The Failures of Religious Morality

Re: “Religious Morality: Point­less, Worthless, and Utterly Sub­jective” by Ronald A. Lind­say (FI, December 2014/January 2015): Functional analysis (sociology) has always had a problem even with objective aspects of society/culture. Emile (David) Durkheim’s “On Morality and Society” and his ensuing argument with Feuerbach may be helpful here. As “God” is the deification of the reification of society itself, morality can be seen as the “normalization” of the reification of society itself, a process. For Durkheim, society exists sui generis not only independent of its parts; it is more than just the sum of its parts and is unexplainable in terms of its parts. Society is not a thing but a process. This is the same with morality. Morality, like society, is sui generis and independent of Linsday’s “functions,” and it cannot be explained by them. As pure process, morality not only is neither objective nor subjective, but also it can have no “should” or “ought to.” Morality is what it is at any given nanosecond in time.

John Karlin
Tecumseh, Oklahoma



Considering a Yule-Free December

I enjoyed Tom Flynn’s op-ed on Christmas (“Thirty Years Yule Free,” FI, December 2014/January 2015). Obviously, I was also a subject in the great experiment of encouraging belief in Santa Claus. I was the analytical type from a young age, and I was able to turn it to my advantage. I asked my parents why Santa brought me presents but they didn’t. Thinking I was still too young to be told the truth (obviously I wasn’t), they had to double up on my presents.

I can’t figure out why adults have lied to children about so many things (Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, etc.). The doubt that eventually develops should carry over to God, but it obviously doesn’t for most people.

John Worsley
Lenoir, North Carolina

Tom Flynn’s experiences with Santa Claus are no less disgruntling than mine. When I was fourteen years old, I asked my Sunday school teacher how fundamentalist Christianity could justify teaching children to believe in a supernatural being other than those accounted for in the Bible. After all, wasn’t that idolatry? As might have been expected, my question was met with disdain. I was told that I was missing the point. Well, what point was that? Was it the spirit of giving? If so, there were many references to generosity in the Scriptures. So why do the Christians tolerate such nonsense? It’s just blind tradition.

Perhaps the saddest thing about the Santa Claus myth is that it teaches children to fear supernatural beings as substantiation of their values. Mature ethics should not depend on getting rewards for good and punishment for bad. Universal brotherly love, which the Christians say they want, should be based on ubiquitous principles equitable to all and depend on nothing but their own unconditional exercise and mutual goodwill.

I don’t think we are going to get rid of Santa Claus any time soon. There is just too much money being made off of his image and other commercial Christmas decorum.

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas

Instead of Christmas, how about keeping “Grav-mass,” the celebration of comprehensible physical laws. It would be held on December 25, Isaac Newton’s birthday.

Richard Stallman
Cambridge, Massachusetts

I have a very different view of Christmas. I am a psychoanalyst, and still revere Freud, of blessed memory. But I do enjoy Christmas and the nice things that go along with it. I don’t think religion has to play a big role, although much of the stories and traditions are pleasant and meaningful. Having fun, looking forward to presents, good cheer and goodwill to all—well, maybe not all, but a lot. My wife and I now have a tradition. We religiously watch three movies during December, to get us in the spirit: A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim, The Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant, and Elf with Will Ferrell. Our children and grandchildren enjoy the holiday as we do, and they thank us for not having imposed religious beliefs upon them. My behavior is pretty good throughout the year, if not exemplary, and I do like getting up Christmas morn and looking under the tree. So far I have not been disappointed.

Carl Saviano
Northampton, Massachusetts

Here is a nonreligious winter solstice carol for Tom Flynn, our favorite curmudgeon. We sing it every year at our house. It is sung to the tune of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.”

This year’s winter solstice is pretty much like last year
With singing and drinking filling folks with good cheer.
Why does this happen periodically?
Because the Earth is tilted to its plane of orbit
The Earth’s axis is tilted: twenty-three degrees.

The Earth’s solar orbit illuminates the north sky
Then six months later it’s the south’s turn to fry.
It’s simply envisioned gyroscopically.
Earth’s axis of rotation while circling in its orbit
Maintains an inclination of twenty-three degrees.

And now, in December, there’s hardly any sunlight
And up north in Reykjavik the whole day is night.
But daylight’s returning automatically.
Because the Earth is tilted to its plane of orbit
The Earth’s axis is tilted: twenty-three degrees.

And so, while we’re singing, it’s not to Jesus’ birthday
Or to the Maccabees that we toast today.
No, it is simple astronomically.
Terrae proclinatae (Of the leaning Earth)
Ambitum laudamus (We praise the orbit)
Venite extollamus (Come, let us exalt)
Terram Dominam. (The Earth, our Lord)

Stephen Baird
Solana Beach, California



On Football

Re: “The Roar of the Crowd” by Ophelia Benson (FI, December 2014/January 2015): Ophelia Ben­son hates football. Fair enough. Other Americans, numbering scores of millions, constitute a dedicated fan base. Aficionados of football and other “violent,” or, more generically termed, “physical contact” sports such as boxing have compared the astonishing athletic skills—tactics and strategies—demonstrated at the highest levels of competition on a par with great performance art. Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and Joyce Carol Oates have written eloquently about boxing; Jimmy Breslin, George Plimpton, Roy Blount, Jr., and Michael Lewis have written informed tributes to football revealing the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Benson disorients the reader with digressions from topic—with the inflammatory assertion that the game basically “encourages aggressive entitled bullying” unqualified by background information or comparisons with the general population. She cites four atrocious cases that “prove” football fails to build character: Ray Rice, “a long book that covers one (juvenile gang rape) example,” the Steubenville [juvenile gang] rape case, and Jerry Sandusky.

Over a million boys currently play football at the high-school level, the most popular sport by far in the top ten. How does football cultivate violent criminal tendencies in the millions who play or have played the game, especially a disposition to commit sexual assault and rape? How many of the scores of millions who enjoy watching football—fans who vociferously support hometown teams or fathers and mothers who applaud their sons’ participation—may be associated credibly with alleged apologists for domestic violence, sexual abuse, and “rape culture?”

Jim Valentine
Woodland Hills, California



The U.S. and Evil

Shadia Drury’s “Vanquishing Evil (FI, December 2014/January 2015) struck me more as an exerci
se in dogmatic opinion than of reason. She makes some interesting points, but they are mixed with total inanities. The fact that the United States was largely built on evil deeds does not logically imply that we should not oppose evil today. Drury makes light of ISIL by drawing ridiculous parallels. When we start bombing mosques and markets full of people, deliberately, then I’ll see her point. I have no qualms about sending out drones to get leaders who murder American journalists and health-care workers, attempt to rape whole cultures, and would attack America itself if they had the means. Sorry, that does mean civilian casualties.

As for those Jewish-only settlements, I’ll leave it to the reader to find two good reasons why Muslims are not invited in. Such settlements do not compare to ISIL’s attempt to “purify” large areas of Iraq or Syria. People have a right to gather in settlements according to their heritage even if exclusive; they don’t have a right to hammer everyone else into their mold.

It is the duty of civilized states to speak out against evil and, in some cases, act militarily. However, such actions must be accompanied by a healthy understanding of other cultures; we are not the yardstick for all. Nor should we be the world’s policeman in all things large and small. Still, those who won’t lift a finger to help others preserve their liberty deserve it not for themselves.

Dave E. Matson
Pasadena, California

I am a fan of Shadia Drury. She’s forceful and does her homework. At the same time, I think her article “Vanguishing Evil,” is seriously flawed amid much truth.

She says: “the U.S. is not exactly a vessel of virtue, and while ISIL is guilty of medieval brutality, ISIL also does some good things in the Middle East, while the U.S. kills innocents using drones.” Therefore, I quote, “The difference between the U.S. and ISIL is not a moral difference, but a technical one.” She ends, “the best policy is to watch it self destruct. It is high time for the West to leave these people alone to fight their own battles and make their own history.”

This article does significant violence to any decent sense of proportionality equating ISIL and the United States. Most people prefer to accept the moral responsibility that, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing.” Should the United States have watched Europe from the sidelines from 1939–1945?

Drury tries to make her case that the United States is congruent with ISIL by citing U.S. slavery and the slaughter of Native Americans, as if what our ancestors have done is the same as modern Americans doing it. Worse, she sees it as the same as ISIL performing crucifixions for the sheer joy and terror of it, now in real time. Sorry, that’s religion.

Drury has fallen into her own trap where she criticizes religion for the disproportionate absurdity of the equality of Hell for both misdemeanors and genocidal maniacs who are intent on enslaving the world, not satisfied with enslaving all women within reach. Especially, strong, forceful women like Drury that do their homework and demand a voice in the world just like men. The nerve.

Karl Williamson Johnson
Studio City, California


Supporting Society

Re: “My Pleasures, My Vices,” by Tibor Machan (FI, December 2014/January 2015): Once again, Tibor R. Machan regales readers with his libertarian laments over taxation, which he regards as a form of extortion. This same taxation pays for our national defense; highways; public schools; universities; hospitals; police, fire, and sanitation de­part­ments; air traffic controllers; and EMT workers, as well as such programs as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security that benefit the general population. Presumably, Machan has benefited from many of these fruits of government extortion along with all other U.S. citizens, who, collectively through the democratic process, have recognized the need for taxation, albeit fairly imposed and effectively implemented. However, Machan rejects the notion that he has any obligation to abide by the majority will and just wants to be left alone to enjoy his riches, which most likely would not exist were it not for the infrastructure, programs, and services provided by the various levels of government. Based on Machan’s worldview, I presume he would regard a summons for jury duty as a form of slavery rather than a civic duty.

Dennis Middlebrooks
Brooklyn, New York



Praising Statistics

After struggling through statistics classes at the Universities of Wisconsin (Madison) and Montana, I never thought I would read an article that even suggested statistics could be praised. Although I understood the necessary evil of statistics, I had not understood the place of statistics and probability in a historical perspective. “In Praise of Statistics” by Alexander Nussbaum (FI, December 2014/January 2015) created a paradigm shift for me. If only I had an instructor who had introduced the subject as Nussbaum did. Thanks to Nussbaum for shattering my mind-set of fear and replacing it with appreciation and awe.

Anna Hoagland
Trinidad, Colorado



Sam Harris’s Waking Up

In his review of Sam Harris’s book Waking Up, Edward Tabash asks, in relation to Alvin Plantinga’s claim that “there is a mechanism for sensing the existence of God called the sensus divinitatis“: “Would Harris say that my inability to see the illusory nature of believing that I am a separate self . . . is because I have a defective sensus meditatus?” More important, I think, would be to ask if Harris would deny the existence of Plantinga’s sensus divinitatis, for which there is neither more nor less proof than Harris’s own meditative sense of non-separate self. And if Harris would deny Plantinga’s sense, as I believe he would, on what grounds would he deny it? The most likely grounds of nonobjectivity and non-repeatability would disprove Harris’s own thesis with equal force.

Jim Flechtner
Findlay, Ohio

Letters from the February/March 2015 issue of Free Inquiry, in response to the December 2014/January 2015 issue.

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.