Theology vs. The Memes #5: God the Federal Government

God Terrorism

As Samuel L. Jackson’s character tells us in the movie The Long Kiss Goodnight: “When you make an assumption, you make an ass out of ‘u’ and ‘umption.'” Making an assumption about human motivations is always dangerous. One of the greatest causes of the deep political divisions of our nation today stems from the belief that we can tell what our opponents “really want.” People who are pro-life don’t care about babies, they really want to make women second-class citizens. People who want gun control don’t care about safety, they really want to establish a tyranny.

The meme above is a perfect example of this in action. What does the bumper sticker say? It says that God is bigger than government. One would hope, of course, that He is. Given the almost legendary incompetence of governments in general and the United States government in particular, worshiping a God that was not bigger than the government would be a waste of time. Quite frankly, if that were the case, I’d leave the church and begin worshiping my cat. At least that way I would occasionally receive the blessing of snuggles. The worst, really, that you can say of this particular bumper sticker is that it says my God is bigger than your government, giving some cloak of innocence to the voter who displays the sticker, as though he or she were not equally culpable in the mess. If that is what is meant, then the believer is guilty of some degree of hypocrisy, yes. But terrorism?

There are really only two ways to get to the claim that this sentiment is “how terrorism starts.”  One is to automatically assume the worst about people. We’ve already seen why that’s a bad idea. But of course, there is a far more dangerous basis for making the claim, and I suspect that it is this idea that stands behind the meme: it is the idea that the entire concept of something bigger than the government, something bigger than unified human action (because that is what a government is, when boiled down to basics) is equivalent to terrorism. And that, I suspect, is the real motive of whoever created this meme. And yes, before anyone else points it out, I will save you the trouble and admit that I too may be falling into the trap of assuming the worst of my opponents. But whether the makers of the meme intended it or not, this idea is out there, and it is dangerous.

It is dangerous because it cuts right to the heart of the binary between theism and atheism: either there is a God, a Being that holds the absolute truths of existence in an unshakable grip, or there is not, and human desires and concepts are the ultimate determiners of right and wrong. If that latter is indeed the case, then God the Father is a lie, and must be replaced by human values. And herein lies the irony. The very concept of the God-King was rejected during the Fall of the Roman Empire, perhaps one of the few true advances in human thought during that decadent and hopeless time, when the Divine Augustus gave way to the servant of the Divine, Constantine the Great. But the atheist must replace the servant of the Divine with humans who, if not gods themselves, wield all the authority of God to determine what is right and wrong with the force of law; God the Federal Government. Therefore, it must follow that if this is true, people who believe in a God that is greater than the government are not only delusional, they are blasphemers. They are heretics who believe that something more, and something better than God the Federal Government exists, and therefore they are equivalent to terrorists, who will dare to defy the Holy People’s Will in the name of their ridiculous God. And of course, they will have to be suppressed for the good of the people.

This bumper sticker is not how terrorism starts. It’s quite possible to believe that God is bigger than the government and not need to undertake any violent (or even non-violent) action against the government. This meme is how fascism starts: the belief that no idea can challenge our secular lords and masters without being a threat that must be destroyed and criminalized.

From Somewhere In Orbit

 

 

 

Theology vs. The Memes #4: If At First WHO Doesn’t Succeed?

 

Oh, how one of my atheist friends loves the Noah’s Ark story. It is the ultimate proof of God’s incompetence and evil. The argument goes that if God couldn’t make people good enough not to sin, he’s not much of a god, expressed by the meme above.

Folks, this is the worst sort of begging the question when it comes to arguments against religion. What the meme wants to conceal is three separate assumptions that are made: firstly, that the success or failure involved is God’s. Secondly, that we are capable of judging that “success.” Thirdly, that God’s justice, like man’s, is circumscribed by death.

To take the points in reverse order, I’ve already noted that using premature death as an argument against the goodness of God is rather silly. The people killed in the Flood were already going to die. They would face God’s judgment eventually. By the laws of statistics, many of them would have died before reaching the average lifespan. If allowing people to die in a Flood is evil, then allowing them to die at all is hardly less evil. And of course, if you don’t trust God to be just to the souls of the dead, you’ve rather pre-judged your case, since you can have no experience of how He does that. And no, you can’t use God’s visible behavior to humans on Earth to judge what he does with them later. Otherwise you might just as well assume that every parent who speaks sharply to a child and then hauls them away from a party for misbehavior goes directly home and murders the child.

Which of course brings up the next two points. Do we not see that if we take the idea of God at all seriously, we have to imagine a Being that can plan on a scale of millions of years and has access to energies, times and spaces that we cannot conceive of? I realize that atheists don’t take the idea of God seriously, but that’s exactly what reduces memes like this to self-congratulatory wankery, utterly irrelevant to the average believer. It’s a straw-god argument. And straw-god is a real asshole, that is for sure. But if you want to convince believers, you have to take on a real god at some point, and that’s a much harder target, because you can’t judge a god’s success (let alone God’s) on a human scale.

Finally, the idea that the Flood (or any other example of mass death) was triggered by a “failure” on God’s part neatly and conveniently removes human action and accountability from the equation. Scripture’s take on the state of humanity was that life was nothing but people plotting to do evil (Genesis 6).

Again, I realize that my atheist friends don’t really believe in this story. But friends, if you’re going to condemn it as emblematic of the evil nature of the God we have imagined for ourselves, you’re going to have to be consistent, and you’re not even doing that well. First you complain that all the evil in the world is the fault of God and his “failure” to make good humans. Well, okay, let’s take that seriously for just a moment. If indeed that is the case, then surely humans, having seen the evil God allows, could prevent it, yes? If we are better than Him, then we must be able fix it; that’s the inescapable conclusion. Okay, not everything. I mean, we started from a pretty low technology base, so it’ll be awhile before we’re up to preventing plagues and floods.  But at the very least there should be no war, murder, slavery, or any other purely human evil, should there?

Oh, there is? All of those things exist? Gee, that doesn’t look very good for our claim to be better than God and stand in judgment of Him, does it? Hell, we’ve done a better job at preventing the plagues and floods!

If we are so capable of sitting in judgment of God, then why are we not doing better than Him? The failure is not His. The failure is ours. If God calls attention to that failure, then getting mad about it is about as admirable as yelling at the police officer who pulled you over for actually breaking the law.

And of course the other side of the coin is this: If we are not capable of doing better than the God we revile, then obviously we do need a God, don’t we? We need to desperately seek Him — to seek someone — out and discover how we can stop failing. When you’re failing, it’s time to listen and trust. Not to judge. Judgment is the purview of the successful.

If you really disbelieve, then all I can say is that blaming a god who doesn’t exist for your troubles is even more childish than worshiping one. The god you worship might turn out to be real. The god you blame might, too, of course, but you might think about the possible results of that. In either case, the failure is the argument against God’s ethics.

Theology vs. The Memes #3: The Problem of Evil. Well, Pain.

This meme, which is an actual quote from Epicurus (at least we think it is. It doesn’t survive in any of his writings. We have it from a Christian theologian named Lactantius who brought up the point to dispute it) is certainly one of the most common verbal hammers brought down on the heads of theists everywhere. Of course, if the argument were really all that devastating one might wonder why religion still exists at all. Among militant atheists, the answer is invariably, “because theists are stupid.” The idea that people who disagree with you are too dumb to breathe is certainly one of the most popular in human history, and by no means limited to atheists.

Of course, to examine the statement at all it is necessary first to define what is evil. As this is Epicurus, it is a fairly easy definition to make, because Epicurus defined it most easily. To Epicurus, every pleasure was good, and every pain was evil. Therefore, we may surmise that by “evil,” Epicurus meant pain, or any action tending toward pain. As Epicurus was not an idiot, he was well aware that certain pleasures could result in greater pain, and that certain pleasures (e.g. becoming a star athlete) could only be purchased at the cost of pain. In such cases, Epicurus would have recommended the course that led to the greatest net pleasure.

I do not share Epicurus’ view that evil is nothing more nor less than suffering or causing pain, but since those who throw this meme about the internet do, let us meet Epicurus on his own ground and assume that evil is pain.

I have to wonder: was Epicurus a parent? Failing that, did Epicurus have parents? And did he ever explain this philosophy to them, because as a parent, my instinctive response to this is: “BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA (snort!) HAHAHA (cough, cough, splutter)! Look, spend a day with my toddler and preschooler, and I will introduce you to the greatest sufferers in human history. They are in repeated, constant agony. The toddler didn’t get the raisin she wanted, and she wails like her teeth are being pulled out. The preschooler got the orange plate instead of the blue one, and she shrieks with all the terror of the damned.
And I, the God of raisins and of properly colored plates, do nothing to ease their pain. Thus, I am by Epicurus’ definition, evil. I am able to alleviate my children’s pain, but I am unwilling to do so.
I don’t have to explain this, of course, to anyone with an ounce of sense. I am denying my children these things because I want them to learn about their proper place in the human community. I want them to learn that screaming for things isn’t what good people do.

Now this is where my opponents put on their Righteous Outrage Masks and point out that

1) I am mocking everyone who suffers pain. And some people have suffered enormous amounts of pain, and how dare I blah, blah, blah, and FURTHER

2) Not all pain leads to, or even CAN lead to, learning to be better. Why, I must be one of those terrible people who blames victims for everything, including rape, murder, torture, and slavery!

I’m sorry. I’m not impressed by Righteous Outrage Masks. I grew up in the Baptist Church, and no one does Righteous Outrage better than a Baptist Ladies Society matron who’s trying to shame little boys out of playing with toy guns because JESUS!!

To take those objections seriously requires some discussion. Let’s begin with the first:

I am mocking everyone who suffers pain. I am not mocking everyone who suffers. I am mocking those who take their suffering for proof of God’s malevolence without the slightest awareness of the true depths of human suffering. I find it revealing that this “proof” God doesn’t exist has taken root in the richest, most comfortable societies that humanity has ever seen: Western Europe and its offshoots, the developed world. Atheism isn’t nearly as widespread in developing South America, Africa, or Southeast Asia. And yet far more suffering is there, by any measure. I suppose those people are just stupid? Because that doesn’t sound racist or classist at all. A much more probable explanation is that rich and powerful people can afford to forget and ignore God.
We judge the world by our experiences. We judge the severity of our pain by what we know. The sixteen year-old girl who didn’t get asked to prom isn’t lying, or even particularly dumb when she cries: “This is the worst I’ve ever hurt in my life. I don’t want to live any more!” It is, and she doesn’t. She is just acting her age, and she has no faith that things will (as an older person could tell her they will) get better. Her experience has told her that this is the worst it can possibly be. Just as she would roll her eyes and tell the toddler that crying over the green milk cup is ridiculous, so her mother rolls her eyes, comforting her daughter, while remembering her own foolish despair at that age.
From the perspective of an omnipotent, benevolent God, we are all that toddler. All that 16-year old. Nothing we have experienced is beyond His imagining. Nothing exists that He cannot fix. If Epicurus assumes that God cannot fix pain that has occurred, then he is begging the question and arguing dishonestly.
If, on the other hand, Epicurus is arguing that God is morally required to prevent some pain from occurring, then he is obligated to tell us how much. How much pain must God prevent to be called “Good?” Usually, when I ask this question, I’m met with an indignant, “Well, why can’t God stop earthquakes? Or genocide? Or pandemics?”
Do you notice no one ever turns this around to use it as an excuse to be grateful? No one ever says, “Thank God that there aren’t any dragons that carry people off and eat them! Thank God for preventing a nuclear war between 1960 and 1991! Thank God that there’s no such thing as immortal sorceror-kings ruling over us!”
So how much pain is God required to prevent? We seem to arbitrarily feel that it’s terribly unreasonable of God to allow us to suffer for ten years, but ten minutes is okay. Even though, from the perspective of eternity (hell, even from the perspective of, say, a million-year lifespan) those times would be nearly identical. The only reasonable conclusion, is that God must be required to prevent all pain, however small, from ever occurring, or be called evil.
The problem with this is, that pain is not merely physical. It’s mental. It’s emotional. And we tend to regard the worst pain we know as the worst ever. So for God to be good, there can’t be games. Losing a game hurts. For God to be good, there can’t be disagreement, ever. Disagreement hurts. For God to be good, there can’t be learning. Because learning implies that you were ignorant before you learned, and you might fail to learn the first time you were presented with a new concept, and failure hurts.
For God to be good, He must leave Himself nothing to be good to. Except, perhaps, another good God. There can be no creation, no development, no incompletion. Because all of those imply the potential for pain.

Not all pain leads to, or even CAN lead to, learning to be better. If by “being better” we mean, “correcting our faults,” then this is true. I’ll speak very plainly: The rape victim is not to blame for being raped, the cancer victim is not (usually, and I’m thinking of smokers, here) to blame for having cancer, and the torture victim is not to blame for being tortured. Nevertheless, the pain of these events may teach the survivors things. (And before you tell me I’m a complete asshole for even saying that, I am a survivor of two of those things myself. So you may do me the courtesy of considering that I may know what the hell I’m talking about. If you won’t, the problem is you). If nothing else, the pain may teach them how strong and resilient they can be. To anyone who can’t understand why that’s not the same thing as victim-blaming, I have nothing to say to you except that we live on different worlds, and yours is not the real one by any experience of mine.

Now I imagine some of my readers are at this point preparing to say, “Okay, so to a young mother who just saw her child die in a car crash, you’d say, ‘Don’t worry about that. God will reunite you in about seventy years, and in the meantime, you’ll learn how strong you are?'”
Of course not. It would be unspeakably cruel to say it right then, while she is in the midst of her grief and shock. You don’t dismiss people in the midst of grief. To her, I could only offer sympathy and any aid within my poor power. To her, we can only give the example of Jesus, weeping over his dead friend Lazarus, even though he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. That we should die was never God’s plan. That He should save us from death, and make it a temporary horror rather than utter destruction, was always His plan.

The purpose of the argument is only to show that it is quite rational to believe in a God that is able to prevent pain, but is unwilling to do so right now, so that we, His creation, may experience, well… experience. To be alive in the universe at all not only permits but requires a certain level of pain. God teaches us this way not because He is limited, but because we are, as any created being must be. Our limits imply growth and choice, which together imply, at least on a certain level, pain. Therefore, some of the pain does come from God. But it is a pain designed to lead us to good. However, it is obvious that there is much pain left over that is not designed for out good. Therefore, with Epicurus, we may ask, “Whence cometh (this) evil?”

Well, the obvious answer to that is, overwhelmingly from us. From human greed and selfishness and sadism and spite and fear. We are the source of that evil and pain, not God. He can hardly be held responsible for preventing them. Unless we are simultaneously ready to admit that we are so evil and uncontrolled that we desperately need a God to order our behavior. That we cannot be trusted to do what is right. If we can be so trusted, then we must turn the dreaded “whence cometh evil” accusation upon ourselves. A curious paradox.

The pains we experience apart from human evil are painful precisely insofar as we do not trust God to remedy them by His power. The God of the Bible, in which I place my faith, promises further that he is indeed willing and able to prevent evil and pain, but that He has not yet done so. It is this forbearance in which we must trust. Because the forbearance that allows evil to exist, also allows the evil person to repent. Allows mercy. Allows forgiveness. Allows restitution, and reparation, which I need as badly as any person does who ever wronged me and made me suffer.

And that is why I call Him God.

From Somewhere In Orbit.

Theology vs. The Memes #2: The Emperor’s New Quote

I have seen this meme passed around a whole lot by certain types of atheist whose primary source of comfort is how much smarter they are than Christians because they can face the truth. Allow me, therefore, in the name of truth, to point out the first little problem with it:

That’s right. Marcus Aurelius never said it in the first place. The whole meme is a lie. There’s a quote that it may be loosely based on, but we’ll review that at a more appropriate time. Still, I’m sure that there are those who will claim that, regardless of the source of the quote, it’s still a good message. So let’s examine the whole thing and see what parts stand up to any rational interpretation of “good.”

1) “If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by.”

First, does anyone else wonder what the original author meant by “devout?” The people who pass this around probably don’t because the first rule of Meme Club is that you DO NOT talk about what memes MEAN. Memes are self-congratulation masquerading as critical thought. They work by giving the reader the illusion of having had an insight. They are philosophical porn. So in the absence of any definition I’m, going to guess that “devout” means how much you sing, dance, pray, sacrifice and wear cheap T-shirts extolling your deity, because this is the behavior atheists enjoy mocking.

The funny part is that Jesus rather enjoyed mocking it, too: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding of the blood of the prophets… Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.” (Matthew 23:29-31, 34). The fact is that even if Marcus Aurelius had said this, Jesus would have anticipated him by nearly a century. Jesus and the Jewish prophets agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of the quote. “He hath shown thee, O man, what is good; and what the LORD doth require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8). Further, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27).

What the atheists and the “spiritual-not-religious” folk are missing here is that we all fail miserably at doing these things. They fail to consider what it might mean to be judged by a just God “on the virtues you have lived by.” The whole reason for “devoutness” is an acknowledgement by us that we have indeed failed to practice these virtues, time and time again. God’s standards are higher than ours. They have to be. If God’s standards are not better than our own, He has no claim to be God at all. This is why Jesus said, “You give a tenth of your spices… But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23-25). Devotion is part of the virtue God expects, and what a Christian must mean by “devout” is something more — not less and not other — than living virtuously.

On to part 2 of the “quote:”

2) “If there are gods but unjust, you should not want to worship them.” This is the easiest part of the quote to agree with. But the inherent assumption here is that you know exactly what justice is. Even among good people there are disagreements about this. In the real world, the circumstances in which we find ourselves can not only make living justly a good way to get yourself killed, it can make justice literally impossible. And sometimes, people can be conditioned to think that behavior that would horrify most of us is perfectly normal. Men in prison have a strict code: don’t bump into each other. Don’t pick up another man’s matches. Don’t sit in another man’s chair. “Justice” for these infractions, in that context, can mean a beating or stabbing.

Are we so sure we are different? Killing for honor is still considered justice in many parts of the world. But we call it unjust in my part. If we call God unjust… how are we certain we are right?

And now for the biggest and most subtle lie of all:

3) “If there are no gods: then you will be gone. But you will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” Except that’s a lie.  The only true part is the first: “You will be gone.” From your perspective, the story ends here, if there are no gods. Now, your loved ones, they will live on. But you will not know it. They could all be put to death by torture the second you cease to breathe, and you would not care. You could not care. This is one of the greatest lies that atheist thought believes, that there is a state called having lived. That state does not exist in any meaningful fashion. Nonexistence is at the root of it. You will be gone. You will be as utterly gone as if you had never been. Nothing will matter, because you will not exist for it to matter TO. In that nonexistence, the greatest saints and sinners are equal to each other, because they are equal to nothing.
There are only two ways to get around this, and in my experience, most atheists will not do it: admit that morality is a complete and utter illusion, because there is no evidence anything aside from human preference for certain behaviors exist, or admit the existence of something resembling an afterlife (or at least an afterthought), which must be taken on faith.

I cannot live in a universe that is governed by the former admission. And I do not greatly care, for reasons that should be obvious by now, for anyone who impugns my reason or intellect for refusing so to live. Why should I care what that person thinks? By their own admission, they will shortly not exist, and their moral judgments are but present constructs of taste and fashion. I will shortly not exist, and will care for nothing.
This is why I will continue to live by faith. For only if there are gods, and they are just, is life possible. This is why I will raise my voice with Peter, saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68).

I will leave you with some actual words of Marcus Aurelius, who did know better than this. Ironically, this may be the quote on which the above drivel is based:

“But to go away from among men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve thee in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence? But Gods there are, undoubtedly, and they regard human affairs; and have put it wholly in our power, that we should not fall into what is truly evil. “

I’m a lot closer to agreeing with that.

Theology vs. The Memes #1: The Empathy Fraud

The blog that follows is the first of a series I hope to do taking on ridiculous antireligious (and possibly some religious) memes, so if you follow my blog and know a meme that needs to go away, send it to me!
The modern age’s sermon is the meme: that picture or phrase that hits a nerve and is swallowed uncritically by the fan of its position. Most of them can be exposed as ridiculous with 5 minutes’ thought, but that’s the strength of the meme; it’s absorbed before it can be thought about, and becomes one more brick in the wall of confirmation bias. Memes are the brain candy of the present age. If you’re up for some exercise, read on:

EmilysQuotes.Com - need, religion, morals, right, wrong, empathy, wisdom, unknown

I seem to see this thing sprouting like a fungus all over my message feed from my atheist/agnostic friends on every holiday. It shows up as often as the War of Christmas and is even more full of bullshit.

Pared down to basics: morality is empathy, not religion. So religion is unnecessary. YAY! Atheism FTW!

Now let’s get one thing out of the way at the outset: It IS possible to discover and do morally right actions from empathy. Not only is this pretty much everyone’s shared experience, it’s right out of Jesus’ mouth: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in Heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?” Matthew 7:9. Empathy is important, because for most of us, it’s an instinctive spur to do right and avoid evil. Our basic empathy, augmented by our moral training (more on that later) is our first, reflexive defense against doing evil.

No, the problem with empathy as morality is quite simple. It’s big enough and troubling enough that most people can’t see it. Those who can are forced to realize how fatally it compromises their whole claim to be moral — to be “good without God,” to use one of their favorite phrases — and are forced into either moral McCarthyism, or into a statement of faith.

The problem, most simply, is this: why have empathy at all, when it doesn’t benefit me? It’s a very simple question, but it has no simple answer.

Faced with this question, the morality-is-empathy crowd have a truly limited number of options. The first and dumbest is to go into circular reasoning: “Why have empathy if it doesn’t benefit me?” “Because other people matter.” “Why should I think that?” “Empathy!”
It should be Logic 101 that empathy cannot be the reason people should have empathy.

The next response is moral McCarthyism: threats and bullying. “You have to have empathy for other people because otherwise we will all think you are a disgusting human being and shun or destroy you.” This may of course work to compel someone’s behavior, but it’s just a threat to hurt someone if they don’t obey you. And of course, it’s just as compelling a reason to limit one’s empathy. After all, one of the most common threats leveled at people who refuse to conform to the shunning of nonconformists is that they themselves will be shunned.

Finally, the person who believes morality is empathy may simply respond, “Because empathy is the highest good.” But that is an a priori statement of faith. Why should truth not be the highest good? Or wealth? Or power? Or any number of things, including God? There is simply no way to connect empathy and morality without a statement of faith to someone who denies that empathy is a moral necessity. You either have to convince me that showing empathy to another person is best for me (in which case I will demand evidence) or that showing empathy to another person at my own expense is morally required, in which case, you are demanding I have faith in something you cannot demonstrate.

Over and above this, simply having empathy doesn’t make you moral, any more than exercising makes you healthy and strong. Exercising can be fun, and so can empathy. There are any number of moral duties that are easy and delightful to follow: it’s easy to give your own child bread when he asks. It’s delightful to love your lover. It’s easy and necessary to give to the honorable and serve the great. But beyond that, let’s be honest and admit that, like exercise, empathy is hard. It hurts, if you want to extend your empathy. And untrained empathy, like untrained exercise, can hurt you worse than doing nothing: Exercise too hard and fast, and you can injure yourself. Empathy without knowledge would stop you from imposing discipline on your children. If you have empathy for only one set of people, you’re a bigot. If you have empathy entirely without limits, you can’t even turn over a criminal to the police, or save an abuse victim from an abuser (I have never known an abuser who did not feel very strongly, that s/he had every right to do as s/he did).

So we have to be trained to use empathy with wisdom. It begins in childhood when we are asked that dreadful and incessant question: “How would you feel if it were you?” Our empathy, in the beginning, is just as good, and bad, as our senses of balance and fine motor control. It has to be improved over the years with just as much play, practice, and getting it wrong as we spend learning anything else. Obviously, a lot of our training takes place under threat. If we do not show empathy, others will not show it to us. Eventually, we learn the empathy we did not start with and begin to feel pain on behalf of others.

Unfortunately, this is when we begin to fall for a counterfeit and believe that our present feelings are as good as absolutes. And when you discuss morality, you must refer to an absolute. Because if that’s NOT what you mean, then all you’re saying is, “I am now acting in accord with what I feel is right because the majority of people I choose to care about also feel that it is right.” In other words, your morality is picking an in-group and going with it. It is a mere appeal to authority vested in whatever cause or god you choose to bow to. In other words, your empathy has become religion.

And you cannot solve this problem simply by saying: “More empathy.” I repeat: if your empathy is not limited by a structure, then you are left without argument as soon as Rocket the Raccoon says, “No, you don’t understand: I want it MORE than he does. I want it more, sir.” It’s laughable.

There must be a place outside feeling that tells us when to obey our empathies, and when to resist them. Sometimes (teaching our children what to eat, for example) that can be science, because science is a useful absolute in those cases. But where can we turn to when science has no answers for us? When we must decide whether it’s good to trust a person, or not? Whether we can afford to extend charity, or not? Whether we can maintain a friendship, or not? Science has no answers for us, here. So we must turn to another absolute.

Many friends have explained to me, with moving sincerity, that though they acknowledge that morals are relative, they have morals, real morals, which they will defend through hardship and pain. I have no doubt this is true. I have seen it. They are sincere. And yet, all that they are saying is that their morals are as they are today. Today their morals are this. Tomorrow, they may be that. Between two moral codes there can be no judge. There can, of course, be war. What else could there be? If there is no moral code aside from empathy, then the only thing left is to change your opponent’s feelings, by force if necessary. Reasoning with him or her is impossible, because moral improvement is impossible. Only moral change exists. Morality that rests on empathy is mere fashion. And against the tyranny and onslaught of fashion, the Absolute is our only defense.