In Search of an Atheist Moral Hero

John Lennon: moral hero and atheist?
I'm not trying to be a dick about it or argumentative. I really want to know about a great person in history who also happened to be an atheist. Much of my inspiration in life has come from reading about great men and women: about St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King Jr., the current Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, Gandhi, Jesus, Simone Weil...the list goes on. After thinking about this for years, I am yet to land on a figure living or dead who was a great moral hero and who was an atheist. Now, don't get me wrong, I realize that history has not been kind to atheism, and therefore many atheists never "came out." I also realize that biographies and (especially) autobiographies are a little exaggerated, and that many of my "great men" were also ordinary people with ordinary problems. But the fact that all these great men and women were great because of their religious beliefs is, to me, indisputable. Get rid of the religion of MLK, for example, and you get rid of MLK. That's another discussion.

Anyway, please suggest an atheist hero in the comments section below. This is a challenge and an opportunity for learning. I would like to read their biography.

Ground Rules
  1. They must be an atheist, which is simply defined as a person who doesn't believe in God or a supreme being. So don't give me Thomas Jefferson (he was a Deist), but perhaps Thomas Paine (although wasn't he mostly a political revolutionary?). Also, the person cannot be religious. In other words, don't give me a Buddhist that doesn't believe in a personal, monotheistic God. Also, several religious people have been fiercely critical of religion. For example Luther, Tolstoy, Isaac Newton. That does not mean they are atheists (far from it, they were real Christians). Give me a real atheist, like Freud for example (but don't give me Freud...see next rule). Of course I am not saying that their morality has to be related to their atheism in any way (that would be absurd...atheism is a lack of belief). Or, if you must, give me an outspoken agnostic even, I'll go with that.
  2. They must be really good people. Not great scientists, or great thinkers alone - great moral people. Great people do great things for other people, as all the people I mentioned above. Bertrand Russel perhaps? He was a social activist for peace and was behind some good causes. But I would need more information. Also I heard he was actually a dick in person. I don't know that, I just heard that from a professor of philosophy whom I respect. Einstein was a Deist as far as I can tell. John Lennon perhaps? Now we're thinking. How about Carl Sagan or Neil Degrasse Tyson? Well, maybe. Besides being excellent science popularizers (and great scientists in their own right), what have they done ethically?
  3. No Socrates. He is one of my greatest heroes; in fact, part of my tattoo is based on him. But as I read Plato's dialogues, I'm convinced that Socrates believed in one God (or at least Plato did...it's hard to pull apart Socrates from Plato).
Not Fair!
You might find yourself saying "not fair" for several reasons. First, atheists were persecuted so much that they never "came out." I answer, like Jesus you mean? Great religious people have been persecuted too; indeed that is why they were so great. Or perhaps you think that historical figures lied about being religious, when secretly they were atheist. Setting aside that fact that lying  is not a virtue, you have to provide some evidence. You can't just name drop historical figures and say they were atheist. If they were silent on the issue, I might even buy that. But mostly I don't find this argument very successful. My Kant professor in college, for example, thought that Immanuel Kant was secretly an atheist. If you've read any of his work, you know that's silly. The truth is my professor really really wanted him to be. Second, you might say that atheism is not a moral worldview, so my quest to find an atheist moral hero makes no sense. But I'm not making that connection. All I'm asking is for a great person who happened to be an atheist. Now, I do see the connection between religion and morality of course. By definition, religion is a moral endeavor. Third, I'm not suggesting that atheists cannot be good people. My brother is a good person, so is my wife. Fourth, you might argue my rules above are too constricting. How so? Fifth, you might say that history has been dominated by religion; therefore, the atheists have disappeared from the record. I can see that.


Morally I'm Pro-Life, Legally I'm not, and why Pro-Lifers need to calm down

Morally I'm Pro-Life
For some of our beliefs and opinions, we should recognize a distinction between the moral belief itself and its legal implications, or its potential legal implications. For example, I believe everyone should love others, including their enemies, but I do not believe that should be a law. I don't think, for example, that disliking your neighbor should come with a $200 fine. I believe in radical forgiveness, but I would not support getting rid of all prisons and jails (in the name of forgiveness). I believe in God, but I also think government should be secular. These are moral and religious issues that may or may not become legal issues, depending on whether we want to extend them. The more I thought about the abortion debate and how complex it is, the more I realized that abortion is the same kind of issue--it's moral and legal.

  • Moral Pro-Life: When you believe that abortion is wrong.
  • Moral Pro-Choice: When you believe that abortion is permissible.
  • Legal Pro-Life: When you think abortion should be illegal
  • Legal Pro-Choice: When you think abortion should be legal.
Pick two. Before you think I'm splitting hairs or creating distinctions ex nihilo, check out this Pew survey which suggests we all look at it this way. I believe terminating a pregnancy is wrong, except in the case of rape and the mother's safety. That's my moral view. I wouldn't get an abortion, and if I extend my morals to other people, I don't think they should get an abortion either (the same way I don't think they should dislike their neighbor, or lie, or punch people in the face). I would never judge someone that got an abortion, based on the Christian prohibition against judging (Jesus: "judge not"). I would not hate them for it. I would simply think it's not right. That's all. Negative emotion is not required. The proper response is compassion, understanding, and sadness (both for the baby and the parents). I believe in contraception, which includes Plan B (in my understanding, it's preventative, not a termination). More on that later.

Why am I morally pro-life? Five main reasons. First, everyone is pro-life to a certain extent. When having these arguments, we forget that almost all Pro-Choicers are pro-life when it comes to the third trimester (i.e. babies that pretty much look like a real baby). Even liberals do not want to see mothers kill these kinds of babies. So the real question is: where exactly do we draw the line? From sex, to fertilization, to "viability," this is where the science gets very murky and the place we pick seems a bit arbitrary. Therefore, I don't blame people for picking "fertilization." Intuitively, it makes sense, but people don't even understand the science behind fertilization (I don't).


What we mean when we say "it's perfectly natural"

It's completely natural. It's totally natural. There's nothing wrong with it. Do it.

From masturbation to racism, from organic food to free range cows, from shampoo to all-purpose cleaners, from beards to smoking pot, from home births to refusing vaccines, the word natural has been employed to convince people that something is okay because....it's totally natural dude. Here is the magical formula:

x [behavior you like]   +   "is natural"   =   x is morally permissible/good

biological necessity

Masturbation. We say it's natural because the human body practically requires it, especially during young adulthood. The evolutionary and biological forces are so strong that it would take an enormous amount of moral will power to not do it. Kant, a product of his times in this respect, actually produced a moral argument against it, saying that masturbation amounts to muddying up your imagination, using your mind as a means to an end. Suffice to say we don't buy that argument, for good reason. In this case, the natural impulses far outweigh any moral arguments you can come up with, and the moral arguments are pretty weak. Leave it to the monks I say.

Sex. It's perfectly natural for human beings to have sex with many people, and even for partners to be unfaithful. It's so common that a zoologist, for example, would have to conclude that we are not in face a monogamous species after all but somewhere in the middle (explains our divorce rate). Yet, morally speaking, we do not condone sleeping around or cheating; not even close. Why? I think it's because sex also happens to be a moral issue, not just a biological impulse. Both are real. In fact, the moral argument is strong, and the natural inclination is not so strong that we cannot defeat it. In other words, it's in the moral sweet spot, in between natural inclination and moral inclination. Personally, this is how I harmonize my moral and biological natures: Sex is a special thing to be done with people you care about, and you should never cheat on your partner, ever. Just my opinion.


the Varieties of Racism

I've been reading a fantastic book (Dog Whistle Politics) on the coded racial language that politicians use to scare people and get votes (specifically, how Republicans are able to get poor white people so scared that they will vote against their own interests).

Actual hatred or animosity. The Klu Klux Klan, for example, when they were hanging black people from trees. Simple, obvious, crazy, gets all the attention; yet it's the least common nowadays. Do you know many people that actually hate black people? Didn't think so (or at least they won't admit it).

The sad thing about this form of racism - actual hatred - is that our Supreme Court has adopted it as the only kind of racism...good luck proving that your employer actually hates you because you're black. According to Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow), this has made the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 impotent and meaningless.

The American prison system is the best example (read The New Jim Crow if you want your mind blown). If you look at the shocking statistics of African American men in our prison system, you can only come to one reasonable conclusion: the entire criminal justice system is, so to speak, racist. Or, another way to put it, African American men are disproportionately represented in the prison system (and that's a huge understatement). But it's a tricky thing. One person is not behind this kind of racism, it happens slowly, and it's hard to track down. But it's effects are quite obvious; a racist tree will produce racist fruits; whether it's housing, jobs, or government programs.

If a white person walks by a black person on the street, typically something will happen in their brain that resembles fear. This is sad be true (I have read that several experiments were done on this). In America, we have been taught to fear black men; and so we do. It's nothing that we did, it's simply the air we breath, the culture we live in, what we learned from media, and the long history of oppression that we inherited. As Carl Young might say, racism is part of our Collective Unconscious. And that is a scary thing.

Nixon used race as a political tool, called the Southern Strategy
Perhaps the most insidious of all is when politicians use racism for political gain (again, utilitarian thinking rears its ugly head). According to the book I'm reading, both parties are to blame but especially the modern Republican Party, which was essentially built on a racial platform (called the "Southern Strategy"). Have you ever wondered why poor white people vote for a Party that gives tax cuts to the rich and slashes social spending? Whether it's the coded racial language of politicians, the race-baiting of right wing media, or the non-stop fear mongering about Muslims and terrorists - white people are scared shitless.

Some people make the argument that we evolved to naturally discriminate against human beings that look different than our tribe. I'm skeptical, and I'm not sure if this is widely accepted, and I don't know how much science this is based on, but I do know it's out there. Some people explain the happiness of Norway and Sweden, for example, by pointing out the fact that they all look similar. People obviously point to their progressive tax code and liberal laws as well. Interestingly, racism seems to be infecting these countries as outsiders trickle in.

I suppose I can see an evolutionary advantage to being skeptical of "outsiders"--that is, people that clearly are not part of your own cooperative survival group--but race is a different concept all together.


Why theories about other people are wrong

Person: "People are stupid."
Wise Person: "I'm so sorry you feel that way about yourself."

We do this all the time. We have a theory about "how people are," a handful of negative, blanket statements like "people are irrational" or "people are selfish" or whatever, that we like to sarcastically talk about with friends to pass the time or lament how we cannot save the world because, you know, people are like this or that. These conclusions about human nature start out perhaps by random experiences with people, watching people on TV, a book we read, an ideology we consumed. These things end up ingrained, a part of our worldview - the way we view and treat other people.

Other people. Except ourselves.

That's my point. The fatal flaw with all these half-baked theories is that they never include the person behind the curtain, the theorist himself. You call people stupid and, for some odd reason, never include yourself in that statement? You are not stupid. It's just those other people who are the stupid ones. What kind of arrogance is that? What kind of blindness?

When we make blanket statements about vast groups of people, we should realize that we are actually subscribing to a particular theory of human nature. We are saying: this is what human beings are like. Therefore, shouldn't we apply it to ourselves first? Is it true about you? No. Okay, then perhaps it's wrong (on many levels).

One way to trick ourselves, of course, is to put people into neat little buckets like "republican" or "liberal" or "black people." Luckily, we never put ourselves in any of the buckets we make fun of. Nice try. People are people. If Republicans are stupid, and republicans are people, and you are a person, then you are stupid.

My blindness, perhaps, might be the opposite. I am categorically opposed to negative theories of human nature, ask you can probably tell, for several reasons (one is purely pragmatic...what good will that do?). I positively assert that human nature is basically good, that we can do anything, that our potential is unlimited. However, at least I apply it to myself. I believe that I am basically good, that I can do anything, that I am unlimited. I believe this about other people too. That's the difference. If you have a poor view of human nature, that's fine, and you might be correct; but please apply to yourself.


"rights" talk is a fancy way of expressing feelings...right?

I recently finished a fascinating book, Moral Tribes, that argued, believe it or not, against rights. Specifically, he argued that "rights" are really words that we hide behind. I think there is some truth to that.

Abortion is wrong because all humans have a right to life. Abortion is okay because all women have a right to choose. Gay people have a right to marry. The government has a right to define marriage. We cannot kill one person to save five because people have a right to life. Whether it's carrying a gun into the library, burning a flag, or not vaccinating your children, we love to use "rights" and "duties" when talking about moral issues, when making moral judgments, or justifications, or rationalizations. Rights do all the heavy lifting, they are the argument; we hide behind them, they sound objective, smart, impartial, universal.

But what if the word "right" is nothing more than a fancy way of saying "I don't like it." In other words, "I don't like abortion, it feels wrong." A feeling, a gut reaction, an emotion, subjective. Everything else - all the arguments, justification, rationalization - is extra, meaningless, scaffolding. "I like when mothers can choose." Same thing. First comes the feeling, then comes the argument to justify the feeling. If you keep asking why, you eventually get to feelings, intuitions, and gut instincts.

It reminds me of working in the Law Library. Patrons many times come in asking about "their rights" on any number of subjects. But sometimes what they really mean is this: I want x. Does a "right" exist to allow me to get x. In other words, please give me a fancy legal term that will magically get what I want.

Well, overall I think this is a negative, simplistic, reductionist view of human beings, similar to the "boo-hiss" theory that reduces all moral reasoning into simple emotions, so I don't buy it for those reasons. I apply it to myself (which everyone should do), and I do find some truth in it.

Here's the point. The argument tends to stop when you throw the R-bomb, and that's really the worst thing. I believe in a right to life, you believe in a right to choose. Let's go our separate ways, right?  Wrong. It's not that simple. Public policy needs to be written, and these issues bear directly on laws that influence our lives. So politically at least we cannot ignore each other. Also, we might kill each other (people have killed for much less). Therefore, we need another solution.

Joshua Greene's solution is to reduce rights talk into Utilitarian calculations. How much suffering does abortion cost overall? How much happiness does gay marriage promote? And let's go from there.

Sounds promising. Does it work? Well, sadly, according to what I read in his book, it doesn't. His utilitarian solution to abortion, for example, the only problem he tackled, was horribly complex, speculative, long-winded, not mathematical, and ultimately not convincing...it ends up being pro-choice, which is fine, but it leaves the reader scratching his head as to how the argument got there and how smart you have to be to engage in moral debate for God's sake--do we all have to go to Harvard to think correctly about these issues? Greene takes nuanced thinking to a whole new level here, to the point of meaninglessness. Maybe I will stick to my "rights talk" - much simpler and people get my meaning. In fact, the same old arguments against Utilitarianism rears its' ugly head - it's very very hard to actually calculate suffering and happiness.


Top 5 Kalamazoo Foods (co-authored with Katherine Platte)

1. Bangkok Flavor!

Not just because it's Thai food - I'm not cosmopolitan - but because it's awesome food. Pad Prik is my favorite: chicken, red & green pepper, spanish onion, green onion, & mushroom in a garlic brown sauce. That's really the main question: what sauce?: brown (garlic) sauce, or red/yellow/green curry sauce with coconut milk. They are all delicious. Spicy as you want. Tastes nothing like Chinese food by the way, no MSG. Lunch prices are around 6 dollars, which seems ridiculously low to me considering the flavor explosion.

Katie: What?  We have the same favorite restaurants? At least we have something in common! I like all the curries with coconut milk, especially with eggplant and mushrooms to soak up the flavor. The fried tofu is amazing. The only downside is that everything I love the most has fish sauce in it, so isn't really vegetarian. You can get food cooked in mushroom soy sauce so that it is vegan/vegetarian, but it isn't the same. I like the food "hot" which is warm enough that your nose runs, but you can still taste all the flavors. It is still really good "medium" which is what I got while I was pregnant.

2. Saffron

Fine Indian food, buffet style. I must admit the first time I had it, I didn't like it that much. I wasn't used to the weird flavors. Also all the food looks really similar, like mush. But after that, I loved it. The rice pudding especially blew me away. I have like five servings of that shit. For reasonable prices, you have to go during lunch on weekdays or Saturdays. We rarely go.

Katie: Best food ever! I know the vegetarian stuff is vegetarian. The reason it is #2 is that if you go to the buffet you never know what dishes you are going to get, obviously. If they always had the spinach and paneer and the Korma and if the buffet was spicier it would be #1.  At dinner you have to buy the dishes, rice and naan separately so it adds up fast.

3. Shawarma King

Lebanese food. Again, I'm not picking foreign foods just to be cool....I really do like these the best. It's a meat sandwich wrapped in pita bread with a pickle. I get Chicken Shawarma with Feta. But it's really the white garlic sauce (=God sauce) that completes everything and makes it....a little bit REAL nice. The meat is slow cooked on a vertical pole. Picture a hug wasp nest except tender and delicious.

Katie: God Sauce!!! I could eat here every day and not get bored. Lots of great sandwiches, but hard not to get the falafel with god sauce every time it is so good. and the hummus is amazing, sometimes it comes with a monkey face made of olives and onions.

4. El Gallo Blanco

Best Mexican food in Kalamazoo. The best way to explain the food is like this: picture a huge pot of flavor. Now picture your food being placed into that pot of flavor, and marinated in flavor for 24 hours. I've never had chicken so flavorful in my life. I go really simple: get the grande chicken burrito, which is around 6 dollars for two meals.

Katie: I thought the tamales were great the first time I went here, but they keep on getting better. What I order is a lot different then what Matt gets, no slow cooked pot of flavor exactly, but really good. My favorite mexican restaurant in Kalamazoo and they don't even have my favorite mexican food, chili rellanos.

5. Qdoba

Self-explanatory and self-evident.

Katie: I differ here. I think I would have put Bell's at #4 and El Gallo Blanco at #5. I don't want to like Bell's food since it was horrible for so many years ("well there is one veggie burger at the bottom of the freezer, or you can have a peanut butter and pickle sandwich") but they really picked up their game with the competition from other breweries in town. Now they have awesome tempeh burgers.

Honorable mentions: Shakespeare's nachos, Beer Exchange onion rings, Erbellis calzones, Bells Jumbalaya.

So, I do realize that we give special treatment to foreign food. It must have something to do with the fact that it's special, we didn't grow up with it, etc etc.