absolutely pointlessly, amidst corporate and government apathy. I remembered being horrified when I first learnt about that terrible episode of human history when I was in high school.

It brought back memories of other things too. Also in high school, my English class read The Diary of Anne Frank. I remembered groaning when I was given the copy of this book with some girl on the front cover and being told it was her diary, and we had to read it and write essays about it. As background work we were also given assignments to research and write about the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust. I recall vividly the awful photographs I uncovered in the history books in the school library. The mind-numbing numbers of people killed, and the heartless ways in which it happened. It was gruesome, but fascinating.

In my recent trip to Germany, I made it a point to visit the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Because of Anne Frank and those assignments I was forced to do at school. We need to know what depths of depravity humanity is capable of descending to in order to understand what we can do to rise above it.

Which brings me to the real showstopper in that e-mail:

your dedication to casually spreading [...] post-religious morals is truly inspiring.
That has to be one of the most wonderful things anyone has ever said to me.

I wasn't even aware I was doing any such thing. I write these comics because it's a creative outlet for me. I'm not after fame or fortune (certainly not fortune!). I could probably grow my audience by a factor of two or three simply by submitting my site to a few webcomic indexing sites - but that's not what I'm about. I like to think I still have a small core group of people who come here every day to get a slice of something that will perhaps make them laugh, perhaps make them smirk, perhaps make them groan, perhaps make them think a little. I want to feel like there's something personal here.

So the comments I write here in these annotations are merely an extra way to get something from my mind across to you. Now: "post-religious morals"?

I like to think of myself as a moral person. I'm sure most of us do. And, while I don't think I've explicitly stated it at any point, watchful readers may have deduced that my religious beliefs fall into the realm of atheism. I'm willing to give some ground if God (or a god) manifests in front of me and does some miracle stuff, but failing that, my working assumption is that the Big Guy doesn't exist.

I've seen some very disturbing arguments made by some religious people (of more or less fundamentalist persuasions) to the effect of: If you don't believe in God, you can't be a moral person. I've never understood this, and it has always bothered me. How can people even make such statements? I don't believe in God, yet as far as I know I'm not a criminal, sociopath, drug dealer, axe murderer, or anything like that. I happen to think I live a pretty respectable life and have done vastly more good in the world than any of my few ill-considered rash actions that I promptly regretted soon after.

As far as I usually see it, the argument goes like this: God tells us how to behave morally. If you don't believe in God, you have no moral guidance, therfore you must be immoral.

A few weeks ago I saw a blog somewhere - I forget where. Anyway, there was a post and a series of comments about whether we possess free will or not (it was around the time I wrote this poll question). The discussion centred on the thought experiment of "would you shoot an innocent person, given no extenuating circumstances"? For the vast majority of us the answer is, instantly and incontrovertibly, no. The application to the free will question then is that if you are incapable of shooting this person, perhaps you don't actually possess the free will to actively decide to shoot them. Of course this invites the argument that, "Well, actually I could decide to shoot them, I just wouldn't." At which point the argument can go in circles for as long as the arguers enjoy it.

Someone raised the question, "Well if you have the free will to decide to shoot, but never actually do shoot, what's stopping you?"

Someone answered, "God."

"And what if God doesn't exist?"

"Well then I guess I'd shoot the person."

Wait a second. How does someone who believes in God and God's moral code and is a moral person, come to the conclusion that if God did not exist then God's rules would simply not apply and he would be able to bring himself to shoot a completely innocent person?

He's literally saying that he's only a moral person because God exists and lays down the law. He said, right there in black and white, that if God didn't exist, moral laws would cease to apply and he would go around casually killing people.

Now one conclusion you could come to is that this guy is a complete nutter and should be locked up in an institution somewhere. But I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, because clearly he is not actually going around murdering people, and (because of God) he actually thinks that killing people is a bad thing to do. But the really scary thing is that this is not the first time I've seen such an argument. Over the years, in various places, I've seen many religious people make the statement in more words or less that if God wasn't around, there'd be nothing to stop people doing any antisocial, violent, evil thing they feel like whenever the whim takes them.

I've never understood how religious people who are basically good can think like this. It seems clear to me that the vast majority of atheists (thus with no religious moral code) are basically moral people, extremely unlikely to swing at people with axes when the fancy takes them. If they weren't, the world would be a seriously dreadful place. How can the people who believe this sort of thing not see that?

So this has always puzzled and disturbed me. Until a few days ago when I raised the topic in conversation with a friend of mine. And he had an explanation.

Atheists, he said, need to find a moral direction from within. We need to examine our own values and beliefs in the context of human society, put some thought into them, and behave in ways that accord with what we decide is the moral way to act. There are various expressions of moral codes that work in this context. A simple one is "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." You don't need to believe in God to think about that and decide that yes, if everyone lived by that simple maxim, the world would be a nicer place. You don't need God to be nice to people. You don't need God to have morals.

Strongly religious people, on the other hand, get moral direction from the authority of God. God tells them how to behave, and God is the most important thing in their lives, so there's their moral code right there. They never have to think about their morals, because they are decreed from on high. They never have to go through a logical argument with themselves to decide that they should be nice to other people - they're just nice to people because that's what God says to do. If they never have to internalise their values and derive their own moral code, then it's not even something that they realise can be done. When a person like this looks at an atheist, they don't realise that the atheist has probably spent time (more or less consciously) to produce a moral code that they endeavour to live up to. All they see is someone without the moral code of God. They don't realise that there are other ways in which one can be a moral person. So they conclude that the atheist has no morals.

This is why religious fundamentalists are so scared of atheists. Everyone who believes is okay, because God will keep them in line, but those atheists, they'll probably stick a knife in you as soon as look at you. This is the problem with religious fundamentalist morals.

(I should stress at this point that I'm talking about the more extreme sort of fundamentalist. As with any word there are different definitions, and I know some readers of this comic describe themselves as "fundamentalist". As long as you don't believe that I'm an immoral potential murderer, I'm not talking about you.)

Richard Dawkins recently released a book titled The God Delusion. I have not read this book (yet), though I am interested to pursue it relatively soon. As I understand it, the book is a scathing attack on religion and the belief in God. Dawkins is apparently on a mission to discredit religion of all stripes and promote atheism as the solution to the world's problems. Atheism does not need a champion like Dawkins. Sadly, I can see that all his book will accomplish is to inflame religious opposition.

What we need is an atheist spokesperson to sit down with religious people and discuss issues with them. To point out that atheists are not scary people with no morals. That we have moral codes and are good people, and to describe how we have become moral people through our own introspection and thought. To point out that deep down we're really the same - people on a small planet, mostly trying to live good lives and do our best to find our way in a world that has enough dangers without us making more of our own through misunderstandings.

How do we develop thoughtful morals in people, as opposed to God-given ones? We educate our children. We teach them the history of the world. The bad bits as well as the good bits. We show them what happens when people treat each other badly. We get them to think about what is right and what is wrong, rather than just telling them. If you tell people something as an edict from authority, sooner or later they're going to question why. It'd be nice to have answers that lead to essentially the same conclusions, rather than an emptiness that can lead people to think morals can only exist in a world with a God, or in people who believe in a God.

When I first received that e-mail, I was taken aback by those words: "post-religious morals". I had to think for some time about exactly what that meant, and in what possible way I could have come across in the previous 1600 comics as conveying anything of that ilk to my audience. And honestly, I can't recall any particular instance of me expressing a moral opinion, other than that mention of the Minamata Bay tragedy that had already been brought to my attention. I suppose there must have been others, if this reader had seen fit to comment on it.

I suppose if you try to live a moral life, it just rubs off on people somehow. That's a good feeling.

I've received an overwhelming amount of feedback to this annotation. I don't have the time to reply to it all, but most of it is welcome and I thank you for writing.

Almost all of the response has been positive, both from atheists and religious believers. The response from religious people has generally been along two lines: (1) Yes, I agree, it's a shame that some atheists and theists find it necessary to fight or simply misunderstand each other so badly. (2) Thank you, you've given me some food for thought.

I've received criticism too, from both directions. Some took me to task for attacking Richard Dawkins. I confess I based my conclusion that "Atheism does not need a champion like Dawkins" on a lack of research on my part. I reserve judgement until I become more familiar with Dawkins' work on promulgating atheism. And some believers asked me to consider some points that I hadn't mentioned.

One particularly interesting one is that what many theists find scary about atheists is not that they don't understand where an atheist gets his morals from, but that an atheist's morals, being based on introspection and thought, are liable to change under different circumstances, whereas God's morals are absolute and provide certainty of action. I can see that this line of thought would be potentially disturbing to a theist, and I thank those readers who pointed it out. (I would argue that theists who hold this belief are discounting the very real notion that someone following God's moral laws can also change their mind under different circumstances, and also that the same moral law clearly does not lead to the same moral choices by believers - just look at how many believers of any given religion disagree on various issues.)

I've also received some scathing attacks from religious believers, stating that my arguments are full of logical holes and that either, yes, by declaring myself an atheist I am indeed immoral, or that I may have morals, but they were given to me by God and I'm just too stupid to realise it.

Interestingly, I hadn't received any such strongly negative comments until five days after this strip appeared, when suddenly several landed in my mailbox. I suspect someone has linked to my strip from some religious forum somewhere and is stirring up people to send me hate mail.

My question is, how is writing to viciously attack me moral behaviour?

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Last Modified: Saturday, 23 June 2007; 03:11:02 PST.
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