Category Archives: Atheism

Star Trek, Christianity, Ethics and Atheism

It’s coming up on the 21st anniversary of Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek) passing away (October 24). From his grave in space (that’s right! Space!) he would have been able to see mankind launch the international space station, hopefully a first step towards human beings exploring the stars together.

Gene Roddenberry famously said that Star Trek was an attempt to show that mankind will not reach maturity until we come to not simply tolerate our differences, but learn to celebrate and take delight in them. He would have said “humankind” towards the end of his life.

Gene Roddenberry was also a devout atheist, and he imagined that in his utopian future everyone was atheist and “better for it”.

That’s very interesting isn’t it? Creation Ministries International just published an article on Hell that suggests the opposite.

To paraphrase, they believe that Hell is the place people go for sinful conduct. Sometimes, in this life, crime does pay. There is absolutely no controversy on that point. Sometimes human beings profit from immoral conduct. Sometimes living virtuously has harmful effects. Sometimes the innocent are punished. So why should we not behave immorally when we have the chance to get away with it, and why should we behave morally when it only serves to harm us? This is called the free-rider problem by philosophers.

There are many answers to this question as almost all systems of ethics posit some form of answer. Christianity posits Hell and Heaven – the belief is that while justice in this life is imperfect, God will ultimately make sure that perfect justice is done. You may live like a king because of your crimes, but God will give you your just desert; you may live like a pauper for your virtue, but God will give you your just desert.

This is the thrust of the famous Voltaire quote Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer or if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. God being there to look over your shoulder solves the free rider problem by evaporating it. There is no problem because God will always make you pay for your ride in the end (to mix metaphors).

On the other hand, Gene Roddenberry knew that Religion had a terrible track record for starting violent, large conflicts. Further, he knew that conflicts of ideology are more heated, less rational ones which tend to be more harmful (Vulcans were on the verge of annihilating themselves because of age old fiery hatred). Genocides tend to follow theistic lines very tightly; while it is known that Hitler was not a Christian personally, he did appeal to Christianity very strongly and very often in order to rally a nation behind him. That polarizing ideology was necessary for the Nazi movement to become what it was and accomplish what it did.

Further, religions like Christianity prevent moral reasoning. Because there is exactly one authority on right and wrong which is inerrant and infallible we have no latitude to analyze a situation morally. We instead go to our book, find the passage that applies, read what we ought to do and then we do it with the absolute certainty that we are correct. And when we are blinded by authority we often cannot see what would otherwise be an intuitive moral result (see Nazism).

Not to pick on Christianity by comparing it to the Nazis, but the two have the same structure as an ethical system – a wise and benevolent ruler who really and truly loves you is at the top, and that ruler speaks in edicts which give you the exact moral truth and are completely beyond reproach or criticism. If that’s the kind of thing you believe, you’d better be right (see Nuremberg). Christians think that they are right – so did the Nazis.

Gene Roddenberry versus Voltaire is the game then. Religion polarizes and blinds us on the one hand (and historically this is true) but Religion compels us to behave morally even when nobody is looking on the other.

I don’t think either one is right.

Voltaire is correct in that we need something to solve the free rider problem. That something does not have to be God however; Gene Roddenberry is correct there. We just need a belief in ethics, a belief that there is a fundamental way that we ought to behave purely because it is right. In Star Trek moral beliefs are guided by respect for individual autonomy – each person and culture should be free to self-determine so long as it does not harm others. This conflicts with greater utility very often, see A Private Little War for a classic example.

But how can Gene Roddenberry say that mankind will not reach maturity and wisdom until it celebrates its differences and then deny the future its Religions in the same breath?

Gene Roddenberry was surrounded by big Religion/State-Religion conflicts during his life, through WW2 and into the Cold War. Plurality of Religion could not be the answer as a historical fact.

Note that Religious plurality is not the same as cultural plurality. Different religions are not like different cultures – a culture is a way of living, its the combination of art, philosophy, thought, music, law, norms and myriad other things. Culture is something we live, not something we believe. Religion is a set of beliefs about what exists beyond the world we occupy. Religion is something we believe based on faith.

Religion operates on faith – there is no other way to have beliefs about the world outside of experience (ie, God) apart from faith. Atheists and humanists believe things on faith too – any belief about God, including the belief that God does not exist, can only be based on faith. There is no evidence for or against God; God is completely outside the universe we live in.

Cultural differences should not matter; Indians like Naan, Greeks like Pita, Italians like Pizza. That’s fine, you cook whatever bread you want and I’ll cook whatever bread I want. If I don’t like yours I won’t eat it. Cultural plurality is ultimately about living your life the way you want to. And Gene’s point is just this: who would want to live in a world without Naan, Pita, and Pizza? A one bread world would be truly sad.

But as a matter of fact, religious differences affect the way we live with other people. Muslims and Jews attach very different significance to a small piece of land in Asia which leads to a good deal of conflict. From the 1100s to the 1600s Christians and Muslims went through a series of long wars called the Crusades over the same dusty little piece of land.

But the answer isn’t to the remove the Religions; that’s a part of culture too, it’s a part of our freedom to live how we want.

The answer is to say who gives a damn about the land?

I use the term Metaphysical Religion to denote a system of beliefs about the things outside of experience which posits no beliefs whatsoever about the world of experience we live in. Atheism and Humanism are metaphysical religions. So is Taoism.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are not metaphysical religions. They say things like this sport on the ground, this is where Jesus died. This bit of fabric, this is what Jesus was wrapped in after. This mosque, this temple, this church, this book is important beyond its physical utility. It is an object of faith with direct and deep religious significance. The Bible does not just teach me my religion; the book itself is also holy, and that makes how you use it very important. It cannot be kindling for a fire. These might be called the factual aspects of religion.

That kind of worldview cannot persist. Mankind reaching maturity is not compatible with plurality of non-metaphysical religions. Metaphysical religions are simply a part of culture, they are something we live. The metaphysical aspects of non-metaphysical religions are likewise a part of culture and they should persevere. Mankind is stronger for having them. Gene Roddenberry could not separate the metaphysical aspects of religion from the factual aspects; maybe he did not believe such a thing was possible.

But so long as I think that Jerusalem is a bit of scrub brush with an old city on top while Jews see the Temple Mount and West Wall, Christians see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Muslims see the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa we’re not going to agree about how that land should be used or who should be using it. Further we’ll feel compelled by the religious beliefs we accept on faith – not fact – to see that the land is used in accordance with our theology.

No Idols except me – that got it right in a very fundamental way. If each of those three religions saw Jerusalem the way I do – as an old city in Asia – then think how many fewer people we would have killed.

Creationists are convinced of the literal truth of every word in the bible. They think when you start saying that the Earth took longer than 6 days to be created, that the Universe is 14 billion years old, and than man exists because of evolution and never lived in a Garden with God that you compromise the authority of the Bible and this is a slippery slope to Atheism.

That is wrong. It is a slippery slope to Christianity as a metaphysical religion. The more factual aspects you discard the closer you move to being a pure metaphysical religion. As more and more of the factual tenants of a religion are shown false it must grow increasingly metaphysical to survive. And while factual aspects can be contradicted by things in the world, metaphysical aspects cannot. They are the moral lessons about how to live and why we live, and the metaphysical beliefs about death that soothe us and make life tolerable in the face of inevitable demise.

Moral reasoning remains a problem, but as a religion grows more and more metaphysical it also grows more and more abstract. I believe that that particular dilemma will sort itself out given time. But if it does not, any religion which prohibits moral reasoning and uses its dogma as a moral checklist must also be discarded. Allowing that exception allows Nazism to seep back in.

My fantasy is that one day (although certainly long after I die) all Religions will be purely metaphysical. Christianity will say “this is why we are here, this is who started everything, this is how He says to live your life, and this is what will happen when you die”. And that’s it. Nothing about the history of the world or the importance of anything on it (apart from pure moral significance).¬†Bibles will simply be books that teach you about God, important only for their contents. Like John Lennon mused in imagine, there would be nothing to kill or die for in this world.

Then, and only then, can we truly celebrate – instead of (at best) tolerate – all of our differences.

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