Before we begin today (and it's a doozy, trust me) I feel obligated to tell you I'm under the influence of a couple of Vicodins, which I had left over from that one time I got a concussion from slipping on my goddamn hardwood floors. (It's a rough life). See, I climbed Old Rag Mountain on Monday and because I'm so coordinated, today I'm dealing with a twisted elbow, two scraped knuckles, a hand gash, a bum ankle and a severe case of chapped lips. Indeed, I'm in the perfect state to wax philosophical.
Enter Sam Harris last night on the stage of George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. For those of you unaware of who he is, such as the emcee of last night's event, Harris recently released a book called The Moral Landscape. Note to last night's emcee: He did not write a book called The Moral Compass. That book, a treatise on "traditional family values," was written by right-wing pundit William J. Bennett in 1995. They're different.
Very different actually, because unlike Bennett, Harris doesn't believe morality is a gift from God. Morality, he says, is an aspect of humanity that can be scientifically quantified by measuring well-being. This means that, unlike über-politically correct cultural relativists on the left, there is a "moral truth" -- a right and wrong -- that can be derived from reason, totally apart from the Bible, the Quran, the Torah, etc.
In fact, he argues that religion can even be immoral. His most famous claim is about slavery. He said last night, "The Bible got slavery wrong." (Seriously, Exodus 21, really?!) And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg (that God created?). There are some 100 verses in the Quran that call for killing nonbelievers (and if you kill yourself in the process you're rewarded) and the Bible's Old Testament orders that women who stray from their husbands are to be stoned to death. Really, there's a million other contradictions and truly quite horrific/insane orders in religious texts that are supposed to be the direct wishes of God.
Yet here is the problem with religion somehow being the beacon of morality: If that were true, there really should be a lot more dead ladies on the street.
But who am I to talk? According to many believers, I'm just a lost little secularist over here. I'm immoral under the strict definitions of many of the world's organized religions. Yet still, unlike just about all the Catholics who've gone unstoned that I've ever met, I've never cheated on anyone. I've also never killed anyone, never stolen anything of value and I hate intentional deception. If I don't believe in an anthropomorphic God, how could this be? I argue that it's because God, as I had come to know Him growing up a baptized Russian Orthodox and confirmed Episcopalian, seems a lot more confused about life than me. In the Old Testament, God is a huge dick and in the New Testament he's the benevolent father of a long-haired hippie. How are these two God's one and the same? To admit He changed is to admit His faults, isn't it?
I'll admit, growing up I never gave it much thought. I was a Christian by default, as both my parents decided to make me attend church. And I was cool with that -- every Sunday I got free cookies. As boring as Sunday School was, it actually seemed like a pretty fine deal at the time. But then my dad died when I was 16 and suddenly, for lack of a better term, sh*t got real. After that, I stopped being blinded by Snickerdoodles and began to contemplate the meaning of my inherited beliefs for the first time.
At first I found comfort when people told me, "Everything happens for a reason, dear," or "It was God's will, honey." It's a nice thought to think that someone as important as God and Jesus wanted the company of my 51-year-old father so badly. But then I thought, "Hmm, if that's the case, why not just take him peacefully in his sleep, rather than give him cancer and make him suffer an excruciatingly painful deterioration of health for three months?" For that, I couldn't find a satisfactory answer in my religion and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the Bible couldn't be the actual word of God, unless God was so stupid and lazy as to let editorial errors like the fact that Matthew, Mark, Luke can't figure out what came first at the last supper, the water or the wine? Uh, really? I guess I'd like to give God more credit than that. I also came to the conclusion that the Old Testament God, who honestly reads more like a vindictive Real Housewife of Heaven than a righteous divinity, isn't worthy of my time. At this point, evidence leads me to believe that the Bible is less divinely created and more schlocked together by a few powerful and persuasive, but fallible men. And that goes the same for the Quran and the Torah. Really, if God wanted to intervene on Earth, why not do so without playing a giant game of Operator, in which the message will most certainly become mangled by the time it reaches those of us who didn't get it firsthand. Surely, if God wanted to speak to us, God would speak to us all directly by doing something more awesome than sending down a couple of stone tablets with some weird mountain man. The God I'd like to believe in would make it rain champagne or something. Seriously, let's give God some credit here...
Despite all my doubts, however, unlike Harris, I'm not prepared to say there is no God at all. While I reject Christianity's and other religions' depictions of God as humanlike, I cannot discount the possibility that there's something bigger than us we can't see out there. Like Harris, though, I don't believe we should conduct our lives on Earth via any other means than by the reality in which we live. That means that, yes, science rules. In the words of a Michael Jackson documentary, This Is It. (That was a good documentary, by the way.) What you see is what you get and the most moral thing for us to do is be open to discovery and seek answers not through blind faith, but through tangible evidence. Just like physical health, says Harris, morality (the idea of maximizing well-being) is no different. It can be refined and benefited via empirical inquiry. For a better explanation (one I'm not capable of writing right now, as I'm starting to hallucinate -- hi, unicorn!), watch this:
And on a different religious topic, despite the title, the The Astronomical Kid's hit single, "Stop Lookin' at My Moms" is not about polygamy.
Also, that song just elevated my well-being by, like, a million. And since I'll be singing it nonstop, all day because it's so catchy, if you run into me today, it is sure to elevate yours as well. You're welcome.