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04 January 2007 @ 06:03 am
Grounded in the Stars  
I didn't go out New Year's Eve. I wasn't moved to bang my head for the bands that had been promised at the Aardvark, neither did I have any prospects to kiss anyone worth the risk of influenza, nor did I feel like getting drunk enough to temporarily enjoy the lewd and lascivious behavior of TCU kids. It certainly wasn't a moral decision; I just had better things to do. Ten years ago, I might have been motivated to do all of the above, if only for the fear that I might feel lonely if I didn't, but the truth is that I only feel that way after I spend a meaningless night out chasing drunks around. Instead, I wrote a post about my bookshelf and felt fine. Last night, however, I did go out and found another subject to post on.

It was pretty cold outside, so I wrapped up enough that it was difficult to raise my head while pushing down to Berry St. No problem there, since I have a sixth sense when it comes to dodging SUVs on the streets. But about halfway there, the overwarm scarf I was wearing started to get on my nerves, so I stopped to take it off in front of my old junior high school. Stretching my neck, I looked up and saw more stars than are normal for my light-polluted city. Orion rampant, Sirius following obediently behind, the whole bunch. Not the blazing extravaganza I remember from far-off mountains and shadowed Eastern valleys, but enough. However refreshed I was by the sight, the moment passed quickly. I still had about a half mile to push to get to the booze and hottchix.

Of course, it's still the home season for TCU, so there were only a smattering of girls divided between the bars, and most of them busy being manhandled by tipsy assholes boyfriends. Several of the regulars were around and the Pub was relatively empty, though, so I was able to get in a few good games of pool. I didn't get drunk, partly because I had the presence of mind to wolf down a Fuzzy burrito before hitting the juice. A little eye contact here, a little flirty talk there; all in all, it was a fun night. And then I got caught in a fratboy parley about the War On Christmas.

Usually, I think these things are quite a hoot, but the holidays are over, and last night I wanted to enjoy at least one time out in winter without being bombarded by self-righteous derision from "opressed" Frogs who wouldn't recognize religious intolerance if they were sitting in an iron maiden. I held my tongue until I heard the "A" word voiced one too many times surrounded by phrases like "They just want an excuse to fuck children" and "Jesus didn't mean we have to love people who don't have souls." Swallowing the retort, "Well, since nobody's got a soul, I guess we're all screwed, hunh?" I instead nudged my way in by asking what specific "battle" in the War they were so pissed about. Worked like a charm; TCU guys are so gullible.

They were worked up about the SEA-TAC airport Christmas trees, despite the facts that those trees were eventually returned to their places and that Christmas trees originally had very little to do with Christianity. Wading my way into the conversation after being invited over and offered the ubiquitous Mug-O-Beer™, I brought up these points along with what seemed to me to be the biggest gripe: that the rabbi in question had never asked to have the trees removed, only to be able to put up a Menorah his own congregation would supply. They would have none of it, asking me if I was "Jewish or something". Honestly, if misleadingly, I told them no. These were no unschooled bumpkins, and really only the thickset one seemed overtly antisemitic, but the way they had been equating Judaism with atheism and the presumed secular agenda deserved some comeback. Others might shrink away from taking on five greeks on their own turf, but not me. I've been verbally calling out their ilk at that bar since before they got out of elementary school. The Pub is my turf, and anyway, I had three rum and cokes in me.

Surely, there was no way to win a debate about religion against them, in my experience there's always far too much argument from authority on their side to counter with attacks on that authority. Even people who've never read the whole Bible will trot it out as unshakeable Truth with no other backups ostensibly needed. Who am I to tell them there are many other scriptures out there equally purporting themselves to be the Truth as long as I personally have no God-given tome to place up against theirs? They can always say that I just don't understand the Word because I don't want to. In any case, the particular topic I had a problem with was their outspoken bigotry against nonbelievers, not their myths themselves.

If I'm making it sound like I was trying to embark on a formal discussion, well, it was a bar after all. As soon as they passed around shots of Jägermeister, I could see that that was right out of the question. At best, I would have to tread softly not to get the big guy into a bull moose frame of mind. And, really, it was all little more than alcohol-fueled bullshitting between guys who'd rather be sticking their limp dicks into equally drunk blonde betty's. They didn't seem annoyed enough yet to steer the talk away from religion, though, so I forged ahead.

The one advantage I might have had with them was that I'm an LJer. I regularly read up on the latest topics at LJ communities and the War On Christmas has been getting good press in convert_me and atheism lately (this is, in fact, where I first heard about the controversy at SEA-TAC). The Frogs lost interest in that after we came to the shaky agreement that although Christmas trees weren't originally a Christian thing, they had been associated with it here in the US long enough to be taken as a de facto symbol for all sides of the argument, much the same way that swaztikas don't necessarily mean "Nazi" but nazis are hard to find without one near them. Whereas a Native American rug woven with them shouldn't be construed by even the most devout Zionist as a symbol of the holocaust, a pair of Doctor Martens marked with broken crosses in dripping red can be safely seen that way. Likewise, you wouldn't think a conically shaped pine tree in the yard of a Jewish family necessarily marks them as Messianic, but one in their living room fitted with blinking lights probably does.

In that way, It was agreed that (belighted conical evergreen) trees placed in an airport only during the holidays is a symbol for Christmas itself, not the holidays in general. Menorahs, therefore, would stand for Channukah, tri-colored Menorahs for Kwanzaa, etc. We got this far without the need for me to bring up my non-faith, and so far so good. Yet as soon as we had that platform on which to come to the real questions of what rights people had in public display and so forth, the fratboys devolved into high school football players and just hung on the notion that only Christians deserve public recognition because they are the only group with grounded morals. I smiled a lot, trying to keep my head from exploding at that hideous oxymoron, and accepted the tangential change of topic head on (this has also been a hot page-scroller in LJ comms lately).

It was then that I hit them with my utter and complete godlessness. They weren't shocked at it; I'd made it obvious by then that I wasn't a disciple of Oral Roberts or Jerry Falwell, and they knew I wasn't attending the Brite Divinity School there at TCU. For their part, I must say that TCU kids in general are quite diverse and rarely militant evangelicals. Its mother church is the United Church of Christ, not Southern Baptist or Jesuit. My new drinking buddies didn't turn on me right away, Frogs are much too 'sincere' in their faith for that, but the gauzy curtain fell, nevertheless.

I immediately felt the arms-length politeness some of you might recognize from dealing with people who are sure they've never met a gay person before or how the uber-rich act around persons they've just found out grew up in a trailer park. They didn't want to make me angry, but they instinctively expected it. To me, this is the worst part of dealing with bigots of whatever stripe. You can't hate them if it's so ingrained as to never come to the level of conscious judgement. They hadn't hung out with atheists and come to the conclusion that we are immoral sociopaths, they simply believed it. Again, no reasoned argument I could give (were I sober or quick-witted enough to come up with one) would put them at ease or even give me more credibility than they'd already assumed from my wheelchair (another general prejudice of TCU kids, but a positive one when I need it). They'd keep drinking with me until they could find convenient ways out of it, but any semblence of honest discussion was gone.

I wasn't ready to give up, though. Whether I was aching for a good fight or just wanting assert my point of view, a telltale failing of self-esteem maybe, I wanted these guys to hear me and remember. As the biggest one was also the most openly hostile to anything nonChristian, he was the one I reminded of their comments about moral grounds and the supposed privileges they conveyed. I think I said something like "So you don't think atheists have morals because we don't believe in God or the Ten Commandments, right?" He showed me both palms and said he didn't want to fight about it. That's the Pub signal for "You're becoming annoying. Keep it up and we'll complain to Dave." Getting on the owner's bad side, especially since he's a God-fearing man who is extremely tolerant of bar talk but not of troublemakers, was the last thing I wanted. I have real respect for Dave and was quite conscious that I was the one who'd turned the fratboys' obnoxious but mostly harmless banter into a debate not welcome in bars on most occasions. Regardless, I couldn't just let it drop, so I gave them what I could, while trying to make it as impersonal a tirade as possible.

I remembered my glimpse of the stars on the way there, and knew just what to say. In the service of this journal, which I began with the idea of finding out just who I am and throwing that out to whomever might give a rat's ass, I'll try to illustrate what I told those guys last night and make it more coherent than I did with a blood alcohol level teetering on legality.

My morality, if one can call it that, isn't based upon the Bible, this is true, yet that isn't just because at its heart the Bible doesn't say why anything is good or bad beyond that this is how God made the world and He is the author of justice. That's a big part, though. It doesn't say why Cain shouldn't have killed Abel, and only later commands, without logical justification, "Thou shall not Kill." It doesn't say why Adam and Eve shouldn't eat of the fruit of the tree of Knowledge except that by it they would die, and only says of the other, "Then the LORD God said: 'See! The man has become like one of us, knowing what is good and what is bad! Therefore, he must not be allowed to put out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life also, and thus eat of it and live forever.'" But it was God's curse on them that brought them eventually to death, not eating the fruit of knowledge, and His reason for puting them out of the Garden was a vain one, whereas neither Adam nor Eve had shown any ambition to become like God in power and would have no need of the fruit of Life without the curse. It doesn't say why anyone shouldn't steal, and in fact shows ample evidence that taking what one wants (even at the point of a sword) is perfectly justified if God has told him that it rightfully belongs to him. Calling this an objective justification by touting God as the ultimate authority would sound baseless to the one who has current possession and is given no reason by God why the other deserves it more. God doesn't tell Cain not to kill his brother, yet Cain is punished by shunning. God doesn't tell the Caaananite cities that they rightfully belong to the Hebrews, yet bloody wars are brought on them in His name. God doesn't say why one must believe in Jesus' divinity to gain salvation, only that he must. All of this is justified by fiat, without reasoning. It has no foundation but a God whose very existence is meant to be assumed without any other evidence than His own Word. My morality cannot be based on this because I have never seen reason to believe in this (or any other) God, therefore everything based upon this empty premise is empty of ethical meaning.

There can be no moral good without the one who defines that good, and until I am shown a truly fundamental basis for an objective morality (JHVH, Vishnu, Dharma, the Tao, Tatonka, take your pick), I must define my own. This doesn't mean that I have no basis on which to build. Quite the contrary, I believe my basis is far more sound than commandments or circular arguments written in any book. My morals are grounded in the stars.

Yeah, yeah, roll your eyes. Of course I didn't put it this way to the Frogs, it's easier to be dramatic onscreen than in person. And I also don't mean I base my morals on astrology, however that may be done. I'm talking about confidence in things that can be shown to be true, repeatedly and to whatever degree one wishes, given enough time and effort, and confidence that one can make informed judgements on his own without the help of absent gods. Rather than put my faith in things that can never be known (and by definition should never be questioned), I belive in that which can be. If I had ever felt a certainty of the presence of God, I might see things differently, but I haven't. I don't think a person can be completely certain of anything, but of many things we can be confident, and that has to be enough.

To me, belief is nothing more than a high degree of confidence. For instance, I believe the sun will come up tomorrow because I have confidence in the Law of Conservation of Momentum, the natures of light and gravity, and the underlying idea that the universe exists regardless of my perception of it. I do not have to make sacrifices at a temple of Amun Ra, Mithras, or Helios nor pray to JHVH to insure this. It's not dependent upon my actions, good or bad, nor those of anyone on the earth. The sun and earth just are, they require no thoughts nor gods to move them. In the same way, I believe the stars will shine at night as long as the sky is clear and their light isn't obscured by the city, at least until the great singularity at the center of the galaxy swallows them up. Furthermore, I have confidence that our sun is one of those stars; neither a god unto itself like our ancestors believed, nor a special creation of one, placed there for our benefit. In its own way, it will live like those stars and die like them, and requires no sacred chant to sing it to sleep at night. In a way, my belief in these things is as unshakeable as the most devout person of faith, but I don't need a god to show it to me. The stars themselves aren't enough to base a morality on, but my confidence in them is as good a place as any to begin.

There's another clue, if you caught it. "as good a place as any". I not only believe in the movements of the earth and stars, that they are independent of any desires or intentions of mine, but also that there are no privileged places or things in the universe, including myself. As far as the vast majority of the universe is concerned, there is nothing special about the sun, the earth, or me. No amount of prayer would stop an asteroid from hitting the earth if their orbits intersected; no action I could take would stop the pulsar in the Crab Nebula from spinning; no war waged by men would make Mars happy. As thinking beings, we may not be alone in the universe, but the stars are only stars and are too far apart for us to ask anyone living on distant planets for help. For all practical purposes, the only beings we can rely on for our survival are each other. This is the basis for my morality: I want to live. I have confidence in the workings of the universe, but I can rely only on myself and other people here on earth.

This may sound like a lot of fancy talk for something so simplistic, even nihilistic, but I don't see it that way. I feel a profound joy when I look up at the night sky and imagine I can see Newton and Einstein's laws at work. I can almost sense the pressure of the starlight on my skin and the Musica Universalis in my ears. Not literally, but deeply imbedded in the knowledge of the equations of Maxwell and Schrödinger and Carnot. To me, even without gods, the universe doesn't feel empty, it feels alive. I don't look at other people and see shells motivated by invisible souls steeped in sin, I see infinitely complex organisms teeming with vitality and purposes of their own making. I don't see human society as the inherently flawed substitute for a more true afterlife to come, but a seething cauldron of intelligent animals juggling cooperation, competition, and individual ambitions. What for one person in one time and place is considered beyond the pale is for another the commonplace. The ideals and values of one civilization or society can never be held by everyone everywhere. In that way, I say that all peoples' moralities are subjective; there are no universal moral truths except that what is good is always what we agree is good. And there's nothing eternal about agreements. Even in the Bible, the First Covenant didn't last.

But for me, specifically? I try to be practical. I don't kill (people); first because I don't have a reason to kill. No one needs a motivation not to do something. It is actions that require purpose, not inaction. If someone tried to kill me again, or tried to kill someone else and left me with no other choice, I would do it then. I can't imagine many other situations where murder would do me any good in the long term. Again, this might sound simplistic, but ask yourself what deterents against murder mean. A person doesn't kill his loved ones for money because they mean far more to him than the money and what good is money to someone in jail for life? A person who would kill for money loves the money instead, but might not be able to see that the deaths of people have greater consequences than gaining wealth by them.

I would say that Cain slew Abel because of jealousy and did not foresee all that would come of it. Therefore, if JHVH were morally righteous, He would have shown Cain the stain he would leave on the whole world with his brother's blood. But this wasn't the point of the story, and so it is only a story.

Theft, adultry (which in ancient Israel was akin to theft), envy (which leads to theft); these all need motivation to do, not motivation not to do. Except for certain sects of Buddhism or similar faiths, we all take the lives of plants and animals without asking in order to feed ourselves. How is this different from murder? Only because they are not people with souls or animals that feel pain? As soon as you define life as something that reacts to its environment and strives to continue to do so, yet you continue to eat things that once were alive, you admit to theft and murder. Yet we all set values to these things and say a carrot, the root of a living plant, is worth less than ourselves. The trees we build our houses with may have stood for ten times our lifetimes, yet we kill them or have them killed for us and expect no divine wrath for it. I do the same; I just don't pretend that I am worth more than the trees. I want to live, and to live means to kill. I want to be comfortable, and in this society that means that trees must die.

I live on land stolen from one group of people by another; I clothe myself with articles manufactured by people living in states I would not chose for myself; I expend energy writing in this journal that, if properly utilized, could keep a whole village in Siberia warm this winter; I throw away more food than some get to eat. Theft. Vanity. But I'm not evil, I just want to live. We who live in the United States largely agree to allow these things for the same reason; I just don't have the luxury of excusing it on the grounds that I have otherwise good intentions. Dead Indians don't care that we go to church over their graves and Chinese children in factories don't hear our prayers. I accept my nature as a living animal that must take advantage of others to survive; I need no forgiveness for that. The worms that someday will feed on me need none either.

Hearing all this, you might think, "God, what a dick!" But I feel love, fear, and hatred, though I might understand it differently than you. I do what I can for people, even ones I don't know. I certainly don't feel any animosity toward the food I eat or the people who are little more than slaves for my lifestyle, because they must also steal and kill to live. I say that I try to be practical, but I'm lazy and my mind isn't perfectly acute. In any case, even killing myself wouldn't help those who would be burdened with my body. In writing this, however, I might help you to forgive yourself for all the same things you do that in others you might call crimes. This isn't to say that anything is permitted, but only that which is done for no other reason than vanity should be condemned. Wanting to live is not vanity; wanting others to serve for entertainment alone is. At least I don't steal or kill for Nikes.

I have reasons for what I do and, if it comes to that, reasons for what I don't do, but they aren't as simple as "God told me to" or "God told me not to". I've never needed God to tell me what was right. Good thing, too, because I've never heard God speak and religious scriptures are only books to me. I have to think about what I call good and bad; that's why I say my morality is well grounded, even though it may have begun in between the stars. Whereas others take their answers to moral questions from books, I consider my actions against their context.

I know how I came to exist and I'm confident the sun's coming up tomorrow, neither of which is magical or miraculous. I know myself and how I fit into the struggle for life on earth, neither of which requires memorizing passages from Genesis; who needs God?
Current Mood: mellowmellow
Current Music: Imus in the Morning
zero_gravity00 on January 4th, 2007 05:35 pm (UTC)
Strange to even hear those kind of conversations in public. Well at least in the places I have lived, New York City and The Bay Area, which I guess you could say is populated with athiests. What it actualy makes me think of is that as per usual people in large cities dont really know what the rest of America is like. Then we all sit around in coffee shops and lounges wondering why America doesnt embrace anything, whether it be art or politics, progressive. The argument in and of itself for the frat boys anyway just comes from a basic lack of awareness and education. Oh and of course primal fear. I being a fan of writers like Robert Anton Wilson and some of the post modernists have a simple belief, if I dare use that term, that the Map is Not the Territory. In other words, if you look at comparative religions, you will see a dozen or more stories about messianic figures, the creation of the world, and a myriad of ways of interpreting the divine mystery. But the key word is interpretation and well the other key word is mystery. These religions are just ways to codify and mythologize what can not be known. The literalization of Christian mythology has and will continue to be the problem for as long as it stands or someone can get rich or powerful spreading these kind of lies. Not sure if I really addressed your post now?
rogerdrrogerdr on January 5th, 2007 12:43 am (UTC)
I'm not a big fan of RAW or post modernists, but I agree about the mythologies as a kind of reality-mapping. The thing is, we've found much better maps to use, but they're so full of abstract symbols, people cling to the simpler (easier to understand) old ones with Jerusalem at the center of the world and "here there be dragons" at the edges.