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An Open Letter

Entry 1048, on 2009-07-07 at 20:48:54 (Rating 5, Religion)

Hypocrisy is widespread in modern society. Call me a cynic if you wish but I tend to believe the opposite of what most organisations try to tell us is the truth. A political party might say "foreign investment creates more jobs" and I will assume that there will be less jobs in future, or a church might say "you need to belong to our faith to be a moral person" and I will assume they are deeply immoral.

Reading that opening paragraph I really do feel cynical but its hard not to be. Actually my cynicism isn't quite as universal as that might imply. There are situations where I assume things are true by default. These tend to be statements by organisations I support. I might be accused of being more or less critical based on political or social biases but I think its the other way around. I am more trusting of some organisations because they have a better record of being truthful, not the other way around.

Believe it or not, this rather convoluted introduction is leading somewhere. Recently I discovered an "open letter to believers" at the Florida Atheists and Secular Humanists web site. If you want to read the letter the URL for the web site is here.

Basically the letter attacks the idea that only religious people can be moral. Here's a few highlights from the letter...

1. Studies indicate that the least religious countries are the most peaceful in the world. This doesn't prove that religion causes conflict but it certainly doesn't give us any reason to think that being religious makes people more peaceful.

2. The divorce rate among atheists is the lowest in the nation with the highest being among fundamentalist Christians. Divorce doesn't necessarily equate to morality, of course, but given that fundies are always emphasising family values and its alleged link to religious belief I think this does indicate hypocrisy on their part.

3. The Christian abortion rate is as high as the national average and the Catholic rate is even higher. Young unmarried women graduating from private religious schools are actually more likely to get abortions than their secular counterparts. If this doesn't indicate hypocrisy then I don't know what does (considering all the violent anti-abortion protests Christians like to indulge in).

4. Atheists are the least represented group in the nation's prisons, they supply less than 1%, Christians, however, are the most represented, with Catholics at approximately 39% and Protestants at 35%. Well morality and legality aren't always the same but the evidence against Christians is beginning to accumulate, don't you think?

5. Here's a classic. Red states (those that vote consistently with the conservative, Republican, right wing, Christian fundamentalist agendas) and the areas highest in concentrations of those with declared Christian beliefs, purchase the most online porn! What can I say? Looking at porn isn't necessarily immoral but its an interesting statistic I just had to include!

One concern I had with the letter was that the sources weren't listed. I have emailed them about that so I hope to get a list of sources at some time but my own research has confirmed a lot of what the letter claims so I have no reason to suppose it isn't true.

Being an atheist in New Zealand (and most other civilised countries) isn't a problem at all. I could mention the fact to almost any group here and no one would have the slightest problem with it. In fact if a fundy mentioned he was a literal believer in the BIble he would probably be more likely to be rejected for being an idiot!

But things are different in the US (especially the southern states). According to the letter there are states where an atheist cannot hold public office (this is totally impossible to believe from here in New Zealand). And there is the well publicised finding that atheists are the most reviled, despised and mistrusted group in America. This really doesn't leave America with much credibility!

Of course, that attitude is hardly surprising when they hear grossly immoral statements from people like Bush such as: "I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God."

Again and again we see evidence that not only are religious people no more moral than others but they are, in fact, less moral in almost every sense. That is hardly surprising of course. To take a religion seriously you have to give up all forms of free thought and critical analysis and surrender to the beliefs of others. It might be something written in an old book, some arbitrary rules made up by a large theological organisation, or the personal opinions of a charismatic leader. Whatever the sources of these rules that so many people live by they do not result in a formula for true morality.

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Comment 1 (2185) by Mark D on 2009-07-08 at 11:00:06: (view recent only)

You miss the point that true Christians don't behave the way you say they do. They follow the real teachings of Jesus and blaming the people who falsely say they are Christians isn't fair to them. Maybe you could do a survey of all the good things the churches do and reconsider your opinion. Or would that be against your beliefs?

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Comment 2 (2186) by OJB on 2009-07-08 at 14:21:57:

This gets back to the old debate over what a Christian really is. Ask a fundy and they will say they are the only real Christians and Catholics (for example) aren't. But Catholics rightly point out that there's was the original church and they form the biggest group within Christianity.

Its also just too easy to reject anyone who doesn't live up to certain standards. In the end it becomes a circular argument, like this: All Christians are good because if they aren't good they aren't Christians. That is an invalid argument but its an excuse many believers still use.

I think a Christian is someone who says they are a Christian (assuming they are genuine and aren't deliberately warping the truth). In that case the criticisms I made above still apply.

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Comment 3 (2187) by SBFL on 2009-07-10 at 10:06:41:

I guess since I've had some long-standing input into this blog, you'll forgive me for not bothering to debate the now repeating details of this particular post (been there, done that). And of course I can't give too much credibility to the press relase put out by some vested interest's group.

But what I will say is this: In my opinion, of course people who profess that there is no God can live just a moral life as any Christian, or religious person for that matter. At the end of the day actions speak louder than words (to quote a cliché), and this is what counts on the day of judgement.

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Comment 4 (2190) by OJB on 2009-07-10 at 12:27:19:

Instead of noting that the group might have some "vested interest" (which they undoubtedly do) why not debate the points they make? The statistical evidence seems to indicate that Catholics (in particular) are less moral based on the same standards they insist on applying to everyone else!

I previously would have agreed that there is little difference in the morality of believers versus non-believers but maybe the stats mentioned above indicate that, in fact, non-believers are more moral? Depends on your particular definition of morality, of course.

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Comment 5 (2193) by SBFL on 2009-07-11 at 08:34:27:

Funny how you only like the bits and pieces that suit your views...
Your atheists' press release is nothing more than propaganda, and makes the upcoming referendum question look like innocence in a white dress. And then there is the classic lies with statistics notion that you ignore this time because it suits you. So conversely I say this to you: why don't your grill this nonsense the same way you sceptically write off any such like "evidence" that doesn't suit your views. It would be a good start.

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Comment 6 (2196) by OJB on 2009-07-11 at 10:08:41:

I treat all statistics with some skepticism (I asked for sources and until I find them I will be suspicious) but this has no resemblance to the referendum question at all. The referendum question is propaganda created specifically to get an answer. The stats in this case were conducted by independent, professional organisations and its just the results being quoted. I think you are the one who is refusing to acknowledge facts which don't suit what you desperately want to believe is true.

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Comment 7 (2198) by SBFL on 2009-07-11 at 12:00:30:

Hey, I'm not deperately believing anything here. You wrote the post remember. If you want to believe your mates that morality can be measure by statistics, then good luck to you.

I like how you said the case was conducted by "independent, professional organisations". Really, hadn't noticed that in the brief. Have already spoken of the ridiculousness of the press release. And I wonder who is the client for these "independent, professional organisations". Like I said, you seem to readily believe anything that suits your political line of thought. So what if you've fired off an email asking for sources. Seems you've made up your mind already!

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Comment 8 (2200) by OJB on 2009-07-11 at 13:15:23:

If you read the original letter which I provided a link for you would see the surveys were done by "Pew, Barna Group, Gallup, Zogby, CNN, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and more". Still think its ridiculous and biased?

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Comment 9 (2201) by SBFL on 2009-07-11 at 13:38:23:

Indeed because as I said I don't believe morality can be measured by statistics or polls. And of course I would be sceptical of such a conglomerate of different entities, why not just say "the world"? Quite bizarre really.

And having said that, we are moving off the real topic here, which is that a person's morality should not be assumed by which grouping they assume to belong to. I think we agree on this point? This is what I wanted to raise in my first comment, not the silliness of studies and polls. I guess for me Christianisty provides a light to better morality (as do other religions and belief systems I am sure) but this doesn't necessarily mean that every member will follow that light. Technically an atheist doesn't have this light but this doesn't mean they won't have a high level of morality. It really all comes down to the individual who is influenced by many factors, faith only being one of them.

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Comment 10 (2202) by OJB on 2009-07-11 at 13:45:09:

So how can morality be measured then? Do you not think those statistics might be good indicators of morality even if they aren't precise measurements?

As I said above, I originally thought that all groups had roughly similar morality, but judging by the number of Catholics getting divorced, ending up in prison, and getting abortions, maybe that isn't true.

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Comment 11 (2205) by SBFL on 2009-07-11 at 14:01:42:

No, not really. It's like trying to measure the sexual preferences of the populace. The results aren't discrete. If you want to base you views on shakey studies, then good luck to you.

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Comment 12 (2207) by OJB on 2009-07-11 at 14:22:04:

So according to you there is no way to measure morality (and sexual preference as well apparently). I see, how convenient. Apart from the fact that its hard to define what it is precisely I disagree. And I do think there is a core of morality all sane people would follow - and that is the result of evolution, not god!

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Comment 13 (2209) by SBFL on 2009-07-11 at 14:29:37:

Not accurately no. And certainly not by polls. This is not about being convenient, this is reality. We know how many people are on the dole for instance, as there is a single source to display it, easy. But we never know the exact population of a country - just too many moving variables. And population is discrete data, imagine trying to measure complex, continuous data like morality. Good luck!!

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Comment 14 (2210) by OJB on 2009-07-11 at 14:43:32:

Just because we can't get an exact, totally unambiguous measurement of something doesn't mean we can't get something which is a good approximation to what we want. A lot of social science works this way. I still think you would treat this sort of data differently if it supported your beliefs instead of contradicting them.

Here's an example. How many people would think this is moral: a group which totally condemns abortion but has a higher rate of abortion than other people.

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Comment 15 (2211) by SBFL on 2009-07-11 at 14:50:59:

No, unlikely a good approximation either, like I said, too complex. And let me make this clear, I am not purporting polls or the such to support my beliefs, you are. So don't give me the: "I still think you would treat this sort of data differently if it supported your beliefs instead of contradicting them". You made that bed to lie in, not me.

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Comment 16 (2212) by OJB on 2009-07-11 at 14:58:20:

Well social scientists think it can be done, but you don't think so. This sort of reminds me of creationists offering their opinion on evolution!

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Comment 17 (2214) by SBFL on 2009-07-11 at 15:06:29:

Great then. Demonstrate it to me. If they think it can be done, it would have been done already. And I mean conclusively, not theories based on a shaky collection of sporadic complex data. Data of course, which is not reliant on the honesty of individuals input. Can't wait.

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Comment 18 (2216) by OJB on 2009-07-11 at 15:30:27:

OK, I'll find some references. While I find those how about answering my example above, ie "How many people would think this is moral: a group which totally condemns abortion but has a higher rate of abortion than other people."

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Comment 19 (2217) by OJB on 2009-07-11 at 19:02:06:

I found so much stuff studying and measuring ethics that I hardly know where to start. One of the more interesting bits of research is the trolley problem which I have blogged about before.

there's an interesting overview in the Wikipedia entry for morality.

Philosophically the idea is discussed in Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.

These are quote a good start.

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Comment 20 (2224) by SBFL on 2009-07-12 at 12:54:17:

So there's been some studies in morality. No surprises there. Perhaps you could focus on my query from comment 17 instead of fluffing about.

And lets not forget where I started back at comment 3, "of course people who profess that there is no God can live just a moral life as any Christian, or religious person for that matter. At the end of the day actions speak louder than words (to quote a cliché), and this is what counts on the day of judgement."

This is my point really, I think it is silly to assume certain societal groups are more moral than others. A grouping may have moral values but really it is up to the individual to implement them, and this is where judgement must be drawn. For those who fail and commit sins, only repentance will save them! (and for you atheists out there, repentence need not be directed towards God).

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Comment 21 (2229) by OJB on 2009-07-12 at 14:19:53:

You asked me to demonstrate scientific studies measuring morality and I listed some.

I can't see how a religious person could say an atheist could be as moral as them. If you believe morality comes from god and atheists reject god does that not make it hard for an atheist to follow the morality that god has created?

I disagree. I think beliefs, rules, and social norms encouraged by different social groups do influence how moral the members of that group are. In that case you would expect to see differences between groups. Not sure what you mean exactly by judgement and repentance in this context - sounds very Biblical to me!

Also you still haven't answered this: "How many people would think this is moral: a group which totally condemns abortion but has a higher rate of abortion than other people."

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Comment 22 (2231) by SBFL on 2009-07-13 at 06:34:41:

All things being equal of course. But you have inadvertantly demonstrated one thing - it is way to complex to measure conclusively!!

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Comment 23 (2233) by OJB on 2009-07-13 at 08:37:32:

Like many popular concepts (as opposed to scientifically defined ones) it is defined imprecisely, which doesn't necessarily mean its too complex, by the way. However there are various actions which any sane person would consider immoral and those can be used as a good approximation to what most people would call morality.

Also (sorry to be so repetitive) you still haven't answered this: "How many people would think this is moral: a group which totally condemns abortion but has a higher rate of abortion than other people."

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Comment 24 (2234) by SBFL on 2009-07-13 at 11:22:11:

Interesting, well if you don't believe that this issue is complex, despite your comment "think beliefs, rules, and social norms encouraged by different social groups do influence..." - then that is just where we differ. As yet I have not seen anything that indicates a fair and accurate measurement of morality between groups.

My initial comment was in support of you actually (which I have since found out you disagreed with) meaning it is pretty silly to assume an atheist is less moral than a religious person. Morality is based on individuals decisions which is based on the environment and circumstances around them. For Christians their guiding light is Jesus of course, but we know many Christians choose not to follow that light. So I think morality is almost independent of groups (and if there is any link it is fickle at best) because morality is a matter for the individual whose decisions are shaped by thousands of aspects, which are updated and changed every day, and are almost all different from the next indivdual (who may or may not be in the same belief system grouping)

What I didn't want to do was get into the details of the report - though you have somewhat sucked me into commenting on it! (You're good at that and I know you're trying to do that again with the constant repeating of the abortion question). I would say that I always view studies with a great deal of scepticism, even those that agree with my line of thinking. Maybe at a young age I would read of a study's findings in a newspaper article and go "Wow, really?" but as I have become less innocent I know that most reports (of a political or social nature) have had their findings already written even before the study has begun. You see, the sceptical me says the point of a study is to get your point across with some form of evidence, and of issues of interest to the public, there is a whole raft of pre-existing ideologies, vested interests, and political persuasions, to name just a few flaws. Then there is a tool often used called polling and that is reliant on the extremely unreliable - people's honesty.

So you see, I really can't comment on all the stuff you have put up in the post, because it already reads extremely dubiously, nonetheless than the very budget looking open letter from FLASH and it's one-sided almost-extreme commentary. It is a press release after all. So you'll have to take this one up with someone else sorry. I've made my point on morality between groups and I stand by it.

I fully expect you to respond with 10+ questions, but this comment should make it clear what my views are on morality between groups. Of course I don't expect you to agree with it - maybe not even the slightest aspect - but you should be in no doubt where I stand.

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Comment 25 (2236) by OJB on 2009-07-13 at 14:32:41:

OK fine, we do seemed to have reached an impasse here. I don't think morality is complicated, just poorly defined. Anthropologists have found a remarkable similarity between the higher social rules (which is what I think morality is) for a wide range of cultures. It seems that those social rules are a result of our evolution in small social groups.

Since you won't answer the question about abortion I will forget about it here. I think the fact that you don't want to answer it says something though! The reason I mentioned it is because the abortion rate is a definite measurable quantity and, while abortion itself might not be immoral (you already know that's a question I'm uncertain about), the hypocrisy of Catholics on that issue must surely tend to immorality!

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Comment 26 (2238) by SBFL on 2009-07-13 at 17:59:50:

As usual you are much mistaken, more due to the fact that you failed to read properly what I have written. The fact is you want to pursue it because of your personal biases (which you let slip in your previous comment). That you keep asking it says something though!

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Comment 27 (2240) by OJB on 2009-07-13 at 21:54:57:

I don't think its anything to do with bias. I originally assumed that all groups were fairly equally moral. This letter seemed to indicate that several surveys suggested religious groups are less moral. Maybe that's true, maybe it isn't, but you don't seem to have defended believers (especially Catholics) very effectively. On the other hand, FLASH never replied to my email with their sources so, who knows, maybe it is all nonsense.

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Comment 28 (2242) by SBFL on 2009-07-14 at 07:55:00:

I don't really know the answer either. For me it comes down to individual performance. You're right that I didn't defend 'believers' very effectively here but that's because I made no attempt at all! For me, it comes down to the individual re morality, and I see little correlation to societal groupings. Hope you understand where I am coming from on this and sorry of I disappointed you!

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Comment 29 (2243) by OJB on 2009-07-14 at 10:34:05:

Yes fine, so we both initially assumed that all groups are equal but this evidence indicates that maybe that isn't true. However until the original surveys can be checked for accuracy and good methodology I think we should return to the original assumption (everyone was equal). Well, that was a lot of fuss about nothing then, wasn't it!

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Comment 30 (2244) by SBFL on 2009-07-14 at 11:27:51:

Indeed.

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