Monday, December 19, 2005

Moral Compass, Due South 

Surprisingly, not a political post. Or, well, maybe...

I'm about halfway through an amazing book called Towing Jehovah, by James Morrow, a belated birthday present from a good friend. (Thanks, Pat!) Now, the premise of the book sort of grated my atheist sensibilites strictly in a... well, a premise sense. in Towing Jehovah, we begin just after the death of Jehovah, aka JHWH, aka the god of Abraham and Isaac, Big Daddy as in "Big Daddy, JC and the Spook." The body has plummeted to Earth, landing at 0°N, 0°W -- where the prime meridian and equator meet, to paraphrase how the book poetically puts it.

The story starts as several dying Archangels contact two men on Earth to help them -- one a disgraced former oil tanker captain (think Exxon Valdez fictionalized) the other a Jesuit priest who has made a career writing about quantuum physics and its application to theology. The two are charged with using the captain's former tanker (sailing under the Vatican flag) to tow the holy corpse to the Arctic Circle, where it will be entmobed and preserved from rotting forever in a hollowed-out iceberg provided by the mourning angels.

Like I said, that the book takes literally and factually the existence of god (especially in the bearded old white guy in the clouds form) gave me slight pause at the beginning. But only slight. It's clear that Morrow is dealing in satire-land here, and with big philosophical issues. I'll leave that as my recommendation. It's a good read, and he seems to have done his research, so that all the details of life on a Supertanker (along with several other places and occupations) ring true but are accesible to laymen. It's also dark and funny, frequently at the same time.

What I wanted to bring up is one of the interesting things that Morrow does with the concept of a deceased deity, the Corpus Dei of the novel. If you're already intrigued and want to read the book, you might want to skip the rest of this post, although I don't think I'm giving too much away, and I'll be as non-specific as possible. It's more the concept than the plot that intrigues me. If you don't mind kind of having something that happens in the book given away, read on.

I'll give you a space or two to think about it...


Okay. Here it is. One of the intriguing things Morrow deals with is what happens when the faithful are suddenly hit with the realization that god is, in fact, dead. Bereft of life, he rests in peace... pushing up the daisies! His metabolic processes are now history! He's off the twig! He's kicked the bucket, he's shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisibile!! (Thank you, Monty Python Realizing that no one is watching them, they proceed to behave in the most immoral ways. It's up to the Jesuit and a Carmelite nun to try to persuade them that man does have an inborn Kantian morality -- and, oddly enough, one of the book's atheist characters never even thinks about being naughty just because there's no one watching from the sky anymore.

Which brings me to my point... and one which I think Morrow makes, or at least which I infer. Which is the stronger morality? That derived from the fear that someone is watching you and will catch you? Or one derived from just knowing or feeling that a particular action is plain wrong?

Secular example: one can chose not to break into someone's house and steal their TV for one of two reasons. One: "I won't do it, because I could get caught by the police, and go to jail." Two: "I won't do it, because it isn't my TV, and taking something that belongs to someone else is wrong, and it'll really screw with the other person's life."

Selfishness vs. empathy.

Now, here's the funny thing. Christian morality (and religious morality in general) is of Type One. "I won't do (X) because I'll go to hell". Atheist/agnostic morality is of Type Two. "I won't do (X) because it's not a nice thing to do to my fellow being(s)." (Note that Type Two can also apply to things like harming animals or defacing property, the former being fellow beings, and the latter belonging to fellow beings. Apparently, Type One morality really says nothing about slaughtering animals or wrecking stuff. Except that, in the case of enemies of your tribe, you should do it so god will be pleased.)

If you're religious, ask yourself this question: how would you behave if god's corpse crash-landed in front of the TV cameras tomorrow? If the Pope, Pat Robertson, the Chief Rabbi, Dalai Lama, Grand Imam, and every priest, pastor, deacon, elder, etc., etc., etc., on the planet sadly announced, "God is truly dead." How would you behave the day after that? Same as you do now? Or would you feel that twinge that you'd missed something somehow, and it no longer mattered what you did?

Perhaps it's a bit of a mind game, something impossible to even wrap your head around whether you're a believer or not. Just as god can't vanish from my world tomorrow because god isn't there now, I'm sure your god can't vanish from your world tomorrow because, well... because. (Unless, of course, you open your eyes to Atheism -- but that would hopefully bring you to Type Two morality instead of wanton amorality.)

Anyway... my morality in no way derives from religion, but is as strong as that of the most pious individual. No, perhaps it's stronger, because my morality derives from things I absolutely will not do.

The point Morrow makes, I think, is that belief in god is frequently an excuse, or, as he puts it, "an alibi." I am not bad, 'cause I'll get busted.

Now... who thinks like that? Children. The very young, who haven't quite gotten the grasp of right or wrong, but have a vague idea of what will piss off Mom and/or Dad and/or whatever parental or authority figure they have. And, often, when they get caught, they lie their asses off.

(I said this wouldn't be a political post, but the above paragraph seems a perfect description of someone in the public eye right now. Um... damn, the name is on the tip of my tongue, just can't quite think of it at the moment...)

Religion largely serves to keep the faithful as children, unable to decide right and wrong for themselves because they don't need to. They just read the rule book for their particular sect, then try to behave as instructed -- although it can frequently be a selective reading. But Catholics seem big on committing adultery; Mormons, on homosexuality; and Fundamentalist Protestants on bearing false witness, assault and murder -- the latter two whether by act (Operation Rescue) or by outloud wishing (Pat Robertson).

I'm looking forward to the rest of Towing Jehovah, but it's nice to see someone express what I've believed for a long time. Morality based on set-in-stone rules and enforced by some invisible threat is not morality at all.

The only true morality comes from within us, born of tolerance and respect for all others. Anything else is just a load of crap.

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