Presented The North Texas Church of Freethought, June 2, 1996
It was a little after two in the afternoon on Friday [May 31, 1996] when I turned the radio on, hoping to catch some news. But the news was already over. So what I got was film critic and Jewish moralist Michael Medved sitting in for Rush Limbaugh.
Mr. Medved was talking about the Inca woman found mummified in the Andes recently, said to be some five hundred years old and soon to be on display in a Washington museum. He complained that a lot of attention was being given to the intricate beadwork of the fine clothes worn by this young woman and other signs of the advanced cultural status of her society. Hardly any attention was being given, said Mr. Medved, to the fact that this woman had been deliberately killed, apparently as a human sacrifice. which showed that her society was actually far from advanced, but depraved.
"It's values, stupid!" said Mr. Medved, paraphrasing the 1992 campaign theme of then-candidate Bill Clinton. "Human sacrifice is just plain wrong!" said Mr. Medved. Perhaps some of the listeners to the Rush Limbaugh show didn't know that.
The inescapable conclusion, according to Mr. Medved? Well, of course, it's that we just need a lot more religious superstition in America.
I don't know about you, but all the news stories about the Inca woman find that I came across prominently featured the gruesome fact that her head had been bashed in, probably as a part of some sort of ritual to propitiate the Inca gods. In other words, religious superstition got her sacrificed. Just like religious superstition almost got Isaac sacrificed as a burnt offering to Yahweh (Genesis 22:2). Just like religious superstition got Jephthah's daughter sacrificed to Yahweh as a burnt offering (Judges 11:31-39). And just like religious superstition got a lot of people tortured, burnt, hanged, or otherwise killed who were judged to be heretics or witches.
But that's all in the past, now, of course. No one foolishly handles snakes, sometimes being bitten and sometimes dying, because of some biblical verse like Mark 16:18, right? No one would rather die than receive a blood transfusion because of Leviticus 17:12, right? No one prays to God to be healed, or have their children healed of deadly diseases for which medical science offers effective treatment, right? And no one relies on beating their children as the primary means of discipline because of a bible verse, right?
Surely today no one is shot to death by divine command, children do not jump in front of trains to become the angels their parents have told them about, and teenagers don't commit crimes, including murder, because they think the devil is real and can be bargained with in some way.
Why, that young Inca woman would have lived out a long and happy life if only her culture had had a whole lot of Judeo-Christian religion right?
Mr. Medved was right, though. It's values. The question is: which values or whose values? Or, more accurately, since values plural have a way of contradicting each other, which or whose value should be at the root of a good society?
It certainly shouldn't be one of those offered by systems of religious superstition — any of them. How could we even choose among them?
Freethinkers and their fellow-travelers, atheists and humanists, generally hold that the highest value should be human life, properly understood. Even most believers, when push come to shove, tend to agree.
I say human life "properly understood" because all of the world's faith-based religions suppose that they champion the cause of human life. Some, for example, think that the value of human life is fulfilled in an afterlife, justifying the drivers of truck-bombs, justifying the issuance of murderous fatwas, justifying the slaughter of untold numbers in holy wars, and, of course, justifying the deaths of adults and children who piously forego modern medical treatment. Others think that, due to the cycle of karma or the idea that reality is all somehow self-made, human misery is all just a part of the order of things. Then there are those who incorporate what they consider "scientific facts" into their system of religious superstition. A fertilized egg, for instance, is just the same as any of us, they say. Still others are fighting the battle fought by Jenner's detractors who insisted that smallpox was God's will. But the modern day theologians insist that getting pregnant — or not — is God's will. Oh, but the faithful are permitted to use mathematics — just not chemistry or physics — to plan their families.
Human life to a Freethinker, though, means human life in this world, in the here and now, though with due regard for the past and the future as much as for the present. And to a Freethinker, human life means not just human protoplasm, at any stage of development, but the human capacity and the respect for that capacity, to know oneself and the world.
Regardless of whether they were nominal Christians, Deists (like Thomas Paine), or something else, this is the vision of human life — the value - that our intellectual and ideological forebears pursued. It's true that they might not all have laid superstition entirely aside. In fact, most did so piecemeal, as when Copernicus, and then Galileo, and then others as well, came to see that abundance evidence repudiated many of the teachings of Holy Scripture. But they and the inventors of such things as lightning rods, immunizations, anesthesia, and other technologies that grew out of a questioning habit of mind, technologies that command the powers of nature by understanding it — these people clearly had before them a view of the value of human life which is, in a crucial respect, closer to our own than to their contemporaries with whom they had to fight to see their achievements accepted.
It's a tribute to the human spirit that it succeeded in improving traditional religion, while traditional religion has done little to improve humanity. For to say that superstition, because it accompanied human progress has been the engine of it, is as foolish as to say that Stephen Hawkings' debilitated health is responsible for his genius. It's an appalling distortion of reality.
We are the beneficiaries of human progress despite religious superstition, not because of it. The technological comforts and the political freedoms that we enjoy today were the result of a struggle against religious tradition and authority, and not the natural outcome of them. The only debatable question, and the import of it is debatable as well, is whether the form that this religious hindrance to human achievement took in the case of Western civilization was better than any of the alternatives.
What's important is that the Freethinkers' vision of the value of human life has in many significant respects prevailed. And though, as our speaker last month suggested, we may be entering a period of retrenchment, we can continue to make progress by making an effort to explain why our values are not a repudiation of all tradition and authority. Because, in fact, our values are the driving force that gave rise to tradition and authority, including those aspects of it that we reject.
But to make this case means that we will have to extend the benefit of a doubt to people we may not be used to being generous towards. It means that we'll have to grant that at least some of the perpetrators of religiously-motivated crimes and cruelties honestly thought that they were doing good — because they were deceived by the gigantic fraud of a system of religious superstition. In fact, this is crucial to making the case for a rational vision of the value of human life: that it's not simply the result of a given action that needs to be looked at when considering its moral acceptability. What's important is the thinking that guides the action and whether that thinking rests on facts and reason or whether it rests on unexamined prejudice, thoughtless fear, religious/superstitious nonsense, or worse.
After all, if there really were something marvelous to be gained by bashing people's heads in on mountaintops, if the horrific view of reality that motivated such actions were demonstrably true, I daresay that even sensible people would reluctantly go along with human sacrifice. It's not that the Incas were depraved, in other words, that led them to kill this young woman whose mummy was found. Rather, they were led to such an atrocity by — and what made it an atrocity was — their religious superstitions. Likewise, if innocent children who are driven into a lake by their mother really do become angels in heaven and are spared any risk of eternal torture, who could object to such an act?
You see, the world is really with us. Even the people who vilify us know — deep down, they know — that the Freethinkers' vision of the greatest value worth defending is not incompatible with their own. They're just afraid that it might not lead to the conclusions that they prefer. And their leaders tell them — lie to them, in fact — that outside of their faith is nothing but corruption, hopelessness, despair, and, if that's not enough, of course, eternal damnation as well.
We need to tell the truth. We need to say that tradition and authority on a great many things are worth honoring, because those who contributed to the accepted way of doing many things were informed by the same vision of the value of human life that we hold, even if that vision was often distorted by religious superstitions. We need to say that an ample measure of social order is a good thing. Moreover, even if there are different ways of achieving such order and even if sometimes arbitrary means are necessary to establishing it, still some social systems are better than others and, in any case, it makes no sense to abruptly overturn convention when convention is not the cause of any great harm.
Most of us agree that there is personal, and perhaps to some degree social virtue — even if we don't all agree that it should be enforced by the power of government — to such things as remaining sober and drug-free, sexual fortitude, and cultivating an even temper and a charitable habit of mind. Good behavior, in short, is good. It's not just something that gets you into heaven and keeps you out of hell. Nor is it something that people are incapable of because "there is none righteous, no, not one" (Romans 3:10) so, go ahead and live it up because there's always confession or the blood of Jesus to wash away a ruined life. We ought to share these convictions.
Good behavior is what makes a good life. It's what makes a good society. "It's values, stupid," indeed, Mr. Medved. But even the best value can be corrupted when it's seen "through a glass, darkly," especially when that glass is one of willful ignorance, pious superstition, and unreasoning fear. Let's be clear to ourselves and others what it is that we are for, and what it is that we are against. Let us remind ourselves, and others, that we must always be vigilant for the lie that is often hidden in what is merely believed.
If we determine to follow this course, like many who have gone before us, we will eventually succeed at once again sharpening the distinction between the rational and the irrational, between what is good for the highest aspirations of human beings and what is good for the dogma of dead doctrines, and between facts and reason and tradition and authority where they are at odds. It is then that we will have laid the foundation for a new, and perhaps even more far-reaching wave of human progress, though, like many Freethinkers who went before us, we may not ourselves live to see it happen.
Thank you and Good Morning.
© 1996 by Dr. Tim Gorski