Friday, July 12, 2013

Public Morality

This is a different format and slant than previous posts to this blog, but in the same spirit of the rest of the posts, I hope that this essay communicates my view respectfully to both those who already agree with me and those who are predisposed disagree with me. I also hope the latter group will communicate back through the comments section. What did I overgeneralize or misinterpret? What resonated? Is there common ground that I missed?

The Humanist Counterbalance to Freedom

The “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave” prides itself on liberty above almost all else—after all, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are each citizen’s native rights, as stated in the Declaration of Independence.

That phrase is perfect, because happiness is such a subjective thing that the pursuit of it really ought to be left to each individual. There is no one vision of paradise that would be appealing to every single person on the planet. And yet, there continue to be quite a few people out there who think they know what’s best for everybody else. Many of them sincerely want others to be happy. And often, they are right! Often the advice they give would make a number of people happier, when their own choices are making them unhappy.

But it's likely these same people don’t always follow the good advice of others, even when they know it will benefit them. Why? Because sometimes we just feel like exercising our agency instead. Because we can. And that feels good, even if some of the consequences don’t. Typically when we’re ready to change (or when the consequences start hurting enough), we change. Agency allows us to do this at our own rate and on our own terms. The great gift of freedom: becoming whoever we want to be, whenever we feel like it.

But obviously we’re not operating in a vacuum. We share space with each other, we coexist, we depend on each other for survival. For this reason, most of us agree that certain things merit reducing or removing a certain amount of freedom. Ideally not our own freedom--but we subject ourselves to that possibility in order to enjoy the benefits of living in a community and a society. For example, if one of us kills another of us, this certainly justifies the removal of autonomy from that person, at least until we can be safely assured they will not go right back out and do it again. Most of us want to feel secure; basic safety is one thing that we value over freedom, to different degrees.

What else justifies the removal of freedom? According to Noam Chomsky’s recent interview explaining his brand of anarchism, not much. “The burden of proof for anyone in a position of power and authority lies on them.  Their authority is not self-justifying.  They have to give a reason for it, a justification.  And if they can’t justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just.” In other words—why would you let anyone else be in charge of you unless they can prove that it’s better for you and everyone else if we keep it that way?

Well, the problem is, many of us believe very strongly that we have the absolute answer to peace and happiness. If only we could convince/coerce/force others to live according to our plan of happiness and peace, everything would be just perfect. Hitler tried it. He knew exactly what happiness looked like for his people, and he attempted to enact that view in the world. The crusades were a mass attempt to force everyone to be happy and peaceful in a very specific way. A great many laws exist in Iran to make sure that people only demonstrate their peace and happiness the way that one group thinks it ought to be expressed. When we see extreme examples like this, we can all agree: freedom is better than enforced conformity, no matter how pretty the ideal that conformity is striving for.

Hence, humanistic laws: laws that balance the desires of the majority against the rights of the minority. Laws based on who will benefit or suffer the most, rather than who has the most power or who is speaking the loudest. Laws which privilege the liberty and even the personal dignity of the individual over the desires of the majority. Our laws aren’t purely democratic: we’ve set ourselves up so that even if most of us want to gang up on someone and take away their rights, the constitution doesn’t allow it. One of the biggest struggles of the last century has been expanding the definition of “us”: it used to mean “us rich white men not of Italian, Irish, or Eastern European descent” and now it is a more genuine “us,” though it still excludes (and seeks to exclude) certain groups, including non-citizens, people of different sexual preferences, and people who have broken certain laws (including certain victimless crimes, and excluding certain crimes which have extraordinary numbers of victims).

Tolerating vs. Coexisting

A few years ago, I spent a day in Salt Lake City with a good friend of mine. I hadn’t seen him since high school, but just like I remembered, he had a way of making me feel loved and valued. It was a great day. We acted like high schoolers, hanging out in the park and talking, getting milkshakes, walking around (okay, maybe that's just Mormon high schoolers).

I told him all about how much happier, more secure, and more open-hearted I had been since leaving the LDS church. He listened with respect and apparent understanding, and I showed the same respect and loving acceptance towards his decision to remain a faithful member. I started getting warm fuzzies. We're communicating with each other across our differences, I thought happily. We're coexisting. This is great. He really listened when I told him I am happier now than I was before. He's actually respecting my autonomy and my lifestyle.

At the end of the night, those fuzzies disappeared in an instant as I heard him say the phrase, "I don't want you to take this the wrong way, Rachel, but…" and he handed me a Book of Mormon. "I was hoping you might read this for me? And pray about it?"

A wave of frustration washed over me. I tried to calmly explain why this was so offensive, and he listened with a patient smile. I told him I understood that the impulse to keep pushing his ideas on me was a loving one, but despite this, it is disrespectful and implies a highly conditional love to continue to insist I change. I had clearly stated that I was not in the market for a new belief system, and furthermore, he knew for a fact that I had already tested out his ideology and decided it wasn't for me.

This friend was certainly “tolerating” my presence as an agnostic. He didn’t treat me as sub-human. He didn’t hurt me or snub me. And that’s pretty much what tolerance amounts to: putting up with something you’d rather not have to put up with. He had little interest in changing his mind about me—seeing me as a whole and happy person, rather than someone missing the point of life. 

Coexisting involves more mutual respect and humility than tolerance does. Coexisting means allowing others to prosper in whatever way they see fit, and in return, being allowed to prosper in whatever way you see fit. Instead of trying to change each other into someone who fits our personal image of what is Right, we should refocus our efforts on making space for others to flourish into whatever manifestation of humanity they should choose. Let our own lives reflect our ideals of the world; let us know the best ideals by their fruits, instead of their volume, popularity, or aggressiveness.

The Ex

Imagine you were with a man for many years. Imagine at some point you decided to divorce him, citing irreconcilable differences. Suppose you parted on good terms, he fully supported you setting off on your own, and all was well. Imagine that despite this, many of his friends are very invested in getting the two of you back together. They don't believe you that he was okay with the split; they don't believe you that you're happier since the split. Some of them even think you're an evil person for divorcing your Ex. "Did he tell you that?" you ask them, and they say "He's too nice to say that. But you should be ashamed of yourself!" Or they say, "Yes, he did tell me that!" but all they can show you to prove it is something another friend claims he said--a friend who says a lot of messed up things that don't sound like your Ex at all.

You don't mind hanging out with your Ex's friends still--some of them are pretty cool about the divorce--but you start to avoid the ones who get up in arms about it, or try to convince you to reunite every single time they see you, or who clearly don't consider you part of the group now that you're not with your Ex anymore. But some of them don't stop there.

"Your Ex didn't like it when you drank. You shouldn't drink," they say. "You shouldn't date women," they say. "What would your Ex say!" They don't seem to understand that what your Ex thinks doesn't really matter to you anymore--and they don't believe you that any time you check in with your Ex, all is well. Telling them to mind their business doesn't affect them at all. "I'm his good good friend!" they say. "It's my duty to tell you these things." ("I promise I didn't tell them to act this way," he always says apologetically when the two of you talk).

I’m sure I’m not the only ex-Christian to feel this way. Believe it or not, I’m in touch with my own concept of the divine, and I’m not extremely interested in outside interpretations of what he or she or it wants for me. I’ll listen politely to your opinion, share mine, and then hopefully we can both be done with it. If you said something poignant, I’ll think about it more. Hopefully the same applies vice versa. But being pushy about it isn’t going to change my mind. And it’s certainly not going to influence me to get back together with my Ex.

It's long been a struggle of mine to state my problem with organized religion--not because it's hard to pinpoint, but because it's important to me that I state it in a way which makes it clear my problem is not with the beliefs, the people who hold them, or their personal practice of those beliefs. I understand that some people want to put more faith in God than in science; I don't agree but I see how someone's life could take them in that direction. I myself once sincerely believed there was no nobler cause than being a follower of God, no better way to fight for humanity.

Respecting Other’s Viewpoints 101

When I was seventeen I participated in the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange year to Germany. As part of my training to visit another culture, I was taught that respecting other people's culture and opinions means that even though my traditions make much more sense to me and often seem innately superior, I’m here to learn about others. Be open to trying new things, they told me. Practice your listening skills--you're not just here to tell people about your awesome culture; you're here to learn amazing things from theirs. Open your mind. They've been doing things this way for a while--something must be working for them. Sometimes your way actually is better, and sometimes theirs is. You'll never get anywhere with another person if you assume you're right about everything.

Several amazing conversations and experiences later, I was heading back to the United States with a new take on the world, reflecting deeply on my long-held faith. After two years of deliberation, I left the church of my youth. Over the years, this decision has drastically changed my views on the ethics of regulating public morality. I strongly believe that even my sixteen year old self, faith unshaken, would agree that there are certain pitfalls that should be avoided.

Trading Autonomy

There are many religious people, especially those in the so-called religious right, who actively advocate the removal of autonomy in the name of public morality, though the same people will often oppose it in any other sphere. For example: they don’t believe that corporations should be regulated or restricted, they don’t believe in stricter gun laws, and they don’t think that giant sodas should be eliminated; but they do believe in restricting a woman’s choices when she’s pregnant, restricting people’s choices in marital partners, and restricting people’s choices in entertainment and recreation.

There are non-believers who think the religious support restrictive morality laws out of fear that they will be punished if they don't. Allowing others to commit sins, after all, might be seen as tantamount to telling God that even if you personally don't want to commit sins, you're pretty much okay with other people sinning. Doesn't that mean you're supporting the sin?

Well, no. It means that you're supporting their right to decide to sin or not, to subject themselves to God's judgment or not. You're allowing them the autonomy God gave them in the first place, when they were born on this planet.

As a former Mormon, I don't think fear is the primary motivation. I think most religious people genuinely believe they're doing others a favor by removing the option to commit certain grievous sins. It's like putting up a caution fence to protect people from dangers to their spirituality, and to spare them the painful punishments that follow violations of spiritual law. It's an extension of evangelism, of trying to help others be happy by sharing the truth with them. But a fence, even a fence designed to protect (like a baby gate, like a fenced backyard for a dog) is a restriction of autonomy. Fear or protectiveness, you're still treating your fellow adults like babies or dogs, creatures incapable of making good decisions on their own.

Take a look at the message you send by restricting autonomy based on personally perceived spiritual dangers but not universally recognized physical dangers:

Public shootings all over America don't merit even the slightest loss of autonomy on the part of gun owners. Evidence (and common sense) suggest that making guns harder to get hold of makes it harder for mentally unstable people to kill lots of innocent people at once. But innocent lives at risk do not merit restriction of autonomy.

What merits a loss of autonomy is two adults who love each other a lot and want to make a lifelong commitment to one another. Why? Because children might see them expressing that autonomy and express their own autonomy. The possibility of further autonomy being exercised to think and act differently than you do is enough grounds to restrict autonomy.

If someone refuses to give his workers adequate healthcare and they die left and right, he's just exercising his autonomy (and business acumen.) Making people pay a fair minimum wage, or put safety features in their factories to make sure workers won't get burned alive if there's ever a fire, making them pay compensation if they didn't take proper precautions to prevent injury to their workers--these kinds of things are unjustifiable restrictions of autonomy.

But if a woman believes the clump of cells in her belly has yet to pluck a soul from the great cosmic plasma, if this woman does something to make sure the cells don't someday become a real, live, person, who might someday be burned to death in a factory, this merits a loss of autonomy. We need to stop her from hurting her own child because we know better and we want to prevent her from suffering. We need to save that baby that she doesn't believe is a baby yet because we believe it and our belief is stronger and more worthy than her autonomy.

There is a very clear difference between protecting actual human beings from immediate harm, and protecting potential souls (or actual beings) from potential harm (or spiritual harm). Yes, as non-believers we fully understand that religious people don't think the souls or the harm are potential or imaginary. That’s fine. I applaud your conviction. But once again: a conviction is something that isn’t generally agreed upon, or it would be a fact, not a belief.

When believers create legal consequences to their own spiritual laws, it's like they're saying, "You know what? We'll just skip the whole 'You make the choice, God punishes you for the choice after you die' part of God's plan. If we let you take the risk, others might think it's okay to take the risk, and then you'll all go to hell!"

To which bewildered non-believers reply: "Well…isn't that why you're always trying to tell other people about your religion? So they can come to realize what a wonderful thing it is, and how right you are, and want to choose your lifestyle for themselves? Isn't the other way of trying to keep the country moral kind of like kidnapping someone and hoping they'll get Stockholm Syndrome?”

It should be clear to the Christian right by now that it's not working…people still just want to be free.

What Freedom of Religion Looks Like

Freedom of religion, carried to its logical conclusion, is Iraq. It's Iran. Such countries represent freedom of religion unfettered by humanism, by the protection of minority groups. If your religion happens to be prevalent, you can live all of your beliefs, all the time. Even if one of your beliefs is that it's okay to rape women. Even if one of your beliefs is that it's okay to force other people to follow your god's laws. If your god says that women should cover up their entire bodies lest they make a man unable to stop himself from raping you, which he'd probably feel sort of bad about that later, which would suck (for him)…women, you'd better cover up. Disagree? Too bad. Your autonomy is not as important as the majority's complete religious freedom.

Be careful when you're trying to defend religious freedom that you mean "the freedom to believe whatever you like," rather than "the freedom to show God how much we believe in him by making his laws our country's laws." Make sure you don't mean "the freedom to remove the autonomy of others so that they won't commit sins against my God."

The fear of religious people that marriage equality would restrict their autonomy is not unfounded. Right now their autonomy not only allows them to believe that homosexuals are dirty and inferior, it allows them by law to treat these individuals as though they are lesser in the sight of God. But just as civil rights removed people's autonomy to treat African Americans as though they were animals with no souls,  (but not their autonomy to believe it despite all evidence to the contrary), marriage equality may, in fact, remove some of their autonomy to act out their belief in the public arena, to harm or restrict other people according to that belief. Yes, it will take away the "right" of religious people to determine which segments of the population deserve less autonomy and dignity than they do.

But this doesn’t mean the downfall of society is on the way. Didn’t happen when we allowed interracial marriage, won’t happen when we allow homosexual marriage. If you look at nearly any religious text, if you look at nearly any moment in history, or any country ruled by a religious tyrant, you’ll find that God (and/or the end of the world, as brought about by disobeying Him) can be claimed to endorse all kinds of practices that involve harming or restricting the autonomy of others. People justify all kinds of crimes against humanity using God's will and God's law. This is part of the reason we use the constitution, not the Bible, to make decisions about which laws are just.

I'm not saying all organized religion is bad. Although the idea of God's will is a powerful force and many members of organized religion would enthusiastically advocate theocratic government (according to their personal God, of course--not just any god), many other adherents do choose to prioritize treating others better over using the laws to punish people they don't agree with.  The core message of most of these texts is Love and Service. Many members of organized religions do a really good job of remembering that.

But there are those who believe that the best type of discipleship is the kind which declares itself constantly at all times without discretion, respect, or diplomacy, the kind which seeks to understand others only to show them how they are wrong; which listens only to see how to persuade. This type of disciple of God represents a real and present danger to the harmony of communities, because such people are far more interested in a homogenous community than a peaceful or just one. They would rather the community reflect their own personal values than that it embrace everyone's personal values all at once. Such ideology can easily lead to coercion or force, as it is already dangerously close to the edge of that slippery slope, “the ends justify the means.”

In Conclusion

Preventing the cruel or unfair treatment of others, and striving always to protect their autonomy and good health and ensure they have the same range of opportunities and options we would want--these should be our guiding principles in deciding which removals of autonomy are necessary and justified. It is not the job of a country's civil laws to codify a particular idea of morality. It is the job of a country's laws to protect the ability of each individual to practice his/her own idea of morality--weighing that autonomy always against clear and immediate costs to autonomy and safety of others.

To all readers, but my Christian friends especially, I ask you to please remember the true reason for this country's religious freedom, and to stop pushing for more freedom to restrict the moral autonomy of others. Maybe atheists, agnostics, gays, and pro-choicers are wrong, but that's between us and God, your God, if you like—He gave us our autonomy for the same reason he gave you yours. Stop trying to shepherd and parent us. Stop trying to make everybody else live by your personal ideals of right and wrong. We're more likely to see the merits of your morality if you stop acting like the only way to get people to agree is through force.

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